The school door opened and the teacher, a middle-aged, plump, cheerful woman stood there holding it open. Children began filing in, greeted by their teacher. He looked down at his five-year-old daughter, Chloe, who held her arms up. He picked her up and she kissed his cheek.
"Be good," he said.
"Yes, Daddy." Then she was gone, blending into the stream of her classmates.
His six-year-old son, Robert, (Robbie, never Bobby) stood next to him, waiting for his teacher to appear. She, a younger woman, smiled at the man as the little boy (too aware of his dignity for a hug and kiss) solemnly shook his father's hand and took his turn to file inside. The man met her eyes and nodded, but his face remained grave. He watched the children disappear, turned and made his way out of the school grounds.
His children had stopped asking for Mummy, but her death in a coach crash a year earlier still weighed heavily on him. Her insurance, and the damages paid out by the coach company (who admitted liability) and Linda's employers (who hadn't) meant he had no need to work. In fact, he'd begun working from home as a webmaster, which enabled him to give full attention to the kids, while giving him something to occupy his mind. However, he'd rather have to work twelve hours a day and still have his beloved next to him.
He was almost home when a half-familiar noise captured his attention. The regular, slow, thump of a big single-cylinder motor, the bark of exhaust; he saw the motorcycle and watched it pass him, half noticing the registration number which indicated a new machine, rather than a restored classic.
Several days later he saw the bike again, parked by the kerb so he could have a good look. It was obvious on close examination that it was not a direct replica of a 1950 machine. The disc brake, of course, what looked like an electric starter, (though a kick-start lever was still present on the right side of the bike) and ... fuel injection? Electronic ignition? Looked like it.
He looked round. "Yes. Very."
"Made under licence in India."
"Really? What's the performance like?"
"Well, you don't want to be in a hurry. It'll do fifty all day. I've seen seventy on the clock, but I wouldn't want to ride at that speed for long. Of course, it's economical; I get over eighty to the gallon, usually."
"I like it." The other man paused, "A friend of mine wants to sell one like this, if you're interested."
"Could be. Got a phone number?"
When he got home, he spent a couple of hours at his computer – not working, but researching Indian Enfields – ate a sandwich, and went back to the machine to do some actual work. Then it was time to collect Chloe and Robbie from school. Chloe was out first and ran around with her friends until Robbie appeared. Robbie's teacher saw his father and smiled again, sadly, but wasn't noticed in the focus the man had for his son.
He hadn't really had time to prepare an evening meal for the kids. That didn't matter – they were over the moon to have pizza delivered – and once fed, teeth cleaned, a story read, they settled down to sleep with less than the usual fuss. He went to the phone.
"Hello? I understand you have a motorbike for sale?"
The voice which answered was clearly a woman, and sounded young. "Yes – a Royal Enfield Bullet. My big brother bought it to pass his test, but now he's touring Europe on a big BMW. I've got his Power of Attorney, though, so I can act on his behalf. It's eighteen months old, dealer serviced, two thousand miles on the clock. He wants three thousand pounds."
The man thought about it. It seemed a fair price. "Can I take a look?"
"Of course." She gave her address, several miles away. "When?"
"Tomorrow morning? Ten ish?"
"A little later would be better for me. Eleven?"
"Fine. See you then."
The following morning, he set off in his car to look at a motorcycle. For the first time in a year, he was feeling a tingle of anticipation, though he didn't register the significance.
Ringing the door-bell, he was greeted by a young, fresh-faced woman with short auburn hair, dressed in a black t-shirt bearing the head of a wolf, and faded jeans.
"Good morning. I'm David Evans, about the motorbike?"
"Oh, hi, Mister Evans. I'm Sheila Walsh. It's my brother's bike, as I said. This way," she indicated with a wave at the garage door. He stepped aside and followed her as she fumbled for a key. Eventually, after some muttering, she found what she was looking for and the door swung up out of the way. She indicated a motorbike with a wave. "Oscar," she said.
