Two Women on a Harley 883

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I got my break! My first book sold well in the UK, then went big in the USA! My American agent called me, and at very short notice I found myself flying over to the States, and doing all kinds of publicity work, interviews, book-signings and so on, for several weeks – mainly in New York, but also over in California, so I had to dash back and forward from sea to shining sea until I was dizzy! I was therefore very glad to find myself eventually at a loose end, and with plenty of accrued income from sales.

What to do with both of these? My old friends Gerry and Maureen had a house on the North Carolina Banks, and offered me a period lazing by the Atlantic while my income racked up interest. It was tempting, I must admit. But there was a little, devilish voice in my head which kept up a line of temptation which gradually defeated the notion of sleep, sun, sea… rip-tides, sharks, boredom, day-trips to towns with names like Duck…

The voice went something like this: “You’re only thirty-something once! Have a road-trip!”

I had once sat, enthralled for weeks, listening to a twelve-cassette set of readings from William Least-Heat-Moon’s “Blue Highways”, in which the author tells of tracing a motor-trail across the USA and back, using only the roads which used to appear in blue on old maps – local county roads, ex-turnpikes downgraded when someone built an Interstate, routes that wiggle through the mountains and go in plumbline-straight lines across the prairies. I put an idea to Gerry and Maureen, and I have to say the awkward bloody-mindedness, which that little devilish voice had instilled in me, made me more and more determined as my friends’ expressions grew more and more worried! My idea was to arm myself with a Rand-McNally Road Atlas and a hire car, and head off into the American interior. I wasn’t planning to go even half as far as William Least-Heat-Moon – just start in a kind of a north-western loop through North Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, Kentucky, and so on, and come back in a southerly loop when my money and time started to run out. I would “do” a bit of Dixie – maybe not deepest, darkest Dixie, but sufficiently deep and dark, from the point of view of a British woman, to be a touch exotic. I had it in mind to see what some of those dots on the Rand-McNally actually were, to head for a spot and find a motel, to eat at diners on the way, to have myself a “road movie” of my own, to be Thelma or Louise without a camera crew and with myself as either Thelma or Louise on her own! I know – silly!

I could tell Gerry and Maureen thought so too. But, ever generous, they refused to let me hire a car. Instead they offered to lend me theirs.

“The Chevy?” I said, excitedly. “Yeah! I should say so! Thanks!”

That was extremely naughty of me. I knew that they meant the Honda Civic, but I also knew that they had a beautifully restored ’57 Chevy in the garage too. Gerry’s generosity is such that he could not bear to see my disappointment if he told me he had meant the boring Honda, so basically he told me to knock myself out!

There are a handful of items which have been designed in America, which define beauty and defy improvement. The Zippo lighter – I don’t smoke, but I could sit flicking one of those on and off all day – the USAF pilot’s leather jacket, Chinos, the Fender Stratocaster electric guitar. And, perhaps most beautiful to the eye, the 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air! Gerry’s was two-tone coffee-and-cream. So I felt like a million gold-plated dollars on the day I drove away from their house on the Banks. I tried not to look in the mirror in case I caught sight of their worried faces again, turned back with a twinge of conscience, and declared myself unequal to the enterprise. No – I was going to have a road-trip. “Sod the expense,” I thought. “Give the cat another goldfish!”

The expense, I have to say, refused to be sodded! Those old classics from the 50s burn petrol – guzzle gas – like there’s a hole in the tank. Still, I could afford it, and I would never see thirty-something again, unless it was looking back!

Up through Virginia I went, crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains and the Shenandoah Valley, on into the Appalachians and West Virginia. I kept on straight through the mountains, looping westwards, until they became little more than wooded ripples. I marvelled at everything – power lines strung out wherever there was the slightest sign on habitation, adverts for “Mail Pouch” tobacco on the side of barns, gas stations selling BP [“Hey, that’s British Petroleum!” – that made me feel a little more at home, but the Chevy made me pull in much more often than I had hoped I would need to], buzzards soaring above the trees…

I drove with my elbow jauntily posed through the open window. Occasionally I would hear a siren behind me, and would pull over to be approached by a policeman. Always they would ask to “see some ID”, and always a British passport would perplex them for a while. Always they would call me “Ma’am”, and I would use Betturkey my most clearly-honed British accent to explain that I was “a guest in your beautiful country” and hadn’t quite got the measure of the rules of the road yet. And I would smile. It worked.

