The Black Hand Cafe | Cassandra Voices

The Black Hand Cafe


My ear is pressed up against the past as if to the wall of a house that no longer exists.
Richard Brautigan

 At 2pm on Friday the seventh of May, 1971, as Peter “Flipper” Groat coasted gently on his customized Triton 650 into the gravel car park to the rear of The Black Hand transport café, a red-winged cinnabar moth alighted on his acne-scarred nose. As the hapless Groat’s eyes momentarily crossed, attempting to get a better view of his diurnal visitor, the front wheel of the Triton lost its grip and slowly slipped sideways on the loose gravel.

Two truanting schoolgirls sitting at a mossy picnic table eating Pineapple Ripples giggled as the Groat tried to counterbalance the motorbike. In slow motion it inexorably toppled.

Plunked unceremoniously on the gravel, Flipper Groat sat, legs askew, with the motorcycle on his lap. Beneath the shadow cast by his German military helmet the cinnabar moth steadfastly remained on the Groat’s nose. It was as if the plucky Lepidoptera had at long last found its natural habitat.

The Black Hand Café was a low, flat-roofed building situated in a layby on the A road that linked my provincial market town to the nearby coastal resorts that looked out over the Channel. This once-busy thoroughfare had recently been by-passed by a two-lane motorway and already the roadside café had begun to display signs of neglect and encroaching obsolescence. The layby, like the car park at the rear, was tufted with couch grass and ragwort. The pre-molded concrete streetlamp flickered on and off throughout the day and remained resolutely off at night. No longer did coaches filled with singing holidaymakers and “happy wanderer” OAPs pull up for Lyons Maid Raspberry Mivvis or mugs of Reg’s foul Dividend Tea. Already the Black Hand Café seemed doomed by its isolation. But all was not yet lost. Lorry drivers still pulled in for greasy early morning breakfasts and the country bus crews used the cafe as an unofficial resting spot, especially if they were ahead of schedule. Then there were the old ladies from the village who waited in the café for the bus. They would be travelling to the town to collect their pensions or heading off to the coastal resorts to waste their coppers on bingo, penny arcades and nylon bloomers.

Reggie Jilkes was the proprietor. A tall gaunt man with sunken cheeks and a sepulchral Bela Lugosi pallor, he was mostly silent, going about his business behind the counter in an old-fashioned grocer’s coat. Inexplicably Reg wore a black leather glove on his left hand. No one knew the reason for the glove, and no one ever asked. The real name of the café was The Egg and Spoon, and you could still see the remains of the name in flaking yellow and red paint above the wooden façade. But nobody ever called it The Egg and Spoon. It was The Black Hand Café and that was that. If Reg objected to that nomenclature he certainly never voiced it. And to be fair to Reg, he never objected to the “Rockers” and their motorbikes, or even to us, that is until the incident with Jimmy O’Keefe and the old ladies’ tea – but more of that in a while.

Flipper Groat dusted himself down, parked the Triton alongside the line of other bikes in car park and entered the café by the rear entrance. The two schoolgirls were still giggling.

I was sitting at the table by the rear window with the twin sisters Evelyn and Yolanda. Our group always sat there unless the bus drivers bagged the spot before we arrived. We had witnessed the Groat’s tumble. He limped past our table.

“Are you alright, Flipper?” asked Evelyn.

Looking straight ahead the Groat mumbled an obscenity out of the corner of his mouth and limped across the café to the pinball machine. Clustered around the machine on high stools were several of his fellow leather-clad Rockers who comprised The Night Hawks MCC.

