The Running Man by Olivia Gunning

“Have you seen that man who runs all the time?” said my husband, looking into a glass of claret.

“Don’t I get a glass?”

“Wait a second.” Martin didn’t feel like moving off the sofa. “Just tell me, have you seen that man?”

“What man?”

“The one that runs up and down the coastal road every day.”

“There are loads,” I sighed. “Wine, please.”

“This one’s quite particular.”

“Your voice is too loud,” I said. “Baby’s asleep.”

I took a glass from the cabinet. I intentionally chose a crystal one, unlike Martin’s.

“Pour me some of that, will you?” I was irritated. “I bought it today – best claret they have right now.”

“Aren’t you breastfeeding?”

“She’s asleep. It’ll be fine.”

He poured me a glass. I checked it was full.

“You know what he does? He runs between Casablanca and Mohammedia every day. Twenty-five kilometres. Runs there. Runs back. Runs there. Runs back. All day.”

“Such a horrible route,” I said.

“Half of it’s my route to work.”

“I know. Factories and petrol refineries,” I snorted. “I noticed people live there in shanty towns, right by the huge chimneys. All those fumes…”

“Thousands of people live there.”

“Does he ever stop running?”

“Nope. Never.”

“So he turns around and starts all over again?”

“Clearly,” Martin said. “Though I’ve never seen him get to the end.”

A few days after we were driving along the Casablanca corniche, a couple of minutes from our villa. It was early on a Sunday morning. Only part of the grand mosque was visible amid flocks of mist clutching at the green-mosaic minaret.

People were coming out with the sun. It annoyed me that there were so many of them. They were noisy – shouting and squealing at each other incessantly. There were women wearing hijabs, groups of girls in their djellaba robes, old dames in sweat-promoting sportswear and athletic couples with tight shorts and wireless earphones. Late Spring, and the sun crept hotter and closer with each day.

“Look!” my husband said. “It’s him!”

“Who?”

“The running man!”

I looked to the right.

“You missed him,” said my husband, smacking the steering wheel in rage. “Can’t believe you missed him. He was right there.”

“Hold on,” I said turning around.

That’s when I first saw him. He moved with a limping trot. He was well over 60.

“Oh,” I said, surprised. “He’s quite old.”

###

Three days later, I drove to the local souk, baby in the back, toe in her sweet mouth. I needed some pickled lemons for a new orient-meets-vegetarianism recipe I wanted to try out for the British Women’s Dinner Group. I sent a young man in to do my shopping for me. I refused to go into that place myself. The stink of live and dead chickens mingling with decaying vegetables was just too overpowering, and God knows what’s stuck to your shoes when you walk out of there.

It was hazy around the grand mosque that watched the city panting beneath a quilt of diesel, mist compressed between sky and sea. I’d slept for only five interrupted hours because the baby wouldn’t settle. My eyes were sore.

Then I saw the running man a way down the road. His body was dry, thin, scorched. He faltered; one leg seemed to run more than the other. Not a jog but not a walk either. He wore running pants and long sleeves, despite the heat.

Something invaded me, some kind of impulse that made me start the car and follow him. The shopping could wait. I drove along behind him, almost crawling the kerb. Then I overtook him very slowly and stopped the car a little ahead. I wanted to see his face properly. I watched him as he hobbled past.

His expression carried neither contortion nor pain, yet his head dropped to one side, like his neck was cricked. He stared, eyes slightly lowered, lolloping as if in a three-legged race, as if tied to someone else. Except he was alone.

I’ve never seen anyone so alone.

I realised that he was running himself to death.

###

The next time I saw the running man, I was driving through the industrial quarter of town, halfway to Mohammedia. You have to close the car windows there because of the abominable stench from the petrol refinery. Children played in the dust while people went back and forth on donkeys from the shanty town, across the wasteland. Factories discharged pernicious substances, chimneys belching green smoke and fierce flames.

He was running past the factory. We were going the same way. His clothes were clean, free of sweat. He pushed himself along laboriously – I could walk at that pace. I felt the urge to talk to the running man. But what could I say? I stopped my car and got out, leaning against my door. I watched him approach. There wasn’t another soul there, just the running man and I in a thicket of virulent emissions.

I could smell him as he ran past. He was that close. I got the scent of something perishing, like the odour of retirement homes or community centres. He almost touched me. His movement stirred the air between us. He passed as though I were invisible, as if everything were invisible. I wondered how anyone could just let him run and run and run himself into oblivion.

###

“I saw the running man,” I told my husband.

“Where?”

“Up the coast, near the mosque.”

“Yeah. Not surprising. He does it every day.”

“How can he still be alive?”

“I don’t know.”

“Perhaps the body adapts.”

“Nobody stops him. They just let him run all day,” said my husband. “It’s awful but that’s life. By the way, did you get the linseed oil?”

“No. Out of stock,” I said. “They’ll have some in next week.”

