Just as Stella reached Sue, the clouds parted and the scene was dramatically lit by moonlight. Sue eyeballed her opponent, mobility scooters almost nose to nose. Stella took in the skull and crossbones emblazoned on the tiller panel of an aggressive-looking scooter. The man riding it wore a black cap, bearing the same pirate symbol. He was pudgy; enormous fleshy bags sagged beneath his eyes. Stella judged him to be in his sixties. The eyes sunk into the doughy face were sharp and alert. They gobbled up the sight of Stella’s Rascal Vision, barely touching its rider until Sue introduced them.
“Stella, this is Pirate Tom. He’s the captain of the Wanderers.”
“Hello,” Stella said.
Pirate Tom favoured her with a dismissive grunt, eyes returning to the Rascal. In college, Stella had a large-chested friend who got sick of men talking to her breasts. Stella suddenly knew how it felt. She suppressed a ridiculous desire to cover her scooter.
Tom tore his eyes away from the Rascal. “Right, what you brought?”
“Mildred’s baked a Victoria sponge, a lemon meringue pie and two dozen cherry scones,” Sue replied. “You?”
“Large roast chicken, barbecued spare ribs, pigs in blankets. Bob’s thrown in three packets of Scotch eggs, but the date’s up tomorrow, so you’d need to eat ‘em quickish. Not that you’ll be winning ‘em,” he added. “Even with the Rascal.”
Sue scoffed. “Dream on pirate boy. Right, let’s sort out the order.”
Stella listened, bemused, as Sue and Tom decided the order of play. The races were run in heats, four riders at a time. Points were awarded to the club who won each race. The points given increased as the heats gave way to quarters, semi-finals and then final. This added an extra frisson as the trailing team still had a chance to win if they weren’t too far behind in points.
Pirate Tom returned to his gang and Sue to hers.
“I put you in the second race,” Sue said to Stella. “So you can watch the first one and see how it goes. There’re a few things to remember. Getting off the start-line as fast as you can’s most important. If you can do that, move into the middle where the ride’s smoother. Outside and you’re liable to get stuck in the sand piled up; inside and you can be bumped against the seawall.”
Stella swallowed. “Maybe you should ride the Rascal,” she said to Sue. Sue gave her a stern look. “Too late,” she said. “Tom would never agree now. Besides, I love Betty.”
“Who’s Betty?” Stella asked.
“Me scooter!” Sue said. “I’d feel a bit unfaithful.” She eyeballed Stella. “You’re Gina Pontin’s granddaughter,” Sue scolded. “She’s a cow but she’s not a coward. Remember who you are!”
“Right,” Stella said. “I’m Gina Pontin’s granddaughter.” She repeated this like a mantra. “I’m Gina Pontin’s granddaughter. I’m a cow not a coward.”
It took a few minutes to get the scooters in line for the first race. The start and finish had been marked out in chalk, torches placed at each end so if the moon went in again the lines could still be seen. Stella found herself parked next to Mildred.
“You play for food?” Stella said to her.
“Yes,” Mildred nodded her blue-rinse. “Tom’s lad is a butcher so he’s brought a roast chicken. I’ve baked cakes. Winning team gets ‘em all.”
A whistle blew and the first race began.
“C’mon, Alf,” Mildred yelled.
Stella watched the race, two riders from The Marauders, two from The Wanderers jostling for lead position. An elderly woman nudged ahead, veered dangerously in front of Alf, causing the onlookers to cheer or boo, and took the coveted middle ground. A scooter on the outside banked into the grass-tufted sand on the side of the cycleway, and stuck, buzzing angrily like a wasp caught in a honey-trap.
“Ooh, Carole’s down,” Mildred said. She raised her voice. “Bump Dorothy, Alf!” Alf obeyed and rammed into the back of the elderly demon-driver in front of him. The Wanderers booed.
“Foul!” someone shouted. But Alf’s transgression had little effect on the scooter in front. The woman was tiny, her frail frame crouched low over her handlebars, but her eyes were blazing.
“Drive that baby home, Dorothy,” Pirate Tom yelled. Dorothy did, raising her arms as she crossed the chalk line. Her scooter began to veer alarmingly but she grabbed the tiller and wrestled it back under control.
Alf followed a close second, swearing profusely.
“Right,” Sue drew up. “Remember, foot to the pedal, and get off the line quick as you can, then all the way on eight.” She escorted Stella along the prom to the start line.
The whistle blew and Stella rocketed forward on full thrust, doing zero to eight in two seconds, leaving her competitors trailing like snails. Her hair whipped behind her, mostly because of the blustery wind rather than speed, but after days of moving at a crawl, on and off the scooter, Stella felt like she was flying. She let out an enormous whoop and swung into the middle of the promenade, not even looking to see who she might hit. She charged down the course, as demonically possessed as Dorothy had been.
All too soon it was over. Stella crossed the finish line to wild cheers from The Marauders, slamming on her brakes to avoid careening into them.
Pirate Tom won the next quarter and Sue the one after that.
They were into the last two semis.
Sue rolled up, flushed with the exhilaration of her win. “Right, it’s me against you,” she said to Stella.
