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b y   A l a n   M c C o r m i c k

 

 
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Last night you had been drunk, but not legless. You had checked your run in a camera shop window along the Strand. You were surprised by the uniformity of your stride; even after the altercation.

You had been at the work Christmas party. You had used alcohol to free up your self expression. You liked yourself when you drank; you were funny. You had told jokes, some unusual, and had chatted up one of the secretaries from litigation – the one you’ve always liked, the one who looks up and smiles when she types, the one who last night told you she had a boyfriend. She had repeated this seven times, only because you kept saying, ‘have I died and gone up to heaven, because I see an angel standing before me?’

By the third time she replied she was no longer smiling, and by the seventh she had started to cry. You were shocked by this reaction and took yourself to the bar for a few vodkas, where you shouted that she’d led you on, and that women weren’t angels, they were rat-like witches with broomsticks for tails. That was when the security man – he had the acme smell of Brut and wore the uniform of a traffic warden – tapped you on the shoulder.

Was that the altercation? You can’t be sure, but blood from your fingers has left a tell-tale imprint on your sheets this morning. Had you smashed a bottle? You can’t remember, but you do remember there was blood on the soles of your feet when you got in to your flat.

You were running out of the hotel when you saw your boss say something, and for some reason, maybe the zeitgeist of footballers spitting at each other, you spat at him. You missed but it hit his father, the septuagenarian Life-President, and he had just stood there amazed. You were chased and your chest hurt, but your legs, your regular legs kept pumping.

As you ran into the night, you thought about the 1500 metres and your boyhood hero, Steve Ovett, infinitely preferable and sexier than that squirt Coe. As you imagined Steve Cram in chase you found yourself running down an alleyway. At the end of it, you bumped into a car: a police car.

A young policeman spoke polite young policeman lines:

‘You’re in a hurry, sir. Is everything okay?’

‘I’m perfectly fine, officer, I’m practising for the Olympics.’

That was the folly of drink speaking and you knew it as soon as you’d said it.

‘Very good, sir, but why don’t you calm down and stand still for a moment.’

You were jogging on the spot, getting fit.

‘I need to get home,’ you whined.

‘What’s the hurry, sir?’

‘No hurry.’

‘You appear to be upset,’ he said.

‘I’m happy as Larry,’ you said, still pumping the spot.

You wanted him to say, ‘who’s Larry?’, but he didn’t, he just kept on:

‘Has something or someone upset you?’

Stalling was proving an irrelevance and so you took up the pistol start and ran. The other policeman emerged from the shadows and tripped you up. You went sprawling, saved your face with your hands, cut your fingers in the process.

The polite policeman helped you up. The tripper policeman, larger and scarier than the other, took up the baton; he had a loud squeaky voice like he’d sucked up a blast of helium: ‘Now stand still and bloody answer.’

Good cop, bad cop. Nice cop, squeaky cop. You said the former.

‘No, both bad cops. Now what’s your name?’ said Squeaky.

‘Steve Cram,’ you said.

‘The runner?’ said Nice, taking back the baton.

‘Ovett, I mean.’

They stared at you.

‘I have a race to get to.’

Nice then pointed out that you had a name badge on the left lapel of your jacket.

‘It’s not my name.’

‘Then that’s not your jacket, is it sir?’

‘No, it is my jacket; there was just a mix up with name badges.’

‘Who got yours: Sebastian Coe?’ asked Squeaky.

‘I have no idea.’

‘Shall we take it that your name is Paul McMasters, sir,’ said Nice reading from your badge.
‘If you like.’

‘Otherwise,’ Squeaky slipped in, ‘otherwise we could be asking you how you got to be wearing Mister Coe’s jacket.’

You were confused. They were smiling. A short moment passed without anything being said.

‘Do you realise it’s an offence to impersonate someone else?’ they said together like a comedy duo. Your head was full of Mike Yarwood though. Squeaky continued: ‘and that it’s an offence to give false information to the police.’

‘And that anything you say from now on will be noted down in evidence and could be used should a criminal prosecution arise from any of your answers to our questions,’ said Nice, but no longer that nice.

‘I’m a solicitor,’ you said.

‘Not a runner?’ they said.

‘I’m a solicitor, I’m a solicitor,’ you repeated.

They took your name and address and you told them that you had got drunk and had disgraced yourself at the work Christmas party. You told them that you were still drunk and that you were ‘very, very sorry’. They seemed to like this; valued your candour and sense of remorse. They warned you about your future conduct and cautioned you that they would keep a record of the conversation for the duration of the night in case your details tallied with any disturbance or incident later. After that they would lose the paperwork.

Your legal brain liked that term ‘lose’ – short circuiting, a camaraderie transaction of the law amongst professionals; not making it up, just saving time. You thanked them and they offered to drop you at a night bus stop.

