Lugging shopping up the path, she leaned against the back door to open. Dumped bulging bags on the kitchen floor, exhaled with relief; the food shopping, top of her weekly chore list, was completed.
“You shouldn’t have left me alone,” her husband grinned as Olivia entered the sitting room. A grumpy “Oh” as she plonked herself down on the sofa and regarded him with a frown. She wondered when they had tacitly agreed to this division of chores. Whilst she tackled the weekly shop, her husband checked his emails and pottered about the internet.
Oblivious to her body language he turned the laptop to face her. “What do you think of this?” On the screen, a motor bike, retro in shape, glossy black with chrome trim. “It’s pretty,” she replied, wondering where he was going with this.
“What do you think to me buying it? It’s a good price.”
Olivia had long suspected that getting another motor bike, despite a break of some 30 years, was still a scratch Ian needed to itch. Walking through carparks he would dawdle by the designated MC section, mocking Harleys, admiring BMWs, and falling into nostalgic contemplation of Nortons. Yet he would also be quite vehement in his mockery of middle-aged men who squeezed their paunches into leathers and squandered their pension pay-outs on bikes they could no longer handle. But she always detected a hint of envy beneath this condemnation.
“Would you still be able to ride it?” she asked, envisioning broken limbs and worse. With characteristic self-confidence he reassured “Of course,” but then added “anyway I wouldn’t ride it without you. It would be for both of us.”
Throughout her youth Olivia had never been physically daring. She had inherited her grandmother’s gift for seeing disaster around every corner. And of course, her mother’s snobbery that regarded all bikers as common.
Now at 60 the very idea of getting on the back of a motorbike seemed reckless. However, since marrying Ian, he had opened her life up like a key. Mostly this freedom involved travel. From that first nervous flight to Crete, he had enticed her further and further afield; Egypt, Florence, New York, places that before him had just been exotic names on a map. Even flying itself was an achievement. Not from lack of courage but a crippling balance disorder. Flights meant medication and him holding her hand. But she still managed it. Largely because these opportunities were a last chance for adventure. And at its heart was the fact that she trusted him. But this new venture seemed too far, not necessarily from a balance perspective, but rather the potential for disaster.
Later that afternoon Ian rigged up an approximation of what it felt like to mount on the back of a bike. This involved a stool being placed at the end of the sofa’s armrest. She was then encouraged to hop on, get the feel of it, see if she felt comfortable. Olivia accomplished this with ease although she kept to herself the opinion that the ramshackle affair was not traveling at speed.
The garage was on the fringes of London. Ian sang along to an Alice Cooper CD, as he drove. His singing interspersed with biking anecdotes and a shopping list of biking accessories he would also need to buy. He often repeated the proviso that he would only go ahead if she felt able to ride pillion.
Olivia, however, did not share his excitement. Yet she forced herself to fake enthusiasm for the project. She did this not out of kindness but concern. Over the intervening days, the motor bike had begun to feel like a threat. Her husband’s enthusiasm resembled the rekindling of an old love.
Biking, she knew, was a way of life—a subculture alien to her. When he recounted tales of his biking years there was such a fondness in her husband’s tone. Not just for the bikes but the sense of camaraderie, the boozing, the exploits and of course the biker chicks, all straight blonde hair and tight jeans. It was this world she feared losing him to if she was unwilling to follow.
The motorbike was undeniably beautiful. And it was love at first sight for her husband. Standing in the corner of this biker’s garage, she felt her power to veto disappear. Initially the garage seemed even more the preserve of macho men than ordinary garages. However, there were differences. There was no slick showroom salesman here. The proprietor was also a mechanic, with overalls and hands grimed with oil. Tattoos snaked down his arms and curled up his neck. Inspecting the bike, Ian ran his hands over the petrol tank, scattering superlatives. The men spoke a technical language seemingly incomprehensible to her. She listened as Ian’s accent, tuned into theirs, reverted to southeast London.
Yet in fairness, she found that the men were polite to her and did not make her feel invisible as was usual in a conventional outfit. A mug of tea was handed with a grin. On learning that she had never even sat on a motorbike, the owner patted the seat invitingly “Time to try, girl.”
Olivia hesitated at first, queried whether the bike was stable on its forks, but they laughed at her naivety and reassured her of the bike’s solidity, the owner even offering her a courtly arm as she mounted. Surprisingly the padded seat was comfortable; the bar at her back offered further support. Ian looked up at her and winked. It was a done deal.
In the days before the bike was delivered, Ian pressed on with his essential purchases. Matching helmets arrived. Gone was the idea of a fashion jacket; instead, Ian insisted on kitting her out in gear designed for protection. She was offered a choice of biking jackets. and opted for the Marlon Brando look. Ian went for a round-the-neck Steve McQueen style.
Trying on the jacket was a revelation. Reinforced with steel, it was like wearing armour. Olivia doubted she would ever become accustomed to its weight. In fact, it initially made her stoop. The helmet was even trickier. Her husband gave her a tutorial on how to tighten the fiddly straps under her chin. But it was the weight of the thing that shocked her. Her neck felt like a stem wilting under the head of a heavy flower. Robust boots were selected from her shoe stash, and thick leather gloves completed the ensemble. Not forgetting of course the essential ‘rocker’ blue jeans.
Throughout, Olivia smiled and assured her husband that she would in time get used to it all. However, she began to find that her fear of being left behind in the venture was superseded by a fear of being on the back of the machine. She decided on a plan of sorts. It was simply to keep quiet when the bike arrived. Given that he was smitten by the machine, she gambled that once back in the saddle, he would forget all about her riding pillion.
