“Finally, from so little sleeping and so much reading, his brain dried up and he went completely out of his mind.”
- Don Quixote (Cervantes)
A fondness for dullness can be a dangerous thing. Particularly when you run a bookshop like mine.
These bookshops are like light bulbs in the abyss for the mentally deranged. Don’t get me wrong – most of the people who visit our shop are beautiful souls; readers, book lovers, present hunters, browsers, writers, artists and thinkers. All wonderful and all welcome.
But the bookshop, like all of its kind, also operates as a beacon for the insane. It will draw them in. There is no avoiding that. I theorise that it’s an unseen energy created by such a mass of books in a disorganised space. Similar to Reich’s orgone. Something only detectable at a subconscious level by the very maddest among us.
And I find a terrible affinity with these eccentric souls which can draw only one logical conclusion.
In 1605, an impoverished soldier, only recently freed from indebted servitude to Moorish pirates, published “The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha”. Miguel de Cervantes had inadvertently reinvented literature and created the modern novel. By writing about the trials and tribulations of a hidalgo called Alonso Quijano, who goes dull from reading chivalric romances and decides to become a Knight errant, Cervantes laid the foundation of Western Literature.
Just as Alonso, or Don Quixote as he renamed himself, lost his senses through imagined worlds of chivalry, the cyclist surrendered his marbles after finding an abandoned copy of Cervantes epic in the dumpster beside the old Redz nightclub in 1999.
I’m not sure how I first encountered the cyclist, but he made a habit there after of turning up in my bookshop, usually gasping for air, red in the face and holding his bulging belly, always demanding sanctuary. This usually occurred after he made unsolicited advances on married women or was caught creeping out the back door of a suburban home by a husband returning from work.
“When life itself seems lunatic, who knows where madness lies?”
The Cyclist rides down Peters hill now, out onto the main street at full flight, ringing his bell and waving an umbrella at pedestrians like a lance.
“Clear the way, you curs,” he yells. “I have important business. A date with destiny.”
His tight lycra shorts are swallowed up by his imperial arse and his top rides over a pristine pot belly. His knifed scarf, which he bought in Uncle Ben’s Charity Shop but claims was a gift from a Jewish princess, blows behind him in the wind, sometimes obscuring the tilted beret on his crown. He fancies himself an erotic sight for any young lady.
“The most perceptive character in a play is the fool, because the man who wishes to seem simple cannot possibly be a simpleton.”
He had planned it all so sweetly. A beautiful day in Redmond park. A blanket spread out on the overgrown autumn grass. A picnic basket filled with food that he had procured from the local food cloud programme. A bottle of gin. And most importantly, Mrs Vienna, the sister-in-law of the town’s TD.
Mrs Vienna, a sultry buxom beauty still straddling sexiness in her mid-fifties. She’s dressed in a tight riding pants and boots, and a little white shirt missing a few buttons.
“You’re so mysterious,” she tells the Cyclist, as another out of date grape is popped into her gin. “The man with no name.”
“Just call me the cyclist baby.”
“The Cyclist, yes,” she grins.
The Cyclist has been trying to seduce Mrs Vienna ever since he met her in Uncle Bens charity shop where she volunteers occasionally. He was trying to get a euro knocked off a two-euro pair of silk underpants. The fact that she’s a sister-in-law to the town’s TD and a famous local jezebel made the seduction far more pressing for him.
“You know I’m a married woman, Mr Cyclist?” She coos.
“Yes, I do Mrs Vienna.”
“What would my husband say if he knew that I was having a picnic in Redmond park with a man with no name?”
“I’m sure he’d be thrilled,” he smiles. Even the dogs on the street have heard many stories about Tom Vienna, the less successful Vienna brother. Mad Tom as he’s known around the town. Bird watcher, amateur thespian and noted cuckold.
She laughs and pours herself another glass of gin. The Cyclist had liberated the twenty out of my till to buy the gin. He argues that I wouldn’t mind. Not when it’s a matter of the heart. He’s wrong of course.
“Tell me cyclist, how big is your pump?”
