June 14, 2016
Reading about the author Annie Proulx this morning has got me into a good writing mood, but no blogs today I’m afraid, just more hard graft on the Bear Pit (I’m sat in Bray’s Campo de Fiori cafe typing this). But I thought I would give something today, a chapter (still a draft) from the book. Feedback welcome!
The same routine: up in the dark, his dad waking him with a hard knock, then down to sweet tea and a small bowl of porridge by the fire in the kitchen. The radio on, they’d listen to the farming program, then the news, then the weather. Farmer suicide. Tanks rolling in over some border or other. Snow on the hills.
At eight they stood in a cold mist at the end of the cul-de-sac, few cars passing so early, few cars moving at the weekend, few cars full stop. They stood in cotton tracksuits and parkas with collars of fake fur, his blue, Lee’s a faded blood red. “Stretch your calves,” said his dad, the first thing he’d said since waking, Lee turning around and keeping his toes on the kerb, dropping his heels to the gutter. Up and down. “Do you need a plaster for that cut?” asked his dad, crouching down a little to look, the cut already scabbed up. Lee shook his head, then looked down at his feet.
He thought about Stim and the other boys, what they said. He’d need to find another circuit, a circuit away from the estate. He wondered why he stood out, why he didn’t fade in like the other kids at school. He kept himself to himself, had no real friends, no time for friends, just time for study and running. All he had was running.
“How are the runners?” asked Lee’s dad, his own shoes cheap and well worn, bought from the market, cheap shoes from China, a quarter of the price of Lee’s, hand made by men like Lee’s dad. Once, while in the Lakes, they’d visited the factory, smaller and dirtier than they’d imagined. Lee had imagined there would be runners manning the machines, stitching and glueing, dressed in shorts and running vests. Instead, there had been a bunch of sullen men who looked like butchers, and women who shouted and laughed at the boss. The owner, who was a keen runner, dressed not in a suit but in a pair of jeans and an old race t-shirt, had taken them around. At one station was an old man, his skin the texture and colour of old leather, making street shoes with wooden soles, beside him a huge machine binding leather and birch wood cedar, a machine that looked hundreds of years old. “This is Mac,” said the owner, the man not stopping, giving only the smallest nod of recognition. “This factory used to make just shoes like this, but times have changed and so when Mac retires there’s no one to replace him. He’s like this machine - one of a kind, so if you want some shoes like these you’d better get your order in sharpish”. Lee looked at the man’s fingers moving, stroking, bending, forcing, not human at all anymore, more shoe leather than the skin, more machine than man. “How long have you been doing this job?” asked Lee’s dad to the man, as he set to a slab of leather with a knife, its handle as smooth as bone. “I started work here when I was fourteen” was the reply.
Lee looked down at his shoes now, at the kerb, the shoes the man had handed over to him in the factory’s office, his office hot and full of dusty paper and cups of mouldy tea. “We have to support talent,” said the owner, shaking Lee’s hand, a hand that felt weak, yet still gripped a little too hard.
“Dave’s here,” said Lee’s dad, a car swooping up out of the mist, a new car, boxy and ostentatious, the horn beeping hello. “Jump in lads,” said the smiling driver, a moustache framed between football scarf and bobble hat, a mate of Lee’s dad from his foundry days. Lee sat in the back, sliding around on the leather seats as Dave spun around the quiet weekend streets, overtaking the odd milk float and a rag and bone man, making his horse jump with a mischievous beep, driving through the maze of the city.
“How’s school youth?” shouted Dave, his head half-turned back. “Ok” was the reply. “Are you working hard with your exams?” he carried on. “What are you going to do when you leave school next year?” Lee thought for a second, but couldn’t think much further than today. “He’s going to university” replied his dad for him. “Ain’t you Lee?” Lee answered yes. “What’s the point in that bollocks?” said Dave, “You should join the police: good pay, pension, plenty of running around catching bad ‘uns”. “He’s not joining the fucking police” answered his dad again. “I’m just saying when times are hard the police always do well… people always need protecting from people like your dad,” said Dave, looking around to Lee’s dad with an inquisitive but comical turn, his dad turning away to look out the window. “People like me and your dad are on the wrong side of fucking history, just there’s some who know it and some who don’t”. “Some are not as fucked as others, Dave” replied Lee’s Dad, his face still turned to the window, one hand reaching up to stroke the leather dashboard. “No, some just can see it coming and make their own arrangements”. The car took a sharp turn right, up a long steep road that led out of the city, into the country, the edges growing heavier and heavier with snow. “You want some advice Lee?” asked Dave, his advice on the way anyway. “If you’re not a socialist when you’re your age you’ve got no heart, but if you’re not a capitalist when you’re my age you’ve got no brain”.
