A Breakdown, a Bike and a Barmy Blonde Again
That evening, I told Mike of my planned trip to the shops.
Ginny and Luna had agreed to look after Annie while I drove into Newcastle to buy a new outfit for the housewarming party. When I finished explaining why I needed new clothes, and who Luna was (and that took a lot of explaining), Mike asked me if I wanted to meet him for lunch. He told me that he was going to be in town himself because he had a meeting at one of the big solicitor’s offices on the Quayside.
The school run went to plan. Luna stayed at Drakeshaugh to look after Al and Lily, so after I dropped Henry at school, I took both Ginny and Annie back to Drakeshaugh. I turned down Ginny’s offer of a coffee, tempting though it was, and told her that I needed to get on my way. I said my goodbyes to Annie, who didn’t seem at all worried about me leaving her, and drove straight into Newcastle. Somehow, I managed to find my way into one of the city centre car parks without getting lost in the one way system, and then I hit the shops.
My shopping trip was successful; I was very pleased with the floral-print godet skirt, matching camisole and jacket I bought. Mike said he liked them too when I showed him the contents of my bags, although he hadn’t seen me wearing them. He phoned me as he’d promised he would when his meeting was over, and we met at Grey’s Monument a little after noon.
Mike held my hand and led me down the finest street in England: Grey Street. We turned onto High Bridge and he took me to a little Italian place. It was a place we’d regularly visited before we were married, before we moved out of the city.
‘This is just like being on a date,’ Mike joked as we walked towards the café.
‘When’s the last time you took me out?’ I asked him.
He made a couple of suggestions.
‘Without the kids,’ I said.
‘Too long ago,’ he admitted. He made fun of himself and teased me too, because we soon realised that neither of us could remember the last time we’d been out to lunch, just the two of us.
Because I’d finished my shopping, we dallied over lunch, gossiping and even flirting a little. Eventually, it was time for me to leave. Mike was running late, too; he should have left and returned to his office at least half an hour before we finally parted. When we got back onto Grey Street, he grabbed me by the waist and kissed me.
‘Bye, gorgeous,’ he said, before he turned and walked downhill. I watched him strut down the road, and I smiled at him when he turned to wave to me. Then I crossed the road and headed for the car park.
The roads were quiet, and I managed to find my way out of the city without any problems. I made good time on my homeward journey and I was certain that I would have time to collect Annie before I met Henry at the school gates.
It didn’t work out that way.
I’d passed through Thropton and had turned onto the Sharperton road when it happened. I had just negotiated the first of two sharp bends, so fortunately, I wasn’t going particularly quickly when there was a loud bang and the car swerved towards the verge. I swore, using several words I definitely wouldn’t want Annie or Henry to hear, and then I wrestled with the steering wheel.
The car was making an awful noise, as though a wheel had fallen off. I fought to keep it in a straight line and touched the brakes gently. Because the car was trying to pull to the left, I was worried that braking hard might simply make me swerve into the fence. I’d taken my right foot off the accelerator and slammed the left onto the clutch the moment I heard the bang, so I was slowly rolling to a halt anyway. But the second sharp bend was rapidly approaching and I didn’t really want to try to get round it. There was an untidy concrete track leading across the grass to a field gate and it was right on the bend. Using brakes and gears, I managed to bring the car to an untidy halt on the side of the road.
I switched off the engine and simply sat there, holding the steering wheel and shaking. It seemed like I waited in the silence forever, but it was probably only a few seconds. I had managed to bring the car safely to a halt, but my imagination was accelerating dangerously out of control. My head was filling with what-ifs, each more terrifying than the last; until, finally, I burst into tears. Don’t be silly, I scolded myself. I took several deep breaths and tried to calm down. It wasn’t easy.
I was still sobbing when I heard the motorbike. As the roar of the engine died down, I reached into the glovebox for a tissue. Half of me was desperate for it to be Harry, because I knew that he could—and would—try to help. The other half was hoping that it wasn’t, because I’d almost crashed the car and I’d been crying.
