A Winter's Tale

By Kevin Ash - 03/05/2012

Once upon a time, many years ago, a young student called Kevin Ash would supplement his meagre income by working as a London motorcycle courier in the winter holiday. It was cold, dark and dangerous, but the money was good and the need for beer strong.

One miserable, wet and bitter Friday evening a call came over the radio as he sat huddled in a bus shelter in Chiswick, casting his eyes wistfully at the Fullers Brewery cross the road. Would he collect a package in Hammersmith, for delivery to distant Wales? Hardly a journey to be relished in the best of conditions, especially on an ancient CX500 with no fairing and dodgy... well, dodgy everything, really. But now, in December, with the temperature falling as fast as the rain?

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Ah, but think of the money: inner London mileage rates for a 170 mile trip! Er, each way... So collect the package he did, before heading off down an M4 motorway wedged tight with nose-to-tail commuters cosily ensconced in their dry, heated cars. Ah, but it's so much faster on the bike, thought Kevin, as the chilling rain turned to driving sleet with the temperature stepping down again as he left the warming glow of the capital. They must be so frustrated he thought, as he wiped the slush from his scratched and yellowed visor every five seconds, gloves heavy with the weight of water soaked into the absorbent leather, trusting tail lights to keep him twixt kerb and crash barrier.

Two and a half hours later, an hour of that searching lanes and bleak, empty roads, a tiny, muddy industrial estate near a village north of Cardiff proffered the same address as that on the water-soaked parcel. It was ominously dark, even under its blanket of snow. If anyone was still working there, they were developing film or shagging their secretary. Or this very urgent package was not so urgent the recipients could be bothered to wait until 8.00pm for it.

Kevin phoned his office (that took half an hour because there weren't many phones - this was pre-mobile days, and if it hadn‘t been they still wouldn‘t have worked here...), plus ten minutes to resist the temptation to hurl the package in the river cascading down the hill with its cold, phosphorescing foam. A new address to go to, the home of the company boss. Only 15 miles away, across the mountain, a lovely, picturesque commute to work surely. But not tonight - instead, a grim and petrifying dice with death on sinuous, snow-covered back roads with steep and slippery descents.

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But he made it, grimly and bravely, and as the figure silhouetted in the doorway by the orange glow from the crackling log fire within took the package with a cheery, "I'll look at that Monday," it was Kevin's pride at surviving this long which held him back from decking the bastard. Not even the offer of a coffee...

The M4 at Cardiff took an hour and a half to find again, the darkness didn't help, and neither did the snow driven onto the windward side of signposts. By Swindon, Kevin was nearly dead. His hands had stopped hurting by the Severn Bridge and now stopped doing anything at all, his face was crusty with frozen drippings from his nose, his feet were in cryogenic stasis and he was bitterly cold to his very core. Could you die from exposure while still riding? Would the bike keep going, the hand of a corpse frozen to the throttle? A newspaper headline floated across his desperately slowed brain: 'Dead bloke on CX done for speeding'.

He had to stop - it was 11.30pm and he wasn't sure he'd survive until midnight. A services beckoned, trucks lined up against the dark, and somehow, with no obvious ability to move, no memory of levering his frozen limbs off the bike, he found himself standing at a counter, ordering an all-day (and all night) breakfast: fried eggs, chips, beans, mushrooms, tomatoes, fried bread and piping hot, life restoring coffee. Never before in the history of mankind had anything so greasy looked so good. Paying took ten minutes as anaesthetised digits fumbled through layers of soaking clothes for a dripping bank note, then all he had to do was sit down.

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Kevin slopped towards the seating area, a trail of icy water marking his path, crash helmet hooked over one arm, eyes focused onto some vague, distant point in another, warmer dimension. So near, and yet so far... In concentrating on not shouting at the pain in his fingers as the blood made its tentative return, he didn't spot the two stairs down. Only two steps, but enough: one foot swung out into space where it expected more floor, and then he started running. He didn't want to run, he was even surprised he could run, oddly puzzled he couldn‘t stop running in fact.

But run he did, involuntarily, and for a few seconds was also vaguely aware of others looking around as his sodden boots slap-slap-slapped across the floor, faster and faster, like a steam engine gathering pace. Gradually too he leaned further and further forward, arms and tray extending out in front, his feet trying to catch his unbalanced body yet merely postponing the inevitable. And finally, they failed: he tripped, still running, and flew headlong, high and silent for a brief moment until he landed, horizontal, sliding through the breakfast, gasping for the breath just knocked out of him even before he stopped.

And there he lay, head pressed against the leg of a horrified old lady, baked beans and egg yolk dripping from his clothes, water pooling around him, a chair across his back, mouth opening and closing for breath it couldn‘t draw, all-day breakfast, beans, egg and all, smeared along his frozen, defeated body.

Enjoy your winter riding.

Donate to the Kevin Ash Fund

Kevin's funeral was held on Thursday 28th February 2013 and was well attended by family, friends and colleagues.

The Telegraph has very kindly established The Telegraph Kevin Ash Fund to assist with the education of Kevin's three daughters.

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