Frosted fingers are the pits.
I nurtured a healthy distaste for winter. If it wasn’t soaking wet, it was bitterly cold. Or worse, both together. Such are the pleasures of motorcycling, I thought grimly as I rode through the incessant sleet.
The ancient Laverda, newly restored, with its impeccable handling and generous three cylinder engine chewed up the miles with obscene ease – almost compensating for the discomfort of numb hands and soggy clothing. I peered into the night, aided by the barely adequate beam from the headlamp as it dribbled off the front mudguard and onto the tarmac, casting a pale pool of illumination by which I navigated my mount. Such was the downside of riding a classic rather than a more adequately equipped modern machine.
The road climbed as it twisted through the Cotswolds. Trees, silent apparitions lining the road, sped past in my peripheral vision, creating a tunnel effect as the headlamp beam caught the familiar triangular shape of a warning sign juxtaposed with a hand painted board: “Morley Farm 200yds left, egg’s, milk, veg.”
“Cattle,” I thought idly, while amending my line for the right hand bend, rapidly followed by; “the egg’s what?”
The oncoming lights dazzled – they were either badly adjusted, or the driver had failed to dip. Whichever, the result was the same – I was temporarily blinded and swerved instinctively to the left. A mistake. Adrenaline surged through my system as the tyres lost their traction and the Laverda slid sideways towards the verge. I sat – frozen – in the saddle, resisting the urge to panic lest I upset the machine’s tenuous tendency to remain upright. The sudden jarring through the handlebars as they swung violently from side to side – and my own impromptu flight into the roadside ditch, ended the brief status quo. Oblivious to both my plight and my muffled curses the driver of the offending car continued his journey. I watched impotently as its red tail lights disappeared around the bend – and flung a few more ineffective oaths to alleviate some of my fury.
Shaken and shaking, I lapsed into a sullen silence and contemplated my predicament. Not good. I sat up and promptly yelped at the sharp pain that shot through my neck and down my back, so I massaged it – swearing softly to myself. Otherwise, a cursory examination revealed nothing more than bruises. No broken bones that I could tell and no cuts – apart from a small scratch on my cheek. Great. The bike, however, was a different matter. It was unrideable. The smashed headlamp, twisted forks and a buckled wheel was pretty conclusive evidence. I swore again. The recently completed renovation was a write off.
So I stood, thinking and rubbing the back of my neck and coming to no conclusion, before walking back to the bend where I scrutinised the road surface.
“Cowshit. Should’ve known,” I muttered, remembering the triangular sign. “Damn!”
Returning to my stricken mount, I attempted to lift it upright. Two hernias later, I thought better of it and left the Laverda where it had fallen – lying incongruously in the ditch. I reached into my pocket and pulled out my mobile phone. The RAC would have to do the honours. Unfortunately, there was no signal and the sound of another motorcycle climbing the hill interrupted my mental meanderings. I watched as a Honda Hornet rounded the corner and its rider brought it neatly to a halt alongside the Laverda, switched off the engine and flicked the sidestand down.
“Trouble?” she asked, flicking up the front of her helmet and dismounting.
“Well, yes, er … “I started, waving my hand vaguely at my machine. “No signal, either,” I finished gesturing with the useless mobile.
“No,” she said, removing her helmet. “It’s bad round here.” She studied me for a moment or so, before turning her attention to the Laverda. “This isn’t going far tonight,” she commented as she crouched down to inspect the damage. Her nostrils twitched at the familiar odour. “Slippery stuff, cowdung.”
“An efficient lubricant,” I responded dryly. “Someone ought to market it.”
She laughed. “True, but that’s not much use to you.” Rising to her feet, she glanced across at me. “Feel okay?”
“Shaken,” I replied. I was shivering uncontrollably.
“Shock, I expect,” the girl replied, her eyes narrowing as she studied me. And cold.
“Ah, I expect,” I said, forcing my muscles to cease their spasms. The icy wind sliced through the tears in my leather jacket and my jeans offered little, if any, protection from the elements. I was a fool and I knew it. The girl chewed her lower lip, thinking, coming to a decision.
“Give you a lift if you like,” she volunteered.
“The nearest phone box’ll do,” I answered. “I can get the RAC to recover it.”
“Sure, there’s a pub just a couple of miles along this road. We’ll try our luck there.” She paused and held out her hand. “I’m Sandy, by the way.”
“Hal. Er, pleased to meet you. Shame about the circumstances though.”
“It was inevitable.”
I furrowed my brows at her response, but she made no further comment. Puzzled, I clambered onto the pillion behind her.
“Out!” the publican snapped.
“But I only …”
“I said out! I don’t serve your type in here.”
