Che wears clothes as rugged as his beard. His moccasin jacket and cowboy-tough jeans are worn like a second skin, and with his green linen beret and knotted dreadlocks he looks like a soldier, an apache and a shaman all rolled together and boiled for good measure. The look is completed by his camouflaged boots which look like they could be made of Kevlar. “I sleep in these sometimes,” he says as he grabs his right leg and lifts it onto the bench. “A good pair of boots will last you twenty years. A lifetime if you look after them.”
He is best known as the man who rolls around Leicester on his signature green Rat Fink, a customised beast of a bicycle today worth £600 new, complete with orange trim wheels and a clown horn on the handlebars. It is now locked up outside of one his many haunts – today, the Deli Marche by Bede Park. Not that anybody would dare steal it; no pawn shop in Leicester would touch the Rat Fink. It’s too well recognised – like trying to sell Mr Bean’s mini. Anybody seen riding it other than Che would be met with mob justice.
His real name is not Che – it’s Pete Redford. His handle comes from his beret, which is emblazoned with the flag of Cuba and the hopeful face of Che Guevara, a seal-of-quality on his laid-back approach to life. “Just keep cool,” he says, complete with two fingers held up in a Churchill victory salute.
Che’s earliest memories are of his childhood in Africa. Although he was born in England, his family moved to Nairobi when he was 6 months old. His father was an electrician and served in the RAF, and his posting meant that Che spent the first ten years of his life with no memories of England. He grew up with his brother under the African sun until 1962 when their father died. “He was working building a hotel, up a ladder fiddling with all the wires in the ceiling, when he got electrocuted. He fell off of the ladder and that was that.” He rubs his mouth and sighs at the memory. But when asked what he thought of England, as a young lad seeing it for the first time after a life in Africa, he cracks up laughing.
“I hated it,” he cackles.
His widowed mother could not support Che and his brother once they were back in Britain and she sent them to a boarding school near Wales. “I hated it there too. It was all too posh, and all…” he flaps his hands around foppishly. “LA-DEE-DA, you know?” For just a moment he sounds like he is ready to jump off on a Russell Brand-esque tangent, but instead relaxes and chuckles. “There was this one teacher we called Adolf. Like Hitler.”
Che says him and his friends were the special enemies of a teacher with an unfortunate Charlie Chaplin moustache who liberally used his cane on them. Che, a self-professed troublemaker at the time, was a repeat offender and a daily target for punishment, until they made a game of running away at the sight of him.
“One day we ran away all the way out of school. We ran off all the way to Ryl, this town, 10 miles away in Wales. One of us had a flat there – or, you know, his parents did – and we got in using his key.” He begins repressing a loud laugh. “We went to the fridge looking for a drink,” he chuckles, “and instead we found all this beer! We drank all of it! We were only 11!” He belly laughs before gasping out; “and then we hear this knock at the door, and we’re all drunk, and one of us goes to see who’s there. It was the headmaster! He’d tracked us down all the way home!”
After a while his laughing settles. He is ready to laugh at every story he tells, even as he finishes the saga by saying he and all of his friends were caned for disgracing the headmaster by answering the door drunk. He has even learned to laugh about the car crash that paralysed him when he was 18-years-old.
In 1977, Che had a job fixing cars in a garage while he was in college studying graphic design. Things, as he puts it, were good; he had a girlfriend but girls still came to see him at the shop, he was getting paid, he was in the RAF cadets with plans to enlist after graduation, and against his own expectations he was able to pass his driving test. On the same day he took a £150 loan from the bank and bought a car. “I used it for posing,” he says. “I rolled around in it with my arm out the window. No seatbelts, no care, just driving in my village. Just posing in it.”
Two weeks later he was posing some more on the roads near his village. As he drove down a hill he found a motorway bridge being built that he hadn’t known about. He doesn’t remember quite how it happened.
He flings his hand out in front of him. “There was this wall. I smashed into it on the driver’s side. Even as I crashed I knew my legs were gone. And then I passed out for 6 months.”
When Che came out of his coma, he found he had suffered complete paralysis of the right half of his body. There was shrapnel buried deep in his leg that the doctors would not remove and he had lost his speech. His girlfriend had been pregnant with his baby and had met somebody else while he was gone. “My whole right side was gone. And I was so thin,” he says, wrapping his forefinger and thumb around his wrist. “I was in a wheelchair, in and out of hospital for years. The doctors wouldn’t operate on me. They couldn’t help me and I was stuck.”
Forced to drop out of college and stuck between his house and the hospital, his mother made a drastic move to help her son. On the promise of a doctor who said he would operate, he moved to Majorca and met Dr Ramirez. After 6 operations and intensive therapy, Che regained his speech and his freedom. But they did not return to England. With no money for the journey back and heavy medical bills to pay, Che and his family couch-surfed the tiny Spanish island, picking up part time jobs and living with friends when they could find them, hotels when they could not.
In time, Che opened a second-hand shop on the island. “’Good As New’, it was called,” he says. “We sold everything. Mostly clothes and household stuff. But not jewellery. You can’t sell jewellery in Spain. It gets stolen on beaches, and if they bring it to you it might be stolen… yeah, we never sold jewellery.” He bought a villa in the mountains overlooking the bay of the Port D’Andratx, with a pool so he could invite friends over and space to look after people’s cats (a service a surprising number of people needed, he says). He stayed in the Spanish sun for 10 years, but the sun is what drove him away. “I kept thinking of England – I missed the weather. You spend 10 years in Spain and the weather is the same every day, you get sick of it. So I went back.”
His mother stayed on the island, and he would visit her twice a year up until she died. He hasn’t been back since, and says he has no plan to. “Unless these girls I know go with me. I love my girls,” he cackles. He arrived back in 1990 and moved around trying to find a corner of the world to settle. He stayed in Bristol to be with his grandfather, and then moved again to Weston-Super-Mare for 6 months. Then one week his brother asked him to come down to Leicester.
“I fell in love with the place,” he says, gesturing around him and out the window. “It was around 1991 by now. I got a place in De Montfort flats and I’ve been there ever since.” He folds his hands on his chest. “And I’ll stay here until I die.”
So what about the bike?
“The bike? I just saw it one day in the shop and bought it there and then. It helps me get around since I can’t walk so well, and I don’t like, you know, normal bikes.”
Today is Che’s day off. He works “whenever” at a studio in town as a graphics designer – but today is a day for seeing his friends in all the cafes of Leicester, where he is on first-name terms with the owners and a handful of the customers. Does he have any plans for the future? He puffs his lips. “I want to get my dreadlocks curled at some point. That’ll look cool.” If he had the drive he says he would buy a little shop in town and get back into his second-hand business – “put some window frames in to make it look nice, get some girls in – it’d be a party.” But that doesn’t seem part of the plan right now. For now he’s able to enjoy good breakfasts and hot coffees and see Leicester on the green Rat Fink on his own terms. Leicester General Hospital take care of him when he needs them and are “marvellous” compared to what he got in 1977. When the barista – who Che greets as John – brings over his cappuccino he tells him to talk about his Vietnam uniform. Che shrugs; “I have a Vietnam uniform. I never went of course, but I’ve got one of the GI uniforms they had back then.”
If you ask Che how he feels about the cataclysmic crash that set the course for the rest of his life, he only says that he’s lucky to be alive. And if you ask him if he has any advice to give – on anything – he’ll grin. “Just keep cool, man.”