I had always felt sorry for Flipper Groat. Although we had attended the same secondary school our paths rarely crossed as he was in the lowest stream. What struck me back in those schooldays was that he never seemed to have any friends. He came from those deprived narrow streets at the railway end of town behind the gasworks, with its old back-to-back terraced housing. You could tell his family was poor. He was a short stout boy, always dressed in the same shabby dark clothes. I would see him sometimes as I walked to school in the mornings. He would be in front of me shuffling along with his flat left foot flipping out awkwardly. Sometimes he would stop and peer down as if searching for something on the pavement. He would then blow out spittle from his curled tongue. He wore round national health spectacles with one lens covered with a grubby bandage. He had a “lazy eye”.  With the casual cruelty only found in schoolboys, the Groat was nicknamed “Flipper” and it stuck. I guess he accepted it in the end, and perhaps one could say it was oddly prophetic, as he became a serious player on the Black Hand’s pinball machine in later years. And it was during in these later years that the Groat, just like the cinnabar moth, found his natural habitat. The Night Hawks MCC accepted Flipper Groat as one of their own and looked out for him.

With their studded black leather jackets, oily denims and Nazi war regalia, the Rockers were already an anachronism. The Mods were long gone, mostly married off, working their lives away as pen pushers or home insurance salesmen, slotting easily back into the niches society had ordained for them. The more extravagant Modernist stream had, however, evolved into something else. Meshing with art students, Carnaby Street dandies and rhythm and blues fans, they metamorphosed into a sub-sect of fashion-conscious hippies. And there were other folk-devils about now. The skinheads were a dissident group, entrenched in their urban working-class identity and despising the bourgeois element they perceived in the “underground” movement. They could be found lurking in the back-alleys of the towns or stalking the fringes of pop festivals, seething with resentment and looking for bother. We kept out their way as much as possible and left them to harry the Pakistanis.

If the Night Hawks and their ilk were in a cultural cul-de-sac, they were self aware enough to know they were going through a phase. The aggression and American pattern of outlaw biker rebellion no longer interested them. Fast and dangerous riding was the way they demonstrated their power. Even without US style freeways or the European autobahns, their catalysts remained always “on the road”, with its ribbons of glittering cat’s eyes and out-of-town roadside cafes. Maybe the Rockers still had the power to frighten the whey-faced families crammed into Vauxhall Vivas as they thundered past on Bank Holiday traffic jams, but by now that was an unintended consequence. They were largely indifferent to those outside their group, except, of course, the police. They avoided pubs, and wouldn’t have been served anyway. Instead, when not huddled together around Formica tables in greasy transport cafes or speeding through suburban back-roads in the dead of night, they preferred to gather around wasteland bonfires, drinking cans of warm beer and getting their wives and girlfriends to take their tops off.

The bikers didn’t bother us and we didn’t bother them. I guess you could say there was some kind of mutual regard. It was obvious to them that we didn’t belong to conventional society, the “straight” world, but they knew we weren’t hippies as such. I don’t think they could place us really. Their world was straightforward and solid. Although suffocated by small-town life, they were no longer interested in challenging wider society. Wider society was there, a fact of life.  And as such, they had a conformist attitude to work. Work for them was a necessity. Beneath the threatening exterior the Night Hawks were plumber’s mates, sewage farm workers and garage hands.

The pinball machine was squeezed into a dark corner of the café. A kind of floral metal grill, festooned with a tangled string of broken fairy lights, separated the machine from the dining area. The serving counter took up the rest of that wall. Reg sometimes had help in the café. Miriam was a homely lady from the local village. She was cheerful and friendly, and was a welcome antidote to Reg’s blank indifference.  Through the steam of beverages and boiled milk, and behind the cluttered stacks of chipped crockery, you would get an occasional glimpse of the serving hatch to the kitchen. It was here that Reg’s wife bobbed about in an opaque haze of blue fry-up fumes, rustling up the breakfasts, burnt toast and bacon sandwiches. She was the tiniest woman ever seen, and completely round like a football. Just like Reg, she never seemed to speak. It was said that she was a Native American. How she ended up here in this provincial backwater with Reg is anyone’s guess. One of the bus drivers once mentioned that Reg had been in the merchant navy. Maybe that’s how he met his wife. They lived in an old converted railway carriage nestled at the rear of the car park in a tangled ruin of blackthorn and briar. Occasionally you would see two moon-faced children peering blankly out of the smeared windows of the carriage like ghosts. I guess they went to school and had some kind of a life, but I never saw them out and about. I did ask Miriam about the kids once. She indicated her disapproval with a slow shake of her head.

