The Runner

Overwork and pressure have put grit in his blood. Skin shadowy, tanned ashen from artificial light, mouth soured by stale air, back teeth aching from the lock-jaw of stress. There is shrapnel in his back; shot through with gristle, steel cables of torsion in his neck. His blood pumps thickly and sluggishly, sludging through brittle arteries, pooling as concrete in his chest. Later that night, insomnia mocks sleep – acid burning through bone-dry eyelids. Blinking blindly in the sickly glow of dawn, the road offers an escape.

At the outset there is clunking dyssynchrony, the awkwardness of a mind and body malaligned. He takes long, clumsy strides, lengthening stiffened limbs, bleeding off tension from chronically knotted shoulders. Stretching the abdominal walls, he pulls and blows the bellows to fill the tanks, preparing the body for performance. This ritual reminds him of accomplishments past, assuring of capability. After a time, the machinery melts down into autonomy in motion.

In the forest dene there is a multitude of birdsong, wind rustling leaves, icy water sloshing over moss-glossed rocks. Deliberately lost in the solace of nature, he imagines himself as the last man on Earth. This isolation is life-affirming, every foot-beat taking him further from the mess of an interconnected world. There is no collaboration or competition here; he runs for himself.

The low-flying sun splashes weakly through the smashed branches of wintered trees, tethered to a silvered horizon, mourning summer skies. Frosted breath is whipped away in his wake, vapour dissolving into the ether. Picking up pace, he becomes thermogenic; encapsulated in his micro-climate. The elements are matterless now.

Burning desperation produces speed, a catalytic converter fueled by poison. He is pace-conscious, torching torpor in the furnace, breaking down walls of negativity. Drinking in the purified air, he visualises torrents of life-giving oxygen rocketing through sixty thousand miles of veins to set his frozen fingertips afire.

Approaching the escarpment, self-talk is the primer. With single-pointed focus propelling him into the climb, he accepts that pain awaits post-summit. Willing his numbed arms to pump like pistons, mind over matter launches his leaden legs against gravity’s grip. The jet fuel of adrenaline throttles his hammering heart, lungs screaming with air-hunger, too small for the task. Dry aspiration hacks his throat, a hot nausea washed away in victory.

In gentle descent, the storm subsides into awareness of foot-strikes. Flesh and bone slip through space, invisible contrails of energy pouring into the atmosphere. A rhythm regulates recovery; respiration slowing, pulse thrumming reassuringly.

Charged with vitality, gratitude springs from the depths of a memory: a near-fatal car crash, a shattered leg rebuilt, the end of anaemic convalescence in a bitterly black depression. In a foreign place he once called home, on an empty beach bordering a desert, he set out to test himself; to bring an end to his recovery. Despite the proof in the slow, painful mileage, he felt a maddening urge to sprint, the need to face down a spectre of doubt. In the roar of a scalding wind, he saw himself from above: the crescendo peaking, barely skimming the sand on the verge of flight, shimmering distance trailing triumphantly, sunlight sparking off the ocean. Crashing headlong into the purifying surf, he was suffused with existential awareness. The memory has never left him.

Running is his remedy for a darkening sky, a big warm breeze that blows in the blue. Running is his anti-venom, the coolant for his over-wrought nervous system, a trial by fire offering redemption through suffering. In its afterglow, cognitive clarity and sentient calm bring him profound peace.

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Well, Why Not?

I am walking to the central Monument in the bright May Sunshine. I am carrying a paper bag that contains a sandwich, a bottle of sparkling water and an apple. The content of the sandwich is not important.

This Monument is always crowded at lunch time, particularly today, with all of the prime sitting space on the steps occupied due to the warm weather. I would have chosen not to sit regardless, for two reasons: One; the stone is dirty and would transfer dirt to my suit trousers. Two; I know I will be sitting in my office for the rest of the afternoon, and I have this theory that the tension caused by sitting in my office is slowly ruining my spine. I stand at one corner of the Monument and I consider leaning my shoulder against its cool stone base. I decide against this for two reasons: One; the stone is dirty and would transfer dirt to my suit jacket. Two; slouching in that way creates an imbalance in the musculature of the back, and I have this theory that that contributes to the ruination of my spine.