Catching him unaware, he chokes on the out-of-date wrap. “Plenty big,” he croaks.
That’s when Victor turns up. He’s an elderly Ukrainian guy wearing a raggedy old suit and a Stalinist moustache.
“You!” He cries, pointing a skeleton finger at the Cyclist. “You pervert. You gave my wife the crabs.”
Well dear reader, as you can imagine, this horrifies me to speak about, so spare a thought for the many gathered families in the park that day.
“My pump has always been shiny without a hint of rust,” the Cyclist whispers, trying to ignore Victor and hoping Mrs Vienna will do the same.
Mrs Vienna’s seductive smile turns to surprise and disgust in milliseconds. Speechlessness overcomes the Cyclist for a moment.
“What are you going to say now, eh?” The old Russian says, taking off his jacket, folding it neatly in the grass and then rolling up his sleeves. “My poor Anna. She’s so confused. You took advantage. Now I’ll beat your fat ass.”
“Who’s fecking Anna though?” Mrs Vienna screams, the stress bringing the full townie back into her cultured accent.
“My wife! This man took advantage of my Alzheimer's suffering wife and gave her a sexually transmitted disease. He’s a pervert.”
“I’m not a pervert,” the Cyclist protests, trying to reassure nearby families and, more importantly, Mrs Vienna.
“Were you off with this lad’s wife or what?” Mrs Vienna snaps.
“No. Well, yes, but I didn’t know she was married. I thought this Victor she kept talking about was a figment of her imagination. I mean, she does have Alzheimer’s.”
“Alzheimer’s? What sort of a sicko are you?”
“Now, now Mrs Vienna,” The Cyclist says, “You really can’t say that. Its not politically correct. They are people too.”
He feels trapped and exposed suddenly. Mrs Vienna has morphed into a townie fishmongers’ wife and is screaming so hard that people are looking on. The old Russian has his clenched fists raised already.
“I didn’t give her an STD. She must have caught it elsewhere.”
“Bloody cheek. My Anna is seventy-nine.”
“That doesn’t stop her,” the Cyclist laughs. “I should know.” He gives Mrs Vienna a sly wink but she just screams again and heads towards the gate with the bottle of gin.
“Mrs Vienna, wait. I can give you a lift on my handlebars.” He tries to follow her but gets blocked by the old Ukrainian.
“I’m going to kill you,” he shouts. “Put up your fists and fight.”
“No,” the Cyclist hisses. “Gentlemen don’t fist fight in public parks in front of children. You're making a spectacle of yourself old man and causing much embarrassment to your poor demented wife.”
The old Ukrainian looks around at the onlookers, seeming only to notice them for the first time. He seems embarrassed. “Ok, when then?”
“Not when but what! You’ve insulted my honour Victor.”
“How? You went and desecrated my sick wife”
“Maybe but I don’t have crabs. I challenge you to a duel. Meet me in St. Peter’s square at noon on Sunday.”
Victor nods slowly. He seems almost relieved not to have to fight now. “Ok, a duel it is,” he agrees.
As he wanders away, the Cyclist is overwhelmed by a sudden itching in his groin. He texts the only number saved in his phone. The bookshops.
“Are you insured for joustings? And do you have a lend of some bacon?”
Does the Cyclist buy books? No. Does he add anything to the bookshop. No. Is he a nuisance? Yes.
But he still has as much right to visit a bookshop as anyone else. They are places where anyone can come to discuss anything. Bookstores, as Richard Russo observed, are the physical manifestation of the wide world’s longest, most thrilling conversation.
In “On Liberty” John Stuart Mill said; “In this age, the mere example of non-conformity, the mere refusal to bend the knee to custom, is itself a service. Precisely because the tyranny of opinion is such as to make eccentricity a reproach, it is desirable, in order to break through that tyranny, that people should be eccentric. Eccentricity has always abounded when and where strength of character has abounded; and the amount of eccentricity in a society has generally been proportional to the amount of genius, mental vigor, and moral courage which it contained. That so few now dare to be eccentric, marks the chief danger of the time.”