Time on the Side of the Road. Madeline Cross.

26 Dec

Time on the Side of the Road

They don’t fit one bit. They never have. His toes are all curled in on each other and he’s sure the nail on one of his toes is cutting into another toe and he must be bleeding. He bends over to untie the laces. Holding on to one of the heels, he tugs, wriggling his foot until the leather gives a little. With a final pull his hot, crumpled foot comes free of the boot. He repeats the process with the other foot. With both boots dangling from the laces in his hands, he swings them around once, twice, a third time, let’s go of the laces, and watches as they fly high up in the air, landing on the other side of the road with a double thump. He takes off his socks too and it’s like peeling off a layer of skin. He was right – one toe is crusty with blood. Both his little toes are so crushed against the others they don’t really resemble toes anymore, just little lumps on the side of his feet. He sits down on the raised bank on the roadside and lifts up his legs so that he can feel the grass against the broken skin of his feet. He pushes his toes into the dirt.
Where is he? He sinks deeper into the grass and wildflowers. He doesn’t catch himself. He is shaded by the branches of a sycamore tree growing in the field behind and slightly above him. The road itself is more of a country lane, wide and pot-holed. On the opposite side thistles and nettles aggressively climb the bank, but growing between and around his fingers there are only celandines and cow parsley. The lane bends its way between flat farmland. In all directions a perfectly stitched quilt of quadrangle fields spreads itself. The odd tree, older than the fences and hedgerows, stubbornly ruptures the pattern.
He thinks about how he got there. He tries to visualise the route he’s taken, or where it even began, but working backwards doesn’t help. He stares across the tarmac at his boots.
“What are you doing?” A woman and boy appear around the bend. They are walking slowly, moving their feet in time with each other, equally considered expressions on their strikingly flat faces. They must be mother and son. They have the same ash blonde hair and thin mouths.
“I’m resting,” Lah replies, though he isn’t sure whether that’s accurate.
He had been walking for as long as he could remember, no differently to anybody else, until he had stumbled on the pothole that the women and boy just sidestepped. The thought had come to him without ceremony, without thunder or lightning: Just stop.
The boy tilts his head curiously. “Resting?”
“Resting,” the woman repeats.
“Yes, resting,” Lah offers.
“You’re a young man,” she says, as if this means something. Her expression has become hostile, breaking up her flat features in a menacing, reptilian way. Lah’s seen that expression somewhere before, directed at someone else. She takes the boy’s hand in hers and picks up pace. He watches their backs until they turn a corner and there is nothing more to see.

