Another 2007 story that was originally posted elsewhere under "The Wanderer" by-line. I thank my LadyCibelle and Techsan for their patience, proof reading, editing skills for their assistance in preparing this tale for posting.
Sorry to those of you who get confused about the situation, but in this tale we have two folk who are referred to by more than one name. For clarification, in this tale "Stella", "Estelle" and "Goldie" are all one in the same person. The Character "Gary" is also known as "Scratch". I apologise for any confusion that this might cause some readers.
Clarification: Pukka = excellent, proper or genuine: Get ones end away = have sexual intercourse.
You know what it's like! I was back in the big city, it had been a long time since I'd been back there and I was kind-a nosing around for old times sake. I'd actually been called to my company's head office for a meeting, where I thought I was going to be dragged over the coals for insubordination. But instead I got myself a promotion, so I was feeling pretty pleased with myself that day, and maybe a little too excited to undertake the long drive back home again.
I'd discovered that I had been right; the deal that my boss had claimed was going to be so lucrative for the company had turned out to be a complete stitch up. I'd told my boss that it all looked just a little too good to be true but he would have none of it; well, it turned out that I had been correct. There's not much point in going over the fine details here; suffice it to say I'd sent an email to someone I thought should know what was going on, behind my boss's back. When I sent it, I knew that I could well be ending my career in the company. As it turned out that didn't happen.
Anyway there I was in the big city, all alone and with nothing to do. I don't know why, as I said maybe for old times sake or it could have been because I was feeling on top of the world. Whatever, I thought I'd take a little detour on the journey home and pass through the area where I grew up. I think the good memories of the fun I'd had whilst living there were at the front of my mind. Or maybe I was getting melancholy for the past as I got older.
Yeah, well, I knew it would probably bring back some sad as well as happy memories of my courting days with my late wife, and I'd take a look at my parents' old house. They were both gone now; except for the kids I was pretty well on my own. I guessed it wouldn't be too many years until the children were off to university and I'd be on my own. Shit! What would my life be like then?
Yeah you get the idea, although I'd just had good news about the promotion, I was feeling melancholy about the past.
When I finally got to the old neighbourhood, things had changed a lot. The café I used to hang around at as a teenager was long gone. So had some of the shops; they'd been pulled down to make way for a massive Supermarket. I can't say that I was enamoured with the so-called "civic improvements" the local council had made to the area either.
I swung past my parents' old place, the house I was born and grew up in. It had been updated a bit, and extended; I could only just recognise the place. I stopped for a while, up the street and sat in my car staring at the old house and the street, remembering days long ago.
"Changed a bit since your day, lad!" I heard a voice say.
Looking across the road I was surprised to see old man Thomas standing in his garden smiling back at me. "Jesus, he always seemed to be an old man when I'd been a kid, he must be over a hundred now!" I thought.
"Hello, Mr Thomas. How are you keeping?"
"Still moaning at the kids for playing football in the street, lad." He grinned back at me.
"Yeah, you used to tell me off something rotten," I replied.
"It was that motorbike of yours that I really used to go on at you about. You were lucky you never killed yourself, the way you rode that thing."
"Gave up motorbikes years ago, sir. Tell me; are you the only one left? You know, from when I lived here?" I asked, ignoring his comments about how I actually rode that old Triumph Bonneville of mine.
"'Fraid-so, son! They've all moved away to greener pastures over the years. Me, well, I've got my spot next to the wife in the churchyard over there on the corner. I reckon I'll be joining her before too long."
"Somehow I doubt it, Mr Thomas. Who's going to keep all the little brats in line if you're not around?" I smiled back at him.
Without another word he smiled again and waved his goodbye, then went back into his rundown looking house.
I started the car and began the long journey home. I don't know what made me take yet another detour to the other end of the district. It could be it was old man Thomas mentioning the motorbikes. Back in the old days we had two biker cafes locally. I generally hung around at the café in the town centre. Some of the other guys hung around a café out by the factory estate.