"Yeah. My brother's a softy, really. He named the bike right away."
He noticed another machine tucked away at the back of the garage. She saw the direction of his gaze. "That one's mine. Kawasaki Ninja. A bit faster than Oscar. Uses a lot more petrol, though."
He looked at her speculatively, but didn't comment. "Can I take a test ride? I'll leave my car keys."
She shrugged and handed over keys. "You'll need to take the disc lock off."
He nodded, and knelt to remove the simple device from the front brake disc before going round the machine testing bearings for play, chain tension, lights and so on. He didn't find anything wrong, not that he expected to. The motor, when he got to it, started third kick and there were no untoward noises. He switched off and fetched his helmet from the car.
"I'll need to replace this, I suppose," he commented, as he put it on.
That time, he used the electric start and the motor started immediately. He sat for a few moments, getting the feel of things and letting the motor warm up, then pulled the clutch and kicked Oscar into first gear.
It'd been over six years since he'd sold his last bike and he was a little awkward, so he didn't rush. In fact, it was several minutes before he even reached fourth gear (of five). In the city he wasn't going to need top gear anyway. Satisfied, he returned to his starting point.
He rode the machine into the garage, switched off, and levered it onto its stand before removing his helmet. "Three thousand, I think you said?"
"I'm not going to haggle – that's a fair price for the age and condition. A cheque okay?"
"You can give me a call when it's cleared. I need to buy a new helmet – other stuff too."
"I could deliver him, if you like?"
"That'd be great! Thanks. Just give me a call to make sure I'm at home. I do work from home, but obviously I have to go out occasionally."
The cheque cleared quickly, and Oscar, with Sheila Walsh aboard, arrived mid-morning two days after the first meeting.
"Hi! Thanks for this. Got time for coffee? Home-made flapjack?
"Um ... why not? Thanks!"
He rolled the bike into the garage next to his car, and showed her into the house. "Let's sit in the kitchen, if you don't mind?"
"How do you like your coffee?" He was busy with the coffee maker as he spoke.
As the black stuff was dripping through, he heated milk and used a little device to make it froth. It probably took five minutes before he placed a cup in front of her, but neither noticed the time as they were too busy chatting.
They sipped, in a comfortable silence.
"Um..." Sheila paused and swallowed the last of the coffee.
"Oh ... um ... yes, please. Um..." she watched as he heated and frothed more milk, poured coffee and added the milk. "David..."
"That's my name," he smiled, but not meanly.
She coloured, but went on, "Um, might you like some company sometimes, when you're riding, I mean?"
He nodded thoughtfully. "That might be fun."
"Good. I'm a student, so I have free time sometimes." She took a bite of flapjack. "This is good. Moreish."
"I like to make it."
They finished the snack and David was tempted – very tempted – to offer her some lunch, but chickened out and offered her a ride home. Not having licensed the bike in his own name (recent changes in the rules prevented a direct transfer) he had to use his car.
When he left her, he didn't go straight home, but drove out into Derbyshire and parked up in the Longshaw car park. In the visitors centre, a motherly woman recognised him.
"Hello! It's been a long time since you visited us. How's Linda?" She saw his expression change, saw the pain there. "Oh, I'm so sorry..."
"She was in that coach crash last year."
He shrugged. "It's getting easier, a little. Could I have quiche, salad, Darjeeling tea?"
"Surely." She busied herself with a tea pot, hot water... "you don't want milk, do you?"
"Of course. If you'd like to sit with your tea, Denise'll bring your quiche over in a few minutes."
Arriving home, he formally contacted DVLA to inform them of the transfer of ownership and to arrange the road-fund tax from the beginning of the next month, May, there being no point in paying a month's tax for three days' use. Then it was time to collect the kids from school. Robbie was much more impressed than his sister with the bike, though she liked the idea it had a name.
Once the tax was valid, he first pottered around for half an hour or so at a time until he felt confident of the machine and his ability to control it, then, two or three times a week he made longer forays into the country while the kids were at school.
