The Quickest Way Back: A short story by Anthony Dandy
- Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto
A short story set in Portwrinkle
‘My bicycle was in its usual place,’ said the old lady, sitting with her two friends, at the table next to ours.
Nicky and I were in a pub in Portwrinkle, Cornwall, on a few days short break. This was my second visit to the pub – it had changed little since my first visit, twenty years previously.
The old lady continued. ‘I was ready for bed – it was just before ten o’clock. I opened my front door to let the cat in and my bike was where I always left it – on the pavement – leaning against the wall of my cottage.’
An uneasy feeling stirred in my gut, urging me to concentrate harder on my eavesdropping.
She continued. ‘Sheba hopped over the doorstep, into the parlour, and lay in her basket, in front of the dying embers in the fireplace. I went to bed and opened my book, when I heard voices outside my front door. I got out of bed and tip-toed to the door. When I got there, the talking had stopped and …’
The old lady appeared to be in her late sixties – she was lean and fit – tanned skin, healthy white hair. She spoke with enthusiasm, like she was still young. She was sitting with another lady and a gentleman, of similar age to herself. The other lady had pink streaks through her grey hair and the gentleman had a grey beard.
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‘So you opened your door, Maisie, to see the two of them, scooting up the high street with your bike,’ interrupted Greybeard.
At least I know her name, now, I thought.
Maisie continued. ‘I called the police, right away. Next morning, I heard a rapping on my door – it was the police, with my bike.’
French mariners were sat at the table behind mine and Nicky’s – they sailed over from Brittany, mooring up for a few days in the clear, shallow waters of West Looe harbour – a few miles up the coast from Portwrinkle.
I had been pondering on the irony of Frenchmen nonchalantly drinking in an English pub in Portwrinkle – only three miles up the coast from Tregantle Fort – a stone fort constructed in Napoleonic times to keep the Frenchmen away – when my ruminations were interrupted by Maisie’s tale.
‘It was they boy soldiers at Tregantle Fort who took it, wasn’t it?’ said the lady with the pink-streaked hair.
‘Aye, it was.’ Maisie replied. ‘That was twenty years ago – it’s been a while since I was last on a bike.’
Maisie changed the subject. ‘I still need the outside of my cottage re-painted.’
‘I told you Maisie, I’ll do it for you – £250 – to cover the cost of materials,’ said Greybeard.
Maisie sighed. ‘I can’t afford £250 – I only got my pension’
I became aware that Nicky was looking at me. ‘You’re miles away, Jack … what have I just been saying?’
I opened and shut my mouth, like a goldfish.
‘You weren’t listening to me, Jack, were you?’
‘Sorry, Nicky.’ I gave her my conspiratorial look, the one I give when I have good reason, not just when I haven’t been listening.
‘What?’ she asked, in a husky whisper – her eyes telling me she wanted to know more.
I leant towards her. ‘The lady at the table next to ours.’
Nicky’s head didn’t move; her eyes flashed to the table on our right. She looked at me and murmured, ‘The old lady with the white hair and tanned face, talking quite loud?’
I nodded and likewise dropped my voice. ‘She’s talking about her bicycle that was stolen outside of her cottage, twenty years ago – her friends call her Maisie.’
Nicky’s eyes widened, questioningly.
‘We’d better move to a quieter table,’ I said.
She followed me to a vacant table at the other end of the bar, out of earshot of Maisie and her friends. Maisie looked at me as we walked past, drinks in our hands. Our eyes met, fleetingly. I had never seen Maisie before and as far as I knew, neither had she seen me.
Nicky and I sat down at our new table, placing our drinks onto the fresh beer mats.
‘You remember I told you that I spent a couple of weeks on ‘battle camp’ at Tregantle Fort, when I was a junior soldier?’
‘Yes, of course I do Jack, I’ve been married to you for ten years, I do listen … not like some people …’
I gave her one of my ‘I don’t know what you mean, my dear,’ looks and continued. ‘Let me get us some lunch and I’ll tell you the whole story.’
I returned to our table, with sandwiches, tea and coffee. Nicky looked at me expectantly as we ate. We’d met in Germany, twelve years previously, whilst we were both serving in the army. Of course, Nicky knew that I had been a boy soldier in the Junior Leaders’ Regiment – where I had spent twenty months military training, until the age of seventeen and a half, when I passed out into the regular army.
