I'm a child of the fifties. If you are too, you don't need much more explanation. If you're not, then it would take too long to explain all the ins and outs of a simpler age. Few owned a t/v (which was black and white with only one channel) or a car. The main thing for me was the immediacy of the Second World War; it finished before I was born, but it was still a reality that affected our lives. In some ways, it was still continuing as the Cold War. I grew up – like a whole generation – with the expectation that the world as I knew it could end with maybe four minutes notice in a nuclear holocaust. Later, I added chemical or biological weapons to that, though the effect as far as I was concerned was much the same.
These days, after the banking crisis, we're hearing about 'austerity'. Well, maybe; but the fifties were pretty austere. Not that a child noticed. But this isn't a reminiscence about those days, merely setting a scene. I learned to 'make do and mend'. To this day I am happy I learned to work wood and metal, wire electrics and plumb; that I can take a defective appliance and, often, make it work. As soon as I was old enough, though, I wanted a motorbike. I couldn't afford one of the flashy, fast, high revving Japanese machines and owned a succession of elderly British ones – BSA, Triumph, Norton, AJS, Matchless ... I had a Francis Barnett once, but never again.
So, through my teens and twenties into my thirties, I rode and owned British motorbikes, sometimes several at a time. Because they were old, and parts were hard to obtain, I stockpiled – spare gearboxes, magnetos, camshafts – and kept the bikes in tip-top shape.
Then I got married. At first the missus joined in with the biking and seemed to enjoy it; we travelled around, camping mostly, going to various bike events, until we decided to buy a house.
In keeping with my history, we didn't buy a new, ready to live in place, but rather a rambling stone Victorian edifice, on the outskirts of the city, the house being almost derelict and hence cheap. My skills, acquired over the years, made learning the necessary abilities relatively easy and over three years or so we knocked the place into shape, with new floors, new wiring and plumbing and solid-fuel stoves for heating.
While in no way a 'survivalist', my background meant I liked to be able to be independent of public utilities, so we had a septic tank for sewage and could draw water from a spring on our property. A small diesel generator set meant that if the electric went off (which it did from time to time) we at least had power for refrigeration, lighting and those various controls you don't think about.
Our large garden was gradually developed into a kitchen garden so we were largely independent of commercial greengrocery, at least for staples; some things we were able to obtain from nearby farms.
Somewhere in the midst of all this, the bikes had to go. I couldn't spare the hours every weekend necessary to maintain them and as work progressed, I needed the space. It wasn't hard to sell either the bikes or the spares, though I hated to do it, and the money helped.
Once the house was ... not finished, a job like that is never finished ... sound and fully functioning, I considered trying to get another bike. Of course, what happened was family. Bikes and kids just don't go together. The classic British machines that I had because they were cheap, because they were considered out-dated rubbish, were now collectors' items and the prices were increasing exponentially. I briefly had a two-fifty Kawasaki to get to work but it proved to be unreliable, or, rather, that it needed skilled, trained attention at regular intervals, that I wasn't equipped to provide. Lottie needed a car, anyway.
I don't regret the kids – I love them and consider my life justified by their existence – but there's no denying they changed our priorities. Lottie had a Meriva mainly for transporting the kids – I bought a mountain bike and pedalled to work each day. Once Pauline and Sam were in school full time, Lottie managed to land a part-time lectureship at the University, teaching sociology. All in all, it worked out quite well. Until, that is, the Autumn that Pauline, the younger child, started at secondary school.
Lottie didn't come home one day. I worried, of course – called the Police and reported her missing – but no action could be taken, they said. I got the explanation the next day, at work, in the form of a petition for divorce. All communications were to be via her solicitor and she was not interested in any discussion or mediation. The University informed me she was no longer a member of staff, and refused to give any further details.
I was stunned. But you can imagine the kids' reaction. Actually, you probably can't. Sam listened and was very quiet and subdued. Pauline climbed into my lap and wept.
"Why, Daddy? Doesn't she love us?"
I had no answer. "I don't know, darling. I just don't know. I had no hint of this."
Her parents could tell me no more. Much later, when they did know the story, they sadly told me they were not permitted to tell me anything. Once I'd replaced the car, (my credit was good, though Lottie had nearly cleaned out our bank accounts) I continued to visit them with their grand-kids, but I never saw Lottie again and she never attempted to see her children.
Possibly the worst moment was when Pauline got her first period and woke me in the early morning with her screams. I comforted her as best I could and sent Sam back to bed. There were feminine hygiene items in the house, left by Lottie ... who had never had that talk with her daughter. So I kept Pauline off school that day and my mother came over to have a word with her.
Thus our lives reached a new equilibrium. The kids were quiet, worked hard at school and never gave me a moments' worry. I say that ... I was a little worried at Pauline's social isolation if relieved in some ways that she didn't start dating. She took on the 'lady of the house' role and ensured we always had good food in the house and clean linen. I interrupted an argument once between her and Sam over the proper disposition of dirty clothes and the putting away of clean ones. Sam and I took a long walk and when we returned he apologised to Pauline and they hugged.
