A Christmas story: Capstick comes home

Frank Capstick decides he has just one more present to buy before Christmas.

Enjoy our 2023 Christmas story, with words and artwork from the Editor.

A deep frost had lingered in the Chiltern valleys, jewelling the hedges with sparkling frost and icing the fields white.

Frank Capstick stood outside the office in his trademark sheepskin coat and trilby, the vapour from his coffee and his breath pluming in the air as he looked across the fields towards Denner Hill. Two hares were silhouetted on the icy meadow, their shadows lengthening as the watery sun sunk towards the treeline. Not a bad office, he reflected.

All the vehicles were back in the yard, the drivers at home for the Christmas break, his wife, Helen, at home making dinner, and Frank was alone at Capstick Coaches, dealing with the last of the year’s paperwork, and more than ready for a fortnight’s break from the business. It had been a good year in which he’d managed to pay off the pandemic bills and make some headway.

Somewhere across the valley, a cock pheasant crowed while rooks cawed as they playfully tumbled towards their roost. Then Frank picked up the sound of a diesel engine in the evening air, heading towards him along the lane. He soon caught the yellow flicker of headlamps through the trees and the unmistakeable silhouette of a coach. Curious, he walked to the gates to see it pass.

When it rounded the corner into full view, he was rocked on to his heels; it was a Duple Dominant identical to the one which his dad, Colin, had bought to launch the business. Frank couldn’t see the registration against the headlamp glare nor could he see the face of the driver, but the sound of the six-cylinder Leyland Leopard engine was unmistakeable as the coach rumbled past and the tail lights disappeared round the corner.

There couldn’t be more than one Dominant 1 Leopard in the Chilterns; surely it must have been his dad’s coach? Was it the coach which had arrived at the farm in 1980 in National Express colours and been liveried up in left-over John Deere green tractor paint out in the barn? It stayed in the fleet for ten years, and was Colin’s pride and joy. Was it possible that it had survived?

When he opened the door to the cottage, the waft of roast lamb brought a smile to Frank’s face; it was his favourite.

He hung his coat and cap in the hall, went into the homely warmth of kitchen and gave Helen a big hug and kissed her forehead: “Ooh, that was nice,” she said. “What’s got into you?”

“Well hopefully, a roast dinner in a minute,” he quipped, and levered the top from a bottle of IPA before pouring it and sitting at the breakfast bar. “Guess what I’ve just seen,” he said.

Helen swung round, a colander of steaming brussels in hand: “A ghost? An elephant? How can I guess that, you daft beggar? Give us a clue,” and she laughed. When her face lit up the room like this, Frank thought, he could see why he married her 35 years ago; she brought joy to his life, not to mention some orderly book keeping.

“I’m pretty sure it was dad’s first coach. The light was going, so I can’t be sure, but it would be amazing if it was still around.”

“I remember that coach. A Duple, wasn’t it?” said Helen. “The one he bought just before he sold the land.” 1980 had been a time of turmoil for the Capsticks, whose 85 acres were then no longer enough to feed a growing family, leaving Colin with the option of selling the fields and contract farming them, or finding something else to do. He’d never explained how he came to the conclusion that he’d run coaches but, 43 years on, the Capsticks were still at it, the farm cottage rented out for extra income.

After dinner, Frank sat at his computer and found the Duple’s registration on an old scanned photo of his dad standing in front of it, looking decidedly smug. How he missed his dad. While Colin had never been the brains of Capstick Coaches, he was its heart; always cheerful, often mischievous, always playing practical jokes, but always there to remind the growing team at Capsticks that karma is to be had when you go the extra mile.

Many was the time that tempers had flared when dad volunteered driving duties to local people for the price of the fuel, but he’d been proven right in the long run; no ‘outsider’ operator could compete with a business which was at the very core of the community. In the Chilterns, people trusted the Capsticks.