A tacit understanding grew between them, that the first time he tried the bike would be without an audience. Olivia left him to it. Imagining the trepidation at 65, of seeing whether he could still handle the machine. Parked in a secluded cul de sac at the rear of the house, she watched him disappear up the path in full biking gear. Curiosity got the better of her and after a few minutes, she sneaked up the path and peered at proceedings through a knot hole in the fence. Perhaps she hoped he or the bike would fail. But in one smooth action, he hopped on the back, fired up the bike and roared off down the road without a stutter. Making her way back through the garden, she experienced a combination of admiration that he could so easily pick up a skill put down thirty years ago, but also a stab of jealously as she compared Ian’s glossy motor bike to her feral garden, which was not so rock and roll.
An hour later she heard the bike rumbling back up the road. Her husband took off his helmet, fingers automatically ruffling his flattened hair, and grinned at her “God I’ve missed that.” She watched him shed years as he explained how good it had felt. How his muscle memory had forgotten nothing. Happy for him, she nevertheless felt herself droop at his newfound passion for the bike.
Over the next weeks Ian set about learning the vagaries of local roads. Unlike a car, she learned, motor bikes are sensitive to every drain cover and pocked surface. The least thing could buck a rider off. The spring weather was in cahoots, enabling him to ride out every day. Each trip was prefixed with “As soon as I feel confident, you can come on the back.” A statement that made her stomach clench, but she reassured herself that if she kept quiet, he would forget.
Olivia found herself immured in a quandary. On the one hand she had no intention of admitting to her fear in case it ruined her husband’s fun. Part of her also wanted to seem like a fearless biker chick. However, as his intoxication with biking grew, she came to believe that if she insisted, as he rode solo, after her initial defence he would give in. It would become a hobby just for him.
“Ready then?” he sprung on her one afternoon. In a split second she decided “Yes.” Her rationale went, she had at least tried it, and it could also be a tick off her bucket list. As she armoured up, Ian acted as her squire, adjusting her helmet with care, straightening up the jacket. There was however a new rule, omitted before and rather crucial to a pillion on her virgin ride. He didn’t like to be hugged or constricted whilst he rode. “You can put your arms either side of my waist,” he conceded, “but don’t hang on tightly.” All romantic images of her embracing him as they breezed along, as couples did in the movies, were extinguished.
As she hopped onto the bike, her carefree act hid the fact her heart was pelting. She talked to herself as if soothing a small child, a psychological trick that often saw her through challenges. In fact, Olivia found that she was not as fearful as she might have been, largely because in her mind she had already decided this would be her one and only venture on the back of a bike. It was just a matter of living through this. She was not facing a summer where her stomach plunged every time her husband suggested a jaunt out.
Despite Ian moving off slowly and with care, the world still seemed to pass her like a zoetrope. Her instinct was to fumble for the seat belt. Of course, there was none. She placed her hands either side of his waist to aid balance. Her core held up; the Pilates lessons were paying off.
It was the proximity to other vehicles that dazed her. Without a car’s metal casing, she felt utterly vulnerable. The vehicles they met grew incrementally larger. She took an inbreath on first meeting a bus and then an articulated lorry. Gliding onto the dual carriage way inevitably meant accelerating. The backdraft created by the volume of traffic buffeted her jacket and her helmet. Ian kept shouting over his shoulder “Are you okay?” but concentrating on balancing and wrestling her fear meant she only managed to yell “Yes” in response.
Then came the first bend. Something else omitted from her husband’s tutorials. As the bike leaned over to accommodate the road’s curve, she intuitively leaned in the opposite direction. Apparently, this was wrong, causing the rider to wrestle the vehicle steady. “Stop resisting the bike,” Ian yelled. “Lean with it.” “Obediently, she leaned into the next bend and the road seemed to come up to meet them. It was terrifyingly counter-intuitive, yet in practice more comfortable. It became, in a way, a philosophy for the whole ride: “Just go with it.”
Motorbikes, she also learned, lacked a car’s suspension when dealing with the road’s unruly surfaces. The bike was all jolts and jars. Her bottom began to feel every pit and pock. She lost her footing on the pegs a couple of times and instinctively found herself leaning back against the bar to maintain balance.
The route Ian took was circular and ended on the empty country roads leading back to the village. It was here as the bike began to smoothly race along on an empty expanse, the wind now gently slapping her face, she found herself looking around at the landscape, and from her elevated position, noticing details overlooked from a car: a donkey in a field, a flight of finches keeping pace with them, the sea shimmering in the distance. It was at that point she suddenly felt a sugar rush of fun, let out an internal “Woo hoo” and understood for the first time the freedom a bike offered. Yes, it was scary, but it was also exhilarating This is, she thought to herself, the life.
Switching off the engine, Ian looked round inquiringly for her verdict. “It’s brilliant,” she burst out, surprising them both. Admittedly her euphoria was further enhanced by the look of admiration in his eyes, the ultimate accolade of, “I didn’t even know you were there.”
As the bike was pushed into the garage she asked, “When can we go out again?” Unexpectedly, a menage had been formed.
Fiona Sinclair lives in a village in Kent with her husband and a feral garden. Several of her collections have been published including most recently Second Wind by Dempsey and Windle press. Her ambition is to write a poem good enough to be nominated for a Pushcart Prize.