The streets of the village were already filling up with runners, cars and buses and vans lurched up on pavements and grass verges, Dave’s car hustling for space. Lee’s dad looked left and right, checking out for the coaches that had come from the West and farther up North, cars from down South, club stickers in the back windows. The competition. Men walked and jogged on either side of the road, getting cold and just wasting energy, some nervous, some excited, like dogs soon to be set free. “This will do,” said Dave, pulling up behind a camper van, its back window a mosaic of event stickers he recognised: hill runs and marathons and races of all kinds, a man and wife, all bone, crazy hair and threadbare fleece drinking tea besides its open door. “Good journey?” asked Dave to the pair, Tony and Pam, regulars, there from the first drop of memory, from his first race to this. “Dave, Mike, Lee,” said Tony, a miner, Pam smiling, the race yet to be run; no time to be pleasant. “You’re getting as tall as your dad,” said Pam to Lee. “But a lot more good looking” laughed Dave, Tony slipping in a “that sounds a bit bent” as his plastic cup hit his lips. “Cath” shouted Pam “Lee’s out here with his dad and Dave, come and say hello”.
Lee had known Cath since before he raced, a little girl he played with beside tracks and barriers and finish lines. As they’d grown they’d raced in the same races, run together when winning was not the point - before it was all there was. Cath was the closest thing to a sister that Lee knew. And there she was, standing at the door, tall for her age, a year older, in fact, her body - like Lee’s - a construct of a life that was lived at a pace. She was slender, even in a baggy tracksuit, her dirty blond hair pulled back, her skin freckled, her cheeks red, her lips kind and naughty, quick to poke fun at Lee all her life. “Nice runners” was all she said, crossing her arms. “Blimey,” said Dave, “Pam you must have a fucking good looking milkman. I think you need to change your shifts Tony”.
They registered for the race and picked up their numbers, people saying hello as they queued, friends of Lee’s dad shaking hands, wishing Lee good luck. “Those two posh lads from Durham are here with a teacher” whispered one “but I doubt they’ll give you much trouble, Lee”. As they stood at the table, two grim-looking old men, ticking off names, handing out pieces of paper with numbers on, dishing out two safety pins apiece, Lee’s dad scanned the names on the list. “Is Davey Black racing?” he asked. The man nodded.
They got dressed in the church, men packed in around the pews and walls, the women in the crypt. Lee took off his coat and tracksuit beside his dad, folding it neatly as he’d always done. Around him, men and boys dressed and undressed, unashamed, ass and cocks, hairy backs and smooth, men rubbing vaseline on their nipples and balls and up the cracks of their arses as if they were alone in the bathroom. Men cursed and spat, cleared their throats and noses, the strong chemical smell of Vicks Vapour Rub roaming like gas, the whole while all eyes on the clock.
They jogged through the graveyard, men pissing everywhere, into the bushes, behind graves, uncaring, the only thing that mattered was an empty bladder. Lee’s Dad and Dave jogged beside him, through the gate and out to the street, like bodyguards, guiding him through the crowd, past ‘good lucks’ from some runners, nods from others, Dave looking down every few seconds to check the time in amongst a scramble of people. Up ahead stood Tony, Pat and Cath. Cath looked strong, long legs that sprung up and down, her ankles thin, her thighs thick from a lifetime of hill laps, thin faded nylon shorts hung from her waistband, a green vest tucked in, her hips wide, the roundness of them showing under the material. Feeling Lee’s eyes on her Pam winked as Lee passed, her arms lifted up over her head stretching, shouting a cheeky “I’ll be on your ass Lee”. He turned and looked back for a second but was lost for words, Dave filling in: “Fuck me - that’s girl’s growing up fast”.