I feel self-conscious. I have the thought that I must look suspicious to anyone who is suspicious of me. I find myself fumbling with the paper bag as I try to get the sandwich out. I notice that I am holding the bag with the degree of awkwardness that comes from intensely focussing on holding a paper bag. I take the sandwich out of the bag and I put the bag on the floor with one corner of it underneath my right shoe. My heart beats heavily, reverberating in my neck.

Across the way, a busker with a semi-acoustic guitar and a microphone begins to play and sing. He sings in what sounds like Spanish, and I cannot understand the lyrics. The busker has unkempt ginger hair, a mess of freckles and buck teeth. His clothes hang off him — like he has lost weight rapidly — though he looks healthy enough. The lid of his guitar case is wide open, but he appears to lack the good sense to scatter any coins of his own. He has scrawled his name, ‘Gerry Vega’, in thick marker pen on the inside in block capital letters. Underneath, he has scribbled ‘Gracias!’ and a childish smiley face. I assume that this was a desperate afterthought and, forming the opinion that this busker has no commercial sense, I feel a degree of pity for him having to make his way in the world like this.

I chew through the sandwich quickly without tasting it. This process of eating is a means to an end because I know that I will need the energy later. Although the music Gerry Vega is playing sounds pleasant enough to me, nobody throws any coins into his guitar case. This does not surprise me. Someone walks right in front of him to put their rubbish in the bin that he is playing next to, stirring up a cloud of flies. Perhaps his singing in Spanish is working against him. Maybe people suspect that he is an immigrant. There is a possibility that he is claiming asylum here. In any case, the penniless Gerry Vega looks unconcerned about what people may or may not think. He keeps on singing and playing and smiling in his hopelessly hopeful way.

A fat man with a beetroot for a face waddles up to Gerry Vega and says something that I cannot make out, interrupting him in the middle of a verse. Gerry Vega smiles apologetically and, still playing guitar, speaks into the microphone with his heavy accent:
“Sorry my friend, I don’t know that one.”
The man stands there for a minute, before shaking his head and walking away as though he cannot quite believe it. Encouraged, an excited woman with gold hoop earrings darts forward. She and Gerry Vega talk briefly away from the microphone while he keeps playing. The woman crosses her arms and looks displeased. Gerry Vega chuckles good naturedly and stops playing.
Into the microphone he says, “Anyone know who sang Stand By Me?”.
Nobody has any answers for him. Some people stare at the floor. Gerry Vega shrugs apologetically. It occurs to me that it is not credible that nobody knows who sang that song, and that somebody really should have said something. The woman sneers and walks away in the same direction as the fat man who had a beetroot for a face. I notice that I have eaten my sandwich.

I gulp the cold sparkling water, enjoying the way that it burns the back of my nose. In front of me is a middle aged woman with some kind of snap-on lego hairstyle. She wears a threadbare beige jacket with a matted faux fur collar. She looks from left to right quickly, more than once. She stands up, pauses, sits down and stands up again. She wears jeans in the way that a slovenly teenage boy wears jeans. Her eyes focus independently of one another as she looks in the direction of several people who do not look back. She fixes both of her eyes on both of my eyes and, just as she is about to look resignedly away, I find that I reciprocate. Then I find that I am broadening my mouth and softening my eyes for her. I realise that this is because I can see that she is not well, and I want her to feel well. I understand that I want her to be okay.
She says, “My Mam and Dad told me I should just carry on with my activities, so that’s what I’m going to do.”
She seems quite sure of this, nodding and then catching herself. Suddenly unsure, she looks to me as though seeking approval.
I smile and nod. “Well, why not?” I say, taking care to sound nonchalant about it.
“That’s it.” she says. “Why not?”.

The woman spins on one heel and skips over to Gerry Vega. There, she reaches into her pocket and throws a fistful of coins into his guitar case, bending her knees in a sort of curtsy. The coins thump as they land on the felt lining, and Gerry Vega winks at her and smiles appreciatively as he continues to play. As she walks away with her head held high, she looks over her shoulder at me and she grins. I grin back without even meaning to. I blink and I drain the last of the cool sparkling water. I feel sorry that it is gone.

The sun is warmer now. Gerry Vega stops playing and sits down on top of his speaker with his guitar resting on his thigh, his other leg stretched out in front of him. He yawns lazily and blinks in the yellow sunlight. He looks comfortable. What a life! He turns the pegs on the head of the guitar and plucks the strings gently back into tune. He must have grown tired of singing, because he starts unselfconsciously finger-picking the strings instead, closing his eyes and smiling to himself. He looks to me as though he could be sat alone in his room, teasing those sounds out of the guitar for fun. He seems to have lost the awareness of the people that watch him with their expectations.

