Back Street Heroes




Which is why I was pleased with what I’d picked up in a local junk shop, it finished off the bike beautifull­y, and it’d only cost me six quid too. “Six quid?” the old guy’d squawked indignantl­y, when I ignored his asking price of fourteen, and made my own offer. “Bloody robbery, son, just look at that – it’s real silver plate on brass, a real heirloom, a real Scottish aristocrat­ic gem.” I looked down at the brass roundel, and at the elegant, elongated, cheetah-like tabby cat in silver sitting on it, its tail curled under its front paws, and a smug-looking expression on its snub-nosed face. A silvered ribbon ran all around the brass circle, and on it was written ‘Touch not the catte bot a glove’ “What’s it mean?” I asked the old man. “Bloody ’ell, don’t they teach you anything in school these days?” he questioned in return, ignoring the fact that I hadn’t been to school for twelve years. “It means ‘Don’t touch the cat unless you’ve got your gloves on’, that’s what it means – it’s the motto of a branch of the Douglas family... or so old Jock Macphail told me when I was drinking with him in the Leg O’ Man last week. Don’t mess with ’em, if you want it in Queen’s English. Real bit of history, that.” “Yeah, sure,” I answered, “but what’s it for?” “Ow the hell do I know?” he replied. “I dunno what Scottish nobles got up to in their castles, do I? What are you going to do with it anyway?” “I’m going to stick it on my bike,” I told him. “It’ll finish if off nicely – just what I wanted, Mr Solomons, and I can’t see anyone else needing it, which brings me back to my offer?” “Go on then, you cheeky young sod,” old Solly answered. “Six quid, and it’s yours, daylight robbery.” I found out later he’d picked it up in an old biscuit tin of buttons he’d bought for four pounds at an auction, but I didn’t begrudge him his profit – I can remember when he sold me an American BB gun that looked like a Winchester when I was a kid, and only had three pounds and a few pence pocket money on me, and he’d really wanted a fiver for it, so I reckoned we were about even. I did want the silver cat though; it was just right for the bike, and the brass roundel had a

circular rim at the back of it that I thought’d just fit the hole in the Triumph Export tank where the rubber bung usually went. In fact, when that was in place the bike was finished, and it looked very good too, which is some consolatio­n when you’re on the dole, your girlfriend’s run off with a double-glazing salesman with a Sierra, and you haven’t had too much cash to spend on doing a bike up. I was lucky, really. The bike had started out as a 1955 BSA A7 500, but I’d picked up an older plunger frame that the engine went into, bought a pair of chromed M20 girders from a mate for £40, and another mate had given me a 750 Bonnie Export tank and a cheap ‘bend it yourself ’ Cobra-style seat, so all I had to do was get a bolt welded on to the frame top rail to take the tank, and make up some mountings for the seat. I’d splashed out a bit on a fancy exhaust (a 2-1 with a fishtail silencer to fit an old Harley originally), and a fatbob rear ’guard, and a chromed tail-light, a 21” front wheel, and a set of ’bars from an XS650 Custom with 6” risers, but I hadn’t really spent all that much on doing it up. The paint job could’ve turned out expensive, but I rebuilt Kas McEnery’s Trident for her, so she did the spraying for free. I was hoping she’d ravish me as well, as part of the deal, once she learned Dot had moved out, but it didn’t work out that way. Well, when you’re one of the top custom sprayers in the country, and a tall, leggy redhead with big green eyes as well, I suppose you can afford to pick and choose. The paint job was nice though; a deep metallic blue, with gold lining on the tank, side-panels and ’guards, and within the lining on each side of the tank, a leopard bounding along, heading towards the headstock. It went well with the white seat, which didn’t look cheap at all once it was on, and with the spitting cat’s head I’d bolted on to the chrome rear-lamp cover – that’d been one of those brass belt-buckles, but I’d sawed the mounts off and filed it flat so it’d fit. You might just have noticed a slightly feline theme about all of these, which explains why I was pleased to pick up the silver cat from Solly’s junk shop. It’s easily explained – the bike’s registrati­on is CAT55, which is what started the whole thing off in my mind, I suppose, when I first decided to do it up a bit. I always thought it was a bit like a cat anyway, compared with my mates’ Jap bikes – a bit of an alley cat maybe,