We weren't rivals or anything, but we tended to mix with our own group most of the time. When I got to the factory estate I was surprised to see that the café was still there, only looking just a little bit smarter than I remembered it. There were no motorbikes outside like there always used to be. And a big sign hung outside said, "Café, eat in or take away."
Damn it, I was a little hungry, so I parked the car and went inside. The bell I remembered rang as I opened the door, and I saw a man's head poke out of the kitchen for a second to see who'd entered.
"Customer!" I heard him shout, but no one appeared.
I found myself a table that - although somewhat battered - didn't look dirty and sat myself down. Thoughts of a fry-up had been dispelled from my mind, by the look of the guy whom I assumed was the cook. But I still perused the menu anyway.
"Tea or Coffee?" A female voice suddenly asked from somewhere above me.
Surprised that I hadn't been aware of her approach, I looked up at the woman who'd spoken to me.
"Well, I'll be buggered, it's Scratch Caisey! What the hell are you doing back in this hell hole?" she exclaimed.
I had been taken by surprise at her arrival and my mind was wondering a little because of the excitement earlier in the day. I must have had a somewhat confused look on my face; the woman did look vaguely familiar but for some reason I couldn't place the face. Look, it is confusing when suddenly someone that you don't recognise calls you by an old nickname that you haven't used in nearly twenty years.
"You don't recognise me, do you?" she said, sounding slightly disappointed. "Stella, Stella Blakely, or Forman as I was back then." She took a step backwards from the table so that I could see her better.
"Only you always called me Goldilocks," she added with a smile.
Immediately long suppressed memories of Goldie sprang into the fore of my mind.
As you get older there are always going to be some memories - often-painful memories - which you tuck away into a part of your brain that you hope never to venture into again. Suddenly the floodgates opened and they all poured back into the conscious part of my mind.
"So Goldie had finished up marrying Toby Blakely," I thought to myself. Not a particularly good friend of mine, but I had known the guy quite well. We'd often raced each other up and down the Watford Bypass, as teenagers.
"Oh, my God! Goldie, I'm sorry but..." I exclaimed, feeling embarrassed and slightly annoyed with myself for not recognising Stella immediately. But perhaps it was something to do with the part of my mind that really didn't want to recall memories of our previous encounters.
"Don't say it! I know I've put on a few pounds and lost my looks a bit over the years," Stella said.
"On the contrary, Goldie, you're just as beautiful as you ever were. Maybe a little bit more mature and that overall doesn't do you justice. But Toby must be a fool to let you out on your own."
The expression on Stella's face changed a little and she sat down in the chair opposite me.
"Toby's gone, Scratch! He was killed on his bike about five years ago."
"Oh, God, Stella, I'm sorry!" I said, feeling even more embarrassed.
"Don't be, Scratch; he went doing what he loved best, riding his bike. But it has been hard on the kids and me. I somehow always knew it was only a matter of time though; Toby rode that bike of his like a man possessed. He was only ever really happy when he was on a bike riding faster that he should be."
"Anyway how about you? How's... ?" Stella faltered, obviously trying to remember who it was that I'd been shacked up with the last time she'd seen me. "It was Elaine that you married, wasn't it?"
"I'm in the same boat as you, Stella. I'm a widower! Elaine went three years ago, ovarian cancer! She didn't tell anyone that she was feeling ill until it was too late!"
"Oh, god, I'm sorry, Scratch. Any children?"
"Two: Jimmy's fifteen and Angela's just turned seventeen. They are good kids; I don't know what I would have done without them. How many sprogs have you got running around?"
"Two, the same as you. Their ages are remarkably similar as well. Little Toby is coming up sixteen and Claire is almost eighteen. They've been my life since Toby went."
"You taken that order yet, Stella?" The man's voice demanded from the kitchen. "You're paid to work woman, not sit around and chat all day!"
"Get knotted, Sam; I'm talking to an old friend. He's more of a man than you'll ever be," Stella shouted back. "Dirty old bugger keeps trying to talk his way into my knickers since Toby's been gone," she whispered to me with a giggle and that old wicked grin on her face that I remembered so well.
