The secluded little shop looked too inviting and customers came in no matter how hard the lone proprietor tried to discourage them. This morning, the California sun gleamed through the windows. Silhouetted onto the rear wall, fuzzy letters read Sandy’s Sickles – Your Classic British Restoration Specialist. A short man balanced on a ladder leaning against the wall. Alex 'Sandy' McGuigan fussed with a screwdriver, installing a small sign.
Finished, he backed down the ladder. On a shelf eight feet above the shop floor rested a black and chrome Black Shadow. Sandy wiped his hands on the ever-present rag hanging from his overalls. The “Not For Sale” notice would save him from the constant offers to buy the bike. He looked at the larger sign he’d taken down. If You Value Your Life Like I Value My Shop – Don’t Touch Anything. He turned it to face the wall then heard the mail drop.
“Ach, more bloody bills, nae doubt.” Sandy squinted into the sunlight and went through the letters. One was heavier. He lifted his cheaters to his veined nose and saw the return address was the Department of Motor Vehicles. He dropped the rest of the mail on his counter and quickly opened it.
“Ah, there it is.” He held the vanity license plate and traced the five-letter name with his finger. Sighing, he reached into his pocket and pulled out a set of mounting bolts. Sandy climbed up the ladder again and installed the plate onto the motorcycle. “Emily,” he whispered. Sandy gave the fender and the new plate a quick wipe of his rag. Had it been nearly two years since he'd met her?
“Hello? Mr. McGuigan?”
Sandy had not heard her come in. He continued the task at hand. He torqued the last headbolt to his preferred spec then rolled his stool from behind the BSA single. A woman, much younger than he, but still at least thirty, stood cradling a cardboard box. She glanced in the direction of the noise. “Hi. Are you Mr. McGuigan?”
“Aye, I’m Sandy.”
“What a great place you have here.” She came over to him. “A Shooting Star, right?” She peered under the gas tank and walked around the machine, still clutching the box.
Sandy nodded and watched her, ready to scold. Many lookers wanted to touch before anything else. She was different. Someone had taught her well.
She completed her circuit. “I’ve heard you’re the best. At tuning and stuff. And restorations.”
“I enjoy a challenge.”
She set the box down on a vacant bike lift. “My name’s Emily. I’ve brought something I’d like you to see, if you can spare a few minutes.”
Sandy nodded. “It will take much of the afternoon to get this one running smooth, judging by the wee difficulties I’ve had wi’ her so far.” His special touch with machinery worked best when he was alone. And the rest after to rejuvenate needed solitude as well. He'd humor her then lock the doors after she left.
Emily said, “It looks brand new.”
“Oh, that it does. There’s looks, and there’s what’s underneath. Ye never know until you run it in.” He pointed at the bins of plastic wrapped engine parts lining the wall behind him. “I can assemble any two engines with the same parts and to identical tolerances. One will tick over first kick and its twin could take me a week to fettle.”
“You must love your work. Your tools are spotless. I’ll bet you have a tough time finding mechanics to work with you.” She gave him a smile and a wink.
“I work alone,” he said, then was sorry he snapped at her. She seemed to take no offense.
She nodded, “I understand. Another person would be in the way of you putting a bit of yourself into each project.”
Sandy doubted she knew how close that was to the truth, but not in the sense she intended. He changed the subject. “So what is it I can do for you, Miss, uh, Emily?”
She opened the box she had brought in and began removing balls of crumpled paper. “This is what I have to show you.” She lifted out a black and gold petrol tank with the letters H.R.D. stenciled on each side. Like an enchanted sword or hallowed talisman, it gained presence in the light of day. It glowed, befitting the untarnished aura of the legendary marque.
“A Vincent,” Sandy breathed. He cleaned his hands on a fresh towel. “May I?”
“Of course,” she handed it to him.
Sandy felt the energy leap to his fingertips before he touched it. In his hands, it smoldered. This would tax his ability and his stamina to a limit he'd never dared.