but light, nimble, and sure-footed round bends, even if it didn’t have the speed or power of those big fours and sanitised big twins everyone else seemed to be riding… well, apart from Kas, and she was one on her own, like I’ve already said. It still leaked oil, of course; not as bad as a Triumph, but then Beezas never did, and I’ve got to admit that I was pleased with it, even if a few of my mates took the piss from time to time. One day, Tommo and Bas rode up on their XS1100 lowrider and GS750 chop respective­ly, and when I let them in they handed me a large bag, gift-wrapped in gaudy paper – it felt sort of solid, but yielding as well, and I couldn’t tell what the hell was in it, until I tore off the wrapping. “It’s present for The Cat,” Tommo said, “just to celebrate you finally getting it on the road.” I’d just fired it up that morning, and taken it for a 100-mile ride, and called in at Bas’ house on the way back, just to let him have a look at it. He’d obviously told Tommo, and they’d decided to call round to see me. “Just the thing for your bike,” Bas assured me, keeping a straight face. “Seeing as how The Cat’s a Brit classic, that is.” I opened the parcel, and looked at its contents. “You bastards,” I told them, and started joining in with their laughter. It was a jumbo-size bag of cat litter. “Sprinkle it in your backyard, and you’ll be okay,” Tommo said. “It’ll soak all the oil up anyway.” “That oil,” I told them, “is from the enginebrea­ther – it isn’t a leak. It’s meant to do that, you pillocks, to relieve pressure from the crankcase.” “Really?” Bas asked innocently. “Is that what the oil dribbling out of the primary chain case and down the centre-stand’s doing as well? Amazing what they thought of, innit?” I gave up. “Fancy a pint?” I asked them. “I think my Giro’ll stand it for a few days more.” The two of them nodded, and we went out for a pint or two of Webster’s. In fact, they bought me more than I bought them, but that’s the way it works – if you’re out of work, you stand your round first, and then your mates help to avoid embarrassm­ent by ordering when you’ve gone for a leak, so there’s always beer waiting for you. They do it for you and, sooner or later, you’ll do it for them too, because it’s an uncertain world, and it’s all swings and roundabout­s in my

experience. The cat litter came in handy though, and not just for soaking up oil leaks from the Beeza either. I went out to the bike one morning and there, curled up on its seat, was a ratty-looking black cat, all skin and bone, with runny eyes. It looked up at me as I walked out of the back door, and sneezed, in a very bedraggled and miserable sort of way. “Piss off,” I told it, and waved my hands about, thinking it’d leap up and hare off over the backyard wall, just like all the other cats tended to do when I caught them out. “Go on, you crappylook­ing flea-bag – piss off.” It looked up at me, sneezed again, and tucked its paws under its chest, and flicked its tail around them. This was a problem. I don’t know about you, but I don’t mind cats – in fact I quite like ’em, just as long as I don’t have to pick them up. There’s something so goddamn boneless about them that just makes me cringe – you try to pick them up and they sag, ‘like a sackful of mouldy suet’ as my old grandad used to say, and dangle there like a dead rabbit, drooping gracefully and disturbing­ly until they decide to roll over, bite your wrist, or grab it with both needle-sharp paws, and make a run for it. And have you noticed how they sit on shelves and cupboards, just watching you? You keep looking up, and they’re still watching you, with that curious blank-eyed disconcert­ing gaze they’ve all got – you know they’re thinking, but you don’t know what the hell it is they’re considerin­g in those furry little brains. Siamese are the worse, those blue-eyed squinty little sods really do give me the creeps, I can tell you. Mind you, this black cat wasn’t all that disconcert­ing – it looked too wet and miserable to be that, and I suddenly remembered it’d been raining all night, so the pathetic little bastard must have been caught in the downpour, and decided to seek a bit of shelter under the acrylic corrugated sheet I put up over my backyard. I risked picking it up off the Beeza’s seat, and it didn’t just feel boneless – it felt hardly there at all, so I still cringed, even while I felt sorry for it, and placed it down by the bike’s rear wheel. It opened its mouth, and gave a heart-rending mew of misery, hunger and anguish that the world had treated it so badly when it deserved a hell of a lot better. “Look,” I told it, “I haven’t any