A Little Bit of Me

Jottings and Writing, miscellanous misgivings

Archive for motorcycles

The Millionth Mile

2006-triumph-scramblerc-small.jpgThe Millionth Mile

I looked across at the man lying on the road, blood streaming down his face and pooling around his blackened helmet. Ted had just rounded the corner on the penultimate day of our five-week odyssey, and ran smack bang into the front of a new Peugeot. You could see the dent of his motorcycle helmet on the red bonnet of the car. Ted was still moving; and groaning. I had noticed the peculiar way he groaned the night before as we rested after the 200-mile journey from Reefton to Haast. He had complained all evening of a sore stomach and burning oesophagus. I had initially ignored his groaning, as Ted was occasionally given to exaggerated body complaints but then he had disappeared into the bathroom and I heard the horrible retching, and then the unmistakable smell of fresh vomit as he exited the toilet.

“It’s bothered me the last ten years. Just comes on after I eat certain foods. I guess the red wine didn’t help either. It should be gone…..” , Ted didn’t finish the sentence as he rushed back into the bathroom and the stomach evacuation continued. The next morning he took me aside and his eyes sparkled as he told me that it usually disappeared by 11.00.

“Like I have given birth,” he smiled out at me, as if his internal pain was akin to a woman carrying a child. I would have been surprised if Ted knew much about women, in general, and greatly surprised if he knew anything of the intricacies of childbirth.

I hurriedly turned off the ignition of my own motorcycle and, pulling my gloves off, rushed over to where Ted lay. He slowly raised his head and started to experiment with moving various body parts.

“Feels like the ankles gone and the elbow is giving me gyp. I only pulled off my glove to tighten that damn bolt and the car just appeared out of the blue.”

I looked over at the Peugeot and met the angry eyes of the fat, ugly driver as he fumbled with his seatbelt and tried to extricate himself from behind the inflated airbag. I could see that this was going to involve considerable negotiation skills on my part. The driver of the car would be relatively easy, but Ted, I knew, would be a problem. He was a single-minded old bugger and stubborn with it. He had argued with me into the early hours a few nights back, just after we arrived in Nelson about the role of children in caring for parents. His own elderly mother had lived the last ten years in a nursing home in Northland and Ted alternated between feeling good about her and also feeling like some sort of social outcast for putting the old dear into care.

“She had always looked after us'” Ted said, then remembered that he had already shared another memory with me as we crossed the Cooks Strait in the ferry. Ted’s father had either died or run away after Ted was born and Ted’s mum hadn’t been able to bear the responsibility of raising two children. Ted had ended up in an orphanage for seven years, while his younger sister had stayed with the mother. It was hard to know how Ted had laid this particular egg in his psychology but he had gone all emotional when we visited an orphanage as part of the toy run for our motorcycle club. One minute he was rubbing the heads of little kids and cracking jokes and then he just disappeared. I found him at the back of the shed, his eyes all watered up and he suddenly just started talking about how wrong it all was.’ Look at the little bastards,” he said. “What hope have they got in life? At least Mum was always there, in the background, but these little buggers haven’t got anyone. They don’t know who their mothers and fathers are. What hope have they got?”

It was meant as a rhetorical question but it had formed part of the argument we later had in Nelson. He told me that he had visited his mother before he departed on our tour.

“She asked where I was going and seemed to know all the places. It gets to me though, the way she goes on about life. Give you an example. I asked her about her birthday and she just went all quiet I thought it might have something to do with me not being there but I think its something deeper than that. You might be able to tell me. When I asked if she was looking forward to next years birthday (she’ll be ninety seven you know) she just closed her eyes. I pressed her and then she just says ‘I won’t be here next year’. She says that every bloody year. ‘I won’t be here Ted. I don’t want to go on living like this. Would you like to be dragged through each day like I am?’ Well I wouldn’t, you know. I’d rather die on my bike. A nice quick death. No lingering around for twenty years, dribbling and pissing myself.” Ted had slammed his fist into his hand and the veins on his forehead stood out. I had tried to talk about views of life changing as you got older and lost your ability to do certain things. You just developed new interests. Ted would have none of that and the night deteriorated into a list of all his old mates who had died of cancer, or weak hearts, or strokes. It was an unwinnable argument and about things much bigger than both of us.

Ted moved his hand and I could see that the back was covered in blood. I could also see that it bore the unmistakable scars of many other falls from motorbikes.

“Gravel rash- I call it,” grimaced Ted as he rubbed some off on the grassy verge. “Legs feel alright. Ankles OK. Helmet saved the old head. Bloods always like a river when you get a facial. Look at my, err your, poor bike though.”

