Some bastard stole my bike. So I couldn’t leave London, and I couldn’t even earn a living. I only got three O-levels, CSE’s really, and I need my bike. I’m a courier, see. I ride around all day, delivering stuff. I like being a courier, but when my bike got nicked I couldn’t do it anymore.
There was a friendliness on the streets I missed. We all hung out in the same caffs and pubs at lunch, and between calls, and we’d talk. We frightened off the pedestrians from our favourite caff – the Brazilian it was, but we called it the Nut. Like Brazil Nuts, see? And we were all slouching in there, eight or nine of us, our bikes lined up outside. Mine the only British bike, so the others, the Japs, they treated me with a bit of respect; even though I’m a woman. There aren’t many women on bikes, but most of us ride good ones, big ones.
So, we’re all in the Nut. That’s up by Highbury, by the way. And these pedestrians come in, a bloke and his girl. He’s a bit uptight, stuffed shirt, you know. All done up for the office, and she’s alright, nice looking, nicely made up and dressed. Long hair, both of them, his tied back in a teensy ponytail. He looks like he’s going bald on top. So they’re strangers see, not been in before, and the caff goes quiet. Just the crackle of short wave radios. Steam rising off mugs of tea.
She sits at a table and he goes up to the counter, says hi to Mickey. I smile at Denny, who’s sitting opposite me. Hi, I mouth. He’s not American or nothing, just pretending I guess, but then Mickey says – and Denny mouths along – what can I get you? And the guy says two caffer latts. And Mickey looks at him, like, what? I can see all this, see, cause I’m sitting facing the counter. Denny’s got his back to all the action like, but I always sit where I can see the door. It’s like in that book Dune, Paul is told never to sit with his back to the door. And my name’s Paula, so I always felt like it was advice to me. Anyway where was I? Oh yeah. So Mickey says is that tea or coffee? And the guy says do you not do caffer latt? Mickey says no, and the guy says cappuccino? and Mickey just shakes his head. Tea and coffee I do, he says. Hot chocolate if you ask polite. And he grins at us – his regulars. And the bloke looks at him and says two coffees then please. White.
Mickey takes the money off him, and he sits down with his girl and they drink their coffee. But they feel intimidated now, so they don’t hang around, must have burnt their mouths they drunk their coffee so quick, but he took one look once he sat down at us all sitting around in our leathers, and he must have thought fuck, what have I walked into? And I guess the girl didn’t feel right in her frock among all these men, cause I know I’m a girl too, but with the leather trousers and my Triumph T-shirt I don’t look very girlie. Plus I keep my hair short – goes under the helmet easier. It’s low maintenance, and I like that, a crop at the back and sides, a bit longer on top, like that singer KD Lang. She did that Constant Craving.
So they drink their coffee, and they go, quiet, hardly even speak to one another. I think they only stayed in the Nut at all cause they didn’t want to lose face or anything. I can understand that, you’ve got to have pride, ain’t you? But we laughed once they’d gone, me and Denny first, then some of the others.
I suppose you’re wondering if Denny and me are an item. I mean he’s the only bloke who I’ve talked with so far, isn’t he? Well if he didn’t have such an ugly mug I might have. I mean he knows his way around, goes all over town, not like some of the first timers who need a map to find Oxford Street. Okay, and he’s not really that ugly, but he’s not my type, a bit on the fat side, got a bit of a belly hanging over his leather trousers where he puts his two pints of Guinness each night. And he’s only got a 500, and I don’t feel like I could go with a bloke who had a smaller bike than me, it’d be like he was the woman or something. It feels unnatural.
So no, we’re not involved. He’s just a mate. We both work for Easy Riders out of Lambeth, live near one another in Streatham. Well, lived, cause that’s what I’m getting at isn’t it? I lived in Streatham till my bike got nicked, but then I lost my job and the landlord threw me out cause I couldn’t keep up with the rent. I’d already lost touch with Denny by then or I might have asked to crash. It’d been three weeks since I lost the bike and my job, and then my home went down the tubes as well. So I still had my leathers, my helmet and stuff, just no bike to ride. I’ve even got the keys of my bike, at the bottom of my rucksack, under my clothes. My other clothes. I’ve even got a skirt in there somewhere.
