One of a selection of short stories introducing work from Mark Parry as a writer.
I have always found early morning the best time to run. When the sun hasn't taken ownership of the sky yet, and the last dregs of night are still seeping back into the ground.
My route mainly involves pavement pounding, which can be a bit jarring on the knees and ankles, so for a bit of variety in scenery, terrain and punishment I usually duck along the old canal path for a stint. A nice flat run - a chance to slow up and maybe see a little bit of wildlife - that I've been taking for as long as I remember.
But I never stop. That's critical when you're a runner. Stop and the rhythm is lost. You never recover it.
From the jarring descent of the road stretch, there's a set of grey stone steps that lead down to the neglected canal lock, overgrown and full of algae. The lock-gates are gone and have been replaced by a makeshift dam of concrete blocks, a temporary part of the canal restoration put in years ago. Past that there's about a mile of canal, edged on either side by straggling reeds and gritty towpaths. Then an old bridge marks where I get back up to the main road, teeth gritting for the final, gruelling ascent home.
That's my schedule. Run for a mile or so down the road, dive onto the canal path for about the same until I reach the dilapidated bridge at the other end, and then head back up to the road for the final slog.
Keep the pace, don't stop. Stop and you're lost.
I try to run most days, usually around the same time. But one time - the last time - I went out a little earlier. When it was a touch darker outside. When night had slightly tighter grip on the world. As I went out I could feel the light bite of cold on my skin, cars still had their headlights on, and my breath left its own trail of fumes.
I stood outside my house, stretched briefly, and began the run downhill. After a few minutes I was warm, impervious to the cold, and my feet had picked up an automatic beat that paced my breath. I was enjoying the anonymity that the added gradient of night was giving me. Often, as you run, pedestrians, drivers and their passengers will follow your progress with badly concealed curiosity. That can make you very self-conscious, and it feels very intrusive. People run for many different reasons; it is their own business why.
What I run from or whoever I run to are my concern alone.
My strides shortened as I approached the gap in the railings that opens onto the canal steps. I skittered down the stone stairs to the lock-side, and was mildly surprised to see a transformed scene ahead of me - a veneer of ground fog was floating above the canal and towpath, almost thick enough to obscure a view of the floor completely. There was a sharp dip in the temperature too, at least five degrees lower than I had expected. I supposed at the time that perhaps it had never been cold enough or early enough for me to see the canal like this before. The fog looked nearly fibrous in places and flowed in a subtle way, like a mat of grey, shifting roots.
I was surprised at the coiling mist, its contrast with the dark surroundings and the heavy dankness that hung in the air that morning, but I didn't let it stop me - my pace slowed slightly, but I persevered despite my apprehension.
I should have turned back.
There were no bird sounds here today. Not even the reeds rustled. The water looked murky and stagnant. This was unlike other mornings. There was nothing alive here today.
My calves tightened as I ran up the slight incline from the lock to where the towpath flattened. A freezing drip from a branch overhead splashed down my face, forcing me to blink, but I still kept pace as I pulled my legs through the stiffened ether. Shaking the water away from my eyes, I looked ahead to an old bench that was partially hidden from the towpath by the usurping bramble hedge, about a third of the way along. I shook my head again.
There was a figure on the bench. Reclining and indistinct, just a human shape. It was unusual for the time of day, putting me on guard.
My feet carried me closer, slowly ramping my unease with them.
I kept moving, looking straight ahead. Ignore it, I told myself. There would be nothing to see. Unfounded fear. There is nothing to see, I forced myself to think. You must keep going, it is imperative. Don’t stop, you can’t stop, never never -
But as I came close to the bench, I let myself down. Not enough self control; too much curiosity; maybe just not prepared for the shock of what I might see. I looked sideways and broke my own rule. I looked at the slumped shape on the bench and the ability to continue running abandoned me completely.
The figure was a man: middle aged, with grey hair and greyed skin, as if colour had been decanted from him. He wore a shirt, tie and trousers - all in shades of blue - smart, but not quite a uniform. His eyes were closed, sunken into dark hollows like bearings wallowing in oil. He smelled of old leaves and bitter sweat. I leaned close to him to check his breath, my own chest tight with black dread, admitting to myself that I almost wished him to be dead. Yes, I wished him dead. Just to make it easy for me. Wasn't the administration of death so much easier than trying to pull its grip away?
His eyes shot open, lifelessly glaring at me. As black as the night behind me and as dull as the canal's silty bed. I sprung into the air, hoisted up by fear as his rag-doll body straightened to sit and his mouth opened wide. Words came out of him through greasy lips and between red-veined teeth, in a voice as hoarse as the sawing of bone.
