The more I studied the outcrop of rock on the facing hill, the more I got a sense that it was studying me back. It was clearly a face. Of who I knew not. Perhaps a pagan god? I had been told there were such relics around the area. A regular squeaking noise drifted to my ears up the lane. A wooden cart with a wheel needing grease would appear or perhaps it was no more than a wrought iron farm sign blowing in the breeze? I scrutinized stony face as the sound grew louder. Movement to the accompanying sound drew my attention back to the dirt road. Around the far bend came an old man on a bicycle. I blinked. Was he really riding side saddle? He most certainly was; I had never seen the like before. From the waist up he faced forwards; gripping the handle bars. With hat pulled down and shoulders hunched he concentrated on maintaining direction. Meanwhile his lower body pointed at a right angle towards the off side and he “jumped” from the saddle to drive down one pedal returning his butt to the sitting between efforts. I stood transfixed, the man was a blooming contortionist. People would pay just to see it.
It was only as he dismounted from the bike in front of me and landed on one foot that I noticed he was one legged.
“Nah then!” he greeted, then turned and with a single hop, dragged his bike sideways, leaning it against the wire fence, tied it to the post using a loose length of string. “Stand there.” He patted the leather saddle. Turning round on a one legged pirouette, he shoved out a gnarled, knuckle swollen hand and grinned. “Tom Stride. So you've come to see Mount Hasteless have you, young fellow? How do you like my horse?” I gulped. Accepted his hand shake and frantically tried to decide on a safe conversation opener.
“It's only got one pedal” I ventured, instantly regretting the singular reference but he appeared not to notice.
“That's a stirrup... Not a pedal. Nah then! This old horse carried a fine lady when she was young. So was trained for side saddle and that's how she goes so that's how I goes.” He caught me wrong footed. In confusion I was looking first at the lone pedal and then at his single boot on the dirt in front of me. It was a stern, expressionless stare that met my eyes when I finally looked up. “Is there something you want to ask me?” he challenged, almost willing me to overstep the mark. I needed a verbal retreat and fast. I moistened my panic dried lips before continuing, broke contact with the unwavering eyes and looked around for a subject of safe haven.
“Can you tell me anything about the pagan monument on the hill Tom?” I was off the hook. Instantly the corners of his eyes broke to smile mode and he threw his head back in laughter.
“Pagan monument? That ain't no pagan monument lad.” His humour spread from eyes, through guffaw until his entire body shook from head to toe. I considered steadying him and instantly dismissed it as a bad idea; any man that could ride a one stirruped bicycle didn't need my support for balance. Before the thought had even finished my companion was sat on the grass verge in front of me. He didn't bend he just... Well he just picked up his one leg and was then sitting cross-leg. By the time my wits had caught up he was rolling a smoke from the tobacco tin that had appeared from mid air and magician's hand.
“Can you tell me its story, Tom?” I asked as I joined him on the grass but duo cross-legged.
“Nah then. I can lad.” He offered me the first making. Relaxed silence hung as he made for himself, lit up, drew deeply and blew smoke to the wind.
“Mount Hasteless was carved by a single fella in 1890 by Seth Mason” he began. I started to say something but the “shut up if you want me to tell the tale” scowl corrected me. I lay back on one elbow and played with the smoke until he decided to go one.
“As I was saying, It were carved by Seth Mason in the likeness of his employer Theodore Goosepelt who owned all the land around here and had wool mills in the city. They say he was an ugly man and the likeness is good. Theodore was a well connected man and persuaded the local mayor to match fund his contribution towards the £13 10s 6d that it cost to have it carved. The agreement was that the second face would be Mayor York and the monument would attract visitors to the area who would stand in wonderment at the statue. Goosepelt was not going to have York steal his thunder so told Seth to put the Mayor at the back, out of sight. See there!”
“Ah yes. The second stone.” The look again so I shut up.
“Anyway, it was an attraction for some years and people came from near and far, some may be over 7 miles to stand in wonderment. Then, quite by chance some fella in America had the same idea only bigger and better in South Dakota. Goosepelt and York at Mount Hasteless just got plain forgotten. Nah then!”
“That's it then. Not pagan monument after all.”
“That's it” said Tom, now standing and untying the string that tethered his mount to the wire fence. “Do me a favour lad and hold my horse while I mount up.”
“No problem” I took hold of the handle bars firmly. “When you're ready Tom. Hop up!” Tom froze. I froze. Too late, the two footed blunder was beyond recall. It was out. From the saddle a gnarled hand landed and clamped on my shoulder. A steely stare admonished my feeble apology of a grin. Then, to my considerable relief, the laugh:
“Tha's twice as likely to put your foot in you're mouth as me. I've only got one leg” he roared with laughter and made about to go. I watched as he hop-pedalled away.
“Is the Mount Hasteless tale true Tom?” I called. Still stirrup hopping he turned and waved.
“True? Of coarse it's true lad. As true as me riding this old horse!”