Sidney scanned the paper one last time, peering over his half-moon glasses and crinkling his brow in thought. Without taking his eyes off the list of names and accompanying numbers, he tilted his chair away from the kitchen table, opened a drawer below the sink, and pulled out a fat red marker pen. He swiftly circled two names. He sat up straight and sighed. He had a good feeling about this weekend. The season hadn’t gone well up ’til now, but he’d spent every minute of his fifteen minute lunch break for all six days of that workweek studying the form guides and the background of that Sunday’s runners. He closed his eyes and meditatively listened to the dripping of the kitchen tap and the unidentifiable gurgling sound from an unseen pipe.
His fleeting moment of meditation was broken by a series of loud thumps from the landing above. The noise migrated towards and then barrelled down the stairs, like random solid objects tossed by the hand of a mad person. Presently, his son arrived, clomping into the kitchen in slightly too big shoes and wrapped in layers of coarse woolen fabrics.
“Are you ready to go, Dad?” he said. “It’s time! People are already walking to the ground! Saw ’em from me window.”
Sidney pulled the boy into his arms and hoisted him up onto the table. “Just let me finish me tea and we’ll be off,” he said.
Charlie noticed the form guide next to him and the circled names. “Are these North African ones?” he said. “Mr. Stephenson said they’re the fastest ones. Or the ones that come through Italy, ’cause the food’s good so they’re healthier.”
“I’m not sure they eat the same food as real Italians. They can’t waste good food on the likes of them lot.”
“Guess not,” said Charlie, thoughtfully.
“Right you are then,” said Sidney, as Charlie hopped off the table and ran towards the front door. Sidney scooped up the newspaper and followed his son. They each grabbed a scarf and a woolen hat from the hooks by the door and left the house.
Charlie was right. There was already a steady flow of folks, rambling up the street, hands dug deep into their pockets and the lower half of their faces burrowing into scarves for protection against the harsh northern winter.
As they progressed along the street, the flow increased to a surge. Sidney enjoyed this time perhaps most of all. Giving cheery nods to workmates and friends and grabbing snippets of conversation and jokes with them as they were carried along together was pleasant. The Companies said so much about community and collective effort that it could sometimes feel hackneyed and trite, but in these moments, it felt genuine. It made the six-day grind worth it, just for the solidarity it created. Charlie had met a couple of friends and they’d been buzzing excitedly around each other, barging and bumping like three or four wasps vying for air space. Now Sidney grabbed him for fear of losing him in the crowd.
Eventually they reached the old stadium. The number of visible police—until then merely peppered throughout the crowd—increased until the crowd eventually found themselves funnelled between rows of black-clad, stony-faced individuals and towards the turnstiles. Sidney stopped briefly at what was once a ticket window, pulled out his newspaper with the circled names, and showed it to the woman in the booth. She punched something into a computer and Sidney handed over the necessary tokens.
Once inside the stadium, Sidney and Charlie shuffled along the rows of seats until they came to theirs and sat down. On Sidney’s right was Pat. They’d had these seats assigned to them since they’d become adults, and after years’ worth of Showings, knew each other better than anyone else in the community. As was tradition, they were each other’s substitutes. The seat on Sidney’s left was occupied by Charlie, and to Charlie’s left, the seat was empty, with a black spot painted messily on the higher part of the backrest, big enough to be visible from metres away. To Pat’s right was his wife, Angela. She touched Pat’s elbow and gestured to Sidney. Pat nodded his consent.
“You’ve got some tokens on a couple of runners this morning Sid?” Angela asked
“Aye. Got a good feeling about today, Angie. Really put the research in this week.”
Pat pulled out a copy of the same paper and showed it to Sidney. Pat’s was so covered in scribbles Sidney had to study it for a moment to deduce which Pat was going for.
“This lad Middle Eastern, aye?” Sidney asked, pointing to one name.
“But born in the French camps. Fresher; settled.”
(Being as they were more or less compulsory, the subscriptions paid for The Runs were not only enough to recoup the profits lost from the infeasibility of commercial football after The Great Escape, but also made up a not insubstantial proportion of the French economy in exchange for the building and maintenance of holding camps. It was widely agreed that the arrangement worked out superbly for both nations.)
“They say they’ve withered genes from there, all ’dem wars,” said Sidney.
“But less likely to be half-drowned. Plus they’re smaller from there. Nippier.”
Suddenly Charlie interjected. “Sometimes I feel sorry for the smaller ones when they’re caught.”
