November 22, 2017

Road Walker: A Story

The windows on the bus were misted and foggy.

Small gemmed droplets of rain-water had collected on the outside and were very slowly dripping down to the seal. But when the bus was still, humming and gently rocking at traffic lights, the drops shone with the weak Autumn morning sun.

The clouded view from inside showed nothing of the world around the bus. The man sitting on the seat only knew that the bus was stopped at a traffic light because the window mist was glowing bright red. The passenger looked as the glow changed from deep red, to rich orange and then to a green brighter than grass in sunlight.

The man anxiously watched the change as he sat in his seat. It seemed to take a long time to cycle through the colours. So long that he became mesmerised by the glow that covered the seat in front of him.

He sat and watched as a middle-aged man read a newspaper and plucked his nose hairs. The man thought no-one was watching, but on a bus, everybody is watching, especially when the windows are so misted that you can’t look out of them. The man would turn a page and then would insert his paper-print-smeared fingers in to the opening of his nose, grab a few, like chopsticks trap tumbling grains of rice, and yank them out quickly. The man would take his eyes from his paper and examine the hairs, while twitching his nose delicately and then rub the remnants on the page he was reading.

The man sitting across the way watching him hoped that he would be off the bus before the man had finished and decided to move on to something else.

The man’s legs were too long to fit into the small gap between seats and so he sat on the very edge and stretched his legs out into the passage as much as he could. His knee was pressed against the metal bar at the top and it rubbed every time the bus moved. He kept moving his legs to stop the pain in his knee-cap but the movement of the bus kept putting it back in the same place.

The man hated having to sit like this; there was never enough room for his legs, he always seemed to get sore knees. Trains, buses, even planes were restrictive of his knees.

 

The man was relieved to get off the bus; so relieved that he got up from his seat a couple of minutes before the bus stop. The bus was stopped at a traffic light again. The man watched the light on the misted windows as he stood by the driver’s cab.

He got off the bus and walked down a road.

As always, he walked in the centre of the road when he could. No-one really knew why he did this, not even him.

If any cars drove along the road, the man walked along the gutter; not on the pavement or even the curb. The man walked along the quieter suburban roads and streets like this and, when he met a busier road, he would find any chance he could to cross the road to the other side and back again.

On rainy days like this, the roads were rivers. The sloped sides of the roads collected the water in the gutters and fed it down into the waiting gaping mouths. The man felt like he was paddling in streams when he had to walk in the gutters.

His shoes got soaked, but he didn’t mind. He had gone through many pairs of shoes; all cheap, as there was no point in buying expensive ones when he treated them like this.

These ones he had on now were starting to break. He walked back out into the centre of the road after a car had gone past, he could hear the familiar squeak of trapped air pushing out past water and sole. There was a hole in this shoe, not long till there was one in the other.

Wet socks aren’t the nicest of things, but at least he had others at home.

On sunny days, even, the hole in his shoe still squeaked as the air squished through it. His socks rubbed against the plastic insoles and squeaked too, but at least they didn’t get wet.

 

I say that nobody knew why the man walked in the middle of the road but I do know, really. He preferred to walk in the middle of the road. But why did he prefer to walk in the road?

People asked him; lots of them. They saw him doing it and wondered why.

They might not have seen him firstly, but as a car tooted irritably as it drove past him, they turned to look and saw him placidly ambling along just the same. Or they sat in the park near one of the suburban roads and slowly watched him.

What reason could you give when asked about something like that?

Why do you eat your vegetables first and the meat afterwards, or vice versa? Why do you like vinegar on your chips but not salt?

Why wear a jumper when it’s hot and only a shirt when it’s cold?

On some days people would ask him why.

Why do you walk in the road?

 

The man was walking one day and the wind was blowing tightly across fences and through hedges. The trees in the park next to the road were leaning fearfully away from the wind; the noise of the wind threatening to tear the leaves off of the trees was ripping through the usual traffic sound.

A long way ahead, the man saw a dog walking alone along the road. It had perhaps escaped from its owner in the park or had bolted through a gate that the wind had slammed open. The dog sniffed the ground and walked up and down the pavement ahead of the man. As the man saw the dog he stopped and watched it. The dog was still sniffing by a hedge and then stopped and slowly looked up at the man. In this weather the man didn’t trust the dog and stood completely still, in the gutter, watching the dog. The man’s lower legs were flooded with leaves as they gushed past and down the street; the dog had now taken up sniffing again and ignored the man.

