Friday, 19 August 2016

Despatching Blues

The drizzle turns into rain as I pass under the M25 on the M3. I’m on my way to Basingstoke because in my top box there’s a package that I found was wrongly addressed to IBM in Chiswick when I arrived there. When I rang my controller he told me to take it to Basingstoke, which meant I had a bit of a raw deal as it was a solo job. This didn’t put me in the best of moods and there was only one thing for it - knock it out as fast as possible and get back into London.

This also gave me the excuse I’d been looking for to see how fast my Kawasaki GT750 would go. I was forced to cruise at 90mph until the traffic thinned out, when I rolled open the throttle to take the bike up to the ton, overtaking the last line of traffic and pulling into the middle lane with nothing ahead of me. I looked over my left shoulder just to check there were no sneaky cops about to pounce; when I looked ahead again I saw two pieces of road coloured wood completely blocking the middle lane. No chance of avoiding them, not even time to get the throttle off the stop.

Still accelerating I hit the first lump, the bike leapt up off the road. Everything starts to happen in slow motion, which is a very bad sign. It seems to take minutes before we land, and I start to think that we’re going to make it, when the handlebars start turning lazily in my hands. First to the left, then despite all my strength resisting it to the right — then they’re smashing from lock to lock. The power of the tank slapper is truly awesome - all I can do is hang on.

Meanwhile, the bike is on a crash course for the armco, which we’re going to hit at full power as I still can’t get the throttle off. For a split second I give up, I know I’m going to die, then I get angry and start looking for an escape route. I briefly consider trying to make it over the barrier - it means losing my right leg but there’s too much traffic coming the other way. Then, it's too late anyway - in a desperate bid to survive, with adrenalin strength I throw the bike onto the tarmac on its left-hand side.

We smash into the armco, I’ve got my eyes tightly shut, but I see sparks as my head hits the road. Then I’m sliding, it seems to go on forever. At last I come to a stop, I've only got one coherent thought, get out of the way of the traffic coming towards me. Struggling to my knees, I’m amazed to find that I still have two legs - I can’t feel my feet but they must be there because I’m able to stagger to the armco, which I cling to like some shipwrecked sailor. I notice then that I'm not wearing my helmet anymore, it must have come off in the impact.

A man runs up, almost hysterical. I sit down, swearing to myself that I’ll never ride on one of these infernal machines ever again under any circumstances. Jesus, I can’t even see the Kawa, plenty of debris - a silencer there, bit of a top box here, papers scattered all over the place and the damn package, unmarked and lying a few feet away. Then I see the bike - it’s made it over to the hard shoulder, at least 150 yards away.

The pain starts about then, and the nausea - I almost go unconscious with it. The police roll up and try to get the traffic moving again. It’s a real nightmare because motorists keep slowing down to get an eyeful, other cars almost slamming into them. At one point a lorry almost jack-knifes avoiding some dickhead. It all becomes even worse when the ambulance pulls to a stop in the fast lane. I stagger into it as fast as I can.

In the hospital, after X rays, the doctor informs me that I haven’t broken anything. I just have bad sprains on my ankles and left thumb. He wants to put my feet in plaster but I talk him out of it by promising not to walk about. The nurse had phoned the office in London, who sent a taxi for me and the package.

The taxi takes us back to Chiswick - yes, it’s all been a giant cock up, it was meant to go to Chiswick after all! This last kick in the teeth sends me into a black depression. The driver asks me where I want to go next. I don’t want to go home yet because my present state would upset the wife, so I give him the address of a friend - like a wounded animal I needed somewhere to hole up and lick my wounds.

After a couple of days I feel better; luckily I heal up fast. I could even walk again, if a bit slowly. Things could be worse. But I’m in a tricky position, ten months ago I had hit a Mercedes that pulled out of a driveway without looking. I broke my leg and was out of work for eight months, but got fit enough to start despatching in London just before Christmas. My previous occupation had been as a trawlerman, but there’s not much call for fishermen in London and my body couldn’t take the gruelling punishment that passes for work on a leaky old trawler mid-winter in the English channel.

Unfortunately,I still had a pile of debts to clear, so decided to go back to despatching, after all — the chances of having another crash like that must be pretty low, I hoped.

That afternoon I caught a taxi to see my boss. After plying me with whisky, he asked me if there was anything he could do. I said yes, lend me £500 to buy another bike - he agreed to this. That night I caught a train back to East Grinstead. I told my wife I’d had a slight accident, but it was OK because the boss had lent me £500 to buy another bike.

Later, my son woke up and I got to him before my wife could stir. I change him and give him a bottle - while I’m holding him I start to cry, a result of the pain both physical and emotional — I had almost lost everything and it was then that I realised how much I valued life and the ones I loved.

The next day I rang up a friend who I’d sold a doggy old XJ650 to a year before. He still owned it, and, yes, he wanted to sell. I went around there, he started her up, it ran and I’m not in much of a condition to test ride it. So, we just agree a price, the deal done I ride home very slowly.

