My flight lands at 10pm. I step through the sliding doors and beyond the terminal’s microclimate. The cold is assertive, like a telemarketer. I run my eyes along the taxi queue as it snakes across the plaza, and I am dismayed. And for the first time in a long time, I have the urge to run home.
I am wearing brown leather brogues and there’s a courier bag stuffed with documents slung over my shoulder. So what? The route is an incision. Once you’ve navigated the lazy right-hand turn out of the airport precinct, it’s a straight line: Don Bradman Drive, with its plane trees sick-looking after an unusual bout of frost (ah. ah. hah. hah) becomes a bridge over railway lines and sports stadia; crashes through the parklands, spilling loud light. Shapeshifts into Grote Street (Hah-ah. Hah-ah HAH-ah) with its Chinatown district, still alive on a Thursday night unlike the rest of the city, with people pushing prams, slurping bubble tea. Feeds into Tarntanyangga, the meeting spot (Hah hah hah hah aaaaaah) within which a temporary ice-skating rink has been installed, while blanket-bundled sleepers line wooden benches across the way. Exits into Wakefield Street: police station, pub closed early, methadone clinic attached to a 24-hour chemist, and a few doors further down, a gate my key unlocks (Hah. Hah. Hah. Hah. …fuuuhhh). Airport to home, a line made for long, loping strides.
# # #
A decade and half before that, my nocturnal running career is in full swing. I’m drunk, twenty-two years old, and making my way home from a house party three suburbs away. Nothing else moves along this narrow street. Humans and other animals have taken cover. My jeans swish and pull at my knees as I swing my legs forward. The dark obscures faults where tree roots have ruptured the pavement, and I’m not looking where I’m placing my feet, and by rights I should roll an ankle, but I don’t.
The woosh, audible and imagined. The cool and the too-quick heat, running too fast; stupidly, embarrassingly, running for a while like a ninja, arms flared out behind back, but it’s fine because there’s no one else. Bushes pass, twigs brush and catch; nothing hurts. Next morning I will wake up with bruises and tiny lacerations.
Sometimes I develop a stitch. Frequently I get puffed out, or feel the alcohol sloshing in my belly, and I need to slow down. I stop to pick at a thin branch dangling from a gum tree, crush the leaves in my hand and inhale. I am aware of all noises, all smells.
For a while I jog slowly. I amble. I sing old Dire Straits songs that passed out of fashion before I was born. The running mood is wistful. Gliding down the centre of a street through the dark is a better version of looking at a city from the air, and picking out the light from a single house, and wondering: who lives there?
# # #
The first time I have a sense that it’s wrong is when I turn up after midnight at my then-girlfriend’s house. I assume she will be pleased to see me. She says I make her worried, which seems absurd. She hadn’t known I’d been running; how can she be concerned now, after I’ve reached her unharmed?
Next time I run, I tell myself I am not hurting anyone, have no intention of hurting anyone. I am not inconveniencing anyone, or if I am, it is only the briefest of inconveniences, as I pass by quickly and loudly. What I am doing feels disobedient, but perhaps it’s a good, noble disobedience, like freaking out the squares? Like, maybe I’m protesting the War on Terror that is the suburbs.
# # #
Running at night is liberating – for the runner. It’s pissing in random driveways. It’s the freedom not to think about whether you are, perhaps, scaring or discomforting others. In the moment, there is little way of knowing.
Another thing that it pays not to think about: the busy conjunction of privilege that allows me to indulge in this kind of behaviour. Because of who I am, I’m unlikely to be hassled. I’m in a nice, safe part of town, and anyway I’m a young man and my prefrontal cortex hasn’t quite finished developing, and I’m fast, so I have absolutely no fear of being assaulted. I am well-dressed—if strangely, for a bout of running—and unmistakably white. Anyone who sees me out their window will, I’m sure, give me the benefit of the doubt. If, by purest chance, I meet the police in these quiet backstreets, they will take me at my word when I explain that I’ve had too much to drink, and I am heading home, and what a good boy I am for not driving, and yes of course I will try and keep the noise down, lol.
# # #
One time, I get a fright. I am ticking along quite nicely, working a route that is new to me, and a form looms out of the darkness ahead: a man of about my own age and build. He is heading in the opposite direction, also clearly under the influence of… something, wearing a salmon-coloured shirt with a collar, like perhaps he’s come from an engagement party or an uncle’s 50th. I recognise a kindred spirit! But when I reach out to give him a high-five, he grasps my wrist and won’t let go. He babbles at me, panting: something about how some guy at a servo has ripped him off. And he holds me there – he is stronger than me, I realise too slowly, as I watch his free hand rummage around in his jacket pocket.
He mumbles something, and it sounds like he is impatient. I can’t understand him, so I say, Nah mate have a good one, and he lets me go and I run on.
# # #
Now that I have a child of my own, I become enraged at the slightest disturbance visited upon us from outside our front window. I rail at the selfishness and lack of consideration of noisemakers.
If you can do something, it means you have a choice: to do it, or not. When you have plenty, it means you have a choice: to take more, or not. This is something I didn’t always understand.
# # #
Nowadays, I am a semi-regular afternoon runner. It’s how I reward my body for its prolonged, obedient desk-sitting. Like many other writers, I find it almost meditative. I run in sport shoes with built-in arch support, and this is kinder on joints that can’t hold out forever. Especially since the pandemic, I take pains to give other pedestrians a wide berth. It is, I’m pretty sure, a healthy pursuit.
I’ve given up running after a few drinks, and I miss the beautiful night. Sometimes you can see stars. Sometimes you can see shopping trolleys and trains and rails and electricity substations, and they are all yours in that moment, because no one else is conscious and caring within a square mile. I wish everyone could experience it once or twice.
Andrew Roff is the winner of the 2020 Peter Carey Short Story Award and the 2018 Margaret River Press Short Story Competition. His fiction has appeared in Griffith Review, Overland, Southerly and Going Down Swinging, among other outlets. He lives in Adelaide and tweets at @roffwrites.