That surprised you didn’t it? Didn’t think I might ever wear a skirt, eh? Well I do from time to time. But it’s stupid on a bike, blows behind you in the breeze, and I don’t want to ride around with everyone looking at my knickers. Wouldn’t be ladylike. So the leather trousers are just the thing. I’ve got jeans and all, but the leathers are the stuff for riding in. You want all the protection you can get on a bike. So I’ve got a leather jacket too. I look good in the gear: jacket, trousers and knee-high biker boots. All a bit scuffed, showing that I wear them, that it’s not just some fetish thing, I’m a biker.
Luckily it’s July, so it’s not cold, and I sleep in the doorway of a bakers shop, my head on my rucksack. I must have just looked like a sleepy biker that night, not like a down and out. I didn’t want that, so next day I catch the tube up to the Nut, and sit in there and drink tea and talk to Mickey, who says alright Paula, where you been? So I tell him what’s happened and he says what you going to do? Get my fucking bike back I say. And he says but where you going to stay? And then Denny walks in and says hello and I say to Mickey I’ll get back to you on that one. So Mickey pours a mug of tea for Denny and puts two sugars in it – I think that’s another part of Denny’s belly – cause of course he knows what all his regulars want. It’s why we go there.
So I sit with Denny and he says you found your bike yet? Cause I told all the lads I’d be back as soon as I found the bastard nicked it. I say no, and there’s something I want to ask him. He looks up interested. Yeah, what? he asks. Can I crash on your sofa, cause I got thrown out? He says really? Why? And I tell him. It’s getting to be a boring story, having to tell it to everyone, but when I’m finished he says course you can. And he says, hang on here and I’ll get a spare key cut. And he gets up and goes out, and at first I panic cause I think he might just ride off but then I see he’s left his crashhat behind, and he wouldn’t do that, and then in ten minutes he walks back in and hands me a freshly cut key.
Where’s your stuff now? he asks, and so I point out my rucksack in the corner behind the counter. And he says right. Here’s the address, and he gives me a scrap of paper with his address written on it. I say thanks Denny, you’re a mate, and he says yeah, and smiles. I guess that’s another okay thing about him. His smile. It’s lopsided, makes him look a bit daffy. It reminds me of my little brother at home, Sam. Then he says can you find it? and I just look at him and he laughs and says course you can. You going to go there from here? And I say yeah, once I’ve had a cup of tea with you. When you got to go back to work? It’s been a bit quiet today he says, I might just go back with you. I can always come back if there’s any news over the radio. Okay, I say, and so we drink up and I put my rucksack on and we go out to his bike and I put my helmet on – and it feels good after the break – and he puts his on and he swings his leg over the bike and I mount up behind him. Now this feels odd cause I don’t ride pillion as a rule, but I put my arms round his waist, and he looks over his shoulder at me and says ready. Mouths it really, cause he’s started the engine already, and I nod yeah, and he pulls away out into the traffic and the wind is surrounding us like a cushion. I enjoy the ride, even if it’s a Jap bike. I like the way Denny and me lean together into the corners without thinking about it. So half an hour later we’re at his flat, just off Streatham High Road. It’s on the top floor, and we put my rucksack inside the door, and put our helmets and jackets down and he shows me around.