I looked in the mirror. The black bike had pulled to a halt directly behind me, and its red helmeted rider was dismounting. It was Harry. I fumbled for the car door, pushed it open, and staggered out. I almost fell, but Harry dashed forwards, grabbed my arm and steadied me.
‘You’re okay, Jacqui,’ he reassured me. ‘I’m on my way to school, I assume you are, too.’
‘I almost died,’ I sobbed, and the tears flowed again. Harry put an arm around my shoulders, reached into his pocket and produced a large white handkerchief.
‘No, you didn’t, Jacqui,’ he said firmly. There was an almost mischievous twinkle in his eyes as he continued, ‘If you had, you’d be almost dead, and you look very much alive to me. In fact, I don’t think anyone almost dies. Either you die, or you don’t. You didn’t, and there’s no use in worrying about something that didn’t happen. You’re a little shocked, but you’re okay, aren’t you?’
I nodded. ‘I was lucky,’ I said.
‘You deserve the credit, Jacqui; it wasn’t luck, it was you. You kept control of the car.’ His voice was calm and reassuring.
I blew my nose and wiped my tears on his handkerchief, and then I realised that Harry’s arm was still around my shoulder, and I was leaning in to him. I stood upright and he removed his arm.
‘Any idea what happened?’ he asked.
‘There was a bang, and the car swerved,’ I said.
Harry walked around the car, examining it carefully. ‘Your front nearside tyre is flat,’ he said. He gave me a self-depreciating smile. ‘I’m no expert, but I think that’s your problem, right there.’ He bent down to take a closer look and I followed him onto the verge. He pointed at some damaged rubber and the split in it. ‘It looks like the side wall split. It’s scuffed, as if it’s been…’
‘Oh, no!’ I put my head in my hands and groaned. ‘I hit a kerb on Monday, on my way to school. But I forgot all about it. Mike says I must tell him if there’s a problem with the car. I’ve probably damaged the wheel, too. It will probably cost a fortune to repair. He’ll kill me.’
‘He won’t,’ said Harry confidently. ‘If he’s got any sense, he’ll simply be happy that you’re okay, damn the car, and damn the expense.’ He stared at me; those remarkable green eyes of his seemed to bore into my head. ‘People are more important than property; you know that, and so does Mike, doesn’t he?’
‘Yes,’ I admitted.
‘Now, we need to be practical. Unfortunately, I don’t really know much about cars; I know blokes are supposed to know these things…’ He lowered his voice, despite the fact that there was probably no one else for several miles around. ‘But, to be honest, cars and football are two things I’ve never been interested in,’ Harry admitted. ‘It can’t be difficult to fix, I hope. I assume that you’ve got a spare tyre somewhere. Is it in the boot?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Probably,’ I added uncertainly. ‘Unless it’s somewhere else, or there isn’t one.’
Harry raised an eyebrow, and I realised what I’d said.
‘Sorry.’ I laughed rather more than I should have done and my own foolishness. Nerves, I suppose. Harry simply waited until I stopped. ‘I should have simply said that I don’t know! I’m not much use, am I?’
‘You probably know at least as much about cars as I do, Jacqui,’ he assured me. ‘It will take us a while to change the wheel, assuming that there is a wheel to change.’ He pulled a battered-looking pocket watch from the pocket of his leather jacket. ‘Even if we both knew what we were doing, there’s no way we could change the wheel and be at school in time to collect the kids. I’d better contact Ginny and let her know, unless…’ He paused and nodded meaningfully to the bike.
‘I don’t have a helmet,’ I said, although part of me was screaming do it!
‘Ginny’s is strapped to the seat,’ Harry said.
I looked and realised that it was. I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it earlier.
‘I’m not dressed for it,’ I said hesitantly. Just do it; you know you want to, the voice in my head was becoming more insistent.
