Cross-hatching of branches against the sky; a Beatles song warping the urban night… How little it takes to conjure his shade, dissolve the years.
I hear his whistling in the washroom echo the tune I didn’t then know. I lagged behind in everything.
It was l965, my first job. I was sixteen, spotty and shy. He was…. I never knew how old Keith was. Thinking back, he couldn’t have been so very much older – three years, four, maybe more. But he was a world ahead. He was part of the adult world I was sidling into; he was what I aspired to be. Even his spots were swarthily sophisticated.
I apprenticed myself to him: his way of knotting his tie, of leaving his collar-button undone, the way he draped his jacket, matador-like, across his arm – I took careful note. How I envied his accent, his easy adenoidal “Roight, wack!” We all affected Liverpudlian accents in those days, but ours were ersatz, his, I knew, was the real thing, his living in Slough a temporary aberration – he couldn’t have been born there.
It was hard work keeping up. I had just mastered the tie and saved up for the Chelsea boots when he soared ahead again – into leathers, zipped boots and helmet: he had bought a motor-bike. It changed our lives.
A white Ariel, it was, its distinctive front forks the classiest thing I had seen. It would be there when I arrived in the mornings, parked beside the bike-shed, still quivering. I would lay my hands lovingly on the petrol-tank, squeeze the brake-lever and dream.At five o’clock, I would watch him donning his jacket, zipping himself in while I held his gauntlets, squire to his leather-clad knighthood. Following him down the stairs, I would listen enviously to the click of steel-shod boots.
Then, while he mounted and spurred the Ariel, I would pedal off frantically to reach the road, knowing he would roar up behind me, throttle down, and with a hand on my shoulder, propel me along until, at the roundabout, with a shouted “Roight, wack, see yer tomorrer” he would roar off, leaving me prey to inertia.
One day, I let down my back tyre, pretending a puncture, hoping desperately that he would offer a lift on his pillion. He offered to mend the puncture. “Looks like a dodgy valve,” he said with an expert glance, and slid on his gauntlets. I was glad, though, afterwards. Something would have subtly changed between us. How could Pegasus have a pillion rider? My place was still pedalling forlornly behind. Besides, I would have a bike of my own one day – I was already saving. Not a white one, though, not straight off. I would graduate to that.
Something did change that summer, but in a different way: Keith bought another bike – a Thruxton 500cc – a racing job, and a battered van, transporter-cum-workshop. I felt then that I would never catch up.
Week-ends he raced at Brands Hatch. Monday mornings I would be caught up in his cloud of esteem, sitting on his desk as he relayed the race to the Accounts Department. One race in particular stands in my mind. As the flag went down, he couldn’t get started;, he had to run and push, the engine turning just as the leaders caught him up. He joined them, edging into the pack. At the finish, he was placed third. Nobody realised he was one lap behind. In my eyes, that put him indisputably first, his mocking insouciance worth any number of hollow legitimate wins.
I was settling into work by this time, with gumption enough to enter the typing pool alone, to flirt, even, with the post-girl, secure in Keith’s patronage. Suddenly, his hand was removed. With a cheery wave and a “Roight, wack, be seein’ yer” he left the firm.
Looking back, I realise that was just what I needed. My apprenticeship was finished. After the initial inertia, I picked up speed on my own account. I would slip off my cycle-clips and click up the stairs, jacket coolly draped over one arm. I would whistle ‘Eleanor Rigby’ in the washroom. There were school-leavers to impress, typists to take out. My confidence, though feigned, was effective. I knew I would always be one lap behind, but no-one seemed to notice.
I was still saving hard. Eventually, I did it – my own motor-bike. Not an Ariel, but a Triumph Tiger Cub. Still, it was a start. Nobody rubbed neatsfoot oil into leather with such voluptuous pride as I.
I commandeered Keith’s parking space by the bike-shed, my oil-drip mingling with his on the asphalt – we were now blood-brothers. At five, I would click down the stairs, wink at the juniors, and with practised nonchalance, kick up the prop-stand and swing astride.
I was now fully fledged. My spots had dried up, my confidence increased to the point where I now carried a spare helmet and offered pillion rides to typists. One of them accepted. She would giggle and wriggle up her mini-skirt, holding me tight round the waist as I roared off, waving to the lad from Stock Control.
That Christmas, I traded in my Tiger Cub for an Ariel.
I was to see Keith just once more. He came back to the office to see us all, above all to show us his pay-slip. He had a job at Ford’s in Dagenham. On a good week with bonuses, he earned as much as my monthly salary. He took us out to the car park. He had bought a Jaguar.
My story now becomes a very ordinary story: I married my typist, sold my Ariel, bought a maisonette, then a semi-detached.
But Keith, again, was a world ahead.
It was some years before I learned of it. A cliché’d story, but far from ordinary.
A dark night, a souped-up car, an oily road, a placid tree…
And me? I still have ahead of me maybe twenty years of slow, frantic pedalling.