5 June 2010.
“For God’s sake!”
For the third time that evening, Squadron Leader Martin Delaheye cursed his decision to ride the BMW. Even in mid-summer it was hopeless. You’d think, in June, you had a chance of getting home without half-drowning. But no, the rain had got to the electrics and and that was it – the bike was spluttering, coughing and regularly dying by the roadside.
With that bogging, helpless sensation known to every motorcyclist who’s run a classic, the 1959 R50‘s engine coughed and stalled. No power. Delaheye coasted to a stop, realising as soon as the water started filling his boot that he’d put his left foot in a puddle the size of the Channel.
German reliability. Right.
He pulled his helmet and misted goggles off and wondered where the hell he was. He eschewed GPSs – particularly on classic bikes – but now, at nearly midnight, in hacking rain and dark, he was regretting not slipping his Garmin into the panniers. There was no point in getting the map out, it already resembled papier mache. He rummaged around for his headtorch, only to find it glowing dully at the bottom of the pannier. He realised the switch must have got knocked on. The light faded and died.
“Bugger. Bugger. Bugger.” He thought.
The ride had started beautifully. Summer country lanes, dappled leaf patterns on the tarmac from the sun. All the way up through Dorset and Hampshire had been the very English motorcycling idyll, even on a German bike. Then, just after Wantage it had started. The sort of rain he just knew would start dribbling coldly down between his flight jacket and scarf. The sort of rain that was going to cause a short somewhere in the ancient wiring loom and strand him on some lane somewhere in Oxfordshire.
He guessed he was just south of Burford, near one of the old WWII bases that litter that part of the county. RAF Broadwell? RAF Southrop? Windrush? Could have been any of them.
From recent experience, he knew what came next. A wait of about twenty minutes for the thing to cool down, then kick, kick, kick and it would fire and run for maybe another half an hour. With a bit of luck he might make RAF Brize Norton before 1am and a glass of whisky in the mess before bed. He couldn’t be that far away. Assuming he could find the problem without his headtorch…
Delayheye kicked the back wheel, more for want of anything better to do than out of malice, and leaned on the saddle. He wished he still smoked.
A light flickered in the right-hand mirror. At first, barely a glow, then as it got closer, a narrow slit of light casting a vague puddle on the wet road as the rider approached. Over the rain, Delaheye could sense – rather than hear – the regular beat of the single cylinder. British, almost certainly. His money was on a BSA, probably one of the early post-war singles. But whatever he was riding, another rider would surely stop. He might even have a torch. An Imperial toolkit wouldn’t be much use, but that wasn’t a problem. Delaheye always carried a full set of metrics. That 1am whisky in the Mess was suddenly looking a whole lot likelier.
He was wrong. It was a Norton. Probably an old wartime WD16H (“WD” for War Department and H for “home” as opposed to C for “colonial”) despatcher’s bike. The bike stopped and the rider climbed off with a wave.
“Evening, Sir. Everything alright? Saw you stop. Not the night for it.”
“Good to see another idiot out on a proper bike at this time of night! Glad you stopped – think there’s a duff wire and I can’t see a damn thing, my torch battery’s buggered. Haven’t got one have you?”
Delaheye took in his rescuer’s bike and kit. Flat matt green paintwork, serial number and a division crest on the tank. Single seat and canvas panniers. A beautiful restoration, he could see that even in the gloom through the rain.
“Always liked those old 16s, quite fancy one myself. Better than this thing.” He commented, kicking the BMW again.
“Standard issue, Sir. Good bikes, front brake’s a bit vague if you know what I mean, but they go well.” he added with a grin.
“That a Douglas, Sir? Flat twin, yeah? It’s gorgeous – not seen one like it.”
Delaheye’s rescuer didn’t wait for the answer, but pulled his machine onto the stand and started hunting for his torch. He found it in a remote corner of one of the panniers and handed it across the bike with a grin.
Delaheye took it. Cold, wet, metal, with heavy tube body, a belt clip and the head at a right-angle. He suddenly realised. Re-enactment. No summer weekend was complete without some battle being re-enacted on a field somewhere. The guys always had the right kit – he’d been amazed at how accurate the old RAF uniforms and equipment were. And the Luftwaffe ones too, he thought, with a wry smile.