“Well Ma’am, you violated a such-and-such a mile back, but as you’re a stranger here I’m going to let you off, on this occasion. You drive safely now, y’hear?”

I love America!

I drove with the radio on, tuning into one of those local radio stations where they play nothing but country music. “Let’s have the full experience,” I thought. So I cruised at a steady fifty, while the lead guitar went “wangle-dangle-dang” and the steel guitar went “whoop whoo-oo”, as a male or female voice tear-jerked a song of wry sadness. All the radio stations began with “W”. Dubya-this, Dubya-that!

I don’t know whether I was in West Virginia, Kentucky, or the planet Zarg, but at last I got bored with the wangles and whoops. It had all begun to sound the same. So I fiddled with the radio until I found a station playing “oldies”. Now here was something I could sing along to – the Beach Boys! I joined in with gusto.

“After six hours of school I’ve had enough for the day. I hit the radio dial and turn it up all the way. I gotta dance! Right there on the spot! The beat’s really hot! Dance – Dance – Dance – Yeah!”

And after that came another rocker-from-the-locker, an old piece of R&B, which had me bouncing on my seat.

“I’m going to Kansas City – Kansas City here I come. I’m going to Kansas City – Kansas City here I come. They got some crazy little women there And I’m gonna get me one!

I’ll be standing on the corner – Twelfth Street and Vine. I’ll be standing on the corner – Twelfth Street and Vine. With my Kansas City baby And my bottle of Kansas City…

…Oh heck!”

That undeleted expletive came immediately after there was a bang, followed by a grinding noise, from somewhere inside the works of the car. Hot on the heels of that, the engine began to race, because my foot was still holding down the accelerator, while the gears were not engaged. Some gremlin had gotten its teeth into the transmission.

Luckily I was going downhill, and saw no reason not to coast on for a while. As the road flattened out, and I began to slow I saw that I was approaching a providentially-placed motel. The Chevy had just about enough momentum to roll into a convenient parking place. I got out, and went to see about renting a room for the night.

The clerk asked for ID, of course, and was perplexed by the British passport. I was now not amused by this, it was no longer a charming local quirk, it was simply irritating. But I gritted my teeth, signed the register, and accepted a key. The clerk stepped outside to point the way to my room.

“Nice car,” he said.

“It is when it bloody well goes!” I said. “Is there somewhere around here I can eat?”

“Well, we got a vending machine for a muffin or a Danish. I guess there’s the diner, though, if you want a meal. That’s about a mile up the road.”

Hunger overcame irritation and everything else. I transferred my luggage from the trunk of the Chevy to my room, tidied myself up a little, stuffed a few essential into a small rucksack, put on my comfortable trainers, and put my best foot forward. I soon found that a mile in that part of the country is about like a mile in Egypt – a flexible concept. The diner was, I guess, about two-and-a-half miles away.

Now, diners are strange things. The door to a diner is the portal to an alternative universe. Step through it expecting to find yourself on a film set, and you just might. I entered this one. Just as one would expect, most of the conversation stopped. Heads turned, mostly in baseball caps, a few in Stetsons. It was quiet enough to hear the music in the background – yeah, it was “wangle-dangle-dang, whoop whoo-oo”! As I made my way to the counter, some of the men who had turned to stare at this outlandish newcomer had the residual politeness to tip a hat and say, “Ma’am”! I guess I replied with a wan, British smile! An innocent abroad, give or take a letter.

I approached the counter.

“Yes, Ma’am. What can I get you?” said the waitress. I took a moment to study her face. Her smile was open and unaffected, and I smiled back.

“What do you have?”

She handed me a menu. “Take your time. Coffee while you’re waiting?”

“Oh, yes please!” I was in the mood for a good cup of coffee.

“Have a seat at a table. I’ll bring it over.”

I chose one by the window, where I could look out at the handful of cars and pick-ups outside. And there was a motorcycle out there too; I wondered whose that was, and made a quick scan of the clientele – no clue, no one seemed to be dressed for a bike. The waitress brought my coffee. I ordered ham and eggs.

“How do you like your eggs?”

