“Malham? Do we have to? I was just hoping we might…”
“You’ll love it, you know you will. You always say you don’t want a ride out, then you have a good time. Go get changed.”
“Ed, I was in the middle of weeding. I’ve been meaning to get my hands on this all week.”
“Don’t be silly, you can’t waste a beautiful Sunday afternoon pottering in your flower beds. Get your leathers on, we’ll be setting off in twenty minutes.”
Concluding that the matter is settled it would seem, Ed transfers his attention back to the monster of a machine he tends so lovingly. I swear he lavishes more devotion on that thing than he ever does on me. Six months into a marriage, and already I play second fiddle to a Yamaha MT-09.
You could be forgiven for thinking I’m a bike buff. I’m not, it’s just that the specifications for Ed’s pride and joy have been drilled into me for months. He bought the thing just six weeks before our wedding, blowing nearly seven thousand pounds we badly needed for such fripperies as furniture, a washing machine, and a fridge freezer. We have all those now, but they’re second hand. I was at first incredulous, then livid that he could do such a thing, spend all that money without even consulting me. He dismissed my concerns, I doubt he even heard what I said. He just assured me that I’d love the bike as much as he did, as much as he loves me.
The L word always does the trick. He may be a self-centred petrol head a lot of the time, but I do genuinely believe Ed loves me in his way. He’s sweet, gentle, very attentive in bed. That counts for a lot. Doesn’t it?
I know I love him. I adore my husband or I wouldn’t put up with his obsession for fast bikes and hot women. He assures me he just likes to look, no harm in that, surely? Why would he ever be interested in anyone else when he has me? Even so, I find it unnerving when we’re out and he flirts with any attractive female he claps eyes on. Barmaids, waitresses, his friends’ girlfriends. My friends, workmates. If they have a pussy and a pulse, to Ed they’re fair game. Even the driving instructor who lives next door doesn’t escape his notice.
Some of them respond. Actually, most do, he gets a lot of encouragement. Well, he would, he’s drop-dead gorgeous. I know I’m the envy of many of the girls he flirts with—he may be full of ridiculous chat-up lines, but it’s still me he goes home with.
I tell myself that as I peel off my gardening gloves and shove them, my trowel, and hand fork back in the cupboard under our sink. I’d been eyeing that scruffy-looking border for a fortnight, just itching to get my hands on it and do some grievous bodily harm to the crop of dandelions and clover sprouting there. I never get a chance during the week because I work full time. Not that long out of college, armed with a degree in graphic design, I’m loitering with intent at the bottom rung of the career ladder, but glad to be in work. I’m a junior designer for Em See Squared, a prestigious design and marketing firm with a head office in the centre of Leeds. I can’t even rely on getting every weekend off—if a client wants something by Monday, that’s just how it goes—so I’ve no idea how long those dandelions will continue to invade my lupins and astilbes. They could be a foot high by the time I next get my hands on them. Ed works from home as a self-employed motorcycle courier, so he’s around a bit more than I am. He could sort out my dandelion problem if he felt so moved, but he prefers to spend his time up to his elbows in bike oil.
Resigned to the inevitable, I slink off upstairs and change my gardening cut-offs and oversize T shirt for snug leather trousers and a slinky top in a deep shade of scarlet. I’ll need my leather jacket too—despite the seventy-degree sunshine of mid-June, it’s always bloody cold on a bike. Especially at eighty miles an hour on the winding country roads of north Yorkshire.
Ed’s a good motorcyclist; he can handle speed. It’s me who hates it. The excitement, the exhilaration—all is lost on me. I plead with him to slow down, just to take it easy and enjoy the views, but he laughs and tells me yet again how much I love it really. It seems I’m to spend yet another warm Sunday afternoon bundled up in black leather, hurtling through the countryside, startling sheep and disturbing the rustic peace of the rambling fraternity.
Let joy be unconfined.
* * *
“Isn’t that that mate of yours? The one from next door?” Ed gestures across the car park in the direction of a trendy-looking coffee shop. They have tables set up outside, and look to be doing a roaring trade in fruity cocktails, ice creams, and fancy sandwiches.
I scan the tables and spot the one he’s picked out. Sure enough, that does look like Caroline, though what she’s doing sipping a cappuccino, alone, in a crowded street café in Hawes is beyond me.
“Yes. It looks like her.”
“She’s on her own. Let’s go over and say hello.”
