The memory of the motorbike sustained John Patrick Fletcher through five years of war.
At Dunkirk he set fire to the Triumph 3HW the Army had given him when it ran out of fuel and, from the foxhole he had dug, watched it burn. It was a fine machine but nothing like the BSA he had at home. The Triumph was a workhorse, drab green and thick-set. The BSA was a leopard.
When the German soldier dragged him out of the hole, kicked and shoved him aboard a grey Opel truck with twelve other men in tattered battledress, John floated over it all. He levitated above the bad suspension that bounced them eastward over the course of days. Past the armed guards who sat by the tailgate, through the aperture in the canvas roof, he saw his favourite sight: open road.
This road wasn’t right. Too dusty and too wide. Surrounded by plains, with strange arrow-straight trees that looked more like telegraph poles. But it was enough to remind him of flying alongside dry stone walls, over kinks in the road that caused his gut to lurch, and past fields of sheep.
At the camp in the woods, staring sleepless at the bottom of the bunk above, he plotted routes in a dream-trance, forcing himself to move through each straight and turn in real time, ticking off the names of towns and villages: Stacksteads, Waterfoot, Cloughfold…
Shivering in the snow on a road building work party he would grip the shaft of a shovel and, with gloved hands, twist it, imagining throttling up on the wide road out of Blackpool.
Through four years of boredom he fed on memories of the vibrations and the growl, his physical imprisonment countered by the solidity of a remembered feeling: that he could go anywhere as long as he had a shilling for petrol. The war was a mere intermission in the spooling out of real life. A waiting room.
He broke his ankle playing football and spent two months in hospital reading the same pulp western novel over and again. Much better than working.
The work got harder. The rations got worse. The guards got both younger and older.
After five winters, one February, smoke appeared on the horizon. The guards told the prisoners to start stretching their legs and began to make them walk in the cold for a few hours each day. When the smoke got close enough to smell, they were ordered to start marching.
John dragged a sledge loaded with canned food. Shivering and scared, his feet pounded to tenderness in ragged, frozen boots, he watched as anyone too slow to walk was dragged into the forest and executed.
His consolation was that every step westward took him nearer the motorbike in the shed. It would need a service after all this time and there might even be some rust but he didn’t mind that – he’d enjoy sitting cross-legged in front of it with wire wool and a pot of delicious-smelling paint.
When what was left of the marching party reached its destination, John found himself working on the construction of an oil refinery. It was hard, dirty, shirtless work. Almost every night, the RAF would bomb flat the previous day’s efforts. More men died but John had got used to that. On the whole, he was pleased: Germany was faltering which meant that soon the war would be over and he could put on his helmet, goggles and leathers and roll her out onto the road.
One morning, there was silence. The guards were gone and the gates had been left open. A few hours later, Sherman tanks and Chevrolet trucks rolled through the town. Everyone cheered, even the German civilians. Even John. His eyes were drawn to US Army despatch riders on their low-slung Harley-Davidsons. The Americans handed out cigarettes and paperwork to the thin, weak British soldiers. John struggled to cram his bruised and shredded feet into a brand new pair of GI issue boots. They’d be good on the bike, he thought, flexing his ankle on an imaginary pedal.
After a month of waiting for something to happen, in late summer, he was ordered onto a truck with twenty other men and taken to an airfield. There, he was loaded onto an olive green C-47.
‘It’s a waste to send ‘em back empty,’ said an American military policeman as he herded them aboard.
John had never flown before. The fierce vibrations that shook his innards excited him, as if a hundred motorbikes were roaring at once.
The plane flew over fields and farms, harbours strewn with boats stranded on the mud, and then across the Channel, thick with steaming vessels, both military and civilian. Then the sequence repeated in reverse. Harbours and jetties, the Thames Estuary and London shining on the horizon. The fields looked different – smaller, less tidy, unmistakably English. As the plane dropped down towards another airfield he began to pick out details rushing past: the thatched roof of a cottage, the low flat tower of a country church in yellow stone, and a hedge-lined lane. The plane tracked the lane for almost a minute and, drifting and exhausted, John envisioned himself below, like a black-backed beetle racing at full throttle, tight into every curve.