At eighteen, Sam departed for Dartmouth to become a Naval Officer and a year later Pauline started University, studying computer science. When she graduated, she set up on her own – she took over the large attic bedroom and set it up as combination bedroom, study and living-room. She kept at the sharp end of communications technology and did very well; it wasn't long before I no longer had to subsidise the upgrades to our phone-line, and we were one of the first in the area to have a cable connection.
It was good having Pauline around, though I still worried a little about her social life, or lack of it, until the day she brought home Geoffrey Smart. He looked at first like your typical nerd, but I soon found he matched his surname; he was very bright indeed with a dry wit that I enjoyed tremendously. I refused to worry that they lived together in that attic room and was delighted when the time came to 'give her away' in marriage.
I was less delighted, though I hope I managed to conceal it, when they decided to buy a shop with a flat over, where they would live on top of the job, so to speak. It would be a little lonely in my now over-large house. But I still had my job and was quite used to entertaining myself with books or the occasional film.
I say I had my job ... I did until the economic downturn bit and I was made redundant. It was a blow, but I soon found I was little, if any, worse off. The firm wanted to 'buy in' my services from time to time. I have never understood how making someone redundant and paying out substantially to do it, then paying higher rates to the same person as an independent consultant, makes economic sense ... but then, I'm not an economist.
The house was paid for ... and, thanks to my background, cost little to run. I used some of my free time to maintain a kitchen garden and bought a few chickens, though I knew I would be far too squeamish to actually kill one for the table. Even with this, I had time to spare and it was thus I found myself in a part of the city I had not frequented for many years.
Johnson and Peters, Engineers, looked much as it had thirty years previously – somewhat grubby and run down. I entered and wandered among the machines standing there for sale. None of them were new. A few were modern, only a few years old, but most were the classics I had been familiar with. My eyes were drawn to a Vincent-HRD Rapide. The tag read, 'For sale by auction, Thursday 15th May' and the name of a well known, high class auction room. Next to it, a Velocette Thruxton. 'Price on application'. My heart sank. I would have loved one of the machines there, but I knew that the purchase price was just the beginning ... that there would be maintenance, not a problem, but also obtaining spares. Perhaps I'd do better with a more modern machine?
They weren't cheap, either, and the sophisticated frames and suspension were odd to my eyes. Quite apart from that, I knew that the highest casualty rates among bikers were not, as you might think, from the impetuous young, but men like myself – returning to two wheels after twenty, thirty or more years. The power and capability of the bigger modern machines were in a different class to those even of the seventies; they were just too much machine, for me at least.
"Can I help you, sir?" The enquirer was a few years younger than myself.
I looked at him. "Billy? Billy Peters? How's your father?" His eyes narrowed as he looked at me more closely. "It's been almost thirty years," I said. "I'm Ray King."
His expression cleared. "Mister King! You used to bring ... Norton parts ... for machining."
I smiled. "I did."
"Dad's semi retired and only comes in a few days each week. When he's in he's mostly in the workshop. So what brings you here?"
"Nostalgia," I told him. "I was browsing, thinking I might revisit my youth with a machine ... preferably from the late sixties, with decent electrics and brakes. But the prices look to be a little out of my range. The new machines ... well, they're not only expensive, they're terrifying too."
He nodded. "That's wise. Though with a little common sense they're as safe as any other bike."
"I was thinking of a relatively low-powered single or twin – maybe a five hundred – preferably something I'm a little familiar with."
He nodded. "What about this?" He led me to the back of the showroom, to a bright red and chrome, single-cylinder machine.
"An Enfield? I'd heard something about them – made in India? They used to be hard to keep oil in ... we called them Royal Oilfields."
"Harder than your Nortons and Ajays?"
I suppose I coloured slightly. The pressed steel chain cases of AMC bikes were notorious. "Perhaps not," I conceded.
"You'd be getting a fifties bike but with modern materials, electrics and brakes. Top speed just over eighty, but over eighty miles to the gallon. It has an electric start, but you can kick it into life just as well. As you can see, the previous owner had a dual seat fitted and racks for top-box and panniers too. Just over ten thousand miles on the clock in four years, full service record. We're asking £2749..." he paused, "perhaps you'll excuse me for a moment?" He disappeared behind the counter through a door into the workshop.
I thought. I had the money; even with an oversuit and helmet – mine was long past its use by date – I could afford it. I'd made up my mind before Billy Peters reappeared with his father.
"Aye-up Ray. Long time – how're you doing?"
I shook the extended hand. "Good to see you again, Frank. You're looking well."
"Thanks. Billy here tells me you might be interested in the Bullet..."
"I think it might be just what I'm looking for..."
He was looking me up and down and cut in. "Ray, I reckon you're about the same size as Arnie. I've got his leathers, and I'll throw them in with a new helmet as part of the deal if you don't mind second-hand leathers – they're in good nick. Want to take a look?"
I didn't say anything immediately. It was a shock to be offered a deal which would save me several hundred pounds, probably. But before I could speak, he went on.
"In fact, I'll sell you the lot for two and a half grand."
"It's a deal," I told him, before he said any more.