Under most circumstances, I would have said yes without any hesitation, but under most circumstances I’d be wearing trousers. Because I had been into town, because I was meeting Mike and shopping for clothes, I was dressed up for the occasion. The tan leather jacket I was wearing was far from new, but it was made for fashion, not practicality. Worse, I was wearing a knee-length pencil skirt.
‘You might have to sit side-saddle,’ Harry said. ‘But the footwear looks okay.’
I looked down at my feet and blushed. I’d been rather pleased with my “going out” outfit; when he’d met me at the Monument, Mike had told me how nice I looked. Now, however, the effect was rather spoiled by the battered and well-worn blue trainers I was now wearing. They didn’t match anything else.
‘You know I’ve been in town shopping, Harry. I can’t drive in heels,’ I explained. ‘My smart shoes are in the car and…’
Harry was grinning broadly. He’d been teasing me.
‘It’s okay, Jacqui,’ he said. ‘You obviously aren’t dressed for a bike ride. I’ll contact Ginny and ask her to collect James and Henry.’
He reached into his jacket, and this time, he pulled out what looked like a smartphone. It was mirror-bright on one side, and it appeared to be a dark wood-effect on the other. He didn’t, however, touch the screen; he just looked at it, said ‘Ginny’ and then held it to his ear. I should really phone Mike, too, I thought, but I didn’t.
‘Hi; oh, ear. Problems, Harry?’ Ginny asked. Her voice was very clear and it carried across to me. Harry’s phone must be voice activated, I realised.
‘I’ve had to stop to help Jacqui; we’re only about four miles from the school, but she has a flat tyre. It looks like we’re going to be late for the kids,’ Harry said.
While he spoke, I was looking at his bike. The voice in my head had taken control, and I was fantasising about a bike ride. I tried to push the idea aside. I can’t go on the bike, I told myself sternly, not in this outfit.
In order to distract myself, I opened the boot to look for the spare wheel. Lying there where I’d thrown it the previous afternoon was my old Barbour jacket. I reached into the pockets and found my gardening gloves. Tight skirt, my conscience reminded me.
‘You’re standing next to her, aren’t you?’ I heard Ginny ask.
‘Yes,’ he confirmed.
‘Hi, Ginny,’ I shouted, letting her know that I could hear her. ‘How’s Annie?’
‘Hi, Jacqui; she’s fine. Thanks for letting me know, Harry. Luna was going to walk down to the school anyway. She wants to see what it’s like. I’ll tell her to collect Henry as well as James. We’ll keep both Henry and Annie here until you…’ That’s when I cracked.
‘You can give me a lift,’ I told Harry. I held up the jacket and gloves.
‘Just a second, Ginny,’ Harry said. ‘Are you sure, Jacqui?’ He looked pointedly at my skirt.
I was already feeling the buzz of a bike ride; perhaps that’s what made me babble.
‘I first met Mike in Newcastle. It was a Saturday. I’d been at a swimming competition at City Pool and I’d gone into town with a couple of girlfriends during the lunch break. Mike just walked up to us and started talking to me. He was really nervous; he said he’d never done anything like that before. My friends teased him and tried to put him off, but he persevered. When they got bored and left us, he asked me out. I said yes and gave him my address.
‘Mike turned up at my flat the following day. He was on his bike. I was all dolled up and wearing a skirt. He’d said that he’d take me to Whitley Bay for the day. I knew that he was a law student and I thought he might be rich, have a flashy car, although I really expected that we’d be taking the Metro. He hadn’t mentioned the bike.
‘It was his idea of a test; if I hadn’t gone with him, I don’t think I would’ve ever seen him again. When he saw what I was wearing, Mike suggested that I change, but I was too stupid and stubborn to agree. Instead, I found myself wearing my shortest skirt and perched on the back of the Aprilia as he did a ton along the coast road. It was the best first date I’d ever had, and it was the last first date I ever had!’ I paused for breath, thinking about what I’d said. ‘They’re probably always the best ones, aren’t they?’