‘No. no,’ you said. ‘I need to get some air, Dave. You understand?’

Dave, the nice one understood, and Bruce, the other one grinned and gave you the thumbs up.

‘Run along now, Paul,’ they said, and you did.

So you had got to know their names, you must have been speaking to them for ages. So many gaps to fill: what exactly did you say and do to make them like you? You don’t know but you wish you hadn’t said you were a solicitor; you’re a legal assistant. They can check on things like that and then where would you be? You’re not sure of the answer to this but you knew you were running down a street towards the night buses in Trafalgar Square, and you convinced yourself that it was a busy night, and that they weren’t going to be bothered to check on your details.

Revellers were everywhere and they all seemed drunk, alcohol fumes igniting the sky and the smell of perfume and male deodorant rubbing against you as people toppled into you. Brute pheromones and sweaty violence permeating off the packs of bouncers lurking in bomber jackets outside their clubs – splash it all over and dig you in the ribs down an alley way – you steered a wide berth and thought they looked like devil dogs, rotweillers like in Omen, pawing the sky and baring their teeth. One grinned at you and pointed and you gave him a V sign and upped your running pace to get away.

Girls in mini skirts and angry ice-pick heels formed into Conga lines that snaked in and out of your path. One pulled your tie and you wavered for a moment before breaking free. She called you Darren and said she’d snogged you in Cinderella’s. Then when she saw your face, she said ‘sorry mate’ and the other girls laughed, their naughty elf Christmas hats and tinsel jewellery shaking, shrill screams scraping up the buildings and into the night.

You pulled off your jacket and tie and put them in a bin. There was a reason beyond the heat of running; something to do with not being recognised. Might have been easier to just lose the badge, but soon your trousers were gone, too, and so you knew it was time you got on the bus. You found one of those single disabled seats on the ground floor by the door. The bus was full. Somehow you kept hold of your travel card and your mobile phone, ‘after all I’m not that drunk’, you kept saying to yourself.

You had told Dave and Bruce that you’d be walking home. And there you were on a bus. Technically that was a lie, another one. But then Crystal Palace was a long way to walk so they’d have known you were lying anyway.
‘Hardly credible at this time of night,’ you thought you remembered Bruce squeaking.

‘Shut the fuck up,’ you said.

You said it out loud and so everyone on the bus stared at you.

Then you looked away and pressed your face against the window. Soon you were passing the party hotel again. You wiped away the condensation from the glass. There was an ambulance and a police car; blue lights revolving at different levels, Dave and Bruce getting out of their car.

‘Fascists,’ you whispered against the glass, leaving the imprint of your kiss.

When the bus rolled into the garage the fluorescent lights inside flashed and the driver jabbed you on the shoulder.

‘Fuck off, Paul,’ he said.

He knew your name because during the journey you had kept shouting your name out, saying you were Paul Ovett, the little known brother of Steve.

You were in Crystal Palace now. Your flat was left at the top of the high street, but you went the other way. You found the stadium in the park. The air smelled sweet up there and the city blinked below like a million cats’ eyes. The all weather track had a fine orange powdery surface that scratched the soles of your feet. Barefoot, in boxers and vest, you were running like Zola Budd. Nearly four times round the track, 1500 metres, in less than five minutes. Not Olympic, but pretty good considering. You punched the black night air in victory as you crossed the line.

On the run home your mobile rang. It was John from accounts.

‘What happened to you, matey? We were worried about you, running off like a nutter. Went outside and looked for you and everything.’

‘Did you find me?’ you asked.

‘Uh? Anyway, you missed a cracking night. Old Mister Bert had a heart attack and everything.’
You remembered your spit.

‘Did they see who did it?’ you asked.

‘You’re toast, mate.’

You thought about the phrase.

‘Anyway, I’ve left with Sheila, the little typist from litigation. She’s just popped into a garage for the necessaries. Hope you don’t mind.’

The phone revolved in the night sky, a small tinny ‘sorry mate’ gasping out before it landed on the street in pieces.

It is morning. The alarm clock has been silenced; you will not be going into work.

‘Serve them right for having a party on a Thursday night,’ you tell yourself.

You see your feet sticking out of the duvet, fine orange dust between your toes. You notice the blood. You look around your room, your posters of runners – Steve Ovett, of course, with pride of place over the mantle piece, above the line of your junior cups and pendants.

Must keep hydrated; you go to the kitchen and fill up a pint glass with water. You notice the cuts on your fingers. Your heart turns and you feel sick. The only cure you know is to run. In your bedroom you open your wardrobe to look at yourself in the full length mirror. You are naked, running on the spot, and you will stay there and run until the poison leaks out.