The house I was born in faced a T-junction, if that’s what you could call the bland intersection of two suburban avenues. My bedroom window looked out at three-hundred yards of asphalt, flanked with uneven pavements and spaced with plane trees and lampposts, all tapering away like the perspective in a child’s drawing. This was Angel Street.
The room had thick net curtains, so I could peer out anonymously at whatever happened to be going on. By the time I reached my teens, I often found myself gazing through those curtains in a sort of hormonal reverie, as if the view might tell me something profound. Mostly though, I saw nothing but the inevitable shape of my life; what I was, what I would probably become. I began to realise this appealed to me not at all. I started to wonder if there was a way out.
There was nothing much on show to encourage this hope, apart from a few transformative minutes in early evening, when streetlamps fed the dusk with new light. At those times, briefly, and for no obvious reason, I felt able to imagine other possibilities, though not exactly what they might be.
Then one evening, at just such a time, I saw him; a skinny, gangling kid in a tracksuit, emerging from a house that still had the sold sign tied to the front wall. He held a small circular object in his hand that might have been an old fashioned stopwatch. He started to run, his shoulders hunched forward, his feet flicking out. It looked painful. On the other side of the road kids younger than me were struggling to inhale their first cigarettes. We were all finding ways to spend our time. I returned to my homework.
He reappeared about ten minutes later. His running style, if you could call it that, had deteriorated into a weary trudge. I wondered if he would have to stop before reaching his home, but he just about got there. For a minute or so he stood in the middle of the pavement crouched over, his back arched, palms on knees, chest heaving. It looked as if he was going to be sick. There was something pathetic about the whole thing. Perhaps he was one of those kids who are always picked last for the football team, now out on his own trying to compensate.
I thought no more about it, but he was there again the following evening, same tracksuit, same ramshackle gait. With homework in front of me I was infinitely distractible, and something about his simple earnestness took my attention. If nothing else, I was forced to admit he had a bit of purpose about him. He plodded along the pavement as if he was trying to build his fate. No-one could accuse him of lacking intent.
It happened again the following evening, and the one after that. I began to find myself looking out for him. Sometimes other kids shouted things I couldn’t quite hear as he shambled past, but he never acknowledged them. I wondered if he even noticed. Slowly the sight of him grew into the rhythms of my life, uneventful as they were. If I went out with friends, or had chores to do at his appointed running hour, I could be sure he would be there the following evening, grinding along. Whenever he reached the corner near my home I could just make out the sound of his large feet slapping on the pavement.
I had recently come across the word indefatigable. Even now, if I hear or read it, I think of him. In the absence of talent, aptitude, flair or any other term you might choose to describe someone who looks as though they might be good at something, there could be no doubt that he knew what he wanted to do and was prepared to suffer to achieve it. Though now I wonder if he thought he was suffering.
At that time, people in our locality tended to buy a house and stay in it. As a result you got to know most everyone either by name or by sight. So though he didn’t mix with other kids, he placed himself on our radar by default: ‘the running bloke’. In his way he was as ordinary as everyone else – separate, yet somehow part of the same thing that we were. As weeks passed into months he faded into the mundane gestalt of our lives.
‘I’ve been talking to the mother of that boy who runs,’ my mum said one day. ‘She said he hopes to go to the Olympics.’
‘What?’ I could hardly take this in. ‘He runs like a platypus.’
I could see my mum trying not to smile. ‘Don’t be unkind,’ she said.
He ran all through the autumn, and then through the winter, his feet leaving ten-minutes-to-two slants in the January snow. I noticed his circuit seemed to grow longer and longer: by spring he was often gone for an hour or more. His running posture was still unbeautiful, but now there was less sign of fatigue when he returned. I had to admit he was making progress.
By early summer I was groaning through revision. The exam system had just changed, and we all felt like guinea-pigs. I sat by my bedroom window trying to ram in unwanted facts, and realised I looked forward to the time when his track-suited figure appeared as a sort of antidote. It began to dawn on me that I drew something from the sight of him.