The bike’s a real dog but I show up for work the next Monday. Somehow I struggle through the day, thinking that I’ll go home after the next job. Gradually, over the next couple of weeks, I become better, although it was months before I fully recovered. , A friend of mine went to recover the Kawasaki 750. He couldn’t believe that I’d survived. The front end’s bent and smashed, the back wheel is broken, the frame’s bent at both ends, the petrol tank ripped off its mountings, one handlebar has been ripped off and is missing, but the engine, despite losing some fins and CDI unit, might be salvageable. He gave me £100 for it.

Over the next three months I did 10,000 miles on the X], but it became a real struggle as I have to spend lots of time fixing it. While I’m in Gambler & Reeks in the Kings Road, buying yet another large quantity of spares, I happen to joke about buying a new XJ900. Faster than a striking cobra, the salesman establishes that I might be able to get finance. The repayments over three years work out at less than I’m spending trying to keep my 650 running.

After some hassle with the finance company they agree to loan £3000 if I can come up with the other £500. I run around to find the money and a few days later it‘s ready for the road. It’s beautiful, in its 1988 black paint job, set off nicely by the white and gold graphics. It’s a stunner, my wife loves it; so does the boss. I start getting more work.

I realise how much I’d been missing simply because I didn’t want to go anywhere on the old bike. The 900 is a pleasure to ride. Loads of low down grunt together with a relatively light mass (it weighs almost 70lbs less than a GS850) and a slim fairing allows me to throw it through the traffic. The seat height is quite low and I have no problem getting both feet on the ground at a standstill. But this does not mean that my legs become cramped as there is plenty of space At 5500rpm in top gear the bike’s doing 86mph and is completely relaxed and vibration free. Above that the engine becomes a little harsh, images in the mirrors blur, a bit of a poor show because at 6000rpm the real power appears and the speedo needle goes berserk. It’s plenty fast enough for me!

One of the most outstanding features are the brakes. Wonderfully responsive with plenty of feel. The riding position is just right, a good blend of leaning forward without going too far and putting too much weight on the wrists. Fuel consumption was truly miserly, 42mpg from really thrashing it, but more usually better than 50mpg. If the suspension seems a bit cheap — there’s hardly any adjustment available — it handles well enough to make more sophisticated stuff redundant.

After I’d owned the bike for a few weeks I was top bike in my firm, no trouble. Then a friend put in a word for me with his mob, even though there is a waiting list of at least a year to get in there - I got the job. It was hard to leave the old company, there are lots of dishonest outfits run by real sharks that pass for despatch firms in London.

A1 Express in Paddington is a straight one, and the boss a good guy - he understood and we said goodbye. After a couple of weeks I began to get the hang of the new addresses I had to memorise and was used to my new call sign, appropriately enough Victor B!

The last day of the week for us (Tuesday), I’ve had a good time of it, made over £100 for a days work, when my radio crackles into life - the controller wanting to know who wants to be in a raffle for a Manchester job. I call in my name and a few minutes late; hear I’ve won. It’s 7.30pm before I can actually start on it. The journey up is slow because of road works and rain.

I‘m a little lighter-handed on the old throttle in the rain on motorways after stuffing the Kawasaki, but I eventually arrive. I have to buy a street map because I can’t ask directions as it’s addressed to the Bank of Scotland. The last thing I’m going to do is ask some dodgy looking character how to get there; a sure recipe for a knock on the head. I eventually arrived outside the back door, pressed the bell when, immediately, the street was filled with light, the door opened and a half seen figure snatched the package from my hands and slammed the door shut!

Time to go home. I’m soon back on the motorway but it’s a real struggle to maintain a constant speed as I’ve a bad case of fatigue. It’s past midnight and I’ve been working without a real break since 7.30am - still 200 miles to go. In my mirrors I see a bike coming up fast. It sweeps past, a true madman on an FZ600, a nice bike with a seat like a plank.

I tuck in behind him to see how long he can stay on it without stopping. We hurtle along through the night, a fast 60 miles later he suddenly slows down. I do likewise and become aware of a car alongside my leg, almost falling off when I see it's the police! They don’t bother pulling us, at the next service station we stop for some coffee and I have my first proper meal in more than twelve hours.

Back on the road we maintain the same formation, him leading. We blast past those police again but they don’t bother us as they have some other poor joker pulled over. The end of the M6 comes up, the sharp right-hand bend reminds me how well the Yam handles, my old GS850 would have needed two lanes to wallow in had I tried to get around at the same speed, but the X] was rock steady.

Some miles later the FZ turned off for Peterborough, leaving me alone again. But because it’s almost midsummer dawn is not far off and I‘m no longer tired. In fact, I was getting a feeling of euphoria, the same way I used to feel when I was on a trawler, racing for the home port to catch the morning market, a hold full of fish and a good trip behind us. The sun was starting to come up when I reached home - it was easy to get off to sleep.

At the end of that day I had been in the seat for 24 hours, the first 14 or so zapping around in London’s insane traffic, then I did Manchester. The fact that I did all that and enjoyed it, as well as being able to get up the next day for more of the same, is a testimonial to what a superb machine the XJ900 is for despatching and what a strange business is despatching and life.

Max Liberson

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