A biker raised his hand as he passed. Simon nodded in reply, and smiled inside
his helmet. It was nice to feel part of a big family. He felt that help was
always there should something go wrong. And if something did go wrong, he would
need help. Much as Simon loved his little Cagiva 125 – neat, stylish,
and fast – he hated tinkering with it. He could handle the routine maintenance;
that was a necessary evil that prevented anything – himself included –
falling off. But tuning the engine, changing sprockets or chains, any jobs of
that nature, he could not do.
Another bike, two up, sped towards him. As it passed – a Motoguzzi, Simon noted – the pillion passenger nodded. Simon nodded back. Simon would love a Motoguzzi. Or a Laverda. Or a big BMW. However, he was still constrained by law to 125cc. But one day...
One day, I might fly down miles of dual carriageway to Wiltshire on 1000 gently throbbing cc of metallic silver BMW, warm and dry behind the integral fairing, comfortable on the fat, well-cushioned saddle.
Instead, Simon's little bike screamed its heart out into the Berkshire evening, screamed its way towards Wiltshire.
The next morning, Simon screamed back towards Berkshire. He looked at the
rev counter. The needle hovered at the boundary between the yellow and red zones.
The engine thus screamed sweetly, and did not complain. It was a beautiful summer
morning, all blue and green, cloudless, with the warm sun already high in the
He crossed the flyover at Bullington Cross (no longer a cross, no longer even a roundabout) and rode down into the dip. Simon's mind wandered, remembering the cross as he had known it for so long, as a roundabout, then trying to imagine it as it once must have been – the crossing point of the London-Penzance road and the Winchester-Oxford road. At the crossing of the muddy tracks the pub would have stood, as it still stands now, offering rest and refreshment for the travellers who had guided sweating, panting horses that had dragged heavy wagons along the road. Was the pub that old? Perhaps…
The engine was complaining now. Simon looked at the speedometer. Ninety-two miles an hour! He looked at the rev counter. Nearly 10,000 revs! Shit, he thought, trying to imagine the single piston thrashing up and down the cylinder 10,000 times a minute – 166 and a bit times every second. Throttling back, he tried to imagine the forces acting on the structures that made up the engine, imagining, easing back the throttle, imagining...
…going down the incline, throttle wide open, the engine shrieking at its burden, the needles of the speedometer and rev counter near their limits, and Simon revelling in the speed, the engine's whine, the wind against his body, the countryside a blur of green at the periphery of his vision, and ahead of him the black strip of road, white lines, cats' eyes. Then, under the strain, a gear breaking in the gearbox. Cogs disintegrating, jamming other cogs, the back wheel locking, the rubber squealing, burning and melting, the bike bucking and kicking, and, before Simon has time realise what had happened, before he can think to pull the clutch in, the bike sliding uncontrollably from beneath him. Simon sliding and rolling along the asphalt, leaving a thin film of cotton, polyester, nylon, rayon and finally skin on the road, still able to see the motorbike, just ahead of him, sliding and bouncing on the road, sparking where metal meets asphalt. Just before hitting a roadside tree at forty miles an hour and dies, he sees the motorbike careering across the central reservation and crashing beneath the wheels of a truck…
… arriving at the roundabout fast, looking left, looking right. The roundabout clear. Looking in the mirror – there's an Audi close behind. Bringing the bike into the kerb, keeping the throttle open, leaning the bike to the right, glancing in the mirror, cutting across to find the straightest line. Then the front tyre failing to find grip on the thin slick of oil that Simon only momentarily sees as an asphalt rainbow. The front wheel sliding away from him too quickly to correct. Hitting the road hard, breaking his left arm. The bike sliding gently up onto the grass of the central reservation. Then the Audi catching him, breaking his ribs, puncturing his lungs. The car pushing him along the road, crushing his right leg, breaking his neck, his spine … The car finally stopping, the driver flinging open his door and scrambling to the front, seeing Simon, unnaturally bent around the offside front wheel. Tentatively, the driver removing Simon's helmet. Simon smiling up at him, his eyes open, a thin trickle of blood running down his cheek…
Simon noted that riding the bike brought out his morbid side. But then, riding a motorbike was dangerous. You are always open, vulnerable, exposed to death on a motorbike, can almost hear him breathing over your shoulder when a car pulls out abruptly from a side road, or cuts you up at sixty, or…
A motorbike sped towards him. Simon waved. The driver, crouched low over the handlebars, remained intent on the road. The pillion passenger waved. Simon recognised the Motoguzzi.
Friday evening. The warm sun was setting in a sky of pale blue. To the west,
Simon's girlfriend smiled as warm as that sun with eyes as blue as that sky.
Simon pulled on his Belstaff jacket again, pulled on his helmet, then rode screaming
away across the roads of Berkshire towards the A303. As he approached Basingstoke,
he could see a dark black could ahead of him. Oh bollocks, he thought,
and no waterproofs. On the other side of Basingstoke, at last on the
A303, he was relieved to find that the shower had already passed. The road was,
however, very wet, and already the spray from the front wheel had soaked through
his boots and into the bottom of his trousers. There was little he could do
to mitigate his discomfort, so continued down the shining, slick, ribbon of
road. Ten miles west of Basingstoke, the road was still wet, the sky was now
blue, the cloud was distant, and Simon's feet were soaking.
