29. Paddington Takes To The Road
Monsieur Dupont looked at Paddington in amazement. “You mean to say, Monsieur le Bear,” he exclaimed, “that you have never before heard of le cyclisme?”
“Never, Mr Dupont,” said Paddington earnestly.
“Pooff’ cried Monsieur Dupont, raising his hands in the air. “Everyone should see a real bicycle race — it is most exciting. And you are indeed fortunate, for the one which is passing through our village tomorrow is the greatest of them all.”
Monsieur Dupont paused to let his words sink in. “It is called the ‘Tour de France’,” he continued impressively. “It lasts for twenty days and people come from all over the world to see it.”
Paddington listened carefully as Monsieur Dupont went on to explain what an honour it was to take part in the race and how it would be going through the village not once, but several times. “Up the hill,” said Monsieur Dupont, “round the houses and down the hill again. In that way everyone will have a chance to see it.
“Why,” he went on, “there is even a prize for the champion rider down the hill into the village. Think of that, Monsieur le Bear!”
At that moment Monsieur Dupont had to serve a customer and so, after thanking him very much for all his trouble, Paddington left the baker’s shop and hurried across the square to have another look at the poster which had aroused his interest. It was a large poster pasted on the side of a shop and it showed a long, winding road crowded with men on bicycles. All the men wore brightly-coloured singlets and they had very earnest expressions on their faces as they bent low over their handle-bars. They seemed to have travelled a long way for they all looked hot and tired, and one man was even eating a sandwich as he rode along.
Seeing the sandwich reminded Paddington that it was nearly time for his elevenses, but before he went back into the hotel for his marmalade jar he spent some minutes with Mr Gruber’s phrase-book working out the words in small print at the bottom of the poster.
Paddington was most interested in the idea of anyone being able to win a prize simply by being the fastest person to ride down a hill on a bicycle. Not for the first time since he’d been holiday he began to wish Mr Gruber was on hand to explain matters to him.
There was a thoughtful expression on his face as he made his way to where the Browns were sitting outside the hotel, and several times during the next quarter of an hour he absent-mindedly dipped his paw into the cocoa by mistake instead of into his jar of marmalade.
Paddington was late arriving down at the beach that morning and the others had already been there some time when he came hurrying across the sand brandishing his bucket and spade and with a look on his face of a job well done.
“What on earth have you been doing, Paddington?” asked Mrs Brown. “We were getting quite worried.”
“Oh,” said Paddington, waving his paws vaguely in the direction of the village. “Things in general, Mrs Brown.”
Mrs Bird looked at him suspiciously. Now that he was close to, she could see several dark patches on his fur which looked remarkably like old oil stains, but before she had time to examine them closely Paddington had made off again in the direction of the sea.
“You’d better not be late tomorrow, Paddington,” called Mr Brown. “It’s the big cycle race. You mustn’t miss that.”
To everyone’s astonishment, Mr Brown’s words had a very strange effect on Paddington, for he nearly fell over backwards with surprise and his face took on a most guilty expression as he collected himself and hurried into the water as fast as he could go, casting some anxious glances over his shoulder.
Mrs Brown sighed. “There are times,” she said “when I would give anything to be able to read Paddington’s mind. I’m sure it would be most interesting.”
“H’mm!” said Mrs Bird darkly. “There are times when I’m sure it’s much better not to! We should never have a moment’s peace. He looked much too pleased with himself just now for my liking.”
With that the Browns settled down to enjoy themselves in the sun. With their holiday fast drawing to an end they wanted to make the most of it, and soon Paddington’s odd behaviour was forgotten for the time being.
But Mrs Brown was still worrying about the matter when they went to bed that evening. Paddington had disappeared upstairs unusually early and now there were some strange bumps coming from his room which she didn’t like the sound of at all.
After spending some moments with her ear to the wall she beckoned her husband over.
“I think he must be making some marmalade sandwiches, Henry,” she said, “Listen.”
“Making marmalade sandwiches?” repeated Mr Brown. “I don’t see how you can hear anyone make marmalade sandwiches.”
