Advent Day One
December 01 2015
For The Love of Harley
‘Don’t speak,’ said Gran sharply, without turning from the computer screen. ‘I’m just about to win us a Harley Davidson.’
Beth stopped mid-sentence and swung round from the ironing board. Gran was hunched over Beth’s desk, in front of eBay, a look of fierce concentration on her face.
‘Gran, stop!’ cried Beth, rushing over and trying to grab the mouse from her grandmother’s hand. ‘You’re only on there to buy a few books. You can’t surely need a motorbike at eighty. And anyway, how are you going to pay for it?’
‘With your PayPal account, I imagine,’ said Gran, sheepishly. ‘I haven’t got one of my own. And the auction’s just ended... See? It’s mine! So you’ll soon see how I ride. Haven’t been on a bike in years.’
Beth leaned over Gran’s shoulder and stared from the screen to her grandmother and back, incredulous. ‘Gran! A Harley Davidson? Condition, used. Previous owners, two! What are you doing?’ She shook her head in mock disbelief. ‘I should have kept an eye on you,’ she said. ‘You’re always up to something!’
She straightened up and perched herself on the arm of Gran’s chair. Impulsively, she gave the old lady a hug, feeling a surge of affection for her that she certainly didn’t deserve at that minute. ‘Well… so long as you pay me back…’
Her words were intentionally light, but a seed of worry was germinating at the back of her mind. Not about the money. Gran had loads. But her mother had whispered privately when dropping her off at Beth’s house: ‘Keep an eye on her, will you? See how she’s managing. I’m a little bit worried... at her age, you know...’
Gran usually lived on her own, sixty miles away and Beth knew her mum worried too much about her. Beth knew Gran was fine. But if Gran started doing things that Mum could label ‘bizarre’, Beth was going to have trouble defending her. She pushed the thought down. This was Gran having fun, as she always had, for as long as Beth could remember.
‘Gran! What mad idea you dream up next?’ She stroked her grandmother’s cheek, gave her a friendly pat on the arm and stood up. ‘Who’d have thought it of you? A motorbike!’
Gran smiled a secretive smile, solemnly clicked out of eBay and shut the computer down. ‘You can pay for it later,’ she said, standing up and stretching. ‘We’ll have to go to the bank this afternoon and transfer some money to your account… Do you know? I’m excited. A real Harley Davidson at last!’
Before Beth could ask what she meant by ‘at last’, the old lady disappeared upstairs so fast that Beth almost imagined a draught. There was nothing wrong with her physically, at least, she reflected ruefully.
‘So what is it about the motorbike?’ Beth asked casually as they laid the table for lunch together. Sharing leisurely meals with Gran was making this visit a proper treat.
‘Oh that. It’s a long story,’ said Gran, stroking her finger slowly round the edge of a plate.
‘Well there’s plenty of time before you go home. Mum and Dad aren’t back for another three weeks.’
Beth watched expectantly as Gran tore open a roll and stuffed it with cheese. One of her earliest memories was afternoon tea with Gran – filling home-baked rolls with anything they could find in the larder of her old Victorian kitchen.
They’d always been close – more like mother and daughter really – sharing many hours together while her parents had built up their bookshop business. Now, years later, her parents were on a 30th wedding anniversary cruise. With no one living near enough if Gran needed help, Mum had decreed Gran should stay with Beth while they were away. Neither Gran nor Beth had demurred. They were like two schoolgirls in a secret society.
‘Madeira, Canaries, Channel Islands...’ mused Gran, licking a finger.
‘Stop evading the question! Why a motorbike when you said you wanted something new to read at bedtime?’
Gran looked up and grinned. Her lined face was transformed. ‘Well since your mum and dad can’t hear me, I’ll tell you how it happened…
‘I was always a bit of a tomboy, you know. Playing down the lane when I was a kid, talking to the men at the garage where my dad – your great grandad – did the accounts. I even went in to help him after school when I was older. Much better than learning how to do housework! And that’s where I met Charles, bless his heart. He was always bringing in that old bike of his. The sort with wide handlebars. Took me for a spin in it sometimes. I guess that’s when I lost my heart. He was so…’
Gran paused, as if unable to find just the right word. Beth suspected she was remembering him, the wind in his hair, the grin on his face, the noise of the bike and the feel of being a passenger on the back. ‘Sexy’ was the word that came to mind.
‘He was what they call… a smasher?’ she ventured, erring on the side of wisdom. ‘I do wish I’d met him. He must have been okay if he liked you!’
‘Oh Beth, you always know how to say the right thing! Pour me another cup, would you?’
Beth obliged. ‘So you married him?’ she prompted.
‘Oh yes. But it caused a furore of the first order!’ said Gran, gesturing with her arms to show the size of the trouble she’d caused. ‘How dare I marry someone who went around on one of those things? What was I thinking of?’
