27th December 2013
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Festive Fiction: Midnight at Packhorse Bridge
It was a dark and stormy night at the very end of the year. Roy Warren tells a tall tale which vaguely involves an old motorcycle...
The gravel drive refused to crunch in its usual way as his size 10 boots picked their way through the frozen snow towards the garage door. Instead there was just a light crackle as the most recent layer of snowflakes compressed with each footfall. The lower edge of the garage door at first failed to budge but after a couple of hefty tugs the bonding between door and ice was broken, and in he went.
The trusty XL185 Honda leaned against the garage wall. It had to share space with a BMW R100RT, a Greeves Scottish, a B175 Bantam and a T120 Bonneville, but the Honda was the bike that Eddie thought the most usable, especially in current weather conditions. The journey to work was not, after all, a great distance and if he did drop the bike it was sturdy enough that the impact would not also spread to his wallet.
Eddie wheeled the Honda out into the driveway, kicked the sidestand down and closed the garage door. A small flurry of snow fell off the roof and onto his hands, melting into icy water as it did so, as if to ensure that they never would reach a comfortable temperature after he had donned his riding gloves. With a quiet curse he wiped off the melted snow as best he could and prepared to set off. As he pulled out the choke, turned on the petrol and swung out the kickstart lever he muttered to himself: 'last day of 1979. Why do I always get to work nights at New Year?'
Of course nobody answered him. He swung his right foot down and the engine, as always, burst into life first kick. The machine gave a slight shudder, as though it too felt the cold. The Honda was fairly new and although he owned other bikes the little XL had a special place in his heart. After a couple of minutes to let the engine's life-blood begin to warm and circulate, it was into first gear and away.
The side roads were their usual mixture between tram-line type ruts and glassy tracks but once onto the main road the going wasn't too bad and anyway his trials tyres gripped well. The roads has been coated in the dreaded rock-salt that, whilst ensuring there was no ice on the road, had the side-effect of coating his over-trousers with a thick white layer up to the top of his calves and, of course, did untold harm to the aluminium components of the machine itself. He consoled himself that at least his other bikes were being saved the ravages of the winter's worst, resting as they were in the comparative comfort of his garage.
Edward 'Eddie' Scott had been 'in the job' for a little over 15 years with most of that time spent as a traffic patrol motorcyclist. Now he was on his way to work, as usual, on New Year's Eve. This year though was different. Two weeks before he had moved house and although he remained in the same police force he had moved 60 miles from his previous station and was working in a different area from before. He had an idea of the layout of the area but as it was so rural he had not had the time to learn all the highways and byways.
Eddie became interested in anything with engines as a child and was just ten years old when a kindly uncle gave him his first motorcycle. His father was not too keen on the idea but went along with it all the same. 'After all,' he would say to Eddie's mum, 'what harm can come of it, why the bike doesn't even run?' Eddie's mum was not taken in by these comments. The donor of the bike was her own brother whom she knew only too well could get just about any mechanical contrivance going. If he had given the bike to Eddie then he would also know exactly what was 'wrong' with it.
'You can't fool me, George', she would say to Eddie's father. 'If my brother gave our son that bike you can bet he'll come around shortly and effect a 'miracle' cure!'
So it was. Within days of the bike appearing at Eddie's house his uncle returned and discovered that it was nothing more than a faulty condenser on the ignition that prevented the little Villiers engine from bursting into life. What had been a nicely cut lawn at the back of Eddie's home soon became a grass track circuit as young Eddie learned how to ride. Wet or dry, summer or winter, that little James was thrashed round and round until George cried 'enough!', and arranged for Eddie to join a local motorcycle club, competing in club trials, where he later had a great deal of success. The skills he learned then were to stand him in good stead when he became a police motorcyclist.
After spending his first two years as a patrol constable, on foot beat and subsequently in patrol cars, Eddie had proved himself sufficiently to be offered a chance to join the Road Traffic Division. Having suitably qualified as a Police Driver Class One in a car he was given the opportunity to train as a motorcyclist. Thus it was that he was on solo patrol that night, the usual BMW patrol bike being left well alone given the time of day and the weather conditions, a four-wheel-drive vehicle being a far more sensible tool.
The night was crisp and clear as Tango One-Five made its way through town and out towards the countryside. Eddie smiled to himself at the irony of the late-night revellers setting out for their favourite watering hole to welcome in the New Year with family and friends, whilst he patrolled the snow-covered streets. He had his own ideas about drink-driving that he knew did not always fit in with the establishment thinking but he always felt that anyone who had witnessed the carnage at first hand, both physical and emotional, that resulted from 'one-for-the-road' would soon develop at least some sympathy with those who would see the minimum blood-alcohol level at zero.
