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The Bournemouth Runner

By Carl Fannen


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Sometimes we just watch it all happen.

I was jogging to work, the first day of a new regime focusing on fresh fruit and exercise. It wouldn't last. I wanted a cigarette and the ashtray-flavoured, nicotine-laced gum wasn't helping. I wanted to beckon a taxi, drive to a bar and drink and smoke until I forgot what I was there to forget. So I looked around, taking in the sights of rush-hour Monday morning, the worst of all mornings. Ravaged by the week-end, we crawl like beaten slaves to our respective employers. Tuesday makes Monday seem like a dream. A nightmare untold, the memory of the horror fades. You forget what Saturday and Sunday were like and all you know is your office, shop or wherever you might end up. Wednesday and you're half-way there. The weekend becomes a reality but only faintly. Still, you can hang on, eh? Thursday's a nothing day with only a vague sense of anticipation. Friday? The Weekend begins.

This is how we, the beleaguered employees, see it. For Employers, your Boss, the Head Honcho, A-No. 1, The Big Cheese, it's the other way around. They dread Friday for it's the day of anticipation, of slacking, of waiting, of insurrection. They love Mondays, for that's the day their power begins. They spend the week slowly asserting themselves for it all to be washed away by the end of five days. Bosses stay in the Office all weekend. They say it's overtime, that they've to sort things out for Monday, but really, they just can't bear to leave their power base. No manager, I. Monday needed jogging to take away the pain of being alive and having to go to work. Simple as that. So I jogged.

I stopped, hands on knees, sweat from five minutes running dripping steadily onto my trainers, sucking tremendously painful breaths into my shrunken lungs. A figure ran past.

"I've beaten you now," I heard, the voice diminishing.

I looked up. The figure cornered like a cartoon cat and vanished into an alley. I saw sparks cascade from the soles of his shoes. A Bus passed me on the road. I caught a glimpse of the Driver, red-faced and greasy, peering ahead, on up the road, eyes scouring the pavement for something. The bus pulled up just past the alley where the figure had gone, at the stop.

"Aw," I thought, then ran for the Bus, "bollocks."

"Where did he go?" asked the driver, more than grease and flush, having added halitosis to his array of talents.
"Who?" I asked, wheezing and counting my change, "I need another fivepence."
"The Jogging Git, you must've seen him?"
"Oh," and I felt intrigue grow, "down that alley. He shouted something about beating someone," I pocketed my corrected change, "why?"
"Slinky shit," he muttered before waving me to the rear, "take your seat, please," he sneered.
So I did. The only seat left. Next to an octogenarian with blue hair and a transparent plastic headscarf.

I went to work in a daze of humiliation and misery. I left with only humiliation.

On Tuesday I woke at the same time, drank a pint of milk and headed for the bus stop. The same driver took my fare and I noticed him smiling.
"Did you catch him, then?" I asked.
"Can't you read?" he said, pointing to a sign instructing me not to talk. As he pointed his eyes glazed, rolled over my face and passed out of the window to my left.
"Bugger," he spat, a flurry of activity at the controls, "take your seat," he shouted, "now."
I sat, next to the same woman as the day before, but not before I shot a glance in the direction the driver stared so angrily.

He was a thin man, frighteningly so. Clad only in spiked running shoes, a white vest and shorts, the paleness of his skin made me think initially that he was naked. Then I noticed the number 7 card on his back. He ran with a smooth elegance, striding in economic fashion with his head held high. I wished for a moment that I could run like that. Then the woman beside me gave me a toffee and I forgot about everything. The last I saw was his grinning face as the bus sped past the alley, the same alley, into which he'd turned.

Wednesday began with vomiting. After work the day before, a management meeting had continued in the local pub, Working Practices transforming into beer chat. I drank too much, offended my Manager and tried to persuade a colleague that she really should sleep with me that night, if only so we'd both make it to work on time in the morning. I woke alone and still dressed in the middle of the bathroom, which was just as well, considering the discontent festering in my gullet. I looked at the clock and was showered inside a quarter of an hour. I had a bus to catch.

"Off to work?" the same old woman asked me when I'd taken my seat.
"Yes, but Wednesday's are okay," I declined another toffee and asked, "what's the deal with the jogger?"
"I don't know nothing," she said, snatching back the sweet and moving to another seat.

On Thursday I booked Friday off. The jogger didn't appear that morning but the Bus Driver said that was normal. The jogger didn't run on Thursdays or weekends.
"I wish every day was like bloody Thursday," he opined, before gesturing to the rear of the bus. Old Blue was there, but she placed her handbag on the seat next to her when I approached. I took the seat behind. I could smell her petulance.
"Just tell me the story and I'll leave you alone," I begged.

She spent a good minute unwrapping a toffee, examining the product before trying twice to put it in her mouth. On the third attempt it danced around her lips for a second before her dentures took hold of their prey and vanished it from view.

