A runner asked me one morning on my way to work, ‘Hey, you. Can you tell me what time it is?’
I replied, ‘Ten to.’
‘To what?’ he asked.
I stared at him briefly. ‘To eight,’ and added an ‘of course’ under my breath.
Had it been any other time of day, I might not have found it so self-evident. But at eight? When everyone was rushing to get to work on time?
‘OK. Thank you. I know neither day nor hour.’
He shook his head and carried on running. I went on my way, more than a little confused. Questions tumbled around my brain like bumblebees.
‘It’s also Wednesday, 18 October. Anything else you’d like to know?’
I toiled away my eight hours and, truth be told, had forgotten all about the incident when I passed the pitch again and spotted the guy still running.
‘Hey, you. Can you tell me what time it is?’
‘Ten past five,” I replied.
“Morning or evening?’
I found myself staring at him again. ‘Evening,’ I said curtly.
‘Thank you. Must run.’
He ran on. I noticed a track on the pitch where he had been circling all day.
I headed home, but thought a lot about the man. Actually, to be honest, I couldn’t get him out of my mind.
For how long had he been running, seeing as he didn’t know what day, let alone time, it was? Had he been running for so long that he had completely lost his wits? Or was he a foreigner? Was he perhaps one of these roaming aliens who had taken human form? Perhaps he was lost. Who knows? Wound up in Gundadalur when he was supposed to take part in some intergalactic marathon. Programmed wrong.
I had always wanted to travel in time like that. But I would want to decide for myself where to go and who to visit.
Later that evening I went for a walk. I hadn’t planned on walking that way, but without realizing I had taken the same route as in the morning. The closer I got to the pitch, the more I regretted my choice of route. I didn’t feel like walking past it, so I just peeked around the corner of the spectators’ shelter to find out whether he might actually still be running.
Sure enough, after a while I saw a shadow passing by down on the track.
What should I do?
Call the police or something? The man was wearing himself down. If he couldn’t stop himself, I had to help him. But I was reluctant to get involved in this strange air. The shadow passed me again on its endless orbit. I slipped home.
I went to bed, but couldn’t sleep. My thoughts were running in circles. Chasing after that guy. Following him around the track. I tried to guess where he might be now: on the north or east side. Then it occurred to me, and all thoughts stopped in their tracks, he was running the wrong way. Everyone who usually worked out there ran with the sun. Was that why he couldn’t find his way out again? Perhaps there was some way for me to break his orbit.
I sat up and switched on the bedside lamp. I could put down a plank or two across the track to ease him out, with- out him fully realizing it. Maybe I should do something now, immediately. This was urgent. I thought I remembered seeing two suitable planks in the garage.
I jumped out of bed, quickly put on a pair of jeans and tucked in the large singlet I slept in. Then I rushed down the stairs and pulled the brown leather jacket o the coat hanger. I had a disturbing feeling that this was extremely urgent. As if it had something to do with me. As if it was a matter of life or death.
It was pitch black outside. The lamp post in front of my house was dark.
I fumbled my way towards the garage door, only to remember that we now used a remote. No pulling. I fumbled back in again for the remote. That did the trick. The door rolled up under the ceiling. It was so noisy in the silent night that it made me nervous. At night, when it is quiet, you have to listen. Hear everything that is going on. It is the only salvation.
The light came on automatically. And there they were. I pushed aside a few old pots of paint with brushes sticking straight up without support, and grabbed an old newspaper to brush the cobwebs o the planks. The planks were so long that they sagged in the middle when I lifted them. I hesitated very briefly, and then headed for the football pitch.
Of course, I had no way of knowing whether the man was still running, but, if he was, I had to try.
I have always been both night-blind and afraid of the dark, so this was no easy task. I hoped I wouldn’t come across anyone on my way. They might think the planks were a ladder.
I hurried until I neared the pitch. Then I walked more cautiously. But suddenly I ran into a fence—actually, I ran the planks into a fence and dropped them. I felt the burn of splinters piercing my palms. Cursing, I felt my way to the opening. Then down the stairs, along the barrier and over to where I knew there was a hole. I pushed the planks through and listened, stock-still. The quiet seethed in the darkness. Suddenly I heard something. I did. It was so dark there. I heard the breathing before I heard the footsteps of someone running past, panting. I felt the hairs rising on my nape.
