A Kind of Longing by Philip Mincher
Riding a motorbike is a great way to travel. Who cares if the bike is an old Norton or a shiny new Suzuki? It’s the speed, the noise of the wind in your ears, the engine roaring under you, burning up the miles. Bikers are free, alone, they go where they want…
Free, alone – sometimes lonely. And danger waits at every bend in the road. But for Roy, riding home to Auckland as night falls, it’s still a great feeling…
Coming up from the river towards the road, Roy looked at his watch. It was half past four. It was cooler now; he could do an hour or two of the journey before dark.’
He started off down the road, feeling the heavy fish in the bag against his leg as he walked. He played the fish again in his mind, feeling it pull on the line, fighting him all the way. He walked happily through the afternoon stillness.
A car was parked off the road by the bridge, with three men standing beside it. They watched him coming. They stood drinking from metal cups, looking pleased with themselves, pleased with the wild boar they had shot. It was tied to the roof of their old American car.
They looked at Roy and his fish as he came by.
‘Good fishing, then,’ one of them said.
‘Sure,’ Roy said. ‘It looks like everybody’s got what they came for.’
He stepped into the long grass, found his old Norton, and pushed it up to the road. He felt the men watching him.
‘Have a beer,’ one of them offered.
‘Well, thanks,’ Roy said. He took a cup from one of the bags on his bike and went over to the car.
‘That’s a nice fish,’ the man said, filling his cup with beer.
‘Not bad,’ Roy said. ‘He nearly took the fly last night, and I went back to get him today.’ He drank his beer.
‘He must have a poor memory then,’ the man said.
‘He just loves Black Gnats,’ Roy said, touching the fishing fly pinned to his shirt. They all looked. You could tell that they were not fishermen.
Roy looked at the dead boar with its long dangerous teeth.
‘Big one,’ he said, and finished the beer.
The guy offered the bottle.
‘No, thanks. I’ve got to get going.’
He walked back to the bike and went on packing. The men stood around with their beer, watching him. Roy picked up the fish and held it up to show them how big it was, and they smiled. He packed it away in one of the bags. He sat down on the grass and pulled on his boots, thinking that it hadn’t been a bad weekend. He felt the men watching him. They were friendly, but there was something about it, a kind of feeling he wasn’t sure about.
He put on his crash helmet and his gloves. Then he started the bike and waved goodbye. The men smiled, and one of them lifted his beer for good luck. ‘I’m on my own,’ Roy thought. ‘That’s what it is. They’re three friends out together in the afternoon, and I’m on my own, with two hundred miles to go. It’s a small thing, but that’s what it is, all right.’
He turned away and rode the Norton down the road.
The road stayed near the river for the next eight or ten miles. Sometimes the rocky walls of the valley hid the river, and sometimes you could see it far below you. In places, road and river went side by side, and you could see the wet rocks shining in the late afternoon sun, and the deep black water at the bends. It was always good to be close to a river, Roy thought. Next time he would fish down river from the bridge.
The road turned away from the river at last, and joined the highway. Roy let the bike go faster. He felt the old feeling coming as the miles went by. All the things that hurt disappeared, all the things that didn’t matter. He didn’t need to think, not about being alone, not about anything.
He did sixty-five miles in the first hour. He felt calm and easy. Sometimes it worried him, riding fast, but this afternoon was fine. When it was dark, he would slow down.
He rode on past the rich farmland. He thought about the farmers, finishing work, perhaps having their tea. That made him feel a little hungry. Maybe about halfway he would stop for a cup of coffee and something to eat.
He came round a bend and saw a car just disappearing round the next bend. He slowed down a little, waiting for a place to pass it. It was a big, old car, and as he came up behind it, the driver speeded up and went fast into the next bend. Roy stayed behind him, waiting for a straight piece of road. Maybe the guy just didn’t like bikes.
The place came at last, half a mile of straight empty road, going up a small hill. He checked his mirror, and passed the car. He went up the hill, leaving the car behind, and he was alone again on a straight road. And then the world exploded underneath him!
It came with a sudden crash, like a shot from a gun behind him. A moment later, he realized what it was – he was riding a flying machine on a back tyre in pieces, fighting wildly to stay on and to slow the Norton down from sixty-five to zero. The big bike flew from one side of the road to the other, but as it went up the hill, it began to go slower. Then a car was coming and he was off the road, and at last, the bike ran hard against a bank and stopped.
Roy turned off the engine and sat back. Then the car he had passed came up and stopped beside him. An unpleasant face stared at him from the front passenger seat.
The voice sounded pleased. Somebody laughed. Then the old car roared away and disappeared over the hill.
Roy got off the bike. He was shaking just a little. He decided not to think about the guys in the car for a while. He wanted to calm down first. He looked down the road, half a mile of it, straight with no ditch, and he felt how lucky he had been: A long straight road and no ditch, man.
He turned and looked up the road. There was a house near the top of the hill. He half walked, half rode the bike to the farm gate. They would let him leave his bike there, surely. He stopped by the back door and turned off the engine.