They moved through the start line crowds, up to the front, men making way until they stood within the warm pack of bodies, a herd of men and the odd woman, the smell of sweat snaking through the lot, the whole group moving, stretching, jumping, checking watches, checking those they wanted to beat, those they did not want to be beaten by. A few bodies away a man with glasses and a short sharp beard talked to two boys Lee’s age, their hair smart and blond, lips posh, good stock, the boys from Durham. “Don’t pay those posh wankers any thought Lee” said Dave loudly, the man with the beard smiling back. “You’ll burn them fucking right off”. A few men laughed, a few groaned. “There’s Davey Black,” said Lee’s dad, Lee already spotting him, black club vest, another junior runner, moving up into the pack of men, as tall as Lee but looking more like a man, a thin dark moustache, shaved head, his dad a famous runner, a miner, Davey soon to follow, a thug of the line. “He’s fast but he’s too heavy on the hills,” said Dave, rubbing Lee’s shoulders like a boxing coach. “He’s a bully, use that against him, it’s a long race”. Lee nodded as the marshal walked up to the line, finger on watch, shuffling up, the atmosphere claustrophobic, bodies jostling, pressing. Lee tried to focus his mind, to slow his heart a little, as his dad had shown him, then felt a hand slip down his shorts and grab his bum, causing him to jump and turn round, seeing Cath standing there with a cheeky smile. “Good luck Lee, win and I’ll let you give me a kiss”, her green eyes making his heart suddenly jump. Lee looked forward and tried to block her out, looking back to Davey, who was looking back at him, then at Cath, Cath giving a little wave that sent his head back to the line. There was no starting gun, just a quiet ‘Off you go then’, the herd lurching forward.
Davey Black sprinted ahead, up with the leaders, Lee keeping close, ready in case he tried to hang on to the fastest men. Lee’s Dad and Dave kept pace, pushing harder than they would to set a good time, but here to keep him company as long as they could to help him push through men with little idea of the pace needed to stay in front. The race moved around the village once, the ground dry but cold, hundreds of rubber soles slapping up and down, the ground springing, the crowd cheering at the spectacle, the main runners unaware they were even there. The village thinned out at a steep hill, a hill they’d come down when they returned, steep and curving up through trees, up towards the high empty snowy moors. One of the men increased his pace as they hit the hill, moving forward, two more going with him while the rest kept their same pace, strides shortening, but not slackening. The runners that broke moved away slowly, but the pack stayed together, then, one inch at a time, they slowed and fell back, swallowed up by the pack once more, the line of runners behind spreading out behind them, spreading long as they moved up the hill. “Fuck this pace,” said Dave, his face growing red, Lee’s dad silent, a solid runner in his day although never a champion, never a winner, only second division. Davey Black was two men ahead, the Durham boys two men behind, all bluffing, all feeling the pace biting into their lungs, into their hearts. Lee thought back to his training, every day, twice a day, morning and evening. He thought about the hills he did, running up one side of the road, down the other, lap upon lap, little kids looking on, poking fun at first, until they jokingly tried to run beside him, stopped with a ‘fuck that’, a panting admission of respect. He thought about his dad, always there, never happy, never a day off even when sick, thought about Christmas day, dad appearing at the end of his bed, not with a stocking but new running socks. “A real winner trains harder on Christmas day, losers take the day off”. And so he trained not twice, but three times: before breakfast, before Christmas lunch, then before tea, coming home to Morecambe and Wise, his dad smiling and proud.