She frowned. ‘They were a bit straight-laced, you know. Wanted me to marry a professor or something equally boring. Hah! The thought of it. Where’s the adventure in a musty old university room, I ask you?’
Beth smiled. They talked on about Gran’s childhood, making third and fourth cups of tea as the sun moved round the sky, sending a sharp burst of light into Beth’s little kitchen-diner. The setting might be different but it felt as if she were young again, enthralled by Gran’s never-ending fund of stories, hoping the day would never end, and that her parents would not come to pick her up.
When they strolled down to the shops, enjoying the cool breeze that had blown up, Beth was pleased to see how well Gran was walking – two miles every day, she claimed, at eighty. Beth hoped she’d be able to do the same at that age. But ride a Harley Davidson? She didn’t think so. And some people, she reflected soberly, might even think it wasn’t quite normal to want to. But she simply couldn’t accept that Gran was anything other than in her right mind – that sort of thing happened to other grans, not hers.
Outside the bank, they paused to admire the council’s flower tubs, cascading with geraniums and busy lizzies.
‘We always used to have flowers around when Charles was alive,’ Gran said wistfully. ‘He wasn’t just a motorbike man, you know. He liked living things, too. Mind you, you’d have thought that bike of his was alive, the way he tended it!’
‘You still haven’t told me why the Harley Davidson in particular, Gran,’ Beth said. It was like pulling teeth. But she needed an answer to assuage her doubts. ‘Dad always said you were dark, difficult and dangerous. I’m beginning to agree with him,’ she teased.
‘It was his heart’s desire,’ said Gran, simply. ‘He saved up for one from the day we married. Worked down at the picture house in town. Didn’t get much pay, and then your mother came along and we had nothing to spare. But he still dreamed of owning one.’
She bent to one of the flowers and took a long moment savouring its smell. When she continued, her voice was stronger. ‘We can all dream. Sometimes you get what you dream of, sometimes you don’t. But Charles was cheated. He got lung trouble and had to give up riding. Couldn’t even manage the small bike he had––
‘Oh don’t feel sad,’ she said quickly as Beth opened her mouth to speak. ‘We had several more years and great fun. But the thing was, he never got the bike. Never got the Harley Davidson. And something’s been unfinished all these years. Well, now I’ve done it for him!’
Again, Beth felt a stirring of disquiet, much as she was devoted to Gran. But all she said was, ‘Well, let’s get on and go home and pay for it, then. Usually people arrange delivery as soon as they get the money. But I’ve no idea how they transport bikes!’
She couldn’t make herself ask what she was thinking, which was: what was Gran going to do with it? She shook her head as they went into the bank.
That night, Beth fell asleep worrying about the promised arrival of the bike in two days’ time. The owner, going by the name of ‘grimlad26’, was using a trailer firm to send it down from York. After they’d settled it by email, Gran had seemed strangely contented all evening, quietly turning the pages of a magazine, eating chocolates and humming a little to herself. Stop worrying, Beth told herself. But she was anxious and restless. As if she’d colluded with a fantasy.
When Thursday came, Gran and Beth waited, one excitedly, the other anxiously, for the promised trailer to arrive, bearing the ‘chopper/cruiser with lots of customised features and only 1875 miles on the clock’ – according to the auction details that Beth had read over and over in the intervening day. Gran seemed completely unfazed about becoming the owner of such a machine.
Teatime approached and they stood together at the chopping board in the kitchen preparing vegetables for the evening meal, hardly talking.
As the clock struck six, Beth’s anxiety turned to frustration. ‘I don’t think it’s coming,’ she said flatly, slamming the lid on the pan with the broccoli. ‘I think we’ve been conned. The man definitely said Thursday and Thursday is nearly over. Delivery firms don’t work this late.’
‘Conned?’ said Gran, looking up from slicing the carrots. ‘Of course not. We’d give him bad feedback. And why would a Harley Davidson owner con us? They’re not like that.’
‘People are like all sorts of things these days,’ said Beth, her cross mood evaporating to sadness. ‘I think––’
A sudden noise penetrated the walls of the kitchen. They froze and listened. Unmistakeably, an engine was roaring up the street, louder and louder until it could only be right outside. Then the sound cut dead.
Beth stared at Gran in the silence. ‘…we should go and see,’ she finished. Her mouth was nearly too dry to swallow.
Beth nudged protectively in front of Gran as they raced down the hall. Pulling open the door, they were faced with a swathe of shiny black leather and a space-like helmet in pristine gold and black. Beth felt Gran shiver as they stood side by side staring open-mouthed at the man on the step. He was probably middle-aged, though it was difficult to tell under all the gear.
‘Grimlad26,’ he said from inside the helmet in a warm, friendly voice to Beth. ‘Are you Mrs Bickley?’