The leader of the Night Hawks was a lanky longhaired man named Spanner, better known to his mother as Albert Crouch. Spanner was older than the other bikers. He’d been around since the time of the “ton-up boys” and as such commanded the respect of a veteran. Although he never interacted with us, he would always acknowledge us with a nod when he strode into the café. What he didn’t know is that I remembered him from years back when I was a schoolboy.

It happened like this. Some ten miles north east of The Black Hand Cafe as the crow flies was Mr. P’s farm. At that time it was a still sizable spread before Mr. P starting selling off a field here and there to make ends meet. It was mainly fruit, twenty acres of apples, a cherry orchard, and then the two potato fields. Mr. P was a good chap, rotund and jolly, and he would give us boys bits and pieces of work during the summer holidays. Lifting potatoes was a tough backbreaking job, and we were never really adept at it. Sometimes we would have to clear stones off the fields after they were harrowed. That was an easier task for kids. Mr. P didn’t seem to mind what we did, and was always happy to pay a reasonable rate for what little work we undertook. It was only pocket money really, and Mr. P said it kept us out of trouble.

The women did the real work in the fields. There were six or seven of them, sometimes accompanied by a gaggle of small feral children. They came down from the village of Hothfield every morning in a battered old Commer van driven by Harry Hearn, a toothless old Gypsy. The women were Gypsies too. A couple of them were young but the others were old girls who’d been at the fields for years. And they were experts, stopping only twice a day when Harry opened up the back of the van. The women would then have tea with bread and cheese, and smoke roll up cigarettes. Mr. P’s orchard man, Flaky John, would appear a couple times throughout the day on the tractor. Our job would be to load the trailer while Flaky John filled in the ladies’ tally books. The women would tease us boys a little, but it was poor Flaky who really got it. They were merciless. ‘Just because you are the only one that can read and write don’t you be trying to pull no tricks on us’, they would say. This would be followed with ribald cackling and aspersions regarding Flaky John’s sexual prowess. And then they would quickly get back to the potato ridges, digging and lifting.

I remember being fascinated by these women and their endless banter as they worked the fields. They spoke in Angloromani but I could follow most of it, the dialect was a common parlance in this part of Kent. The head picker was the most formidable woman imaginable. A giantess with a mane of black hair tied up in a paisley headscarf, hooped earrings and flashing gold teeth, Narissa Penfold was a legendary figure. She had picked hops in the old days before the machines took over, and could out-pick the experienced Cockneys who came down from the East End in droves during the season.  She was known as the Cackleberry Queen, and woe betides those who crossed her. Rumour had it that she never wore knickers. Another rumour was that she had once given Flaky John “a good seeing to” in the apple orchard. This apocryphal tale hung like an albatross around Flaky’s neck for the rest of his life, but he seemed to take it well and would sometimes grin sheepishly whenever the rumour was resurrected. The Cackleberry Queen ruled the fields.

Looking back to those boyhood days, it always seemed to be summer. But I remember this day well, it was really was a hot one. Flaky John had brought a barrel of water out on the trailer for the pickers.  The woman had no children with them, but there was a lad I’d never seen before. He was in his late teens or early twenties, with straw-coloured hair and a long neck like a giraffe. He avoided us altogether, sticking closely to the women. It was obvious that he had never worked the fields before. The day stretched out and the flies plagued us. The women didn’t seem to mind at all, but we thrashed about waving our arms like windmills. As the day got hotter and hotter the flies would eat you alive. There were blowflies, and blue flies and green bottle flies, but it was the horse flies that worried us most. One bite and you could swell up for days.

