John Berger's recent publications include Meanwhile (Drawbridge Books) and From A to X: A Story in Letters (Verso).

In the hands of a mindful man

The bicycle I made a drawing of this morning is over seventy years old. It belongs to Luca, who lives in a suburb to the southeast of Paris. He makes local visits on his bike when the weather is fine and he doesn't want to take the car out of the garage. The garage is under his house – a ramp leads down to it – and is half the width of the narrow house of which he was the second owner fifty years ago.

On the bike he goes to visit friends or to play pétanque and cards or to look down from a bridge at the traffic on the autoroute. He is sprightly and has a bushy moustache, the bottom of it pure white, like his hair. He makes many jokes and their bantering humour is recognizably Italian.

It's hot, I say to him, I'm going for a swim in the municipal swimming pool, coming? He shakes his head and says: I know! A lot of water in it and very little meat!

When he smiles you mistake the white in his moustache for the white of his teeth. He has steady eyes. You can watch him closely watching. His hands are as deft as his eyes are sharp. He can fix and repair almost any everyday appliance and he does so for himself, for his grown-up children and for any neighbour who has the modesty to ask him.

Each evening he notes in an agenda his brief observations about the day. He started doing this when he retired twenty-five years ago. He records the weather when it's exceptional, the date when he plants something in his small back garden, repairs made, maintenance tasks accomplished, the death of an old friend, gossip about neighbours in the street, and, above all, any work which he has observed being well or carelessly done on the little houses or along the residential roads he passes by each day. When he considers the work exceptionally well done, he marks it with a tick. For work badly done he reserves a number of violent adjectives. (Carelessness for him is a reminder of the farce that life risks to be.) Sometimes he notes what he has eaten. Occasionally he sticks in a newspaper cutting, usually a photograph of a faraway place.

For thirty years Luca worked for Air France as an aircraft performance controller.

In the garden he grows tomatoes, lettuces, rocket and asters. The name aster, he points out, means "star" in Greek.

The bicycle was given to him by his mother when he was fifteen years old. Both parents were Italian, father a tailor, mother a dressmaker. They came to the same Parisian suburb in the 1920s, after Mussolini's March on Rome and the Fascist takeover.

During the Second World War and the German Occupation of Paris, the father named his dog Hitler. When taking it for a walk along the local, crowded shopping street, he would shout: Heel Hitler! Then, Down Hitler! Do you want a thrashing?

When he first arrived from Italy the father found a shed, measuring 30 square metres, near the Croix de Berny, and there the whole family lived and worked in their own sweatshop, making women's dresses to measure for French housewives, whose husbands were among the first French artisans to buy little houses of their own on the outskirts of the city rather than live in apartments.

From the age of nine Luca began to sell evening newspapers after school outside the nearby metro station. He would get home an hour before bedtime. When he was older he would wander over to the digs in the marshes where casual labourers extracted buckets of gypsum which they sold to a nearby plaster factory. These marshes extended then to where his house now stands.

It was wet, badly paid, dirty work, he remembers. Then he smiles and says: The crystalline structure of the gypsum sometimes set me dreaming of El Dorados – you know calcium sulphate is the same stuff, more or less, as our bones are made of? You didn't know that! Here, I'll give you a memento! He goes over to a cabinet of narrow drawers in a corner of his garage, opens one and takes out a small fragment of crystal. Monoclinic prismatic, he says, and hands it to me. May it bring you luck...

When he was thirteen he started helping out as a mechanic's mate for an Italian who had a garage repair workshop. At that time there were many Italians in the area, employed on construction sites for the extension of Orly airport. And it was an Italian comrade who, a year or so later, got Luca a trial run working as a riveter on the assembly line of a small Forman aircraft factory next to Orly. He was taken on. He got his first month's wages.

He had told them nothing about the job at home. He handed the wages over to his mother. She said: How did you get so much? Have you told your father? You stole it!

Luca shook his head. His mother nodded. And the following week, without a word to anyone, she went and bought him a bicycle. The one I drew this morning.

He hadn't told his father out of a kind of filial respect for the father's pride. The father now had another dog – both Hitlers were dead. This one he called Money. In the sweatshop after supper the father would hold up a piece of panettone before the dog and say: Sit up and beg, Money! That's it! Into your basket, Money!

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