The runner stumbled over the planks, groaned, got back on his feet and carried on running. I flinched in sympathy, but thought I had to give it another shot. Some time passed. Then I heard panting approaching again and once again he stumbled over the boards and fell on his face. He whimpered so pitifully that I immediately pulled back the planks and took them home. I threw them into the garage and closed the door with the remote. Getting any sleep tonight was out of the question, so I made coffee and sat down to mull things over. I was in two minds about the whole thing. In the end I was so exhausted that I fell asleep draped over the table. A crick in my neck woke me up, but my first thought wasn’t the pain or that I was late for work now.
I prayed that he had stopped that nonsense.
I rushed to work, passed the pitch; the man was running all the same. My stomach tied in knots.
‘Stop it. Stop it!’ I yelled silently. He looked up and I felt a jolt when our eyes met. This time he didn’t ask what time it was, he just gave me a pleading look. My eyes welled up. I had never felt more helpless.
I went to work, but couldn’t focus. My thoughts were spinning. I usually had every situation under control, but now it was all a mess. I couldn’t focus enough to sit still. I paced the floor.
Finally, work was over. I couldn’t remember a longer day. Usually, they were over before I knew it. There was only one thing on my mind: getting down to the pitch as quickly as possible.
I had a fierce battle with myself, but finally pulled myself together, turned around, and walked up towards the bank. There was an art exhibition I had been meaning to see for a while.
Most of the images portrayed the same thing: the dim outline of a man and a door opening to darkness. One differed. It was just a door, which was closed.
The images unsettled me.
I couldn’t resist any longer, I ran down to the pitch. The weather had been nice in the morning, but now it was windy with sleet. I was soon drenched, but there was nothing for it. My legs were shaking when I finally came to a halt, panting.
My heart sank to the bottom. His gait had changed. He was dragging himself along like an old man.
I built up my courage and approached the barrier. ‘Please stop that!’ I implored him, when he passed by. “I can’t. Don’t know how to,” he gasped and his blue eyes were brimming with tears. I gripped the barrier so hard that my knuckles went white. The next time he passed, I heard him say: ‘Some men run in shorts, although they own trousers.’
It sounded apologetic, as though he knew that he was inconveniencing me.
I went home, dragging my feet along with me.
I fixed myself something to eat, but felt like I was chewing paper.
‘Stop it, woman. Stop it!’ I shouted and startled myself.
I lay down in bed and fell asleep. When I woke up, it was pitch-black.
I checked my watch. Two thirty. I had slept enough. I got up, wrapped a blanket around myself, took a CD and put it on. I leaned back in my chair, closed my eyes and tried to enjoy the music, but was interrupted by beats, which weren’t supposed to be there. My heart was pounding in my chest and blood was boiling in my ears. Thump. Thump. I listened, that wasn’t just my heart. There was also a knocking at the door.
Who the hell could that be, disturbing people in the middle of the night? I ignored the knocking, but whoever it was, it was not someone easily discouraged. It sounded as though someone was pounding on the door with both fists. I flicked on the light and stood up. I could make out a shape through the pane in the front door. I didn’t like this one bit. I wanted one of those peepholes. I wrapped the blanket tighter around me.
When I unlocked the door, there he was.
I felt immensely relieved, and took a deep breath. He finally stopped. I gave him a tender look and sighed.
He looked exhausted. His face ashen, dark circles under his eyes and drenched in sweat. He was trembling. He had worn out his shoes and his toes were sticking out. I suddenly realized that he was running on the spot. He could barely lift his feet, but he was running. Behind him snow had started to fall.
He tried to say something, but couldn’t speak. Then he cleared his throat a few times.
‘Can you lend me your thoughts, so I can escape this?’ he asked hoarsely with pleading eyes.
‘Yes. If that’s all it takes, then, by all means, do take my thoughts.’
He stopped dead, thanked me and left, and I have to admit that since then I haven’t had a single thought.
But I have taken up running.
A short story from the Nordic literature anthology, The Dark Blue Winter Overcoat (Pushkin Press) edited by Ted Hodgkinson and Sjón