This is the sixth in a series related to the tales in Making Things Work. These are new material, not excerpts from the book.
Around 1986 I was working at a small English workshop that made custom furniture and kitchens. Every day I rode my bicycle from the dank old row house I shared with three other renters on a quiet street in Cambridge–first to the train station, where I put the bike on the train, then from the station in the countryside to my place of employment, this last leg a short ride that usually took about 10 minutes.
One day in mid-spring I punctured a tire on the way to British Rail-Cambridge. This was years before I’d even heard of cell phones, let alone could have afforded one. There was no way to notify my employers, so my best hope was to minimize my lateness. I ran/walked the bike the rest of the way, hoping to make my usual train, and locked the bike to the railing.
Though the workshop wasn’t far from the station at the other end of the line, the only way to get there was via a U-shaped route that took you into the village, past the public lavatories, and out again to farm fields. Following that road on foot would make me disastrously late. I knew just where the shop was in relation to the station—straight across the fields. But being a respecter of property rights, I was loathe to set out across the newly planted earth. Then again, if anyone stopped me I could explain the situation. What reasonable farmer could object to someone gently passing through in an effort to avoid being late to work?
I set off on my adventure, running as far as I could, my bag slung across my shoulder. Walking, then running again as my lungs allowed. Aside from my boots getting clogged with mud, things seemed to be going OK until an obstacle came into distant view. A ditch. The area was essentially fenland, lying close to sea level. Without drainage the fields would have been far less productive for crops. No matter, I thought. I’ll just hop across. But the closer I got, the bigger the ditch appeared. Oh well. I’d just have to clamber down one side and up the next.
By the time I reached the edge of the ditch I realized it was more of an industrial pipeline. There was no telling how deep the water might be. It was definitely too wide to jump over. I was certainly going to get wet; the only question was how wet. I looked back toward the station. Too far to be worth reversing my course. There was no other way around; the ditch continued all the way to the road I usually took on my bike.
With a lump in my throat I eased myself down the bank, hoping for water no more than ankle-deep. The cold, dirty water came up to my arm pits. I sloshed forward, holding my bag aloft, and climbed the other bank. At least there was just one ditch.
On arrival at the workshop I received the predictable ribbing. I was glad to find the woodstove aflame. One of my bosses kindly suggested I get out of my sodden clothes and offered a pair of his overalls. It was a long day.