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A Bike, the Smell of Violets, Room to Grow and Crabs by Jane Burn

I first learned to ride a bike when I was (roughly)

seven years old. We were on one of our cobbled

together camping holidays at the seaside (this

particular time, at Wells-next-the-Sea). You might

know the sort of holiday I mean—overcrowded tent

smelling of five secreting bodies, farts, and grass;


campsite showertrays haunted by somebody else’s

pubic hair; powdered milk; own-brand Smash;

impossible-to-clean mess tins welded with Bacon

Grill; clothes spilling out from carrier bags; cheap

Swiss Rolls; and stinky boiled egg sandwiches

seasoned with sand. Your wishful thoughts were

directed toward


the ice-cream van. You pined for donkeys, tucked

your dress into your knickers to paddle, followed an

energetic dog on a piece of string. Your parents

rowing to fuck. That kind of holiday. Not neat hotels

or prim guest houses called something twee—

Forget-me-not Glades, Honey-Pot Heights


or Rambling Rose Mede, maybe—where the

proprietors used Shake n’Vac, had genuine Lladró and

would shit a brick to see our shambles coming up

the drive. My first bike was bought by my dad from a

junk shop, somewhere nearby, on this holiday. It was

red (a little rusty) and had these beautiful,


big wheels. We didn’t get stabilisers in our family—

there was no natural progression from scoot-alongs,

to assorted miniature bikes with dinky shopping

baskets fixed to tasselled handlebars (though how I

wanted one!) You got a functional bike that was way

too big for you— the mount / dismount of which was

an inelegant,


dangerously tilted, almost-falling on / off business.

You got everything too big for you. The coat / skirt

/ school jumper / shoes with ‘room to grow’. Like

those rubber riding boots that by some miracle, you

were eventually able to have after years of

scrambling onto ponies in assorted flip-flops / bare

feet / wellies / pumps.


The trip to the saddlery had me so excited I could

barely breathe. Imagine my horror when the only pair

I was allowed (because they were on sale) were a

size eight. There’s nothing wrong with that size—

only problem is, I was still at primary school and

now, at fifty years old, I am still not a size eight.

I cried my eyes out.


But those were the ones I had to have. I spent years

flapping around like a penguin. The soles fell off,

long before I ever stood a chance of growing into

them. It’s an odd thing, never being allowed

anything for the right now—everything bought

for a sometime-in-the-future you, a different-shaped

you, a you with different


requirements altogether. Small wonder then, that I

have never known who I am, or what I am really

meant to resemble. I spent my childhood looking like

some sad clown. How do you ever work out what or

where you fit? I never grew into these things, same as

I never really grew into my life.


I was talking about my first bike and how I learned to

ride that holiday, on a quiet street in

Wells-next-the-Sea. Three things have remained in

my head from this time—one, that red bike; two,

seeing hermit crabs for the first time (I thought they

were actual, honest-to-God miracles). My brothers

and me


watched those little crabs for hours. Watched them

bunch like tiny red fists at each shell’s aperture, the

soft of them kept to a private apex. We watched

them unfold from their doorways, the same as we

seemed to—uncertain, fearful, shame hanging out

like shirt tails, guessing ahead for evil. I wanted to

take some home


but there just wasn’t enough sea in our house to

sustain them. So, after the red bike and the crabs,

number three—being bought some Devon Violets

perfume in a tiny glass bottle the shape of a cottage

(popular in the 1970s, so I believe). It was ever so

small—just a mouse’s glass worth of scent.


My tiny cottage souvenir of

Wells-next-the-Sea—made from glass /


world of attar / fluid flowers / my tiny cottage /

chosen bring-home thing / finger-dotting scent

behind my cockle ears / the smell of violets is not

the smell of the sea / not the smell of my mother /

not the smell of sand / I put the smell of violets on

my seven-year-old skin /


my tiny cottage made from glass / has a door

moulded shut / windows crystal-harsh / my chosen

cottage bring-back thing / is not my real home /


I did not want a bucket or a hat / I did not want

a proper seaside toy / finger-dotting scent upon

my young throat / my cottage / painted roses climb


the lucent wall / the smell of violets left a garden

in the air / I wore it and watched / my toes pock

the wet beach / crabs appear from hermit shells /


I rode a red bike / the smell of violets / tried

to make me beautiful / a cottage made from glass /

small upon my chubby palm



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