This Monument is a crossing place, like a clearing in a wood. All day long, people come to it from all angles, criss-crossing right in front of it. A white bird soars overhead, and I imagine that this bird sees the traced trajectories of all these people like the spokes of a giant bicycle wheel. I have this mental image of all the colours of their souls leaving iridescent contrails in every spectral hue. Everything is vividly clear to me in this bright sunshine. The air is sweet and crystalline and I take pleasure in breathing it. I appreciate the lightness of my body.

The rhythm of Gerry Vega’s playing slows and he begins to play with more purpose. A breeze stirs. I recognise this melody as Mark Knopfler’s ‘Going Home’, a familiar melody that is appropriate to many here. I have this feeling of unity now, and a sense that it is not just me that feels it. Through a clear lens, I have the insight that life is hard for people in infinitely different ways that all amount to the same thing. I have this understanding of how brave they all are. Some people look happy, some look sad, some look nothing at all, but all of them carry on. A careful woman with a bruised face pushes a pram as her baby sleeps. As she passes Gerry Vega, she smiles at him. He bobs his head and smiles back. A white haired old man, resplendent in a well worn suit and painstakingly polished shoes, stands still and tilts his head, listening.

Everything is calm now. The breeze drops away and a single white cloud passes in front of the sun. I look at Gerry Vega, his ragged jeans and his dirty comfortable trainers. I stare at the coins that lie in his old guitar case. The silk tie around my neck has become a noose. I notice that my throat is tight, and then this tightness develops into a lump behind the button of my collar. My eyes are stinging. I hope for hayfever, but I understand now that I am crying. The droplets stick in my eyelashes and, as the sun emerges from behind the cloud, colours burst the banks of my vision. These liquid rainbows blur together until everything is uniformly white. I am blinking furiously. I take a big bite of the apple, crunch it quickly and swallow. I take another big bite. My mouth is twisting as I force myself to chew.

The feeling recedes and my eyes clarify. I watch Gerry Vega sitting there on his battered speaker, and I have an understanding that he is exactly where he is supposed to be. Also, I have this urge to talk to him. What I want to say to him is this:

“People will tell you that art is just art, that it’s only a form of entertainment and that it doesn’t really change anything. But it does, because this music that you’re playing today, it helps people to see each other properly, it helps people to understand one another, it helps people to feel. You, Gerry Vega, you are better than me. And what is the point of our lives if we don’t help one other? Isn’t this reality that we live in created by all of us? Isn’t the way we see each other and treat each other the very thing that shapes all of our lives, and don’t you know that everything around us was made up by people that are no better than you, that you can change all this, that you’ve got this power right there in your fingertips? And no, it doesn’t matter that you’re playing music that was written by other people, because if you weren’t playing it, then it would just die with whoever wrote it, so you playing it now is just as important as them writing it was in the first place, and you can change the world — you’re changing it right now.”

But of course, I don’t say any of that. I just fold my arms and stay exactly where I am.

After a time, the clock strikes quarter to two and I cannot remember what it is that I wanted to say to this Spanish busker. I am deeply tired. I feel that I should at least leave him some coins, but there is no change in the pockets of my trousers. I have a five pound note in my jacket, but I worry that it would blow away on the breeze. I know that I could weigh the note down in the guitar case with the coins that the woman threw in there, but I feel sure that the busker would misunderstand and think that I was stealing from him. I know that I could go to the newsagents and change the five pound note, but there is nothing that I need to buy. Besides, I have a meeting at two o’clock, and doing this would make me late. I feel very strongly that I need to get back to work now.

As I stride past the busker, he looks directly at me, smiles, and nods encouragingly. I just draw my lips in, rais­­e my eyebrows, and look away. I have no idea why I do this.