The re-enacters often had mid-week pub meetings. His rescuer must be on the way back from one locally and have got caught in the storm too. He was clearly into his hobby – the “Sir” comments, the uniform, the immaculate bike. It all fitted.
“I’d check the magneto if I were you – loose wire I’d guess.”
Delaheye slid the switch and pointed the light under the tank. There it was! Why hadn’t he spotted that before – magneto wire loose and almost off the post. He reached back and pulled a 12mm spanner from the roll and nipped the nut up as the Norton rider looked on.
“Sorry,” Delaheye said, making conversation, “I didn’t get your name. Mine’s Delaheye – Martin Delaheye. Trying to get to bloody Brize before the mess shuts!”
“Guessed you were RAF with a flash new bike like that. “ The other rider grinned again.
“Tarrant – Harry Tarrant. My lot are all camped over there. Nearly time for the off though.”
He nodded a direction and Delaheye could just see a row of army-issue style tents stretching back from the road. A few figures moved and glowing cigarette ends blinked on and off as they cupped the smoke.
He gestured at the three stripes on his arm,
“Mind you, it’s Sergeant Tarrant nowadays. But a rider’s a rider, if you know what I mean – doesn’t matter who it is, you always stop. ‘Specially on a night like tonight. G’luck, Sir – she should start now.”
Delaheye grinned in return, handed the torch back and straddled the BMW. Pulling out the kickstart, he weighted it carefully, found compression and kicked. The engine fired. He waved his thanks to Tarrant as he let out the clutch, mentally planning to look up his re-enactment club on the web – should be easy enough – and thank him by e-mail. Maybe even get him in for a mess night as a thank you.
As he looked back in his mirrors, Tarrant had already disappeared in the darkness behind a curtain of grey rain. And, half a mile later, as the familar landmark of the derelict RAF Broadwell control tower loomed up from the left, he realised he’d be at the mess bar with that whisky in about fifteen minutes. He opened the throttle a little wider and smiled happily in anticipation.
December 11 2010
As the heavy door shut behind him, Delaheye wondered why he’d passed the Plough so often yet not come in before. Handing over his coins, he drew off the top of his pint and was soon happily reading the old cuttings on the walls. As the nearest civilised pub to Brize, there were plenty of them. Stories about long-scrapped Vulcans, Lancasters, Spits, even a few about the D-Day Douglas Dakota glider tugs from Broadwell.
He usually drank in the Clanfield Tavern. He had only dropped into the Plough because he was out for a ride before the light went, just to clear the cobwebs after a day of clearing admin from one tray to another. He didn’t fancy bumping into his colleagues and having to stop to chat. The R50 was going a storm. New bearings after that summer’s engine rebuild and no trace of magneto problems.
A framed cutting a little higher than the others caught his eye. A bike and rider. The paper yellowed and the mount speckled with pub nicotine and age. It was just too high to read, so he reached up and took it down.
A Norton 16H and – yes, it was unmistakable – Harry Tarrant. Delaheye would recognise that grin – and that bike – anywhere. He felt a pang of guilt. He’d still not got around to sending that e-mail. He patted his pocket, reassured that his iPhone was still there. He’d sit and read the article and send Harry his belated thanks as he drank his 6X.
Then, he spotted the date at the top left of the framed article. August 3 1944. Not quite registering, he sat down and started scanning the text under the picture of a smiling Harry and bike:
“Local Hero – Despatch Rider Decorated. Sergeant Harry Tarrant, son of Peter and Mary Tarrant of Alvescot, was, last Thursday, awarded the Military Medal for his gallantry in the recent Normandy Landings. After flying from RAF Broadwell on D-Day, Tarrant, a despatch rider in the Royal Corps of Signals, not only rode into hostile machine gun fire to ensure vital signals were delivered to forward HQ positions, but continued to do so in order to rescue two fallen comrades whose lives were in mortal danger. He later died of the injuries he received.
His award of the Military Medal is posthumous.”
“A rider’s a rider, if you know what I mean – doesn’t matter who it is, you always stop.”