A big man in jeans, with only socks on his feet, came to the door. Roy felt the farmer looking at him, deciding about him while he explained.
‘On your own?’
Just a minute, the farmer said, and got his boots.
They put the bike in one of the farm buildings, and Roy felt better about it.
‘Lucky it happened there,’ the farmer said.
That’s true, said Roy. ‘And lucky it was the back wheel.’
‘I used to have one of these things,’ the farmer said, and he reached over to hold the bike. He seemed to be looking back in time. ‘It’ll be safe here,’ he said.
Roy took out the fish and gave it to him.
Well, he’s a big one!’ said farmer. ‘We’ll keep him for you.’
No, Roy said. ‘Give him to the cook. Do you think I’ll get a ride this time of day?’
Easy, the farmer said. ‘One of those cattle trucks is what you need – take you all the way to Westfield.’
The first two or three cars did not matter. But then he knew he had a long walk in front of him. Most people did not even slow down before they decided not to take him. He was halfway up the second long hill, and it was quite dark, when he heard the first cattle truck.
He waited as the big truck came closer. Then he saw the driver’s face looking at him, and he remembered it when the truck had gone. It wasn’t unfriendly, he thought – the guy just didn’t care. He watched the truck go slowly up the hill.
He started to walk again. He felt a kind of loneliness walking in the dark. It was the way the truck driver had looked at him. The guy just didn’t care. Or maybe he didn’t want a stranger with him all that way. Maybe he just didn’t want to talk.
More cars passed, but he didn’t even try asking for a ride any more. He walked on, not caring, knowing how alone in the world he was.
He had walked perhaps another five miles when he heard his favourite sound. A bike came up fast behind him, and went round the next corner. Roy heard it slow down, turn and come back. The rider stopped and waited for Roy.
It was a big modern bike, Japanese, he guessed. The rider sat looking back at him, crash helmet shining. Roy was next to the bike before he realized that the rider was a girl – a tall, leggy girl in jeans and boots, and perhaps there was fair hair under the helmet. Roy stared as they spoke.
‘Which way you going, mister?’
‘That makes two of us. You have a crash?’
Roy felt her eyes watching him as she spoke.
‘Well,’ said, talking about it won’t get us home.’ Sure, said Roy. His ears were getting hot under his crash helmet. He climbed up behind her and they were off.
She rode fast from the beginning. This was a real bike and a real rider. Roy felt good about it – good to be on wheels again, good that somebody cared enough to stop.
Close to his face the girl asked, ‘What kind of bike, mister?’
‘Front wheel or back?’
Not so bad, she said. ‘Better bade than front, any day.’
‘Sure,’ Roy said. He wanted to talk to this girl, but he could not get the words out.
They rode on in silence in the dark. She knew about bikes all right. ‘With a guy it’s easy,’ Roy thought. ‘You have a crash, you get a ride, you climb on the bike. You don’t even notice that he can ride it well. But this is a girl and she knows what she is doing. That doesn’t mean you can’t talk to her,’ he told himself. ‘You’ve seen girls before, man.’
Her voice came back to him: ‘Where have you come from, mister?’
‘Yes? How was the fishing?’
Not bad, Roy said, before he had time to wonder at her question.
‘Nice water by the old bridge. What were they taking?’ Black Gnat, he said, and there was more than wonder. He felt that hot pain behind his eyes.
‘Wet or dry?’
‘Wet,’ said Roy, and his voice shook a little with the wonder of it. And in his heart he felt an ache that came from a kind of longing. This was the girl he had been longing for all his life – a tall, leggy girl who rode a 750cc Suzuki and knew about fly-fishing.
For a while, they rode and did not speak. Then, back on straight road, the girl said, close to his face, ‘My brother caught a six-pound fish under that bridge one year.’
‘Really!’ Roy was beginning to understand. ‘How long ago was that?’
‘Maybe five years ago. Ross played him for half an hour before he pulled him in.’
‘Sounds like he’s a good fisherman, your brother,’ Roy said.
‘He was,’ she said, and that was all.
And Roy, guessing what she meant, knew it was not the kind of thing you could shout about above the noise of the wind and the engine.
After a few miles the girl said, ‘My name’s Kay, mister.’
Roy said his own name. It sounded strange to him.
‘Well, Roy, you going to buy me a cup of coffee when we get to the next town?’
‘Sure,’ Roy said. ‘Sure thing, Kay.’
They dropped their speed and rode into the town. It was quiet on a Sunday evening. They found the place they wanted, and got off the bike.
Her hair was long and fair and blown about by the wind. In the coffee shop he saw her face for the first time, and he felt that kind of longing from way back, and he sat down beside her, knowing what it was.
‘How long were you walking back there?’ Her voice was soft and pleasant after the shouted conversation on the road.
‘Perhaps five or six miles,’ Roy said. ‘Nobody was interested.’
‘They never are.’
‘It’s not the kind of thing you worry about,’ he said.
‘No.’ They sat drinking their coffee, watching and listening, getting the idea of each other.