There’s a kitchen at the back, and a bathroom that’s a bit gloomy with no window, and the living room that faces out onto the high road. There’s a big window and when we go into the room he opens it so we can hear the traffic outside. There’s a traffic light right outside this window, and I’m going to be sleeping on the sofa-bed, under the window. Which I think is going to be great. Then he says this is the holy of holies and opens the door to his bedroom, which is a mess, with a lava lamp beside the bed, and a pile of comic books in the corner: good stuff, I notice, Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns, that kind of thing. Anyway at this point we hear his radio pipe up, so he goes back into the hall and picks it up, and he talks to Lisa, the dispatcher at EZ – that’s what we call the company, like, and then he turns to me and says I’ve got to go, make yourself at home. And I say okay, thanks, it’s going to be great. And he picks up his helmet and he’s off. I open the front door once he’s gone and try out my door key. It’s going to be alright I think.
I put my stuff into the front room, and my toothbrush in the bathroom, you know, just make my presence felt a bit, then I go out to the cop shop, cause I want to know if they’ve found my bike. But when I get there they say no news I’m afraid miss, but I’m sure we’ll find it. I’m not so sure myself but there you go. I wish I could get my hands on the bastard. I go back to Denny’s flat, and take my jacket off and hang it up in the hall, and I take my clothes out of the rucksack and put them in a carrier bag I find under the sink, and I go down to the launderette and wash them. I put them all in the tumble drier after cause I’ve noticed Denny hasn’t really got anywhere to dry stuff; just a horse in the bath, which has got his own stuff on it at the moment. Then when it’s done I go back to the flat and run a bath. And so when Denny gets home I’m clean and I’ve changed into my jeans. I don’t think he’s ready to see me in a skirt yet. I don’t think I am. We have fish and chips, then go down to the pub for his two pints of Guinness. I drink a pair of snakebites. Then we go back to the flat and I thought sod it and went to bed with him.
So everything’s looking up. The cops found my bike in a garage in Peckham a week or so after that, but the bastards’ve stripped it down so I’ve got to find some parts: a new carb being one. Denny says one morning there’s a breakers in West Norwood that you might want to try, and another in Tulse Hill, and I say great, cause it’ll give me something to do. Then he says, cause it’s Saturday, he’ll come with me, and I say great. I’m getting to like his company. It’s a bit too quiet when I’m at home cleaning my engine and putting it back together, and he’s out working. But it’s nice in the evenings, walking down to the pub for a couple of pints, and sitting there watching all the people. I still don’t think he’s ready to see my skirt, but I have told him about it, so he knows it exists, like. I suppose I’m a bit of a tease.
Then after we’ve had breakfast we put the jackets and helmets on and go down to his bike. Mine is in the yard at the back of his flat, in bits, the way the cops delivered it. They said it was lucky I’d told them all the frame numbers and everything, the thieves hadn’t got round to filing them off yet. I’m getting kind of used to riding behind Denny, but I’d still rather be in control. We’ve still got that unspoken thing, leaning together. I like holding him round the waist.
We get to the first breakers and he talks to the owner while I go climbing over the heaps, not really looking for parts cause it’s really only cars here, but I like climbing over old cars, always have done. My dad always had a project car he was working on, but he’d only keep them a few months after he’d finished doing them up, then he’d get bored and sell it, buy another, start again. I used to go with him to buy them, and he’d take me to breakers’ to pick up some of the odd parts, and I’d watch him in the garage when he was working. When I got old enough he let me help, handing him tools and bits at first then I did up an old Austin with him, stripped the engine and put it back together, and when we’d finished he said this car is for you Paula, cause I was sixteen by then, and I said but I can’t drive yet, but I could get a bike next year. So we sold the Austin and I bought my first bike. A Yamaha 125. I took my tests on that, and then I bought the BSA and put it back together. That was my project.
So I’m standing on top of this heap of old Volvos, about forty feet high, but I can’t see much cause the breakers is at the bottom of a hill, and then Denny appears at the bottom and calls up Paula, I’ve got you something, and he won’t tell me what so I have to go down and he shows me what he’s had hidden behind his back. It’s my carb. I kiss him and we go back to the flat. I want to get it in place straight away. We spend a pleasant afternoon putting my engine together, then go out for a ride in the evening, down to Box Hill, to watch the sun go down. I tell Denny I want to ride up to High Beech with him, and he says where? Epping Forest, I say. You can ride pillion, once I’ve got my bike back. He says alright, but I don’t think he’s too keen. I suddenly wonder if I really want to, I don’t want him riding behind me, don’t think it’d feel right, yeah? So we ditch the subject, and ride back into London locked into ourselves by the wind. In bed later I tell him how I feel, and we get right together.