cat food but, just this once, mind, you can have a tin of tuna. And then you can piss off back to wherever you came from, huh?” It ate the tuna, practicall­y knocking my hand away in its rush to get to the oily fish. Then it lay down in front of my fire, and washed itself all over with its rough little pink tongue, and lay there until its fur dried and fluffed up, at which point I began to think it wasn’t such a badlooking cat after all, and then slept for five hours. Then it woke up, had half a tin of pilchards I’d found for it, and calmly and casually walked upstairs, wriggled under my quilt, and stayed there until I got back from the pub at eleven o’clock that night. I’d forgotten it was there until I was woken up at around three in the morning by a set of claws scratching delicately on my naked arse – not a malicious sort of scratching, just the sort that cats do when they want to attract your attention. I got up, walked around a bit following the cat to see what the hell it wanted, and it finally persuaded me that I should let it out. I stumbled

back upstairs, dabbed TCP on the scratches on my bum, and fell into bed, already halfknowin­g that, when a cat decides to adopt you, you stay adopted. Next day was dole day, so I got up early, opened my back door, and peered carefully into the backyard. No sign of the black cat so I stepped out into the backyard, and felt something squashy and unpleasant under my boots. I’d just trodden on a vole, two shrews, and a baby rat – all laid out neatly at my back door. Cursing, I went back into the kitchen to try and eat my breakfast. The black cat was there, on the table, crouched over my cornflakes, with milk droplets on its whiskers. It looked up, nodded, and stuck its nose back into the bowl, purring and snuffling with contentmen­t both at the same time. “2Okay, you win,” I told it, and went out to buy some tins of cat food and some crunchy cat biscuits. “I know when I’m bloody beaten.” I didn’t, as it happened, but I soon found out as the cat began to take over my life in the way cats do. It still ate my cornflakes, but it was as choosy as hell over its own cat food, and eventually decided to settle for two brands of tinned food, cat biscuits, tuna fish, raw liver, pilchards in tomato, and bits of Cumberland sausage, chocolate biscuits, and macaroni cheese, whenever I happened to be eating them myself. It brought me voles, shrews, small rats, birds, and even an occasional baby rabbit – it started by bringing them up to my bedroom and dumping them on my face while I was asleep (but not for long), but eventually got the message, and went back to laying them neatly outside my back door. It developed into a handsome tom weighing damn near a stone, and it took to roaming out at night in search of entertainm­ent as well as sport; next morning it’d stagger back in through the back door, bleary-eyed and knackered, shovel some food into its mouth with a trembling paw, and wobble up to my bed, heaving itself into the quilt with one last effort before it fell asleep. “You lucky bugger,” I once said to it,’ “I wish I had your bloody social life.” It twitched, and gave me a dirty wink in answer. No one knew where it’d come from, or whose cat it’d been, if anyone’s, so it became mine, I suppose… or I became its human, which seems a lot more realistic, come to think of it. It used to sit happily in the sun, curled up on the saddle of The Cat, or idly dabbling its paws over the tank, patting the leopards Kas’d painted on each side, and it always seemed to be waiting for me when I’d been out on the bike and’d got back. I don’t know whether cats can recognise the sounds of engines as well as some humans can, but the black cat always seemed to know mine, and’d come running along the roof-tops back home just as I was riding down the back alley that ran between the backs of the houses, and’d usually be waiting at the back door by the time I’d parked the bike and taken my helmet off, ready to be let in for some food and a sit by the fireplace. I grew to like it, not enough to give it a name, but then what’s the point of calling cats anything but ‘Cat’, huh? There was one good thing in its favour too – it didn’t take at all to Zitty Tompkins, but then who did? I’d been at school with him, and while it was a bit cruel of the rest of us kids to nickname him Zitty (although accurate, it looked like he’d cornered the market in zits, blackheads, whiteheads and the occasional carbuncle while he was an adolescent), it’s only fair to say that he’d grown up from being an awkward and spotty little pillock to becoming a Grade A, 100%, solid gold bastard.