Aboard a train to the North he couldn’t decide if it felt as if he’d been away a long time, or no time at all. The war had fixed things. The girls he couldn’t help but stare at wore the same kinds of clothes as in 1939, only more ragged, dyed brown and grey so that they resembled army fatigues. Everything was tired and dull, dented and run down. Birmingham, Sheffield and Leeds had gaps like open graves where there had once been buildings. The bricks looked blacker than ever.
Under the grey cloud that always sat on the valley, his home town was the same, barring a sentry box at the station and camouflage paint on the Railway Hotel.
With his cardboard suitcase in hand and an oversized suit hanging off his body, he walked. People stared at him and he stared back.
As the light faded, he walked along Ouseburn Street, passing Mafeking Road, Kimberley Terrace and Gordon Street. His heart began to beat harder as he reached the chip shop on the corner of Milepost Road. He could smell hot vinegar and stopped to stare in wonder at the blazing window which ran with condensation and beyond which dark shapes moved.
Milepost Road seemed as long as the war itself. Halving his pace every ten steps he put off arriving at the front door until it was truly dark. A neighbour in sagging trousers darted by, late for dinner, pumping out clouds of sweet smelling smoke from a short cigarette. ‘Now then,’ he said, by way of greeting.
‘Hello, Mr McCarthy,’ said John.
McCarthy waved over his cap but didn’t stop.
With a sigh John reached up to knock on the door and waited.
A light came on in the hall, visible in the sun-pattern stained glass above the door.
‘Who is it?’
‘It’s me, Mother.’ There was no reaction. ‘John.’
After a moment’s fumbling the door opened and there she was, pinch-faced, her black eyes glinting in the dimness caused by a low-wattage bulb and too much dark Victorian paintwork. She wore a grey dress with a lace collar and heavy black shoes that looked distinctly orthopaedic. Her hair was no longer brown but grey and her back had become hunched.
He leaned down to kiss her cheek. It was like brushing cold stone.
‘Well, there’s no dinner spare,’ she said.
‘I’ve eaten,’ he said. It was a lie.
She bellowed into the house as if announcing the arrival of a tradesman or some other nuisance: ‘It’s our John!’
There came a thundering on the floorboards above and his sisters appeared on the staircase. Evelyn, first, followed by Doris. They stopped halfway down and fell into the same pose, their faces with the same bland expression.
‘Well, he’s not having my room,’ said Doris.
‘Bloody hell – can I come through or not?’
He’d never sworn in front of his mother before. He saw a shock run through Evelyn and Doris. Their eyes switched to Mrs Fletcher.
She pursed her lips but stepped aside.
John walked past her, dumped his case on the floor, and marched straight through the kitchen. The three women followed him and dropped into formation, Mother in front, sisters behind, and watched with arms folded as he fumbled with the back door key.
‘If you need the lavatory,’ said Mrs Fletcher, ‘it’s indoors now.’
‘What’s wrong with this bloody key?’
‘I suppose this is army language,’ said his mother.
‘Here, let me,’ said Evelyn. She shoved John aside and carried out a manoeuvre which required her to hoist the door upwards as she turned the key in the lock.
John strode across the yard to the brick shed and opened the door. It was dark and filthy inside, foggy with dust and strung with cobwebs. Even so, he could see one thing clearly enough. He stared at the oil spots on the concrete floor.
‘Where’s me bloody bike?’
He turned wide eyes upon his mother and sisters who were now gathered around the back door as if to guard the entrance.
His mother folded her arms.
‘I sold it.’
She shifted her chin up.
‘And the leathers and helmet.’
The wound in his ankle began to ache as an invisible weight settled on his back.