Ordinarily, I would have retorted with acid sarcasm. On this occasion, however, I decided that perhaps he had a point. The bar length mirror reflected an ashen, waif like image, staring back at me. My pale, scratched face with its crown of dark, tousled hair and my gashed leather jacket – caked in mud and worse, didn’t, I concluded, look good. Death warmed up sprang to mind. So, reluctantly, I opted to remain mute on the matter and accept defeat. Also, when faced with a publican endowed with the physique and temperament of a prize fighter, discretion suggested further argument would be unwise.
With discretion, I stomped out.
“Well?” Sandy asked, closely studying my face.
“No leathers here,” I grouched, wondering vaguely why she stared at me the way that she did. Odd, very odd.
“Ah, it hasn’t changed then.”
She shrugged, taking her eyes from mine and glancing down at the instruments as she restarted the Honda.
“Thanks for telling me,” I grumbled as I swung my leg over the pillion seat. She merely shrugged again.
The filling station was more amenable.
Sandy pulled the Honda onto the forecourt and killed the engine. “Try here.”
“Okay,” I replied, dismounting.
I walked into the office where the attendant lounged in a chair, with his feet on the counter as he browsed through an old newspaper.” May I use your phone?” I asked.
“Sure.” The man barely glanced up from the paper. A thought occurred to me as I reached for the telephone.
“You wouldn’t have a bike trailer by any chance?”
“Er, no. Sorry.”
“Oh, that’s okay. It was just a thought. It’ll have to be the RAC then.” Picking up the handset, I proceeded to dial.
I was aware of the press cutting – yellowed and old, Sellotaped to the wall, next to a girlie calendar – without being immediately conscious of its significance. It fitted, like the radio, tuned to the local commercial station, churning out its news and weather reports – a disregarded intrusion in the quiet of the night. Like the posters and the pin ups, faded and dated, adorning the shabby walls – a part of the place. Character. It was a small cutting; a photograph of a girl on a racing Honda, with a caption – too small and far away to read, but I knew the face.
“Sandy Morgan,” the attendant remarked, following my gaze. “I used to sponsor her.”
“Yeah. I supplied her with tyres. See my name, Painter’s Garage – that’s me, George Painter – on the fairing?” He smiled proudly at the picture and the memory. My finger had stopped dialling and the telephone system, unable to make a connection with the incomplete number, gave up and rewarded me with a continuous whistle. I tried again.
“You know,” Painter continued conversationally. “If she hadn’t been killed, she’d have turned pro the following season.” My finger froze on the button. The unobtainable tone whined annoyingly in my ear as I stared, first at George Painter – then through the window to the forecourt. She was still there, legs astride the Honda, helmet on the tank and arms folded, watching me. Always watching me. She waved. Smiling weakly, I returned the wave. Like a sleepwalker wading through the treacle of dreamsleep, I turned to face Painter.
“ … It’s a nasty bend,” he was saying.
“I’m sorry,” I interrupted. “I wasn’t listening.”
“It’s a nasty bend, where she came off. Morley Bank. The road follows the railway embankment. That’s why it’s called Morley bank,” he explained unnecessarily. “Must be a good two year ago now, maybe three … “Breaking into the man’s reverie, I returned him to the point.
“You were saying, she came off on a bend … “
“By Morley Farm …”
“Cowshit. That’s why she came off. The farmer uses the field opposite – and takes his cows to milking across the road.”
“Yes.” That fact hadn’t escaped me. Mechanically, my finger moved across the dialling buttons once more. My hand trembled, causing it to become a major operation requiring all of my attention. George Painter reached across to the radio and turned up the volume.
“Hear that?” he asked.
“I’m sorry, I was concentrating.”
“Traffic report. There’s been another accident on that bend tonight. Coincidence or what?”
“Yes … “I muttered. The trembling was becoming worse. “Or what, more likely,” I added sotto voce.
“Some lad killed on a bike,” Painter continued his monologue, unheeding. “They’re appealing for witnesses. I ask you. On an empty road at this time of night … “
I stopped dialling. There didn’t seem much point continuing. The unobtainable tone buzzed unnoticed in my ear. Sandy sat outside, watching, waiting. Painter chattered obliviously.
“… Something oughta be done about it. Bleedin’ dangerous if you ask me.” No one was. A shudder ran through my body as I replaced the receiver. Realisation was an icy claw kneading my intestines.
“Um,” I stuttered. “Thanks for the use of the phone, but … I’d better be going.”
“You ain’t phoned no one.”
“No. Er, couldn’t get through. Guess I’ll just have to manage somehow.”
Before I could be pressed further, I retreated through the door. Painter’s puzzled gaze followed me. “Strange,” he muttered with a frown as he returned to his newspaper. Sandy watched me carefully as I walked towards her. Her eyes were narrowed speculatively, assessing my demeanour – finally seeing what she had been seeking.
“Best climb aboard then,” she said. “We’ve a long way to go.”