"Why don't you tell him to stuff it? Surely this isn't the best job you can find."
"It's either here or stacking shelves in the damn supermarket; that's all I'm any good for, Scratch. I never did get anywhere at school; spent too much time playing hooky with you guys when I should have been studying. What'd you want to eat anyway?"
"Oh, just a cup of tea and a chat will do for now," I replied.
"No food!" Stella shouted as she went over and poured out two mugs of tea.
"What about this washing up?" the voice called from the kitchen.
"I'll do it later or you can do it yourself, you lazy bugger. I'm busy for a while!" Stella shouted back. Then she brought the teas over and sat down again.
A strange thing had happened, I think we'd both suddenly lost twenty years off of our lives; we appeared to be speaking to each other like teenagers and I'd just heard Stella speak to her boss in the same manner that her alter-ego, Goldie, would have used all those years ago. From the comments that came from the kitchen, I don't believe her boss was used to being spoken back to like that.
Stella and I spent the next two hours talking about all the people we had known when we were young. Who had married whom and how long it lasted, etc. I suppose that working in the café Stella had seen a lot of the old faces over the years; she was a goldmine of history and scandal.
Stella had to do some work some of the time during the afternoon, but the place remained pretty empty for the most part. We talked even whilst she was dashing around serving the few customers who came in and when she wasn't serving, she came rushing back to my table.
From the comments coming from her boss, Sam, in the kitchen, it didn't sound like he was very happy about my presence. But Stella - no, "Goldie" - told him where to get off in no uncertain terms.
She told me later that she couldn't understand her boldness that day herself. She said it was like my presence had made her feel good about herself and given her some self-confidence.
That one mug of tea had turned into several and by six o'clock when Stella was due to knock off, I was dying for a pee and starving hungry.
"I'm hungry," I said when Stella told me it was almost time for her to go home.
"Sam will cook you up something if you want," Stella replied.
"No, I was thinking more on the lines of taking a beautiful lady out for a pukka meal somewhere."
Stella who was still cleaning tables at the time, stopped what she was doing and turned to look at me.
"How Pukka?" she asked.
"The best in town!" I replied.
"I think I'd like that; I haven't been out for a slap-up meal in yonks. But didn't you say you've got to get home to your children?"
"It's a long drive, Stella, and the day's getting on a bit. I'll book into one of the hotels out by the airport later and drive home tomorrow."
"But your children - won't they be expecting you home tonight?"
"Not really; they are expecting me to go out to get drunk tonight to drown my sorrows."
A concerned look came over Stella's face.
"Look, Stella, it's a long story; I'll explain it all over dinner."
Stella took off the overall she had been wearing and then removed the headscarf from her hair. As she did so those golden locks fell about her shoulders just as I remembered them.
I escorted Stella to my car for the five-minute journey to her house. It was a small semi-detached place in a nearby social housing scheme. When I was a lad, we called them council estates.
Stella led the way inside and introduced me to her children, who at first appeared to look at me with some suspicion or scepticism. I somehow got the feeling that it was unusual for Stella to bring a male friend home. Either that, or there was a boyfriend about somewhere who Stella hadn't mentioned to me. Whatever, my sudden appearance obviously surprised them.
Toby was a real chip off the old block; to my mind it could have been his father standing there in his school uniform. Claire also bore a striking resemblance to her mother when she had been the same age, although she wasn't poured into a skin-tight pair of jeans that had always been Goldie's favourite apparel. She did however have those same golden locks hanging around her shoulders though.
I wouldn't say that the look Claire gave me was anything to write home about. I sensed some hostility towards me straight away.
"This is an old friend of mine, Scratch..." Stella faltered and then corrected herself. "I mean Gary Caisey; I haven't seen him since before I married your father."