Two evenings later, Monday, we stay in. I cook liver and bacon for Denny and we have a can each with it, eating off our laps in the front room. Denny says that was alright as he puts his plate aside, then he says Paula, about the other night, and I guess he’s been thinking about it for the last day or so, cause he says I’ll take you up High Beech. And I think to myself I know what’s going on, he feels like I’ve belittled him suggesting he should ride pillion, and I wonder what I should say. But then I think it doesn’t matter, we can always ride in tandem, so I say I’d like that. And then I say, later on, are we going down the pub? Denny says not tonight eh? so we stay in together on the sofa, listening to the traffic, and when we go to bed we sleep like spoons.
Next day Denny gives me a ride to the EZ office, and I walk in with my crashhat under my arm and I say hello Lisa, how’re you? And she looks up and says I’m okay, Paula. What can I do for you? So I sit in the chair beside her desk and look at her telephone and her radio microphone and the list of jobs and I say I’ve got my bike back, is Nigel around? She says yeah, do you want to come back then? And I say yeah, like, what else?
So she calls through on her intercom, cause she’s sort of like Nigel’s secretary as well as the dispatcher, and he says send her in, so Lisa turns to me and says you know the way and I say thanks and I pick up my helmet and go into the other room.
Nigel’s office is dim, cause the window only looks out onto a tiny shaft, so he has to put the light on even in summer. And it’s still only August so it’s bright and hot out, but dim in here with a dirty yellow bulb. But I think it suits Nigel cause he’s a dirty yellow bloke. Sallow I suppose really, with thin greasy hair hanging off his head in lanks, and his eyes buried in his face. He’s wearing a blue shirt and a dirty tie, and he smoothes his hair back over his bald spot with his hand, and says hello Paula, what can we do for you today?
I want a job, I say, I’ve got my bike back, and he looks at me sitting there in my leathers and he says I’m sorry but I don’t need any riders just now, but you could help Lisa out in the front office. I can only stare at him I’m so surprised, and so he goes on: it’s a better job really, in the warm and dry, and I’ll pay you the same as her. What do you say? And I say I don’t know, can I have a minute to think? And he says sure, so I go to the loo and I sit down to think. I tell myself at least it’s a job, and even if I go to all the firms I might not get to ride. Besides, I like being an Easy Rider, it’s a good name, so I think I’ll ask him if I can go out again later, if it’s busy or something.
Well, I put my question to him and he mulls it over, running his hand over the stubble under his chin, and in the quiet office I can hear it rasp against his skin. Then he says well, then he pauses and scratches his chin and his nose, then he pulls on his eyebrow. Well he says again, do I take it you’re interested? So I think and I say maybe, but I want to ride, I like riding and if I can’t ride here I’ll look elsewhere, you know?
On my way out I say see you around Lisa, and she says no luck then, and I say no. That’s a shame she says, still, there’s plenty of other firms, and I say yeah, see you then, and I go back downstairs to the street. I have to catch a bus home and I feel stupid sitting there with my helmet on my knees.
At home I only go inside to get the keys to my bike, then I wheel it out onto the road, put on my helmet and get on. I feel great. I turn the key and the engine comes to life, and I look round and then move off. I ride round all the firms I know, and get a job with Kingsway Couriers, provided I show them my MOT, so I go to my usual garage and they test the BSA. Then I go back to Kingsway, and they photocopy the certificate and my licence, then give me a royal-blue tabard and a radio. Colin tells me to start next day, so I report at eight in the morning, and there’s a group of us sitting in the outer office, Sarah at the dispatch desk. It strikes me as funny how most of the women in this game are dispatchers, never leaving the office. I can’t understand that.