And the rest. Ed fancies Caroline like mad; his eyes come out on stalks every time he spots her hanging out washing or getting into her car. Just because she shares his interest in bikes—up to a point, no one is as bike-obsessed as Ed—he’s convinced she fancies him back. There are times I wonder where he gets his delusions from. To the best of my knowledge she’s never said or done anything to create that impression, yet he clings to the belief that he would only have to give her the nod and she’d be over the back fence quicker than a ferret.
“I don’t think…”
“Come on, she’ll be glad of the company.” Before I can protest again, Ed has seized my hand and is tugging me across the car park. He marches the pair of us around the village square, past several market stalls and tourist tat shops to tower over Caroline as she replaces her cup on the saucer.
“We thought it was you. Faith spotted you and wanted to pop over for a chat. Can we join you?” Ed has pulled out the empty chair at Caroline’s table and is settling into it even before she has a chance to answer. It’s left to me to check with the occupants of the adjoining table whether they have a spare seat, and to pull one across for me to sit on. By the time I’m installed at the tiny table, Ed is treating Caroline to his thousand-watt smile, gearing up for a session of heavy flirting and suggestive innuendo.
He’s wasting his time. I know it, and Caroline gives every indication of knowing it too. Caroline’s glance flicks in the direction of the café entrance, and the reason Ed is wasting his strenuous efforts at seduction comes into view. I’m not sure of his name, but I’ve seen Caroline’s boyfriend around the place quite often. I don’t think he lives with her, but he spends a lot of time next door. And he is, quite simply, magnificent.
Ed is good-looking, but Caroline’s guy is beyond beautiful. Tall, almost black collar-length hair, eyes the colour of dark chocolate. He looks powerful but without that pumped-up appearance that comes of too many hours spent in the gym. This man is lean, strong, hard. He terrifies me.
That’s not an issue though, because he has eyes for no one but Caroline. He has not the remotest passing interest in the mousy little graphic artist who lives next door with her arrogant fool of a husband. I’m glad of this. It’s not just that I’m happily married, which is of course reason enough not to go lusting after the neighbours. I also know that his tastes and mine would not be compatible. He likes to play rough; I’ve seen the marks on Caroline’s legs, her bum on occasions when she’s been sunbathing in her back garden. I’ve sometimes heard sounds coming from next door, squeals, screaming once or twice. It doesn’t take a genius to work out what goes on.
The first time I heard Caroline screaming I was concerned; I considered calling the police but Ed just laughed off my worries. Even so, I made a point of watching out for my neighbour the following morning and spoke to her across the fence. I told her what I’d heard and asked her straight out if she was okay. She assured me she was, grinned, and asked me if I’d be happier if she suggested that her dom use a gag in future.
I’m no prude, at least I like to hope not. Consenting adults and all that. What Caroline and her sexy hunk get up to is no concern of mine. Nor of Ed’s, despite his enthusiastic efforts to engage Caroline in conversation now. He’s oblivious to the presence looming behind him. Neither Caroline nor I see fit to draw his attention to it.
“So, what brings you all the way out here? You’re far too sexy to be left sitting in a café on your own. Some sleazeball might try it on.”
Oh. My. God. Caroline has the good sense not to answer. Or perhaps she’s just enjoying the spectacle. For my part, I’m mortified.
Not so Ed. He blunders on with his crass attempt at flirtation. “There’s some right odd types out in these places. It’s the in-breeding, I reckon.” He leers at her, as though this might convince her of his lack of oddness. She seems less than impressed, reaching for her coffee cup once more.
Ed continues, undaunted and quite oblivious to the lack of warmth exuded by his audience. “Have you seen my dream machine? Faith here loves the feeling of power throbbing between her legs. You should try it.”
Holy shit! He’s going too far now. I lay my hand on his arm. “It’s time we were getting off.”
“Yes. Then perhaps I can have my seat back.”
Ed leaps to his feet at the sound of the deep voice right behind him. He tilts his head back to look up at the powerful man looking over him. The newcomer’s handsome features bear a sardonic smirk as he seems to dismiss Ed. I doubt he even notices me at all. His attention is fixed on Caroline.
“Won’t you introduce me to your friends?” Ah, he has seen me after all.
Her smile is radiant tinged with perhaps a hint of relief that reinforcements have arrived. “Yes, of course. These are our next-door neighbours, Ed and Faith. And this is Ewan, my, my…” She stumbles over what description to use. I appreciate her predicament—boyfriend seems hardly sufficient. In the end she settles for partner. I suppose that’ll do.