The adults exchanged looks.
“A lot of those runners are criminals in their own countries, son,” said Sidney firmly.
“Or terrorists,” added Pat.
Angela tapped Pat’s arm again. Pat nodded. “A lot of women in those countries have too many babies they can’t feed, Charlie.”
“Sometimes they run away because they don’t want to fight for their own countries. They’re cowards, Charlie,” added Pat.
“Some don’t have any problems—they just want our way of life because we’re better than where they’re from,” said Angela, so keen to make the point, she forgot to tap Pat’s arm.
“They’re lucky to get this chance,” said Sidney, “in some of their own countries they don’t let them in full stop. There’s no race or test or anything—barbaric places.”
“They should be grateful,” said Pat.
Angela tapped again. Pat nodded. “They should be grateful they reached a civilized country like ours,” she said.
Charlie hanged his head, embarrassed, then raised it again and looked to be searching for a specific set of words, but was interrupted by the crackle of a loudspeaker.
Everyone stood up, and the first solemn notes of the national anthem droned out across the stadium. They sat. There were no speeches this week, just a couple of whippings for failure to display the flag in the window, a young guy who made a joke about interrupting a Remembrance Day parade, and a couple of conscription dodgers.
“That bloke there, see the blonde lad,” said Pat, gesturing with his newspaper to the podium where a limp figure was being dragged away. “Not even posted abroad. Not even in the fighting, just abandoned his post at a holding camp. And he just gets a whipping?”
“A disgrace,” said Sidney, flatly.
“A madness,” added Pat.
“It’s too soft these days,” said Sidney, again with little in the way of conviction. These brief conversations were standard small talk at work, in the pubs, on the buses; any show of leniency was a disgrace. Everything was too soft.
And then the ceremonial element was over. The national anthem was played again, and everybody stood and sang again. And it was played continuously as they ambled out of the stadium, the conversations louder now, more febrile and enthusiastic.
They exited onto the streets and now even some of the adults were running. The main street was long and wide but boxed in by old terrace housing and shops and there was little room for much in the way of tiered seating. With the help of Charlie’s smaller, more nimble stature, the three of them wound a path through the crowd, occasionally bumping into shoulders or elbows, but it was worth the odd indignant grunt to grab those last couple of metres of space on the benches.
The main stripe was already close to maximum capacity, more or less the entire town crammed in along almost three hundred metres of straight road, the centre closed off to form a kind of track. At the end of the street there were several poles with a series of flags pinned to each one. Thirty in total, it was said, although it varied month to month, year to year.
At the far end, there were the police. The ones without their visors down could be seen to be smiling and laughing with each other. They were relaxed, like seasoned sportsmen or performers with nothing new to prove. A few of them went up to the barriers and chatted to the crowd, some signed items, being as they were well known throughout the town, and, indeed, the country.
Gradually, a different kind of noise permeated the crowd, a murmur, somewhere between anxiousness and suspicion. On the one side of the road, coming from an alley accessible from the main drag through a cordoned off channel, emerged people. They were dressed in casual clothes, mostly ill-fitting and clearly well-worn, and many of them shivered in the chill. Most of their expressions were of either outright fear or bewilderment or a mix of both. A few looked defiant and angry. They were almost all men, but there were a few women. All of them wore squares of card on their chests with crudely drawn numbers on them. When they’d finally all arrived onto the main street, one might guess that there were roughly two hundred of them. Eventually, either through impatience or disgust, a few jeers came from the crowd, then a few crude missiles were thrown.
The jeers grew into shouts and spread throughout the crowd, until the noise was a cacophony of shouts and whistles that bounced off the terraced housing that lined the streets and rumbled through the ground and shook one’s bones and organs. A loudspeaker ordered the people to stand behind a red line painted on the road. Most obeyed. Some didn’t. They looked confused, either not understanding or too hopeless to bother. A few directed angry shouts at the crowd. A couple of police officers strode forward and thwacked the legs of the angry ones and shoved the confused. The loudspeaker ordered the police back behind their own white line, some fifty metres or so behind the red one. The crowd cheered merrily, and the transgressive police officers saluted the crowd and waved, enjoying the adulation and their moment of cheeky defiance.
The people were ordered to sit facing the police, which they eventually did; the ones who didn’t understand taking their cues from the others. Some sat with their heads down in concentration and readiness. A tense silence fell over the crowds. The police behind their white line continued to look relaxed, some tossing their batons from hand to hand playfully, a couple having a final cigarette, others still chatting to one another.