“You can with Paddington,” said Mrs Brown. “You can hear the jars going. When he’s eating it he just dips his paws in and you can hear the breathing, but when it’s sandwiches he uses a spoon and you can hear the clinks as well.”
“They must be big ones then,” said Mr Brown vaguely, as he stood up. “He’s puffing away like anything. It sounds just like someone blowing up a bicycle tyre.”
Mr Brown had a problem of his own at that moment without worrying about Paddington making marmalade sandwiches. He had just made the surprising discovery that his face flannel, which he’d left on the balcony outside the room to dry, had completely disappeared and in its place someone had left a very black and oily piece of rag. It was most strange and he couldn’t for the life of him think how it could have come about.
Unaware of all the interest he had been causing in the next room, Paddington sat down in the middle of his bedroom floor with a marmalade sandwich in one paw and a large spanner in the other. On either side of him there were a number of cardboard boxes full of bits and pieces, not to mention a large oilcan, a bicycle pump and several important-looking tools.
In front of him, looking as clean as a new pin and shiny enough for him to see the reflection of his whiskers on the polished surface, stood a small three-dimensional wheeled cycle, and there was a blissful expression on Paddington’s face as he took several large bites out of the sandwich and surveyed the result of his evening’s work.
Paddington had first seen the tricycle some days before standing in a yard outside a garage at the other end of the village, but until Monsieur Dupont explained about the cycle race that morning he hadn’t thought any more about the matter.
The man in the garage had been most surprised when Paddington paid him a visit and at first he had been rather doubtful about hiring the machine to a bear, especially as Paddington had no references apart from some old postcards from his Aunt Lucy.
But Paddington was good at bargaining, and after promising to clean the machine he had at last won the day. The garage man had even lent him the oilcan, which had proved most useful as the tricycle had been standing outside for a number of years and was rather rusty.
Luckily he had found a piece of cloth on the balcony outside Mr Brown’s room and so he’d been able to clean off the worst of the dirt before getting down to the important job of taking it to pieces and polishing it. All the same, taking the tricycle to pieces had been a lot easier than assembling it again, and as Paddington finished off his sandwich he noticed to his surprise that he had one or two very odd-looking parts left over in the cardboard boxes.
After tying his Union Jack on the handlebars in preparation for the next day, Paddington put the remains of the marmalade sandwiches into the basket on the handle-bars and then climbed on to the saddle with an excited gleam in his eyes.
He had been looking forward to testing the tricycle but as he moved off he soon decided that riding it was much more difficult than it looked, and he began to wish he had longer legs with knees for it was very hard to pedal and sit on the saddle at the same time. Apart from that, for some reason which he couldn’t quite make out, the machine was most difficult to stop no matter what he pulled. Several times he ran into the wardrobe by mistake, and by the time he had finished there were a number of nasty tyre stains on the wallpaper as well. Once, when he rounded a corner at the foot of the bed, the chain came off, nearly throwing him over the handle-bars.
After several more turns round the bedroom Paddington fell off the machine and lay where he was for a few moments mopping his brow with an old handkerchief. Riding tricycles was hot work, especially in such a small space as a hotel bedroom, and after peering at his reflection in the handle-bars once or twice he reluctantly decided to call it a day. All the same, tired though he was, Paddington found it difficult to get to sleep that night. Apart from the fact that he had to lie on his back with his paws in the air in case any oil came off on the sheets, he had a great many things to think about as well. But there was a contented expression on his face when he did finally nod off. It had been a good evening’s work and he was looking forward to the next day. Paddington felt sure that with such a bright and shiny tricycle he would stand a very good chance indeed of winning a prize in the ‘Tour de France’ cycle race.
The Browns were wakened earlier than usual the next morning by the comings and goings in the square outside the hotel. As if by magic, all the decorations from the pardon had suddenly reappeared and the village was full of important-looking men wearing armbands. There was an air of great excitement and every few minutes a loud-speaker van passed by and addressed the crowd which had collected on the pavement round the square and at the side of the hill leading out of the village.
