This short story by Woking Writers Circle member Hilary Hughes won the David Lodge trophy in a 2017 competition run by the National Association of Writers Groups:
I am the running man.
That’s me, the man who runs up mountains, across deserts and rivers, through marriages – you get the picture. But then, that’s all I’ve ever been good for…running.
“Running away, you mean.”
Thanks, Mum. Dead twenty-six years but she still can’t let up.
“Won’t let up. And, if I don’t say it, who will? Always relying on those legs of yours to get out of trouble. If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times…”
“Tea or coffee, Terry?”
This is the lovely Bina. She’s a breath of fresh air anytime but with Mum at full throttle, she’s twice as welcome. And she smells good too – always a bonus in this place – sort of flowery but with a hint of something naughty underneath.
I point with my good hand, the one that still works.
“Sugar?” she asks and raises an eyebrow when I hold up two fingers. “Still not sweet enough?” She gives the tea a cheeky stir and leaves it on the locker. It’s just out of reach but I forgive her anyway.
“Eyes front, son. And put that tongue away.”
Me and the young lad in the bed opposite follow Bina’s departure. The other two in here see nothing. Old boys, laid out on their beds like corpses – the machines beeping; feeding stuff in, or sucking it out, with the nurses measuring the difference – honest to God, it gives me the willies.
If I could, I’d be out of here. Hop off the bed when no one’s looking and saunter along the corridor to the stairs – never use lifts, don’t like the way they shut you in – down three flights to the glass doors at the front of the hospital. I can hear them now, whispering the word, “Freedom,” every time they open. Then out the gates and off down the road – never mind that I’m still in pyjamas – arms pumping, legs breaking into a canter as I find my stride.
“Mr Steel, hello.”
A new face has appeared at the end of my bed. In her fifties – greying hair, no wedding ring – she has that look in her eyes I’ve seen before. It’s the one that arrives a few months before the divorce papers.
“I’m Kim, your physiotherapist,” she says and I suspect this is going to hurt.
The lad opposite has a visitor. She appears in the doorway and I can’t help noticing. Tall and graceful, dressed in a black suit but with the nice touch that she’s wearing five-inch red stilettos. My sort of gal, she shimmies across to his bed with her clipboard. He’s almost asleep, lying back against a mountain of pillows, and she strokes his arm to get his attention. Lucky bugger.
Kim pummels my good leg and I groan.
She sits on the edge of his bed and speaks to him. He nods and his thin face shines as if he’s under a spotlight. The next moment she’s gathering her papers and taking her leave. At the door she pauses, turns towards me and… Hallelujah! What a smile.
“Concentrate, Mr Steel.” Kim tweaks my arm, concertinas it up in a way that can’t be natural. “I need your full attention while we’re working.”
The doctors arrive and Kim scuttles off. I hope that means I’m done for the day. I certainly feel as if I am. Every part of my body, at least the bits I can still feel, has been pulled and stretched until it twangs like an old trampoline There’s no chance of me moving anywhere until well after Christmas.
“Dense right hemiplegia, complete aphasia…” I wonder if they’re talking to me then, because I can’t understand a bloody word, realise they aren’t. “…Right homonymous hemianopia. MRI scan shows extensive damage to the left cerebral cortex including, as you would expect, the language and motor areas. Morning, Mr Steel.”
They nod and pass on. As they leave the bay, one of them pushes a pen behind her ear. It reminds me of a geisha I once knew in Tokyo.
5.05am, Thursday the 2nd of May. Today is my birthday and in another sixty-four minutes, I will be exactly seventy-one years old.
“Happy birthday, son.”
Thanks, Mum. Thanks for remembering.
“It’s not something I’m likely to forget, now is it? Did I tell you, you were born at home?”
“Almost had you on the kitchen floor, you were in such a hurry to arrive. And you’ve been the same ever since, always running off and getting into mischief.”
I’m not now, I think to myself.
I watch the sun rise over the city. Actually, it’s half a sun rising over half a city. The other half, the right-hand side, along with half of everything else has gone – forever, the doctor said when he came back later – along with that half of my body. He said it was to do with the stroke I’d had and that he didn’t know if I even understood what he was saying, on account of me not being able to speak. I started to cry, so he knew then and took the time to find one of the nurses to sit with me for a while and hold my hand.