People begin to pass by regularly. They are mostly young men, long-limbed and full of purpose. Some of them don’t react to Lah at all. Maybe they don’t see him, or don’t know what they’re seeing if they do. He watches them and can’t settle on pity or envy. He studies their clothes and haircuts and shoes, mentally giving himself a point for every man wearing a tie or with stiff wax in his hair. It passes the time, though he is not worried about that. He is worried about jealousy. It’s jealousy he doesn’t want to feel. Each time he is left alone again he turns his attention back to his feet and feels only the pain dissolving, leaving no room to feel anything else.
A man comes by who Lah immediately senses isn’t like the rest. He’s closer to middle-aged, with a steady walk, unfaltering smile, and cheeks as round and pink as small apples. Carrying a walking stick in one hand, he looks Lah right in the eye as he approaches. Everything about him is bright and capable. He slows down, seeming not to mind about it, and prods Lah’s discarded boots with his stick. “Are these yours, my man?”
“Yes, they’re mine.”
“What a wonderful thought – taking them off like that. How do they feel?”
“My feet?”
“Yes, yes, man!” He cries animatedly, almost stopping completely but continuing to step up and down on the spot.
“They feel freer.”
“Wow, what a wonderful thought. So you’ve stopped have you?”
“Yes.”
“How did that come about?”
“Just a thought.”
“Unfortunate to have a poor pair of boots, some are born better equipped for life than others aren’t they? No damn fairness about it, no fairness about it at all. See my boots – beautiful creatures, practically alive. I swear sometimes they make me bounce.”
Lah smiles but he is still unsure of himself and his fingers dig into the earth nervously. He eyes the man’s boots. They are made from a velvety material, moleskin maybe, and dyed forest green. The soles are at least an inch thick.
“Would you like a sandwich?” The man asks.
“Yes, I would,” Lah says, the memory of hunger replacing his anxiety.
The man rummages around in his rucksack without breaking the rhythm of his steps, pulls out a sandwich wrapped in Clingfilm and hands it to Lah.
“Will you stop with me?” Lah chances, unwrapping the sandwich.
“What a thought, man, what a thought! That would be a blast.”
“So you will?”
“Oh no, no I can’t, lovely idea though. I’m glad it’s caught you, but it’s not for me.”
“Have you ever stopped?”
“Not yet, but I’ve met those who have. Though I must say they’ve all been much older than you, on their last boots shall we say. You on the other hand seem rather young?”
Lah chews and frowns.
“There’s always something new around the corner,” the man continues, waving his stick in the air. “I’ve been told I’m an optimist. I’m glad you like the sandwich. I’ll leave you another before I go.” He sticks his free hand back into his rucksack.
Lah swallows a lump of cheese and can feel it rolling down his oesophagus like a stone as he tries to think of something to say that will make the man stay longer. But the man puts another sandwich on the grass beside him and then grasps his hand to shake it. “Good man. I’ll be thinking of you here.” And then he turns and carries on, humming slightly, leaving Lah staring at the terrible boots where they lie on the road. The man was right; they should have been better and had let him down from the very start.

The evening is warm and muggy. Lah eats the second sandwich and lies back in the grass. He is just starting to doze off when the air beside him changes temperature. He opens his eyes and for a second all he can see is a smudge of dark orange blocking out the sky and the setting sun. Then the smudge turns and the white side of a face appears with a trail of freckles riding its cheekbone.
She’s the most perfect thing he’s ever seen. And she has stopped completely.
He swings himself upright. “What are you doing?”
“What are you doing?”
“I’ve stopped.”
“So have I,” she says, her eyes laughing at him. They are big and beetle-black.
“Why?”
“Because I saw you, and you looked happy, and I wanted that too. It’s taken me so long to catch up with you. Do you remember the last time we saw each other?”
“I remember, Bea.”
It isn’t true. He doesn’t remember the time or the place, but he does remember her. Her name comes to him as though he was already thinking of it before she appeared. He recognises everything about her and nothing at all. Her hair smells like chamomile tea.
He wishes he could think of the perfect think to say, the most perfect thing ever said. He’s never been taught the words though. He’s never been taught anything. All he knows how to do is walk. He looks down and sees that she has taken off her boots and socks and they are now lying on the ground beside his own. Her feet are small and pink and they aren’t as tortured as his. The skin seems new. She is watching a robin on the opposite bank. Lah kisses the freckles on her cheek. She leans into him as he does it, and he keeps his mouth against her skin, not moving his lips, listening to the life in her. Her voice is low and he hears it in his chest. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”
She motions to a couple walking by, a good ten years older, with weathered faces and grey in their hair. They glance over at Lah and Bea darkly. Lah studies the cracks in their boots. They don’t slow down, becoming silhouettes against the flat skyline, then fading altogether.
“I’ve been waiting for this,” Bea says.
“Have you?”
“I guess I didn’t know it before.”
“It just came to me,” Lah replies. “Like a slap in the face, but not as violent as that.” He tries to think. “No, it wasn’t like that at all. I don’t know what it was like.”
She laughs at him but nothing about her makes him feel ashamed.
“Come with me,” she tugs at his arm and they scramble over the bank into the field. It feels strange to move and put the weight back on his feet. The ground is doughy and slightly wet where the sun hasn’t reached. She stops at the trunk of the sprawling sycamore and sits with her back to it. She guides his body and he fits around her like a coat. They are still close to the roadside, but it seems to him that it’s getting further and further away in their minds, and that the people that walk it are walking in a different world.
When it gets dark he can’t see the freckles on her face and arms which he had been creating pathways with, so he turns to the stars. At walking pace it always seemed to him that the stars moved as he did, constantly crossing the sky, unable to pause. But lying there with Bea in his arms, they do as he does. They stay in place. He can see the patterns they form, the shapes and worlds they hold together. “They’re so still,” he whispers.
“They’re moving,” Bea says, with her head against his chest. “They’re just so far away you can’t see it.”
“No,” Lah closes his eyes. “They’ve stopped.”