The Browns had arranged to meet on the balcony outside Paddington’s room from where there was a fine view of the hill, but to their surprise when they gathered there Paddington himself was nowhere to be seen.
“I do hope he won’t be long,” said Mrs Brown. “He’ll be most upset if he misses any of it.”
“I wonder where on earth he can have got to?” said Mr Brown. “I haven’t seen him since breakfast.”
“H’mm!” said Mrs Bird, as she looked around the room. “I have my suspicions.”
Mrs Bird’s sharp eyes had already noticed the remains of some hastily removed tyre tracks on the floor. They went round the room several times and then out through the door before finally disappearing in the direction of some stairs which led to the back door of the hotel.
Fortunately for Paddington, before Mrs Bird had time to say any more there was a burst of clapping from the crowd on the pavement below, and so the subject was forgotten as the Browns looked over the balcony to see what was happening.
“How very odd,” said Mrs Brown, as the clapping grew louder and several people cheered. “They seem to be pointing at us.”
The Browns became more and more mystified as they waved back at the crowd.
“I wonder what they mean by Vive le Bear?” said Mr Brown. “It can’t be anything to do with Paddington — he isn’t here.”
“Goodness only knows,” said Mrs Brown. “I suppose we shall just have to wait and see.”
Had they but known, the Browns weren’t the only ones to wonder what was going on at that moment, but fortunately for their peace of mind there were several streets and a large number of houses between them and the cause of all the excitement.
At the other end of the village Paddington was even more puzzled at the way things were going. In fact, the more he tried to think about the matter the more confused he became. One moment he had been sitting quietly on his tricycle in a side street, peering round the corner every now and then and checking the marmalade sandwiches in the basket on his handle-bars as he waited for the race to appear.
The next moment, as the first of the riders came in sight and he pedalled out to join them, everything seemed to go wrong at once.
Before he knew where he was Paddington found himself caught up in a whirlpool of bicycles and shouting people and policemen and bells.
He pedalled as hard as he could and raised his hat to several of the other cyclists, but the harder he pedalled and the more he raised his hat the louder they shouted and waved back at him, and by then it was much too late to change his mind and turn back even if he’d tried.
Everywhere he looked there were bicycles and men in shorts and striped shirts. There were bicycles in front of him. There were bicycles to the left and bicycles to the right of him. Paddington was much too busy pedalling for dear life to look back, but he was sure there were bicycles behind him as well because he could hear heavy breathing and the sound of bells ringing.
In the excitement someone handed him a bottle of milk as he went past, and in trying to take the bottle with one paw and raise his hat with the other, Paddington had to let go of the handle-bars. He went twice round a statue in the middle of the street before joining the stream of cyclists once more as they swept round a corner on to a road leading out of the village.
Luckily the road was uphill and most of the other cyclists were tired after their long ride, so that by standing on the pedals and jumping up and down as fast as he could he was able to keep up with them.
It was as they reached the top of the hill and rounded another corner leading back down into the village that things suddenly took a decided turn for the worst. Just as he was about to sit back on the saddle and have a rest while he got his second wind, Paddington found to his surprise that without even having to turn the pedals he was beginning to gather speed.
In fact he hardly had time to wave to the crowd before he found himself starting to overtake the riders in front. He passed one, then another, and then a whole bunch. The cyclists looked quite startled as Paddington flashed by, and all the time the cheering from the spectators on the side of the road grew louder. Quite a number recognised him and they called out words of encouragement, but by then Paddington was much too worried to notice.
He tried pulling as hard as he could on the brake lever but nothing happened, in fact if anything he seemed to go faster than ever and he began to wish he hadn’t used quite so much oil on the moving parts when he’d cleaned them.
By then the pedals were going round so fast that he sat back on the saddle and hurriedly lifted up his feet in case his legs fell off. It was as he gave the brake lever an extra hard pull that he had his second big shock of the day, for it suddenly came away in his paw.
Paddington rang his bell frantically and waved the lever as he overtook the last of the riders in front.