The Triumph lay on its side to the left of the car. The handlebars were bent at a funny angle but the footrests had protected the tank and side panels from any real damage although the blue and white tank had a red smear where it had made contact with the Peugeot. I could see that his facial wound was only superficial and the bleeding had all but stopped.

“It doesn’t look to bad Ted,” I muttered. “Its more important how you are. Can you stand?”

I had to be careful with these oldies. Ted was in his seventies and they just didn’t bounce back the way they did when they were younger. Ted stood and, although he wasn’t too steady on his feet at the best of times, he seemed to be all right. He looked his usual combination of stylish and foolish with the weird juxtaposition of clothing and body form. For an old guy he dressed pretty well. His riding boots were of the best Moroccan leather. He always wore the latest style of Levi’s. His black leather jacket had an intricate Sagittarius design stitched onto the back that his mother had done when he hit his fiftieth. But Ted’s body was all wrong. He was partially kyphotic and bandy legged so that when he walked he sort of rolled along the ground not unlike a big ape. His vision must have been marginal for holding a driving licence as his coke bottle glasses made his small eyes appear gigantic. His weathered face had been handsome at some stage in his life but was now covered in wrinkles and, since the last few weeks, grey stubble. What hair he had was now visible beneath his helmet but when that was removed he had little on the tops. Ted also had an unusual habit of frequently moving his dentures around his mouth and, on some occasions, in and out of his mouth. He could be both charming and irritating and in our few weeks together I had experienced both in equal doses. At the moment I was irritated with him but my irritation was mixed with genuine concern. Ted was a man who seldom let himself out of his tightly woven bag and it was difficult to see beneath the skin of this man. In some ways he bought out in me some of the complicated feelings I had for my own departed father.

“Now Ted,” I said “you just get into the support truck and spend the rest of the day there.”

Ted looked at me as if I were completely mad.

“Like bloody hell. Nothing wrong with me. Just a bit of gravel rash. Help me get the bike back up.”

“No Ted. The truck.”

“It will be a dark day in hell when something like a little spill makes me give up. Help me with the bike,” Ted said as he strode over to where the Triumph lay. The driver of the Peugeot had managed to get the door open and extricate himself from the interior and he now approached me, waving a cellphone in one hand and shaking the other. I was torn between Ted and the man but my responsibility was to get my client to the end of this journey as safely as possible so I ignored the man.

“Ted, get into the truck” although I could see that maybe my judgement was a little misplaced and I should perhaps preserve whatever dignity Ted had left. I turned to the man.
“No need to involved anyone else in this sir. Just give me your insurance company and we will sort it all out.”

I could see that Mr Peugeot was going to have none of this. He wanted his pound of flesh. Eventually I had to sign a piece of paper for my company to admit liability and Ted had to sign that he had been inattentive and on the wrong side of the road. The outcome would be the same but at least Ted wouldn’t have to risk losing his licence. The hardest part was dealing with the inflated airbag. I just hoped that he didn’t have any more use for it before he could safely get the car to a garage. Meantime I had also lost the battle of confining Ted to the support truck. We straightened out the bars and kicked the footrests back into shape and Ted was in the saddle before I could stop him.

“I’ll just keep at my leisurely pace and if I start to feel sore I’ll call for the truck,” he said as he kicked the bike into life.

I could see that he wasn’t as badly affected as I thought he initially was. Ted had ridden most of his life. Had owned 140 bikes. Raced motorcycles from his late teens into his forties. Had ridden nearly one million miles and in fact he had figured that he would cross the one million somewhere between Haast and Wanaka. Maybe better to let him have his way. Maybe after another jarring day in the saddle some of those cuts and bruised would change his mind.

That night Ted, stiff and tired, sat in the hotel’s dining room and after quaffing a few beers loosened up and told me a little about getting out of the orphanage.

‘I had one of those whatshomycallits when I got back out of the orphanage. Lady tested me for all the things I could do. Turned out that I was ideally suited to be a mechanic. Mum went spare. She wanted me to work in a store. Wear a suit, tie, the works. It took a lot of talking for her to come around but when the pay started coming in she forgot all about shiny shoes and top hats. Still complained about me being dirty all the time but being a mechanic is a good life. You meet all sorts of people and each new job is different. Except when you start off and you only get the crap jobs. You know lubeing and greasing. Changing oil. Getting a jar of vacuum.”

“I didn’t get the last one Ted. A jar of vacuum.”

Teds eyes lit up again.