He cleared his throat to speak. “Excellent respray.” He carried it over to the window and turned it in his hands. “Done a while ago, I’d guess. Most chaps use lacquer now. This was done in enamel.” He handed it back to her, letting his fingers rest against the metal as long as he dared. “A lovely piece, nae doubt, but I still don’t know what I can do for you, I don’t buy pieces that I dinna have a customer for. They’re quite rare.”
“I know. I have the rest of it in my truck. I brought it all.” She glanced around his shop. “I want you to help me put it together.”
Sandy felt the air rush from his lungs. The rest of it? A Vincent Black Shadow, the ne plus ultra of post-war British motorcycles. He hadn’t worked on one since his apprenticeship in Scotland as a teenager, nearly forty years before. His tuning magic was undisciplined then. This would test how far he had progressed. “I don’t tolerate people ‘helping’ in my shop. I work alone.” His eyes went back to the tank.
“Let me show you, Mr. McGuigan.” Emily placed the tank back in its box. She grabbed his arm and escorted him outside. Her intense vitality surprised him. He could sense and exploit the natural energy in a bike, where it was efficient and where it was lost. In the space of a few heartbeats, he felt Emily wax and wane like a building storm. Like the Vincent, she was a rare find.
She lifted the topper door on her truck and opened more boxes. Like the tank, pieces were carefully wrapped and organized. The frame bits gleamed black at him. The polished timing covers sat atop a box marked “Engine”. It was beautiful. The opportunity of an ever-shrinking lifetime had just walked through his front door. He said, “Where did you get this?”
A small frown appeared on the girl’s face. “My ex-husband. He brought it back from Scotland ten years ago. He was a roughneck on the North Sea rigs. One of his co-workers needed cash and Gerald bought it. We were going to build it together, a project to share.” She opened another box and cleared away the paper. She pulled out the headlight nacelle. “I love the dials. They’re like faces.”
Sandy admonished, “Gauges, not dials.”
“Gauges, got it. Thank you.” She handed it to him and continued, “He tired of it and me. I let it sit in my mother’s garage for the last three years.” She blew dust from another box. “More than anything, I want to get it on the road. I need to have part of me in this motorcycle, to prove to myself I can do it."
She levelled her green eyes on him. In that moment, he could forgive her anything, even if she turned out to be Irish.
She said, "I’ll follow whatever rules you demand. I came to you because everyone I talked to said you were the only person who could make this bike live. I had to meet you first, though.” She touched his arm again. “I can’t take it to anyone else. Please?”
The passion in her voice tightened his gut. He could not bear to see this machine leave here except under its own power. He said, “First of all, I don’t build trophies. Do you ride?”
“I have begun to.” She drew out the handlebars and turned to face him. She placed her hands where the grips would go and sat on a make-believe saddle, shoulders forward in a racer’s crouch. “I will ride this motorcycle, Mr. McGuigan.”
“Good. If you’re going to be in the way, you’d better call me Sandy. Come, lass, let’s get it inside and start inventorying what we’ve got. I'll need that to give you a price.”
Emily said, “I saw your sign about Delinquent Accounts Will Be Sold. I can assure you I have the funds.”
He said, “Ach, that’s just for the ruffian trade, don’t you worry about it.”
She said, “Thank you, Sandy.”
She passed him a box from the truck. Their hands touched. She and the Vincent shared a contagion. And he had just been infected.
Sandy shouted over the roar of the engine. “D’ya remember how we smoothed the inlet castings? Now, I’ll have to change the air screw settings a wee bit from factory spec.” He hunched over and performed the operation in sequence front to back. His ear was more exact than any mechanical synchronizer. The girl, as always, watched him, ready to follow his next order. She tilted her head, listening, then turned away. There was something different about her today.
He took advantage of her momentary inattention to comb the Black Shadow’s corona in a uniform direction. Sandy passed his hand up the forks, across the frame, then made a second pass from the cylinder heads to the crankcase and back over the chain to the rear hub. Nary a rough spot, he thought. Not on the bike anyway. Emily didn’t notice. He wondered if she was reaching the stage every customer experienced during a project: anxious to complete, yet bored with the endless detail. He called it ‘the restoration wall’. Sandy shut off the ignition.
