The Stolen Bike: a Mary Hampton mystery (true)

When Mary was thirteen, and the tallest, sportiest girl in the school, she stopped growing. Now, at almost ninety, she was even lighter – but not on her feet, which used to love country dancing – and her legs were often stiff. The hands that used to spin a cricket ball for Essex Ladies were swollen and couldn’t manage fiddly things. But Mary was just as determined as she’d always been, possibly more so. She’d always kept her carbon footprint tiny, even before human beings knew they had one, and to keep her muscles working and her spirits strong she aimed to cycle every day. Once or twice a week she rode all the way from Northchurch to Waitrose, which was about three miles and hard work if there was a wind to push against. Mary loved meeting her daughter Sue for a cup of tea in the café there, but she also loved chatting to the staff. She learned many of their names and several of them told Sue that her mum was their favourite customer.

One Thursday morning when Sue was away, Mary did her Waitrose shopping, smiled at lots of people as usual and went back outside to her bike. But it wasn’t leaning against the pillar where she always left it. In eighty-five years of cycling, Mary had never used a padlock, but now her luck had run out. Someone had stolen it. Shocked, Mary went back into Waitrose to tell the staff what had happened. They called the police. They fetched a cup of tea just the way she liked it, and after the police had come to talk to her, they paid for a taxi to take her home. Mary was very touched by their kindness. She did hope the police would find her bike, because it was small and very light, with a low bar for her short legs to cross over.

By the time Sue came home that Friday evening, and learned what had happened, the news was all over Facebook and nearly thirty people were offering to pay towards a new bike for Mary. When Sue told her so, she was overwhelmed, but said she couldn’t possibly let them do that; a second-hand one would be fine, and really she hoped her own would be tracked down. Many people began looking out for it. Some of them knew Mary by name and others only by sight. Hardly anyone knew about her county cricket, that she was Head Girl as well as captain of most of the teams, or that she taught piano at home in between many years as a primary school teacher. They didn’t know how much she still loved her husband Paul, how desperately she grieved when he died in 2003, or how bravely she learned to smile again. But in their posts some said how much her friendliness had meant to them in difficult times; young mums said they hoped they’d be like her in their eighties; some called her a ‘legend’ and several said they ‘loved’ her. Berkhamsted was on a mission.

Soon people offered bikes that might be suitable, but turned out to be too heavy for someone Mary’s size and age.  There were also sightings of bicycles that might be Mary’s blue, fold-up Shopper with its shopping basket. Someone had seen a teenager at the skate park with a bike just like it; someone else reported a young man getting on a train on Saturday morning with a model to fit the description. But were they red herrings? Sue found the world was suddenly full of bicycles – and generous people.

   “Are you warmed?” asked Mary on the phone. Sue wasn’t sure she’d heard the word correctly. “Warmed by all this kindness?” her mum added, and Sue said, basking in April sunshine, that she certainly was.

 A meeting was called for Sunday afternoon by a kind man who wanted to help, but the Berkhamsted Facebook community was still buzzing, and at 9:00 that morning another bike was delivered to Mary’s house by Simon from Berkhamsted Cycling Club. This time it was perfect. Mary tried it out straight away with a ride around her road. She was overjoyed – not least because she loves babies and she was delighted to meet Simon’s. Mary didn’t have or need many possessions and said she considered it a loan; she was happy to think that one day someone else would enjoy it. The club had already arranged for it to be serviced by Lovelo at no cost to its new rider, so she looked forward to cycling there on Monday.

Later that day, thanks to those who met at the coffee shop, Mary had some money towards a padlock and a basket. She hadn’t given up on being reunited with the stolen bike but although she had been an adventurous girl, she’d never been very interested in detective fiction and if the thief was ever identified, she’d simply want to meet and redeem him or her. Sue reckoned one minute with her would do the job.


For Mary, regardless of any future developments, this story is remarkable – and justifies her lifelong belief in the goodness of most people in this world. That makes for a happy ending.

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