‘This is Mrs Bickley,’ said Beth indicating Gran. The slightest flicker of something Beth couldn’t read crossed Grimlad’s face.
But Gran’s eyes were on the gleaming machine at the gate – a vision in chrome at the front, middle and back. ‘What happened to the trailer?’ she asked. ‘Well, never mind, you’re here now. I knew you’d come. But you were very late,’ she accused, lifting her lined face and glaring fiercely at him.
‘Trouble with the firm, Mrs Bickley,’ said Grimlad cheerfully. ‘So I decided to ride her down. Took a bit longer than the trailer job would have. And added three hundred miles to the clock, unfortunately. But she went like a dream. Forgotten how much fun she was. Work takes all my free time these days,’ he added regretfully.
Gran walked out on the pavement. ‘The keys?’ she asked, in a dreamy sort of voice.
‘Madam, you need a license to drive one of these! I assumed it was for your son or daughter.’
‘It was for my husband Charles, actually,’ said Gran. ‘Deceased.’ Her shoulders slumped. ‘And you’re right. I don’t have a licence. I got carried away.’
Beth saw the rapture drain from Gran’s face and an intense sadness flood into it as she walked round the Harley Davidson, stroking the leather seat reverentially and inspecting the gleaming bodywork.
Beth looked at Grimlad and raised her eyebrows, grimacing in resignation. She had no idea how to handle this situation. It was getting rapidly out of hand. But Grimlad looked her directly in the eye, seemed to understand something he read there, and slowly nodded his head.
‘Mrs Bickley, I have a suggestion, if I may?’ he said, addressing Gran’s back.
Gran turned to look at him. Beth’s heart lurched to see her face. She should have stopped this ‘bit of fun’ before it started.
Grimlad unlocked the bootbox. ‘There’s a spare crash helmet in here. Would you... sorry... May I have the pleasure of giving you a spin on the old machine, M’Lady? It would be a privilege.’
For a moment no one moved. Then Gran’s lips turned up slightly at the edges and a grin of anticipation spread over her face. ‘Would you? That would be… I mean, thank you kindly, gracious sir.’ She made him a tiny curtsy.
Beth felt as if she’d been dropped into the set of a television costume drama, except that no one in Pride and Prejudice wore leathers and a crash helmet, and Gran still had her apron on.
Three times Gran and Grimlad26 raced round the estate on the Harley Davidson, while Beth leaned limply against the fence hoping against hope that the neighbours were watching their televisions. Grimlad, however, seemed perfectly happy, and afterwards, Gran, flushed and proud, invited him in. ‘You’ve driven miles today. Let me offer you some refreshment.’
Grimlad hooked his helmet over the knob at the bottom of the bannister and stripped off his leather jacket. He took the lemonade that Beth passed him.
‘Too hot for riding really,’ he said as he drained the last drop. ‘But if Gran would like one more spin…?’
‘Gran would not,’ said Gran. ‘Thanks, but I’d forgotten how uncomfortable it is to be astride a great horse of a machine. I must have been too entranced by Charles to mind!’ She paused. ‘I bought it to honour Charles’ memory, to finish the story, so to speak. I’m not sure what happens next.’
A stunned silence greeted this announcement. Beth’s heart sank. This was one step short of crazy. How was she going to explain a redundant Harley Davidson to her mother?
‘I’m getting old,’ said Gran sadly, as they sat down to their much delayed meal. ‘Not making decisions like I used to. Must be something wrong with me to get such ideas in my head.’ She toyed with her broccoli, wiping it through the tomato sauce before lifting it slowly to her mouth.
‘There’s nothing at all wrong with you, Gran! Nothing at all,’ Beth repeated firmly, knowing it now to be true. ‘That was the perfect thing to have done for Charles. And the perfect follow-up.’
Gran looked up. ‘You know something? He sounded so like Charles when he spoke of his love for the bike that I couldn’t refuse to let him buy it back. I’d have had to be heartless.’
Beth smiled. Her ears were still ringing gratefully from the sound of Grimlad26 roaring off, to the motorway and on to York. ‘It reminded me of when I was a kid at your house,’ she said to Gran, picking her words carefully, ‘when we did all sorts of things we never told my parents about. Our secret adventures, you called them.’
Gran looked up thoughtfully. ‘You’re right,’ she said, after a pause in which Beth held her breath. ‘Some things are much better if they’re kept quiet.’
Giving Beth a conspiratorial wink, she waded into her meal with relish.
About the Author
Eleanor is a freelance writer, editor and proofreader. She has published three books for younger people and is currently studying illustration. You can commission her at www.eleanorpatrick.co.uk or read her blog at http://eleanorpatrick.wordpress.com or even follow her on Twitter @EleanorMPatrick She’d love to connect!