When he wakes with the sun he knows that something has changed. Bea is standing over him.
“I need to keep going,” she says.
“What?”
She looks at him pityingly and he feels his face flush.
“I’m not ready,” she turns to the road.
He stands up and his feet ache with cramp. “You’ve already stopped though. You’ve done it.”
“No, I haven’t, not really. It looks that way, I know it looks that way, but in my head it’s different.”
Lah doesn’t have enough words. He could trip her up and keep her there. He could hold her. He has arms and legs and strength. He stares at the bend in the road. He tries to imagine what’s beyond it, tries to make himself care. But he doesn’t. He knows somehow that this has all happened before and that it will only happen again. There is nothing he can do about it.
“I’m happy for you,” she says.
“I don’t want to be alone.”
“You won’t be.”
“Yes, I will. I’m always different.”
“You’re better.”
“That’s not what it feels like.”
“But it’s what is.”
She has already put her boots on. They have miles left in them, as if they’ve never walked a step. She slides down the bank on to the road. A crowd of people are passing beneath the early sun, and she merges between them seamlessly, until all Lah can see is a smudge of dark orange between the shoulders of people he doesn’t want to know.
When she’s gone she doesn’t fade from his mind like the others did. He doesn’t question whether he ever saw her at all. The imprint of her body can still be seen in the grass. He can feel her hair between his fingers and taste the salt on her mouth. It’s as if she’s still with him but she isn’t. He paces up and down until the cramp leaves his feet and then realises what he’s doing. He will not give in. He sits down. The pain in his chest is overwhelming. It is nothing like the pain in his feet. It’s as if his heart is lighter in weight. It flutters and rises, intending to throw itself out of his body. He’s terrified he won’t be able to control it and thumps his chest with his fists. He tries to cry but nothing happens. When he screams at the road two children he hadn’t noticed break into a run. He collapses backwards.