The heat made the potato fields shimmer like a desert. I heard the motorbikes before I saw them. Three or four bikers had pulled up at the gate. They dismounted and walked across the furrows through the heat-haze towards the pickers. I thought they looked faintly ridiculous striding out in their leathers and helmets in this heat. One of the women looked up and said ‘Aye, aye. What’s this then?’ She called out to the Cackleberry Queen, ‘Look up, Narissa. See the mushes?’

The moment the boy with the giraffe’s neck saw the bikers he was up and away. He ran across the field with astonishing speed and dived through a gap in the hedgerow like a fox on the run. The bikers tried to run after him, but they had no chance as they stumbled about on the crusted potato ridges in their heavy boots, helmets and leathers. The boy was gone. They turned to walk back only to find themselves face to face with the Cackleberry Queen and the other women. Words were exchanged and I can still recall how the flattened Kentish vowels of the bikers’ speech made them sound more like country bumpkins than storm troopers.  Suddenly the Cackleberry Queen landed a punch on one of them. It was Spanner. Stunned, he staggered backwards, his arms flailing wildly like some kind of giant bird. And as he fell the German helmet flew off his head. Landing unceremoniously on the ground Spanner sat for a second or two seemingly not sure what to do next. But the women decided for him. A hail of potatoes and stones rained down on the bikers as they fled back across the field to their bikes. ‘Go on, you bastards!’ roared the Cackleberry Queen in her cracked voice.

The bikers thundered off on their machines and the women laughed and cackled like jackdaws. The incident had made their day and they were delighted with themselves. ‘Did you see them mushes run?’ Old Harry Hearn clambered out of the van and did a strange jig-like dance. Ever mindful of the day’s tally, the women soon resumed work. The giraffe-neck boy didn’t return and we never learned what it was that he had done to anger the bikers. I guess he owed them money or perhaps he had stolen a motorbike. But Spanner’s German helmet did remain, lying half-buried in the turd-coloured earth like the battlefield relic of a long-dead soldier.

Meanwhile, ten year’s later, back in the Black Hand cafe, it was April 1971. For some peculiar reason Reg had recently decided in install one of those Italian-style coffee machines. Perhaps it was a last-ditch desperate attempt to modernize the place, to catch up with the contemporary, but poor old Reg was ten years behind the time. To be sure, the Black Hand was a kind of social space, especially for us and for the bikers, but would the bus crews and lorry drivers succumb to the froth of espresso coffee with their fry-ups? Perhaps Reg was attempting to compete with the high street Italian espresso bar back in the town, but his infernal machine got on everyone’s nerves. It was the overwhelming noise as much as the coffee. It would drown out any conversation and made the jukebox redundant. Even Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps couldn’t compete with that Gaggia Pro. The only respite came when the machine broke down, which often happened. Eventually a strange little repairman with bulging eyes like Peter Lorre would turn up and slide behind the counter with a bag of tools. He would fiddle about with the machine until it started whistling and steaming again. It was Miriam’s job to work the Gaggia as Reg seemed wary of it. I think the harsh rasps and violent jets of hissing steam frightened him. ‘Get rid of it Reg!’ the bus drivers would call out from their table. And the bikers had no truck with it at all. That cappuccino stuff was for Mods, foreigners and homosexuals as far as they were concerned. We were the only ones who would drink the coffee, but god knows why. It was a hellish concoction of mocha and scalding milk that made you feel all bloated and queasy for the rest of the day.

And it was on this day, the day when Flipper Groat fell off his Triton 650 in the car park, that Jimmy O’Keefe and the Mole came into the Black Hand. They had arrived on the Mole’s Vespa, but were savvy enough to park it further down the road outside Mrs. Entwhistle’s grocery shop. I was surprised to see Jimmy here. The Black Hand café was not his habitual haunt. In fact I’d never seen him here before. And as luck would have it the bikers had just left for the day. They would have had no truck with the likes of these two scooter boys, and if nothing else, it could have created a bit of an atmosphere.

‘Hello Jiminy,’ I said. ‘What brings you out here?’

‘Been to London to see the Queen, old bean,’ said Jimmy as he and the Mole sat down at our table feasting their eyes on Evelyn and Yolanda. The twins were unimpressed and quickly gathered up their bags and clutter. They didn’t like the cut of these boys’ jibs, and besides, they had a bus to catch.

‘Don’t leave on our account, my lotus blossoms,’ said Jimmy as the girls headed out in a haughty swirl of scarves and crushed velvet. The Mole just grinned like an idiot, his pointed face poking out from the top of his black Crombie.

‘So what are you up to Jimmy?’ I asked apprehensively. It had been years since I’d heard mention of the Queen, also known as Mother Hubbard, a terrifying West Indian cross-dressing drug dealer who held court in a dingy top-floor flat hidden in the back streets of Camberwell.

‘That’s for me to know and you to find out, me old liverwort,’ said Jimmy as he rustled about in the deep pockets of his parka.

He always spoke in this manner, and I guess that was one of the reasons he grated on some people. He got on people’s nerves to be sure, but I liked him. I’d known him on and off for years, since we were school kids, and most of the time found him amusing.

‘I give up Jimmy.’

‘Take a gander, old fruit,’ he said as he surreptitiously slipped a plastic bag under the table.

The Mole gazed up at the ceiling with a look of forced nonchalance as I peered into the bag on my lap. I swiftly passed it back to Jimmy like a hot potato just as Miriam cruised by collecting plates and cups from the tables.

‘Jesus Jimmy! You’ll get us locked up!’ I hissed, as a momentary sense of déjà vu surged through me.

‘Relax old fruit. Who’s going to see?’ Jimmy cast his eyes to the two old ladies sipping tea at the next table. ‘Hello Aunties! Bingo tonight?’

The thing about Jimmy was that he didn’t give a hoot about what people thought. He had always been like that since he was a boy. You had to accept Jimmy on his own terms and understand that he occupied a different kind of space. In a way I found that an admirable quality and I envied him for it. But with a bag full of Duraphet capsules sitting on my lap I can say with great certainty that I felt no envy for Jimmy’s bravado at that particular moment. I hadn’t seen black bombers for years, and the very sight of those shiny little black capsules instantly dried out my mouth and brought back flashing paranoid images of drug squads, police cells and juvenile detention centres.

‘Roche tens,’ said Jimmy as if he was sharing some secret esoteric knowledge with me.

‘A thousand of them,’ added the Mole.

‘See…The Mole can count.’ Jimmy winked at me. ‘Get the coffees in Mole, old fruit.’

The Mole shuffled off to the counter.

So while the Mole has gone to get the coffees in let me momentarily digress and tell you something of Jimmy O’Keefe so you can perhaps understand him a little.

Jimmy and I grew up on the same council housing estate. He was a year or so younger than me, and had a twin sister who looked nothing like him.  The O’Keefe family was well known in our town. Jimmy’s father was market trader, and had a stall selling fruit and vegetables in the weekly marts around the area. He was an amiable giant of a man and well respected. Not for him the “rollup rollup” market banter of those hollering Cockney traders. He was a softly spoken Irishman who quietly got on with his selling, and knew all of his customers by name. The O’Keefes were the first family on the estate to own a colour television. They were a hard working household and reasonably well off. And I think Jimmy was a little bit spoiled. Jimmy’s mother was a striking looking woman with jet-black hair and olive skin. She spoke with a slight accent and I think she may have been Italian by birth. As a child I was slightly frightened by her, but she was a decent woman. Sometimes I would call round to their house to see if Jimmy was coming out to play. ‘You boys behave yourself,’ she would say. ‘Do you know what happens to naughty boys? The policeman will put a black spot on your bottom.’ This prospect always terrified me.