“Did you say you were leaving?” Ewan lifts one eyebrow, his gaze never leaving Ed.
I fully expect some mumbled excuse and to be bundled back in the direction of the bike, but I’m underestimating the power of petrol-driven testosterone. Ed is seized by a sudden rush of bravado. He turns as if to re-take his seat.
“No, I fancy a coffee. What about you, love?”
My attempt to answer is forestalled by Ewan. “If you’re intending to gate-crash, you’d better find your own seat. This one’s taken.” He sits down alongside Caroline, offers a polite nod in my direction, and lifts a hand to summon the waitress.
A few minutes later we are supplied with drinks and a selection of pretty little cakes. I have tea, so does Ewan, I note. Only Ed and Caroline seem to have any interest in the cakes. Most of the conversation is between them too.
“What model is your Yamaha?” Caroline asks, peering across the crowded village square in the direction of the car park.
“MT-09. Eight hundred and fifty cc, three-cylinder engine, a hundred and fifteen horsepower. Goes like shit off a shovel.”
The technical mumbo-jumbo is lost on me, but Caroline seems to know what he’s talking about. “What’s the acceleration like?”
Ed’s off. It doesn’t take much to engage him in an orgy of sexy bike talk, and soon he and Caroline are exchanging impassioned oohing and aahing over maximum torques, gear ratios, chassis design. More tea is ordered, a refill of coffee. I chance an occasional glance at the enigmatic Ewan. He seems amused more than anything. I guess he knows well enough that Caroline is interested in motorbikes, and he seems ready to indulge her. For my part, I stay pretty much silent. I have nothing to contribute to this conversation.
An hour passes; the café staff are clearing up and starting to move the chairs and tables back inside. It’s starting to cool off as well, and not for the first time I wish I didn’t have a ninety-minute ride on the back of a bike to look forward to. Even in snug leathers it’s a chilly affair. Still, best to get it over, before the weather really does change for the worse. I can see some grey skies gathering.
“It’s time we were making tracks. Looks like rain.” I reach for my jacket.
“No, it’s fine. No rush.” Ed makes no attempt to move.
“Please. I really would prefer to get off. It was cold enough on the way up here, I don’t fancy getting soaked on the way back.”
“That’s part of biking, what makes it so fucking wonderful. Don’t you think so, Caro?”
Caro? Ewan’s eyebrows lift at this too. He says nothing though.
Caroline’s smile is broad. “Oh, yes, it’s all about connecting with the elements, just you and your machine.”
Easy for her to say. Her machine doubtless has a roof on. And a heater. I like my neighbour, I really do, but this fascination with biking is surely bordering on the ridiculous.
“I know, why don’t we swap?” Caroline is grinning at me, her face alight with anticipation.
“What? Swap what?” I frown from her to Ed, who is also doing his Cheshire cat impersonation.
“Yeah, Great idea. Faith, let Caro have your crash helmet and leathers.”
“My leathers? But I’m only wearing shorts underneath.”
“You’ll be decent enough. You can go back in the car with Ewan, and Caro can ride pillion with me. You’d like a demonstration of how that thing goes, wouldn’t you?”
Ed’s final remark is directed at Caroline, who is looking hopefully at Ewan.
“Will that be okay with you? I mean, if you don’t want me to…”
He smiles, perhaps the first smile I’ve seen from him all afternoon. “If it’ll help get it out of your system, sweetheart. And if Faith has no objections, obviously.”
Actually, I don’t. Ewan might intimidate me, although I can’t really say why—he’s hardly said a word directly to me, but the prospect of the journey back in his nice warm car is infinitely more appealing than being perched on the back of Ed’s Yamaha. I shrug and hand Caroline my jacket.
“Shall we go inside and I’ll peel off my leathers in the loo. The helmet is with the bike.”
We leave Hawes together, in a sort of convoy. Ed and Caroline are on the Yamaha in front, Ewan and I in his sporty Nissan. Despite his apparent lack of interest in the conversation at the café, it’s clear Ewan likes his engines too. He simply prefers them attached to four wheels.
We leave the small town behind and Caroline waves to us as Ed accelerates away. Ewan seems to have no interest in keeping up with them, even though the Nissan can show a fair turn of speed too. On those parts where the road straightens, we catch fleeting glimpses of the bike in front, further ahead each time.