The high moors were covered in snow, drifts high beside the stone walls, the road packed down hard but not too icy. As the hill levelled out the pace increased again, a man breaking away, the rest following this time, a few unable to keep up for more than a minute or two, slowing down and left behind, Dave lost with them. “Is this all you’ve got?” breathed a breathless Cath who moved up beside Lee, the pace too fast for her and yet she kept up. Lee ignored her and instead looked over his shoulder at the Durham boys, one red in the face, his head fixed at the road ahead, body jerky, the other still like a spring, his eyes on Cath’s arse, then at Lee, his eyebrows raised. “When we hit the trees again Davey will try and drop you,” said Lee’s dad, his voiced thin, his body losing its rhythm, his heart pushed too hard. “Don’t let him get away, he’s heavy, he’ll be fast downhill”. Lee looked on at Davey Black, his strike perfect, the way his feet struck the ground, hard and confident, just like him, a child of his father’s ambition, a slave to this burning pain. “I’m going to slow down at the woods” said Cath, her voice, even so strained, still with a little sunshine. Lee could feel her body heat close by, smell the trace of her. He looked down at his feet and hers, the mud on her legs, her legs tinged red with the cold. He heard her breathing hard as if her lips were at his ear, her chest, hot and sweaty beneath her vest so close, flat but feminine. Lee felt something he’d not felt before, some other feeling coming over him, distracting, like that longing he felt for his mum, but different, love, longing, emptiness and desire. He had the urge to grab Cath’s hand, the urge to just stop and pull her close, to put his hand on the small of her back, the damp on her vest, to feel the curve of her, to feel the heat of stopping roll over them both on the moor. “Lee focus on the pace!” shouted his dad, Lee coming out of his small trance, Davey Black making a break before the wood with two men. Lee sprinted forward, Cath and his dad left behind.
Lee hit the trees and entered the dark space, a thin track ahead, Davey moving almost too fast for him, the path ahead about to drop down into a valley then back up the other side. Two men passed him and crashed down to two more in front, moving inhumanly fast, Lee checking behind him for a split second to see only one Durham boy left, the rest of the field now a rabble of losers. The men passed Davey and Lee tried to close the gap but it was no good, Davey powering down, growing dim in the shadow, Lee feeling some small panic, that little disappointment but also some small relief. ‘You’re not beaten until you cross the line as the first of the losers’ he heard his dad say in his head. Lee pressed hard knowing that every second Davey was getting away.
Lee hit the bottom of the hill, no one passing him, saw the marks in the snow from five sets of running shoes, green phlegm here and there showing the strain. Alone now he struggled through a small hamlet, a family cheering from their garden gate, a man on a bike shouting “He’s ten seconds ahead” as Lee passed in a blur.
Into the woods, he went again, a small piece of ribbon marking the way, jumping over a style and straight into the steepest incline on the course, a killer of a hill. Lee picked up the path as he had done every year since he was twelve, his body moving without any thought, beyond his control, muscle and bone and tendon in a perfect groove of moving. As the hill got steeper Lee’s style became like machine gun taps, up on his toes, his light body flying, over rocks, over roots, to face this hurtful steepness his only way to win. And there he was, just his white shoulders and legs visible in the winter gloom, slowing up ahead, his hands on his knees pushing himself on while Lee closed the gap, Davey no doubt aware he was coming, his speed robbing Davey of his strength, fifty feet, then thirty, then only ten.
As Lee drew close he suddenly felt the intimidation of this boy-man, who turned his head and shouted “I’ll fucking kill you if you pass me”, Lee now almost at his heels, the top of the hill insight. Lee hung back, slowed his pace even, felt Davey’s slow further, saving himself for the break out to the moor above, a straight flat line back to the village, a long easy hill to finish. “Fuck off you posh cunt” shouted Davey, turning again, Lee turning too to see the Durham boy just behind him, smiling. The three kept their distance, only sprinting again close to the top, to the border between light and dark. Davey fell onto one knee as he hit the edge of the forest, his legs nothing more than meat, Lee dodging past on one side, the Durham boy on the other. Then he was flat on his face, Davey Black’s hand grabbing at his foot, sending him into the snow, rolling as the Durham boy passed them both. “Fuck” shouted Lee, then felt Davey on him again, pressing him down, pushing off Lee to get his speed back, his last race not one he intended to lose. Lee grabbed at Davey’s vest and pulled hard, felt it ripping, felt Davey turning, then felt Davey’s fist full in the face, a hard fist, not the fist of a boy but of a man.
Lee saw two Davey Blacks running backwards away from him, his two vests both ripped, two mouths laughing in between hard breaths, one shout “You fucking cunt Lee” as he turned and ran after the rapidly disappearing Durham boy. Lee wasn’t quite sure where he was. His face was wet. His face was numb. He tasted blood. He heard shouts in the wood below him. He saw Davey and the Durham boy moving away, away, away. And from somewhere he felt something rise, an urge, an urge that drew the moor back into focus, the hunger to win.