‘What are you going to tell me about your two weeks battle camp, at Tregantle Fort?’ said Nicky.
I chewed on my sandwich and took a sip of coffee. ‘Towards the end of the battle camp, the training staff cut us some slack and one evening, they laid on a liberty truck – an army four-tonner– to take us from the fort to the nearest pub – this pub as it happens.’
Nicolette looked incredulous. ‘So they let loose a group of fifteen and sixteen year old boy-soldiers, to go drinking in the local pub?’
‘Well it was 1972 – things were different – the training staff had a work-hard, play-hard policy … and we lived that to the full.’
I continued. ‘The liberty truck returned to the pub just before ten pm, to take us back to the fort. Me and my mate, Bruce, stayed in the pub a little too long...’
‘I bet you did,’ Nicky interjected, ‘probably chatting up the local talent.’
I continued. ‘We missed the liberty truck. We were all under orders to be back at the fort by ten-thirty – which meant me and Bruce had less than half an hour to do the three miles from this pub, back to the fort. We could have done it if we were sober, but we were a bit worse for wear and did not want to end up in trouble with the sergeant-major, for being late.’
Nicky looked hard at me. ‘Maisie’s bicycle?’
I nodded and sighed. ‘It was leaning against her cottage wall – there’s a row of cottages just up the road from this pub – their front doors open onto the high street.’
‘So you and Bruce rode the bike back to Tregantle Fort?’
‘Yeh, me peddling – Bruce sitting on the seat – the pair of us, Brahms and Liszt, wobbling down the road, laughing.’
‘You must have looked a right pair of Charlie’s – it’s a wonder you didn’t get yourselves killed.’
‘We got onto the coastal road – it was pitch black – no street lighting. We were mindful not to switch on the bicycle lights – we didn’t want to be seen.’
‘A couple of cars passed us on the way, and one dazzled us head-on. We treated it like a big game – as soon as we saw headlights approaching, we toppled off the bike and dragged it, giggling like a pair of kookaburras, into the sand-dunes along the roadside, hiding until the vehicle passed.’
‘Did you get back to the fort before ten-thirty?’
‘We did – about two hundred yards from the fort – we threw the bike into the sand dunes and walked up to the main gate, where we signed in and went back to our barrack block.’
‘So Maisie reported her stolen bicycle to the police and they figured that nobody in Portwrinkle Village is going to steal a neighbour’s bike,’ said Nicky.
I winced at her look of disdain. ‘All right, Nicky, we were out of order, but we got our comeuppance pretty quick. The next morning, the training staff came into the barrack rooms, shouting and bawling at us to get out of bed – ordering us into our PT kit. It was six a.m. My head was thumping and my mouth felt like the inside of a fast bowler’s jockstrap on a baking-hot day.’
Nicky tutted. ‘Don’t be so crude, Jack.’
‘We stood outside the block, shivering in our shorts and PT vests. My stomach felt as if icy fingers were gripping it from the inside. The training staff looked at us, grim-faced. We knew the drill when someone had fucked-up – everyone takes the rap. My comrades were shooting vindictive glances my way – you know the soldiers’ code – don’t rat on your mates but give them a hard time if they deserve it. The training staff doubled us down to the beach, where they ‘beasted’ us with three quarters of an hour battle PT. Then they doubled us back to the fort, to get showered and changed for breakfast.’
Nicky was looking at me, teacup poised at her lips. ‘How did the rest of the lads know that you and Bruce were to blame?’
‘I couldn’t resist gobbing-off, when I returned to the barrack block the previous night. After breakfast, I stayed out of the way. I managed to exchange a few words with Bruce – ‘just deny everything, they can’t prove anything’ he said to me. He was a real hard case, Bruce was, a London east-end boy. I knew the lads wouldn’t lean heavy on him – they would have a go at me though, for sure.’
‘The platoon sergeant ordered us to form up in three ranks, outside on the parade square. A murmur rippled through our lines – a police car was parked in front of the Fort HQ. The sergeant-major came out and called us up to attention. He spent the next few minutes berating us, then he had us doing double-quick time drill, until we were sweating again – despite the cold breeze coming in from the sea.