Finally, a brutish and shrill claxon ripped through the air and the street erupted into pandemonium. The crowd hollered and bounced and screamed and the police charged forward off their line. The cannier migrants leapt up, turned, and sprinted in the opposite direction towards the poles at the end of the street. Some of the migrants, still with no understanding of the ritual, stared with incomprehension and were swiftly pounced on by the police and beaten until they stopped moving.
The police in better shape, the ones who’d earned a certain acclaim and fame from previous runs, ignored the stragglers and tore after the faster migrants. The crowd were beside themselves with primal excitement. Sidney held Charlie close to his stomach to protect him from the flailing limbs and jostling, shoving and butting. But Charlie was screaming, too, wriggling away from Sidney and practically climbing the back of the man in the terrace in front.
Gradually, more and more migrants were caught by the police, tackled to the ground and then beaten where they fell, sometimes with the help of another policeman who couldn’t resist the urge of an easy target. But some had put distance between themselves and the police. The younger, leaner ones reached the poles first, grabbed a flag, and fell to the ground in hysterics of relief or fear or shame or an emotion only they knew. Soon all the flags on the lower part of the poles were taken, and the migrants who arrived later jumped but couldn’t reach the higher flags or were too exhausted and befuddled with fear to climb. Many in the crowd laughed and jeered and imitated the desperate hopping of the migrants. These were picked off by the police. Some did climb, and fell with flags in hand, and were beaten anyway.
Finally the horn sounded again. Some of the police continued to thrash and swing at random migrants, whether they grasped flags or not. Some migrants without flags tried to snatch them from the victors and were set upon by two or three cops at a time. Up and down the main street were strewn writhing or motionless bodies with puddles of blood forming around them. As the noise of the crowd subsided, the cries and screams of the injured could be heard.
Sidney was some way away from the poles, too far to read the numbers on the chests of the victors. He had to wait a full ten minutes before he got an answer. He clasped his slip so tightly he worried the ink would run and it would become illegible. Finally an unenthusiastic dirge of a voice began to list numbers. They were both there. Both his runners had made it. While those around him tore up and dropped their slips, murmuring curses, Sidney hooted with joy and jumped up and down on the spot, barely noticing the pains that shot up both hips. He looked for Charlie, who was wide-eyed and shaking and staring into the middle distance, not joyous or sad, but something else entirely.
“We won, Charlie! Both came home!” he screamed.
Charlie emerged from his trance and smiled, then cheered loudly. Sidney pulled him into his arms and hoisted him into the air. He twisted him round and placed him on his shoulders. He felt a tap on this shoulder, turned and saw Pat behind him, smiling. “Congratulations,” he said, and shook his hand warmly. Angela, next to him, was also beaming.
Sidney was elated. He felt a warmth and gratitude towards Pat and Charlie and everyone else around him, and felt an extraordinary appreciation for the whole system. It was a great system, a fair system that everyone here was so lucky to be a part of. Maybe bits didn’t work sometimes and he returned to work every Monday morning still aching from Saturday’s shift and the boiler packed up on a monthly basis and the windows and doors didn’t keep the draft out, but to count oneself as a citizen of this country was to be the amongst the luckiest in the world. Then he felt another tap on his shoulder and turned, still smiling, to see the face of a policeman.
“Are you Sidney Cunningham?” asked the policeman, a wary circle expanding around Sidney as he spoke.
“Y-yes,” Sidney stammered. “Yes, I am.”
“It’s your wife, Mr. Cunningham. She’s, er, re-emerged. You’ll need to come with us.”
Sidney felt a sickness grow in his stomach that crept up to his throat and made him feel immediately nauseous. He reached up and placed Charlie on the ground.
“This is your substitute?” said the police officer, gesturing towards Pat, who shrank into himself slightly. Sidney nodded. “Then your son will go with him.”
People stared grimly as they shuffled past. Sidney crouched down to speak directly to Charlie. “Can you go along with Pat and Angela?” He tried to keep his voice cheery, but could still only manage a croak. “While I help the police with something?”
Charlie looked scared. Sidney pulled the slip out of his pocket and pushed it into the pocket of his son’s jacket. “You look after this and I’ll see you very soon.”
Charlie didn’t move. Pat stepped forward and pulled on Charlie’s arm. The policeman took Sidney’s and led him away into the crowd.
John Miskelly is 33 and lives in Asturias, Spain