The Wrong Way
There was shouting and grumbling in the crowd as the man pushed through; some stumbling backwards, others taking a short-lived grab at his shirt to stop him. He was moving fast, determined, and none of these backward tugs ensnared him for more than a second.
In moments, he had reached the edge and ducked, deftly, under the barrier and out onto the clear road. The clump of ruffled supporters he had emerged from heard him calling, “Sorry!” back towards them, before he turned, and began to run. Walls of eyes on either side silently interrogated this greying, slightly overweight figure as his casual shoes pounded on the hot tarmac. He made ground: new walls of eyes greeted him with confusion, or disdain. Murmuring spread through the crowd around him as he passed, as if somehow the sound were emanating from the man himself.
“Wrong way, mate!” pierced through the general noise of the crowd – and was followed by a burst of uncertain laughter.
He ran onwards. Every staring eye could see the sweat now, darkening the back of his t-shirt and dripping from his forehead. Only those who looked a little closer could see the steady stream of tears gathering at the corners of his eyes, wiped away regularly with the sweat.
Time passed, faces passed, shouts passed – ignored commands and sarcastic questions – and the black tarmac ahead stared blankly back at him, empty except the dashed white line that led him on, and the other less constant traffic markings that he approached and then left behind again and again. He ran on. The wrong way. None of these eyes had seen his beginning now, for all they knew he had come all the way from the finishing tape.
And then, eventually, a figure coming towards him – wiry, with long thin legs, approaching strangely fast, bearing the number ‘23’ on his chest. For a moment he glanced up and looked with confusion and anger at the heavy man, moving nearer the edge so as not to slow him down, but then he passed, focussed once more on his race.
Then came another, then two more, then a clump of five. The shouts were coming thicker now, and harsher,
“Get off the track mate!”, “Hey! Wrong way!”, “What are you playing at?”
His grimacing face burned red with heat, and thirst, and shame. Inside, his legs were roaring with pain now, his lungs scratching and grasping, his heart thumping fiercely into his sweat-soaked chest. His head was full of the clamour around him, but the one thought burned brightly at the centre, driving him on. The runners were coming at him in bigger and bigger numbers now, he was having to weave in and out to get out of their way. A tall, pale, muscular man in number 855 shouted inaudibly as he came towards him, then with a sudden movement pushed hard against his shoulder and sent him crashing onto the edge of the road. A gasp went up, then more shouting. He glanced down at the blood now running from his left knee as he pushed himself back up to his feet and began to run again, brushing dust and grit from his hands and left-hand side.
Thicker and thicker they came, and hotter and hotter his lungs burned as he ran on. His cheeks flushed a deep and painful red. The eyes on every side narrowed at this crazy man, this disruptive, threatening, silly fool, running the other way.
And then his eyes locked onto what they had been looking for. A huddled figure on the tarmac ahead, with an official looking person crouched over her. He sped up, ill-fitting shoes, pounding – it was her, it was Amy. As he reached her he could see the pain etched across her face before she could see it reflected back on his. He staggered to a halt, and slowly, breathing heavily but gently, walked in front of her and crouched down.
The wall of eyes on either side looked down, curious, and those nearest the front heard the teenage girl say, “Dad!” in shock, and confused gratitude. They could see her pointing at a part of her ankle, wincing as she touched it, and the heavy tears of disappointment rolling down her cheeks. They saw him come and sit close beside her, arm around her shoulders.
Most lost interest as they sat there, quietly talking, minute after minute.
And then, slowly, they were standing, his arm around her shoulders, lifting her and holding her up. Every eye turned to see their eyes looking up and along the road towards the distant and invisible tape. They looked back at each other and exchanged a few quiet words. She made a little, fast nod, eyes wet with tears and burning with determination. He gently placed his arm and shoulder so as to lift as much weight as possible, and half-smiled, half-grimaced at her. And they began to limp towards the finish line.