© Jan Green
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"I'm putting my foot down, George Simms. You're too old and fat to ride that bike to the South of France." Val handed him a pint of orange squash.
George sat on his haunches, wiping sweat off his forehead with an oily rag, and then drained the glass. The thermometer had hit twenty-seven degrees, the concrete floor was bloody hard, and his back was killing him. They had kept an off-cut of underlay when the new stair carpet was laid; he could kneel on that.
"Help me look Val, it's in here somewhere." George rummaged at the back of the garage, behind the Cortina roof rack and a half roll of loft insulation. He had kept it to make draught excluders – all that was needed was cheap fabric and a sewing machine – had even thought about selling them on eBay. Nice little side line to ease him into retirement - extra pocket money for a few road trips.
"How many times have we rowed about this George? I'm sick and tired of it." Val moved an old Pogo stick out of the way and picked up a scrap of beige carpet. "Will this do?"
George laid it beside the 1975 Honda 500-4 and got back on his knees to screw the points cover on the crank case. 'You've been having a go since I first started planning this last year.'
"Sodding bonkers, you are. You"ll end up breaking your neck and I'm the mug who'll have to push you around in a wheelchair. Trust you to be twenty years late for your mid-life crisis – you should have got round to this when you were forty, before you started with angina and needed the hip replacement."
The bike had been polished to perfection. Val, in her pink cardigan, stood reflected in the offside twin chrome silencers. George replaced the Phillips screwdriver, wiping dirty fingerprints from the tool case.
"A place for everything, and everything in its place," he said to the wall.
"Pity about your brain," Val said, stacking plastic plant pots, “where is that these days? In your boots? Seriously George, you are not fit enough for a long run on that thing. If I can't talk sense into you, I'm going to ring our Trevor, see if he can."
He supposed Valerie was entitled to her opinion. God knows she had been exercising that right for forty years. But this was his time, and 'that thing' was taking him to Nice if it killed him. Sondrine was waiting as she had been in 1968 – he pictured her looking out to sea from the Promenade des Anglais. No amount of hectoring from his eldest son or his wife was going to put him off.
* * * *
"Why can't he be satisfied with a shed? Keeps Derek out of my hair, especially since he got a kettle in there." Valerie's friend, Joyce, set their drinks down on the Formica table. "I don't know how you put up with him."
"He's been a good husband really. Always grafted, seen me and the kids right. Bit of a dreamer, that's all."
The caller, in his red jacket and bow tie, climbed back onto the podium and set the balls rolling.
"Two fat ladies," he crooned. "Four and-a one, forty-one. On its own, number seven."
"You don"t think he'll actually do it?" Joyce knocked her drink back.
"Two and six, twenty-six."
"Do I heck. I'll be amazed if he gets past the end of our street – he's out of breath bending down to put his boots on," Val smiled.
"House!" someone shouted.
"Bloody typical. Rita Parker again. It's not right – her Roger did well out of his pension – he gets twice what George gets on disability - she shouldn't even be here." Valerie slapped the Bingo marker down and took a gulp of lager and black.
* * * *
In the spare bedroom, George was booting up the PC. Dial-up internet connection took forever, but Val was loathe for them to fork out for broadband. He looked to see if Sondrine was online, eager to exchange a few words. In a few days he would see her again, for the first time in nearly forty years. He drummed his fingers on the desk – the chat room was empty. When Val got back George was engrossed in "Maps for Chaps" - lost in a world of back roads and chambres d'hotes. She came upstairs to ask if he fancied a cup of tea.
"Any luck at the Bingo, love?" he asked, transfixed on the computer screen.
She shook her head in disgust. "Did you remember to take the washing out for me?" His expression gave him away.
"Like me bloody backside," she muttered as she went down to the kitchen.
He printed out several maps and crossed that task off the list. Just the biking gear left to sort. He couldn't believe the price of leathers. Better get himself into the loft; the original ones were up there somewhere. He had gained a pound or two over the years, but with a bit of luck they would still fit. George clambered up the ladder, hauling his bulk into the loft space.
"Must get round to a bit of a tidy up here," he mused, stepping over a deflated dinghy and hitting his head on a string of floats draped over the roof beams. He'd made the floats from old fairy liquid bottles – Val saved them for months, unmoved by his pleading to swap to a cheaper brand that would run out sooner.
"You're the one who likes everything fried - the cheap stuff doesn't get the grease off," she had said, stacking plates in the dish drainer.
He unzipped a yellow vinyl suitcase that had served them well over years of family holidays. Val had given up nagging him to change it for something smarter – what was the point in buying a posh case for airlines to chuck onto tarmac from a great height? She had been unable to argue against his logic. He lifted the gear out of the case. Could leather shrink? Unfolding the black trousers he wondered that he had ever been that skinny. He could barely get his arms into the jacket sleeves, and the zip edges reached only as far as his nipples. He whistled to cover the sound of packing them back into the suitcase – no point giving Val even more ammunition to fire. A pair of studded saddlebags sat on the seat of his rowing machine – years ago he had thought about converting the loft into a mini gym, but Val didn't fancy him shaking plaster off the bedroom ceilings. George slung the bags over his good shoulder and climbed down to the landing.