Ewan makes no serious attempt to engage me in conversation apart from a perfunctory “Are you warm enough?” I mumble that I am and sink into the soft leather of my seat.
“Music?” Ewan gestures at the CD player. I shake my head, hoping he’ll leave it at that. He’s only giving me a lift, for heaven’s sake, but I’m acutely aware of his presence alongside me. His voice is low, melodic almost, his fingers long and capable on the steering wheel. My imagination is starting to hit overdrive as I envision what he might be able to do with those hands.
I pull myself up sharp—this is ridiculous. And quite wrong. Ed might behave like a randy tomcat, but I know better. No good comes of daydreaming about sexy doms, especially unattainable ones. Kinky sex is not my thing.
My mental state under some semblance of control, I turn my head to watch the landscape of the Yorkshire Dales roll past the window, noticing a few spots of rain against the glass. I was right about the weather.
The road opens out again, we’re on a long, straight section, and it’s a little wider too in this stretch. The bike is visible, maybe a half mile or so ahead. Ed is taking advantage of the lack of bends in the road to open the throttle right up. The high-pitched roar of the engine reaches us even at this distance. There’s a muffled “Shit! He’s a fucking maniac,” from alongside me. I can’t help but agree and I’m glad I’m not the one on the back of the bike. Maybe if I were, he’d not be showing off so much though.
There’s a surge of power under me as Ewan hits the accelerator and the Nissan leaps forward. He’s trying to close the distance, maybe even get in front and if not, slow Ed down, at least retrieve his girlfriend from the danger zone. The car eats up the long straight road and Ewan slows a little for the curve at the end. The bike is in sight once more, approaching another bend. Ed is leaning it over, almost parallel with the ground.
Ewan swears again, this time something truly obscene, and stamps hard on the accelerator.
The Yamaha reaches the bend, at the extreme of our line of sight. I’m not sure what I see next, but it doesn’t look right. The rear wheel lifts, then bounces back down. The bike is disappearing around the bend in the road. It looks to be sliding across the tarmac now, but not before we see a figure flung from it.
“Fuck, fuck, fuck!” Ewan hits the brakes hard as we careen towards the bend too, the tyres screeching against the asphalt. I smell burning rubber as the powerful car slithers to a halt, sideways across the road. The bike is nowhere to be seen.
Ewan flings open the driver’s door and leaps out. He runs full pelt across the road to the grassy verge at the edge. I’m still in the car, dazed, wondering what the hell just happened. Clumsy, my fingers numb, I fumble with the door handle and drag myself out. I can see Ewan crouching in the longish grass at the roadside, leaning over something. Someone.
Oh, God. Oh, God, where’s Ed?
I stumble across the road to stand behind Ewan, desperately, selfishly hoping that the body in the hedgerow is not my husband. I can’t see the casualty properly, but I recognise my leathers and heave a sigh of relief, followed by a surge of guilt.
“How is she? Is she okay?”
Ewan doesn’t answer me; he’s too busy dragging his phone from his pocket. He hits the keys and within seconds is connected to the emergency services.
“Ambulance, please. RTA, motorcycle. One, possibly two casualties.” A pause, then, “No, no other vehicles involved.” Another pause. “B6255, about ten miles south of Hawes. Hurry. Please.”
He turns to me. “Where’s your husband?”
“I, I don’t know. I…”
“Stay with Carrie, I’ll go look around.” He skirts past me to jog along the road looking in both directions for some sign of the bike. He halts, then scrambles off the road and disappears down a grass bank. My impulse is to run after him, I need to see Ed, need to know he’s okay. But a breathy whimper behind me reminds me of my immediate responsibilities and I turn to look properly at Caroline for the first time.
My heart sinks. The unnatural angle of her legs is all the evidence I need of multiple fractures. Her head is still encased in my crash helmet and I know better than to attempt to remove it. Her breathing is laboured, her eyes barely open. I kneel beside her, desperate in my helplessness. By instinct I reach for her hand. I pull off the glove, dismayed at how cold her fingers are.
“Hold on, help is on the way. You’ll be fine. Just hold on. We’re here, and an ambulance is coming.” I mutter the platitudes, all the while knowing we’re well off the beaten track. An ambulance is indeed on the way but it might be twenty minutes or more before we hear the wail of sirens.
“I’m sorry.” Caroline’s lips move, but I can hardly make out her words.
