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Fiction, Short Fiction, Horror
Labour of Love
by: Stiubhard Og
"I've been drivin' all night, my hands wet on the wheel,
There's a voice in my head that drives my heel"
Kevin sang along to Golden Earring at the top of his voice, drumming the heels of his hand against the steering wheel in accompaniment.
"It's my baby callin', says I need you here
And it's half past four and I'm shifting gear"
It wasn't half past four; it was twenty past two in the morning on an otherwise deserted road in the Forest of Dean, but Kevin was happy just doing what he loved; and what he loved was driving his truck. The big 1990 Volvo F10 wasn't just the means by which he earned his living as an independent hauler; it was his partner, his companion, and his ally. Kevin spoke to his truck, polished it, maintained it and nurtured it. More than a decade old now the big cab looked as though it had been just driven off the assembly line, the paintwork shone and the chrome gleamed, while the diesel engine never missed a beat as it bowled along, pushing out 320 bhp. The day that Karen had left, angry and shouting as she dragged her bulging suitcase down the hall, her Parthian shot had been "You love that bloody truck more than you love me." It hadn't been true, of course, but eighteen months later he was still bemused to find that he didn't miss her as much as he had thought he would.
Big Kev would have been the first to admit that he was a mechanical nut. He loved tinkering and fixing anything that had innards that could be taken apart and reassembled. If he was ever told a thing was broken he took it as a personal challenge to his ingenuity and tinkering skills to resurrect it, but if it had an engine- well, how much better could it get? His idea of heaven was a fully-equipped garage and a seized V8. Karen could never understand that side of his nature; could never see that it wasn't boredom or curiosity that drove him on in his 'projects'; it was a love, a passion, an addiction.
The big man had been behind the wheel of his beloved truck for the best part of a week now. Tuesday had been London with a load of stage props for a theatre in the West End, then Birmingham with a cargo of machine parts, Wednesday had seen him hauling sheep from Sussex to Cumbria, Thursday it was horses to Cheltenham, Friday a run to Scotland with filter equipment for a trout hatchery. Kevin's proud boast was that he and his big Volvo would haul anything, anywhere, in any weather. The last job had taken him over the Irish Sea, flat pack furniture for a DIY store in Wexford. He had caught the last sailing from Rosslare and arrived in Pembroke at a quarter past one in the morning. He had made good time through Wales, following first the M4, then the M48, before switching to the A roads through Chepstow to Monmouth where he had begun the home leg of his journey through the Forest of Dean towards Gloucester and a good night's sleep in his own bed for a change. Tomorrow, he promised himself, if the weather was good he would unveil the results of his latest labour of love and perhaps take it for a spin - Banbury maybe, or Oxford.
Golden Earring had given way to Deep Purple as Kev left Edge End behind and pointed the Volvo into the sweeping right hand bend that the A4136 describes before it runs arrow-straight through Brierley and on to Nailbridge.
"Black Knight is a long way from ho-o-ome"
Kevin sang along with Ian Gillan with an enthusiasm that made up for the lack of any kind of musical talent. 'Can't beat the vintage stuff' he thought to himself happily 'a million times better than the crap they play on the radio now. House, rap, garage, funk. S'all bollocks'.
Up ahead the truck's headlights had picked out a lone figure at the side of the road, and judging by the person's build and stance it appeared to be a man. His dark jacket would have been invisible against the hedgerow, but the powerful halogen beam from the headlights had illuminated the skin of his face, making it shine out whitely. He appeared to be standing quite still on the grass verge, as though quietly waiting for a bus on a Sunday afternoon. Kevin began to come down through the gears and applied the air brakes, which responded on with a reassuring hiss. Many of his fellow drivers made it a rule never to pick up hitchers, but at six feet two and nineteen stone Kevin fully deserved the soubriquet 'Big Kev' and he had always been confident that anyone who tried any funny business in his truck would soon find themselves out on their ass. Besides, he enjoyed company in the cab. Not that the man at the roadside could properly be described as a hitcher, Kev thought as he slid the gear selector into neutral, he had made no attempt to flag down the truck but had stood and watched it approach almost disinterestedly. The truck hissed to a halt with the passenger door directly opposite the still figure. Kevin leaned across the passenger seat and pushed the door open, looking down from his vantage point in the cab at the upturned face of a male in his middle or late twenties. His dark brown hair fell onto shoulders, which were covered, in the black leather of a motorcycle jacket.