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Free Diver

Christian’s habit of over-weighting the belt made Samir nervous. Negative buoyancy in shallow water free-diving was known to be dangerous, lessening the odds of an unconscious diver floating to the surface. Samir had read somewhere that the vast majority of blackouts occurred at thirty feet or less; when the diver was kicking for the surface and both water and oxygen pressure were dropping. Heavier weights meant using up more oxygen whilst fighting to stay off the ocean floor, increasing the likelihood of running into trouble on the ascent. The stories suggested that the blackout came on with little or no warning, those rare survivors telling tales of being shaken awake from vivid dreams to find themselves vomiting seawater onto the deck, their terrified rescuers heaving sighs of relief, smacking the bewildered victim on the back. The majority of such incidents left no survivor to offer insight. More often, the poor souls were found drowned, the assumption being that they had fainted in the water. Many bodies were never recovered. The attraction of the over-weighting was that it allowed for much a faster descent, yielding more of the precious hunting time on the bottom. For Christian, this advantage alone outweighed any risk; he was in peak physical condition and had trained hard to hold his breath for almost six minutes.

The four boys entered the water together, pinching their nose-plugs and tipping themselves backwards smoothly into bubble-shrouded somersaults, oblivious to the cheers of encouragement from the deck. The cool water soaked the neoprene of Christian’s wetsuit, triggering a shiver that ran from the nape of his neck to the small of his back. The long flippers became weightless in the element, and he kicked gently to the surface, starting to suck the salty air slowly and deliberately into his lungs as he trod the water. Feeling himself acclimatising, he formed a circle with his lips and forcefully expelled every last particle of air, tensing his abdominal muscles to empty his diaphragm. Ballooning his belly as he inhaled, he drew until his rib cage hurt and he could take no more in. He repeated the process several times, faster each time, like a steam train chugging to build speed. A light tingling in his fingers spread into his hands and up his forearms. Mild wooziness told him he was ready; the carbon dioxide in his blood very low. He began to gulp air like a fish out of water, swallowing hard to pack the reserve tank of the stomach. If he felt the urge to breathe, he could belch into his lungs to buy time. He winked at Samir and made the thumbs down signal; his friend nodded tensely and reciprocated the signal. Christian tucked his knees up to his chest and leaned forward, upending himself gracefully and aiming his spear at the ocean floor. An elegant motion rippled through his body as he slipped beneath the surface, and with a hard kick he was powering down at speed. Samir followed closely at first, but Christian scissored away in a watery blur and was quickly swallowed by the vastness of the inky blue void.

For the first few metres the visibility was crystalline, every molecule of water glowing with the fierce white light of the Arabian sun. Christian felt the temperature dropping as he propelled himself deeper, the colours around him transitioning from turquoise through cobalt. The crisp coolness felt invigorating on his skin; a welcome contrast to the stifling humidity at the surface. At ten metres the detail of the reef came into view, a veritable sub-marine hunting ground. He eyed an overgrown coral outcrop, a natural parapet behind which he could crouch and watch his prey. Already he could see a large brown Hamour nuzzling at a sea-sponge, while a couple of the distinctively striped Cobia cruised over a sandy clearing to his left. The fish were oblivious to his presence as he descended to his shady vantage point and crossed his legs beneath him like a yogi, resting the butt of the spear gun on the rocky ledge in front of him. All that remained now was for a curious fish to come within the killing radius of four metres, and he would take his one and only shot. He glanced at his watch and saw that he had been down for a full minute already. He would have another minute or so on the bottom before he would need to ascend the twenty or so metres to the surface. He remained perfectly still, finger poised on the trigger, muscles relaxed to conserve energy.

A Cobia turned in the distance, briefly heading directly for him before peeling off and disappearing behind a large sea urchin. Christian began make a low gargling noise in his throat, alternating it with a nasal humming sound. This luring technique had paid dividends with similar fish in the past; the minute vibrations in the water would pique the interest of the likes of the bolder Cobia species, prompting them to make the mistake of investigating its source. His quarry failed to reappear, but a flash of silver in his peripheral vision signalled the arrival of a sizeable Kingfish instead. Christian felt his pulse accelerate with the thrill of the hunt, knowing now that he had a viable target. At over a metre long and weighing in the region of twenty five kilos, such a creature would not come quietly. He would look to take it side on, behind the gills and close to the spine, aiming to sever the spinal column. A successful shot would be textbook perfect, though such accuracy in the underwater environment was close to impossible. He stopped making the luring noises and remained stock still, willing his prey to come closer. At a distance of two metres, as the fish made a sudden turn with an oily black eye glinting defiantly, Christian pulled the trigger.

Continued in Part 2

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