Sheila Walsh couldn't get the image of the tall, grave-faced man out of her mind. She went to lectures and seminars, worked on assignments and studied, if anything more assiduously than usual, but every time she took a break his face was there. Surprising herself, she turned down several dates she would normally have accepted.
Two weeks passed and she told herself he wasn't going to call. It went against the grain to take the initiative – she told herself that offering to ferry Oscar was a special case – and argued with herself for another couple of weeks before lifting the phone one evening.
"David Evans." Having previously called a land-line, he didn't recognise her mobile number.
"Oh – David? It's Sheila. Sheila Walsh. I was wondering, you know, if you had thought of a ride in company... ?"
"I confess, it had slipped my mind. I've just been getting used to Oscar; you know, short runs. I'm a bit limited, as I have to be back to collect my kids from school."
"Oh. Um. I didn't know you had children?"
"Two, Robbie's six and Chloe's five."
"Well ... might you? Be interested?" She wondered at herself. Pursuing an older man? He must be thirty or so. (Actually, he was twenty-eight). With children? Was he divorced? "Forecast for tomorrow is good and I haven't any lectures. I was thinking of visiting the gardens at Harlow Carr, but that might be a little far for a short day. What about the Yorkshire Sculpture Park?"
He thought for a moment. "Sounds good. Treat you to lunch in the restaurant?"
"Wow! Yes, please. Shall I meet you at your house?"
"That would be good. Say, nine-thirty? Give me time to get home and ready?"
"It's a date!"
Both of them thought about what was happening and wondered that they'd suddenly changed; both a little worried that the situation was running away with them. David worried that he was, perhaps, not honouring Linda's memory, a thought strengthened by Sheila's throwaway parting comment. Sheila, unsure of the wisdom of inviting the possibility of intimacy with this older, somehow fascinating, man.
However, she was there punctually at nine-thirty, and he was outside with Oscar, holding his new helmet in one hand and a pair of gloves in the other. Oscar sported a tank bag, which Sheila assumed (correctly) contained rain-wear.
They set off. The Sculpture Park is set a few miles off the M1 motorway, north-west of Barnsley, the motorway being the quickest and easiest route. However, it is far from the most interesting unless your only concern is covering miles quickly. Besides, on a bike with a fifty miles per hour cruise, a motorway is probably not the best place to be. They took the A61, then the A629, turning off onto the A635 then the A636 to Bretton Hall and the sculpture park, which took a little more than an hour to cover the thirty miles. They then spent an hour or so wandering among the artworks. David was not over enthusiastic about the abstract character of much of the sculpture, but Sheila was knowledgeable and interesting, and her personality, lively, though without being overbearing, lifted his spirits.
Lunch, accompanied by more – much more – conversation, was good, and they set off back to Sheffield at half-past one. Sheila didn't follow him all the way, but peeled off as they neared her home. David noticed the difference, riding alone. He was home in good time.
Before his wife, Linda, had died, they were both working and it had been necessary to make arrangements for child-care, one aspect of which was provided by the school in the form of a breakfast club and an after-school club. The kids liked both, and he'd been in the habit of continuing the arrangement but only one day a week. So, a few days after the outing to Bretton, he called Sheila Walsh again to arrange another outing.
Having almost all day, they rode the sixty miles to Harlow Carr, in Harrogate, and wandered the gardens. Sheila produced a compact camera and photographed the willow sculptures dotted around the grounds. He watched with interest.
"I hope you don't mind?" she asked, after a while. "I'm writing an assignment on transient art. You know, sand sculpture, this sort of thing with materials which won't endure, graffiti, street art. It's quite different to bronze or stone sculpture, or paintings which are intended to be kept."
"Not at all. I've never asked about your degree."
She shrugged. "Fine Art," she said, "but I'll be working in advertising, probably, when I graduate. Unless I get an in with an architect. Murals and frescos would be fun to do. I might go for illustration, though I think the market is limited. I don't think I want academia."