“Just the two of us?” Stella asked. “Shouldn’t it be a Marauder against a Wanderer?”
“Nah, this way you end up with one of each for the final,” Sue said. “Now, much as I want to see that Rascal take Tom down, I’m not gonna throw this race for yer, so be prepared. Yer first race was piss-easy but this ain’t gonna be. Comprehend?”
Stella thought she did.
They scooted back to the start line and manoeuvred into place.
Stella grinned over at Sue, but Sue ignored her, jaw set determinedly.
The whistle blew and this time Stella was taken by surprise as Sue lurched ahead. Stella hit the throttle and charged off the line, the Rascal’s powerful motor roaring. She surged up to eight and soon she was almost nose-to-nose with Sue. Sue nudged to her left, grazing the Rascal. Stella instinctively veered away, losing important ground. Angry, she righted herself and powered forward, only to discover Sue had barged into her ‘lane’. Swearing, Stella moved out, determined to overtake her on the inside but Sue narrowed the gap so that Stella was forced into the sandy side.
Furious, Stella swung her scooter, bumping Sue outright. The Rascal was heavier. Sue’s engine whined as Stella forced the smaller scooter aside. The Rascal’s pneumatic tyres ate up the sand and grass, barely registering the terrain. The finish line approached fast. Stella leaned forward and willed the Rascal on. They were fused, human and machine, with one purpose. To win.
Sue’s scooter squealed – a high pitch sound like a toddler’s tantrum. The night air stank of burning wire and hot metal.
Stella’s Rascal moved past it like a cheetah. Sue nipped at her heels but it was too late; the Rascal took the race.
The onlookers were rapturous but Stella hardly heard them. She slammed on her brakes.
“What the hell were you doing?” she shouted at Sue.
Sue motioned for her to drive to a quieter spot. Stella followed her. Sue switched off her engine. “Gotta let Betty cool off,” she said. “Worried her motor’s gonna burn out.” She was panting.
“You bumped me!” Stella said.
“It was training. Pirate Tom plays rough. He hates to lose and he’ll do anything to stop you. That’s why he usually wins. Most of us don’t like to mess up our rides but Tom don’t mind. He sees all them scratches and bumps as battle scars.” She gave Stella a devilish grin. “Tell me you didn’t find that fun?”
Stella couldn’t help but grin back.
Pirate Tom escorted Stella to the start line. “You’re playing against the big boys now,” he said. “Sure you can handle it?”
“I just see one old boy,” Stella retorted.
Tom sucked through his teeth. He chortled. “Fighting talk. I like a cat with claws. But my machine’s a Drive Royale 4. Fast as the wind and as mean as they get. She eats other mobility scooters for supper.”
“Uhuh,” Stella said. “I suppose she’s got a name?”
“Black Bertha,” Tom said. “After me mother.”
“Oh,” said Stella. “Was she fast, too?”
Pirate Tom shot her a vindictive look.
Turning in tight circles, they reversed into place. A pirate flag fluttered from the Royale’s rear basket. Stella caught an unmistakable whiff of roast chicken.
She gritted her teeth and prepared to race dirty. This time she was positioned on the right, closest to the sea wall.
The whistle blew and both scooters lunged forward. The Royale matched the Rascal in speed and grace and they rode neck and neck until Tom slammed the Royale hard against Stella, knocking her towards the seawall. Stella struggled to regain control. Tom slammed her again, this time into the wall. The Rascal scraped against concrete, sparks flying, but Stella kept it running. It shrieked a protest but Stella swung towards Tom and slowly began to force him away. The Royale was fast because it was lighter than the Rascal but it began to succumb to the Rascal’s superior weight and engine capacity.
Stella experienced a rush of power. She was about to ram Tom off course when she saw a small dog sprinting along the seawall parallel to her.
The dog looked at her. A spark of hostile recognition jumped between them.
Bing Crosby! The little bastard who’d bit her ankle.
Bing snarled, launching off the wall towards her. Stella ducked as he sailed right over her and landed on Pirate Tom.
Tom screamed, hitting the emergency brake and jolted to a stop. Stella did the same. Then she saw the other dogs surrounding them in a pack and felt a jolt of fear.
Bing scrambled over Tom into the basket on the rear of the Royale and dived in. He emerged with the roast chicken, flung it to his pack, and plunged back in for another package. This he repeated twice more before he sprang to the ground, barking orders. His pack grabbed the booty and, as quickly as they’d appeared, they dispersed into the night.
For a moment there was stunned silence.
“I’ve been robbed,” Tom roared. Everyone began shouting at once, mobility scooters bumping into each other. The noise and commotion blocked the sound of a much larger engine approaching. Headlights dazzled them, freezing the gangs into place.
Sue yelled. “It’s the fuzz!” Pandemonium broke out as pensioners started to panic.
Stella leapt into action, gunning the Rascal forward, leaving Pirate Tom dazed in her wake. Sue parped her horn for The Marauders to follow. The Marauders collected themselves with surprising efficiency, falling into line behind her.
They fled the scene, not stopping all the way back to Mapton.
The Last Resort is available to buy now from Amazon in eBook and paperback.