Friday, September 11, 2015

Derek and the Square Four

Auckland, NZ, 1970                                              

The work on the motorway continued apace throughout the summer. 
Everyone at the depot was working overtime, sunup to sundown, six days a week.  
Except the surveyors. We were working seven days a week. 
I was now working with the surveyors, having been promoted from the work gangs to Chainman, second Class a few months before. I liked working with the surveyors. The work was easier and they were mostly good blokes. 
I had been working at the depot about a year, and was seventeen-years-old.
It was our job to survey and set out the motorway for the big earthmoving machines as they toiled their way north, cutting and scraping their way up the Wairau Valley. As you can imagine, there were many more earthmoving machines than surveyors, so we were kept very busy.
It was with pleasure then, that we learned from the chief engineer of the imminent arrival of another surveyor to join our ranks. The engineer came in on a Monday morning and told us to expect the new surveyor before the end of the week.
“He’s just out of University, but comes highly recommended,” the chief added.
“We could use the help,” said Peter, who worked harder than anyone.
“Highly recommended?” squawked Ben, who detested work and complained a lot. “What’s the bloody use of that?” As usual, Ben found the situation wanting. 
“Humph!” he added for good measure.

The new surveyor arrived the next morning, roaring up to the yard on a beautiful old British motorcycle. I later learned it to be an Ariel Square Four. He parked it casually but expertly outside the tearoom and twisted the throttle a few times, causing a fearsome metallic bark that rattled the windows in the offices. 
“Vroom! Vroom!”
I went out to see, and stood on the second story landing of the office building.
Switching off the motor and dismounting from the machine, the rider removed his helmet and looked around. He was thin and tall and had long, shiny black hair and a scruffy beard. Removing his sunglasses, he noticed Buck, who had hobbled out from the tearoom at the noisy arrival of a stranger. 
The rider called out to Buck, “Hey! Old Timer! Where’s the office around here?” 
“Cheeky bastard!” replied Buck without anger. “Up those stairs, mate.”
“Thanks, mate. Will my bike be okay here?” 
The stranger turned and walked toward the stairs. He had a noticeable limp, swaying from side to side as he ascended the stairs, one step at a time.
I was standing at the top of the stairs, plainly agog at the stranger’s arrival. The stranger looked up at me, nodded and showed a wolfish smile then continued past me into the office. I turned and followed him in.
“Derek!” exclaimed Peter when the stranger walked in. “You’re the new surveyor? I had no idea it was you! Still got the bike, I see.”
“Yeah, mate. Fixed up good as new. Me and the bike both!” 
They laughed together. Turns out they knew each other from school. 
Ben, a sour, angry sort of person, “humphed” a couple of times and left the office. He did not appreciate the boisterous welcome we were giving Derek. It probably broke his concentration which he valued so highly and besides, he detested levity of any kind.
Derek watched him go, turned to us and asked, “What’s with him?”
We explained as best we could about Ben, without too much exaggeration.
Derek thought a minute, then said, “He’s got a face like a bag full of twisted assholes, mate, doesn’t he?”  
We laughed. Because it was true.
I liked Derek from the start. I hadn’t forgotten his stylish entrance to our depot either, and I asked if he would mind if I looked at his motorcycle.
“Sure,” he answered. What biker doesn’t want to show off their ride? Derek stood up and led me out of the office, limping along energetically. 
As we descended the stairs, I saw that Buck was standing by, admiring the Ariel. Looking up, Buck smiled at me and said, “She’s sure a beauty, isn’t she?”  
“Yeah,” I sighed. I thought it one of the most beautiful things I had ever seen.
Buck turned to Derek and asked, “An Ariel Square Four? This is the four, isn’t it, mate? How do you keep the back cylinders cool?” 
I introduced them and they shook hands.
“Wasn’t Ariel the beautiful mermaid of yore?” asked Buck.
"Beats me," said Derek. 
I often marveled at Buck's ability to weave a little truth into the fabric of falsehood he habitually inhabited.
“Ah,” he sighed, gesturing toward the Ariel, “she reminds me of the time I raced a Works Norton at the Isle of Man in nineteen-forty-eight. Or was it forty-nine? Crashed out by the Keppel Gate, I did!” He turned to me. “Sure I must have told you that one, Rusty boy?”
He squinted at me quizzically, as if I should know. I shrugged my shoulders. 
“Ten-thousand bastards!” he cursed. “That’s how I got these smashed up old legs, lad!”
Buck reached down and affectionally patted his crooked, busted legs. He must have told me two dozen different versions of how they got that way, but I couldn’t recall one involving a motorcycle.
“It was a glorious prang!” announced Buck.
Old Buck. How I enjoyed his company, because no matter what the circumstance, there was always a laugh involved, especially if there was a tall tale to be told. Changing the subject, he turned to Derek, “How’d you get your limp, mate? Motorcycle mishap yourself?”
“Yeah,” answered Derek, nodding towards the Ariel. “On that very bike, mate. Over in Auckland up by the University. 
Derek told a funny story of being hit and almost killed by a woman driving a Cortina.
“Geez!” he laughed. “You should have seen the look on her face!”
Derek explained that his unconscious mangled body had twitched to life just as she came upon him laying in the road, causing her to nearly faint from surprise. How he laughed at the memory! He had us in stitches!
Then he added, more somberly, “I spent three months in Hospital with my leg in traction and my jaw wired shut. I’d landed on my face and scraped it up pretty good.”
Then he reached up and to my surprise removed his upper two front teeth. Holding out the partial denture before our eyes, he whispered, “Almossst ruined me manly good looksss.”
We roared with laughter at the silly look of toothless triumph on Derek’s face. 
Derek pushed his front teeth back into his mouth. “Yep,” he drawled. “Bloody oath! That was a hell of a prang!”
Then Buck took us into the tearoom, sat us down, poured us some tea and told us hair-raising tales of great motorcycle crashes he had lived through and in one case, one he claimed to have not lived through, but had died and was revived after death by a beautiful female passerby!
“I was sort of swimming towards the light,” said Buck, blinking his tiny grey eyes behind his steel spectacles, “When I woke up on the end of a beautiful girl!”
I listened with awe as Buck and Derek swapped stories over another cup of tea. Listening to these two crashed up veterans, I was very jealous that I hadn’t had a motorcycle accident of my own to brag about yet. It sounded very romantic, to crash and burn a little bit on something you love.
But I didn’t even have a motorcycle.
It would be years, I bitterly calculated, before I could stand, barely, and on crutches, among such giants of motorcycling disasters.
Some guys have all the luck.

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