Our family eventually moved away from the housing estate. My parents bought a detached 1930s house on the other side of town and I lost touch with Jimmy. And then in the late-sixties, at the fag end of the Mod era, lads that we had known as children, at primary school and on the housing estates, boys we had lost touch with, began to reacquaint.  We were in our teens now, and it was drugs, amphetamines to be specific, that drew us all together. Speed. We were small-town boys and village kids, out-of-towners and suburban sophisticates, country bumpkins and juvenile delinquents, and speed was the central component of our recreational activities.

And it was during this transitional period that Jimmy O’Keefe resurfaced. He was unchanged, still the same old Jimmy, except for one thing; he now had a disconcerting dark blemish on the cornea of his left eye. ‘What happened to your eye Jimmy?’ And strangely for Jimmy, he would be reticent, brushing the question aside. It was only later that I learned from his sister what had happened. His parents had bought him a pet monkey for his birthday. The family always seemed to keep exotic pets, and I remember they had a terrifying green parrot called Colin who lived in a cage in their kitchen. You could hear it squawking a mile away. That parrot frightened the life out of me, especially the way it looked at you when you entered their kitchen. The bird would suddenly go quiet, and you could sense it had a keen and baleful intelligence as its cold fish eyes followed you around the room.

Well according to Jimmy’s sister, Colin contracted some kind of avian ailment and dropped dead in his cage. Jimmy was so devastated that his parents promised him a new pet for his birthday. Inevitably the monkey caused chaos in the household. It lived in Jimmy’s bedroom but always managed to escape and scamper about the place knocking things over and stealing food from the kitchen. Jimmy would spend hours chasing the creature around the house trying to catch it and return it to his room. And then one day Jimmy accidently slammed a door shut on the monkey’s tail. The monkey flew up off the ground shrieking and bit Jimmy in the eye. Jimmy was lucky, as it could have been worse. He spent time in the children’s hospital with a bandaged eye and then was sent home. The monkey was not so fortuitous.  It was during Jimmy’s hospital sojourn that the critter managed to escape from the house. For a few weeks it was seen swinging about in Pike’s Wood, a midge-infested patch of wooded scrubland behind the housing estate, notorious as a hangout for perverts and hedgerow masturbators. But eventually the monkey got frazzled on the high-voltage power lines sagging from the electricity pylons that stalked the area. Its blackened leather corpse hung up there for months and local kids would go there to throw stones at it trying to knock it off of the crackling cables.

And so it was, many years later, that Jimmy O’Keefe paid a visit to the Black Hand Café. As the Mole shuffled back to our table with two Pyrex cups of coffee spilling into the saucers, Jimmy fixed me with his one good eye saying ‘I could do you a good deal, old fruit.’

‘A good deal?’ I replied blankly, knowing what was coming next.

‘A good deal on a hundred of these beans. You’d knock them out in no time, me old china. Your hippie pals love a spot of speed now and then. Just think. You could buy yourself a new lute. Are you still playing?’

‘I’m playing a bit here and there, but I’ll have to reluctantly pass on your very kind offer. To be honest with you it’s not really my pigeon Jimmy, and besides, I wouldn’t know the market for them.’  All I wanted was a quiet life, to play a few songs here and there on my battered twelve-string in the pubs and folk clubs, and hopefully earn a crust to pay the rent on the dilapidated caravan I rented in Mr. P’s farmyard. The thought of running about the place trying to knock out Jimmy’s “beans” was absurd. Those days were long gone and I had no desire to revisit them. Jimmy was beginning to seem like a bad penny and what’s more, I was feeling oddly guilty about this.

I wanted to change the subject.

‘So what are you listening to these days, Jimmy.’ One of the things Jimmy and I had in common back in those early teenage years was our passion for Ska and Blue Beat. The first LP I ever bought was Prince Buster’s “I Feel the Spirit”. I remember well the excitement I felt when the copy I ordered arrived in Record Corner, the basement music store at the end of our high street.

‘I don’t have much time to listen these days, old chum. Always busy, aren’t we Mole?’

