Messenger heroes, number 2 - Susan 'Gerty' Bennett
1.08.06 by Buffalo Bill
Gerty was short, dark and cute. I’m not sure what bike she rode for work. Nearly all the boys at Security Despatch were in love with her, including her controller Jools.
Gerty wasn’t her ‘real’ name, it was her call sign. The name on her birth certificate was Susan Bennett. She was well-spoken and quiet, not at all a queen of the messenger scene, she didn’t hold court at the Duke, or enjoy having all the boys competing for her favours.
One day in the winter of 91/92, or maybe it was 92/93, I can’t remember now, she was waiting to filter from Holborn Circus into Hatton Garden. She was probably heading for the old SD office on Back Hill.
I don’t know exactly what happened next. The way I heard it, another SD rider, Koo Stark (one of the cropped headed ex-Dynamo crew that Jeff named the ‘Fuzzies’, whose ‘real’ name I can’t remember now), called on the radio, probably like this:
‘Koo Stark, Koo Stark, Koo Stark, Koo Stark, Koo Stark, Koo Stark’
‘Koo Stark, listen out, I’m talking to another rider’, Jools must have said, in his sarcastic tone. Jools only had three tones: sarcastic, incredibly sarcastic and unbelievably condescending.
Koo had called right across another rider, stepped all over him. On a big circuit, with many riders, as it was at SD, it could be difficult to get the controller’s attention, and riders would often talk over each other, destroying each other’s transmission with a blast of carrier wave. This was a common enough error, particularly on a channel that wasn’t talk-through, on which the mobiles can’t hear each other, only the controller. Common it might be, but it always annoys a controller.
Koo pressed the talk button on his radio again. ‘Koo Stark, call Gerty, her bike’s under the wheels of a lorry’. Jools was stunned. He called Gerty. Gerty replied.
‘Gerty, are you ok?’ he asked.
‘Yes, I mean, no, no, I’m not.’ Gerty was lying under the front of the truck, with a wheel almost resting on her face. She had been hit side on by the lorry, torn from her bike, and dragged under the front of the lorry. Koo Stark told me later that her thigh was split open ‘like a burst bag of cherries’. He quit riding soon after that, shaken to his marrow by what he had seen.
We were all shaken. Her bike, now a pathetic assemblage of twisted alloy and steel, was brought to the office and stored on the top landing of the stair-well. It hung there, the dark secret of Security Despatch, of the courier business in general, a testament to the vulnerability of the riders. You couldn’t help but look at the broken tubes and rims and think of Gerty’s broken and torn body.
I went to see her, we all went to see her, lying in Barts, drugged but still in pain, sweating the grey film that a seriously injured person sweats. Gerty had suffered multiple wounds, her pelvis broken in several places, but she had escaped without internal injuries. She was lucky. Her narrow escape from death notwithstanding, she would be off her feet for months, and she would not be able to earn money enough to eat, never mind to pay her rent. No sick pay for a self-employed sub-contractor.
We were devastated by the incident, and we all wanted to help her. So we started a weekly collection. The senior riders decided that their COA dockets would go to Gerty. The rest of the fleet followed suit. We then shamed the management into contributing their percentage, too. Perhaps they would have done something for her without us asking, and perhaps leopards really can change their spots. I am saying ‘we’, but I can’t actually recall if I was still on the road, controlling or working somewhere else completely.
This is the first instance that I can recall of London riders organising themselves to provide financial assistance to an injured colleague. I can’t remember if this was before or after Edward Newstead’s death by lorry, after which we had taken an impromptu collection for his family. But this wasn’t impromptu, this was a sustained collective effort, that lasted for weeks.
Her convalescence was long and troubled. The pelvis healed well enough, but the wound on the leg was problematic. She had lost so much skin that an extensive graft was required. There was a problem with the graft, and to stretch it, a plastic bag was inserted and inflated to prevent the graft from tightening. But the area around the bag, underneath the graft, became infected, and her medical team had to start again. Eventually she healed.
The next time I saw her was on an ‘Stop the M11’ demo in Wanstead, early in 1994. She looked well, and she told me that her insurance claim against the driver of the lorry was progressing towards a successful conclusion, and that she expected to receive a pay-out some time soon.
Later that year, I was riding down High Holborn. I was back on the road after a break of 15 months. There, waiting at the lights at the top of Drury Lane, was Gerty. She was on a bike, and wearing a bag and a radio. It was a very pleasant surprise to see her back on the bike, back on the road.
I stopped and chatted to her. She said that she felt she had to go back to being a messenger to prove to herself that she wasn’t frightened. That she had beaten the crash and that her spirit had not been crushed, with her bike, under the wheels of that lorry. I thought her brave, and admirable. She made me proud to share the road with her.
She mentioned that she had received her pay-out and would be going off around the world shortly. I wished her luck.
And I never saw her again. Gerty drowned, swimming in the sea in Thailand.