Tiger Moth 

 

‘Next time he comes up the street like that again on that motorbike, I’ll bloody ‘ave ‘im!’ I used to say.


What Bella used to say, was that it was my fault.


I’d say, ‘What?’ and she’d say, ‘If you hadn’t been so good at what you did in the war, then he wouldn’t be here to upset you,’ and I’d say, ‘No, and neither would you.’


I stopped him one day when Bella was out shopping. Nearly clipped him. He gave me some right lip. Bella came home and I told her what he’d said. She said she was surprised that he’d spoken back like that to such a well-oiled killing machine.


‘Listen here,’ I said, ‘Next time he comes blasting up the road like a maniac I’ll shove that old table leg right through his spokes.’


Bella said it didn’t have spokes. They all had alloy wheels now.
‘Look,’ she said, ‘If it upsets you so much, get in the shed and… you know.’
I did know… but I didn’t approve.
‘Here,’ she said, ‘We can’t all be good at everything. You had your Spitfires.’
‘Tiger Moths,’ I said, ‘Fairey Swordfish. Never a Spitfire.’
‘All’t same,’ she said, ‘Aeroplanes. They shoot at people.’
‘Not enough,’ I said, as he blasted that bloody bike up the road again.
‘Aah,’ said Bella, ‘But you did it so he could be free. So get in that shed and take the covers off. We’ll sort him.’


And that we did. Between us. Me and Bella.


I went down the cellar and took out this old wooden box. When I opened it, I’d forgotten that I’d greased and wrapped each individual spanner. I carried them upstairs and Bella smiled but kept on knitting, the needles batting like insect wings.


‘Here,’ I said, and pushed her hearing aid back in. She shrugged her shoulders and popped it back out again,
‘You’re going in the shed, aren’t you? Leave it out.’


I’d lost the memory of how little light there was in the shed, and how many pigeons had been in. I held my breath and dragged off the covers. When the dust cleared, instead of the rust I’d been expecting, there was this dull gleam escaping from under a quarter inch of grease. I pulled the bike out into the garden and ran in to tell Bella. She took the battery out of her hearing aid and smiled.


It came up like a dream. I put it in gear and pulled it back against what I hoped was compression. It hesitated, then this huge flywheel turned it over. I listened for the expected grind of steel on steel but it was as sweet as a nut. I took the plug out of the cylinder head and turned it over with the back wheel. The magneto was still alive. It cracked the biggest, fattest, bluest spark you ever saw.


I fetched Bella and we siphoned petrol from the car and found some engine oil on the shelf in the garage. She pushed me up and down the path until it fired. Jeesus. You never heard anything like it. Not for years anyway. Bella found the old helmet under the stairs where we’d stuffed it out of sight. Memories, you see. Not all bad ones, but we had to put away temptation while the kids were growing up. She hid all the trophies at the back of the china cabinet so they didn’t ask questions, and the bike in the shed was… just the bike in the shed. Know what I mean?


Anyway, I ran it around the block a few times until this young git with the Kanaswaki or whatever it is comes running out of the passage shouting,


‘Hey! Granddad! My dad says next time you come up the street like that again on that motorbike, he’ll bloody ‘ave you!’


I stopped in the middle of the road and closed the throttle until it ticked over just marginally quieter than a 14 pound Howitzer. I could see the sun bouncing in the windows of the houses as the shockwave hit.


Mrs. Wilkins from over the road shouts, ‘Turn that bloody thing off!’


So I did. Not wishing to be antisocial like. No more than fixing torpedoes to the bottom of a Fairey Swordfish so they could go out and sink people. I shut off the petrol and let the motor fade, reminding myself of the bucket of green dye I kept by the  door for the next time her Persian got out.
This git from up the road slouches and sidles his way down the hill and says, ‘Alright then, Grandad. What’s that?’
The bike’s cooling under me, all the bits settling like cutlery in a drawer,
‘Don’t you know, lad?’ I said, ‘Call yourself a motorcyclist?’
‘No,’ he said, ‘I’m a Biker. An’ if I knew what that was, I’d be a bloody archaeologist. So what is it?’
‘It’s a 500cc Manx Norton,’ I tell him, ‘Featherbed frame, Roadholder forks, Full Race tune, straight through megaphone exhaust.’
‘What’s that do?’ he says.
‘It beats you.’
‘In yer dreams, Grandad,’ he says.
‘No, son,’ I told him, ‘In your nightmares.’
‘Bet you I can do the M67 roundabout and back before you.’ he says.
‘You’re on,’ I told him, ‘Sunday morning, eight o’clock.’


That Sunday me and Bella were up at the crack. By the time he turned up I was astride the bike, halfway up the hill. Bella was knitting and watching from the window.
He pulls up alongside and says, ‘Go on then… kick it up.’
‘Can’t..’ I say, ‘ I have to bump it.’
‘I take back archaeologist,’ he says, ‘palaeontologist more like.’


I swung it around and freewheeled down the hill, then dropped the clutch. The exhaust leapt into a prehistoric snarl. I coaxed and warmed it into a tickover that I knew would rouse Mrs. Wilkins in under five seconds.
‘Here,’ I shouted, as he pulled up alongside me, ‘Hold this a minute, I need a pee.’
‘Crappin’ yourself, more like, Grandad.’ he shouts, as I leave him holding one end of the handlebar. He waves to Bella knitting away there in the window with his other hand.


A few minutes later, face mask on, goggles fitted, helmet fastened and tight, the cracked old leathers creaked once more over the saddle.


He raised his thumb, let go of the Norton and shot off. The Norton rolled slowly at first, gathering power under it until the clutch stopped slipping then, like a thing possessed, it leaped and roared and shook the air as it thundered ever faster towards his disappearing taillight.
The knitting lay silent as moth-wings on the window cill.
The needles piercing the ball at right-angles.


They were gone for hours. I didn’t dare ring the police. She had no tax, test, insurance or anything, except, like me, old age and long memories.


They came back in an ambulance, Bella wincing in sympathy as she helped the young git down the step, encased as he was in plaster from left toe to hip.
‘I’m sorry,’ said Bella, ‘about your bike. You shouldn’t have tried to catch me on the roundabout at that speed. They’re not made for it these days. I’d forgotten why we’d put ours away. Perhaps it’s an age thing.’


She’s been gone over a year now. But that was just like her, apologising to somebody for the trouble their own gob had got them into. I got the trophies back out since she went. Here. That was her favourite. It’s inscribed on the bottom.


‘Bella Dunwoody’
‘Fastest Woman on The Island’
‘Douglas, Isle Of Man.’
'1949'

 

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