The Raucous Blast...
The raucous blast of Ben Ryton’s bike crashed around the stone gatehouse of Victoria Barracks. Hunched low over the fuel tank of his Royal Enfield Bullet Ben roared from cool shade into scalding heat. He was instantly among Rawalpindi’s busy streets.
He was out of uniform but marked out as a British soldier. His mufti was worn out khaki trousers and a cotton sweater over a shirt. He had a reversed cap pulled down tight to goggles that kept his eyes from streaming. On his face a scarf pulled up over his nose kept the dust and flies out.
His Bullet was three years old, a 1934 model. He had read there was a more powerful version in England but didn’t care. He had won the bike in a side bet on his win at the Army Boxing Championships in Delhi. The Bullet’s power and speed gave him a chest thumping thrill. It far outweighed the excitement he had felt as his right uppercut had seen off Gunner Bettick for the middleweight title.
Hot oil spat from the engine. He could feel the heat even through the extra leather puttee he had wrapped around his left calf. The discomfort didn’t give him any pause. He tore down the road. A skidding turn took him onto the edge of the huge space occupied by the city’s open air market.
Four years of being stationed in ‘Pindi meant he knew the place well. Each industry had it’s own area of market stalls. He went past skinny boys squatting and cutting away at bound bunches of date leaves to make brushes. Then the 20 different stalls selling sugar cane and half a dozen Gakhar merchants selling boulders of rock salt as licks for cattle.
Even with his knowledge of the place there was still a surprise. As he sped towards a corner a man had gathered a crowd for a display of animal agility. The small time Barnum’s show was persuading a large mountain goat to balance on a two inch wide piece of wood.
Before he was even level with the goat and the ringmaster Ben knew the blast from his bike was ruining the event. The goat jerked it’s head round and toppled into its owner, then bolted towards the crowd.
Ben dismissed the small prick on his conscience. He purposely didn’t turn round to see the shouts or shaking fists he knew were there. His mission was too important. He hit the edge of the city and entered the plains of the Pothwar Plateau.
Winter rains would soon give them a fresh green covering but not now. Ben ripped forward into the hot air of country baked hard and dusty by a hot summer near its end. His scarf was pulled tight to a face set hard with determination to put right a wrong.
A few hours later he was sweating and breathing hard. Riding into the last of the year’s heat was leaching the life from him. He pulled over into the shade of some trees and pulled the bike onto it’s stand. He turned it off then stretched and took a long drink from his water canteen. The absence of noise from the Bullet made a heavy silence.
Just off the road, beyond the trees hundreds of white pots hung on the tops of poles stuck into the ground. They surrounded a Moslem shrine set on sharp thirty foot high rocks that burst up from the flat ground around them.
Ben had been born and raised in India. Despite a protestant education at the hands of Scottish missionaries his 27 years in the sharp energy of the sub-continent gave him a wider view than most of the men he served with at Rawalpindi.
They came as skinny, pale adults from England. A place where the decoration in Catholic churches was viewed as suspiciously ostentatious. Their view of Hindus, Mohamedans, Jains, Buddhists and all of India’s religions was preformed by a background and prejudice that made no sense to Ben. He thought all religious practices both odd and unremarkable at the same time.
He knew the pots were put there by women praying for fertility. He understood the symbolism of the pots but wondered again how hanging them on a pole was going to help anyone get pregnant.
He shook his head then looked back to the road and up beyond it.
He was going where the British had followed the Mughal Emperors and Sikh Sardars and Maharajahs before them. Up into the cool foot hills of the Himalayas. He could see line after line of hills rising towards the white mountain monsters beyond them. The road he was on went arrow straight towards the heart of the hills. It would take him up and out of the heat but there was another couple of hour’s tough climbing on steep roads between him and Murree Hill Station. His course would soon become nothing but twists, turns and steep, brutal punishments of mistakes on the road carved into the hills.
Ben rolled his shoulders and neck to shake off more of the ache from the vibrations of the Bullet. He thought about the task he would face once he got to the cooler air of Murree. The fear rose in him just as it had before he had pulled the Bullet from it’s shed in the barracks, urgently swapped a future guard duty for petrol and sped out of the city.
Dread spurred him to action. He pulled his scarf up, his goggles on and his hat down. Then he kicked the Bullet into life and hastily skidded back onto the road.
Ben’s surroundings turned lush over the next half hour. The engine note beneath him got a little higher and speedometer dropped a little despite his hard twist on the throttle.
The surface of the road changed from baked dirt to wet muck on a steep and winding forest road. He had not ridden country like this before, a different challenge but one he had to meet at speed given what was at stake.
The urgent drama of his reason for tearing from ‘Pindi to Murree meant he had no room to think about anything but getting there. So he could take on the bigger, life changing challenge.
He threw his roaring bike around another bend. The back wheel slid further than he wanted it to as it hit a slick patch of mud on a road that showed signs of recent and heavy rain. He twisted the throttle to keep the power on and fought it back into line.
The steep drop to his right meant he hugged close to the wall carved to form the left of the road.
He could see ahead of him that trees reached out over the road to make what looked like a tunnel. He widened his eyes to prepare for the darkness and hugged even closer to the left.
He entered the dark shade of the trees and took a bend tight to the cut side of the road. Ben hit the remains of a tree stump sticking just a few inches inches from the earth wall he had thought was safety. The impact jerked him upright and ripped his fists from the handlebars of the screaming Bullet.
His bike bucked and leapt under him, surging for the endless edge that would drop him off the road and into the hard wood of the trees below. Ben’s boxing reflexes paid off. The inner urge to stay in the fight saw no conscious thought enter his head as his hands snatched onto the handlebars.
His whole body leant back into the left as he pulled the front of the bike back into the middle of the road in the tunnel of trees. Where the canopy had kept the road surface dry. Where the ruts left by army trucks and farmers carts remained hard set, like brick, in the surface.
Ben’s front wheel dropped into a rut at right angles. It caught the bike’s wheel completely and flicked the rest of the bike totally around and with it, Ben. The last moment aboard his prized, hard won bike was nothing but defeat. He knew failure as he was thrown high into the air and off the steep side of the road into the forest below.
Ben couldn’t move. And there was pain. A lot of pain. Too much. He sank back to oblivion.
A cleaning breeze brought Ben round. His fogged mind struggled for what could have been a moment or a month. Then he dragged the world around him into focus. White washed walls and a window out onto a colourful mountain garden were on his left. He looked to his right, through a maze of ropes and pulleys to see a nurse. The nurse.
Concern and another emotion Ben couldn’t work out filled her eyes.
“Nor…..” Ben’s voice was trapped totally in an arid throat.
Noreen disappeared from his sight for a moment then came around the bed and lifted a glass of water to his lips.
“Noreen. I… is it too late?”
“I sent him packing you idiot.”
Ben’s biggest fear dropped off him completely. A new one replaced it. “Will you… I mean will you…”
“If you are trying to propose I shouldn’t worry. I accepted the first 30 times you asked me while you were delirious.”
Note to the reader:
This story is loosely based on the family myth of how my Grandad proposed to my Nan. Grandad was a rockstar, Nan was the kindest woman I’ve ever known.
The spidery scar on his elbow was always evidence of this story’s truth. I believe it.