Lee caught up Davey Black first, close to the top of the dropping hill, blood shooting down his face, his legs a splatter of red and mud, his body numbed, nothing but a machine. There was no pain left. Davey turned and looked back, no word of warning this time. Lee could see that Davey knew he was beaten, and he was, no punch, Davey seeing something in Lee’s eyes perhaps, letting him pass just that angle began to dip, making a half-hearted grab, more to save face than out of conviction. The Durham boy was already hurtling away, back into the woods, the road curving into the village, a crowd already cheering the men ahead. Lee’s legs felt solid, heavy as if gravity was increasing while at the same time an unseen force was pulling him down towards the finish line, his body moving too fast. His strike increased, hands following feet, his heart knocking like a hammer on the hull of a ship. He no longer felt human. He was an animal. Nothing meant anything, only beating this Durham boy, who got closer as they hit the long road into the village, the sound of people shouting and waving getting louder and louder, Lee drawing in the sound, into his heart, into his lungs, imagining a giant hand now squeezing his heart, the harder it squeezed, the closer he got to the Durham boy, the boy turning only twenty yards ahead into the village, the finish line only two hundred yards to go. As he turned the corner the Durham boy’s outside foot slipped, his form now shot, in survival mode, slipping and stumbling, Lee gobbling up the feet, close enough to touch as the Durham boy regained his speed. Lee felt the hand squeezing his heart, felt not one drop of speed left, knew the Durham boy felt the same, the sound of clapping nothing now, just the rush in his head, the line in sight, not growing closer but moving away, the Durham boy by his side now, their feet and hands perfectly matched at 100 yards. Lee no longer knew where he was running or why, only felt a confusion of moving, no longer knew he was even running. All Lee knew was he had to win this race within a race, even if it killed him, death was what he wanted, death was worth it, death was all he wanted, death was better than winning. He had no other reason to live.
Lee lay on the cold floor, his body on fire, blood and snot and spit and vomit on his face, on his vest, his shorts and legs, his rib cage feeling as if it had been peeled back to expose his fractured heart. He turned his head and saw the Durham boy, on his knees, sick dribbling onto the floor, his back buckling as he fought for breath, then a dirty pair of running shoes, and hand on his shoulder, a pat, then another, the winner, one of the few who knew the pain it took. “Bloody well done Lee, you’ve done your dad proud”.
Lee sat on the kerb watching runners coming in, some red-faced and panting, some white and cool. In the distance, down the road, Lee saw Cath racing a woman, her tall and bouncing, the woman smaller and tough, running like scar tissue, the crowd clapping and shouting as they fought down the feet, the woman pulling just ahead, only a stride, as they reached the line, Cath’s face turning up to the sky knowing she’d been beat before she even was. Lee stepped up on legs that felt empty and walked over to where Cath stood bent over, her competitor standing with her hands on her hips, even in victory keen to show she was best. “You know your problem,” said Lee, bending over in order to see her face, half-hidden in dirty blond hair “You’re too kind to win”, both of them looking up as the other woman limped away.
The two of them walked through the crowds who kept on a steady clap and the odd cheer for those coming in, their parents way back in the field still, people clapping on those who ran for fun, the injured and the old and the dregs. Lee’s lungs hurt, felt as if they were bleeding, but the pain felt good, it meant something, it was the pain of the winner. “Do you like races?” asked Cath, holding her bare arms as they headed back to the camper van. “I don’t know…. I don’t suppose I think about it”. “Well think about it Lee, do you like racing?” Lee did think for a minute. “I don’t like it when I lose, but I don’t think I like it when I win either, only that it’s better than losing”. “I run for fun, but I don’t think you do, so why run?” she asked, the camper now in site, men getting dressed besides their cars now, a few washing down from plastic buckets or drinking tea from flasks balanced perched on the roofs of their cars. “Do you run because you want to please your dad?” she asked. “It’s all I’m good at, that’s what dad says, and I guess I am”. “Well, there’s more to life than running”.