So I sit there an hour before my first job, getting to know the other riders, and Paul says, on his way to the toilet, we’re all supposed to come back here if we haven’t got a job. They’ve got a drinks machine there in the dispatch room, but I thought what? Cause I’d been used to just being out there, you know? And I couldn’t see the point of coming back to Holborn between each job, and I didn’t like the tea from the machine, though I suppose I’ll have to accept it.
So I meet Denny lunchtime sometimes, but I feel different sitting there in my blue Kingsway Couriers tabard, Denny across from me in his gold Easy Rider’s. When I come here now, if Denny’s here I sit with him, and he sits with me if I’m there first. And we wait for one another, which I don’t mind but it feels like I’ve lost something in exchange. I don’t know if Denny feels the same cause I can’t ask him. So we sit together and drink our tea and eat our lunch and he squeezes my hand across the table and he smiles, and I think of how his smile used to remind me of my little brother Sam, and how now it doesn’t, it’s just Denny’s smile, and I smile back at him and feel daft. I don’t know, what do you think?
Anyway, one night I’ve got some money so I say to Denny, let’s go to the pub, cause we’ve not been for a while, then I put my skirt on and we go out. It’s the first time my legs have been out this summer and I’m reminded of school and having to wear a skirt, and of the way every year fashion changed, longer or shorter, and how in fifth year when we all had jobs we bought billowing skirts called granny skirts, that came halfway down our calves, you know? But I resented all the rules. My skirt isn’t anything special you know. I don’t want to build it up, give a false impression. It’s short and tartan, red, and I bought it in spring just after I came to London, when I was living with Patricia. She was a friend at school, but she went to college and I joined a bank, then I got bored of cashing cheques so I packed my rucksack and dropped in on her one Sunday. I stayed with her till I found my own place.
So I’ve got my tartan skirt on, and Denny’s told me he likes me in it, and we sit at a table in the pub, talking to some sort-of friends, you know, people we know from the pub, and so they don’t know we’re couriers, we’re just another couple, yeah? And so Nick says the weather’s so good, I wish I didn’t have to work inside, and I say yeah? and Denny says it’s just as hot outside. Then Nick asks what Denny does, and he tells him, and Nick turns to me and says don’t you worry about him riding around all day? So I tell him I’m a courier too, and he says oh! cause I don’t think he’s thought of women doing it before, so I tell him I like to wear leather, and Denny almost chokes on his beer when he laughs, then he says tart under his breath, and squeezes my hand, in collusion, yeah? cause he can see that Nick’s imagining it, imagining me, and so I laugh too. Then when Denny and me’ve stopped giggling, Diane asks me wouldn’t you rather work in an office? And so I say no, I’ve done it, I had a job in a bank, but I prefer it on the streets, and then I laugh and say if you know what I mean.
When we’re walking home, Denny puts his arm round my waist and says that was a nice evening. Yeah it was, I say, what’ll we do tomorrow – cause it’s Saturday, like – shall we go to High Beech? And he says okay, so next morning after breakfast we get dressed. I put my jeans on and my boots and my Triumph T-shirt, and we get our jackets and helmets and go outside. It’s another nice day, and we don’t talk about it – haven’t talked about it – but just get on his bike and I grab hold of him and we go.
We have lunch in a pub called the Broken Cross, then tramp round the forest. We ride up to where the bikers used to congregate when I was little, and I buy us both an ice-cream. I tell Denny how I used to come up here with my dad, cause before he had a family he had a bike, and he liked to bring us up here so he could see the bikes, like, and we’d run around and play tag. Then I tagged Denny and ran off through the trees, but I didn’t run so fast that he couldn’t catch me, so he grabs me round the waist, and we collapse together and kiss, and then we catch our breath and I say let’s make love.