"Do you work in digital media at all?"
"Oh, yes, sometimes."
"You might be interested in working on graphics for websites. The art element, I mean."
"Hmm." She hummed, thoughtfully. "How would one get into that?"
"Websites are what I do. We could discuss it." Then, at her expression, went on; "don't get too excited. I don't know if what you do would fit in with what I do, and I've never worked with original art. But I think there are possibilities."
Anyway, she came – met the kids, who loved her instantly – and they talked. As a result, she did some work which proved to be perfect for what was needed. They continued to ride, usually once a week, and he began to realise, firstly that he was very attracted to her, and secondly, that the idea of getting close to another woman wasn't raising the spectre of guilt that it had initially. In fact, that Linda would probably have approved. However, the age gap, if only eight years, was still an issue – to both of them. Yes, she was realising that she was attracted to him, too.
It got into late June, and they were still tiptoeing around each other. They were in Matlock Bath for the day, and chatting over a lunch-time sandwich, when he looked at his phone. He'd missed a call – well, you can't very well even hear the ringtone with a helmet on, and he'd never got into finding a headset that would fit in the helmet – from the school. He rang back immediately, with an apologetic look at his companion.
"Oh, Mister Evans ... thank you for ringing back. We thought you needed to know that Chloe was a little off-colour and the nurse felt she should go to the hospital to be checked out. Miss Bhargava, the TA, is with her."
"Th ... thanks. I'm in Matlock, though, but I'll go straight to the hospital. Children's?"
"Yes, that's right."
He punched the call off and sighed.
"Yes. Chloe's not well, apparently, and the school were worried enough to send her to the Children's Hospital." He stood. "Sorry, but I need to go."
"Of course you must. Is there anything I can do?"
"I don't know, Sheila. I may need some child-minding, if you can do that?"
"Surely. The school know me, so I could pick Robbie up."
"He's okay until five, at least."
"But he'll be worried, I'm sure, if they've told him his sister's ill."
"Good point. Let's get me to the hospital to see if Chloe's okay, then think about how best to go on."
They rode together to Sheila's house, where she left her bike, then she rode pillion to the hospital, left David, and went to the school. David went in to the Hospital reception, where he was directed to ward M2.
"I'm David Evans, Chloe's father."
The nurse at the desk smiled at him. "Oh, Mister Evans. Chloe's very ill, but the school got her here promptly and we have every expectation that she'll be fine. You'll want to see her, of course, but she's not conscious just now and she's in a low stimulus room."
"She has meningitis. Bacterial meningitis, which is normally very dangerous, but although it's hit her hard and quickly, we're giving her IV antibiotics and she will be fine in a few days, I promise."
He swallowed, eyes prickling. "I can see her?"
"Of course. Just be quiet."
The room was dimly lit, and with the door shut, very quiet apart from a little sound from a machine regulating an intravenous drip. A pretty, dark-skinned girl in a patterned sari, red bindi on her forehead, sat next to the child, holding her hand. She looked round and stood, stepped up to him and spoke quietly. "Mister Evans? I'm Devi Bhargava, Missus Mitchell's TA."
"I'd say I was pleased to meet you, if I wasn't so worried about Chloe."
"Of course. I can stay for a while if you wish? Unless you need to make arrangements for your son, I will go?"
"Please, stay. For a while, anyway. I'd like to make sure Robbie's settled and okay before I come back."
"I understand. There is no rush for me."
He met Sheila at school, and went in with her to see Robbie's teacher.
"Mister Evans ... I'm so sorry Chloe's not well. How is she?"
"Unconscious just now, but the hospital assures me she's going to be fine. Thanks, that is, to the school's prompt concern."
"That's good. I'm very glad. Now, how about Robbie? You'll be spending a lot of time at the hospital?"
"Yes, I will. Miss Walsh here, - you've met, I think – will look after him tonight and get him to school tomorrow."
"Good. After tomorrow, though?"