Lee’s dad was nowhere to be seen, so Cath invited him into the camper to wait, grabbing the key from the wheel arch, wiping her oily fingers on her top after turning the key. Inside it was quiet, no bigger than the smallest caravan, but warm, the sound different, the word beyond muffled. It smelt nice, of tea and breakfast and holidays, bright homemade curtains covering the windows, purple and yellow flowers. “Stick on the kettle, while I change,” said Cath. “I think it’s full, but it’s a bit broken so you’ll need to switch it off when it boils”. Lee stepped a few feet away and flicked the switch, then looking down, saw the tiniest image of Cath’s reflection in the taps at the sink, some blurred pink naked back, the hint in that distorted shape of the slender waist he imagined, remembered her once showing him a small birthmark near her ribs as they played together. He imagined he saw her upper back and shoulders, broad and strong, not skinny or fat, but perfect, saw her damp running top coming off and a red T-shirt swiftly replacing it. Lee tried to think of something to say, to hide the fact he was looking, the silence betraying him. His thought about a mate of his dad’s who’d fought in the Falklands war, telling him once “you should never look at someone when you’re creeping up on them, look to the side. People can tell when you’re looking”. Lee wanted to look away, but could not, this little thumbnail reflection leaving him lost for words, all thoughts of the race or anything gone. “There’s a carton of milk in the fridge,” said Cath, bending down a little to pull off her shorts as he turned around, the hem of her T-shirt hiding all but her legs from view, only the shortest glimpse of the roundness of her hips as she pulled on a pair of jogging bottoms. Lee looked down again, at the tea, the water almost boiled. Brushing her hair she came over and handed Lee a fleece to wear, which Lee put on, not feeling too cold anymore, his mind full of her, her eyes on him, her lips, her red cheeks. “Here I’ll zip you up,” she said moving closer, her fingers fumbling at his waist, finding the ends of the zipper, Lee feeling himself going hard. “I’ll do it,” he said, grabbing her hands, his warm, hers cold and slender. “Do you like me?” she asked looking up, adding before he could answer, not sure if she was joking or playing a trick on him. “I like you,” she said. Lee looked into her eyes, not sure if what he felt was terror or excitement, the urge to kiss her or the urge to run, unsure what to say or what to do. “The kettle’s boiling” was all that came to mind. Ignoring him Cath leant forward and kissed his lips, soft at first, just the gentlest of touches, her lips dry, then again a little harder, only wet and slick and hot, moving around just a little, Lee unsure what to do, only knowing-doing nothing felt amazing. “That was your winning kiss like I promised,” she said, pulling away from a little with a mischievous smirk as if this meant nothing, only a game. “Has anyone ever kissed you before Lee?” she asked, about to add something about motherly kisses, only stopping herself just before the words were spoken, saying “you can kiss me now if you like”, feeling Lee’s body trembling, wanting to touch her but afraid to move. Unabashed Cath moved instead, slipping her cold thumbs into the hem of his shorts to pull him in, her lips hotter now, pressing harder than before, making Lee feel they may burst, the pressure building until he felt her tongue slip in and stroke his teeth, pulling away again to smile, as if to see it was OK to kiss, then back again, her lips on his. Lee’s head swum for a second. He had no idea where he was, his own tongue curling into hers now. And then it was gone, tongue and lips and thumbs. “I can hear my mum coming” whispered Cath, jumping back afoot, then again onto the small couch, straight into a well-practised repose of guiltlessness, Lee left standing there more out of breath than in the run, pulling down the fleece as he turned around and the door opened, only then noticing the kettle had been boiling hard as they’d been kissing, the tiny camper filled with steam. “Fuck me it’s like a bloody sauna in here,” said Cath’s dad stepping in, hand theatrically wafting the air. “Lee left the kettle on” said Cath, her dad looking him up and down for a second suspicious. “Oh well, never mind. Well done Lee, your dad’s outside ready to go I think”. Glad for a chance to make an escape Lee squeezed past Cath’s dad with a meek and guilty ‘Thank you’, turning again and taking off the borrowed fleece, handing it back, Cath shouting a cheeky ‘See you later Lee’ from the couch as he closed the door.