I left with two open-face helmets and a pair of 'Mark VIII' goggles ( the sort you see in pictures of Spitfire pilots, with each lens made up of two flat pieces of safety glass at about a thirty degree angle, and padded leather forming a comfortable fit against the face), plus a motorcycle, lined boots and those leathers. To be truthful, the leathers were a little on the large size, but I wasn't about to complain. A top-box held the spare helmet and rigid panniers hung from the frame each side of the back wheel. I rode the bike home, promising to return the trade plates the next day.
Insurance was easy enough to obtain but the tax-disc took a few days.
I just loved my new toy.
Pauline was ... a little less enthused. I persuaded her to ride pillion with me and we went a few miles into the country. After that, she reluctantly agreed it was 'quite fun' but made it clear she wasn't going to make a habit of it.
And that, my friends, is the rather long-winded explanation of how I came to be where I am and owning a motorbike designed in another age, which in turn is necessary to understand the rest of the story...
For the first few weeks, I just pottered around the local countryside, getting used to the machine, but then I gradually began to go further afield. I enjoy museums and the like, particularly ones with aircraft or a military connection. Okay, so it meant three hours or so on my obsolete toy ... each way ... but I visited Duxford, spent the day there, and was late getting home.
My next outing was to the Shuttleworth Collection for a Flying Day. I mean, they have stick-and-string aeroplanes from the dawn of flight; Bristol Box-Kite, Bleriot monoplane, Avro Triplane, and if the wind is light enough (like, flat calm) they actually fly them. Along with later, First World War, machines. It was a wonderful day. I was pretty tired by the time I got back on the road north. Tired, and hungry. So, about an hour after leaving Old Warden, I left the A1M at Peterborough for the service area.
It's laid out with various outlets in a semi-circle round a central seating area. Yes, there's Mickey D's and KFC, but also Le Petit Four and Mexicana, plus Costa Coffee. If it'd been earlier in the day, I'd have carried on to the truck stop at Stibbington, but it was good enough for me. Noisy, though; the only difference in the level of noise depends on the time of day.
I got into the building and stood for a moment. I say it's usually noisy and so it is, but I wouldn't expect to hear what I heard next – a loud, male voice exclaiming, "Well, fuck off, then ... cock-teasing bitch. You're on your own." A beefy, youngish man stood across the table from a woman who was wearing one of those Moslem headscarves – they call them 'hijab' I think. His chair toppled back with a crash audible even over the ambient noise, but he ignored it and marched out past me.
I don't know what came over me then; I walked over, picked the chair up and sat on it, a little way away from the table. The woman had her head down.
"Excuse me, ma'am," I said quietly, "are you okay? Do you need help?"
She looked up. She would have been pretty, except that the left side of her face was red and swollen and she had a black eye. It was a round face – that was accentuated by the swelling – with olive skin. A straight nose sat above full lips and between two large, dark eyes. She didn't speak, so I handed her one of my cards. "I've just stopped to get something to eat," I went on, "if you want to think about it, I'll be back in a minute." I got maybe halfway to the counter at LP4 before I had second thoughts and turned back. She was still there. "I'd rather not eat alone; would you like something? No strings, honestly."
She stared into my eyes for what seemed like a long time, then pushed her chair back and stood. "Okay ... thank you." Her voice gave me shivers down my spine; a light alto with a hint of accent indicating she was more used to communicating in a language other than English.
She chose some vegetable thing and fruit juice while I had my usual meat pie and coffee. Once we'd eaten and were sipping our drinks, I tried again. "What do you need, Jamela?"
Sometimes I'm just too clever for my own good. I have, over the years, picked up odd bits of information. I'm particularly fond of names, their origin and meaning. I had no idea what she was called – I just used a name I knew meant 'beautiful'.
She pushed her chair back, clearly shocked. "How do you know my name?"
I held up both hands. "Whoa there. I don't know anything. I just used a complimentary name at random. Jamela is your name?"
She looked sceptical, but settled down. "It is. Why are you doing this?"
"I think you need help. I may, or may not, be able to help. It costs nothing to offer."
She considered that for a minute or so. "I need somewhere to hide until I can decide what to do," she paused, "I have not got much money, and I will not have sex with you instead."
"Have you broken the law?"
I thought about it. I'll admit that what I could see of her I found attractive and I would probably not have put myself out for a man, but a man would not have been in her situation in the first place. "Will you ride a motorbike, Jamela?"
"I have no helmet."
"I have a spare."
"Then yes, I will ride."
"My daughter had an almost self-contained apartment in the attic of my house, which she used for her business and to live until she married. It has its own hygiene facilities and the door locks. You may use it for a few days until you decide what you need to do ... about whatever is wrong." I paused, then went on, "And ... Jamela ... if the injury to your face is a part, you probably ought to have some photos." I already had some suspicions as to the nature of her difficulty. "You can use a digital camera on a tripod – I have one with a time and date stamp – and you can remove the memory card and keep it safe."
She looked at me long and hard, her eyes bright with tears, and her mouth opened and shut several times as if she was trying to think of what to say. In the end, it was just... "Thank you, Mister King."