The sky clouds over and everything is dulled. It is still warm, but in a muffled, too-close way. The browns and greys and tired greens could have poured from Lah’s own mouth if he had spoken any words. But he is lying on his back, prostrate, with no intention of ever moving again.
“Is it almost night?” An elderly man is standing on the road.
Lah makes to open his mouth but can’t.
“Have you stopped for the night? I lose track of time, and my eyesight isn’t what it was, so I can’t tell if this is darkness coming, or that type of day that just sits on your shoulders.”
Lah eases himself up on to his elbows. “No,” he manages. “It isn’t night.”
The man hesitates. “So you’ve stopped, even though it isn’t night?”
He is very old, with a white moustache that droops down on either side of a small mouth, whiskers protruding from his eyebrows. His whole appearance is rough and animal-like, and his boots are so worn that Lah can’t see if they even have soles.
“Yes, I’ve stopped,” Lah says. “And it isn’t night. I’ve been here since yesterday, at least, I think it was yesterday.”
“Do you know where we are?” The old man asks.
“No,”
“It could be the midlands?”
“Or the lowlands.”
 “What a flat country. Will you help me into the field?”
Lah struggles to his feet. He hadn’t realised just how lonely he was, or how much he wanted to escape it. He takes the old man’s arm in his and gently supports him to get his footing in the grass. They climb across the bank into the field and the old man sinks against the sycamore.
“This is it,” he says.
Lah stares at him and tries to imagine what he’s feeling.
“This is it,” he says again.
“How long have you been walking?”
The old man stares at Lah with a curious expression. “I have no idea.”
 “Why are you looking at me like that?”
“How did you stop?” The old man asks.
Lah would like to give a better answer than he has so far come up with, but there doesn’t seem to be one yet. “I just stopped. It was what I wanted.”
“It isn’t hard for me. For me, it’s harder to keep going, but that’s different.”
“I think I was tired.”
“You were tired?”
“I was on my own.”
“You have no idea.” The old man yawns exaggeratedly.
“There’s no need to be like that.” Lah suddenly feels like a child again. He has a vague memory of his family gathered around him, laughing. He can’t pinpoint why, but he remembers feeling small, with an even smaller ball of red heat inside him, steadily growing. What was it he had done that was so ridiculous? Why did it feel like this was a regular occurrence, like everything he did was odd, laughable? It wasn’t a memory he wanted, even in its half-formed state, but perhaps it explained why he wasn’t with his family now – why he was alone.
“This a good tree,” the old man says.
“Is that why you’re here – for the tree?
“Can you appreciate a good tree?”
Lah doesn’t answer; crossing his arms over his chest and starting to hope the old man will get up and leave. He didn’t stop for this. Perhaps loneliness is better – better than being judged, better than being laughed at.
 “I’m teasing you,” the old man says.
“I realise.”
“Maybe you’ve just been walking alone too long. Try and remember how to take a joke.”
“Wisdom is it?”
The old man grins sheepishly, folds his hands on his lap and closes his eyes. Lah smiles too, no longer angry. He wants to be more patient. He doesn’t want to be left alone again.
“Does your wisdom stretch to answers? Or is that too much to hope for?”
“I’m sorry. It’s not as easy as that.”
“No, it never is.”
The old man is drifting away and into sleep, his words softer. “I really did take a liking to this tree though. I think it might be the best tree I’ve ever seen, and isn’t that a thing to be able to say?”
Lah doesn’t reply. The old man’s moustache has spread out against his cheeks. For a while he taps his fingers on his lap, but then he stops and Lah can tell that he is wholly asleep.
Lah closes his eyes too and lies back. He visualises himself on the road, picking up his boots and swinging them over his shoulder. He imagines walking bare foot along the tarmac, feeling the dirt and grit climbing between his toes. The sun will come out, surely, and he will feel it on his face. People will pass as they have always done, and maybe they won’t notice him, maybe one person might smile and say hello. That man, the man with the velvety boots, he will be ahead, never walking too fast, never in a rush, always with something to say to a stranger. And the road will widen, the people will fade. Further ahead, in a copse of bluebells and wild garlic, Bea will be in a heap on the ground, crying for the loss of him, her dark orange hair covering her white face. No one will have stopped to help her, to ask if she’s ok. But Lah will, Lah will not think twice before stopping and sitting beside her. He will take off her shoes and carry them for her. He will hold her hand and lead her bare foot on to the road. He will say sorry for what he has already done and what he has not yet done.
The footsteps on the road die down. The afternoon is no different to the morning, muted and unmoving. Lah rolls on to his side so that he is facing the old man who still has his eyes closed and his hands folded over his stomach. But where before each breath had moved the soft white hairs of his moustache, there are none now. Lah crawls over to him, looking down on to the old face. He places his hand on his cheek and feels how the skin has already become cold and dry like paper, then he moves his hand to the old man’s silent chest.
He stands up and stares at the horizon, trying once more to imagine what’s around the bend in the road, trying to imagine that it could mean something to him. There could be something. There must be something, but he thinks backwards for clues that will help him and there is nothing to fix on to. Except Bea’s face, the bright bone white of her skin, a red-breasted robin, a cheese sandwich, old boots. These solid things on the side of a road.
And for now there is also a dead man.
Lah bends over and carefully unties the laces of the old man’s boots. He pulls them off and holds them for a moment, feeling how light and temporary they are, then he throws them high into the air. They land on the road beside his own with barely a sound. The old man has no socks on. He looks childlike, lying there with his free toes pointing up to the sky, traces of a smirk on his face.

Madeline Cross

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