‘The sergeant-major swaggered through our ranks, looking into our eyes, pace-stick under his right arm. ‘Last night, someone from this fort stole a bicycle from the local village … How do we know this? … Because there are no civilian places of abode near to Tregantle Fort and the bicycle was dumped in the sand dunes, just before the fort entrance, which is where the police found it, at sparrow’s-fart, this morning.’
He continued. ‘I will give two minutes for whoever’s responsible to step forward – if nobody steps forward, there will be no more liberty periods – instead, you will all be detailed for barrack cleaning-fatigues and extra guard duties. However, if those responsible man up and step forward, only they will take the rap. Otherwise everyone gets punished.’
‘We stood there, on parade, in silence. I could hear my heart thumping – I concentrated on the sound of the wind blowing through the tussock grass on the sand dunes, and the noise of the waves breaking on the seashore in the near-distance. Bruce was in the rank in front of me – over to my right. If Bruce steps forward, so will I, I thought.’
‘Neither of us moved.’
Nicky said, ‘What happened next?’
‘The sergeant-major broke the silence. Right, no one has had the guts to come forward, he shouted, so when I give you ‘fall out’, the training staff will continue with your daily routine and the sanctions I promised will be put into action – starting tonight.’
‘Jack, I’m surprised the lads didn’t beat the crap out of you, at the very least.’
‘As soon as the sergeant-major dismissed the parade, various lads came up to me, giving me veiled threats. I knew the threats would not be veiled for much longer, so I got myself over to the Fort HQ and spilled the beans to the sergeant-major – the civvy police were still there – a constable and a sergeant. I didn’t mention Bruce’s name because – well you just don’t do you?’
Nicky shook her head, firmly. ‘He should have admitted it himself.’
‘I had to make a statement to the civvy police. They sat me at a desk, opposite the police sergeant. The sergeant-major, my platoon sergeant and the constable stood behind me, observing the proceedings.’
‘My statement went something along the lines of I was drinking with my friends in a pub in Portwrinkle. I got drunk and missed the transport back to the fort. I realised I could not get back to the fort before the ten-thirty deadline, so when I saw the bicycle I took it and rode it back to camp, dumping it in the sand dunes, outside of the fort.’
‘The police sergeant asked me how old I was.’
‘Sixteen,’ I said.
‘What did you have to drink last night?’
‘Six pints of scrumpy.’
‘You couldn’t have, if you are aged sixteen, you could not legally be sold – or be allowed to consume – alcohol inside licensed public premises. I believe you told me you had a few glasses of coke, the police sergeant said – nodding, meaningfully.’
‘Er – yes,’ I said.
‘The sergeant-major leaned over, eye-balling me. ‘Yes, Sergeant, when you address the police officer, son.’ His voice was gruff.
‘Yessir,’ I said.
The police sergeant continued. ‘After you left the pub, you realised you couldn’t get back to the fort before the ten-thirty deadline, so you borrowed the bicycle, intending to return it as soon as you could – that’s what you just told me, yes?’ he said, with another exaggerated nod.
‘Yes, that’s right, Sergeant.’
The police sergeant scribbled onto the form in front of him and continued ‘And you placed the bicycle behind the sand dunes near the fort, to keep it safely out of sight, before you returned it to its rightful owner.’ He looked up at me.
‘Yes, Sergeant – I just saw it as the quickest way back.’
‘Bloomin’ heck, Jack, you were lucky there.’
I agreed. ‘The police left shortly afterwards, taking the bicycle with them, in the back of their land-rover. The sergeant-major told me the police had thought it best for the military to deal with me – he gave me seven days Restriction of Privileges and five extra guard duties.’
‘What about Bruce?’
‘I spoke to Bruce later – I told him it would be better just for me to take the hit. I got a lot of respect from him for that and the rest of the lads were okay with me, as none of their privileges were lost.’
‘Let’s move back to our table now, said Nicky, glancing towards it. ‘It’s still vacant.’
I looked in the direction of Nicky’s glance and noticed Maisie was still at her table, with her friends. I stood up and looked at Nicky. ‘You know the savings account I use to pay for little breaks like this one?’
I have always admired my wife’s intuition. ‘Yeeees,’ she said, ‘Maisie won’t need a new bicycle …’
I stood up and took Nicky’s hand. ‘No, but she needs £250 to give her cottage a fresh coat of paint,’ I said. And we walked over to Maisie’s table.