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Biking Budapest to Bognor
Tony Brown

I am wet.
Can`t get any wetter, so I relax into the rain like you relax into the sea.
No resistance.
I feel better. Much more calm, almost surreal. Place and time is irrelevant.
I squat on the back of the machine and shoot through space with nothing to do but to be in the weather and the moment.
And to think.

Mike had been great. He saved my life. We met five weeks earlier at the Hungarian Student Teachers Summer Camp just outside Budapest and he was the only other English person there. I`d lost my return flight ticket and he'd come by road. He was teaching awareness of time and space. Now he was my only chance if I wanted to get back to England without hassle.

"No problem but it'll be a bit of a race. Can't leave 'til Thursday night and the ferry for Dover is Saturday night…. By the way, you do know I'm on a `bike don't you?"
I`d only ever been on a motor bike once before. I was fourteen, and it was my uncle's 250cc "Beeza". He was cruising at about 60 mph when he hit the dog. I remember the dreamy peaceful feeling as I sailed through the air before the pain when I hit the road, Jack, and slid on gravel for about a hundred yards.

The dog just ran off barking mad.
"And don't worry. Just lean to the left when we take a left turn and to the right when we take a right. You won't fall off. There's a small handrail behind your pillion for you to steady yourself or you can grab my waist if you're unsure. Here's my spare helmet. Put your gloves on and any spare clothes, you'll need them because it can get cold. This is a Yamaha 1200 and we'll be travelling in excess of 100 miles an hour when we can, but you'll get used to it."

The night clouds explode in a rainstorm. I wince as I cock my leg over the Yammy, a bike as big as a horse with a beam as broad as a barge. I almost split in two. As long as I keep my backbone straight, I can bend my knees. If I don't, my legs stick out like oars. The engine's thunder drowns out any further instruction so stiffly we turn to face our friend Kata. She smiles sadly, and opens her arms in one big embrace to kiss and hug us both at once then suddenly we are gone. We race from Hungaria into the future and the rain.

I think of Kata and how she let me stay, an incomplete stranger. She treated me like one of her family. I think of Wednesday night and how I had just given little Mischy his goodnight hug and how he`d turned off the light as he toddled off with his teddy to his room. How the light came on again, as in marched little Judit carrying a big storybook. She was wrapped in a towel and still wet from her bath. She had come to read me a bedtime story. I looked at her thin little body standing in the puddle of water that had drained around her feet and listened enraptured as she earnestly enacted the tale in sequence; the furrowed brow, the raised eyebrows, the and the wagging finger. I had to smile at her long fair eyelashes and the tiny beads of water left glistening as she blinked. At the end of the story she gently closed the book, leaned toward me, softly kissed my cheek and whispered "Yo eshakat. Goodnight." before padding out of the room. I closed my eyes and settled back. It was hard to believe I hadn't understood a single word.

We'd all met at that summer camp. Kata was interpreter and now here she was, optimistically showing me where she hides the house key, "in case I'm out when you come back." For the rest of my life I`ll remember that it's on a hook, on the left, behind the door of the shed, in the front garden.
I suspect that my ticket, which was in my passport, fell to the floor at Immigration Control when I arrived. Either that or, more sinisterly, was shaken free to be sold at a later date on the black market. When I realised it was missing, I just shrugged, so positive I had it somewhere. I`d bought a three-month "cheapy" not realising it meant what it said. That was five weeks ago, and ironically, now that I had no return ticket, I was desperate to go home. The airline was totally inflexible and I couldn't live off my new found friends for much longer, no matter how hospitable and generous they were, they barely had enough for themselves.

That's when I found Michael's contact number on the back of my notebook.
Now we drive in shadows. A cursory wave from the guards on our border crossing just south of Bratislava is like the starter flag at Donnington and the race is on for a forward thrust through darkest Austria. Vienna in the wet is as romantic as Spaghetti Junction in Birmingham but we resist the temptation to dally and press on to wake the dawn on the bridge over the Saltzak at Saltzberg. The rain persists. Racing droplets course upward on my visor. My knees are freezing and I swear I`ll never sniff at bikers in all their padded glory ever again. Deeper now into Germany and on to Munich and Augsberg until we take a wrong road and realise we need sleep. There is a campsite at Karlsruhe and the campsite commander takes pity and suggests we leave our tent unpacked and sleep in the games room. He puts the heating on so we can dry out our wet clothes. I sleep on the Ping-Pong table and Michael sleeps on the floor. But not before we pay a visit to the Alpine Chalet Restaurant for steak and fried potatoes and a few steins of local dark brown beer to wash it all down. An accordion trio play "Heartburn Hotel" and leer in painted smiles.

Under the shower I notice my skin is pruning but luckily there's no sign of a chill. En route for another border, I chant a mantra to myself, "Please stop soon. Please stop soon. Please stop soon." Eventually we do stop for resuscitating breakfast in the little café near the bridge. I am trembling from so much discomfort that when my coffee spills over my hand, I`m too numb to feel anything. In the toilet I wring out my gloves and remove my wet underwear and rub myself dry. It's so good to be back in France if only just the north-east tip. It's Friday, we cross the Rhein at Strasburg and a warming sun nudges the rainclouds away. On the way to Metz, Michael asks if I`d like to go right into Luxembourg or left and continue through France. Our clothes are steaming. We're born to be wild. I choose Luxembourg remembering the last time I was at this border crossing.
It was when my band was working the US bases. One free day, we set off on a round trip to collect a few more stamps in our passports. We thought we`d be back in time for a beer. So, we set off from Nancy and made a break for the border with Luxembourg, then on to Belgium and back through Germany then Luxembourg again.

Queuing at Immigration Control, now well after midnight, we could hardly keep our eyes open. Suddenly a knock on the passenger's window and a big black face had us sitting erect and wide-awake.
"You guys heading for Nancy by any chance?"
"Room for one more?"
We all squashed up and he took over as navigator next to the driver. It only took a few minutes for him to realised his life was in danger unless he took control. We fell fast asleep and didn’t stir until our driver woke us at the camp gates around 2.30am.

We watched as he reported to the Officer of the Day and he waved when we pulled away.
Next morning we went round to invite him for breakfast in the refectory but couldn’t find him anywhere. Didn't even know his name. All we knew for sure was that he was big and around thirty years old. He was also black.

The Officer of the Day examined the Furlough Register but there was no trace of our Guardian Angel. We gave up searching for him when we realised no one believed our story; we already had a bit of a reputation as loonies as it was.

The sun shines for the rest of our ride and what a thrilling, spiralling joy it is to be screaming along towards our ferry, receiving nods and waves of recognition and appreciation from bikers down the line. On to mediaeval Luxembourg and out through Arlon, eating up the E411 into Belgium then along to Brussels in time for dinner. Not far now and we gunned the last seventy miles straight as an arrow until we screech to a halt at the coast. We park the Yammy in a little square outside an Oostende music bar and settle behind a couple of beers and let the jukebox soothe away the anxieties of the last two days. Our race is won with time to spare.
We parted company at Brighton Bus Station on a typically English, peaceful, misty, country, autumn morning.
Next stop…ah, Bognor….

© Tony Brown

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