He taught me how to ride my bike without trainer wheels.
I was seven years old and it was a few months after Dad had left. Mum had found an old second-hand bike in an op-shop somewhere for my birthday. It was pink, then my favourite colour, with white wheels and tassels that hung gleefully from the handles. It was a bit beaten up being second hand. The front wheel wasn’t aligned straight and one of the tassels was fuller than the other. But I didn’t care.
Mum tried to make me leave it outside, but I kept it in the room with me so that I could be sure it wouldn’t be stolen. It rested right next to my bed when I wasn’t riding it. The day after receiving it I had kept true to my promise of taking good care of it and I had taken it out to the concrete courtyard that united all the motel rooms.
I was armed with a bucket and set to work to clean the mud off the tires. Soon it shined in the sunlight.
No longer distracted by the chore of cleaning it, I had to actually attempt to ride it. Up until that point, I hadn’t ridden a bike before, but I had seen the kids who sometimes stayed here do it. So I knew the theory. Even with trainer wheels, I was exhilarated to find that I could zoom around the courtyard quite fast. I even learnt the art of breaking by pushing your foot back on the pedal, as I zoomed towards the rear end of a guest’s vehicle.
‘Hey, nice bike.’ I turned around in surprise. He was quite a lot older than me and had a mop of combed over hair. He wore a long black t-shirt and black jeans.
I had always been strictly told to never talk to the guests, more for their sake than mine I think, but he had complimented my new prized possession so naturally, I had to engage.
‘Thank you. It’s my early birthday present Mum says.’ I state proudly. Getting off the bike I stand next to it and grip the handlebars. The uneven tassels swing back and forth.
‘That's so cool, when’s your birthday?’ He asks. He’s still just standing there and his arms swing at his hips absentmindedly. They look too long for his body. Like a really thin giant with small wrists and big knuckles.
‘December 27th.’ It’s February now, a very early birthday present. I start to roll my bike towards the gangily stranger. ‘I’m seven. How old are you?’
‘Two days after Christmas? That must be crazy!’ He exclaims and crouches to the ground, taking a seat on the curb of the courtyard. ‘I’m fourteen.’
‘You’re really old.’ I say thoughtfully. ‘And you look like a skinny giant.’ I added the matter of factually. I figured he had the right to know.
He laughs, three short noises on an intaken breath. His head tilts back and his hair flops out of his face, he had nice eyes. Kind of like the ocean’s I had seen on TV.
‘Do you want me to help take the trainer wheels off your bike?’ He asks examining the little white wheels I had been relying on for stability.
‘I don’t think I’ll be able to ride it without them.’ I say hesitantly. ‘You’re not allowed to wreck it.’
He put both hands on my shoulders. I was still gripping my handlebars. His eyes were nothing but serious.
‘I promise I won’t break it.’ He said. ‘If I do, you’re allowed to beat me up with whatever remaining parts there are.’
I giggle at the idea of me, with my skinny arms and see-through ribs beating up the giant.
We spent the rest of the afternoon hunting down a Phillips screwdriver, turns out Mr Wong had about fifty of all different sizes in a drawer in the office, then pulling the bike apart on the hot concrete in a quiet corner of the courtyard. I lay on my stomach watching carefully, like a parent who has just handed their child to a stranger they met at the park.
He tipped the bike on its side with the care and precision of a surgeon. He realigned the front wheel and removed the two little white ones.
When he stood it up again and I climbed onto the seat that was a little too tall for me I was alarmed at the lack of balance it now possessed. I lunged onto one leg to catch myself. Unlike before where I had just been able to sit on it and ride now I found myself slipping and tilting, unable to even put my feet on the pedals.
‘You’ve got to get momentum to balance.’ He said dusting off his jeans and standing up at the site of my more than disappointed face.
‘I can’t.’ I shakily said trying again and slipping off. ‘Can you put the wheels back on?’
‘Nah, you can do this.’ He said cheerfully. He shouldn’t be so happy, I thought to myself, it wasn’t his bike.
He stood in front of the bike and held the handlebars allowing me to balance.
‘Now pedal.’ He started to pull me and I pushed against the pedals. My cheap jandals flopped and bent as I pushed hard. I got my momentum up and managed to get a few metres, then he let go. I swerved and stumbled off the bike with a frustrated shout.
‘Don’t let go.’ I climbed back on.
‘You’ve got this.’ He said nodding his head and kicking one of the discarded wheels out of the way. ‘I’ll just give you a push this time, pedal hard and aim for over there.’
He gestured across the courtyard. That time when he let go I kept going. I made it all the way across the courtyard with a gleeful shout. Mummy said I wasn’t allowed to shout incase I scare the guests, but today I didn’t care. I had felt like I was flying. I had trouble dismounting and stumbled to my knees, he started to run over to me scared I was hurt. My knees stung but I didn’t care. I had made it all the way across the courtyard. I jumped up and met his high five with another shout.
‘Thank you.’ I laughed and picked up my bike again.
‘That was all you kid, you just needed a push that's all.’ He smiled down at me.
‘What’s your name?’ I asked.
‘James.’ He answered with an easy smile. ‘Yours?’
‘Peneloppe Perfidious Hector Lucie.’ I answered with a very straight face. ‘You see I’m sort of related to royalty.’
‘Really?’ He answered in feigned sincerity. ‘That's so cool. I’m sort of related to royalty as well. My real name is Prince Knight Sir Epic Dragon Slayer James.’ He leaned in closely and dropped his voice to a whisper. ‘I didn’t want to let on because it sometimes freaks people out.’
I nodded seriously, contemplating this.
‘That's why we live here.’ I said gesturing around at the motel. ‘Mummy says this is my very own castle.’ James turned to admire the shabby ruin and nodded in enthusiasm.
‘It’s absolutely wonderful.’ He smiled at me. ‘You should be very proud.’
‘I am.’ I looked at the ground suddenly plagued with guilt. ‘Okay, I lied. My names, not Penelope. But I wish it was.’
‘What's your other name?’ He asked gently.
‘Just Sophie.’ I sighed deeply at the mundane nature of my name compared to his.
‘Princess Sophie,’ He rubbed his chin thinking over the name. ‘I think that is a far prettier name than Penelope.’
He knelt down seriously in front of me and my newly stripped, very vulnerable bike. His head bowed low.
‘All hail Princess Sophie, Ruler of The Grand Castle Motel.’