A shout called out, and the dog’s head twisted before it ran off back into the park.

The man stood still and watched as the wind blew his hair and his coat collar flapped against his neck. After a few seconds the dog came back out again shortly followed by a woman with a lead. The dog was looking up into the woman’s face. The man had an image of a lost-and-found child devoutly clutching at the parent’s hand.

As the woman attached the dog’s collar to the lead again, the man started to walk along the road. The woman was just about to set off, but startled slightly by the unexpected movement across the road, she stopped and watched.

The man was walking briskly, slightly weaving along the road. Not weaving in a drunk meandering but controlled weaving, like a swerving slalom. As the man came directly opposite the woman and the dog, he slowed down and looked at the woman sideways. She looked right back and before he could carry on, before she had time to think what she was saying, before the dog could even try and sniff the man, the woman said: “Why do you walk like that?”

The man, for a second, stood still as the wind blew on, around and at him. Without any space, it seemed he answered: “Because the pavement always has cracks and holes in it. The road is better looked after. Cars cost more than legs.”

The woman opened her mouth, but finding nothing to fill it, closed it again.

The man saw this and heard the faint noise that the wind made as it circled in her mouth and back out again, and then walked on.

After a moment, the dog pulled the woman to lead her on, and she followed.

 

Another day, clear as water and sunny too, the man was again walking back and forward across the road; stepping into the gutters to avoid cars, only dust trickled over his shoes when the wind blew hot. A car was driving slowly in the road behind the man, the man had heard a long time before the car was anywhere near him and moved over to the side of the road.

Coming the other way, a man on a bike was also drifting along in the gutter, faster than the man.

The trees were sheltering the road from the sun, in fact, moss grew on parts of the pavement where the trees kept it cold and the hedges kept it damp.

The car, leaving room to pass the walking man pulled out further than normal and almost clipped the man on the bike. The car driver yelled loudly at the cyclist as he passed by him and banged on his horn loudly. The walking man heard the slaps of the man’s hand louder than the actual horn and stopped, watching the whole thing from the dry gutter.

The cyclist stopped and put one foot on the mossy pavement, eyeing the car violently as it drove to the end of the road. As the car drove around the corner and onto the main road, the cyclist changed his focus to the walker.

“It was your fault as much as his. If you weren’t walking in the road; he wouldn’t have come over this side so much”

The walker had been watching the cyclist’s eyes and met them as they turned to him. His face was calm and he replied: “It’s all about the right and the wrong.”

“What?” the cyclist shouted.

“The right can shout as much as they like; they believe in what they’re saying. The wrong have to fight against themselves first.”

The man watched the cyclist again for a couple of seconds and then walked on through the dust and small stones washed in to the gutter weeks ago.

The cyclist watched him go and then watched the space that the man had left for a few seconds. Only when a car on the main road tooted, did he see the space for what it was and carried on cycling slowly.

 

Sometimes the road walker would walk and his mouth would move at the same time. When you were close, you could hear a sound; not talking but something like humming, tuneless and endless coming from his mouth. If you were more than half a metre away, you couldn’t hear anything coming out of it, all you could see was the slow chewing, slightly sucking movement of the mouth.

In fact, not many people saw the movement of the walker’s mouth because he only moved it when he wasn’t paying attention to anything else. As soon as he was disturbed in his walking by anything, he would stop his mouth working and focus that energy on something else.

Once, the road walker was walking along the road again, this time in slightly frosty morning weather (the leaves were stuck to the road in the gutter and crunching quietly under his feet), and a young girl was watching him as he walked.

Her dad was on the phone and they had stood still so that the dad could speak without the earpiece rubbing against his ear. The girl had been watching another child being pulled along by their parent but then saw the road walker coming in her direction.

She watched the controlled weaving, heard the slight squeak in is shoe, saw the mouth chewing on itself, working itself into a grin grimace, opening slightly to let sound out and breath in. She watched him till he was almost opposite her and her dad and then tugged on her dad’s coat: “Dad. Why is that man walking in the road?”

