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guthrie

There were tears in his Mum’s eyes as he kissed her and promised to phone when he arrived home. Sally would stay with her tonight, she was much better at family stuff than him. He had to get back to Claire. The pregnancy was proving difficult and he didn’t like leaving her. Mum said she understood. But she looked disappointed all the same. Truth be told he was glad to get away.

The Hammersmith and City train remained oblivious to Matthew’s silent promptings as it ambled towards Kings Cross via lengthy halts in tunnels and stations. The Tube offers no succour to the grieving and he cursed himself for staying longer at Gran’s than he had planned. For a moment these frustrations cleared his mind of the day’s emotional unease and he focussed on avoiding eye contact by gazing at other passengers footwear. He studied his own sturdy brogues and bridled at the sight of the oil stain on his left trouser leg.

Finally, the train shuffled into Kings Cross. Matthew pressed against the tide of boarding passengers and was further hampered by queues of suitcase laden travellers struggling to squeeze through the ticket barriers. He felt guilty for leaving an elderly woman to carry her luggage unaided up a flight of stairs as he dashed to Platform 3 to make the train. Which he made. Just. After boarding, he had to walk several carriage lengths to find an empty seat.

Seated, he reached in his jacket pocket and pulled out the faded manila envelope Mum had handed to him at the wake. Gran had insisted he should have it.

Inscribed on the top left hand corner of the envelope was the phrase “Isle Of Man TT 1955”. Matthew opened the envelope and ran a finger over a paper clip that held together a number of aged black and white photographs and newspaper cuttings before retrieving them.

The first photo showed a man riding a motorcycle. He was sheathed in black racing leathers, his chin on the petrol tank as he sped along. The face of the rider was frozen in concentration, eyes fixed upon the road. The silver petrol tank was emblazoned with the name Norton. It was clear that the bike was travelling fast. Very fast.

In the background, people were sitting on a dry stone wall watching on. Matthew’s attention was drawn to a young boy wearing a mackintosh and school cap. The boy’s features were frozen with catatonic excitement.

He undid the paperclip and studied the second image; a man in racing leathers sitting astride a motorbike. Another Norton. Possibly the same one as in the first photo. The man had his arms crossed and held a cigarette in his right hand and cradled a helmet in his left arm. It was Granddad.

guthrie3

Three men stood either side of the bike, each man wearing collar and tie. Two of them were holding cigarettes and smiling, whilst the other man, older and holding a clipboard appeared to be scrutinising the bike. The boy wearing the mackintosh and school cap from the first photo, stared into the camera with the bland look of strangers caught unawares in other people’s photographs.

The third picture was older still. A group of six men and three women, all in military uniform. One of the girls sat on the lap of one of the soldiers, her arm draped self-consciously around the soldier’s neck as they smiled into the camera. Gran and Granddad. Granddad’s jacket bore the rank of Corporal.

Matthew had been shocked when Sally had rung to tell him Gran had died. He had never attached the notion of mortality to Gran. Her smile, hugs and joy at the smallest pleasures in life set her apart from anyone he had ever met. Many childhood memories had been forged when Mum took Matthew and Sally to spend a week with Gran in London during the school summer holidays, sadly decades ago now.

He knew he should have made more of an effort to see her these past few years. Mum had nagged him about. He was in London often enough with work after all. But it was easy to make excuses. Truth be told he didn’t have anything to say to her.

He ate a sandwich and stared out of the carriage window, occasionally catching his reflection in the glass or that of another passenger walking passed. The train rode over a set of points causing the heads of passengers to bob involuntarily as did the pages of the newspapers and magazines they were reading. Several middle aged men, suited but with scuffed shoes were studying laptops. He wondered how many on the train were grieving.

Gran’s funeral had been at nine o’clock in the morning. Manor House Crematorium. The Vicar, a youngish man already jowly and with thinning hair used the metaphor of life as a train journey. It felt clumsy, forced and failed to mention Gran’s sheer passion for life. He counted only twelve people there, excluding the undertakers who stood outside the Chapel smoking roll ups. An extraordinary life reduced to a dozen mourners, two of whom were early for a later funeral and only sat in the Chapel to keep out of the rain. The success of old age.

Mum had held his hand throughout the service. He felt guilty for being curt with her on the phone whenever she rang, annoyed with her rambling conversations and pointless questions about the minutiae of his life. He felt guilty for the increasingly rare visits home and his inability to have a conversation of any meaning with her. He knew she was lonely but found the boiling tedium of conversation with her an impenetrable barrier. He had promised himself after Dad’s death eight years ago that he would be a more attentive son. He knew that he had failed her. When she needed him most. He took after Dad in that respect.