Tonight he felt as though he was missing out on something and envied those who could celebrate in style and not have to work through as he was doing. 'What could possibly happen to me,' he thought 'that might rate as excitable or interesting tonight?'
Pushing such negative thoughts from his mind he elected to see if he could explore some of the more rural parts of his new area. As he passed the Town Hall he was amazed at how pretty it looked. A weak moon shone on the frozen water of the fountain that stood in front of the Town Hall. The moonlight seemed to reflect and couple with light from passing vehicles to shimmer and dance across the icicles that clung like crystal stalagmites from the roof and windows. On either side of the entrance doors were large Christmas trees decorated with coloured lights, frozen snow dusted these with natures' sequins. It gave him a festive seasonal flush of well-being and he wished he could have photographed the scene for relatives in Australia; somehow a barbeque on a warm beach didn't seem like New Year at all. Suitably cheered by the sight he headed out of town to see how the roads were in the country.
Flurries of snow began to swirl in the Range Rover's headlights, blown across the surrounding fields by the gusting wind and kicked up by the vehicle's wheels, sticking briefly to the windscreen wipers. It was one of those crystal clear nights when temperatures dropped and all moisture was drawn out of the air; even in the dark the visibility was perfect, broken only by the occasional white clouds of drifting snow.
The dashboard clock now read 11:15. The force radio had been comparatively quiet with only the occasional short message crackling over the airwaves, such as the result of a vehicle check that another patrol had requested, but nothing for Tango One-Five.
'It'll be a different story when the pubs start turning out,' he mused.
Then Eddie noticed a road sign, half hidden by snow, on the nearside verge that announced Hunchback Hill. It was a location with which he was unfamiliar and he wondered how old places got such names. As he climbed the increasingly steep hill, the road narrowed into what was effectively a single track due to the drifting snow. 'The council gritter doesn't venture out here too often,' he thought and, thankful for the four-wheel-drive capabilities of that sure-footed Range Rover, he continued up the hill. After some distance he became aware of a set of red rear-lights up ahead and as he drew closer they revealed themselves to be the tails lights of a blue Morris Marina, its rear wheels clearly stuck in the frozen ruts, rendering forward motion impossible.
Eddie stopped behind the Marina, switched on his blue roof lights and hazard warning lamps and got out of the Range Rover. As he walked towards the other vehicle a man appeared through the snow. 'Evening,' he called. 'Don't suppose you could give me a push could you? Got well and truly stuck in. Only a few yards to the top and then it's downhill all the way. Mind you, in these conditions going down might be worse than going up…' he chuckled. As Eddie got closer the thought crossed his mind of the likelihood of the driver having been drinking, after all it was New Year's Eve, but out there it hardly seemed that important. In any event he seemed sober and Eddie knew he would be able to smell alcohol easily in those clear air conditions. As if to put his mind at rest the driver announced; 'This would have to happen to me now. I'm the local vicar on my way to Red Fox Farm. The owner has been ill for some time and is not expected make it through the night.'
'Don't worry,' replied Eddie. 'We'll soon have you out of here.'
With that he returned to the Range Rover and from its capacious boot selected a shovel and a nylon tow-rope. He had used these often and found that the in-built stretch-and-pull properties were excellent when a vehicle's driving wheels were struggling for grip. Although it was contrary to police policy to tow stranded motorists, Eddie thought circumstances were such that a degree of common-sense should be applied. Using the shovel he moved as much snow as he could from under the wheels of the stranded car then, engaging diff-lock, low range and first gear he gently eased a path around the Marina through the snow drifts, reversed to the front of the car and attached the tow-rope.
Calling instructions to the driver of the other vehicle he took up the slack on the rope and when he felt the biting-point he gently increased the throttle open and let the big aluminium V8 engine pull both vehicles slowly to the top of the hill. Eddie had always been impressed with the low speed torque of the Buick-derived Rover engine. Cresting the top of the hill Eddie pulled into a farm entrance before disconnecting the rope.
The vicar thanked Eddie for his assistance before driving away with a large grin on his face as he shouted, 'you've certainly been the answer to my prayers tonight!' Eddie waved his acknowledgement and began walking back to the Range Rover, replacing the tow rope and shovel. This task completed he started making his way back along the offside of the vehicle. He got about level with the rear wheels when he suddenly lost his footing and slipped backwards. As he fell, his head cracked against the ice covered ground and he blacked out…
Next time: Eddie is rescued by a man with a P&M sidecar outfit, who isn't quite what he seems…
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