Being a pillion for two and a half thousand kilometres on a 500cc twin-cylinder motorcycle requires a certain commitment, a sense of fun, a spirit of adventure, and a healthy slice of self-confidence. It also takes confidence in the rider, and a large measure of faith that the two of you, rider and pillion, will enjoy each other's company.
Juliette certainly has the commitment, the lust for adventure, and the sense of fun. And there was never a moment's doubt that we would not only get along with each other, but that we would grow closer and the love and respect we feel for each other would grow too.
As a companion, Juliette was magnificent! We didn't have a single cross word (that I can remember) on the entire trip. We each looked after each other, and we took care of each other. We had a lot to talk about. On a bike tour, of course, it's harder because for much of the time we were closeted inside our helmets, Juliette with her portable disc player inside her jacket, and her bud earphones making music in her ears. But a level of communication establishes itself on a tour like this, and words are sometimes almost superfluous.
Occasionally I would notice her drifting into her private thoughts and see that there were storm clouds on her personal horizon, but we all have those moments. And when I thought that those clouds were growing too dark, we blew them away with love and laughter.
Occasionally, too, I would feel her drift into semi-sleep on the back of the bike, wedged between me and the comfortable soft travelbag strapped to the back rack. She was safe and she was secure. Juliette's knees cause her some pain, and it wasn't heroism or stoicalness which stopped her complaining - it was her enormous sense of "self", that innate wholeness of personality which marks someone who feels, who measures, and who likes the person they are. It's a gift, and if mixed with humility and curiosity is the mark of a very special person.
It goes without saying, although I said it, that I love her a lot.
She popped the odd pill along the track - even pills, actually. Two Panadol when the pain in her knees needed relief, which was usually twice a day. And for her sore throat and for the beginnings of my cold we took megadoses of horseradish, garlic, and vitamin C. And a little whisky.
In Gloucester, now that it was New Year's Eve, we needed to get more supplies of this alcoholic kind. We also needed petrol, because I had about 50 kms left in the tank, and that was clearly not enough to be flexible. Every petrol station was closed. We could camp somewhere nice up the road, and see the New Year in around a campfire. Attractive as this prospect was, Juliette and I were rather more keen to ride on to my mother's little cottage outside Armidale, on the New England Tableland and over the Great Dividing Range. But whatever we'd end up deciding, we'd need some booze, so I went to the pub and asked if they had a bottle of Drambuie.
They did. A litre bottle. Now I'm not adverse to a dram of buie, but this was clearly a touch more than I'd anticipated drinking this evening, so we went off in search of an establishment which would sell the same liquid in a smaller container.
We ended up at the Gloucester Soldiers Club Ltd. To get in we had to be temporary members. I signed myself in illegibly, gave my address as Falmouth Tasmania, and forged my own signature. I hate giving away personal information to the military, even to those long-retired.
Yes, they had a bottle of Drambuie. Yes, it was 750ml. Oh well, a man's godda do what a man's godda do. I paid for the Drambuie, a bottle of sparkling, and two beers. Then I went outside to find that Juliette, who'd been standing near the doorway, had moved to be further from the entrance.
"Too many people were saying hello, and asking me questions," she explained.
"But they do," I said. "When you're on a bike trip, everyone comes and talks to you. They expect a conversation. Think of it as a toll you pay to visit their community."
"I know," she sighed. "But I couldn't be bothered."
So Juliette is not without flaws! Certainly it's a waste of time talking to people who waste our time, but there's an advantage in meeting people in the towns through which one passes, just as there's an advantage in learning about people who we pass in life. We learn. We learn about others, and through that we learn about ourselves. If we detect a weakness in others it may help us identify a similar, or even another, weakness in ourselves. If we see a strength, we may learn from that. And if we share a moment, however brief, with a soul in passing, it broadens our humanity.
I was going to explain this to Juliette but I had some phone calls I needed to make. Here we were in Gloucester, there was a house in Armidale with a warm shower, a fireplace, and all the comforts electricity and a warm bed provides. I rang the automobile club.
"I'm out of petrol," I said.
"Where?" asked the operator.
"Outside the Soldiers Club," I said.
"What State would you be in, sir?" the operator asked.
"Still sober," I assured her.
We cleared up the confusion, found a cold-water tap next to a shed to wash our faces, brush our teeth, and even have a shave for me, and within 20 minutes - and just as we had unpacked the panniers to make ourselves a thermos coffee - an efficient man in an efficient automobile club uniform and an efficient-looking van arrived, and asked for my club membership card. I handed him the membership card I'd just been given at the Soldiers Club.
"From Tasmania, eh?" he said, looking at the Falmouth address.
"Oh yes," I said, "but I'm in Adelaide now."
There was a pause.
"This is Gloucester," he said.
"Yes, I know," I said. "Which is why I want to get to Armidale."
"You'll need petrol," he said, and he was right.
"Maybe you've got an RAA membership card?"
"In my tankbag."
We stood for a moment, and then I asked if he'd like to see it. He seemed instantly relieved. That card fortunately has my address from a suburb I lived in three moves ago - I don't like anyone in a uniform having my current address, even if they're petrol Samaritans. We followed him to a (closed) Caltex service station, where he put his card in a slot, and the pump started. Boy, I'd like one of those cards, as long as it didn't have my current address.
We fuelled up, and off he drove to celebrate his New Year in a Gloucester way. Juliette and I rode out of town, towards Armidale.
But I'd miscalculated. According to the sign at the turnoff it would be more than 350 kilometres to my mum's place near Armidale, not the 140 I'd reckoned it to be while I was working out where we'd be when midnight struck.
"What should we do?" I asked Juliette.
"Let's go!" said Button. We turned north-west, along Thunderbolts Way and through the Giro State Forest.
By now the day had gone, taking with it almost all the colours. All that was left was an orange glow in the west and the blue disc of the moon high in the east. The night was alive with stars.
We rode through the night, up the eastern face of the Dividing Range. Huge mountains showed themselves by their blackness, and by the moonlight we could see the towering craggy shapes of still taller mountains before us and on each side. There was no wind, just the silence of certainty, a reliable bike with a reliable pillion, blue-black hills lit by ghostly light and a steeply winding black road between red and white reflectors on white-painted guideposts. In the headlight we could see the trunks of immense trees, their crowns lost to the darkness, and up and up and up we climbed, the V50 loving it as much as Juliette and I did. I snicked the gears up and down, the road swept into the distance, my V50 became a speck in the night, its headlight a star, and far from the world. I tingled.
Within an hour, I was tingling some more. It was getting bloody cold.
And some two hours after leaving Gloucester we crested the range and the lights of Walcha appeared in a valley. We looked for a pub with a fireplace, but where-ever it was I couldn't find it, so we settled on a more humble establishment and warmed ourselves with a glass of port. It was half past ten when we had wished the barman Happy New Year and climbed into our warmest clothing. If there were no hold-ups now, we'd make it to my Mum's place before the twelfth stroke of midnight.