"Here," Val handed him a mug professing 'World's Best Granddad', "you want your bumps feeling, you daft old devil."
"I might need new leathers," he said. Val clucked. George's obsession had become a money pit.
George shrugged. Val's unit of currency was the Bingo Night. A decent set would keep her out of Gala for a year, and that would go down like a tramp at a wedding.
"Don't you concern yourself," he smiled, remembering his secret stash behind the bath panel.
"You're up to something," she said, narrowing her eyes, wise to forty years of tricks. She had still not quite forgiven him for the night he came home paralytic from the snooker club, blaming Cliff Thorburn for keeping them all up half the night. George had tried to scale the drainpipe to the bathroom window, slipped and fallen through the carport roof. The repair had cost her the Top Rank coach trip that year – London for shopping and a show – she was the only woman she knew who never got to see 'Cats'. Poor Joyce had been forced to share a twin room with Gloria Leadbeater who snored like a trooper. Nevertheless she brought her a souvenir back.
"Not much compensation," her friend had said, handing over the 'Cats' t-shirt. "Honestly, I don't know how you put up with him."
"I'm up to nothing." George closed the loft hatch and propped the shepherd’s crook loft-hatch closer in the corner by the airing cupboard.
"And don't leave that there," Val said as she went downstairs. Sometimes she thought she would be better off without him. Was she his wife or his bloody mother?
* * * *
The leathers arrived on Friday morning, while Val was at the supermarket. The seller had clearly bought his tape measure off eBay, unless George's legs had shrunk since he last bought trousers. With a sewing machine he could turn them up and make the draught excluders. Admiring himself in the dressing table mirror, George sucked his gut in and fastened the jacket. This time next week he would be cruising down to Nice, Moody Blues on the MP3 player and the wind rushing past his helmet. This time next week it would be 1968 in his head – re-living the trip of his life along Route Napoleon to the hallowed spot where he had met his first love. He ran downstairs, Sondrine's blonde hair brushing his face, her scented breath warm on his shoulder. George tried to think of something other than Sondrine – he kept whistling – Val would get suspicious. He decided to meet her off the bus - might as well break the leathers in - and creaked down Healdwood Road like an old Chesterfield.
"Why are you walking like that?" Val eased herself off the number ninety-two, passing three shopping bags down to George. “Piles playing up again?”
The trousers were a bit tight, and the jacket was making his bad shoulder ache, but that would settle when the leather moulded to his shape.
"I'm amazed you got into this," Val tugged his sleeve. George smiled. Val's ladder climbing days were over – the loft was off limits. He congratulated himself on finding a set similar to his originals and made a mental note to hide the packaging at the bottom of the wheely bin.
"Well, we haven't all let ourselves go," he said, watching his portly wife from his eye corner and remembering Sondrine's long legs and tiny waist. It was difficult to turn his head in the ruddy jacket. Sweat was rolling down his back, soaking the lining. He had forgotten how uncomfortable this gear could be.
"Cheeky bugger," she elbowed him in the ribs, bashing herself on the jacket's Kevlar armour-plating, "you try having three kids."
They put the shopping away in silence, familiar with the routine. Val filled the fridge, while George put stuff in the pantry.
"When are you going then?" she asked, taking the lid off a carton of cream and sniffing. "Do you think this is off?"
"It"s fine," George took the carton and put it back in the fridge. "You and bloody use-by dates."
"So, when are you setting off?" she repeated.
"Thought about early Sunday – traffic should be quieter – it'll give me a chance to get the feel of the bike. I can do this," he said, as much to himself as to Val.
"Salad for tea?" Val asked.
"Do I look like a rabbit?" he teased, making Bugs Bunny faces.
"Silly devil." Val took a lettuce and half a cucumber from the last shopping bag. "I got a nice bit of Yorkshire ham too. Your favourite."
"Hold me back." George opened a bag of peanuts, managing to take a handful before Val grabbed them.
"They're for tomorrow. I"m going to ask a few people round to see you off," she said. The kids would want to see him before he went. And she would have a bit of company until she got used to being on her own. That was the last thing he wanted – a dozen folk watching as he wobbled down the street. Better have a ride round the estate later to get his equilibrium. Why were women always looking for an opportunity to put nibbles in little dishes and fill the house with unwanted guests? When he had suggested setting off early Sunday, he had been thinking of dawn, giving himself plenty of time to get down to Dover for the ferry. He might need a few long stops.
* * * *
Sunday the 24th August would be the hottest day of the year. George was up and dressed by six and in the garage strapping saddlebags to the pillion seat. Val followed him down and made breakfast while he ran a few final engine checks.
