Running to and from

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?
Grand. Ooft.

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.
His dad?
He didn’t say?
No. Yes.
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 fall.
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.

Tomorrow then?
Yes, tomorrow.
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.

For B

She was just back home

She was just back, just back home. After years away the world she had known looked different, and people looked at her differently. She had changed too, of course, you could see that in her eyes if she ever allowed you to look into them.

She was asleep and flinching in dreams when the window broke. The half brick hit the cot and glass showered across the room. She screamed and screamed as she picked glass from her baby’s face. Her father ran into the room, face pale, eyes wild. He saw blood on his grandson’s head.

She went to the funeral, of course she did. He was her father, her son’s grandfather. Dressed in black she stood next to her mother in the grey mist and rain. Together they raised their eyes to the sky and the rain mixed with their silent tears. Tomorrow they would move away, the woman, the girl and her boy, move far away from their home, move to a place where their past was not known, where the past did not shadow their lives.

First published on https://www.christopherfielden.com/writing-challenges/news-challenge.php 01 March 2019

How Pelmanism made a writer

Turn over, turn over, top left! That’s the one, the wizz with the conk, the nose and hat at nine o’clock. Let’s see, what next? OK, bottom right, there, right at the bottom. Turn it over. Oh, ok. They’re neither of them a wizard though. Or perhaps… perhaps they’re wizards of communication, masters of the modern world, with their cans and their partings and their billowing bellies? No? OK then, I’ll turn them back over, the wizard and the guys on the phone. It’s your turn.

Just point to the one you want me to turn. Fourth row and three across? Great. You’ve got a pear, a silver one. That reminds me of the story. Have I ever told it you? The grandmother, the bear and the silvery pear? No? That’s odd, that’s one of my favourites. I’ll tell you the story when we finish this game. Just one more connection to find and then that’s it done for another ten years until Christmas falls on the night of a falling star. That’s it! You’ve got it! The golden pear. Right next to the silver one. Whoever would have thought it?

Oh, don’t be sad. Let’s turn all the cards over and see what stories we can tell. You begin…

Inspired by illustrations by Ross Gillespie @bigblether http://www.broaddaylightltd.co.uk/rosss-stuff/

I divide my friends

I divide my friends into two groups. Friends and ex-friends I suppose I should say but that would be telling the end before telling the story.

So. When I was very ill, I gave all my books away. Hundreds of them. Many hundreds. Previous to the dark time I had never felt able to or wanted to because who knows when I would want to come back and reread them and when I was not working so hard I would have much more time and I would just sit and… you know.

But when you are given a few months to live, perhaps a very few, perhaps one, you realise you don’t really have enough time to read the pile of new books next to your bed or the others in the hallway, let alone ones you have read before.

And perhaps rereading an old friend would bring some comfort and some escape but there is still so much new to read to learn to experience….

I was lucky I had no pain now I had drugs, just tiredness and sleepiness and lack of focus like in the months before the diagnosis but heavier. So though I was not working my reading opportunities were limited. My reading window I used to call it, when my head and my eyes were clear enough and I had enough strength in my arms to hold a book up.

And don’t talk to me about those e-books. I know that a lot of people like them – and they’re light – but they’re not for me. They weren’t for me. A book is a book is a book, not just a collection of words behind a screen, no matter how well connected the words are.

So I decided to give my words away, hoping to avoid unseemliness when I was gone. At first people said no, what if the doctors and the scans and the other doctors are wrong and anyway you’ve got time to read them or some of them at least and what if I take the one you really want to read. Then they said well ok then but it feels a bit odd which ones would you recommend I really should read. One said have you got any signed by the author but without your name in it but he was a bit like that.

And eventually they were gone, except for the ones nobody had wanted, which I found slightly hurtful to tell you the truth. So every time someone dropped round I got them to schlep a carrier bag full to the hospice shop around the corner. I mean, I would not get the benefit, but you know.

And then I started to feel better. At first I thought it was my mind calming my body, reassuring that everything was going to be alright, that the next blank page was nothing to be feared. But it went on, two days, three, so I went back to the doctor’s – it’s still not easy to get an appointment, even when you’re terminal or perhaps it was because I said I thought I might be getting better. But when I got to the doctor’s and she looked surprised and sent me off for all the checks again and then we waited – I waited – for the checks to be checked and then I was better. I was a miracle. A one in a million. A special special person with another chance. But no books.

