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19th December 2014

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Classic Christmas Fiction: A Motorcyclist's Tale

As has become traditional for the festive season, now's the time to settle down for a ripping yarn. Matt Swindlehurst tells a spooky motorcycling story...

Back in the mid-70s I used to go to the Easter Rallies, organised by the Ariel Owner’s Club Yorkshire section. Held up high on the moors, above Horton in Ribblesdale, there was usually snow, it was always cold, and a big fire was the order of the day. 40 years ago we used to still get some of the original owners down to the rallies. Although not big club men they liked to keep in touch with the new generation of Ariel enthusiasts.

At the Easter Rally, an old boy who was known only by his nickname ‘Slidevalve’, would ride in on Saturday morning on a pre-war VB outfit he’d bought when nearly new. He’d stay the night and then leave early Sunday morning. He always had a tale to tell, usually regarding various bodges to keep us on the road.

But one year it was different. In 1974 there was bad snow and reduced attendance. For some reason I found myself late into the night, alone by the fire. Suddenly Slidevalve sat down beside me.

‘Before we turn in I’ll tell you a tale to think about as you go to sleep. Happened to me 30 years ago, never told a soul until now but it needs to be passed on. Interested ?’ I certainly was, but instead of the usual tips on ‘getting home’ he told me instead a tale that I’ve never forgotten.

‘Back in the war,’ he began ‘I was based in Bedfordshire, working as a linesman for the GPO. I’d moved down from my home in Yorkshire to ‘play my part’ and was in digs in the village of Clapham. Like a lot of local lads I’d played a bit in brass bands back home. My original instrument was the BB Horn, but down there I’d started playing trombone so I could earn some extra money, playing for village dances in a local band.

‘A couple of weeks before Christmas 1944 we’d picked up a Friday night dance in the village of Milton Earnest a few miles north. On the day there was thick fog, coupled with freezing temperatures. I was riding the VB outfit, instrument and dinner suit in the chair, and set off around tea time.

‘The bike took a while to warm up but after a few miles I opened the choke and skirted the local airfield before continuing north. Got quite a shock when a plane taking off came out of the fog and across the hedges in front of me. I remember puzzling as to its make. It looked a little like a Lysander but the nose seemed longer. It disappeared before I could work it out.

‘About twenty minutes later I heard a sudden rattling, coupled with bad vibration through the handlebars. I stopped, to discover the sidecar wheel had punctured. Out with the tool kit and after half an hour of steady cursing the job was done, not helped by a transport lorry nearly hitting me as he came out of the thick fog.

‘I went back round to the bike and realised with dismay that my gloves, which I’d stuck between the saddle nose and the petrol tank, were gone, blown away by the draft from the passing lorry. I’d no spares and realised I’d just have to manage.

‘The fog got worse and I could feel the wheels sliding on the icy surface. As my hands froze I became less able to respond and eventually the inevitable happened. The outfit spun and the sidecar wheel dropped into the roadside ditch.

‘Try as I might, I couldn’t shift her. It was now dark and the freezing fog had cut all visibility down to a couple of feet. I strained to listen for any coming traffic but knew that the chances were slim. After ten minutes or so I could feel the wind chill getting under my jacket and thought about getting into the chair.

In The Mood for Christmas
Sidecar Outfits on ...

‘Then a quiet voice from nowhere. “Hey buddy, you need a hand?” Out of the fog emerged an American serviceman dressed in a great-coat, fur hat and, I noticed enviously, a thick pair of gloves. “Gotten in a mess huh?” I nodded in agreement. “Let’s see if we can give it a go”.

‘I started the bike, dropped it into first on full retard and, with both of us pushing, back onto the road she came. I’d a Thermos flask in the chair and poured us both a cup. He grinned, and pulled a hip flask from out of his pocket, liberally lacing the hot tea. We leaned against the chair and enjoyed the fleeting warmth. He nodded to the sidecar. “Saw the case: trombone player huh?”

‘I nodded. “Professional ?” “I wish !”

‘He drank back the dregs of coffee, wiped his glasses then turned to face me. “I have to go now”. He suddenly saluted and I automatically saluted back but then he did the strangest thing. He reached out with his other forefinger and touched it, not to his lips, but to mine, in the universal sign for keeping quiet. Startled I jumped back and blinked. When I opened them again he had gone. No sound, no movement, nothing except the icy tendrils of fog blowing across the landscape. There was a sudden chill, not like the cold of the icy weather but something deeper, something more permanent, as though a gaping hole had just appeared in the world.

‘I got back on the bike and started her up. I was about to pull away when something on the sidecar roof caught the corner of my eye. I stopped and reached over.

‘A pair of gloves lay neatly folded. American issue flying gloves. On top of them was the hip flask. I made use of both of them that cold winter’s night.’

The old man suddenly stopped. He caught his breath and seemed to stare into the dark, far away across the bleak Yorkshire Moorlands. I felt a cold chill and we both leaned forwards to catch the dying embers of the fire.

‘One more thing,’ he said quietly. I nodded. ‘That night I played like I’ve never done before or since. Every note seemed to take on a purity and quality of its own. I found notes I’d only heard others play and even though it was only a little village dance, for a time it felt like we were in the finest ballroom in Europe.’

He leaned back and produced a battered hip flask. ‘Night cap?’ I took a shot of what I thought would be Scotch. It was Bourbon. I went back to my tent and slept with troubled dreams.

In the morning Slidevalve had gone. Tent packed, nothing left but the impression by the fire where we had sat. Strangely he never came to any more club events, his bike never came on the market. Another rider gone, moved on, taking his memories with him into the dark.

But I’ll never forget that night, that story. And I’ll never forget him passing over that battered hip flask and me turning it over to read the initials that my gut instinct told me would be there but which every fibre of me dreaded seeing. That was forty years ago and I’ve never told a soul. Until now.

In The Mood for Christmas

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