‘Watch out, Kenny!’
Heeding his friend’s warning, he dived sideways and landed with a squeal. Failing to find its target, the strawberry raced on in search of another. As if drawn by a magnet, it catapulted towards the group of older lads who were huddling to light their next cigarettes. I winced as the strawberry slapped into the cupped hands and lowered face of the nearest one. It was like watching an exploding cigar routine in a cartoon. He jumped back, his hands pawing the air as if repulsing an attack from an angry swarm of bees.
‘What the f(xx)k?’
He flicked back his shoulder length hair and looked around wildly. His fists were clenched and I could see the tattoos on his forearms.
‘He did it. It was him.’
The ginger-haired lad was pointing at me.
‘I’m sorry, mate. I wasn’t aiming for you.’
‘Like f(xx)k you weren’t.’
I looked at Jack whose face was frozen in a mixture of pain and panic. Without moving his lips, he started to growl.
‘Let’s get going.’
He nodded his head, imperceptibly, towards the trailer.
‘Oi, you lot, get back to work or you can bugger off now.’
The foreman was now standing with his hands on his hips looking directly at the group of smokers. He waited until they had dispersed to their respective rows, then continued on his way up the field. I could sense that the lad with tattoos was still staring at us. As we gathered our baskets and started to walk between the rows, I could see him out of the corner of my eye, pointing towards us in a threatening manner.
After our baskets had been weighed, the strawberries were tumbled into a long wooden tray. We took our money and leaned against the back of the trailer.
‘What do you reckon?’
‘Put it this way, if we stay we’re dead, so….’
‘What, make a dash for it?’
‘Yup. Like in the next few minutes.’
The tandem was about fifty yards away.
‘On the count of three.’
We skirted behind the trailer, then sprinted along the rutted track to the edge of the field. We were like the Fenland bobsleigh team. The tandem was yanked up, Jack sprang into his saddle and I ran alongside, pushing. As I felt the drive of the pedals, I gripped the handlebars and swung into position. I lowered my head and took the strain. At first, the tyres compressed against the road and I could feel the bang of the wheel rims. Gaining speed, we became more buoyant and the jolting motion softened as we began to skim the surface. In top gear, we settled into a comfortable rhythm. Trees, hedges and houses disappeared in a blur as we sped along the back roads towards Boston.
‘Is he coming?’
I lowered my head further so that I could peer under my arm-pit.
Above the steady hum of the tandem, we could hear muffled shouts and the violent clanking of mudguards. I peered again. The maniac was getting closer. His knees were pumping up and down like pistons on a steam engine.
‘I’m gonna f(xx)king eat yer throat out.’
We pushed harder. Fear injected an added sense of urgency. I could imagine his hand gripping my collar and his blood-spattered knuckles smashing into my face, repeatedly. I could hear my nose crack and my teeth shatter. Soon I would be gargling blood. I gulped. My tongue was sticking to the roof of my mouth.
Please, harder, yes, harder. I peered again.
‘We’re losing him. Keep going.’
We cut the corners of crossroads, overtaking tractors and a solitary moped.
‘Can you see him?’
‘Right, we’ll pull off here.’
We bounced off the road onto the concrete driveway of a derelict bungalow.
‘Quick, round the back.’
We dismounted and pushed the tandem through waist high grass to the back of the building.
‘He’ll go straight past. Trust me.’
Shoving ourselves flat against the wall, we tried to regain our breath. My chest was heaving and my ribs ached. I turned my head to peek down the road. There he was, just coming round the corner.
I pushed my head hard against the bricks and closed my eyes. The clanking got noisier and noisier as the bike came level with the bungalow. Then suddenly, it stopped. Jack put his finger to his lips. He bent forward slightly, straining to hear. I bit into my lower lip. Complete silence. What was he doing? Was he creeping up on us? I imagined chipped, soil-encrusted finger-nails suddenly appearing round the corner bricks inches from my nose, followed shortly by a row of white, scuffed knuckles growing into a bulging rose-tattoo before finally blossoming into a leering, spit-flecked smile. I shuddered and started to mutter a prayer.
A suped-up mini flashed by. As its deep-throated roar receded into the distance, we could just make out the slow creak of a chain from the other side of the bungalow. Was he toying with us, waiting patiently for the inevitable hysterical snicker which would give us away? But, no, there it was again, the creaking was cranked up this time and accompanied by an acceleration of groans and a steady crunching of rubber on tarmac. Yes, he was definitely going now, picking up speed. The mudguard began a slow, tortuous clanking into the distance. O Lord, thank you, thank you.
‘We’ll give him a few minutes.’
We peeled ourselves from the wall. As Jack stretched his arms, I blew out my cheeks and jogged on the spot, trying to loosen the muscles in my leg. Alert to any sign of a surprise attack from the psychotic biker in front of us, we cautiously edged our way into Boston. Stopping at each corner, Jack slowly raised himself onto the handle-bars and leaned forward to see if the coast was clear. Then it was a dash for the next junction. In such a cloak and dagger manner, we managed to make it to the main quayside road. Quickly joining the stream of traffic, we bowled along, past the masts of the fishing smacks marooned on the mud banks of the Haven River. It was a low tide which meant that the Swing Bridge would be across, the very bridge which had been used in the 1941 propaganda film, One of Our Aircraft is Missing, and beneath which the Dutch resistance had ferried the R.A.F. crew to freedom under the noses of the Nazi guards.
Careful to avoid the gaps either side of the rail tracks, we wobbled across the bridge and headed towards the Docks. The cranes were eerily silent as we passed through the towering avenue of warehouses. Fork-lift trucks were abandoned next to piles of grain and stacks of timber. Coming to rest by the side of a small mountain of white and blue fertilizer bags, we listened for energetic clanking noises and threatening growls. Nothing but the squawk of a seagull. We had finally lost him.
Safe, at last, in our own territory, we could afford to dawdle beyond the Docks onto the track which meandered past the church and followed the bank of the river. The sky was a grey-blue dome and a tang of salt-water was in the air. Leaving the sea-bank, we free-wheeled down the hill into the road which ran at the back of Jack’s house. Dismounting at his gate, I patted the saddle which had valiantly delivered my quaking body from a fate worse than death, or, at least, a trip to the hospital. If the tandem had been a horse, I would have gratefully strung a nose-bag of oats from its neck.