‘I think they probably are, yes.’ Harry laughed and placed the phone back to his ear.
‘Did you hear all that, Ginny?’ he asked.
‘Oh, yes.’ Ginny couldn’t keep the laughter from her voice, either.
‘I’ll give Jacqui a lift to school, Ginny. We can decide what to do about her car later. It’s safe enough where it is.’
While he was talking, I picked up my shopping and my shoes from the passenger floor well, put them in the boot and locked my car. I pulled on the grubby wax cotton jacket, knowing that at least my torso would be warm, and dry if it rained, although one glance at the clear sky told me that was unlikely. By the time I’d fastened my coat, Harry had ended the call.
He handed me Ginny’s helmet. I pulled it over my head and fastened it. Harry was watching, making sure that I knew what I was doing. He seemed to be happy, because he swung himself onto the bike, leapt up and kicked it into life. It really was a classic; no starter motor! He fastened his helmet and jacket and pulled on his gloves. I donned my gardening gloves.
Harry pulled the bike upright and kicked up the side stand. Standing astride it, he leaned back and pulled the pillion pegs into place for me. I hitched up my skirt a little, then a little more, all the while cursing myself for my choice of clothing. Catching his eye, I made sure that he had the bike balanced and was ready for my weight.
He nodded, so I stepped onto the footpeg, swung myself over behind him and sat. It was tricky. My skirt was tight around my thighs even with the rear slit, which was under some strain. I hoped that it wouldn’t rip. Harry tried to sit, but because of the skirt, he didn’t fit between my knees. I shuffled right to the back of the seat, and Harry moved right to the front.
It was ridiculous, and I started to laugh. I had two options. Hitch the skirt higher, revealing more leg than I’d done since I was a teenager, or ride with my knees forced tightly against Harry’s hips. I shuffled, and pulled the skirt higher. Harry slid back and got into his riding position. I put my hands on my knees, leaned forwards until our helmets touched and yelled ‘READY.’
I saw Harry jump in surprise.
‘Merl...’ he said, his voice surprisingly loud in my ears. ‘There’s an intercom built into the helmets, Jacqui,’ he said quietly. ‘There’s no need to shout.’
‘Sorry,’ I said. We hadn’t even set off and I could already outgrin a Cheshire cat.
‘You know that your legs will get cold,’ he added. He still seemed to be trying to put me off.
‘By the time we were married, Mike had bought a Ducati,’ I said firmly. ‘For our honeymoon, we rode across Europe on it. It can be colder than this in the Alps, even in the summer.’ I smiled at the memory. ‘I’ve just thought of something else, Harry,’ I added. ‘Mrs Wilson keeps an eye on the school gate. She won’t let a stranger collect James and Henry. And they don’t come much stranger than Luna. We’d better go.’
‘Okay.’ Harry chuckled. He pulled in the clutch and kicked the bike into first gear, and as we roared off up the road, he rapidly and smoothly toed his way up through the gears.
I simply stayed behind him and enjoyed the ride. When we dropped down into Sharperton, he took the bends at speed, but smoothly. As we leaned steeply into the second bend, I glanced down at the road. We were skimming along only inches above it.
‘This is brilliant!’ I announced.
‘You’re a good pillion,’ Harry told me. ‘You’re like Ginny; you stick with me, lean with me. I took Hermione out once. She screamed and fought to stay upright at every bend. Never again!’ He shook his head.
‘Either trust the rider, or get off,’ I said. The words Mike had used when I’d climbed nervously behind him on our first date suddenly came back to me. That’s what I’d always done. I’d leaned when Mike leaned, moved the way he’d moved; anything else was fighting the rider.
As we sped toward Harbottle, I wondered why Harry would have agreed to take Hermione on his bike. She was his best friend’s wife, but she didn’t strike me as being the sort who would like motorcycling.
Harry slowed as we approached Harbottle, the bend and the school. I realised with some regret that my bike ride was almost over. It had been much too short. I’d forgotten the adrenalin rush, the sensation of true speed, which you simply don’t get when you’re enclosed in a big metal box.
‘I’d forgotten how much fun this is,’ I said. ‘It’s as close to flying as you can get.’
‘I suppose it is, yes,’ Harry said. ‘In fact, thinking about it, it certainly is.’ I couldn’t see his face, but from his voice, he seemed to be amused by my comment. I was still grinning like a lunatic; I knew that.
A bike isn’t practical, not with two kids. I remembered the discussions we’d had when we made the fateful decision to sell “the Duke”. A solicitor and a family man can’t ride a motorbike to an important meeting. We need a car; in fact, out here, we need two cars, one each. We can’t afford the bike, too. We don’t really need the bike, do we?
‘I wish we hadn’t sold our bike,’ I said sadly as we rode sedately past the school. I waved cheerily at Mary and her friends as we passed. I think that, for a few seconds, they must have thought I was Ginny. But I’m a lot bigger than Ginny, and Mary must have realised that it was me almost immediately, because her gang closed ranks, going into a disapproving huddle. I didn’t care.
Harry rolled the bike to a halt. He put his feet on the ground and waited. I faced my next problem. I have yet to discover a ladylike way to dismount from a motorbike whilst wearing a skirt, and this time, the skirt was too-tight and hitched embarrassingly high.
I did my best. I stood up on the pegs and swung my leg back, but my legs were cold and I was trying to keep my skirt down. I stumbled and tottered onto the path looking a lot less cool and calm than I’d have liked. If I’d been in my heels, I’m certain I’d have fallen. Fortunately, I managed to stay upright, but I had to readjust my skirt under the critical gaze of Mary and her friends.
By the time I’d pulled off my gloves and unfastened the helmet, Harry had turned off the engine, dismounted, and hauled the bike onto its main stand.
‘Thanks, Harry,’ I told him loudly as I handed him the helmet and automatically checked my hair in the bike’s mirror. No helmet line; I hadn’t been wearing it for long enough, unfortunately.
Pushing my gardening gloves into my pocket, I unfastened my Barbour jacket, shrugged it off and held it over my arm. As I walked towards the school gates, I could feel the stares. A susurrus of gossip hissed through the air and unspoken questions flew towards me. Mary glanced at my feet and said something which made her friends laugh.
I’d be expected to explain myself, I realised, but in my heart, I was still flying along on the back of the bike. Sod them! I decided that if they wanted to know, they would have to ask. I simply nodded politely and wondered where Harry was. He hadn’t followed me.
‘I don’t think the shoes match the outfit,’ Mary said. Some of her friends giggled.
‘Driving in high heels is stupid, don’t you think?’ I asked. The sharp intake of breath from Angela told me that I should have checked Mary’s feet before I spoke.
‘You weren’t driving,’ said Mary acidly.
‘I was,’ I said. ‘One of the tyres on the car blew out. I almost crashed, and I wouldn’t have got here in time if Harry hadn’t rescued me.’
‘Are you all right?’ Angela asked sympathetically, surprising me.
‘Yes, thanks,’ I told her.
I looked at Mary, because the snappy comeback I’d been expecting hadn’t arrived. In fact, Mary had stopped looking at me. She was staring over my shoulder, and so were her friends. I turned to see what they were looking at. I should have realised. Luna was talking animatedly to Harry, her hands waving wildly as they approached.
‘Who on earth is that?’ Mary asked. ‘And what on earth is she wearing?’
It seemed fairly obvious to me what Luna was wearing. She wore baseball boots (one blue and one yellow) candy-striped dungarees over a yellow shirt and a claret-coloured smoking jacket. An interesting choice for the school run, but I’d arrived wearing batty old trainers and a tatty jacket over my smart clothes. I wasn’t going to criticise. After all, Luna made me look normal.
‘Hello, Luna,’ I called.
