race for life

There’s a bird standing on top of a van, wearing one of those little face-mikes and she is exuding ‘feel- good’ and singing to the sisters. SURE she fucking is, ladies, cos when you lot go out on the hot, dusty track, she’s going back in the van for a quick Pimms….”

 

by alex keegan

 

I can hear it floating out over this high-pollen-count field: My Way. A crap song, on crap loudspeakers by some dead bloke. He is dead, isn’t he, that Italian short-ass?

Not that I have problems with Sinatra (If you exclude the bastard’s croony, would-you-like-to-fuck-me voice and the way he shot Germans on celluloid here and there, or the (cough) connection (an offer, you can’t refuse, horses’ heads in the bed: that stuff) and exclude the fact I can’t remember if/when the twat died. But he must’ve died. He’d be 300 now, if he was alive.

Welcome to the race for life. My old dear (I didn’t call her that), Dee, and my little baby Sal (I didn’t call her that) are out here, out there, somewhere in this fucking dust-bowl in 400 degrees, just about to run 5K in three inch grass and finish in tears (well Sal, at least) and then be miserable for three days because the sponsorship won’t come in and people are dying.

And where do I want to be? I want to be HOME. I want to be flat out on the sofa, with the soccer on the flat-screen, coupla (6) beers, the odd slow fart and sometime, somewhere, I doze off beautifully. Perfection is they come home, see me out of it, go ‘Awww, he’s asleep, shush,’ (though I’m awake enough to hear them) and they turn the TV down a tad. (Not off.)

Let’s Face the Music and Dance. What is it with local radio? IT’S A RACE. Why not Keep on Running, Chariots of Fire, Eye of the Tiger, or some good solid rock. Come on, who the fuck wants to run through a dust-storm of biblical proportions while listening to the spic king singing soporific ballads. We need testosterone ya tosser, balls- music, ding-dong, clang-slam, rattle a can, bang-a-fucking-drum. Let’s get some male energy here, fer fuck’s sake.

They’re warming up. Here we go. There’s a bird standing on top of a van, wearing one of those little face-mikes and she is exuding ‘feel- good’ and singing to the sisters. SURE she fucking is, ladies, cos when you lot go out on the hot, dusty track, she’s going back in the van for a quick Pimms.

And stretch. How many?

Ten-Nine-Eight?

Good-Good.

Five-Four.

Three to go!

TWO (really loud for girls)

ONE!

Well done ladies, give yourselves a round of applause.

A round of applause? Hey, they did THREE FUCKING MINUTES gentle warm- up on a sunny day (stopping to take on water). THEY HAVEN’T JUST CROSSED THE FUCKING KALAHARI, YOU TOSSER.

(Can you call a female celeb’ a tosser?)

Better not say her name but Madame Pink up there? Mary Bloody Poppins in Lycra? I happen to know she’s like a bunny. I just said she’ll be indoors for a Pimms. It could just as easy be a quickie with one of the crew. Be a bit sweaty in this heat. But then again, some people are into that.

The girls are due off. I shake Sally’s hand. (Well she’s eleven now and she wants to feel solid and committed.) I want to say, ‘Sweetheart, VSO is committed. This is a jog round a park and then you go home to watch Big Brother.’ I wanna tell my little girl the bacon and eggs story. ‘Sweetheart, think bacon and eggs. The chicken is involved, the pig is committed.’ But she’ll tell me I’m gross and we should all be vegetarians.

At the last minute I say. ‘Ten quid if you break forty-one!’

This is a safe bet. Last year they did 45-something and this year it’s so hot I’d turn down Madame Pink. No, REALLY hot.

‘Yer on, Dad!’ she says and they shuffle off. I now have three- quarters of an hour to wait. I’d buy an ice-cream but the queue goes from here to Eternnity. I’d get a burger but I’m not stupid.

So I pull the camera out, wander, vaguely take some pictures. Radio Twat Head is now playing Mack the fucking Knife.

OK, OK, this is serious, (it is.) All these women pass (all shapes, and mostly size fourteens and rising.) On their fronts, as you’d expect, they have their numbers, but it’s their backs. Their backs.

For Mary.

For Granddad.