Solid gold is about right too – his dad was an estate agent and, like all rich men’s sons, Zitty’d developed into an over-indulged spoilt brat who’d always been given the best of everything, got whatever he wanted, was kept out of serious hassle, and was given a job by a father he didn’t appreciate in the slightest. Dave Tompkins wasn’t a bad guy, all things considered, although Mrs Dave Tompkins was a scrawny, over-exercised blonde with clashing gold jewellery and a permanent cat’s arse expression on her thin lips. I’ll give you an example or two. I learned to ride on a 250 MZ which had cost me £50 of sweeping out a butchers’ shop for endless weekends, and most of my mates weren’t too different – they learnt on knackered strokers, or battered ’Dreams, or even the odd BSA 250, but we were all pretty much in the same boat. Zitty rolled up on a new LC250, and proceeded to stuff it down our throats at every opportunit­y. It was a waste of a good bike too, because while most of us stuck with bikes, he soon went on to a new Escort Mexico – all he’d wanted to be, in biking terms, was the smartest and richest kid in town, which he probably was, with his matching leathers and helmet, and a succession of emptyheade­d teenies riding pillion with him for the kicks. All that happened when he went on to cars was that he started dressing even more like the proverbial cool young dude, and his girlfriend­s got a bit older, a bit more elegant, and showed a lot more leg (though exactly the same amount of brains). He wrote off his Mexico – it was all hushed up, and nothing was ever said about it, although the likelihood of a tree leaping out at a stationery car seemed fairly unlikely to me. His dad felt so upset at his son’s accident that he bought him a TR7 (God knows what the insurance on that must’ve cost) which was waiting for him when he returned from the Bahamas, his bruises nicely masked by all that suntan. His former girlfriend wasn’t waiting for him, as it happened – she’d been unlucky enough to get impregnate­d by Zitty, and it’d all been taken care of by his dad (or more likely Mrs Dave Tompkins) in the shape of a quiet abortion and a fair amount of hush money, or so the rumour went. Anyway, Zitty arrived back in GB, and within days he was being seen in the company of a curvaceous, if slightly horsey, blonde called Miranda, whose dad just happened to be a retired Lord Lieutenant of the County. Our paths didn’t cross much, I’m glad to say – well, I never went to Young Conservati­ves’ discos or Hunt Balls, and Zitty certainly didn’t patronise bikers’ pubs or establishm­ents selling oily second-hand spares for British twins. In fact, I’d almost forgotten about his existence until he rolled up to see me one day. In his white Porsche, of course. “The thing is,” he explained, after he’d made himself known to me, and I’d grunted an invitation for him to come in, “I’m rather interested in that bike of yours.” I looked at his snappy threads, and expressed my doubts as to why he’d suddenly decided to take up biking again. “Oh, no,” he told me, and gave an irritating and fatuous laugh, “Good God, I don’t want to ride it, I just want to buy it.” “Why? You starting a collection?” I asked him, but the irony seemed totally lost on him. “Don’t you remember my full name?” he enquired, and I had to confess that I didn’t. “Charles Adams Tompkins,” he told me, and I must’ve still looked blank, because he went on to explain: “That’s C.A.T. and I was born in 1955, of course, just like you were.”

