A ghost story for Christmas
The bike growled as if in warning as he released his grip on the throttle. He braked gently expecting ice on the high moorland road. Freezing fog that night, the weatherman had said, and fog there was, and Mike was too wise to doubt the other part of the prophesy.
He was sure now that the figure was female. Long hair was common among both sexes of biker, and full leathers could fool, but her stance was undoubtedly feminine. It must have been clear to her that he was slowing but she still held her thumb cocked in arrogant request. He glanced down the length of stone wall at either side of the road, searching in vain for the transport that accompanied the helmet she held in her other hand.
He prepared himself for trickery: an accomplice over the wall. He’d heard of bike thefts like that. When he stopped, he put only his right foot down, so that the left was poised to kick the machine into gear. He kept the clutch lever squeezed back and raised his visor with his right hand, but by then the frame had settled as she sat behind him.
Mike was a careful biker. He’d done all the stupid things and survived unscathed. He’d walked away from one crash: Friday night foolishness among equally intoxicated friends. Bob still limped. But even in his foolhardy days Mike had held a respect for the moorland roads, a legacy perhaps of growing up in the country. Foggy December after dark was not the best time to negotiate the cattle grids and curves of the Bowland fell roads, especially when a strange woman clutched at his jacket and his concentration.
On a safe straight stretch leading to a junction he throttled back, slowed down, and lifted his visor.
“Where do you want?” he shouted.
“Where are you going?”
She adjusted her grip on his jacket. Mike shrugged his shoulders and began the descent. If she wasn’t going his way, hard luck.
Far ahead another rider betrayed his position by the hazy starburst of his headlight. The silver-white beam burned for a moment before the fog snuffed it out. Mike waited for the machine to pass him, but it never did.
He knew the road well, but such was the severity of the fog that he could only recognise familiar humps and bends as they came within thirty yards of his front wheel. As they descended, however, the moisture became more patchy, and in his view places cleared for half a mile or so. When he could see well, he accelerated and the girl behind him squeezed tighter, a gesture that Mike interpreted as a signal that she enjoyed the thrill of speed.
She was tempting him to take risks. She was too late. Five, or even three, years earlier he would have responded, but not now. If anything, he drove even slower than he felt was necessary. If she was a siren, he intended her to be the only one that he’d encounter that night.
He realised that he was living out a tale that would stand many a re-telling over Yuletide bars, and while savouring that realisation he dropped into a hollow, hit a dense bank of fog and braked a touch too sharply. The rear of the machine slipped to one side and the engine started a scream, but the tyre gripped again and Mike regained control. His pillion passenger had failed to flinch, a fact that Mike found more unnerving than the skid.
He realised that he was sweating as a gradient warning sign loomed up like a familiar friend. He changed down to second gear and leaned the machine gently through the curve that crested the hill. A sheep, devil-like in the gothic gloom, jerked onto the embankment as if fearful that the headlight might restore it to dust. It was a useful reminder that the road was unfenced. Not all demons were on her side.
With the machine under control Mike realised that he was equally vulnerable to a racing mind. Something as simple as her silence made her mysterious and acelerated his imagination. The flying frozen fog had made short work of his leathers and performed its peculiar sanitising of his skin so that, despite the barriers between, her arm against his belly was mere bone.
He gear-changed down both bike and brain and cruised through the close farm buildings at Sykes. They were on the civilisation road. More junctions now, but he made no further attempts to consult her. His route was clear, she may have come to claim him, but with his destination nearing he held her as his prize. The river ran unseen beyond the stone wall that formed a clearer boundary to the road ahead. He opened the throttle wider. Suddenly the girl hammered on his arm and he slowed to a stop.
She got off and walked ahead on the right-hand side of the road, without removing her helmet. He eased his machine forward and immediately the unsteady headlight beam flashed on a gatepost.
When alongside her he yelled, “This all right then?”
She ignored him and cut up the path, leaving the gate to jar itself shut. Beyond her, on the boundary of visibility, Mike could make out the farmhouse that he knew was there. He had the option of riding another ten yards and cutting up the farm drive to overtake her, but didn’t.
He could detect no light from the building and it was impossible to tell when she reached it, her slender form already having blended with the fog. He waited for a long time hoping for a sign of life in the house or on the path. Cars passed. One driver saw him late and told him so with his horn. Even when she had gone, she held him in a position of danger. He kicked the bike into gear and accelerated away to slip over the bridge at Burholme and cut through the forest to the inn at Whitewell.
Parked cars cooled as their absent occupants warmed. Mike removed his glove and ran his palm over the saddle but the mile from the bridge had been more than far enough to chill the plastic of the pillion position. He heard the laughter of friends inside. They would be certain to notice his unusual mood and probe, but Mike had already decided that, like the girl, he would say nothing.
Pillion was broadcast on BBC Radio in the Lancashire, Merseyside and Manchester regions of the United Kingdom in the winter of 1988.
It is featured in the Christmas Present collection:
Other Festive Season fictional posts: