Sunday, 29 November 2015

Flo Worthington


It was weather like today's when I set out for my last visit to Flo Worthington, but I never made it.

I cannot remember how I first met Flo, but I think I might have been passing her little council house in Woking as she came out to try and find someone to take the lid off a jam pot or something for her.

Florence Worthington was about four foot ten inches high and around 80 years old, and I was six foot three and 17 years old. I must have conducted our short friendship in the Summer between ending my revolting period at Guildford School of Art and beginning the sculpture course at Farnham.

Once the top was off inside her kitchen, I was introduced to her only friend and companion, a blue budgerigar. She made me tea and offered me cake, and told me her life story as I drank and ate it. I think I heard the life story about four or five times, which were the amount of visits I paid to her over that Summer. I am absolutely sure that she often confused washing-powder with flour when making her cakes. Nothing else could explain the foul, soapy flavour. "Go on, have another!" she would say, holding an old tin out toward me.

Every day, she said, she would pay a visit to a nearby convent, and was very proud that all the nuns referred to her by her name - "Flo this, and Flo that." It sounded to me as though the nuns treated her like a naughty girl, and she loved it. These nuns were her family. She insisted that I call her Flo and not Miss Worthington, despite the age gap and despite the mores of the time. She had never been married and had no living relatives.

She also insisted that I call on her every Sunday from then on at the same time, and I found it very hard to refuse. This was not a Harold and Maude type of relationship, she was just very lonely - but also very cheerful. I began to wonder how I would break it to her that I would be going back to college soon, and would not be able to keep up the weekly visits.

We had just finished Sunday lunch, and my mother reminded me that I was due to visit Flo in about a half hour, so I put on my jacket and got on my 1938 Triumph motorcycle.

About two miles from our house, I entered a wide left-hand turn, not realising that all the tarmac had been worn away by cars on that stretch of bend - this was common in those days, when road building techniques were not so thorough as they are now.

The rain had turned the bare tar into a three-foot wide slick which was fifteen feet long on its curve, and I found myself in a front wheel slide which I could do nothing about except make a split-second decision about which piece of street furniture I was going to collide with on the raised island in the middle of the road.

The choice was between two bollards either side of a steel lamp post, so I chose the nearest bollard.

First I had to mount the concrete kerb of the island, then immediately hit the metal and glass bollard, uprooting it at the same time that I flew over the handlebars of the bike from the force of hitting the kerb.

I was aware of a large party of Sunday School children on the other side of the road, and they all froze in horror as I flew through the air towards them. I remember hoping that the bike would come to a stop before it hit them, and thankfully it did.

I landed flat on my chest on the hard road which knocked the wind right out of me, and I would have liked to have stayed there long enough to get my senses back and decide whether or not I had broken any bones, but the teacher - in an obvious state of shock - ran over and insisted that I stand up whilst roughly trying to drag me to my feet. I was too weak to resist.

A man came running out of a nearby house to inform me that he had called the police - not an ambulance - to take my name and address for destroying public property. Any young man on a motorcycle was always a delinquent by definition in those days.

The police arrived and told me that I would have to pay for the street furniture to be replaced by the council, and I responded by saying I would put in a counter-claim for damage caused to my bike due to a badly maintained road. In the end, neither was needed because a Jaguar car lost it on the same bend the very next day, taking out the steel lamp post which I had gone to such care to avoid.

I limped for a couple of weeks afterwards, but nothing was broken and there was only minor damage to the bike.

I could not call Flo to explain why I had not arrived that Sunday because she did not have a phone, but when I next called round a couple of weeks later, I found out that she had died.

That was almost fifty years ago, but I still think of Flo occasionally on a wet Sunday afternoon. Unfinished business, I suppose.


37 comments:

  1. What a nice story Tom. I thought I was going to read about motorbikes when I saw the picture although I couldn't quite see how the title of the post fitted the picture of the motorbike. What a kind young man you must have been and how sad that you missed your last visit because of the tumble on the tarmac.

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    1. Whatever you are, I command you to leave the body of Rachel.

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  2. That is a bittersweet memory...and you are a true gent.

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  3. Replies
    1. It was. Mine was not in the same condition as that photo, but the same in every other respect.

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    2. Tiger 80, single cylinder 350 CC.

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  4. What an utter twat. I mean the man who came running out of his house. Were you wearing a crash helmet?

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    1. Yes - for the first time in ages, because it was not a legal requirement then. My head never touched the ground though!

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  5. A front end skid is the worst; I don't know of any driver regaining control of the bike with the front tire out of control.
    A Triumph! Wow.