Now, I’ve never been able to figure out what is meant Betturkey Giriş by the term “eggs over easy”, so I asked for them in the only way they come in Britain – sunny side up. As I sipped my coffee, which was black, strong, and very good indeed, I took a proper look round the diner. When I had first come in, I had the impression that I had simply entered a film set – The Diner. Now I saw that the place had some touches I hadn’t expected. In one corner, for instance, there were a couple of tables with computer terminals, which indicated that the place doubled as the local internet café. And there was a rack with today’s newspapers, including the NYT, the WSJ, and some good magazines, so people were not only literate but well-informed around here. So they liked their wangle-dangle-dang too, so what!

The waitress brought my meal. Wow – they must have killed a whole pig for that stack of bacon! There was a generous helping of toast too, and a refill of coffee. I thanked the waitress, and began to tuck in. For a moment or two she stayed by my table.

“You’re British, aren’t you?” she said.

“Uh-huh,” I replied, with my mouth full. She smiled again, and went back behind the counter. I must say she was ready with those smiles, and they were very nice smiles too.

Some of the other customers got up to leave, thinning the number to about half. Another surprise – two of the remaining customers were absorbed in a chess game. The waitress walked over to the rack, selected a magazine, and took it back to her station behind the counter. I continued wolfing down the ham and eggs, and by the time I was sitting back chewing the last piece of toast, I noticed that the waitress was looking at me intently. I looked back, and began to see her in a little more detail; up to now she had simply been the person who had brought my much needed food, but now I could see that she was a tall, handsome blonde, about the same thirty-something as myself. I felt that she rather liked her looking at me, and I liked looking back at her, but after a while I felt a little embarrassed, and my eyes wandered over some of the confectionery and desserts on display. I wasn’t actually hungry any more, but I wanted an excuse for having been looking over in that direction.

“Could I have some of that pie, please?”

“The cherry? Sure!” She cut a piece, and brought it over on a plate. I noticed that she had the magazine in her other hand.

“Excuse me,” she said. “Is this you?” She put the magazine down on the table, and suddenly I was face to face with myself! A small photo in a page of print – an interview I had done a couple of weeks previously. I nodded.

“Well! A British writer! That’s got to be a first for this diner.” She said. A couple of the other customers showed a little interest too. One of them called over.

“Written anything I might have read?” And he didn’t neglect to add, “Ma’am?”

I shook my head. “Only one book so far. And it’s what they call ‘Chick-Lit’, I suppose.”

“Well, we got to check it out now,” said the waitress. “Now we’ve had the author in here.” She took the magazine, and gave it to the man. He raised his eyebrows, and read the article while he finished his drink. The waitress looked out of the window.

“I don’t see a car out there that I don’t recognise,” she said. “How did you get here?”

“My car’s at the motel. I walked here.”

“That’s got to be two-and-a-half miles.”

“That’s what I thought!”

“How’re you getting back?”

“Well,” I said. “Now I’ve got my strength back with all this lovely food – not to mention being full of caffeine – I was intending to walk.”

“It’s getting dark,” observed the man with the magazine. I looked outside. He was right.

“We have dark in Britain too,” I replied. Steady girl – I thought – this is America, an irony-free zone. Be polite!

“We couldn’t let a celebrity visitor walk home,” said the waitress. I searched her face for any sign that she was indulging in un-American irony – there was none, and there had been none in her voice. One or two of the customers stood and tipped their hats again, as if they were going to offer me a lift, and I reflected that this was not in fact a film set, and I had no reason to suppose any motive on their part but a politeness far in excess of what I was used to at home. But the waitress spoke up.

“Hold on, boys. I’ll take the lady home.” She stressed the “I’ll”, and the two men sat down, as if they had just been admonished by a schoolteacher. Then to me she said, “I finish in ten minutes. I’ll meet you outside, if that’s OK with you?”

“Yes, that’s fine. Very kind indeed. Thank you very much!”

So ten minutes later I was standing in the car park, wondering which of the cars was hers, and watching fireflies in the gloaming, when she walked round the side of the diner. She was wearing jeans and a leather jacket, and to my surprise she had a helmet in her hand.

“I’m sorry, I don’t have a spare helmet,” she said, as she straddled the motorcycle and started the engine. Well, well!