For Mummy.

For the best Dad ever, RIP.

And the woof up there who calls himself a DJ (well, it is local radio) now he’s playing Softly, As I Leave You and it hits me like a brick.

Way back, my mother, cancer of the womb, Valindre hospital. She was packed with lead, shot at, radiated. She only told me years later. My Dad, a thing next to his ear. They called it a rodent ulcer. They meant cancer. They burnt that out.

Pat, she had a hysterectomy too, and Barbara lost two breasts. They said it was in the lymphs and through her body, but maybe not as she’s still around. Seems my lot get it, survive it.

Now I’m standing by some board and I’m reading that half the women who don’t make it to 65 die from the Big C. Half? Jesus.

The radio crowd say there are 4,000 people here. They don’t say that 1,000 of them will die of cancer. One in three get it. One in four die of it.

One in three get it. One in Dee, Sally and me.

For Mary.

For Granddad.

For Mummy.

For the best Dad ever, RIP.

For Dee, I miss her.

For Sally.

This is me now, wandering, using the long lens, framing father- daughters (the mothers are running) loads of kids on Daddy’s shoulders, loads of Dads not checking. Loads not thinking, loads so ignorant they’re not even hoping.

Click! Snap! Feel the sun, the rays.

‘Don’t forget ladies and gentlemen, make sure your loved one collects that sponsorship and hands it in.’ (Only 1-in-3 do.)

‘Nationwide, if every runner raises an extra five pounds, that’s an extra two MILLION raised today.’

Click! Snap!

‘But remember, only 1-in-3 so you tell them. Get the money!’

Now for some reason I’m thinking about Bob Geldof, and Africa, drought, famine, horrible wars. No, I don’t know what it all means (apart from death, death, death.) but all these faces in this sun ? Click! Snap! Click! Today suddenly has made them all look so different.

These kids, they haven’t a clue, rape, murder, abuse, hunger, thirst, poverty, alcoholism. There they are up on Daddy’s shoulders and Daddy will be there forever. For the best Dad ever, RIP. And mummy will come back from her race and cook the dinner. For Mary. For Diane. For Sheila, Ruth, Carol.

Dee’s out there, Sally’s out there. It’s too hot. It’s too dusty. There’s not enough ozone, the world is cooking.

The North Atlantic Pump has failed three times in the last ten years. The Gulf Stream may turn south and make Spain a desert. For a decade or two, England will be Mediterranean then we turn into Finland.

And Dee’s out there, Sally’s out there. It’s too hot. It’s too dusty. There’s not enough ozone, the world is cooking.

And little kids sit on big Daddies’ shoulders and hardly anyone is looking.

Maybe twenty minutes are gone. The first women are finishing. Athletes, but then so was Mary Rand. I’m thinking of Bobby Moore and now I’m standing with the camera watching so many women running towards me, the shapes, the sizes making me so sad, too aware (of exactly what, I don’t know) but it’s like they are all dead (well, fast-forward a hundred years and they are) but they don’t quite get it.

Taking the shots makes it worse. Frame: Click! Snap! It’s too hot. It’s too dusty. There’s not enough ozone, the world is cooking. Frame: Click! Snap!

I switch to manual focus. There are bodies everywhere. Red-faced women. One is sick. Another. But most finish holding someone’s hand, punching the air. Sisters the way men are never brothers.

It’s too hot. It’s too dusty. There’s not enough ozone, and yes the world is cooking, but fuck it, there’s something heroic going on here. Two thirds of these panting women won’t collect the money. Some won’t tick the box. Of all them, two thousand, nine will have been diagnosed with cancer before next year’s race. When next year’s race is run, two or three of these women will be dead.

My little girl will be twelve, a vegetarian, wearing wrist-bands marked Make Poverty History, with Sikh and Muslim friends. She will have heard the word cancer but she won’t really understand it.

Unless I get it.

Unless Dee gets it.

 

Originally published:
Issue Forty-One
February 2006

 

(collage: troy dockins)


Alex Keegan is widely published in paper journals and online including Atlantic Monthly Unbound and Mississippi Review.  He edits Seventh Quark Magazine and leads “Boot Camp,” an online writing school.

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