Jonathan Dodd’s latest column. Guest opinion articles do not necessarily reflect the views of the publication. Ed
I’ve had an interesting week. I couldn’t think of anything intelligent to say about anything, but I discovered this story, banging on my mind’s inner door, wanting very much to be written. That’s a feeling I wish I had more often, and I don’t ignore the story muse when she arrives.
I’m offering it to you, dear reader, as an early Christmas present. It’s about motorbike maintenance, about which I know nothing, and it’s about love, and Christmas, although it doesn’t make much direct reference to either. I try to write Christmas stories with all the expected ingredients, and sometimes they bake into something recognisable, and sometimes they turn out differently. I guess this is one of them.
I hope you like it. I like it a lot. I’ll try to write a proper Christmas story as usual, nearer the time.
Leila and Marvin were very much in love. It wasn’t a secret; they’d been in love for thirty-six years. Without trying to, they had become that rarest of things, a living inspiration to all of their friends, and everyone who knew all of their friends. They were a legend, the kind of couple that you couldn’t avoid noticing, because they hung on each other’s words, and they were practically inseparable.
They met all those years ago, outside a motorbike showroom. Leila was eying a shiny new Lancaster Brilliant, and Marvin strolled up. She had never seen him before, but she liked the way he wanted to look only at the bike, but his eyes kept veering towards her. Afterwards, she teased him that he could never tell which he loved more – her or the Lancaster. Marvin always maintained that he wanted both, but couldn’t decide which to go for first.
In any event, they stood there for a moment or two, just staring at the machine, and excruciatingly aware of each other, until Marvin sighed.
“Isn’t she lovely!” he said, almost under his breath.
“Isn’t she wonderful!” replied Leila, quietly, but she intoned it just the way Stevie Wonder did, and Marvin broke into a huge smile. It was five years since that album came out, but they found out the third thing that would link them together for life, right there. Stevie Wonder.
“So. Are you going to buy her?” asked Marvin, looking straight at her now, and cocking his head towards the shiny thing inside the showroom.
“I wish! I could never buy her, not on my wages!”
“Ah! Where do you work then?”
Leila nodded down the road. “Cartwright’s.” She looked down at her watch. “Got to go!” And she was gone, running down the road, with Marvin watching the beautiful sight of her running away from him. He watched her all the way, until she pushed open the door, and paused for just a moment, to see if he was still looking. There was a quick crooked grin, and then she was out of sight. Marvin decided he liked that grin.
Marvin turned once more to the bike, waiting patiently in the window, and went inside.
Later that day, when the shops were shutting, he rode up to Cartwright’s with his spare helmet, switched off, and waited. He could see people moving about, sometimes turning to look at him there on the Lanc, and he felt like the king of the road, king of all he could see, waiting for his future queen. It felt like a really good chess game, after many moves and much patience, getting to the point where everything was in place, and the result was now inevitable. He’d never felt like this before, and he thought he might never again. And it felt good, it felt like it was right, and then Leila came out and he held out his spare helmet to her, and she put it on.
Thirty-six years later, everything was just the same, and just as good. They had their own bikes now, and they had been through quite a few over the years. But the Lancaster still stood at the back of the garage, covered with a tarp, and Marvin still tinkered with it most weekends, and took it out every now and then, just to keep it running.
Like any machine, the Lanc had responded to careful driving and a lot of maintenance, and hadn’t cost a huge amount to repair, but earlier in the year the engine had broken down in a spectacular way, and it was unrepairable. Marvin had used up all his contacts to find a replacement engine, and had drawn a complete blank. There were simply no parts anywhere. And he was tired. Leila made him go to the doctor, and then the hospital, and she sat with him during the treatments, and she was the one driving now, and he was the passenger.
After a while, Marvin couldn’t bear to look at the Lanc getting dusty at the back of the garage, and they decided it was time to let her go. Leila organised a good friend to come and take her away on a trailer. Marvin couldn’t watch, and it was a terrible day for them, and for everyone who knew them.
After that, Leila and Marvin went very quiet. They didn’t go out so much, and they missed the meetings with their friends and the bikes that had been such a part of their lives. Leila stayed by Marvin’s side and looked after him, just as she always had.
Christmas was coming, and Marvin said he didn’t want anything, and Leila said that was all right, she didn’t expect anything from him either, but she was looking at him with that old crooked grin, and she wouldn’t say why. On Christmas morning, she said she had forgotten to buy some gravy, and had to dash out to the corner shop. They made the usual joke about people having to work every day of the year, and she said she would only be a few minutes.
Marvin was looking out of the window, and he thought he could hear something. He shook his head, as if to clear it, because he could swear he could hear the old Lanc coming up the road. Outside, Leila drew up, and waved. She was wearing her leathers and sitting astride the Lanc, the very same one that he thought he would never see again, and had known he would never hear again. And behind her was a whole pack of friends on their own bikes, filling the road. She took off her helmet, shook out her hair, and waved vigorously at him. She had that lovely crooked grin again, and it broke his heart, like it always did.
Everyone came inside, and crowded round, while Leila told him about not giving up on the Lanc, and searching online for months, and finding an old one in a shed in France, and getting an old friend to go over and look at it. She told him about the weeks of work making her as good as new again, and everyone’s excitement about today, this morning, and bringing her back to Marvin for Christmas.
There was only one thing for it. Marvin’s leathers were fetched, he was put on the pillion and off they all went, slowly and ceremonially, round the town and home again. Leila drove more carefully than she ever had, not that she was a reckless driver ever, and then she brought him home and gave him her best Christmas dinner and they held hands and she wiped his tears away, and it was the best day ever. Marvin spent all of it just looking out of the front window at that lovely machine.
Later that night, when they went to bed, Marvin told Leila he loved her even more than the Lanc, and she told him that better be true, and they went to sleep, next to each other, as always.
Marvin dreamed that night. He dreamed that he was going on a journey to the North, on his Lanc, to fetch Leila the best Christmas present ever, but he had to go to Lapland to get it, and he had to go on his own. In his dream, Leila kissed him and tucked his scarf in, and told him to drive safely, and he said he would. And off he went, with the wind in his face and the restored engine purring beneath his saddle.
It was like being in Heaven, and then it was.
If you have been, thank you for reading this.