by Chris Brandreth
Everyone in the village knew about the Man on the Motorbike. A few had even seen him, lurking around the lanes near Saltby Airfield or in the ruined buildings. Always alone, dirty and unshaven with a leather helmet and an oily coat flapping around his old black bike. He had the foul breath and stained teeth of a chain smoker, the sharp eyes of a predator, and his clawed hands could be on you with a twist of the throttle. He was, without doubt, a child’s nightmare.
He was unknown where I lived, but then, my house was quite far from Saltby. I only heard about him from my cousin Jack, who lived in a village under the wartime flight path, a village where parents told their children, “Don’t go near the airfield, the Man on the Motorbike will get you.” That was where I spent my summer in 1960 when I was nine years old. A summer of new adventures, exploring woods, streams, and ponds with Jack and his best friend, Pete, both two years older than me and, by comparison, almost fearless. They took me to that abandoned bomber base, even though my uncle told us he’d passed the dirty black motorcycle hidden in the hedge just the day before.
It was three or four miles and far enough on a borrowed girl’s bicycle with wrap-around handlebars, rod brakes, and a wickerwork luggage basket. I had only just taken to two wheels, and my companions were a lot more accomplished, riding “no hands” on shiny new cycles, firing imaginary rifles into the distance in their endless, make-believe conflict between cowboys and Indians. My riding was too unsteady for a rifle, so I just shot them left-handed with a forty-five.
There were no other users on that stone-chipped, country road. The fields on either side were heavy with harvest. The only sounds were the hum of our tires and my creaky old chain. Soon enough, our imaginary ambushers were dead or put to flight, and Pete fell back to brief me on bomb shelters and trespassing on military land, but I wasn’t bothered about the police. I was scared of the Man on the Motorbike, prowling there for children who came his way.
Why had I agreed to go? The trees and thick undergrowth around the airfield sighed at my folly, but there was no backing out. We stopped where a track disappeared under an arch of leaves and branches, and I was mildly reassured it wasn’t exactly a secret entrance. It was big enough for a tractor and had tire tracks from the use of one, but it was in deep shade, sinister after the bright sunshine. We pushed our bikes along and hid them in bushes at a sharp left turn. Around the corner, the track opened straight onto the airfield. The abandoned runway was directly in front, a bomber, taking off, would have passed over our heads.
The vast space was surrounded by trees and bushes, a natural boundary with the real world. Only we, the brave and daring, could see this secret place. Douglas Skytrains had stood there fifteen years before. The buildings once thronged with American airmen and Jeeps, tractors and fuel bowsers had moved about the roadways. They were all gone by then. The runway was no longer used; it was strewn with broken concrete and bricks, bushes grew through cracks in its surface. Derelict buildings basked in the sun, some without a roof, all the windows without glass. There was an old control tower with collapsed steps, full of rubbish and vegetation. The only vehicle was a farm trailer, lazing in the heat, its towbar resting on an oil drum. Nature was busy reclaiming the space, except for a field of wheat, the whole site was a wilderness of ruined buildings and concrete, overgrown by wild grass, brambles, weeds, and bushes.
We crouched there for a while, straining our ears for the sound of a motorcycle. Nothing but summer insects and the distant bleat of sheep. Could he be lying in wait? Our eyes searched the trees and ruins: nothing, all clear. We crept onto the runway and made our way to the nearest bomb shelter. It was just a great mound of overgrown earth with two brick walls marking the narrow entrance. A flight of concrete steps descended between the walls and there, at the bottom, where it looked as if the passage ended in solid brick, was a small doorway to the left, the rusty metal door hanging open on one hinge. We went down carefully, picking our way over broken glass, between rolls of long discarded barbed wire.
The cold interior was heavy with decay; water dripped from the low ceiling. I was the one who had never been in a bomb shelter and must now enter alone. Designed to defy bomb blast, the steep steps, and sharp turns keep out the light, and there was nothing but a faint glow at the far end, probably from an overgrown air shaft. I moved into the cavern, shaking with fear.
Jack gave me a box of matches, and I struck one. There was water everywhere, and the floor was strewn with coils of rusty barbed wire, concrete slabs, and corroded sheets of corrugated iron. Within a few steps, a cobweb stuck to my face, and I jumped back, dropping the matches into a puddle in a frenzy of brushing spiders and their ready meal victims from my head and shoulders. “Go on, you have to go right inside,” said Pete.
He also had a box of matches which he gave to me. I struck another and put the box in my pocket for safekeeping. I stepped forward, staggering this way and that on the loose and slippery corrugated sheets. There was nothing to hold with my hands. More cobwebs, and my arms flailed about my head. Darkness, and then another match, the smell of rotting vegetation and mud. Did rats live here? Were they watching my clumsy progress, ready to attack if I got too close? Farmers said they could run up your trousers, and my bare legs and loose shorts suddenly seemed terribly vulnerable.
