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The Frozen Road

by Drew Lavelle 

Posted: 13 July 2008
Word Count: 1064
Summary: I categorised this as fiction, yet it's a true story. Or very nearly... It's based on a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago, but I repackaged it for a competition in a running magazine. Crushingy, I didn't win the star prize -- an entry (including all travel expenses) to the North Pole Marathon.

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Itís twelve years since I lived in this wind-rattled town.

Back then we were a rowdy, transient bunch: students, contractors, low-paid drifters and drinkers. It seems like a long time now. None of the old gang would still be around. Like me, most would have climbed aboard the corporate gravy train and shrivelled into respectable middle-age.

But I was wrong. This morning I saw a face I once knew.

Emerging from the grandest hotel in town, the George, my teeshirt and shorts flapping in the sharp chill of this early December morning, I saw him coming at me through the mist, shambling past on the way to the station. I couldnít place him at first, but I knew that face. In his mid-thirties now, crimson-faced, eyes bloodshot, hair awry. Puffing like a steam train. Shirt hanging out of his trousers, sucking on a cigarette like his life depended on it.

As he lunged past, coughing and wheezing, he threw me a slanted, vinegary look, and held it. This was something more than startled recognition. It said there was now some gulf between us. Too much time had passed. Something weíd shared had forked and spun off in different directions.

Instinct made me smile, but it wasnít returned. I opened my mouth slightly, as if to utter some matey salutation, but no sound emerged. Our eyes locked, but there was something distant and hostile frozen in his gaze. Then he turned his head away, and panted onwards to the station, vanishing quickly in the fog.

It disturbed me, but I pushed it from my mind and set off.

I didnít want to run this morning. Sleep had been fractured and anxious. First a car alarm howling beneath my window. Later, the sound of breaking glass and a girl screaming in the square.

Iíd lain awake. The George is an old hotel with walls that groan under the weight of winter. I could sense the shadows flickering under the door. Something fluttered behind the curtain, making it twitch. Now and then the corridors sighed, the draught jiggling the worn brass door handle, like a phantom intruder trying to burgle my life.

I must have dozed, but when the alarm clock reached out and slapped me, I felt hollow and cranky and unrested. I didnít want to run, but knew I had to. Minutes later I was outside the hotel, staring through the fog at that half-familiar face.

I didnít ask where I was going. I flicked the auto-pilot, and followed the clouds of my own breath, past the boarded-up pub and a silent bus queue with its blank, pallid faces, staring out at me. Perhaps I once knew some of you... but now we are all ghosts, haunting each otherís memories.

Over the bridge and down to the towpath. The quiet canal, oil-black, winds through this vacant landscape like the unravelling of a shared history. I tick past the rusted lifting gear and burnt-out barges; the wild, abandoned allotments. Past silent, empty mills, barely visible in the dense grey mist: gaping mouths and eyes punched out.

So much here has died or vanished. On I run. The towpath puddles are frozen but cracked ó someone has been this way before, but they are gone. Now the only sounds are mine: frantic blowing, the frost crunching underfoot, the sharp echo of my footfalls from the other bank.

Then some instinct pulls me from the path, and on I go, up the steepest hill in town. Ten minutes on, lungs scorched, gasping for breath, trembling, clinging to a lamp-post, Iím staring down over the town Iíd once called home. Who would have thought it back then Ė that one day I would sprint up Castle Hill without stopping. Without dying.

On the other side of the hill is my old district. I ambled through it now, like I was killing time in a museum. Ah, thereís the house Iíd shared. But look at it now: the front garden overgrown; curtains closed as though something inside had died.

Little had changed in twelve years. The pub on the corner, looking seedier than ever. Or did it just seem that way? Maybe the change was in me? I jog past the newsagent, and catch a glimpse of the same old solemn Indian lady dispensing sympathy along with the newspapers and teabags.

Gradually my energy returns, and soon Iím running back into the town centre, tracing my old daily route to work, but without the stress I used to feel. Back then, nearly every night was party night, and most mornings I woke with throbbing temples, panicking about the time. I learnt to shower and dress in 5 minutes flat before dashing out of the house. Iíd forgotten all this, but pounding along the old road this morning was like being jerked along on some ghostly chain. The memories were glowing again.

Running is discovery and rediscovery. Things you thought erased by the passing of time reveal themselves. Down the hill, past the cemetery and the municipal baths: this was the slow reopening of an eye after a long injury.

I could feel my spirits rising again. How good to relive something without fear of consequence. Pretending to be late for some unspecified appointment Ė breakfast perhaps Ė I urge the ring road lights to stick on red as I crossed them, just like I used to. Racing under the railway bridge, desperate not to hear my train drumming overhead. Very nearly there now.

Round that final corner by the George Hotel, I give up the ghost, but the ghost plunges on towards the station, vanishing quickly in the fog.

Back then, I was in my mid-thirties. It sounds young now, but compared with today, I felt so old and haggard and spent. Crimson-faced, eyes bloodshot, hair awry. Struggling up that final, breathless slope. Puffing like a steam train. Shirt hanging out of my trousers, sucking on a cigarette like my life depended on it.

Lunging past the George each morning, coughing and wheezing, seeing all those middle-aged deadbeats on expense accounts emerging from the grand entrance, looking far too pleased with themselves. Making sure I threw them some slanted, vinegary look as I passed.

How I hated the way they smiled at me, the way those types seem to do. As though they knew something I didnít.

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