‘Hello, Jacqui.’ Luna waved her arms in a wildly enthusiastic greeting. ‘I didn’t realise that Jacqui was short for Jacqueline. Ginny didn’t tell me until today. I think Jacqueline is a very nice name, but I think Ginevra is nice, too, and Ginny prefers Ginny.’
‘Mary was wondering what you are wearing,’ I said, while processing that latest snippet.
“Ginny isn’t Virginia,” Harry had said at the swimming pool. I’d assumed that he’d meant that she didn’t like the name, or she’d been christened Ginny. Harry, James, Lily, Ginevra, Albus. Some common names, some considerably less so.
My musings came to an abrupt halt. They were interrupted by Luna’s explanation to Mary.
‘These are called dungarees,’ Luna began. She was talking slowly and patiently, as though she thought Mary might not be able to follow. ‘They’re sort of like trousers, except they have these straps over your shoulders.’ To demonstrate, she gave one of the straps a tug. ‘And they have this bib-thing at the front. They’re very comfortable and have lots of pockets, which is useful.’
‘I know what they are,’ Mary snapped. ‘I was wondering why you chose to wear those … clothes,’ Mary sneered. She glared at me, but I simply thought about the bike ride, smiled, and watched Luna.
‘Why did I choose to wear these clothes?’ Luna asked, looking curiously at everyone. ‘I like wearing clothes, especially comfortable, colourful clothes. Also, for reasons no one has ever satisfactorily explained to me, it is not socially acceptable to be naked. Would it make you more comfortable if I took my clothes off?’ Luna’s expression was one of genuine concern for Mary’s welfare, and sanity.
‘She’s great, isn’t she?’ Harry whispered to me. He was watching Luna with open affection in his eyes.
‘I … I … of course not,’ Mary spluttered.
‘So, why are you unhappy that I’m wearing clothes?’ Luna asked.
‘I’m not,’ said Mary. She was beginning to crumble under Luna’s polite and cheerful questioning. Mary excelled at the snide put down, but Luna would continue to question, to ask why, until she got the truth. And Mary suddenly knew it. She was an expert at cutting remarks, but her remarks were always indirect or masked as polite interest. If she wanted to insult Luna, Mary would have to be both direct and rude. She liked being politely unpleasant, but she didn’t like direct unpleasantness.
‘I…’ Mary was lost for words. She stood there, open mouthed.
‘Oh, dear,’ said Luna. She reached forwards and vigorously flapped her hands around Mary’s head, as though swatting invisible insects. ‘Is that better?’ she asked solicitously.
‘Better?’ Mary asked.
‘You seem to be rather confused,’ said Luna.
‘I’m confused!’ Mary spluttered disbelievingly.
‘I’m glad you agree,’ Luna told her. I could see that Angela, still standing next to Mary, was struggling to keep her face straight. Some of Mary’s other friends had given up the fight.
Mary was saved by the arrival of the kids. Harry was suddenly surrounded by people confirming the time of his party, thanking him for the invitations and handing over last minute confirmations of their attendance. I couldn’t hear much of what was happening, because James and Henry were excitedly telling Luna and me about their day. By the time things quietened down, Mary had left.
As we walked up the road to Drakeshaugh, I finally plucked up the courage to phone Mike and tell him what had happened. Harry was proved right.
‘Sod the bloody car,’ Mike interrupted my apologies. ‘Are you okay, Jacques?’
‘I was a bit shook up when it happened, but I’m fine now.’
’Well, that’s all that matters, isn’t it?’ he said. ‘I’m going to leave work now. There’s nothing on my desk that can’t wait until Monday. Do you want me to pick you up from Drakeshaugh, or has Harry offered you a lift home?’
‘He hasn’t; just a second, Mike,’ I said. Ahead of me, Harry was holding Henry’s hand, and Luna was hanging on to James. ‘Mike has offered to pick me up from Drakeshaugh, Harry, if that’s okay.’
‘Fine, Jacqui, that’s not a problem.’
I passed the message on to Mike.
‘See you in three quarters of an hour,’ he told me.