Both children shook my hand very formally, then Toby disappeared upstairs and Claire went into the kitchen. Stella, after inviting me to take a seat in the lounge, followed her daughter and closed the door. I thought that I might have detected raised voices for a moment or two, but then it went quiet.
Shortly Toby came back down the stairs carrying a large photo album.
"You were in the other gang!" he said when he got close to me.
"Sorry?" I asked him, not understanding what he was alluding to.
"You weren't in my dad's gang. You were one of the town boys!" he said turning the album so that I could see photographs of both groups pictured with our motorbikes, displayed on opposing pages.
I remembered the occasion when the photographs had been taken. All the local bikers had gotten together for a charity run and raised a couple of grand for the local hospital.
"That's true we did spend our time in different cafés, but we weren't at odds with each other or anything. Membership of either group or gang as you like to call them just depended on what café we lived nearest to." I studied the photos and was surprised to see that Toby Sr. had listed the names of the guys and their girlfriends at the time the pictures had been taken under them. Goldie's name was underneath mine, not Toby's. Young Toby didn't mention the fact, but he did go on about his father and how he loved to ride his motorcycle.
"His father never grew up, Gary; he lived for his bike and those old photographs," Stella suddenly said from somewhere behind me.
"There's times when I wish I was still living back then, Goldie." I smiled at her.
Stella lifted her finger to her mouth and gestured towards young Toby with her head.
"I won't be long. I'm just going up to get changed," she said and then she headed for the stairs. "Toby, Claire's got some money, you and her are going down to MacDonald's, okay?" she said over her shoulder to the lad.
"Fine, mum!" Toby called after her with a smile on his face. "You should come more often Scratch. Mum never lets us have Big Macs; she says they're unhealthy." He grinned at me.
"I don't like my children eating them too often either," I commented.
"You've got children too?" Toby asked.
"Yes, two almost the same ages as you and your sister," I replied.
"And what would their mother say if she knew you were taking another woman out for dinner?" Claire's voice asked from behind me.
"I believe she knows exactly what I'm doing tonight; she told me she'd be with me always before she passed on!" I replied.
Okay, maybe it wasn't the best way to tell Claire that I was a widower, but I thought that it might go some way to dispelling the hostility I'd felt radiating from her.
"I'm sorry, I didn't know!" she blustered, and then fled the room in tears.
"Claire..." I called after her.
"Ah, don't mind her; she does that all the time," Toby said. "She still misses dad a lot. She was his blue-eyed girl."
"Don't you miss him?" I asked.
"Sure I do. But mum cries enough as it is; she doesn't need us weeping around her all the time. You know mum hasn't looked as happy when she came home from work as she did tonight since I can remember. I don't think I've ever seen her so happy and normally she never goes out without us."
"Tonight's a special occasion then. I'll try to pull all the stops out," I said.
"Just make sure that's all you do pull out. That's my mother you're taking out, remember!" Toby said with a very mature tone to his voice.
"Don't worry, young man, I think your mother and I are getting a bit old for those kinds of shenanigans."
"What shenanigans?" Stella asked.
Toby and I hadn't heard Stella come down the stairs. I had to wonder how long she'd been standing there and if she'd heard what Toby and I had just said to each other.
"You look gorgeous, girl, even without the denims," I told her.
"I've still got some upstairs, but I didn't think they were the thing to wear in a restaurant. If you've got a bike hidden in the back of your car, I'll go and change." She grinned at me.
"Not in the back of the car, but I've still got my old Triumph in the garage at home."
"I'll have to come and visit sometime and you can take me for a proper ride like you used to do," Stella said with that old twinkle in her eye. I was pleased that Toby had no idea of what his mother was alluding; well, I hoped he didn't.
We said goodbye to her children then Stella and I left the house. Stella chose a restaurant that I'd never heard of, but there were a lot of places around by then that had been opened since I'd left the city.
We were halfway through our meal and still talking about old times and old friends when I felt Stella's foot rubbing up and down my calf.
"Goldie, don't go starting anything that you can't finish," I said to her quietly.
