By Melvin Sterne
It's just sunset and you're four miles into your evening run. You're at your favourite place in the run, the spot where you turn the corner down the hidden lane that runs almost a straight-line mile behind a long row of expensive bungalows. You've called it your secret garden ever since you discovered it so quiet, so hidden. And it is a garden, with palm trees and flowers and little mini-playground for the kids. And this time of night there are fathers or mothers or nannies out with the children; the little ones in strollers, the bigger ones toddling about or running screaming in delightful little packs. It's the place in your run where you feel happy. It's the place in your run where you feel not so alone.
And it's the place, too, where you head down the home stretch, for your flat is in a building a little less than half a mile from where this lane ends. And as you turn you smile and open your stride a notch, and then you see him, the little towhead on the blue mini scooter board. It's got a handle he's far too small to board without one but he's gamely scooting along and taking it all in; the families, the fun, the fathers and mothers and the peacefulness of a good day come to a fine ending. And you pass him and you smile and look ahead down the lane at the mile laid out in front of you, and you stretch your tired old legs and you run because you still can.
And then: there he is again, at your side, and he passes you. He's not looking at you, the kid, he's eyes are straight ahead, his hands firm on the handles, his little leg kicking along with a game little rhythm. He is how old? Three? Four? Can't be five yet. Four, you decide, and you look around wondering which of the joggers or strollers is his mother or father. And you dodge a bicycle and a pair of Filipina nannies pushing strollers, and there he is, veered right while you bent left, and he picked up the pace, too. Rock on, little man, you think, and you pick up the pace, too, matching his, just for fun. And you catch the faintest hint of a look-back, just a flash of the eyes, really, but he's checking over his shoulder and now you're sure he's racing you.
Now you're 60 and he's maybe four. It's not like he's going to beat you, or that you care why would you care? but you think it's cool, this tough little kid, the way he's pushing the pace, and it's good for him and it's good for you, gives you a reason to run, too, so with a look back over your shoulder (where's the mother?) you stretch out a little more and give the kid a reason to work out. But he's a gamer, this boy, with curly red hair and freckles. You imagine him with blue eyes and a look that in few years will break hearts. And you pass another tangle of six and seven-year-olds in green-and-white school uniforms chasing a soccer ball and you wonder, Why is he not with them? And the question comes up against your will and you wish you hadn't thought it.
And there is a cross-street ahead, and you smile as you see the kid, still just a step ahead of you, still pushing the pace, not letting you catch him even though you don't really want to catch him, hope you don't catch him, are proud to see him win. Only he doesn't.
He pulls up just before the barrier that keeps cars from turning down the little lane. Someone must have laid down the rules. The kid pulls up and you pass him and at that moment you see something like hurt in his eyes and you almost tell him "Good race, kid," but you don't because he's not your kid and kids and strangers shouldn't mix.
You wonder where the parents are. You've been watching for someone to pull up on a bike and listening for someone to whistle or call from behind, but there is nobody, no voice to claim him, and the kid stops and you cross the street and then you are alone again, just you and the lilacs and lobster claws and hibiscus and spider lilies and powderpuffs and periwinkles and frangipanis (which are also called graveyard flowers), and a thousand other blooming things whose names you wish you knew but never will. You relax and feel the sweat pour in little rivers down your face and back and arms. It's not so bad, running alone, not when you look at it right. And there's so much to see in this world. No, it's not so bad, running alone.
You hear the sound before you see the boy. The harsh, hard plastic grating on cement and you think, Let it be him, but you don't cut him any slack, the kid. If he's crossed the road, if he's broken the rules, if he's followed you because it's a race and he's game to win, you can respect that, but you're not going to make it easy for him, either. He's got to earn it. But he's picked you for some reason (boredom most likely), but he's there, determined, somewhere just behind and to your right, and you think, Okay, kid, show me what you got, and now it's your turn to nonchalant things, and you don't look, but you're listening. The grinding grows closers. But up ahead, the intersection looms. This one for real, the main road, the end of the line, and you stretch your legs just a little more, not sprinting, but letting him earn it. It'll feel better that way, and you picture him, this boy (or is it you all those years ago?), a look of grim determination far beyond his/your little years. Twenty metres. He's right beside you now, eyes straight ahead, focused, right leg pumping, and now he passes you and runs right up to the line where the lane meets the sidewalk and he crosses the line, turns, skids to a stop and he looks up at you, not with a smile, not with a challenge, not like you are anything at all, a nameless, faceless old man running on the edge of night, but he by-God beat you, and this time, when you pass, you look down and lock eyes and say, "That was fast, kid," and then you're gone, turning left down the sidewalk towards the crossover with the forty-eight steps you suddenly hate because you realise you've run faster than you meant. And when you reach the top you walk to catch your breath and wonder about the boy, alone, and why he rode so far, and you think that he will not remember you, your words, this day, this year, or even the invented race that he won. But remember this, kid, you think, remember how good it felt to be fast, for that is something you'll carry with you for the rest of your life, something you can feel good about if all else fails.
You hope, of course, that all else doesn't fail. You hope that he goes home to a loving father and mother and hot meal in a cool home with a soft bed to sleep on tonight. You hope that, but you're no fool, either, and you know it doesn't always happen like that. No, it doesn't always happen like that at all.
You cross the road and jog down the steps, turn down the sidewalk towards the building and your own little flat. When you reach home you will shower and dry and warm rice and beans and eat alone in silence at that beautiful marble-top table. After dinner you'll stand at your window and look out over the glittering lights of the city the ships anchored in the straight, the stars shining above. And just before you turn to your bed you will wonder how or when or where you were struck with the love for speed and imaginary races, and you wonder where his father and mother were just like you wondered where yours were, some 56 years back. It's an escape, you think. A game, an illusion, a distraction, a place to go when there is nowhere else to go, and you wonder when was the precise moment when that realization dawned for you, and you fall asleep like that, the question in front of you, and it will haunt your dreams; the back alleys and lanes and races of your youth.QLRS Vol. 16 No. 3 Jul 2017