This story won first prize in the Coventry Words Short Story Award in 2015, it is written by Caleb Azumah Nelson.
Their bed was a queen size, far too expansive to hold the drowning couple and their failing relationship. Often, as they were now, they slept with rigidity, back to back, lest one of them graze the other with a touch they believed unwanted. Helen spoke, the words possessing a slight muffle, as if not addressed directly towards him.
‘Get up,’ she said, short. ‘You missed your run. You’re going to be late for work.’
‘Hmm.’ The prospect of tardiness was not as repulsive as he thought it would be.
‘Come on, get up. Shower, breakfast, work.’ She outlined his routine to him and he swallowed the resentment at the monotony his life had gained over the four years they had been married.
‘I’m going for my run,’ was the first thing he thought to say.
‘You can’t. You’ll be late for work.’ He heard the sheets beside him rustling and knew she was sitting up.
He didn’t want the accompanying lecture which came with this new position, so he muttered a “fine” and went to take his pre-shower pee. Eyeing a small pile of clothes, Adam realised he would not have been able to take his run this morning anyway; his running kit, a luminous blue and yellow mesh vest with matching shorts sat atop, his specialist shoes were not far from the bundle. He couldn’t have worn his kit dirty. Why not? He wondered. He looked at the clock in the bathroom. No time to run, said the rulebook of logic. He considered for a second, then pulled on some dirty compression wear, as well as the vest and shorts. The look completed by an odd pair of socks – one black, one white – and a pair of plain black specialist running shoes. He re-entered the bedroom. Helen had returned to her previous position, semi-foetal. She looked towards him, then sat up, shocked.
‘Adam, what are you doing? You’ll be late for work.’
‘I’m going on my run,’ he said.
‘Your kit isn’t even clean,’ she said. ‘You can’t run in dirty kit.’
‘You’re right.’ He nodded in agreement. ‘You’re right.’ He tore off the vest to reveal a rippling torso, followed by the skimpy shorts of runners and the compression tights. Only the socks and shoes remained.
‘What are you doing?’ Helen whispered.
‘I’m going on my run,’ he said.
‘But you’ll be late for work.’
‘You’re never late.’
Adam shrugged. She let out an involuntary bleat as the world she knew – Adam, by extension, part of this world – was slashed into uneven pieces.
‘Won’t be long. Usual few miles,’ Adam said, bounding on the spot to prepare himself for exercise. Helen opened her mouth and closed it, several times, as if trying to inhale some understanding. There wasn’t much else to say. Adam was going for a run. That’s all.
He descended the stairs three at a time, filled with a daring he’d abandoned in his youth. Keys: check. He tried to place them in his pocket, automated, and the bunch of three clattered to the tiled floor. No matter. Helen would let him back in.
With this last thought, Adam thrust open the door, took one sure step outside, and then another. The door clicked shut behind him with a barely audible tick. He had the overwhelming urge to turn back, to hammer and slam until Helen came running, to clothe himself. He wanted to leap overboard from this ship of resistance he did not remember boarding, and hope not to drown in whatever tremulous ocean awaited. He was caught in an existential tug of war – to resist or comply, that is the question. The two forces at work jerked and pulled, but in the end, it was his physical being which made the decision for him.
He tripped over the cracked slab Helen had been telling him to fix for months; he tried to balance himself with short, stabbing steps, and before he knew it, he was at the end of the path, running. In this action lies simplicity, for it does not require any planning or debate. One merely puts one foot in front of the other, and repeats. To run, one only needs to continue moving forward.
Adam’s footsteps slipped and slopped with every step. A squeak occasionally interrupted the proceedings. At the end of the road, he collided, phallus first, with his neighbour.
‘Morning, Jeff,’ Adam said, when they had untangled.
‘Good God, Adam, what the fuck are you doing?’
‘Running,’ Adam laughed.
‘But…where are your clothes?’
‘At home. I can’t stop; I need to take advantage of this wonderful day before work. I shall see you later on perhaps? Come round for dinner?’
‘But it’s Tuesday.’ Jeff said, mortified. Wednesday night was dinner with the neighbourhood clique. Adam laughed again, rich and throaty and joyous, and departed.