“When you are an apprentice its sort of like an initiation ceremony you have to go through. You know, like when sailors cross the equator for the first time and they make them dress up as girls or cover them in jam or something. Well all apprentices are given a silly task to do. Like a jar of vacuum or getting you to hold onto a high tension lead while someone cranks over the engine.”

We crossed the summit of the pass at midday. The mist or low cloud swirled around the tops of the greenery and the rain was, for once, gentle. Ted was looking very pleased with himself. By his meticulous record keeping he would bring up his millionth mile within the hour. I had been riding closely behind him, still worried about the previous days fall. His riding, normally fluid and graceful had become stiff and wooden. He admitted on the way up to the summit that his ankle had stiffened up overnight but he had put on a spare pair of socks and it wasn’t affecting his riding unduly. From where I rode I could see that his body was tense. When you are riding a motorcycle that can translate into a jerky, clumsy, style that makes you brake just a little early, not be in harmony with your ride. Suddenly Ted’s head turned back to me and he raised his hand, indicting that something was wrong. I pulled up next to him and he raised his visor.

“Clutch has gone,” he yelled over the drone of the two big engines.

A broken clutch is no big deal on a motorbike, or car, for that matter, unless you are driving around town and have to stop and start all the time. But it does throw you off a bit. You hesitate to change gear and strain the engine that little bit more. Ted’s millionth mile was going to be made in the worst possible circumstances. I could see that it had got to him as he started to put his foot onto the road when he went around tight corners. That’s something I had never seen before in Ted who was usually scathing about riders who did that. Then he started to stretch his legs out and the bike was wobbling all over the road. Next minute he’s in a tankslapper and slowly he leaves the road and slides down onto the grass verge. I thought this would be the end of him but Ted just looked indignantly at me as he scrambled out from beneath the now-stalled monster.

“Bloody clutch. Couldn’t get the thing out of gear.”

Ted managed to get himself to his feet and then he suddenly lost his composure and kicked out at the fallen bike.

“Bloody stupid damn machine. Can’t even stay together for a week.”

His rage was over as suddenly as it had erupted and he calmed enough for me to help him lift the bike up and wait for the support truck. This time there was no talk of riding on. Ted meekly went to the passenger’s door and pulled himself up into the shotgun seat. When we got to the motel that night the boys were working on putting a new clutch cable in but Ted wasn’t to be seen.

“He’s resting. Just got out of the truck and found a room and the door and curtains have been shut since about four,” said Jim, my chief mechanic.

Ted switched on the fluorescent light above the handbasin in the bathroom of the motel unit. He looked at himself in the harsh glare of the artificial light. Normally, Ted liked what he saw on the occasional time he looked into a mirror. This afternoon he did not like the reflection. His face looked ghostly white. The weathered tanned look was bleached out. His ears stuck out at a funny angle and he noticed how ugly and misshapen they had become. Tiny, spidery, veins had broken out on his white cheeks and the lines around his eyes no longer looked sexy. They just looked old. Old and wrinkled. His ankle was giving him hell and he gripped the edges of the hand basin as a new pain swept through his body. Must have been from this morning he thought and then he recognised his old nemesis. The stomach and throat, and something deeper. Something deep inside him ached.

Ted stopped the Triumph at the top of the pass. He hit the kill switch and popped out the kickstand and wearily dismounted. I could see that the arthritis was particularly bad this morning. The accident can’t have helped but the years of fractures and jarring of riding a big vertical twin were finally catching up on him. This might be the last big ride that Ted did. Licensing rules were toughening up and I could see that the accident a few days before must have signalled to Ted in some way that he wasn’t as indestructible as he made himself out to be. Those visits to the bathroom were also having an effect on the way he saw himself. He strolled to the stonewall that surrounded the pass’s lookout. The towering Mt Cook stood in the background, its higher reaches still covered in winters snow. Ted gazed up at the summit and a tear formed in his eye.

“Nothing to beat it,” he murmured under his breath. He cleared his throat and brushed away the errant tear as if it had no right to appear at this particular moment. “When I was in the orphanage we only had one day free a week. Every Saturday we were put in the big yard out the front. There was a big Taranaki frame out there, painted yellow if I remember rightly. We used to have a game where we had a competition to be first to climb up to the top. Once you were up there you could fight off all pretenders to your throne. You could see for miles. Some kids said they got up there to see prospective parents coming up the road to look them over with a view to taking them home. Me-I knew that mum wouldn’t come up that path but I used to climb just as high as anyone else. Funny-but any time I am in the mountains I just love the feeling of looking up and seeing the real big ones hovering over me. Just makes me – I don’t know – maybe as happy as I can ever get.”