It is easy now to wonder what I should have done. But I did what I felt and asked my friends for my books back. Not the ones that were funding the hospice, clearly, though if someone had offered to go and buy some of them back, well, why not. Two birds. But no-one did.

I did not expect all of them back, not immediately at least. Some of them would be partway read, others would have been lent to partners or colleagues or friends. Though I found it strange they should lend out the books that they had wanted, that they had chosen themselves. I had thought it some sort of permanent gift, a constant and continuing connection. Once borrowed, always theirs. When I was dust, something of me – of mine – would be on their shelf. But I suppose gifts should be given with an open heart; so be it.

I asked for them back. With all the caveats and provisos or whatever that the case demanded. And some came back, often in the same torn white plastic bags they had been taken away in. The shelves started to fill again. Then the trickle halted and I noticed some friends had not been round at all since I had had my good news and made my request for restitution Or rather, they had been round when we had quietly celebrated but not since my thoughtful, very polite, message.

So I followed up. And was part of some of the most bizarre (to my mind) conversations I have ever had. Here is an example. I will call my friend, my friend at the time, Kevin. His name is Kevin. Here are snippets of the email conversations we had. I know that history is written by the history book writers and all that but why should I lie?

Me: Hi Kevin. Just a reminder about my books.
Kevin: …
Me: Hi Kevin. Just a reminder about my books.
Kevin: Hi. I was just thinking about you. So glad you’re well. You’re a great person. You deserve it.
Me: Cheers, man. Don’t get me going though. Do you want to drop round with my books or shall we meet somewhere?
Kevin …
Me: Can meet somewhere if you like or you can come round.
Kevin: Yeah, let’s do that. Soon. Very soon.
Me: That’s great.

And then nothing so I phoned and the conversation was so excruciating I do not even want to remember it here. So the friend – ex-friend – I am calling Kevin – his name was Kevin – is no longer my friend.

And this happened with others too, though perhaps not so awkwardly – more subtly silent in fact. They just faded away or dropped out of sight and are now ex-friends.

I never thought of killing them or harming them or their families though, of course not, what sort of person do you think I am? Some of them may have had tragic accidents, some involving torn white plastic bags, but accidents is what they were and I do not know any more than is on the news sites. Nothing at all.

And now I’d like to take a break, if that’s ok. I think I can hear my lawyer’s voice outside.

At Halloween we did not dare

We climbed Arthur’s Seat on Midsummer’s Day, to wash our faces in the dew as the sun rose. The path was slippery and the fog was down, dulling any sound there might have been. Birdsong was distant then silent.

We were near the top, on the steepest slope, when out of the mist the sound of a muffled drum rolled towards us. We stopped. Looked around. Looked at one another. Then out of the mist strode a shadow, taller than any of us and wide as a castle door. Black and silver streaked hair to his shoulders, cape and cassock flying. ‘Pagans’ he shouted, eyes black fire, ‘leave this place.’ He pushed past us and was gone. The drum was still.

Our looks said it was true and we did not speak again until we fell into the palace grounds again.

At Halloween we did not dare.

He smiled

We stood on the doorstep, flames flickering behind us, and watched him walk away. He did not turn around.

‘Who was that?’ I looked at my mother. ‘Why did he smile and call me his?’

‘All in good time’, she said, her voice strange, and put her arm around me.

La Forza della Collaborazione

Personaggi
Mimì, Riki, Welan (sirene con dei poteri magici)
Bernie (paguro)
Buck (squalo)
Lewis (tritone, amico di Bernie e delle sirene)

Lewis va dalle sirene e le dice:
– C’è un problema!
– Cosa c’è, Lewis? disse Mimì.
– Buck ha trovato un giocattolo che Bernie aveva perso e adesso stanno litigando! rispose Lewis.
– Andiamo subito Lewis. Grazie per averci avvisato. dissero in coro le sirene.

Le sirene vanno da Bernie.
– Lascia stare Bernie! disse Riki.
Lo squalo rispose: Voi pensate che me ne vada così facilmente?

Welan creò una tromba d’aria sopra lo squalo, Mimì la congelò e Riki fece cadere dei pezzi di ghiaccio bollenti sullo squalo.

Buck se ne andò piagnucolando per il dolore e restituendo il giocattolo a Bernie che ringraziò le sirene.

FINE

Anna Martina Piccinno
Simon Williams
Stabilimento 2 Laghi, Laghi Alimini, Otranto
26 luglio 2018

The last words they would hear

I was reading about the boat full of people looking for a better life that hit the rocks near Porto Bisco when the south wind was flying from the tropics and how people fell into the foaming water as the boat foundered and how a few – very few – people dove from the shore and tried to save their lives. But the part of the interview with one of the rescuers that stays with me is this.