She snapped her head back. “It sounds good to me.”
“Aye, she’s as sweet a runner as I’ve had. I wish those damn tires would arrive.”
Emily perked up, “Really, that’s all we need?”
He sensed she was struggling to show interest. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He put his hand on her shoulder. Her energy was low. He gave her shoulder a light squeeze. “Well, they will help. Tires, final wheel truing, light harness. Did you take the seat to the upholsterer?”
“I meant to do it yesterday. I got delayed. I will take it in tomorrow. Today, I’m bushed.”
He said, “When it seems like there are too many frayed ends to pull together, that’s when you’ve got to persevere. America was not founded by weak-willed Scots.”
“I thought the British and French had something to do with it.”
He waved his hand in dismissal. “Ach, propaganda, there’s nae a village nor a river nor a mountain peak that dinna have a Mc or Mac-someone-or-other in its history.”
“I’m sorry, Sandy, I’ve just been really tired lately. It isn’t the bike. You’ve been wonderfully patient with me and it. I'm struggling with details right now." She drew herself up and saluted him. "The seat, tomorrow.”
Sandy didn’t see Emily for a week. He pressed on with the bike as far as he could, wanting to finish yet wanting more to share it with her. Ach, you old fool, he rebuked himself, what would she want with a curmudgeonly oatmeal savage like you?
When she didn’t show up for a second week, he tried her phone. The message stated she was unavailable until further notice and to call her mother if necessary. Sandy waited two more days. He lowered the petrol tank into place and secured the mounting bolts. It was the focus of the machine. A pedigreed steed ready to conquer the steeplechase. He ran his hands lightly over the lettering for the umpteenth time. He hooked up the fuel lines but resisted starting it without Emily. “I need the seat. Where is the girl?”
He dialed the number on his clipboard. “Hallo, is this Mrs. Breem? This is Sandy McGuigan, I’m helping your daughter with her motorcycle. Emily’s what? No, I didn’t know. Is she alright? Can I visit her there? Just let me write this down. Room six-twelve, yes I’ve got it. No, thank you verra much. Good day.”
Sandy stared at the note. He tried to lift it from his desk but it weighed too much. How could she not have told him?
Sandy entered room six-twelve. His knees buckled for a moment. He didn’t like hospitals. It was the smell, he decided. The smell and the negative energy. Emily lay by the window, looking out. He cleared his throat, not knowing what to say.
She rolled her head, “Sandy, am I glad to see you. Come here and give me a hug.”
He clutched his cap and walked over to her, sidestepping the tubes and wires running from her bed to the wall.
“It’s great to see you, Sandy.” She squeezed him tighter than he expected. He didn’t know how hard to squeeze back.
She said, “How are you? Should you be away from the shop? I’m not paying for travel time, you know.”
“I’m fine. How are you? I spoke to your mother. You dinna tell me.”
“About this?” She lifted an arm and dangled the IV tubes. “I am sorry, Sandy, I’m supposed to be in remission. Working with you is positive therapy but I’m having a bit of a relapse. They’re going to drain some fluid tomorrow and I should be up and about by the end of the week. I took the seat in and told him to call you when it’s ready. How is the bike coming? Did the tires arrive? The Avons, right?”
Sandy couldn’t stop examining all the hookups. “Emily, I don’t know much about medicine but all this malign machinery canna be good for a body.”
“We can rebuild her,” Emily said in a stern voice. “Make her better than she was.” She laughed. “And you better have that machine ready for me to ride when I get out.”
Sandy accepted her hand and felt the vigor trying to will its way through her muscles to her fingers. “What’s wrong with you, then?”