"I'll skip a lecture or two, if necessary," Sheila put in.
"Well, if you bring him to the breakfast club, and he stays for the after-school club, that might not be necessary. But – I probably shouldn't say this – Robbie is a delightful child, and I'll happily keep an eye on him for you if there's any problem."
"Thank you, Miss Meadows. Can I have a word with Robbie?"
Followed by thirty-some pairs of curious eyes, He walked to Robbie's desk and squatted beside him. "Hey, Champ."
"You know Chloe's not well..."
"Miss Meadows said she was ill and had to go to hospital."
"Is she going to die?"
"No, but she is very ill and I need to go and be with her."
"Will you be long?"
"Several days, I think."
He was frowning. "Can I come with you?"
"I'm sorry, son, but no. The Hospital won't let you in. Not at the moment, anyway."
"But you'll be at home tonight, won't you?" The man saw his son's expression and his heart sank.
"I really need to sit with your little sister, son. Sheila said she'll stay with you."
"Oh." The frown deepened, then the little boy nodded. "Okay. So long's my sister's okay."
"Good boy. When Chloe's well we'll do something nice, okay?"
"Lightwater Valley?" He perked up noticeably.
"Maybe. We'll see."
Devi Bharghava smiled as he entered the room, rose to greet him and spoke quietly in his ear. "Would you like me to come back in the morning, so you can go home to freshen up? I can be spared for a bit at school."
"Well ... actually ... if you don't mind, yes, please."
He dozed uneasily in the chair next to his daughter's bed, rousing each time a nurse entered the room – to check observations, change the IV bag, and so on. He was groggy when Devi appeared, and just nodded an acknowledgement as he left – almost staggering – out of the hospital into the late autumn pre-dawn.
He found Sheila – wearing one of his old t-shirts (which almost reached her knees) and nothing else he could see – with Robbie in the kitchen. Robbie was consuming Coco-Pops and had a glass of milk by his place.
"Slow down, Robbie."
"Daddy!" Is it only parents who experience what he felt just then as the child's face lit up? "Is Chloe..."
"She's still unconscious, but the doctors think she'll be okay, Champ." He looked at Sheila. "Thank you for this, Sheila."
"It's nothing. You've got a great kid here."
"Au contraire. It's something. But, do you need to go?"
She shrugged. "Are you going back to the hospital?"
"Yes, after a shower and taking Robbie to school."
"I've time to take Robbie if you like..."
He sighed. "Champ?"
"It's okay, Daddy. I like Sheila. She's fun."
"Thanks, Sheila, but I think I'll have a quick shower and go with Robbie, then on to the hospital. I'll call later about this evening, if that's okay?"
She smiled. "That's fine. I washed my clothes and they should be dry, so when you leave with Robbie, I'll shower too and go see what the Uni has for me today. Will you ring me later? See if ... well, you need me again?"
"Sure. Thanks, again."
Before entering his daughter's room, he spoke to the staff-nurse, who told him Chloe was showing signs of restlessness, which they though indicated she would wake up soon, so, hopeful, he went in. Devi, the pretty TA smiled. "Will I come back later? After school?"
"Can I call you?"
"Please do." She found pen and tore a page from a tiny notebook, scribbled a number, and handed the scrap of paper to him, and left. His first act before sitting was to enter it in his phone, wondering why she hadn't just got her phone out. But he shrugged, sat, and took his daughter's hand, soon drifting off into a semi-doze.
"Daddy?" His daughter's voice, faint, timorous, jerked him awake.
"Baby," his response was unsteady.
"That's okay, Baby. Sleep all you like. You've been very ill, but you're going to be fine."
"Robbie's fine. He's at school, but Sheila's been looking after him. He wants you to be well."
"I like Sheila." Slowly, drowsily.
"Good." She slept again. He went to the nurse station and spoke to the staff-nurse. "She woke for a couple of minutes, but she dropped off again."
The nurse smiled. "That's good. Now, you'd better get back in there in case she wakes up again."