“That’s OK,” I said, summoning some bravado – I hadn’t been on the back of a bike for years. I stood back for a moment. Harley Davidson 883 – slim, rowdy, noisy, and stylish. The rider was slim and stylish too. It is amazing how good a leather jacket and jeans can look on the right woman, even with blonde strands escaping from a helmet. She indicated the pillion seat, and I climbed on behind her.

“Hold on tight!”

I put my arms round her waist, as she slipped the clutch and pulled out into the road. If I had forgotten at all how to ride pillion, I quickly re-mastered it. I could feel her stomach with my hands – still taught and flat – in good shape for a woman of her age. I leant in towards her back, my hair streaming out behind me, tears starting at my eyes as the wind rushed into them. The warmth of her body seemed to spread into mine, and I caught a whiff of her scent, mingled with a suggestion of not-unpleasant perspiration. Very quickly, I had the knack of sensing where her body was leaning for a bend. We wangle-dangled to the left, and whoo-oo’d to the right, and my armpits got prickly with the thrill. Too soon we pulled in to the motel car park, and I saw the clerk crane his neck. I pointed to the Chevy, and she drove us over to it. I got off the bike a little inelegantly, shaking slightly, excited. She killed the engine, dismounted, took off her helmet, and shook her blonde hair.

“Nice car,” she said, nodding towards the Chevy.

“I do wish people would stop saying that!” I said. “It’s a heap of junk at the moment. It won’t move. And when it does, it drinks fuel like – I don’t know – like a wino sucking at a bottle of Wild Turkey!”

I don’t know where that metaphor came from, but the waitress threw her head back and howled with laughter.

“Now I know you’re a writer,” she chuckled.

We stood for a minute, so one saying anything.

“Well…” she began, as if it was a prelude to her departure. I interrupted in a panic, as if to make her stay. I really didn’t want to be without her company at that moment.

“Do you want to come in, for…” My voice died. For what?

“Coffee?” she said, with an eyebrow raised. “I make the best coffee for fifty miles myself. There’s nothing you can put in a motel-room cup that’ll taste anything like it. You just had some of my coffee back at the diner!”

“Oh. Yes. Of course.” I felt rather foolish. She was grinning at me, and I was relieved to see that it was not an unkind grin. It seemed to me that she was incapable of any such thing. Eventually, she made the excuse to stay herself.

“I could use a shower, though.”

Relieved, I let us into my room. She put her helmet down, and took off her jacket, looking around the room as she did so.

“I work a couple of miles down the road, and I’ve never been in one of these rooms. Never had any reason to.”

Somehow I was glad to hear this. I didn’t like to think that she made a habit of coming back here with strange women. It made me feel – well – a little special. I was nervous, but in a way I was more scared that she would simply go, leaving me here on my own.

She walked over to the bathroom, looked in, and then came back.

“Yeah, that’s fine,” she said. Then she took hold of my wrist, and pulled me towards the bathroom. I resisted a little, and she looked back.

“I could do with some help in that shower,” she said, more softly than she had spoken before, as if she too was a little scared. “Come in with me.”

Still I hung back. I have to say that I am so bad when it comes to relationships. If it came to putting my sexuality down on a form or a questionnaire, I would have to write “inept”! It had been a few years since I had done the lezzie thing. I loved women very much – it was just that I always spoilt things somehow. And right now – yes – I wanted sex very much. I wanted to go into the shower with her.

She looked into my eyes. Hers were very kind, just like her smile. So it surprised me when she twisted my arm rather forcefully. If she had done it only slightly harder, it might have been cruel and painful, but the force she did give it made it… decisive. She twisted it upwards, and that brought us closer together, facing each other. She slipped her other hand round my waist, and gently drew me to her. She touched her lips lightly to mine. I thought for a moment the engine of the Harley was still running, but it was my heart hammering.

“OK,” she said. “We’ll take this slow.” She let me go, and sat down on the bed, smoothing the cover next to her, as if inviting me to sit too. I did, but a little awkwardly, half-opposite, as if at right-angles to her. She took my hand, and I didn’t resist, but accepted this intimate little pressure.

“It’s been a long time,” I said, by way of unnecessary explanation. She nodded. Then she put me totally at my ease, by changing the subject, and getting me to talk.

“What brings you this way? Vacation?”

“Well, sort of,” I replied, and then told her all about my plans for doing a minor version of William Least-Heat-Moon’s personal Odyssey.

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