Emily rolled her eyes, “Well, I have refused to ask for the prognosis and won’t hear of the odds one way or the other. It’s called Hodgkin’s disease and I know that Mario Lemieux beat it and so will I. That’s all there is to say about that. Did you bring pictures?” She wiggled her fingers at him.
Sandy was overwhelmed by her tenacity. “No, but I will take some this afternoon and I’ll call on the seat. She’ll be ready in a week, I promise.”
“I will hold you to that.”
A nurse bustled in to change IV bags.
“I better be getting back to the shop.”
“Thanks for coming, Sandy. Can you forgive me for not telling you?"
"Why should I need to?"
"Because you are my very special friend. You have shared your shop and your talent with me and I didn't share this with you. This means a lot to me, you coming here. Give me a hug before you go. Never mind about her.” Emily winked at the nurse.
He bent over and put his arms around her. She said, “I won’t break, you can hold me tighter than that, ya wiry devil.”
He did pull her closer and squeezed. “That’s more like it, Sandy,” she said and kissed his cheek.
Even if he could have thought of the right words, the lump in his throat wouldn't let him speak.
True to her word, Emily was waiting for him to open up the following Monday.
True to his word, the Vincent was ready. Sandy said, “I haven’t fired her since we static tested her last month. I was waiting for you.”
They pushed it out into the morning sun. “Are you up to starting her?” he asked.
Emily swung her leg over the saddle. “Try and stop me. I believe the routine is, fuel on.” She turned the tap like he’d shown her. “Choke full, carb tickle, switch on, and…” She lunged up in the air and dropped her entire weight on the kick starter. He smiled approval as her right wrist twisted in coordination with the kick. The vee-twin engine rumbled to life. They were both grinning like kids.
He said, “Let her warm up without revving the throttle. When she’ll idle without the choke at just over one thousand rpm, she’s ready to ride.”
Emily donned her helmet and gloves. Sandy ran inside and came out with his camera. “Give me that smile again,” he ordered.
She grabbed the handlebars with both hands and stuck out her tongue as he snapped the picture. She released the choke and studied the tachometer. She looked at him and he nodded. Emily engaged first gear as he’d told her and let out the clutch, her eyes fixed down the road. He saw the woman and bike as one graceful entity for the first time. She accelerated away from the shop. He heard her upshift once and then again. Ten minutes later, they were back.
Emily was still grinning. She shut off the ignition, closed the fuel cock and grunted the Vincent up on its main stand. She undid her helmet, shook her hair loose and coughed.
“Are you okay?”
She smiled, “I am in love.” She hugged him. “Sandy, it’s wonderful. I’m so pleased. You should be proud of what you’ve done. I have only one question.”
“What’s a ton?”
“Ye nae did a ton?” Sandy exclaimed. “She’s hardly run in.” He began to fuss around the machine, feeling for signs of stress.
“I don’t know. What is a ton?”
“One hundred miles per hour. A Black Shadow will easily do the ton but neither it nor you are ready.”
“Admonishment accepted. No, I only had it up to fifty or so. A half-ton, just like my truck.”
“A good first ride. I want to check my clearances and torque settings. Was the clutch okay? It seemed to grab just a wee bit early.”
“The clutch was fine for me. I read these vintage bikes were difficult to shift.”
Sandy said, “They can be, for some. But you have a natural feel for timing your throttle and clutch coordination. You’re a gifted rider and I don’t say that often.”
“Thanks. Coming from you that is a great compliment. And you’re a gifted, no, a magical mechanic. I shall celebrate by taking you out for dinner this evening. You will close early and I will pick you up at seven o’clock.”
Sandy stammered, “I’d better get her inside. Do I need a tie?”
“For supper? I hope not. But no overalls, either.”
Dinner was at a little place overlooking the river. They watched in silence as the sun set over the arid hills to the west of town.
Sandy couldn’t avoid the obvious question any longer. “When do you want to collect the bike?”
Emily put down her wine glass and looked down for a minute before responding. “Could you keep it for a while longer? You said you had to check the torque settings and such.”