During the service, he found himself thinking about Helen. She was now living with a doctor in Edinburgh. He wondered if she was happy. He hoped she was. He wondered why he never told her how much he loved her. Beyond all measure. Wondered why he had not fought to keep her. Wondered why they had allowed themselves to drift apart so easily. He wondered why he thought these things at a funeral. He thought himself a fool. Gran had told him as much when he told her that they had split up. “You let a good one go there Matthew,” she had said.

He knew Gran was right. Perhaps that is the purpose of funerals, to allow the living to judge their own lives against the finality of death and the missed opportunities caused by fearfulness.

He thought about Claire. He wondered if he would make the same mistakes as he did with Helen. He hoped not. There was the baby to consider.

The wake was held at Gran’s house in Clapton. A house full of familiar scents and artefacts. Fry ups, bone handled knives, the Sunday roast, the crumpled Daily Mirror still in her chair, the authoritative sound of the carriage clock in the living room, the smell of moth balls and wood polish. Inexplicably his mind was crowded with a memory of watching the wrestling on television on Saturday afternoon, before the football results and checking the pools coupon.

He studied photographs of previous generations that rested on the sideboard with the broken handle and the sticky drawers. There was Gran and Granddad in their wedding photo and another of them about to set off on an excursion on Granddad’s BSA. Gran holding on for dear life. Another photo, colour this time, was of Mum and Dad cutting their wedding cake. They were both smiling. Their future looked so appetising back then.

Matthew dried the plates as Mum washed up. His tea towel had a print of the Tower of London on it. It was a present to Gran from her sister Ethel, who had bought it on a trip to the Tower in 1978. Ethel broke her ankle gawking at the crown jewels and two Beefeaters’ had to carry her to the first aid room. Clumsy girl Ethel, “big boned” as Gran described her. She was the last of Gran’s siblings to die. That was the last time he had set foot in the house. It appeared as though nothing had changed in that time. Except for Gran’s absence.

The nice Asian family who lived next door and kept an eye on Gran brought cake and lemonade as a gift. The young couple who lived the other side popped in and offered their sympathies. Mum spoke to Mrs Davis, an old neighbour who had retired to Southend nearly twenty years ago and had made the journey down to pay her respects. Mum introduced Mathew to her, he didn’t recognise her, even when prompted about the fight that Matthew and Mrs Davis’ grandson, Andy had in the summer of 1982 over a game of British Bulldog. Andy lived in Spain now. Managed a bar. Matthew feigned interest as he dried the last plate.

After drying up, he nipped out to the garden to have a cigarette. He walked to the shed. The padlock that was never locked, hung limply from its hook and Matthew pulled on the door handle. The hinges had perished so the door proved difficult to open. With it ajar, he peered into the gloomy interior. The tarpaulin was still there. It was still there.

Once he had finished eating the sandwich, he turned his attention to the newspaper cuttings, yellowed with age, their folds, deep and indelible. The headlines read, “Guthrie Victorious at Oulton Park Invitation Race”, “Guthrie: Star of the Future?”, “Guthrie heads to Isle of Man in search of first TT Victory.” There was one more article, “Guthrie perishes in Tourist Trophy accident”.

Matthew continued reading, ”Sid Guthrie, the up and coming Norton works rider from Clapton, east London was killed yesterday in a tragic accident on the Tourist course at the renowned TT races on the Isle of Man. The intrepid racer, nicknamed “Carrot Guthrie” because of his ginger hair was thrown from his Norton 500 as it rounded the famous Goose Neck corner of the course some fifteen miles from the Island’s principal town of Douglas. Eye witnesses informed the local constabulary, who quickly attended the scene. Race authorities suspended racing for over an hour yesterday as ambulance crews hurried to the scene and gave immediate treatment to Guthrie who was moved to Douglas Infirmary. He was pronounced dead on arrival.

The likely cause of the accident was an oil spill from the motorcycle preceding Guthrie, the privately entered Triumph of local rider Reg Ash on the entrance to the corner which is taken at over eighty-five miles per hour on the leading machines.

Racing resumed at 11.48 am and the race was eventually won by Sam Bartram on a BSA Gold Star.” Associated Press

Gran had insisted the wrecked bike be returned to her. Odd was the consensus of opinion about her decision. It was only shipped back by the Isle of Man TT organisers after a protracted correspondence and Gran’s agreement to meet the shipping costs.