"I'm not a bit happy about this," she said, buttering bread and frying bacon. "I'm going to look a right idiot when everyone turns up later and I have to tell them you're already half way to France."
"Then cancel," George said. "I told you yesterday that I was setting off early. I'm not being difficult, love, this is a matter of practicality. It's a long run to Dover.” The sooner he reached Nice, the sooner he would wrap his arms around Sondrine.
Val looked unconvinced as she poured tea.
"At least you'll be setting off with a good breakfast inside you," she said, pulling a sheet of kitchen paper off the dispenser. She wiped her eyes and blew her nose. Waterworks. He knew she would do this.
"Val love, we have been talking about this for a year, it's hardly come as a shock," George said, lifting the sandwich from his plate. "Smashing," he added, biting into the bacon buttie.
"I didn't think you would actually get round to it – same as re-tiling the bathroom."
"I'll be back before you know it. Here," he said, taking sixty pounds from his wallet, "go for a few extra games with Joyce."
Later, on the drive, Val squatted to fasten his boot buckles, asking how he was going to manage them on his own. He would cross that bridge when he came to it. No point letting a trivial thing like buckles hold him back. The black Honda stood on the drive, chrome gleaming in the early morning sunshine. Val, still in her dressing gown, handed George his gloves. She had not lost hope - there was still time for him to chicken out – like the balloon ride the kids had arranged as a surprise for his sixtieth. Never did have a head for heights. They had instead used the voucher for a weekend in a posh country house hotel and she had come away with a huge stash of fancy soaps, sachets of coffee, a shoe horn and a lovely shower cap. George brought his helmet from the garage, holding it under one arm. They puckered their lips and pecked at each other.
"Take it steady, promise me, you barmy old bugger. What would I do without you? Please, George, think again. Don't do this." But she knew it was too late. She recognised his 'mind-made-up' look – there was nothing she could do now. George winked. "I"m sure you"ll cope., and I"m not changing my mind, love." His dream was too close to let it go now. He had waited too long. Sondrine's blonde hair had blown in the breeze of his imagination for too many years. It had taken a year to find her – the Internet was a fantastic thing – and two years of persuading before she agreed to meet. This was what he had dreamed of, laying beside Val in the middle of the night, wondering where the time had gone.
Val held the helmet and stood back while he grasped the handlebars. He gave Val the thumbs up sign and pulled his helmet on, sealing himself off from her. Their brick, bay-fronted semi stood behind him, solid and unforgiving as the road stretching out before him. Soon the lush French countryside would embrace him and take him back to happiness.
"You be careful," Val had that whiny tone in her voice, even before he had started the engine.
He gave her a leather-clad biker's wave, stiff and from the elbow, and set off.
A surge of euphoria almost tipped him off as he leaned into his first bend, by Mrs. Johnson"s bungalow at number ten. He had actually done it. Twelve months' arguments were behind him and he was on his way. The full-face helmet squashed his fleshy cheeks and the trousers were cutting him in two, but none of that mattered. Nice, and Sondrine, were just hours away. This was what it felt like to be George again, not just Val's other half, and he liked it a lot. He wheeled onto French soil at 6pm, abandoned the planned overnight stop and sped on into the night. The empty roads sang beneath his tyres and took him closer and closer to Sondrine. Just after dawn he stopped to refuel again and grab a snack; knackered but happier than he had felt for years. He broke out in a sweat - it was too late for second thoughts. Helmet hanging from his arm, he leaned forward and lifted his right leg to mount the bike. A giant tourniquet encircled his chest, squeezing the breath out of him. Pain shot down his left arm like someone lighting a gunpowder trail, and he fell to the ground, hitting his head on the footrest. A trickle of blood seeped onto the concrete forecourt. George was aware of a strange noise in the distance – a moaning sound – and the rapidly darkening sky as the world closed its doors.
* * * *
Trevor had stayed overnight. Younger sisters Janine and Marie were on their way, once they had farmed the kids out to sympathetic child minders. The morning of the funeral Trevor left his mother in bed and crept downstairs, picking the post off the hall rug and leaving it on the telephone table. At nine thirty he went out to mow the front lawn. Apparently dad had promised to do it before he left but, typically, had conveniently 'forgotten'. Wasn't that how it had always been?
By half eleven Val, dressed and ready for the waiting limousine, went to fetch her best coat. It hung in the oak wardrobe next to George's old Crombie. How many years had she been trying to get him to chuck that out? And now she couldn't bear the thought of parting with it. She gripped the bottom of one sleeve, like a child holding hands in a scary walk through the woods. Whose hand would she hold now? Val stared at her wedding ring. She was in front of the hall mirror when she noticed the postcard poking out between the gas bill and a pile of condolence cards on the telephone table. Winded, she picked it up and sat on the stairs to read. George's wobbly handwriting screamed in her face.
“There's a letter in the desk drawer explaining why I had to do this Val. Hope you can forgive me. It's beautiful here - funny how things work out. Love George.”