‘You go fishing a lot?’ she said.
‘Sure. Fishing. Moving around.’
‘Always travel alone?’
‘My friend got killed,’ Roy said. It came out like that. There was not much else that he could say. He felt a kind of softness in her eyes that took him by the heart.
‘What about you?’ he said.
‘What about me?’
‘I mean, you can tell me about your brother.’ He saw her eyes – their softness, the quiet hurt as his words hit her.
‘Ross got killed in the army,’ she said. ‘It was his first week – just a stupid accident. He was only twenty. He fell off the back of a truck and hit his head. He used to do wild, crazy things all the time – but then what killed him was just a stupid accident…’
He played with his spoon in the coffee.
‘What about your friend?’ she asked after a while.
‘Plane,’ Roy said. ‘Another thing that just couldn’t happen.’
He saw it in his mind – the broken plane, that moment he could never forget for the rest of his life. This was something they both knew, he and this girl: a death that you couldn’t believe. And that feeling was always with you, everywhere, like a voice that whispers in your ear, ‘There will never be enough road anymore, enough water, enough air…’
But beyond the feelings of hurt, old and new, he knew that they were telling each other the truth about themselves, not hiding things. Was he choosing the right words? It didn’t matter. Now he asked, ‘Where’ve you been today then, on your big bike?’
‘Stay the weekend?’
‘Down this morning. It’s only two hundred and sixty miles there and back,’ she said. ‘My father’s in a kind of hospital down there. I don’t stay because one visit each time is all I can do.’
‘I’m sorry,’ Roy said.
It was all in her eyes. In his mind, Roy saw a strong man broken – the father who would never get old, never die. How could you believe it, live with it?
Maybe he taught them to fish, Roy thought, this girl and her brother, dead at twenty from his accident. Maybe he taught them all those good things and they all had fun together, and then suddenly she looked around and she was the only one left. Maybe that’s why she rides the big bike.
The time was starting to get heavy now.
‘What do you say we get on the road?’ Kay said.
They went out and Roy felt the heaviness going. It was all right if you knew when to get up and go. They put on their crash helmets and the tall leggy girl started her bike. Roy climbed on behind her, and they went away laughing. They rode gently out of the sleepy town; then they reached the highway and the bike roared away into the night.
Roy felt all right about riding on the back. Sometimes, if you weren’t sure about the rider, you weren’t happy when he went fast, but this girl was okay. They rode, not talking, enjoying the night ride on their big fast machine. Roy thought about the things they were passing – the cattle in the fields, the night sounds of the farms. Lights appeared and cars sped past, and he thought about all the people going places. He felt Kay close to him, with her long friendly shoulders and her fair hair flying back from under her helmet. He could go on and on. He didn’t care about the people who hated you before they saw you, or enjoyed watching you in trouble on the road, or let you walk because they didn’t want to think about you. He felt that none of it could touch him now, or ever, that all the hurt had gone, and the shock from the deaths of friends and the bad feelings that came from people’s unkind words.
A notice warned of bends in the road, and Kay cut their speed, and they rode the big bike down into the first bend.
Cars came up from down below, their lights showing the narrow road and the banks on each side. Most of the cars seemed to be in too much of a hurry, Roy thought.
They reached the bottom of the narrow valley, where he knew the river ran close to the road. He thought about that clear mountain water among the trees. Then they started to climb. They rode up the hill and into the first bend. And death came down to meet them on the wrong side of the road.
The lights of the car were right in front of them. They had nowhere to go, and not enough time to hate the guy who was killing them. Roy put his arms round Kay. He felt his face against her shoulder, their helmets close together. Then they were off the road and into the ditch as the car went past, moving too late to its own side of the road. They went on and on, fighting the ditch, crashing into the bank, and then they were over the bank and sailing, a moment’s space before the hurt that was coming. They crashed down the bank, and Roy held tight to Kay, and they were off the bike and dying together, and the ground came up to knock the life out of his body, and he reached for Kay as he fell. Impossibly, he was still alive, but as he fell, crashed, broke, he didn’t care – he only reached for Kay, longed for her.
He came to rest; there was a taste of blood and a whisper of pain through the shock, and he felt cold water around him. He lay in the icy water of the ditch, and knew he was still alive. Then he was moving along the ditch on hands and knees, searching for Kay through the pain and shock.
He pulled himself along the ditch until he found her. She was lying face down. He touched her, and turned her over as gently as he could.
Time had stopped. It was like a bad dream, made of all the deaths that had gone before. He said her name, and it came thick and strange through his painful lips. She looked at him and he waited for an impossible moment, and then she began to cry as the shock hit her, and that was all the hope he needed.
He took off her helmet, and gently pushed her hair back, and somewhere above them, he heard voices and a crashing sound as help came. The pain in his legs began to come alive. He put his arm around Kay, loving the life that returned as she cried life and pain coming together. And that was all the hope he needed. He guessed it must be all the hope in the world.
Because, for all the time that it lasted, they would have it together.