A few more steps, and water poured into my shoe. A huge drip landed heavily on my head. I heard something scurry in the gloom, and my nerve broke. I turned to run back to the rectangle of light and safety but fell full length, pain searing through my knees and filthy water splashing into my face and mouth. My hands felt the slime. I burst into tears and clambered blindly for the door, slipping and tripping because I no longer thought of what I touched or where I stepped, I just wanted to escape. Pete and Jack pulled me into the sunlight and looked at me, blood and muddy water ran down my arms and legs, my clothes were wet, my crying got worse. Jack shook me, staring hard, “Shut up, for Christ’s sake, or we’ll get caught.” The Man on the Motorbike would hear.
Afraid he was already bearing down on us, I looked neither left nor right as we fled across the runway and into the bushes. I pulled my bicycle out of the undergrowth with no thought for nettles and brambles. Pete and Jack were out of their saddles pedaling for the road, but I was unable to ride on the tractor tracks, so I just ran with my bike, falling further behind and expecting to be grabbed at any moment. I only looked around when I reached the sunlight. No-one was there; all seemed quiet, my heart was racing. Pete and Jack had stopped further along, so I mounted up and rode to them. As scared as we were, it began to look as if we’d panicked for nothing, but a heavy silence hung over us all the way home.
My aunt sat me by the sink to clean and dress my arms and legs. Jack rolled his eyes when I admitted where we’d been. I had betrayed him. The hysteria began immediately, reached a new pitch when my uncle got home, and continued throughout the ten-mile journey to the hospital. How many times had we been told never to go to Saltby Airfield? Didn’t we know of the missing children? The Man on the Motorbike was always on the prowl, always looking for victims.
My parents were already at the hospital. My wounds were examined by a doctor, and redressed by a nurse, and I was given a tetanus vaccination. When all was done, I was returned to the waiting room. Jack and his parents were on their way home. I imagine he got into a lot of trouble that night, but I never heard the details because normal communications weren’t resumed for a while, and our visit to the bomb shelter was off the agenda by then.
After a cup of hot chocolate, I climbed into my own crisp, white bed sheets. I pulled them over my head because mum thought it best to leave the bedroom light on. My holiday was over, and my knees were smarting. What had I achieved that summer? I had ridden a bicycle and climbed a tree; I had fired an air rifle and caught a newt; I had collected eggs from the hens; I had been in a bomb shelter.
My mind’s eye returned to Saltby and saw the ugly, black motorcycle leaning against a tree. The owner had his back to me, but he turned, saw me staring and quickly flicked his cigarette to the ground. He straddled his bike, and kicked the starter, accelerating down the runway towards me. I threw back the blankets and gasped, I had also learned to fear the Man on the Motorbike.
Twenty years passed, and I had almost forgotten the Man on the Motorbike, yet there I was, shattering the peace of the quiet green lanes around our town on a big, single-cylinder dirt bike with three of my friends, bucking and bouncing over the muddy ruts. Our long travel suspension was working overtime; mud flew from our knobbly tires and the water thrown on our hot exhaust pipes turned instantly to steam. We slowed under a canopy of trees as the lane became treacherously wet. Fallen branches covered in slippery moss laid across the track, the ground was thick with sodden leaves. We crawled forward, slipping our clutches in lowest gear, paddling our boots on the ground to stay upright, back wheels spinning. We made better progress when the trees thinned out, but our engines smelled dangerously hot, so we decided to take a break.
We stepped off our bikes where the trees gave way to Saltby Airfield. Had we checked our map, we would have known where we were, but as it happened, it came as a surprise. We were hot and sweaty; our bikes were caked in mud. We took off our gloves and helmets, breathed the cold, refreshing, November air, and looked around.
We were on one side of the main runway, at the end furthest from the gliding club that now operates there. To our far right, we could see white gliders leaning on their wingtips; it was probably not a good day for flying. To our left, and much closer, was the winch that would haul them into the air. In front of us, the tow cable was paid out along the resurfaced runway. Free from the growl of engines, our ears adapted to the small sounds around us: wind rustling through a few remaining leaves, the clicks and creaks of cooling metal from our bikes.
Directly across the runway, I saw a movement — a sudden, unnatural flash of bright blue in the autumn colours. A child was moving behind the bushes. Once I had seen him, I saw two more, squatting behind bare branches with little to hide them. Their gaze was fixed on me, and they must have seen mine lock on to them. I raised my arm to point them out. “There are some kids over there.” They fled their cover instantly and ran straight for the trees at the end of the runway. One of them fell but quickly picked himself up, shouting desperately to the others as all three disappeared from sight.
Then it dawned on me: the scary stories hadn’t changed, but I had a new role. I was head to foot in black leather with heavy, motocross boots and a mean bike covered in mud. I had become the Man on the Motorbike.
Chris Brandreth lives in London, has an MA in Human Resource Management and a passion for rebellion and anything with a big engine. His career spans the motor trade, further education and voluntary work with indigenous people in Malaysia. Whilst his writing has been devoted to training and assessment materials, he told tall stories over the dinner table. Some said he should write them down. This is the first: “The Man on the Motorbike.”