Anna drew a heart in the steam on the bathroom mirror then blushed and quickly rubbed it out again. It had been so embarrassing. She had felt such a fool, she had made such a fool of herself….
Jings, you’re fit! …. Had she really said that out loud? Yes, it seemed she had. The young man turned and looked at her quizzically.
I mean, it looks as though you finished a while ago and here I am just puffing over the line, pink and…. Her voice trailed off as he smiled, his azure eyes sparkling in the winter sunlight. Her legs felt weak. Was that the effect of the race she had just run or….
It was the first Sunday of the year and just like every year Anna was running the Winter Run, a five-kilometre run around Arthur’s Seat, the extinct volcano in the centre of Edinburgh. It certainly woke you up after all the excess of Christmas and Hogmanay and there was a lovely friendly atmosphere. Of course there were the usual hard-core runners who took it very seriously and shot around the course but there were lots more people who would call themselves ‘people who run’ rather than ‘runners’ and liked the social aspect, the hot chocolate and cakes just as much, or more, than the running itself.
Anna felt she fell somewhere between the two extremes. She would never win a race or even try to – perhaps if she had taken it up twenty years ago, but not now. Now she just loved the feeling it gave her of burning off some of the excess calories she took on board and, perhaps more importantly, the feeling of calm it gave her. When she arrived home after running, she always felt her thoughts had been somehow been washed, sometimes by the peace and solitude of running alone with her collie Billy Bob at her side, sometimes by the cheerful chat she had with other members of her running club.
The fit young man looked at her and a thought came to him. He smiled to himself and then, brightly, winningly, at her.
Sorry? I’m afraid I’m a bit out of breath, he said, though he clearly was not. Did you enjoy the run? He smiled again. Anna’s breath had been slowing down as she recovered from her efforts but now she felt it quickening again.
Yes, well, you know, not bad, I mean I’ll never be fast as you but yes, I enjoyed it, and that’s the important thing isn’t it…. Her voice trailed off as she ran out of breath and her heart hammered in her ears. You? She gasped.
Me? Oh yes, all fine. He smiled again. This is one of my favourites. I run the route as often as I can. And up to the top if it’s not too wet. He turned and looked up at the top of the hill. Anna followed his gaze. The people up at the cairn were dark specks against the sky that was filling with winter clouds.
The views from there were spectacular, from the snow-capped hills to the south to the river to the north. Anna breathed in, filling her burning lungs with the crisp air of the place she loved. How lucky she was to live here. She breathed again and composed herself.
I’ve never run all the way up there, she said. I’ve been around the road and up the old river bed in summer but never to the very top. Though I’ve walked up the steps plenty of times of course. She was babbling again, so closed her mouth and literally bit her tongue. Think of something to do with running.
Are you going to the Stirling Challenge? Up to the castle and down again. That should be OK after this – she gestured up the side of the hill. Sleet was beginning to fall. I hear there’s hot chocolate for everyone at the end. She looked up at him and realised her heart was hammering harder than when she had been running up the hill.
BillyBob chose just that moment to decide to roll in the mud, get up, look around and shake himself vigorously. Freezing mud flew in all directions but mostly over the handsome young man. Anna was mortified but after a moment’s hesitation he just laughed.
He looked up at the sleet and, with a wave, turned and jogged away. See you in Stirling then, he called back. I’m Euan. Anna! She shouted after him.
BillyBob dashed off. Oh, he’s seen a rabbit again she muttered to herself as she followed him up the hill. Hill training, she hated it. Give her a good flat park run and she was happy, never better than running next to the beach at Portobello. Of course she did not go there any more. Hadn’t for years. She had not been there since that last time, that time when the clouds had scud across the sky in the fierce easterly wind that tore tears from their eyes. But out in the sea they had seen the free swimmers – they’re crazy, they said – floating and smiling though the water was near freezing and the air even colder and realised that even though life was difficult, unfair and impossible, there were still things to smile at and bring joy to your heart.
He was there at Stirling, as he had said he would be. The winter sun seemed to shine especially for him. He was waiting for her at the finish line but, thoughtfully, did not speak for a few minutes until they were at the coffee stall.
So… do you have a regular training partner? he asked.
No, no. I just go out on my own mostly – except Sunday mornings when I go out with the girls and we’ll run a bit and walk a bit and get some fresh air and end up in a café.
a café? Sounds good.
