I glanced round. She was tallish, maybe three inches shorter than my six foot one and, I thought, a few years younger than my mid-sixties. Bikers, like most, if not all, single interest folk, never mind talking to a like-minded individual. Oscar is interesting.
In my teens and twenties, a motorbike was an almost desperate desire. Few of my contemporaries, like myself, had any hope of even the cheapest car, but a second-hand motorbike was within reach. From the age of sixteen, and my first bike – a 1951, 125cc BSA Bantam – until a few years after my marriage, bikes were the focus of my life. They transported me, gave me status, and taught me the fundamentals of automotive maintenance. Never wealthy, I learned to build bikes from a pile of parts, and a bike brought me Marjory, the love of my life. I taught her to ride, and we found her a Matchless G2S single. Then, of course, real life got in the way. We bought a house which needed attention, and took me away from the bikes, and children completed the process. The bikes were sold and replaced with, first, a Morris Minor, then a succession of vehicles increasing in size.
Raising a family is enormously satisfying and I can't say I really missed the bikes. There was always my son, or tomboy daughter, dangling from some recreational apparatus, clambering up a rock face or paddling a canoe. They left home and moved away to where they could find work. Married, and presented us with gorgeous grand-kids.
Then Marjory died. One of those weird problems with neural transmission; her heart just stopped. I found her in a cold heap in the bedroom, a bundle of clothes for washing scattered around. Carly and Dave, their partners and the kids rallied round. We buried Marjory, after a post-mortem, and distributed keepsakes of hers among us before disposing of things of hers I'd never need or use.
Then, they went back to their lives, and I realised I was alone.
I dragged myself out of my apathy, and began to notice motorbikes again. Most of them seemed either too small, buzzy little things, or too big. Who needs one point six litres of engine in a two-wheeled machine?
My eye was caught by a familiar shape and name. But, hang on ... how does a Royal Enfield (ceased production sometime in the seventies) come to have a 2015 registration?
Looking closer, I could see it wasn't an original machine. For one thing, and most obviously, it had a disk brake at the front, rather than a drum. There was no carburettor, just a weird system of pipes and wires. Was that really an electric starter? The owner saw me and came over. The single-cylinder machines, of three-fifty or five hundred cc, had been built under licence in India, initially for their police force. They'd become popular and, in due course, the company had begun to import them into Britain.
In order to meet safety and environmental requirements, they had upgraded electrics, the front disk brake, electronic ignition and fuel injection, but they were essentially a nineteen fifties bike. It set me thinking.
I looked for a second-hand machine. Well, I didn't want to splash out and I'd only once bought a new one, for Marjory. It proved frustrating. Oh, they were around – just not around where I lived. Even the dealers were distant, the nearest at forty miles away. Second hand machines were at a premium. I took a deep breath and forked out four thousand pounds for a new, five hundred cc, Royal Enfield Bullet.
It was exactly what I wanted. The registration letters, ending KAO – Kilo Alpha Oscar – led me to dub the machine 'Oscar' and once I'd told the grands that was its name, it stuck.
Oscar gave me back a freedom I'd forgotten, and re-entry into the world of bikers. I couldn't go many places without finding some enthusiast salivating over Oscar. I was a little puzzled; after all, Enfields were never particularly 'cool'. Never fast. Since Oscar was new, there was no particular draw to a restored classic involved. But people came and chatted, asked questions. Were told, "Oh, top speed's supposedly eighty-five. Fifty's comfortable. Mileage? Oh, up to ninety miles per gallon. Acceleration? Enough. Vibration? Oh, yes. Kick start? Yes, one of the attractions. I still use it most of the time; first kick usually."
I gave her my full interest. Let's see if I can convey the impression she gave. She obviously took care of herself; she looked slim and fit. Curves, just not many. Dark hair, going grey. No make-up. Smooth face, with laughter-lines, straight nose, generous mouth. Wide-set, dark blue, eyes. Fitted, worn, blue jeans and denim jacket over dark blue t-shirt.