And gradually I noticed something else. Unless I was mistaken he was starting to look a bit more like an athlete. His feet were coming through straighter, his shoulders were less hunched, his chest more open. He looked taller, stronger.
One evening, in the week prior to my exams, my mum came in with a cup of tea just as he was doing some preliminary stretches, a recent innovation that had taken me by surprise. She stood behind me and we watched him together. ‘His mother says she’s found him a coach,’ she said.
I couldn’t think of a reply, and returned to my text books with unexpectedly complex feelings. I was slogging away with no idea where all the effort might take me, or even if it would bear fruit of any sort. He obviously knew what he wanted to do, had found the right sort of help, and against all likelihood was getting somewhere.
I took my exams, passed some failed others. It was enough to get me into the sixth form. A couple of my friends left school and found jobs. The jobs weren’t brilliant but it felt like they’d escaped. And the boy up the road kept running.
‘He came third in a five kilometre cross-country,’ my mum said. ‘His mother told me he just missed second place.’
‘Running’s the only thing he does,’ I said, ‘he should be good at it.’
Mum frowned at me. ‘Apparently he’s always been shy.’ She left me with that thought.
I suppose I saw him differently after that. The world that loomed after our schooldays was beginning to beckon, somewhere beyond the flat earth of my imagination. He was reaching out in his own way, perhaps the only way he could. I might not have put it into words, but at some point I began rooting for him.
And suddenly he was six feet tall. It was a time of growth spurts, bum fluff and unstable baritones, but this was something else. Somehow he had found new power and it showed in his running. His stride had lengthened and now he kept his elbows tucked in, his arm movements coordinating his propulsion. The head that once lolled from side to side was held steady and erect. He began to finish each run with a sprint. I sometimes saw people stop to watch. I found myself wanting to go and tell them about him. Without realising it I’d become proprietorial: after all, I’d seen the whole thing from the start.
The change came about a month into the winter term. I was back at school and back to homework. Heaps of it. The light was just beginning to fade, and without thinking I looked for him, and kept looking. But his front door stayed closed. He didn’t emerge. In his absence I found it even more difficult to concentrate than usual. He was part of my ritual, the association was so complete. I looked again the following day, and again throughout the week. No sign.
I started to imagine things. He was taking part in some national event, even international. He’d gone off to an elite boot camp for promising athletes. He’d won a sports scholarship to put the final touches on all that raw effort.
‘He’s in hospital,’ my mum said. She’d come in and seen me looking. ‘I’m afraid he has leukaemia.’
‘What’s that?’ I asked. I’d heard the word but it meant nothing to me.
‘It’s a type of cancer,’ mum said. ‘Unfortunately it means he’s unlikely to get better.’
‘That can’t be right,’ I said.
Mum pursed her lips, looked at me, but said nothing more.
A few days later I saw her talking to his mother. My mum, who was far from touchy-feely, squeezed her forearm lastingly before turning away, and immediately I knew. Him, of all people. I felt confused, then angry, then unexpectedly bereft. In a way I hadn’t acknowledged I’d tagged my hope onto his.
There’s something about just being kids together. Perhaps your youth is a sort of shield. Consequences awaited all of us, but at that point in our lives they seemed too distant to imagine. And even if we’d been able to we would have expected them to make sense. But they don’t, they really don’t. Angel Street, the road just beyond my bedroom window, taught me that.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in, or been accepted for publication by, The London Journal of Fiction, Popshot, Confingo, Into the Void, Fictive Dream, The Nottingham Review, Structo, Prole, Fairlight Books, Riggwelter and Footnote, and were awarded second prize in the 2014 and 2016 Bedford International Short Story Competition. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, has been selected to appear in the Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). Another story, The Violet Eye, will shortly be published by Nightjar Publications as a limited-edition chapbook. Contact Mike at: www.polyscribe.co.uk