Light began to dawn. “CAT55,” I answered, “a personal numberplat­e, huh?” “Yes, that’s right,” he said gleefully, “but I can’t transfer it to the Porsche unless I also own the vehicle that it was originally issued to, can I?” I wasn’t sure about that, but I nodded anyway. “And that’s your BSA,” he went on, “so I was wondering if you’d like to sell it? How does £500 sound?” “Like an insult,” I told him, which seemed to put him out considerab­ly. “And what were you thinking of doing with the bike, once you’d got it and the number-plate?” “Scrapping it, of course, it’s no use to me,” he replied. “Come on, it’s a good price, you know, old BSAs aren’t worth much these days, particular­ly one done up in that ridiculous chopper styling.” “Ah, maybe, Zitty,” I answered, and he winced at the use of his old nickname. “But this one is – in fact, it’s priceless to me, because there’s a hell of a lot of sweat, hassling, dealing, and skinned knuckles gone into it, so it’s no sale. Why don’t you just squirm back into your white Porsche and piss off, taking care not to leave any slimy trails on the pavement, huh?” Rich kids never know when they’re being offensive – he got up to a cool thousand (and don’t think I wasn’t tempted, because I was on the dole and just about out of my own money, with a house, a bike, and a black cat to keep), before he realised I was serious, and it didn’t make him happy at all. “It could get stolen, you know,” he told me, his pasty white face getting all mottled with flushes of futile anger. “A lot could happen to that bike of yours.” “I’m sure you’re right, Zitty,” I answered, “but, whatever happens to it, you’re never going to be riding around with CAT55 screwed to your Porsche, believe me, so why don’t you just forget about it? It’s not for sale – now, ever, or for any money you’d care to name.” That was the way I thought – why should he try to steal the bike or harm it, when he could never use the number-plate off it anyway? It was pointless, and I couldn’t see what he’d get out of damaging the Beeza. I’d forgotten that rich, spoilt kids are just that – if they can’t have something, they’re likely to try and see that the person who owns it can’t ever have the use of it either. They break other kids’ toys when they’re young, and other peoples’ hearts when they’re older maybe. I didn’t think any more about it though, as I showed him out through the backyard, past The Cat, and past Cat too who was sitting on the saddle sunning himself. “Fine animal,” Zitty remarked, and bent down to stroke the black cat. He did it rather like you’d stroke a dog – the wrong way to stroke a cat, not sensuous enough, and a bit too rough, but then I remembered his family had pedigree Labradors, and Cat didn’t like it. In fact, he didn’t like it enough to grab Zitty by the wrist, between two big paws, and sink his sharp little teeth into the hand dangling out from the immaculate cuff and Cartier watch. “Soddin’ ’ell,” Zitty yelped (which I’m sure they didn’t teach him on skiing holidays in Switzerlan­d), and ripped his hand away from Cat’s mouth. The black cat leapt off the bike, on to the back gate, down on to the ground, and hared off down the back alley like an Olympic sprinter, until it found a wall it could sit on, where it sat and regarded Zitty with a typical ‘Right, you bastard, I won’t forget you’ feline

expression. “That cat could have bloody rabies,” Zitty complained to me, sucking his injured wrist. I couldn’t hide the grin. “I doubt it,” I told him, “he didn’t bite you long enough to catch it, but thanks for the warning anyway.” I forgot all about Zitty over the next few days – he was just another sleeping policeman along the tarmac of my life, and I had enough to cope with with the DHSS, the rates, and an oil leak from the Beeza’s head gasket. I fixed them all, eventually, and headed for bed, after watching Cat eat his pilchards, drink his water, and head off into the backyard for another night on the tiles. “Mind how you go,” I told him, and he leered at me, and stalked off with his tail in the air, in the general direction of anguished yowling from a she-cat on heat. I was woken a few hours later by Cat scratching insistentl­y at my naked hip. There seemed quite a bit of urgency in his scratching, so I got out of bed bleary-eyed, and looked down at him. “God almighty, Cat,” I told the black cat, who was looking up at me with an anxious expression, “have a bit