I was rinsing dried apricots. Some were for the baby’s purée, the others were to be marinated in rum with ginger and Madagascan vanilla pods I’d brought back from London.

Martin was watching the news.

“Don’t you think we could help the running man? Maybe give him something?”

“Give him something?” Martin wore his disparaging look. “Like what?”

“I don’t know. Money? A new water bottle?”

“Don’t talk to him,” he replied curtly.

Martin was annoyed again. He didn’t want me meddling. He never liked me being instrumental outside our immediate circle of existence.

“Guys like that can be dangerous. You don’t know what’s going on in his head. If you want to give someone money, try the beggars. There are plenty of Syrians at the traffic lights.”

Despite the reprimands, I’d already made up my mind. The following morning, I put on my blue dress with the grey flowers and checked I had cash in my wallet. The day had begun fresh but bright (ideal for running) and by midday the late-May sun was high and violent.

I took the car along the coast until the mosque. Honking like a choir of hyenas, vehicles jammed at the underpass entrance. The running man was there, oblivious to the racket, moving in his usual way, a leaning shuffle. My pulse sped as I entered the tunnel. I was ready.

Just after the exit I stopped where I’d be right in his path. I’d block him, force him to stop. I waited, watching the sea stretched out flat and indifferent. He came out of the tunnel, regard lowered and as he drew near, I opened the car window.

“Hey, Sir,” I said.

The running man stopped running.

He turned and looked at me but his face was empty. I saw his squinting black eyes trying to focus. I searched for a sentiment, a reaction, in his face. But there was none.

The silence, the stillness, persisted. I handed him a fifty dirham note. He took the money and shoved it in his pocket.

Then he saluted. Took his fingers to his forehead and saluted before, wordlessly, turning. He ran on.

###

“I talked to the running man today.”

“Oh?” Martin looked up sharply.

“And I gave him some money.”

“Really?”

“Yes.” I took the tongs and briskly served Martin some aubergines stuffed with organic goat’s cheese.

“What did he say?”

“Just took it. Kind of nodded.”

My husband gave a kind of haughty sniff. “Of course he did.”

I spooned confit tomatoes over the aubergines.

“He’s trying to die, you know.”

“How can you know what he wants? How do you know if he even thinks at all?”

“I know one thing. That he wants to die running. And nobody will stop him.”

Later, after dinner and the news, my husband put his arms around me and we lay on the sofa for a while. Baby was asleep, small, clean and precious in her cot.

I imagined the running man as a baby. His mother must have held him tight, watched him sleeping, counted his breaths. She must have prayed that he’d be content, that he’d never suffer.

I contemplated the day the running man would be gone. I’d drive back and forth for a time before, gradually, drawing conclusions. I’d ask myself if he’d been injured, fallen ill, or had just simply dropped dead. I’d never know what had happened.

###

“Why are you scowling?” I said to Martin.

“These potatoes are weird. Bizarre taste.”

“They’re Jerusalem artichokes.”

“Oh. In that case I like them.”

“What if we found out that the running man collapsed, or was attacked?”

Martin exploded.

“This is getting exasperating. He’s not a friend or colleague or even a neighbour. Not our responsibility”

“No, I know, but still.”

“But what?”

“I don’t know.”

“Is this going to be like when you tried to save that bird? That tiny swallow?”

“It’s not the same.”

“You spent two days looking for a vet and home for a dying wild bird. Spent 800 dirhams in X-Rays. Stopped your whole world.”

“I said it’s not the same.”

“And the bird died anyway.”

I left the table, taking my glass of wine out onto the balcony. The mosque was shining a green beam over the city. I heard the sea, black and invisible, and I made a decision.

###

I told Martin I wouldn’t be home for lunch. I set out early, baby in the back. I drove for half an hour before I saw him heading south. He was wearing bright orange and was running down the coastal road. I followed. He got all the way to the tidal island which was cut off by the high water. When the running man was level with the island he turned around. He did a 180º U-turn and he didn’t stop. He didn’t stretch, he didn’t look out over the Atlantic waters that led so far away from the howling, spluttering city. He didn’t even pause to catch his breath. He turned around and began hobbling back, his eyes black and glazed.

I followed the running man. I knew his route but never let him out of my sight. We crossed town together. We went through the millionaires’ mansions avenues, past the new marina which was under construction, decorated with dozens of cranes, vast blocks of cement careering above. We went by the old medina where glue sniffers jeered at the running man and on into the business district where car horns spurted loud and feral. He led me into the industrial quarter, past the funnels disgorging ghastly, multicoloured substances. I had to stay close now, the traffic thick, noxious, sweaty.