“Aye, I’ll do that tomorrow and she’ll be finished. I’ve never had a project come together so painlessly. I’ll miss her. And you. Around the shop, I mean.”
Emily said, “Why Sandy, I’ve never seen you that color. I didn’t think you could be any redder. It’s quite becoming.”
“It’s warm in here, I’ll admit with no shame.”
“I’d like you to keep her for now. I may not be able to enjoy her immediately.” She coughed into her napkin.
“What’s wrong, lass? Is it the Hodgkin’s?” He felt insensitive as soon as the words left him.
“They found a shadow on my lung in the last x-ray but there is treatment I can undergo depending on the diagnosis.”
“It’s their damn machines. They manufacture problems. You take a motorcycle. If it dinna run proper, you eliminate the potential trouble spots logically. You tell them that you won’t have being sick any more. Hold out your arms.”
He moved his hands from her shoulders down to her fingers, as close as he could without touching her skin. “Ya feel that? That is your energy." He repeated the process two more times until the rough spots were eliminated. "As long as you can marshall it in one direction you’ll be right.”
“I do feel it, Alex. I will fight this and win. There may be the odd setback along the way. So will you keep the bike?”
“Of course. I’m planning to go back to Glasgow in a few weeks and the Vincent will be safe in the shop.”
Emily brightened. “You’re going to Scotland? How marvelous.” She squeezed his hands. She bit her lower lip for a moment then asked, “Can I go with you, Sandy? I’d love to see Scotland again.”
Sandy was dumbfounded. “What would your mother say? And she’s my age.”
“How long have you lived in America? My mother can say that her adult daughter is in Scotland, fulfilling a dream with a true gentleman.”
"I will always be a gentleman in the strictest sense with you."
"I know, I would not ask you for more, it would jeopardize what we have."
“What about your treatments?”
“Don’t you want me to come?”
It was Sandy’s turn to cough. “I would enjoy your company verra much, but I don’t want the trip to be the last thing you do.”
“Sandy, it won’t be. Neither will it be the last thing we do.”
Three weeks later, they stood in line to board. Emily said, “Sandy, I have a going away present for you.”
“Your coming wi’ me is present enough, surely.”
“This is something special.” She pulled a paper out of her handbag.
“My reading glasses are stuffed at the bottom of my pack,” he protested.
“I’d love to read it to you. It says I am in remission. I just have to check in every month or two but that’s all. Bonnie Scotland, get ready for me.
“Sandy, I’ve never known you to be at a loss for words.”
“If I say too much, I’m afraid I’ll choke up.” He ran his hands along her sleeves. Her energy was in unison. He continued to comb her aura.
Emily whispered in his ear. “Softie. If you’re still too choked, I’ll eat all that haggis myself.”
Sandy shook himself. “That you will not do, young lady.”
Sandy dismounted his BSA and walked over to where Emily and the Vincent were parked.
She pointed at the Pacific Ocean hundreds of feet below. "The fog filling all the inlets reminds me of the Scottish coast, remember?"
"Aye, a wee bit warmer here though." He sat on the guardrail, savoring the moment and the company. They had spent the last two months riding every weekend, following Emily's quest to see every bit of northern California on two wheels.
She pointed to the map on her tank. "The Bed and Breakfast is another hundred miles. No need to rush but I am tired."
She started her bike. It coughed and quit. She gave a second kick. It caught but she had to keep revving the throttle.
Sandy took off his helmet and knelt down. "Stay seated. Keep it running."
He listened and ran his hand down her back. He passed over the engine. Rider and machine were ill. It was more than he had the reserves to mend. He made his choice. Sandy stood behind the bike and caressed both hands down Emily's spine and legs. He repeated the ritual from her shoulders to her hands until he was drained.
He said, "You'll ride my beezer back home. I'll wrestle with this beast."
Emily nodded, "I feel better but I think you're right."
Back in the shop, Emily wrung her hands, “I knew it, I went too fast and broke it.”