“Apply your brakes, Monsieur le Bear!” yelled a man in English as he recognised the Union Jack on Paddington’s handle-bars.
“I don’t think I can,” cried Paddington, looking most upset as he shot past. “My lever’s come off in my paw by mistake and I think I’ve left some of the bits in my box at the hotel!”
Paddington clung to the handle-bars of his tricycle as he hurtled on down the hill towards the village square. All the villagers were most excited when they saw who was in the lead and a great cheer went up as he came into view, but as he lifted the brim of his hat and peered out anxiously all Paddington could make out was a sea of white faces and a blurred picture of some buildings looming up ahead which he didn’t like the look of at all.
But if Paddington was worried the Browns were even more alarmed.
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Mr Brown. “It’s Paddington!”
“He’s heading straight for Monsieur Dupont’s shop,” cried Mrs Brown.
“I can’t watch,” said Mrs Bird, closing her eyes.”
“Why on earth doesn’t he put his brakes on?” exclaimed Mr Brown.
“Crikey!” exclaimed Jonathan. “He can’t! His brake lever’s come off”
It was Monsieur Dupont himself who saved Paddington. Right at the very last moment his voice rose above the roar of the crowd.
“This way, Monsieur le Bear,” he cried, as he flung open the big double gates at the side of his shop. “This way!”
And before the astonished gaze of the onlookers Paddington shot through them and disappeared from view.
As the rest of the cyclists sped past unheeded the crowd surged forward and gathered round Monsieur Dupont’s shop. The Browns only just managed to force their way through to the front before a gasp went up from everyone as a small white figure came into view through the doors.
Even Paddington looked very worried when he saw his reflection in Monsieur Dupont’s window and he pinched himself several times to make sure he was all right before raising his hat to the crowd, revealing a small round patch of brown fur.
“I’m not a ghost,” he explained, when all the cheering had died down. “I think I must have landed on one of Mr Dupont’s sacks of flour!”
And as the crowd gathered round Paddington to shake him by the paw, Monsieur Dupont echoed the feelings of them all.
“We of St Castille,” he cried, “shall remember for many years to come the day the ‘Tour de France’ passed through our village,”
There was a great deal of celebrating in the village that evening and everyone applauded when the mayor announced that he was giving Paddington a special prize, with as many buns as he could manage into the bargain.
“Not for the fastest rider through the village,” he said, amid cheers and laughter, “but certainly for the fastest down the hill! We are very proud that someone from our village should have won the prize.”
Even Admiral Grundy called in at the hotel especially to congratulate him. “Glad to see you’re keepin’ the old flag flyin’, bear,” he said approvingly.
Paddington felt very pleased with himself as he sat up in bed that night surrounded by buns. Apart from having one paw in a sling he was beginning to feel stiff after all his pedalling, and there were still traces of flour left on his fur despite several baths.
But as the mayor had explained, it was the first time he could remember a bear winning a prize in the ‘Tour de France’ cycle race and it was something to be proud of.
The next morning the Browns were up early again for it was time to start their journey back to England, To their surprise everyone else in the village seemed to be up as well in order to send them on their way.
Monsieur Dupont was the last to say goodbye and he looked very sad as the Browns made their leave. “It will seem quiet without you, Monsieur le Bear,” he said, shaking Paddington by the paw. “But I hope we shall meet again one day.”
“I hope so too, Mr Dupont,” said Paddington earnestly, as he waved goodbye and climbed into the car. Although he was looking forward to being back home again and to telling Mr Gruber all about his adventures abroad, Paddington felt very sorry at having to say goodbye to everyone, especially Monsieur Dupont.
“All good things come to an end sooner or later,” said Mrs Brown, as they drove away. “And the nicer it is the sooner it seems to end.”
“But if they didn’t end,” said Mrs Bird wisely, “we shouldn’t have other things to look forward to.”
Paddington nodded thoughtfully as he peered out of the car window. He had enjoyed his holiday in France no end, but it was nice knowing that each day brought something new.
“That’s the best of being a bear,” said Mrs Bird. “Things happen to bears.”