"You o.k., mate?" Kevin shouted across the noise of the diesel engine and the wail of Richie Blackmore's guitar from the tape player. The man looked up but did not reply.
"Have you broken down?" Kevin tried again "Do you need a lift?"
The man smiled, an honest friendly grin Kev was relieved to see. "Yes ... a lift. I could do with a lift thanks. I've been hanging round here too long."
Kevin smiled back in return and sat upright behind the steering wheel once more. "Well, climb in then. I'm not going much further tonight, but I can drop you anywhere between here and Gloucester."
The longhaired man scrambled up into the cab and smiled once more "Gloucester, o.k., that's fine. I'll go as far as you're going. "
Kevin floored the clutch pedal and put the truck in gear again "You're lucky I came along. Not too much traffic passing along here at this hour of the morning. How long were you waiting there?"
"I dunno," the man replied, "It seemed like a long, long time. I kinda lost track."
Kevin studied his passenger in soft light shed by the instrument panel and dashboard lights. He was wearing denim jeans, heavy boots and a well-worn leather jacket, the classic highway patrol pattern the twin of which hung in Kevin's wardrobe at home. Several patches were stitched onto the sleeve and Kevin smiled to see the familiar and much loved names they carried - 'Norton' 'Triumph' and 'BSA'. He had picked up a kindred spirit it seemed. Confirmation seemed to follow as Cream followed Deep Purple on the tape cassette and 'I Feel Free' began to fill the cab. The young man in the leather jacket patted out the rhythm on his denim-clad thigh, drumming along with Ginger Baker.
"You like the oldies then? " Kevin asked "Cream and stuff."
The passenger nodded "Cream…yeah…love Clapton…I have that album. Or I used to."
"My name's Kevin, by the way. My mate's call me Big Kev."
"Baz" the Clapton-loving biker offered.
Kev nodded, as if satisfied by the name.
"Like I said, Baz, I can drop you off in Gloucester, up at the coach or the bus station if you like, but you're likely goin' to have another long wait. Is there somewhere you have to be in a hurry?"
A frown creased the young man's brow, more in concentration than annoyance it seemed "I …I got a call…I have a …a meeting. It'll be fine. I'll just go as far as you'll take me."
There was a long silence. Kevin decided not to press further. If the guy had problems he didn't want to discuss that was his choice; and if he was in any other sort of trouble- well Kev preferred not to know. He steered the conversation back to music. "I make those tapes up myself, there's about a couple of dozen in a cassette case under your seat. I hate the shit they play on the radio these days. Who else do you like, then, apart from Clapton."
He could see the tension flow from his passenger as Baz settled back in his seat. "Loadsa stuff; Led Zep, Curved Air, Hendrix, Creedence, Wishbone Ash."
"You bugger!" Big Kev laughed, "You've been peekin' at my record collection. I'm not so keen on Wishbone Ash, I think Argos is the only one of theirs I have, but the rest; gold …pure gold."
The hedges and trees fled past in the darkness and the Volvo sped through the unlit Gloucestershire countryside. Kevin controlled the vehicle expertly and effortlessly. From time to time the headlights would be eerily reflected back by the eyes of some night-prowling animal, fox or badger, but apart from the nocturnal wildlife the two men seemed to have the highways to themselves as they drove between the sleeping towns and villages.
"So tell me then, Baz" he nodded towards the patches on the leather sleeve "What was your first bike?"
The question seemed to rouse the young man from some reverie, but his answer was quick and sure. "Tiger Cub. A 1964 Sports. Then a Tiger 500." The grin had returned.
Kevin's features lit up in delight "You lucky sod! My first bike was an old Honda CB 175, but I never liked the Jap scrap. I'm a Brit man, like yourself. I bought an old BSA Starfire from a mate of mine for fifty quid and that was me hooked. Practically had to rebuild the bugger from scratch, and when you pushed it backwards the speedo shot up to 70," Kev laughed "but they have character, real character. I've restored a couple since then …an Ariel Red Hunter and a Bonnie. I had the Bonnie up until I was married, but the wife harped on at me until I had to sell it." He reached forward to the dashboard and switched on the heater. "Getting a bit nippy, ain't it? So what would be your favourite British bike?"