Then, as we neared Mohammedia, the roads cleared, the havoc thinned and the running man veered off to the right onto a stretch of wasteland. There was nothing much to speak of, just a disused container park, and inexplicably, a makeshift garden centre. Someone had elected to establish a plant shop amid the toxic refineries and the running man had gone into it. I could see his orange T-shirt, lurid behind the green fence. I lifted baby out of the car, drowsy but hungry, and carried her into the garden centre.

The running man was sitting on a crate. It was the first time I’d seen him sit. Next to him was another man. They looked so alike, except the running man’s body was bone-dry and the other man was plump. The running man’s hair was grey and sparse while the other man’s lay coarse and black across his skull. Their eyes were shrouded with large, dropping lids. Their skin was cragged and tawny and they were tall, long-limbed.

“Can I borrow a chair?” I asked. “I need to feed my baby.”

The running man didn’t react but the plump man scrambled up, thrusting a chair towards me. I sat and fed the baby.

“God bless her,” said the plump man. I saw the running man look at me, squinting. I couldn’t tell if he recognised me.

The baby fed for a few quiet minutes and then the running man got up and went to the entrance. He filled his water bottle from a tap and drank the whole lot. His brother followed him. He pulled him by the elbow twice but the running man shook him off before hobbling away.

The plump man watched for a while, arms folded across his chest. He came back into his garden centre. I was looking at him hard, hoping he’d say something. He shook his head and sighed, defeatedly.

“He won’t listen?” I offered.

The plump man muttered gruffly in Arabic, sat down on the crate, his back turned. He took out his phone and looked at it frowning.

I wondered if the running man could be deaf. That either he didn’t listen, or he couldn’t hear.

I decided to buy a plant. My husband loved Lady of the Night, and there was a healthy one with delicate green flowers blooming fortuitously. I picked it up and took it to the plump man.

“150 dirhams,” he said.

I gave him a 200-dirham note and told him to keep the change.

“Can he not hear?” I said in French, pointing to where the running man had departed.

But the plump man didn’t answer. I knew that I had to give up.

Some people won’t be saved.

###

I was quite busy of the next few weeks. They’d decided to do The Tempest at the British Casablanca Club and I’d offered to paint the set. It was a pain, to say the least, but the ladies needed a hand. I was really exhausted and had done my best to forget about the running man altogether. But one afternoon I saw him again. He had the same vacant look, head on one side, limping along.

I instinctively slowed down. He turned. It was quite unlike him to turn but he turned. This time I saw him notice me, recognise my face. He stopped as if he were waiting for me. My heart clattered. And then, with a sharp movement, the running man pushed himself off the pavement, and threw himself in front of my car.

I braked, hard, the car screaming. The baby wailed from the back, her little body thrown around.

There was a thud.

“I’ve hit him,” I thought.

He was lying on the ground, eyes open.

People appeared from nowhere, at least two dozen of them.

They lifted him into a sitting position. He sat like a baby, feet pointing upwards. They pulled at his arms and legs, they pushed his head from side to side but his head slumped and his arms fell at his sides. He seemed unharmed – no blood, no bruises. His eyes were open but he wasn’t reacting.

Someone was saying, “We’ll have to get him to a hospital.”

Someone else was saying “No! He’s crazy!”

I began trembling frantically, uncontrollably. The crowd swelled. People divided into two groups, one shouting at the running man the others comforting me and my baby.

The police arrived and the throng turned to the officers. They began telling them it wasn’t my fault.

“He just dived in front of her car.”

“Did it on purpose.”

“He wanted to get hit.”

“It’s an insurance job!”

“He wants a pay out, this woman’s the victim.”

“Yes – poor lady – and the tiny baby.”

“Little thing is still crying.”

“This guy’s totally crazy.”

“A nutter.”

“I’ve seen him before.”

“I see him all the time.”

“He’s fucking mad.”

The rabble force took charge. A mob, eager for justice, all against the running man. The police grabbed hold of him and he began to struggle. He kicked and punched his long, dry limbs, his head locked to one side. They pulled the running man towards the police van. He stiffened and pushed his feet against the tarmac, straining against the sweating officers. But his struggles were no use and his body was too weak.

“Please don’t take him,” I protested, shrieking. “It was an accident and he’s not well.”

The officers looked at me.

Madame,” one said through his moustache. “Ne vous inquietez pas. Don’t worry.”

“I’m not worried. Just don’t take him. It’s an accident.”

They took the running man away.

The crowd watched with gratification. The retribution pleased them. But I couldn’t contain myself anymore. I began shouting at the running man, bellowing at the door of the van. I cried and wailed through the glass. I said I’d come and find him. I’d get him out of the police station, I’d rescue him, take him home. But his gaze was lowered and he was silent. And I couldn’t tell if he could hear me.


Olivia Gunning worked as a journalist after studying English Literature at Goldsmiths, University of London. She moved to Morocco to work as a travel writer and English teacher. Recently she’s written for mainstream lifestyle magazines and has also been published in Penny Shorts. She has work forthcoming in Five on the Fifth.

 

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