Sunday afternoon and the sky is overcast and threatening. July, and the rain is going to pour again for yet another day.
But I’m restless. All this weather imposed containment, in the middle of summer, makes me jittery. To hell with the elements. I need to get out. I need to run.
Anyone who runs will know the score. Barely ten minutes in and muscle, sinew, shoulders, neck, thought, worry, tension. All unfurl and loosen as the flow and the tempo, the movement take over.
I head around the island, the charcoal sky no longer a threat, simply a background. Details of things merge into one coherent blur of movement.
At the end of the island there is a field. A lone outpost of undeveloped space, slap bang in the middle of the city.
At first glance, to the uninitiated, it can appear a barren, desolate place. The sort of place that has people busying themselves around plans and desks. It’s an opportunity, ripe for exploitation.
As yet, however, nothing has come of any of the developers dreams, and “De Kop” as it is known, stands empty, save for a statue of “Joop” the seafarer, who stands watch over the harbour ensuring the safe passage of the countless boats, barges, sailing ships and cruise liners that pass through each day.
For the inhabitants, this state of barrenness has proven to be ideal. Where else, after all, can you sit, in the middle of the city and find yourself surrounded by so much empty space? A clear uncluttered sky, an empty field, a flowing river? Somewhere raw and elemental. But still right in the thick of it.
So it has become, by default, a place for quiet recreation and escape. Dogs meander across the grass, sniffing happily. Tai chi practitioners move gracefully over the concrete. A lone figure sits reading a book on one of the few benches. Couples sit, facing west admiring the sunset. Kids learn to ride bikes. Elderly riverboat passengers disembark and stand confused in this emptiness unsure where to turn, their guidebooks momentarily useless.
And for a runner, it offers a neat circuit to sprint. I head out towards it, counting out a set of sprints and walks in my head.
I don’t see him at first. Sitting on a bench. It’s twelve thirty and the wine bottle is half empty, the pack of cigarettes almost gone. I nod and run past when I hear the question.
“Why do you do that?”
I could just carry on, pretend not to have heard. Lost in the rush of movement, deafened by the breeze, and it would be okay, nothing would be made of it. No offence taken.
But I turn, face him and mistakenly recognise him. I know him, no? Or is he just one of those faces you nod hello to so often, that sheer familiarity makes them an acquaintance?
“Why do I do what?”
“Run, of course. Why do you run?”
“Because I like it.”
“No, that’s not what I asked. Why do you run?”
I’m confused. I just answered that question. I like it. What more does he need to know?
“Well, it relaxes me. Clears my head. I just run.”
He stares at me a moment, then shakes his head.
“But why do you do that to your body? Why do you run?”
I take a seat beside him, a little irked and not quite sure what it is he wants from me. I answer a question, he shakes his head, then repeats the question. What’s with this guy?
“I just like having time to myself, you know? A few moments just to run. To move. Not to think of anything. Just be.”
“Yeah, just be.”
“What do you mean? Are you a capitalist?”
A what! Now he’s thrown me. What the hell has capitalism got to do with any of this?
“Sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”
“Capitalists. They all run.”
“No, I’m not a capitalist.”
“Did that offend you?”
“Quite a bit actually. I’m a socialist.”
“Good for you.”
“A year ago saying that would have attracted a lot of contempt. Sniggers. Disgust even.”
“Capitalists. They’re like that.”
I just laugh.
“It’s not just capitalists that run though. I guess they just have different reasons for doing it.”
“I dunno. It’s a competitive thing maybe. To be the fastest. Go furthest. Be fit and healthy ready for the fight. Be the thinnest even, wouldn’t surprise me. Hell, I don’t know how they think, why they do what they do.”
“You never said why you do it. I don’t want to know why capitalists run.”
“It’s an escape.”
“Yeah. Like I said. You move. You run. And at some point it’s as if nothing is going on. No time. No thought. Nothing. Just running. Just being. Sorry, I can’t tell you more than that. I don’t analyse it. That would be beside the point.”
“Yeah, afraid. All that nothing. The escape. Just being. What are you afraid of then? Dying?”
“Dying? No, I’m not afraid of that.”
“You sure? Everyone is afraid of that, no?”
“Sure they are. But that’s because they don’t think about it enough. Or they allow others to think about it for them.”
“Religion you mean?”