He was right; although only in its incipient stages, the day was progressing beautifully. The sky was a solid block shade of powder blue, with fat dollops of cumulus cloud dotted like servings of cream. UV rays aided in the rapid production of sweat on this man’s garmentless body, but a thin breeze dried the droplets on his skin. Dulwich was deserted, and blankets of blossom welcomed him on every street his feet pounded. He laughed again, the joy morphing to wonder. How had he ever missed this?
‘What’s your name, sir?’
Adam had never been inside a police station. He panicked.
‘And where do you live, Just Dave?’
This time the panic was debilitating. A torrent of addresses danced on his tongue, none his own, the words so jumbled he was unable to articulate any of them. The only place he could think of was Mordor, but wisely, decided not to say this.
He sat in a rusting steel chair, by a desk, opposite a policeman approaching obesity. They had wrapped him in a cream sheet – with his pink flush of activity, he resembled a raw pig in a blanket. They had not even bothered to handcuff him. Most likely because when they had pulled up, he had entered the car of his own accord.
‘Listen, I don’t think your name is Dave. We had a woman call her husband in earlier – which you match the description of.’
Adam continued to stare at the man. He was having difficulty focussing. The thought currently stewing away in his mind was whether the policeman would be able to keep up with him on a run or not.
‘Okay, let’s try this again. Is your name Adam Johnson?’
‘Of 77, Burbage Road?’
‘What do you do for a living, Mr Johnson?’
‘I’m a hedge fund manager.’
The man’s forehead crinkled. ‘Bit young, aren’t you?’
Adam shrugged. More details were exchanged. The policeman informed him his wife was waiting outside. Adam rose with his new acquaintance.
‘Look,’ the policeman started. ‘I don’t know why you were doing what you were doing, but you’re lucky to escape with just a warning. Take my advice – wear some clothes. It’ll make your life easier.’ The policeman handed Adam over to his wife like a delicate trophy.
They walked in silence, out of the police station, to the oversized family car which hardly saw the road. The vehicle had been purchased when notions of a family had entered their lives with such ebullience; notions which sadly, remained just so. When they had both sat down and secured seatbelts across torsos, Helen spoke up.
‘I’ve called work for you and said you needed the week off, that it was an emergency.’ When he didn’t reply, she went on. ‘This happens, you know. Mid-life crisis. It will pass.’
‘Mid-life crisis,’ Adam said. ‘I’m thirty years old. Are you saying I’ll die at sixty?’ He turned to her.
‘Don’t be so literal and melodramatic,’ she said, starting the engine.
Two days into his involuntary holiday. Adam and his wife sat at their dining table. He piled scrambled eggs onto his plate. She observed, nursing a bleak cup of coffee in her hands, the steam rising from her mug, vaporous hands tickling her eyelashes.
‘You not ‘ungry?’ He asked with eggs and toast bulging from his cheeks.
‘Why do you hate me?’ Helen asked.
Adam shook his head and swallowed, with some difficulty. ‘I don’t hate you.’ He returned to his eggs, slicing through the soft yellow mess, inserting another forkful into his mouth.
‘Do you hate me because I can’t have children?’
Adam choked. The toast turned to cardboard, the eggs a thick glue, which he would never digest, let alone swallow. He glugged down a glass of water, hoping to buy some time.
‘I don’t hate you.’
‘Don’t you want children?’ She knew the answer.
There was no reply to this, other than, ‘I don’t hate you.’
At this, she burst into tears and left the table.
Why does one ask questions that they already know the answer to? It is as if the question answered by self lacks validation, could potentially be falsities of the mind, and all one requires for confirmation are words, signs, signals, be it answers or non-answers.
He remained at the table, cutting through his now tasteless eggs. A thought nibbled at his consciousness, and then began to gnaw its way in, until Adam could no longer ignore it. When he had accepted the idea, he couldn’t believe he had tried to ignore it in the first place. Why had he not had this idea earlier? He abandoned the eggs, now as chilly as the frost lying on his relationship, and left for the city centre.
Two hours later, he returned with a dog. The beast woofed upon entry.
‘Adam, is that you?’ Helen called from the kitchen, as he neared. ‘Did you close the door, I thought I heard a-‘ She stopped dead at the sight. ‘Oh my…shit. What is that?’