I put down the helmet I was about to put on, took the key out of the ignition and unzipped my jacket – worn soft, black leather – slipped the small rucksack off my back. "Hi," I said, "Ted Burgess."
She took my hand and shook it firmly, her hand smooth, dry and slightly calloused. "Nita Tomlinson," she responded. "Sorry to delay you."
"No problem. I'm not on a schedule," I reassured her.
"It's just I used to have a three-fifty Bullet, years ago. How is it you've got a new registration?"
"Oscar's new," I said. "Just four weeks old. Well, four weeks since I took possession. These bikes are made in India. If you look closely, you can see the changes."
She squatted down and peered into the works. "Left hand gear change," she commented. "I never rode a left hand change. Fuel injection?"
"Yes, and electronic ignition."
"Electric start," she went on, not entirely approvingly.
"Rarely use it," I said, defensively. "Just from time to time when I turn off the ignition in traffic and he doesn't start first kick, it helps prevent panic."
She smiled. "You're very honest," she commented. "Few bikers I knew would admit to panicking."
"You probably didn't know many bikers my age."
"You're not so old, are you? Fifties?"
I laughed. "Thank you! No, sixty-six."
She smiled too. "You've worn well."
"Good genes and a good marriage."
"Does your wife ride too?"
"She used to. She died six months ago."
Her face fell. "Oh, I'm so sorry. Trust me to put my foot in it."
"Not to worry. I mentioned her first, and she's still with me in a way. But we hadn't been on a bike in years, either of us. If she hadn't died, I doubt I would have bought this one..."
"Are you going far?"
"Not far now. I've come from Suffolk, and I'm on my way to Sheffield. Fifty miles or so."
"Sheffield? Whereabouts? I live in Walkley!"
"Well, well. I live in Broomhall. Just down the road from you!"
"Perhaps I could have a ride sometime? Pillion, that is – I don't think I want to take charge of a bike nowadays."
"Sure!" I dug in my wallet and found a card, which I handed to her. "Give me a call."
"I will! I'll let you go now. Go safely!"
I did. The last fifty miles took about an hour and a half, with Oscar thumping happily away. I rolled him into the garage, and carried my pack indoors.
I didn't give Nita a second thought. I ran the checks on Oscar – nothing to do – washed him and polished his chrome.
It was one of those rare – for Britain – summers, with sustained sunny days and high – for Britain – temperatures. Reservoirs shrank in size and hose-pipe bans were enforced. Riding Oscar was one way of finding a cool breeze and I joined other bikers in riding around in helmet, t-shirt and shorts, boots and gloves. Then, one Thursday evening, I got a call.
"Hi ... it's Nita Tomlinson. You gave me a card – we met at Grantham Moto."
"Hey, Nita. Good to hear from you."
"Any chance of that ride? This weekend?"
"Sure! Anywhere in particular you'd like to go?"
"Country, and water. Somewhere cool."
"Rufford Park? Clumber?"
"Either would be great!"
"Have you got any gear? Helmet?"
"Yes. The helmet's well past its use-by date, but I expect it's good enough to keep the law away."
"Saturday morning, then? Eight? Nine?"
She chuckled. "I think nine is early enough for me. My treat for lunch."
"Fine – I'll see you then."
Clumber Park is a National Trust estate, just off the A57 near Worksop. Rufford Country Park belongs to Nottinghamshire County Council off the A614 near Ollerton. They're a similar distance, under thirty miles, from Sheffield, but I prefer the A616 to Ollerton to the A57, at least when riding a motorbike. I rode up to Nita's address just before nine, drew up outside and levered Oscar onto his stand. I didn't get to knock on the door, though, because it opened before I reached it.
She stood in the doorway, slim in black jeans and a faded t-shirt bearing the 'Royal Enfield' logo. The legs of the jeans were tucked into black boots and she held a pair of gloves in one hand and a red open face helmet in the other. Her hair was pulled back into a ponytail, and she was smiling. "Morning! Thank you for this," she said. "There's no rain forecast, so I'm taking a chance."
"So'm I," I told her. "We're only going thirty miles or so, so if it does rain, we can always dry off when we get home."
.... There is more of this story ...