"He was a Postman," she began.
"He was a Sailor," broke in a middle-aged man to my left, "and his sweetheart was killed by a Tug as she swam after his ship. That's why he runs."
"Ah," I began, catching sight of the Old Woman fuming.
"No, no, no," said a scruffy young man behind me, "he was in the Gulf, lost the plot on the Basra road. Couldn't take the dreams so he runs himself into unconsciousness."
"Am I telling him?" said Blue hair, far more effusive than she'd been the previous day, "he was a Postman and he killed a dog with a catalogue "
"Nah," said a young mother holding her child upright in a seat to the fore of the bus, "it's drugs, Y'see. He spent too much time off his noggin in the early nineties"

There were a dozen or so people on the bus. Off to collect giro's, pensions and shopping, or off to work/look for work. They were all regulars. I wasn't. They all knew a story about the jogger. I didn't. They were all arguing about whose tale was more likely. I didn't care, I just wanted to know why he raced with the bus.

The driver heard, as I felt he would. I didn't expect him to pull over outside a betting shop and turn to face us, his passengers.

"Right," he said, turning off the motor and sitting cross-legged in the aisle before us. He produced a tobacco tin from his shirt pocket and began to diligently roll a cigarette.

"He wasn't a cabby, a postman or in the Gulf. Nobody died, not even dogs and I used to work with him. He was conductor on this route. Okay? Can I take you to work now? Any more questions?" he rose and threw his cigarette out of the open doors.

"Why does he do it?" I whispered. Then I stood up and shouted. The driver shot me a look that said I shouldn't have.

"Why does he run? This was his route. This was his bus. Then they got these," he waved at the ticket machine by his seat, "bloody things and they sacked him. Okay? He lost his job and now the bugger runs this route every day. Okay? Now will you let me take you wherever you're going? Fine. Sit down and don't let me hear another word about this nonsense."

"And the number on his back," I thought aloud, "is the number of this bus, then?
"This is a three-oh-eight," said the driver, "now siddown or gerrof!"

I sat.

I slept poorly. I always do. My dreams were ravaged by busses, joggers and the number seven, all cascading down a desert road, enflamed and echoing the cries of the dying. I wandered through this hellish place asking people if the 308 had gone and if so, where? All those I met gave a different reply. "Madagascar!" "It never left you!" "Bus? Bus? Bus?" "Why wear running spikes on concrete slabs?" "Are you here to take me away?" And so on for what seemed hours. Days, even. I awoke sluggish yet with a single clear thought driving me. I wore my jogging suit, which seemed appropriate, and left the house, pausing only to collect fishing line, a hammer and some nails.

Sometimes one can't afford the luxury of just watching.

I waited until three o'clock, sitting there in the alley, occasionally testing the tension of my fishing-line trip-wire with a twang. I didn't want to injure the jogger. Just delay him long enough to ask, "why?" He was late. He wasn't coming. Had he raced with the bus enough? Had he decided that he'd won? If so, I needed to know the specific criteria of his victory. Was I becoming obsessed? I didn't care, so long as I was becoming something.

I coiled the line, left the nails and exited the alley. The noise hit me immediately. The sound of sirens always followed by the chatter of gawkers. They stood ten yards down the road, twelve yards before the Bus Stop. The bus had stopped beside them, this crowd of Sitcom Vultures relishing the dramas of reality. Commotion always appealing, I set off at a jog to join them.

He lay like an unstrung marionette, limbs twisted into forms I wouldn't like to experience. Paramedics fussed and fretted in the crowd. Unmindful of the order to, "stand back! Give him air!" I thrust my way to the fore. There stood the driver from the bus. Cackling like a loon he gazed at the figure of the jogger and wheezed, "never beat me again, oh no, no, no, I win! I win!"

I didn't think. I leapt forward and punched the driver full in the face. His nose spread and blood gushed. The two Policemen immediately let go their prisoner and clutched at me, instead. Held firm, I watched the driver find the image of my face in his memory, I watched the penny drop and I knew what he was about before he cried, "this is all your fault," and he punched me. My own nose spread, my blood mixing with his and dribbling to stain the vest of the deceased jogger. The two policemen, eminently confused, freed me to clutch once more at the bus driver. So I punched him again. By this time civilians were involving themselves and were found ourselves gasping curses and spitting at one another while held apart by the hands of strangers.

I was jogging to work, the first day of a new regime focusing upon obsession and exercise. It would last. I had gained insight and would complete my mission. The Police issued a caution, the testimony of the bus driver rendered valueless by his obvious, overwhelming insanity. He'd raced with the jogger through congested streets, swerved to avoid a pram and clipped the jogger lightly in the process. Of course, being lightly clipped by a bus is difficult to shake off. It's not like being lightly clipped about the ear by a frustrated parent or teacher. It's more like being used as a football by pagan gods resentful at their fall from grace. You die and all that you were is consigned to memory.

Yet his philosophy remains.

I pull on shorts, vest and spiked running shoes, wholly unsuitable for concrete. I take my number, eight, and walk out into the new day. A fresh challenge. There'll be a new driver on the route today and maybe I'll even go to work after I've beaten him with my blistering pace.


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