The half-sun climbs into the sky. Fiery red against a vast expanse of blue, it takes me back and makes me think of Africa. The heat of it, like a metal bar laid against my neck. The sheer weight of it – the smell of it, like burnt paper – pressing down when I was running; training for my first solo attempt to cross the Nubian Desert. That’s what I remember, the heat and the fear and the excitement – the sense of doing something epic – as I covered the miles. All this at a time before any fancy equipment like GPS and lycra, when it was just a map, a compass and my will to survive. And when I lost my way, that was the best feeling ever – clean, simple, no arguments – just me and the legs on our own. Even when I thought I’d had my lot, I kept going: outrunning the enemy and staying alive, cheating him one more time.
There’s a loud crash. It’s on my blind side, away from the window, so it takes a moment – more than a moment – to haul myself round and take a look.
It’s one of the nurses. “Sorry,” he whispers as he picks up the pieces of a broken plate. Nice little chap, he’s making up the bed across from me. Neat and precise in the way he flaps open the sheet and tucks it into place then arranges the pillows.
I see the young lad has gone and when I point to the bed, the nurse smiles. He has perfect teeth and a face so young, so eager to please, it’s almost painful. I beckon him over and point to his notepad. He frowns, so I point again and mime writing.
“Oh,” he says. “Okay.”
The pen is awkward. It slips from my hand and needs to be found and put back between my fingers. Cack-handed, because this is not my hand for writing, I labour away. The words slither across the paper and my breathing feels ragged. I feel as tired as I used to after running a full marathon.
DID HE MOVE? I manage.
He looks at it. I know, from his name badge and the careful way Sylvestra reads my message through for a second time before answering, that English is not his first language.
“No.” He shakes his head. “No, he gone.”
Slowly, tediously, I write again. WHEN DID HE GO?
“Last night, very late.” Sylvestra’s face is serious. “You asleep, not notice.” He smiles. “Now, he gone.”
Lucky Bugger. Getting out of here, I think and begin to cry. My chest is so full of tears that it rattles and heaves with the weight of them. I try to cough but I can’t.
My birthday passes and Bina is back with her trolley.
“Not thirsty today?” she asks as she collects the un-drunk cups of tea from my locker. She puts a fresh one in their place and, again, it’s just out of reach.
“You must drink,” a nurse reminds me. And in the corner of the half-a-world I now live in, I see the young lad’s visitor from yesterday. She’s walking along the corridor with her clipboard and turns to nod in my direction, as if she thinks this is sound advice.
The doctor is back. He coasts past the end of my bed, “Afternoon, Mr Steel,” and is off, humming under his breath, to do something more valuable.
Kim returns. This time she doesn’t bother with arms and legs; just rolls me over like a piece of meat on a slab and goes to work on my back. For such a small woman she’s remarkably strong and there’s a lot of anger in there. My chest bubbles in protest and she pounds away until I can hardly breathe. When we’re finished, she tucks me under the covers. It’s far too warm for this and I wish I’d the strength to push them away.
I sleep for a while and dream about the young lad opposite. The two of us are out for a night on the town and the smell of curry, hot chips and beer is so strong my mouth is watering. I’m the one at the front, all dressed up and ready for some fun, determined to find us an adventure.
“Wait,” he shouts. “Where shall we go?”
“Anywhere. Anywhere in the world. It’s your call.”
He’s standing there, smack in the middle of the road, chest heaving. The lights from the Golden Chicken Good-luck Palace just behind him flicker as one of the bulbs goes. He shakes his head.
“Come on, Dean,” I yell. “We haven’t got all night.”
“Look at us, man.” He shrugs, shoulders so fragile they’re almost a shadow. His eyes are closed and his face is shining, shining with tears. “We’re both wrecked. Totally, fuckin’ wrecked. We ain’t going nowhere.”
“Terry…?” Someone’s calling my name. “Terry…?” Soft, but it’s enough to pull me back and I open my eyes.
There’s no one here, just the dark scape of the sky outside my window and I remember where I am. My chest is on fire, a hot furnace inside this useless scrapheap of a body.
“Terry… This side.” It’s a gentle whisper. “I’m here.”
And, when I get my head to finally turn, there she is. It’s late, well past ten, and she’s still here – her dark suit just as sassy and perfect as first thing this morning – she certainly puts in the hours.
What time is it? I wonder.
“It’s time.” She sits on the side of the bed and touches my arm.
For what? I wonder.
“To stop running. I’ll be back tomorrow.”
She looks at me. “Sunrise, I think. Will that do?”