And then, the engine died. Simon changed down a gear, the engine caught, then died again. Simon coasted towards the lay-by he knew was only a few hundred yards from him. Simon kicked the engine over. Nothing. He opened the choke and tried again. Nothing. After ten minutes of fruitless effort, he sat sidesaddle, helmetless, lit a cigarette and watched the cars go by.
In the distance, he could hear the insistent, high-pitched, and inherently powerful whine of a highly-tuned motorbike engine. And it was travelling fast. Then he could see it, weaving across the lanes as slower traffic obstructed its path. He must be doing a ton, easy, thought Simon. He recognised the Motoguzzi again. Simon listened to the engine as the bike approached. It was a beautiful sound. The sound of human intelligence moulding physics and technology to produce a machine capable of travelling at such a speed. As the bike passed, Simon waved, but neither driver nor pillion passenger seemed to notice. Simon knew that, at that speed, they were probably concentrating on the road. He threw his cigarette to the ground, and tried to start his bike again. Nothing.
Again, Simon heard the distinctive note of the Motoguzzi heading towards him. He looked up to see the bike screaming along the opposite carriageway, then slowing, mounting the central reservation – there was no Armco that summer – and coming to rest in front of him in the lay-by. The pillion passenger dismounted, flicked up his visor, and came over to Simon.
"Sorry," he said, "we were doing and ton and twenty. We got to Bullington Cross before we'd slowed enough to turn around and come back. What's wrong?"
"Don't know. The engine just died on me," Simon said.
The man walked over to Simon's bike and tried to kick the engine into life.
"Not a lot there, is there?" the man mused.
He bent over the Cagiva, and appeared to do something extremely trivial to the engine. He kicked it over again. It started first time.
"There you go," he said, leaving Simon a little amazed.
"Thanks," Simon muttered.
"No trouble," the man said, before flicking his visor back down and turning back towards the Motoguzzi. Simon noted the skull and crossbones on the back of the driver's leathers, under the single word DEATH in red gothic lettering. Simon imagined a surly Hell's Angel beneath the tinted visor, all scars and speed. The pillion passenger remounted the Motoguzzi, waved, and soon they were a blur. Simon's bike ticked over beautifully. He lit another cigarette, listening to the engine. What had the man done?
Soon, he was back on the road himself, back towards his girlfriend waiting in the golden country kingdom.
Monday morning. Seven o'clock. Simon woke up and forced himself
to move. Back to the bike. Back to work. He looked out of the window. It was
another beautiful morning. Then he went to his still sleeping girlfriend, and
kissed her forehead. Then he pulled on his Belstaff and helmet. He went outside,
smiled at the world, and kicked the engine of the bike over. It started first
time. He was soon buzzing past Knook, past Stonehenge, past Boscombe Down and
up Beacon Hill, the sun already high in the sky. It really was a beautiful morning,
and Simon was lost in its beauty. The needles on the dials crept towards their
stops, and though the engine screamed, Simon did not notice, lost as he was
in Wiltshire rolling green into Dorset and the river on a sunny Sunday, clear
and clean with long strings of weed and the dark shapes of trout that were gone
in a whip of the body and the curves and slopes and synclines and inclines of
the hills and valleys and Ingrid's summer, sun-browned flesh and the undulation
from the hips and soft sigh of wind through the trees.
And then a piston ring cracked, broke into fragments, ground up and down between piston and cylinder, but Simon hadn't noticed the sudden change in engine note as he remembered lying back in a golden field with Imogen's head on his shoulder and the lark climbing fitfully to heaven riding on wind and wing and song. The engine seized, the conrod broke and, too late, Simon felt the back wheel sliding, had time to note that the speedometer showed 98mph and glory in it, and, as he slid onto the opposite carriageway, estimate that the closing impact of himself and the lorry was going to be around 150mph. Realising that there was nothing he could do peace spoke to him as metal struck metal, then flesh struck metal, and Simon's ribs crushed against his lungs, and his kidneys, liver and heart exploded in the impact, bones fractured and his brain pulped as it smashed against the front of his cranium at 120mph.
Simon stood by the wreck of his motorcycle. Grass and glass and metal were
strewn over the road. Blood was spattered over the front of the lorry. Traffic
jams stretched away in both directions. Fireman stood looking or smoking or
lounging – there was nothing they could do. The small fire that had started
when the fuel tank had exploded had soon played itself out. An ambulance stood
with its doors open. Policemen guided traffic. Then Simon saw the familiar Motoguzzi
weaving through jams. The rider ignored the policeman's signals and parked beside
Simon. Simon gazed deeply at the strewn wreckage of his Cagiva. The pillion
passenger dismounted and walked across to him.
"Not much hope of me starting that again, is there?" the man joked.
Simon shook his head. He was thinking about Imogen, his family, his friends, Wiltshire.
The rider of the Motoguzzi sat up straight and looked towards the ambulance men. Simon and the other man followed his gaze. The ambulance men pulled a black body bag onto a stretcher. Simon hated the obscene way the bag lolled and flopped around. The driver of the Motoguzzi took off his helmet and, looking at the black bodybag, smiled.
He couldn't help but smile. When you have a fleshless skull for a head, you always smile.