I take her hand, lean in close. “Shh, don’t try to talk. Save your strength. You’re going to be fine.” I hope. Oh, God, I hope.
“I didn’t mean… I never wanted to hurt you.”
“It’s okay, I’m fine. You haven’t hurt me.”
“Your h…” Her eyelids droop, as though it’s all really too much effort.
“I’ll get a new helmet. It’s all fine. Really.”
Her words make no sense, just delirious ramblings, more ominous almost than the twisted limbs and blood trickling from her nose. I squeeze her hand again as I survey the scene, seeking out Ewan. When I glance back at her, Caroline is drifting in and out of consciousness. Her attempts to talk to me are over.
I twist my neck, straining to see something, anything of my husband. I call out to Ewan. “How is he? Have you found him?”
No reply. I stand, just as another car rounds the bend, narrowly avoiding Ewan’s abandoned Nissan. The second car stops; a middle-aged couple get out.
“Are you alright, love? Has there been an accident?” The man is already on his way over to me. “Mary, pass me my bag.”
Moments later the couple are bending over Caroline, the man’s fingers testing for pulses, heartbeat, breathing. He seems to know what he’s about, and my confidence soars when the bag he called for yields a stethoscope. Then a syringe. A doctor. We have a doctor on the scene now. It’s going to be alright.
I leave Caroline in their care and stagger across to where I saw Ewan leap into the ditch. As I get closer I see the flattened grass where the bike has slithered off the road. Thank God, at least Ed had a softer landing. Perhaps…
Ewan comes into view, scrambling back up onto the road. He doesn’t see me at first. He stands, leans forward, his hands on his knees as he steadies himself. Only then does he straighten and spot me. His expression tells me all I need to know. The awful reality of what has happened. Even so, I ask, hoping I’m wrong, that I’ve somehow misinterpreted that bleak expression.
“Ed? Is he… I need to see if he’s okay.”
Ewan shakes his head. “I’m sorry.”
I still don’t take it in. I try to step around him, past him to reach my husband. Ewan’s arm is around my waist, preventing me from hurling myself down the ditch.
“It’s too late. He’s gone. I’m sorry.”
“Gone? No, I don’t understand. He just came off the bike. He’s always doing it. He’ll be fine.”
“I’m sorry, Faith.”
I start to struggle, wriggling in his arms, desperate to be free. “Let go of me. I need to see him. Ed will need me.” I’m punching Ewan’s chest, as though pounding him for the dreadful news he’s brought me. He makes no attempt to stop the blows, absorbing them until at last I give in, exhausted.
“You should see him, I know that. Come on.” He releases me, but holds out his hand. I take it, allow him to guide me off the road and down the short bank, past the tangled, bent wreck of the Yamaha to where Ed’s body is lying a few feet beyond. His neck is broken, his head is twisted at an impossible angle. His eyes are open, unseeing behind the Perspex of his helmet mask.
I start to shake, then sob. Ewan’s arm is around my shoulders, his quiet strength holding me up when I would have flung myself across Ed’s dead body.
“There’s nothing we can do for him now. Come away, Faith. Sit in the car until the ambulance gets here.”
I let him lead me back up the banking onto the road. By now a couple more vehicles have arrived, including a police car. The officers take charge of the situation, controlling traffic, radioing for the ambulance to hurry up. Despite my dazed and disjointed grasp on the situation, I know this has to be for Caroline, because there would be no point rushing around for Ed. Not now. The officers inspect the scene, satisfy themselves there really is nothing to be done for the casualty down the banking, and concentrate their efforts on the living.
The doctor also makes a short trip down the ditch to satisfy himself that Ed is beyond his help, then returns to Caroline. She’s in a bad way, her breathing more shallow. Ewan kneels beside her, holding her hand as the doctor does his best. Her face is grey, her eyes rolling in her head. She’s unconscious now.
“She’s stopped breathing.” The doctor has managed to insert a tube into Caroline’s mouth and throat without removing the helmet. Now he starts pumping air from a rubber bag into her. He gestures to his wife to come and take over as he moves on to perform heart compressions.
With a detachment borne of shock and grief, I know it will be to no avail.
The ambulance arrives, the paramedics take over. They have a doctor on board who declares both casualties dead at the scene.
As the paramedics load Caroline’s lifeless body into the ambulance, Ewan turns to me, his expression bleak. His eyes are hard, glittering with grief and tears yet to come.
I don’t blame him. His Carrie is gone, dead and cold.
It should have been me.