Baz half turned in the passenger seat and seemed to think deeply for a moment as Mott the Hoople began to sing 'All The Young Dudes'. Ian Hunter's distinctive voice floated through the cabin speakers.
'Billy rapped all night 'bout his suicide
How he'd kick it in the head when he was twentyfive
Speed Child, Don't wanna stay alive when you're twentyfive'
"Lemme think now" he folded his arms across his chest and let his chin drop onto his chest. "I always wanted a BSA Goldstar, but if I was being honest I would have to say that the Vincent was the best. Probably a Black Shadow."
Kevin laughed out loud. "Baz, you really are a man after me own heart. The Vinnie had to be the dog's bollocks. But they're like gold dust now. Even old ropey ones are changing hands for big money." He slapped the dashboard with the flat of his hand and tutted in annoyance, sliding the knob of the heating control another notch to the right. "Bloody thing, must be a fuse gone or summat."
Nailbridge had come and gone, and Kevin had decided to take the road towards Cinderford. The big truck rumbled on through the dark countryside. He had warmed to his passenger since discovering their shared passion for vintage Brit machines; anyone who had the sense to admit that Vincent were the finest bikes ever made had to be all right, he reasoned. He decided then to let his new acquaintance in on his secret, his latest completed project, his pride and joy.
"Open up that glove box in front of you, Baz and there should be a packet with photos in it. You'll see better if you click the map light on. That's it, they've mebbe slid down to the back, behind the road atlas. Got them?"
Baz followed Kevin's instructions and, from the depths of the glove compartment produced a stiff paper wallet embellished with the name and logo of a large chain of chemist's. He flipped the wallet open as Kevin continued to talk.
"Those are photos of my latest project. My baby. I found it in a breaker's yard in Bristol and I've been working on it for just over a year now. He glanced round to note that Baz had opened the packet and was studying the first of the photographs intently by the illumination of the map light. Kev felt a surge of pride. "She's one of the last Norton 750 Commandos. 1973. The 850s that came after handled better but they didn't have as much grunt. She was in a right sorry state when I found her, completely mangled." The sight of his breath fogging in front of him momentarily distracted Kevin from his flow. He moved sharply flicked the heating control two further notches to the right "S'like a bloody ice box in here. Anyway" he continued "I had to do a complete front end rebuild on the old lady, new wheel, forks, clock, bars, the whole lot; plus the head was cracked and the front end of the tank was well punched in. Then I sent the tank and side casings away to be resprayed in the proper paint. I'll tell you. Baz, I spared no expense on this one. If my wife hadn't already left I think she would have divorced me." Kevin laughed loudly and turned to the passenger seat.
Baz was sitting with his head bent over the pile of photographs, but he had not disturbed any. He was staring at the top photograph of the gleamingly restored Norton, slowly running his fingertips over the glossy surface of the picture as he traced the bike's outline, almost reverentially. Kevin again felt the flush of pride to think that a fellow aficionado was so clearly impressed by his labour of love. He hadn't noticed before that the tape in the cassette player had come to an end and the cab was almost fittingly silent. After what seemed like an age Baz spoke, his voice hardly more than a whisper. He spoke not to Kev, but to the photograph.
"Hello, old girl" The words, barely heard, were filled with feeling and tenderness.
Kevin was stunned. If the tape had've still been playing he wouldn't have heard Baz at all, and now that he had he couldn't believe it. What an amazing coincidence! What were the chances? He spluttered and hopped around in the driver's seat, almost comically, as his need to pay attention to the road fought with the natural desire to stare at his passenger.
"What!...you mean? ... you don't? You know that bike?"
"Oh yes" Baz looked up, his eyes glassily reflected in the map light's glare, the light adding a cold sheen to the pale skin of his face. His low voice had a strange hollowness about it now "I know her. I put her through a hedge outside of Edge End one Sunday…the seventh of April 1974.... never saw the tree until the last second. Such a long time… such a long, long time." The chill in the silent cab went bone deep.