Sandy shook his head, “It’s nothing you’ve done, lass. She’s a stout machine and as near as I can tell, she’s nae broke.” He ran his hands over the engine, listening to the rough idle and trying to smooth it out. “I don’t understand it.” He stood and wiped his hands then turned the ignition off.
Emily put her hand on the seat. “I have to tell you something, Sandy.” She hesitated then continued, “It was over a month ago. I did it.”
“The ton. A hundred miles an hour.” She grinned. “I couldn’t help it. She just purred and I thought to myself, Emily, if you don’t do it now, you’ll always wonder what it feels like. So that’s why I thought I’d broken it.”
“Nonsense, she was meant to be ridden, not sit here looking prideful. You run along home. You’re still tired from the trip. I can tell. We’ll right her tomorrow.”
“Okay, I will see you in the morning.” She gave his cheek a peck and walked slowly to her truck.
Sandy fumed as he stood back from the Vincent. “I don’t understand it, I just don’t. I’ve changed the settings, put them back where they were before we left. She’s stubborn, that’s what it is. Obstinate, bloody English.”
Emily said, “It will be okay, Sandy. We don’t have to ride this weekend.”
He shut off the fuel. “Maybe you’re right. You run along, I’ll see you tonight.”
When she had gone, he solemnly placed both hands on the tank. He closed his eyes and willed the energy to flow but there was no magic. He had lost his gift for the Vincent. He walked over to the BSA and tried it. Not just the Vincent then, he concluded. His talent now flowed only to Emily.
Twelve months later, the Vincent still sat in Sandy’s shop, its only movement by hand to keep out of the way of the other mundane projects. Sandy covered it, turned out the lights and resigned himself to a visit he did not want to make.
He knocked on the door, his cap gripped firmly in both hands. Emily’s mother opened the door to her room. “Hello Sandy, she’s expecting you. I’m going for a bite to eat.”
“I’ll stay as long as you want and Emily can stand.”
She said, "Don't you ever think that. You gave us all so much more time with her."
He squeezed her hand and went inside.
“This is better than the last time I was here,” he said. There was no machinery. Emily lay in bed by the hospital window, the lone medical instrument was an IV tower and bag.
“Sandy,” her whisper was hoarse.
“You’re wearing that wig we found in Sonoma,” he brushed the bronze hair back from her forehead.
“It was always your favorite.” The low sun cast shadows through the window across her bed.
Sandy said, “It's turning red under the sunset.”
“Never as red as your face that night I asked you to take me to Scotland, do you remember?”
“Aye, that’s a night I’ll ne’er forget. Nor the other trips we made.”
Emily said, “I liked Santa Barbara the best.”
“Santa Cruz,” Sandy corrected her.
“Of course. The pain killers confuse me.” She raised an arm an inch above the bed and waved the IV tube. “I don’t even recognize mum some days. I never knew there were battles a body isn’t meant to win.” She coughed. Sandy held her until the spasms stopped. “How’s the bike?”
“I fuss wi’ her regularly. I’m not ready to give up on her yet.”
“Don’t let it eat you up. The Vincent served its purpose.”
“Aye,” he said, staring out the window at the lengthening shadows. “It gave you life, Emily.”
“It gave us life, Sandy. You’re a different man than when I met you.”
"Only around you," he said.
"No. I see you smile more often and you are unaware of it. It's who you are now."
He held her and whispered, “I found purpose.” He could feel Emily’s aura fleeing her body. He held her tighter, trying to corral the energy that could no longer be contained within her. He stared at the tube running into her arm. There was nothing to silence his pain.
Sandy took a final look up at the Black Shadow, lifeless in its repose, the only ‘trophy’ he’d ever built. Every bit of his magic had gone into it, but he did not regret that loss. It had freed him. And Emily, she had freed him and exhilarated him.
He shuffled to the front window of his shop and picked up the other new sign he had ordered. It slid out of the packing and he placed it facing toward the street. He stepped outside and checked it in the dying sun. Apprentice Wanted. Apply Within.
This story originally appeared in On Spec #77.