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    1. The reason I stopped riding on two wheels was because I regularly dreamt I was going into a front wheel skid on a bend just as I was falling asleep - you know when your heart misses a beat? Triumphs were really prone to this, because of their poor frames. Great engines, but poor frames.

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    2. Also, the rubber of tyres was not good in those days, and got harder with age - like the rest of us.

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  6. Hello Tom Stephenson, from New York. I am not quite as old as Flo Worthington was when you all met, yet old enough to realize that she must have been very glad to have met you.

    When I was much younger I helped a boyfriend finance the purchase of a 750 Norton, which we rode together. And we both survived those rides. Gosh that was ages ago, and folks who meet me now would most likely not be able to imagine those days, way before color tv or smart phones, or well, you can make up the list.

    I've seen your comments on other posts, and read a few of your own posts, yet it was the motorcycle accident report that encouraged me to leave you a comment.

    Best wishes.

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    1. Hello Frances. Thanks for dropping by.

      Technically, the best British bike in those days was called a 'Triton' - A Norton 'Featherbed' frame (the best) and a Triumph engine (also the best.

      Nortons handled beautifully but lacked the power of the Triumph engines, so this hybrid was the best road-racer available. This was the last motorcycle I ever rode - I borrowed one from a friend when I was about 40.

      The last bike I owned was a Triumph 650 Speed Twin (T 110) and it was fast but hair-raising, especially since I was not too good at maintaining the forks.

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    2. I lie - the last bike I owned was a Velocette Venom 500 single. I wish I still had it - they are now worth about £10,000...

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    3. I lie again - the best road racer available (before all the Japanese super-bikes) was the BSA Gold Star, 500 single cylinder - the fastest road bike in the world at the time.

      A friend of mine had one in 1967, and for some reason (they thought it may have been suicide) he entered a T-Junction at about 140 miles an hour, killing himself and the driver of the Mini which he broad-sided. The Mini was cut clean into two pieces.

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    4. I am ashamed to finally admit that my Velocette was attached to a side-car, and geared down for it. There were two reasons for this, the first was the recurring dream of the dangers of two wheels (so this was a graduation to four), and the second and most important was that my daughter had been born. It is difficult to fit two adults and a baby onto a two wheeled bike, never mind the safety aspects. I didn't have a car licence.

      Ironically, at this time a friend of mine took the side-car off his Panther 500 (also a single) and rode it as a two-wheeler. These bikes were NEVER designed as solos, and he could only go above 40 MPH in a straight line.

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  7. I wonder what ever happened to Flo's little blue budgie. I hope the nuns adopted it after her death.

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    1. Yes, I wondered that too. I expect the nuns took it in.

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  8. I used to have 'an old lady'. I did her shopping for her, ate her cakes, and listened to her stories. Just before leaving school for the last time, I told her that I wouldn't be seeing her any more, and she burst into tears. I felt terrible for years. I have no idea what happened to her.

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    1. Oh dear. I was saved that by the accident, but it still troubles me that Flo didn't know why I didn't turn up. Maybe she does now.

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  9. Your own Lady in the Van. Maybe it's an English thing - school boys (or boyish men like Alan Bennett) befriending old ladies.

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    1. Ha ha! Yes, but she didn't live at the bottom of our garden.

      I haven't seen the recent film, so I don't know if it contains this story:

      Vincent Price was a good friend of Bennet's, and one night he was leaving the house when The Lady jumped out of the darkness and scared the shit out of him. Bennet found it very amusing that the Prince of Horror was frightened by an old lady!

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  10. Replies
    1. Yes, I suppose so. Flo was always saying, "My last name is Worthington - like the beer!"

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    2. Ian Worthington (of the beer) bought a very rare antique cork screw from my mother. He INSISTED that she sold it to him.

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  11. My Uncle, 87 years old, still loves his Vincent. I have a photograph of Steve McQueen on a bike with a sidecar, James Coburn is sitting in it and James Garner is riding pillion so, you are in good company and still have your street cred intact, I think. XXXX

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    1. I do believe you're right !
      Also, I think that we all had ' a Flo ' of sorts ...... do you think it was a '60's thing ? I think that Flo would have known something untoward would have happened as, you were usually so reliable. XXXX

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    2. V-twin 1000 - everyone's dream. Now one would cost about £30,000. I know an old man who has several as a retirement investment.

      Well, I don't know about Flo, but ll was going to be well in the long run.

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    3. See above - a Vincent Black Shadow. There was only one British V-Twin that I was aware of, and this was it. The rest were American - Harleys and Indians. I would like an old Indian, but not too keen on the H.D.

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  12. Beautiful bike, shame about the frame. Must have taken you some time to get over the accident. I'm sure Mrs. Worthington knows what happened...

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    1. Not long. Yes, I like to thinks she does.

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