“Yeah. After this there’s God or the Devil. Heaven or hell. People need that. They need the thinking to be done for them. It’s a comfort. After this comes something else. Nothing. That’s the impossible thought. No-one wants to think about that.”
“I don’t need to. I run. I get a whole load of nothing any time I need it.”
“Finally you explain yourself! You run because you need to know what it feels like to die!”
I must admit I have to share the laugh at his moment of triumph. All that running, just to know what it feels like to die. Hell, why not? He may just possibly be right.
“Like I said, I’m not afraid of it.”
“Well, that’s because you know it so well.”
He takes the bottle and sips, then pulls a cigarette from the pack. He can feel me watching him.
“We all have our own ways to oblivion.”
I just nod. Then shake my head.
“You believe in oblivion then?”
“Don’t you? That’s what that nothingness is, no?”
“No? Go on then.”
“It’s just change is all. There’s no mystery to it. What happens when you die then?”
“But that’s not true, is it?”
“Sure it is.”
“No. Think about it. It’s all just particles. All just physics. Chemistry. Dying’s not nothing. It’s just a change. You enter the earth and are reabsorbed. You become something else. Atom by atom. Your there still, just in tiny pieces. Altered. Reconfigured. But nothing? Do we even know what that is? I mean, this whole universe. Everything we know and observe. Once it was contained in nothing. From that nothing the universe came forth. That’s what they say. Nothing is the beginning, the end. The singular state from which and towards which all existence emanates and then returns. It’s all just a process.”
He sips his wine.
“Where you from?”
“What you doing here then? You could be there in the mountains”
“Yeah, I know. That’s about all I miss though.”
“Really? Why? Is it so bad there?”
I say nothing for a moment. In my head I see my parents’ street. The community they have there that’s been comforting itself for years, sticking together despite the economic ravages tearing it apart.
“No. No it’s a good country. It’s just been torn apart is all. Broken. Capitalism again, eh?”
“You feel bad for leaving?”
“Sometimes. I guess it could be seen as cowardly. What about you?”
“Morocco. I too am a coward.”
We sit and I feel a need to explain myself, but find that I can’t.
“Scotland’s changing though. I feel it sometimes when I go home. You can push people too far. At some point they break. Eyes have opened there. This sense that the last thirty odd years have not been what Scotland is about. That viciousness, that selfishness, that era Thatcher ushered in. None of that is Scottish. We believe in society. We care. Socialism is a more natural state for us. Maybe now that things are falling apart so spectacularly, all those edifices revealed for what they are. The lies of it all. The con trick. At some point the anger rises, you know? Scotland never chose any of that, but they got lumbered with it all the same. An unfair system that failed to represent them. Scotland needs to believe in itself more. I think that’s starting now. They’ve seen everything fail. They see the English don’t have the answers after all.”
“You hate the English?”
“No. Not at all. Hell, in Manchester or Liverpool they feel the same. But no, it’s not contempt for the English that causes a realisation such as this. It’s a simple resurgence of self belief.”
“Maybe you should go home?”
“This is my home now. I’ve been gone too long. Any revival will have to be enjoyed without me. I don’t deserve it.”
He pulls a book from his pocket. A slim volume. Spinoza.
“The greatest Dutch thinker” is all he says as he flicks through the pages.
I just nod because that is all my ignorance will allow.
“He was free to think for himself. They expelled him from the synagogue as a result.”
Again I simply nod.
“No-one can think like that now. Be free to criticise and condemn. There will be no more Spinozas.”
“Maybe they should put him on the curriculum in Scotland” is all I can add.
“Yes, yes I think they need him now. It sounds like they need someone like him.”
He turns to his book and it is only then that I realise how cold I am. That the rain that has threatened to come all day, is now coming down.
“I should go. I’m getting cold.”
“Yes, you look cold.”
“Well, enjoy your book.”
I stand up to get going and he rises with me.
“No-one else stopped, you know?”
“Most people walk on by. Keep running. You stopped.”
“You’re not going to ask me why are you?”
He just laughs and gives me a hug.
“No, not today. Another time maybe?”
“Yeah, another time.”
He sits back down, picks up the book and the conversation has come to an end.
I realise I have another circuit of the island to make, so I head off and begin my death inducing pound. As the skies open and disgorge an icy torrent of rain, I feel a drop trace the contour of my spine and smile.