Frank started a Google search for the registration and to his surprise, got a string of results, all from the coach enthusiast community. The coach had come from Ribble, said one, and Frank saved the image of it in its original livery. He read through the remaining blogs and pages to find out more.

He was on page 2 when he found a reference which gave him an idea. According to one enthusiast on a forum, it was under restoration by an owner in High Wycombe, not far away, but the forum post was three years old. Frank persevered, until an hour later, Helen was at his side: “What are you up to?” she asked, throwing her arm over his shoulder and crouching to see the screen.

“I’m trying to find the coach. I think it’s just down the road being restored.”

“And if you find it?”

Frank turned his head to face her, and hesitated, before saying: “I think I want to buy it.”

Helen leaned forward, placed a hand on each of his shoulders, and looked into his eyes: “We all miss your dad,” she said perceptively. “Tomorrow, it will be five years. Darling, I’ve been looking at the books. We’re in a good place, financially. Buy it and drive it. Your dad would have loved that.”

So Frank kept searching, trying every combination of search words until he got lucky. On another forum, the collector surfaced, and Frank jotted down his name: “Found him,” Frank announced, and Helen brought him a nightcap of single malt to celebrate.

The next day, Frank got up early and managed to track down an email address. He sent a message asking whether the coach was still in existence and, if it was, whether the preservationist would consider selling it; the price, thought Frank, was not an issue. He was on a mission.

Within minutes, the phone rang: “Hello, is that Frank Capstick? My name is Tony Woodrow. I’m the man who has your dad’s coach. I’m glad you emailed me, because I’ve been thinking of selling it.”

There were no niceties from Frank, who excitedly dived right in: “Can I come and see it?” he asked.

“Er, of course,” the coach preservationist replied, slightly taken aback by the directness. “Can you come this morning?” Of course Frank could; he grabbed his car keys straight away, and set off with Helen’s “Good luck” wishes ringing in his ears.

Tony Woodrow’s home wasn’t the kind of place Frank expected to see a coach being restored. It was a 1930’s semi-detached with a long driveway at the side. On the driveway, under a tarpaulin, was the coach. A greying man in perhaps his 60s  emerged from the house, and offered his hand: “You must be Frank. I’m Tony. Nice to meet you. I’ll show you the coach.”

Tony pulled the guy pegs around it from the ground and the two of them tugged at the blue tarpaulin. It slid off to reveal the Dominant, looking fantastic in fresh, authentic paint. Frank was speechless as he walked around it, memories of his dad washing over him in a wave of emotion.

“You’ve done a fantastic job on it, Tony.”

“I had all the frame repaired and repanelled it. It’s in the John Deere green, too; I read about that in an old article about Capstick Coaches in Bus & Coach Buyer. To be honest, I’ve just run out of steam with this project. I’m not getting any younger and it deserves someone who’ll finish it off.”

“I remember that article,” said Frank. “Dad was so chuffed they came up to see us and wrote it. I think there’s still a copy of the article at work.”

Tony opened the coach’s door and they both climbed aboard: “There’s still some work inside to do,” said Tony. “That’s no problem,” said Frank. “I’ll get the seats recovered and find some new lino for the floor. Blimey, even the clock is still there and working.”

There was only the small matter of the price, and Frank wasn’t going to haggle. He shook hands on Tony’s asking price straight away.

“I’ll collect it when you confirm the money’s in your account,” said Frank.

“That’s not necessary. Take it any time. I know you won’t let me down. Just let me know when the tow truck is coming, and I’ll make sure I’m in.”

“Tow truck?” queried Frank. “I thought I’d just drive it back.”

Tony laughed: “I don’t think so. The reconditioned gearbox is still in the garage; I never got around to fitting it.”

For just a few seconds, Frank stared silently at Tony, then back at the coach, the spitting image of the one which passed the yard the day before. Did he imagine it?

Then Frank laughed, looked up at the winter sky, and said: “Still up to your old tricks then, dad! Merry Christmas!”

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