"Scratch, if you remember we always finished what we started in the old days."
"But that was then and this is now, Stella. Lots of things have changed over the years and we're supposed to be adults, remember."
"Lets see what's changed, shall we? You dumped me and went off with..."
"I dumped you?" I interrupted her. "You took up with Toby or was it that guy with that Harley Davidson?"
"Oh, he was a real creep, but that bike of his was something else. Anyway I only went out with him once, just to have a ride on that bike of his."
"It was a pile of scrap, a bleeding museum piece, a piece of junk that the Americans left behind after the war," I retorted. Probably sounding more annoyed than I should have, but my emotions were playing their part, even after all those years.
"Yeah, but it was the only Harley around and I know you rode it at least once," Stella replied.
"Just to see what it was like to ride, that's all!" I said as stoically as I could manage
"And that's why I went out with him; I just wanted the experience of being on that Harley as well. His problem was he wanted payment for the privilege. Well, he never got a ride out of me I can promise you. But what did you go and do? I go out with him for one little ride on his Harley and the next thing I know, you let Elaine take over my pillion seat."
"I'm sorry, Goldie, but the guy told a slightly different story than you," I retorted. I think I was remembering how angry I'd been at the time, when I'd heard the rumours.
"And you believed him?"
"Why shouldn't I?" I replied. "Look, Stella, we didn't have anything permanent going between us at the time. Although it wasn't for the want of my asking, if you remember rightly. And then suddenly everyone's talking about you and ... Christ, what was the bloody idiot's name?"
"That's true, you did ask me to be your girl several times and I said to wait a while, didn't I? And I have no idea what that little twerp's name was either. You know that Toby gave him a right seeing-to for spreading that rumour about, don't you? It had got back to my dad by then; he nearly killed me and I was grounded for weeks."
"So that's what happened! All I knew was that the rumour went about that you and the creep were getting it on, and then the two of you disappeared. Well, Elaine and me had always got on well, so after a while we got together. The next time I saw you, you were riding pillion to Toby."
"Well, what did you expect me to do? You were with Elaine, and Toby had always been sweet on me from when we'd been at primary school together. So I was just hanging around with him to make you jealous."
"You made a pretty good job of doing that!" I commented.
"But then all of a sudden you and Elaine were gone. The next thing I know you two got married."
"Yeah, well, my uncle found me a good job in the place where he worked down west; so I moved down there and lived with him and my aunt for a while. Elaine followed me down later that summer and got herself a live-in job at one of the local hotels. Well, to cut a long story short, houses were cheap down that way at the time, so a year or so later we got hitched.
"I've moved up in the company over the years; I'm in management now. Although my boss just dropped a real clanger and it looks like I'm going to be in the driving seat come Monday morning. I've got a couple of days off whilst the guys from head office go down there and do the nasty bit. From what I can gather they think my boss has been taking kickbacks from the suppliers or something. Whatever, he's apparently been up to something not quite kosher."
"Will there be any flak coming your way?"
"I doubt it somehow, or they wouldn't have offered me my boss's position, would they? Anyway how did you and Toby finish up getting hitched? I know you were his current girl when I left, but we all thought Toby would finish up with Brenda. You know they were always together until she went off to that Veterinary college place."
"I'm not sure what happened with Brenda. Toby had always been sweet on me, and I liked him a lot."
"Crikey, Stella, all the guys were sweet on Goldie!"
"Not exactly, Scratch; they were sweet on my arse when it was in those jeans. And didn't I know it. Maybe if I hadn't been so full of myself, things would have worked out different."
I wasn't at all sure as to what Stella was alluding to there, but I let it pass.
"Anyway as time went on everyone was getting hitched. I went through a few different boyfriends, none of whom lasted the course. Then one day a few years after you'd gone and completely out of the blue, Toby asked me to marry him. I think we were both a little drunk at the time; anyway I said yes and things just went on from there.