of bloody sense – it’s half-past three in the morning, and if you got in you can get out again as well. You can’t want feeding, so what’s all the hassle about, huh?” The cat walked into the back bedroom, the one that looks down into the yard, and poked his head through the curtains. I looked down into the backyard too and, by the light of a solitary back alley lamp, I saw someone crouched by the bike, fairly clearly through the acrylic corrugated sheeting. I threw open the window, and a balaclava-clad head looked up as I shouted down, and I caught a glimpse of a pasty nose and two crescents of equally doughy cheeks. “Oi, you bastard,” I shouted down, “what the bloody hell do you think you’re playing at, huh?” I became aware of a different smell on the fresh night air – the sharp smell of petrol drifting up from the direction of the backyard. Whoever it was had splashed it around The Cat like it was aftershave at a disco, and I suddenly realised that the whole bloody backyard would go up like dry tinder if he lit it, not just the Beeza, and the thought made my mouth go dry, and paralysed me for a few seconds. Cat, never having had much use for petrol in his life, wasn’t worried by the thought of any possible danger, and decided to act. With the incredible grace that even overweight and shagged-out tom-cats can muster when the need arises, he launched himself down out of the window towards the figure below. A stone weight of flying cat will go through acrylic sheeting, as Cat proved, and cats will always land on their feet too (well, unless they’re deaf, it’s something to do with the inner ear and balance, I remember seeing it on Tomorrow’s World once). Cat landed on all four of his – it was just a pity that it was right on top of the balaclava, and all his claws were out at the time. Well, it was a pity for the guy in the balaclava anyway, judging from the anguished screams, and the way he pissed off

down the back alley, whimpering and cursing incoherent­ly. I wouldn’t like to say who it was, after all there are laws against slander (or is it libel?) in this country, but I’m pretty certain I heard a fancy foreign sports car start up fairly soon afterwards, and get driven off down the road at a very unhealthy speed. And I don’t know whose the Cartier watch I found in the backyard was either, but the gold and diamonds looked nice under the lamp, I can tell you. In fact, I was almost sorry to sell it, but I didn’t think the owner’d be back for it, and I was pretty certain he wouldn’t be contacting the Police to report it missing either. Which explains, of course, The Cat II, and how a Harley Sportster comes to have the distinctiv­e registrati­on of CAT55, along with engraved cats on the casings, a modest amount of gold plating, and the smug silver cat on its brass roundel set into the peanut tank, all setting off the nice peacock blue and silver artwork from Kas McEnery. Every time I read the motto around that silver cat, I’ve got to smile; ‘Touch not the catte bot a glove’, and don’t let ‘em touch you either – not unless you’re wearing a tin helmet, anyway, and keeping your head down as well. The Beeza? Well, it’s got the Harley’s registrati­on now – it seemed like a fair swap, although OGG 813P isn’t as memorable, somehow, but it’s still the same enjoyable, quirky, oily bike to ride, and I still put a lot of miles in on it every year. Cat’s still with me too, although he’s getting just about fat enough and sleek enough to have to watch out for bursting out of his glossy black fur. It doesn’t seem to prevent him going out raising hell with the she-cats, and clobbering the other toms, but I keep telling him all those prawns and all that cream’s going to take its toll of him one of these days. He just looks at me, stretches, sits up, and jumps from the saddle of one bike to the other, still as graceful as ever, and still only just putting enough effort into it, like all cats always do. I was quite amused by the story about Zitty Tompkins’ hair transplant – it’s bad, losing most of your hair when you’re only thirty, isn’t it? I’m told it was a car accident, a freak mishap that pulled off quite a bit of his scalp, necessitat­ing lengthy and painful transplant­s to the affected area. It’s no joke having hair drilled into your scalp, apparently, particular­ly if it’s a few hundred times. That’s what I was told, anyway.


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