“It is how I remember him,” she told Matthew on one of his summer visits, “He was always tinkering with it, tightening nuts, loosening nuts, talking to me about chains – what do I know about split links? – “Got to make her go faster Lil, I got to make her go faster.” – Damn thing. Kept him near to me though. Like his heart beat it was.

To the eleven year old Matthew, the shed was a treasure trove of manly pursuits. Shelves sagged under the weight of long forgotten tins of screws, rusty spanners and wrenches. There was a musty metallic smell of mechanical decay and idleness as if the machine parts were waiting for their day to come again and resented being idle.

Under a damp, oil stained tarpaulin the old Norton had lain undisturbed, a cloaked relic of a long dead man’s life, for over thirty years until Matthew had press ganged Sally that summer into helping him move the engine cylinders and wheels that held the tarpaulin in place. Despite Sally’s protestations and the spoiling of her new dress with an unseen can of Castrol Racing grade engine oil, they disinterred the bike.

“Is that all it is?” Sally had said unimpressed that her labours had yielded such a paltry harvest. The front wheel was buckled and the front forks badly twisted. The cylinder head was shorn of its fins on its left hand side and the left side of the petrol tank was so crumpled that only the first three letters NOR were visible.

But Matthew never saw the wrecked machine for what it was. What he saw was a battered expression of speed and the cherished freedoms adulthood promised. Visiting Gran for the next two or three summers now took on a new purpose and excitement. To reconnect with the crippled bike and the promises it offered his imagination.

During those visits, after the comments on his growth spurt and how he would, “Break the girls’ hearts!” had been completed, he would spend hours sitting on the bike, imagining himself leaning into corners, accelerating down straights and overtaking rivals, head crouched on the tank, feet unable to reach the footrests, holding on to the dilapidated handlebars whilst commentating on another miraculous last gasp victory.

His clothes would smell of oil and desiccated rubber, whilst on his hands the tangy taste of rust permeated the pores of his skin. Mum had never been keen on him playing on it, but Gran said, “At least you know something of your Granddad. He died young, too young for your Mum and me, made my life a lot harder than it needed to be, but he died doing what he loved. Even though that is no compensation for the living.”

He felt that excitement when he entered the shed today, pulling back the tarpaulin and sitting on the bike. He fitted it now, feet reaching the floor. He leant forward and gripped the dilapidated handlebars. Yet those boyish imaginings of glory did not return. They had perished as the reality and rigid obligations of adulthood set in.

The bike had foretold of so much. Yet those tales had never materialised. Worse still there was now an oil stain on the left leg of his trousers.

Once more he read, “Guthrie Perishes…”. He looked around the carriage, at the bobbing heads and the laptop scrutineers. His phone buzzed. It was Claire.

“Hello.”

“Hello. How was it? I’ve been trying to call you all day.”

“Sorry. I forgot to take the phone off silent. It was fine. Sad but fine. I’m going to miss her. How are you? The bump?”

“We’re fine. I managed to get some sleep. Looking forward to seeing you.”

“Me too. Been a long day.”

“I bet it has.”

“I think we should invite Mum up for a few days. It’ll do her good.”

“Sure.”

“OK. Love you.”

“Love you too.”

He turned the phone off. Tears began to roll down his cheeks. Who was he crying for? Why? For Gran? Mum? Dad? Granddad? Helen? Claire? Himself? The Baby? He didn’t like confusion. Was very poor at it. Avoided it if he could. He silently urged the train to take him home.

guthrie

He is on the Norton, sheathed in black leathers, head flat on the silver petrol tank. The bike spits its power onto the road. He has become fused with it, ennobled by speed, clipping straw bales, scraping walls, skirting kerbs and rounding corners.

Accelerate. Second gear. Third. Fourth. Fifth, throttle fully open. Down to fourth, third, second, brake, lean hard, round the corner, find the apex. Accelerate; harder this time, again through the gears, throttle wide open. Eyes only on the road ahead; the world exterior to this a blur of trees, dappled shadows, walls, cottages and people.

Corner, downshift, once, twice, accelerate through the apex, hit the straight; throttle fully open, the great four-stroke engine beating to its own cadence now. Goose Neck approaches. Oil? Will there be oil? The boy. In the mackintosh and the cap. He is standing in the road. He cannot stop in time….the boy is speaking….

He woke with a start. It had been a bad dream. Claire lay next to him fast asleep. The annoying light from the street lamp outside the bedroom window, something he wished he had thought about before buying the house, seeped through a slight crack in the curtains.

He thought about the Norton and then thought about the oil stain on his trousers. He felt a life pass by and didn’t know how to claim it.

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