Oh yes. Hot chocolate if the route is near my place and I can walk home, black tea if I have to run again.
Is it girls only?
She paused. Up until now it had always been, just the three of them, talking about anything but work….
He caught her hesitation. Well, maybe we could do some one-to-one when you finish with the girls one Sunday?
Oh, that sounds good. Ok, when do you want to do it?
No time like the present. Where are you running on Sunday?
Next Sunday? Oh, it’s the hard week, around Arthur’s Seat. Just the road, like when we first met, not up to the top of the hill. She stopped.
Arthur’s Seat? OK, great. Let’s meet near the top, on that flat bit just below the cairn. Then we can see the views and take things from there.
The top? she thought. Ooft. Great she said.
I’ll see you there. About eleven OK?
Euan appeared over the brow of the hill, bare arms and legs pumping hard, vest twisting across his chest with every stride.
Made it! Beat him! he gasped as he slowed and stopped next to Anna.
Who? Who did you beat? she asked him, puzzled, and followed him as he jogged back to the brow of the hill. She looked out again at the loch below them, the fields leading up to the hills and the blue beyond. Then she looked down and saw a man with cropped faded chestnut hair
a few yards further down, still jogging up the steep slope, puffing hard, eyes fixed straight ahead, his baggy grey tracksuit tied with a cord.
Anna, I’d like you to meet John. John, this is Anna.
John was breathing heavily. He leaned forward and raised a hand in sign of greeting and also in ‘hold just a minute and I’ll be with you just as soon as I can speak’ type of gesture. Anna frowned. Who was this that Euan wanted to introduce her to?
Hi, he said eventually. You’re Anna. And then he started coughing.
Yes, she said encouragingly, that’s right.
Sorry, he said. this young one thinks he’s proving a point by beating me up the hill but I keep telling him his only advantage is age – great genetics clearly but youth will always win out.
He saw her frown.
Oh, he said. He clearly didn’t tell you who you were going to meet. I’m John. I’m Euan’s father.
And then it was clear to her. Same eyes, same smile, only in John’s case the eyes were deeper and the lopsided smile half hidden in a salt and pepper beard like a cat-scratched carpet.
Sorry about the beard, he said, and she jumped. It was a bit of laziness at Christmas and has just lingered on. Longer than the Christmas jumper but not so pretty.
Yes, well, she said and then he was coughing again.
Euan grinned at Anna and at the top of his dad’s head and began to jog away. I’ll see you later, he called.
Anna and John looked at each other.
He didn’t say?
They watched him bound away down the slope, leaping over rabbit holes and tussocks of longer grass. They spoke at the same time.
He’ll break his neck.
They laughed and set off down the hill, conversation flowing like the burn they were following.
By the time they reached the car park, they were holding hands, comfortably, peacefully, naturally.
They got into their cars and eventually drove away.
Soul searching, they call it. But it was not her soul she was searching through, it was her feelings and memories and the feelings those memories sparked in her that he was rummaging through like smooth stones in the back of a wooden drawer. She had not sat like this for ages, ever since. she sat quietly and thought as the sun lowered towards the hilltop and shone nearly horizontally through the wide bay windows. Dust shone and spiralled. By the time the sun had gone and the streetlights had come on, she had made her mind up. With a sense of calm she stood up and went into the bedroom. She opened the top drawer of her cabinet beside her bed and took out a polished blue pebble. She looked at it for a while, rubbing it with her fingertips, then quickly kissed it and put it back in its place again. She closed the drawer firmly but without finality. It would never be final. She had felt this ever since but now knew the drawer could close. She pulled the curtains across and switched on the light. She saw herself in the mirror above the fireplace and smiled. Her smile was not brave any more; it was just a simple smile.
And then she was dancing slowly in front of the bathroom mirror. A noise behind her made her jump and pulled her back to today. She looked round and smiled and blushed again. He stepped out of the shower, towel around his waist, hair and beard more salt and pepper than before but his lopsided smile still spicily sweet. She blushed, just as she had that first time she had met him – and the first time she had met Euan, his gorgeous but far too young son….
Ten years today, he said, smiling. Ten years since that very first race.
Yes, she replied and blushed again. She could always blame it on the steam.