'GET THEM AWAY! Move them!' the body half-gargled. He jolted, eyes unfocused, like a man awakening from a nightmare. Or returning to one. 'Move them away!'
My God, he must be alive, I thought. No matter how he looks, he must be alive. But only reason was telling me that. Everything else - my senses, my intuition - were all screaming at me that this thing was dead. A grisly puppet, like a roadkill carcass animated by maggots.
'Get who away?' I managed to gasp. 'Look, we need to get you some help.'
'Forget me - help THEM!' he bawled, 'Move them away!'
I was starting to panic myself. In my midriff a compact core of terror was growing and I thought if I didn't do something soon, it might explode through my body and take me out of control. I reacted in the way that modern life had groomed me to.
'OK, we will, we will,' I said blankly, and grabbed my mobile from my pocket. I looked away from him as I dialled, just to give my eyes some respite. I don't know what I said, or even if I told the emergency services to come to the right place. The man who wasn't dead had unhinged my thoughts for a moment. I tried to calm myself as I turned back to him.
But the bench was empty. It was completely overgrown by the hedge. It was how it had been the last time I ran here; how it had always been. Fresh tendrils were reaching towards the carpet of fog like a child's fingers grasping for a blanket.
The man, with his black eyes, his broken words and broken body, was gone. The bitter smells of decomposition and fever, death and madness combined, still hung in the air.
I span around, frantically looking to the bench once more, to the way I had just come, and in the direction I had intended to go. There was no sign of him. Just the crowding darkness and seeping mist.
My resolve broke, that suppressed panic flooding around my body. I couldn't explain what had happened and I didn't want to think of it any more. My body took over from my mind, and I ran. I fled towards the other end of the canal, towards the bridge of crumbling red brick, through oblivion and towards civilisation. I ran until I couldn't breathe, until my legs were frozen with cramp and my skin prickled under a coat of cold sweat.
An unknowable amount of time passed until awareness gradually crept back into my body like a cowering dog.
I found myself under the bridge, shivering and dusted by the perishing brick. I was crouching, almost foetal. As my thoughts struggled to connect themselves once more I gazed into the water, through the sheen of fog and onwards to the surface. My breathing was still out of control when I saw the shapes moving in the water. Slowly jostling like windblown driftwood. With my trance retreating I could just recognise what they were.
The bodies of children floating just under the surface, all facing upwards with eyes as white as the flesh of fish, and mouths moving in lost monologues. They weren't pleading or petitioning for help: they were just dead. Mindless and drifting, but animated by the cold embrace of the canal.
I had no more emotion to spend - my incredulity was replaced by the realisation that perhaps I was being forced to witness something I had yet to understand. Life and death, and what I saw through both, would stay with me for ever. But I couldn't make sense of this now.
Why was I being shown these things?
Why were they coming to me?
I walked, stiff-legged and hollow, up to the road. As I stepped up to street level, the heaviness of the fog dropped away. I blinked as sharp streams of light sought me out in the fledgling sunshine of morning. Things were different up here. Clearer, less portentous.
Perhaps what I had seen was nothing - a drop in glucose levels, over-tiredness, caffeine withdrawal - any of these could at the very least cause confusion, I thought.
So I waited for my heartbeat to finish its ribcage timpani and persuaded myself that I would be able to process things later, when I could be rational, even in the face of the most implausible explanation.
I walked up the hill towards my house, the hill I would usually ascend in a final run, telling myself again and again that a time would come when I would be able to look at the world calmly with explanations at hand. But for now I was shivering like and beaten.
Further up the road, a group of children huddled around the bus stop, a chattering and laughing pack, bright and early for school.
I paused to catch breath, looking up the road to see a delivery van coming, a vast white shape careening through the cold air, huge and sudden and fast; impossibly close.
Its driver wore a familiar blue livery.
With his face a mask of panic, he was stamping and stamping at the foot-brake, the wheel spinning uselessly in his hands.
The van hit me first; it smacked me straight out of the world. The impact was strangely quiet. Not how I expected it at all. The wrenching of metal, the screams, the whine of the engine: all were suppressed and faint as they disappeared into the fading light. Soon the children joined me; the driver was already there. His curdled expression hadn’t even time to settle.
The next day I will be allowed to run once more; ignorant, as I always am. But I fruitlessly vow to myself that I won't stop this time. Somehow, unknowingly, I will race to those children; I will not be tested by that pleading figure.
I will save them, save the driver, save myself.
But this is purgatory; it must be. Where else would you be given the time to save lives on the condition that you overlook one desperate soul? If I had ignored that body and the petitioning that came from it, would I have been given time to warn the children? Perhaps.
So I will run again. I know I will be purged of the memories that could be the key to my salvation, but I pray that I will not stop.
Stop, and you’re lost.
Stop, and you're damned.