I’m sitting in the Nut waiting for Denny, this is three weeks later, and Mickey’s just brought me over a mug of tea, and we’re listening to the radio, and he says how’s it going now Paula, and it’s quiet at the moment so he sits down with me. I push my helmet out of his way, and say I’m okay. He says what about Denny, cause he knows we’re together, like. And I say he’s okay too. He says don’t you ever get tired of being out on the streets? Like now when autumn’s coming on? No, I tell him. And we sit quiet for a while and listen to the news. Then he says did you hear what happened earlier? and I say what? and he says a rider got killed down at Gallows Corner. Came too fast over the flyover and went over the edge. Broke his neck. And I say fuck, and I feel my stomach turn over.
Denny walks in five minutes later and he says you’re looking funny, and so I say sit down and I ask Mickey for a tea each and then I tell Denny about the accident, and how for a moment I thought it might be him, and he says what? And he smiles and I think how stupid I was, so we have our cup of tea together and then I have to go back to work, so I leave Denny finishing off his plate of egg and chips and ride out to Wembley.
Mickey says to me one day, how’s Denny getting on? And I say OK. Then he says has he found a job yet? And I say no, but I’m angry, cause Denny hadn’t told me, so when I see him that night I ask him what’s going on? Mickey tells me you’re looking for a job. And he says well, I didn’t want to tell anyone till I found one, yeah? And you’re the first person I would’ve told. So I says well how did Mickey know? And he says people at EZ must know, and I think yeah. Cause you can’t keep anything secret in that office. So I say sorry, and he says I should’ve told you, and I tell him to shut up and I kiss him.
And then when he’s packed it in at EZ, we ride down to Brighton for the weekend cause it’s warm, and I carry our clothes in my rucksack while I ride with my arms around Denny. We stay in a hotel on the sea-front across from the pier, and we play on the amusements and wander round the lanes, and we lie on the pebbles and look at the sky, and Denny buys me a chain in one of the little shops. Just a silver chain, nothing on it, I don’t really wear jewellery see? But I’ve still got it. So we’re in the pub, Sunday lunchtime this is, and Denny says it’s been a nice summer, and I say yeah, we’ve had good weather and all. And I look around at the other customers and wonder what they think of us, sitting here with our leather jackets and crashhats, but they probably only see another young couple, come down to the sea for a weekend. Then I turn to Denny and say it’s been great being with you, and he says likewise, and he reaches across the table to squeeze my hand, and I squeeze back. So we had a nice weekend away and then we go back to London, and on Monday morning he starts his new job, goes off in a shirt and tie over his jeans, and I go back to Kingsway.
Mostly now Denny’s home before me, cause he finishes dead on five and gets the tube, so he starts our dinner and when I get in it’s nearly ready. So we eat and then we go out, meet Diane and Nick. And Denny’s invited them over, so we had to tidy up and clean the kitchen, and they brought a bottle of wine and we cooked, but we sat and ate off our laps cause Denny’s only got two chairs.
When Denny gets his pay he says let’s go out, and it’s Saturday morning and we walk up and down the High Street cause he says we ought to get a TV, and he buys a portable so we can watch it in bed if we want. And he says can I buy you some clothes and I say what for? and he says I don’t know what for, I just want to, yeah? But it seems odd, somehow, so I say not today, eh? You don’t want to spend all your money, and he says yeah, you’re right. But a few days later he’s like the cat with the cream, smiling, when I get in, and he’s bought me a skirt. It’s your size, he says, I looked at the tartan one. So I thank him and I try it on, and it’s okay, I look alright. But I feel kind of funny about it, I don’t know, I might have preferred something more personal, you know? And so I look for somewhere to live, only when I tell Denny he says why? and I can’t explain, so I just put my clothes and stuff back in my rucksack, and I go, don’t look back or anything, just get on my bike and, well, you know.
Author’s note: This was written in the early 90s when most places we got coffee in south London didn’t do latte – so I felt a mispronunciation would work; also of course some of the details of the plot would be obviated in the modern age by the ubiquity of mobile phones