The Mole was an odd fish. He was too was around in the old days, always buzzing about the town on a scooter with Jimmy on the pillion. Jimmy christened him the Mole when they were at primary school together on account of the fact that he really did look like a mole. Later, during the teenage years he also became known as Two-Bean Ted due to the fact that he would never take more than two pills at a time – he’d pretend to swallow a handful so as not to lose face. Everybody knew his game and he’d deny it until someone would pounce on him and retrieve the hidden pills that he had slid surreptitiously into his pockets. The poor old Mole would get a terrible ribbing, but he’d take it well. He was a harmless lad really, but easily led astray by the likes of Jimmy O’Keefe.

Jimmy took a sip of his coffee and grimaced. ‘What’s this then? Are you sure you asked for coffee, Mole?’ The Mole peered over his cup at us. A frothing galaxy of dung-coloured bubbles clung to his nose.

‘This is the worst coffee I’ve ever tasted in my life, old newt’, said Jimmy as he pushed the cup away.

‘Well it’s not really a coffee type of establishment, Jimmy’, I said.

‘You can say that again, me old flower’, said Jimmy. ‘But back to business’.

‘Listen Jimmy,’ I began. But I was immediately cut short. Jimmy had helped himself to one of the digestive biscuits left on a plate by Evelyn and Yolanda in their haste to get away. He momentarily glanced down at his coffee before leaning across to the old ladies’ table and dipping his biscuit into one their teas. To say I was mortified is an understatement. I clutched my head and covered my eyes. There was absolutely nothing I could do to remedy this sudden and dreadful situation. I was powerless. Peeking through my fingers like a frightened child, I could see the two old aunties, their powdered parchment faces frozen in astonishment and outrage.

‘Oh Jimmy, what have you done?’ I uttered through clenched teeth like a ventriloquist.

The two old ladies left their table immediately and reported us to Reg. I can still see him behind the counter listening intently to the old dears, all the while looking down to us. Miriam was promptly dispatched our table and we were politely asked to leave. I was always fond of Miriam, she was a good egg, and I could never countenance upsetting her in anyway. And so, swiftly ushering the wretched Jimmy and Mole in front of me, we duly left the Black Hand cafe.

I knew at that moment that this was the end of something, the end of an era perhaps. Being thrown out of the Black Hand, not for dealing drugs, not for smoking hash or any other nefarious activities, but because of a biscuit, was undoubtedly a sign. Maybe it was time to move on; and perhaps Reg knew this too. One year later the Black Hand Café burned down. Evidently a faulty appliance started the fire in the middle of the night. I wonder if that accursed Gaggia Pro was culprit?

I bumped into Miriam a few years later when she was collecting her pension in the town post-office. She told me that Reg had opened another café somewhere down on the Romney Marsh. The business didn’t go well for him and he became ill. He died in hospital a short while later. Miriam said his wife struggled on with the café for a few months before calling it a day and taking herself and the children back to America.

And what of the Night Hawks? Spanner died in a motorcycle accident involving a milk float on the outskirts of Tunbridge Wells. Although the bike boys disdained religion, a memorial service was held at the church in Monks Horton, Spanner’s home village. Even though I didn’t know him at all really, I went to the service to pay my respects. Over a hundred bikers from clubs all over the country attended the church, and there was a formal signing of the memorial book. I was surprised to learn that Spanner was fifty-five years old when he died and that he had two grandchildren. Flipper Groat was there and I went up to him after the service. He was equable and seemed pleased to see me. He told me he had hung up his leathers for good a while back, and had joined the Salvation Army. He was looking after his elderly mother at home and had a part-time job as a park keeper for the county council. The Night Hawks MCC soon disbanded. It was as if Spanner’s death on a motorbike had called a sudden halt to the bikers’ timeless world. Since their quest had no grail, there was no sense of collective failure. The Night Hawks had made their point. Now it was time to move on.

Featured Image: Illustration by Burcu Dundar Venner.


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