The dad, still engaged with the person on the phone, made the bad mistake of saying something as a joke to a child when the child is serious: “I don’t know, darling, why don’t you ask him?”

The girl looked up at her dad, moved her own mouth in confusion, and then in a clear and clean voice: “Excuse me? Why are you walking in the middle of the road?”

The road walker stopped opposite the girl and her dad and looked at her. The dad quickly eyed the man and then his daughter; ‘she had said it, she had actually said it’. The dad had a very quick feeling. Like when walking on icy pavements and having an instant taste of blood in your mouth when thinking about slipping over.

The man had a feeling of dread, of acute embarrassment that tasted like, like he didn’t know. And then it was gone again.

The little girl stayed looking persistent at the road walker and he looked back. The dad eyed the two of them tens of times in a couple of seconds and then settled on the road walker.

The road walker’s mouth had been chewing, speaking in hums to himself and had stopped a few seconds ago. It now opened slowly again and spoke as clearly as the little girl:

“Do you ever see anything but people use the pavement? Cats run across roads, dogs would too if their owner didn’t stop them. Squirrels, hedgehogs, foxes; they all use the road. People don’t; only cross it to get to the other side. So why can’t people use the road too?”

The little girl looked strangely at the man and he looked back with a question in his face. The man then stood up completely straight and walked off down the road.

The little girl’s eyes and her dad’s followed him until he reached the end of the road and disappeared out of sight. The little girl then went back to watching the wind play gently around the stark bare branches and toeing frozen leaves stuck to the path as her dad carried on talking on his phone.

 

A drunken man was sitting at a bus stop waiting for his bus. It was a Thursday and he always got drunk on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. He sat on the metal bench; it was warm and sticky because it was early honeyed autumn and someone had spilt a drink on the seat a few hours before.

The day was starting to end and he had the bus stop to himself. Not because it wasn’t busy on the road, it was, but the other people who would’ve used the bus stop had decided not to use it this time.

The reason was because the man was drunk. That would be ok usually, but this man wasn’t a pleasant drunk; he was loud and abusive. Sitting on his bench at the bus stop, the man was furiously shouting at someone in front of him. There wasn’t anyone there but as people walked past or near the man, they felt that he was shouting at them. His eyes didn’t even see them; they focussed on something else entirely. He sat there in visionary fury; the drunk’s eyes blurted and his mouth stared.

People made up reasons for his shouting but, like the road walker, the reason was known only to him.

The road walker was walking along the street on this Thursday with the drunken man laughing and shouting ahead of him. Other people crossed the road to avoid the drunk but the road walker crossed the road because he felt like it.

The drunken man filled the road with inexplicable words and sounds and somehow, whether something of the exterior world sliced into his vision or whether it was a coincidence, the road walker heard: “Why the hell are you walking in the middle of the road you fool!”

The road walker had been moving his mouth, following his feet on the ground, only focussing on the present things happening as each sole squeaked meeting the floor. To hear this shout, cutting into his thoughts; it took a moment for him to raise his head and stop the shoes squeaking. The shout could’ve been anything; “Why are you wearing a hat, you idiot?” or “Stop carrying a bag! You look like a donkey!” but amazingly the shout was thrown and caught at exactly the right time.

The road walker started to walk towards the drunken man; he was still shouting, again at nothing, but people around the bus stop were looking at the scene thinking it might be an argument. Something about the road walker’s quick and precise steps towards the drunk suggested that he might be about to shout back, but the road walker stopped a metre or two from the man, still in the road.

The drunken man now realised that there was really someone there, in front of him and finally stopped shouting, his face slowly losing the redness that the drunk anger had boiled in him. The road walker, calmly and without haste spoke: but whatever he said, it wasn’t heard because a bus drove huge, rumbling, chugging by and the sound drowned everything.

The drunk, though, sat still and listened to whatever he heard and the road walker spoke calm and quiet words and then turned and carried on walking along the side of the road.

The drunk sat and watched him leave for a few seconds and then was distracted by something in front of him that wasn’t there. The thing in front of him annoyed him and he started up his shouting again. The people who had moved closer to hear the argument, moved away again in case they’d get shouted at but the drunk was shouting directly in front of him, to no-one.

 

Lots of people have asked the road walker why he walks in the road, and every time the answer has been different.

Either he can’t make up his mind or there is no reason.

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