"We had a good marriage, I think. Although Toby's life revolved around motorbikes and the children, of course! You know he raced professionally for a while, don't you? But I think he was more in love with speed than the racing and he never was one for caring about safety. He lost his sponsors in the end and he never could get a place on any of the works teams."
"No, I didn't now that Toby raced. I kind-of switched to cars right after Elaine and I got hitched. The house we brought is out in the sticks and, well, the bike isn't very practical for carrying home the weekly shopping or all the DIY stuff I needed for the house. Elaine and I would go out on the bike during the summer sometimes but in the end it got parked in the back of the garage and almost forgotten about. It's still there to this day."
It was surprising how much that Stella and I found to talk about. After eating we went back to her place and sat chatting until about two in the morning. Claire sat with us for a while and then went into the kitchen where she played the radio (quite loudly), I think to remind us she was there. Young Toby had obviously gone to bed before we'd arrived back at the house.
Stella and I exchanged telephone numbers and she asked me to drop by again next time I was in town. That I figured could be sooner than she expected, because I was aware that my new position called for planning visits to the head office every month or so.
God alone knows what time I got to the hotel that morning, but I crashed the instant I got into the room. I think it must have been about seven-thirty when my daughter Angela called me on my mobile phone.
"Hi, Dad. Are you sober?" she asked after I croaked hello down the handset. "Are we on the breadline today or not?"
"No chance, kiddo, quite the reverse. Bill Morgan's for the high jump and guess who's going to be the new head honcho?"
"There you go, dad! I told you, you did the right thing. What did you do last night? Go out and celebrate?"
"No, I took a very old friend out to dinner and we sat and talked about old times until some god awful hour this morning."
"Oh, you crafty old dog. Who is she? Is she pretty? What's her name? Did you kiss her?" Angela asked in quick succession.
"Angela, she is just an old friend from back when your mother and I were young. Why do you try to marry me off every time I speak to a member of the opposite sex?"
"Come on, Dad, you need a good woman to look after you."
"I've got you for now, Angel. Anyway I didn't kiss her and, yes, Stella is pretty. We were very close once but that was a long time ago."
"Any husbands or boyfriends kicking about?"
"Angela, give over! She's a widow and I don't know if there are any suitors around. I ran into her in a café during the afternoon and invited her out for a meal last night, that's all there was too it. Now I'll be back around lunchtime, so I'll be home when you and Jimmy get home from college; I'm off work until Monday whilst the hammer falls on Bill. The three of us will go out tonight to celebrate so don't accept any invitations to go out on a date."
My journey home actually took longer than I expected. I hadn't been the only one in the office who was suspicious of what Bill Morgan was doing. But I'd been the only one (or so I thought) who'd been prepared to put his head on the block and ring the alarm bell. Bill Morgan never had been a very nice person to work under and he tended to run the office by fear rather than respect.
The result was my mobile rang at regular intervals during the journey causing me to have to pull off the road and stop to answer it. I received a long list of reports from various members of the staff informing me of the day's events. Apparently there were auditors and people from head office going through just about everything. My files as well, I might add!
I eventually got home about two thirty. As I pulled the car into the garage, I found myself looking at the old Triumph sitting there covered in its tarpaulin. I hadn't been home that long when something pulled me back out to the garage where I took the cover from it.
"Two new tyres at least and I suppose I'll have to pull the engine apart and check it over. Then there's the brakes and clutch, I suppose," I found myself thinking.
By the time Angela and Jimmy pulled up on their way home from college in the little Nissan I had bought my Angel for passing her driving test on her seventeenth birthday. My car was back outside in the drive and the Triumph was in pieces all over the garage floor.
"What are you doing, Dad?" Jimmy asked, as he climbed out of the Nissan.
"Trying to relive his youth, I should imagine!" Angela answered Jimmy's question for me. "So she was one of your motorbike dolly's, was she?" she quipped at me with a big smile on her face.
"Baby, your mother was, as you so nicely put it, "one of my motorbike dolly's" and don't you forget it! And you are right; meeting Goldie again did make me remember what it was like to ride the old bike around."