‘Helen, meet Luigi,’ Adam said, like a proud father. ‘Our new dog.’
‘Adam – it’s huge.’
Luigi, was indeed, oversized, even for their gigantic dwelling.
‘He’s a mastiff,’ Adam informed.
‘Why did you buy a dog? We didn’t talk about buying a dog.’
‘Well, you mentioned children earlier, I thought this might, you know, ease the pain, like a substitute or something-‘
More tears. Helen, once more, dashed from the room to a symphony of her own sobs. Adam was left with Luigi for company, who did not look altogether pleased with him either, and began scratching at their French doors, desperate to be let out. Adam sighed, detached the lead, unlocked the door, and let Luigi run free.
Helen did not return, until the daylight had faded from their thoughts and the night now occupied their lives. A weak bedside light attempted to illuminate their bedroom. Adam lay on the bed, shoes on, supine, motionless. Helen entered the bedroom and collapsed beside him, prostrate.
‘How was your day?’ She asked into the bedsheet.
‘Wonderful. I took Luigi on a really long walk. We went through the big square in Brixton; you know the one with the fountains? There was a guy listening to his iPod there, singing at the top of his voice.’
‘What was he singing?’
‘I think it was Adele. He seemed quite upset. I think he had his heart broken. It was really emotional. Wonderful voice though.’
‘That’s not normal.’
‘What do you mean?’
Helen inhaled, then turned her head when she realised there was nowhere to release the air. ‘Singing in public like that. It’s not normal.’
‘But what’s wrong with it?’
‘What’s right with it? No one wants to hear that.’
‘You’re wrong. Lots of people were listening. Luigi and I enjoyed it.’
‘Why is he called Luigi?’ Helen asked, propping herself up on her elbows.
‘It was either Luigi, or Federico. I fancied something new.’
‘I’m stuck,’ Helen said, sotto voce.
‘Have you got cramp?’ Adam asked. ‘Do you need me to turn you over?’
‘No Adam, I mean-‘ She paused. ‘We’re stuck.’
‘Oh.’ He understood. ‘Let’s go on holiday.’
‘We just got back from Barbados.’
‘It was more fun the first time we went,’ Helen mused.
‘I agree.’ They lay still for some moments, swamped in their own silence.
‘Do you want to adopt?’ Helen broke the unintentional pact.
‘They wouldn’t let us. We’d fail all the tests and interviews.’
Silence descended once more, filled with truth.
‘Do you want to go on a run?’ Adam suggested.
‘It’s eleven pm.’
‘So? No better time than now.’
‘I only run on Fridays. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.’
It was Thursday. Adam rolled off the bed and walked to a set of drawers, perusing frantically through them. He returned, holding out his wife’s sports bra. They smiled at each other. There was affection in this exchange which warmed the dying temperatures of the darkness.
Outside, both parties wearing expensive gear, a healthy serving of the moon providing the pathway with light. A light drizzle had fallen earlier, the slabs of rock still holding on to the moisture. Past their open gate, another couple teetered and tottered, intoxicated to the point of impaired motor function. They stumbled along, hand in hand, both carrying a bottle in their free hands, trying to have a rather loud conversation, in which their love for each other appeared to be the main topic. The exchange carried, even as the shadow stole them from sight.
Helen looked at Adam, Adam at Helen. Helen made the first move, pulling her black nylon t-shirt over her head. By the time Adam had recovered to drop his shorts, Helen had shed her top layer and was working on her undergarments. Within a minute, they were both au naturel, that is to say, stark naked. Only their shoes remained.
‘You’re still as beautiful as the day we met,’ Adam said to his wife.
‘You’re just as big,’ Helen replied, clasping her hand to her mouth, surprised at herself. Contagious laughter erupted, spreading from husband to wife, until their own tears added moisture to the ground. Without warning, Adam took off, darting through the gateway and onto the pavement. Helen followed, still giddy, guffawing.
‘Where are we going?’ She asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Adam said. ‘I honestly don’t know.’
‘Shouldn’t we follow that couple?’ She motioned to the two whom had staggered in the other direction they had taken.
Adam thought about this for a second, then shook his head. ‘They don’t know where they are going either.’