Interviewer: Some of the people you saved – do you know how many it was? Three children and two adults – say you told them you loved them, that you used your breath to tell them you loved them while you were fighting the sea, you told them that you loved them. And they all understood what you were saying because you told them in French, in Italian, in English.

Rescuer: Yes, I shouted to them as I tried to pull them through the water, as I tried to stop them thrashing, as I tried to unzip their coats, as I tried to pull their freezing fingers from my throat. I shouted. I shouted “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you. Je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”. I shouted in their ears if I could get my mouth near enough or I shouted it through the spray in the frozen air. I shouted and I gulped air and I spat and I coughed salt water. Shouted and shouted and shouted. Why? Because I thought they were going to die, they would sink through my fingers and the waves and the foam and sink to the bottom of the sea with the crabs and the eels. I thought I could not save them. I thought they were going to die.

And if you are going to die, what are the words you want to hear as you die? That somebody loves you “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”. So I shouted so if they slipped to the bottom of the sea with the crabs and the eels then at least the last words that they would hear would be that somebody loved them – not their father or mother or sister or brother but somebody, somebody.

And I was fighting with the waves and fighting with their coats and fighting with their frozen fingers at my throat but my head was elsewhere. My thoughts were clear and above me, not fighting with the waves at all. And I thought – but where are they from? And maybe they speak French and maybe Italian and maybe everyone speaks English so my thoughts made me shout “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”. And perhaps it could have been better if they were about to die if I shouted “Dieu t’aime, Dio ti ama, God loves you” but I just could not do it because I just did not know, so a person, a person, so “je t’aime, ti amo, I love you”, the last words they would hear.

Good day

He lay on his stomach and rolled the dice at the side of the bed. She rolled her eyes in exasperation.
“It’s going to be a good day, Goldie!”
“Don’t be an idiot, Lee.”
He swung his feet round and sat up on the edge of the bed, poised. He rocked backwards, forwards, backwards again then leaped up and landed on the grubby rug. And the dice. He shouted. She laughed. He swore. She laughed some more.

First published on http://www.paragraphplanet.com 24 November 2017

Ghosts today, saints tomorrow

Joel was parked illegally, running to the bank and back. He needed cash to buy Halloween treats and souvenirs at the market before it closed at midday. The kids would never forgive him if he forgot.

Ghosts today, saints tomorrow, and then the dead.

A truck from out of town missed his car by a finger, throwing up a cloud of dust. Sweat washed into his eyes. He blinked and wiped his face with his forearm. Wearing a waistcoat had been a mistake. The scar between his shoulderblades itched.

‘Hey! Hey, young man!’ As the dust settled he saw her, tall as his ribs, old as his grandmother would have been.

‘Hey! Young man!’ She was pointing at him, her dark eyes bright.
‘Yes auntie, what can I do for you?’
‘The cemetery. When are you going to the cemetery?’

Joel looked around. The sweat on his back trickled cold.

‘I can go to the cemetery now auntie.’ The market would still be open later. She got into the back of the car.

He looked in the mirror but could not see her. ‘It’s hot, isn’t it auntie? Too hot for the season.’ There was no reply but Joel could hear her voice. Perhaps she was praying.

More trucks passed, spitting up gravel. Joel paused, engine running. The sun was hot and damp through the dusty windscreen.

Joel’s phone chirruped. His wife. Don’t forget.

The voice behind him stopped. The silence was louder than the voice had been.

The cemetery was not far if you ignored the No Entry sign and cut through the parking lot. Joel usually went that way when he was heading out of town on the cemetery road, when he was on his own. But today it could have seemed disrespectful.

Ghosts today, saints tomorrow, and then the dead.

He drove slowly through the dust, all windows tightly closed. A cloud in the shape of a fist or a stone covered the sun. There was no air. Joel sweated.

‘I have to say hello to my children.’ Joel started. He had almost forgotten she was there, almost forgotten he was going to the cemetery on the day of the ghosts. He pulled up next to the fountain outside the cemetery gate. Its water was still and green.

‘Your children, auntie?’ They must be as old as his father would have been.

‘I go to see them every day since they left. Every day I say hello.’

‘Hello, auntie? Or goodbye?’ He did not know where the question came from.

‘I shall never say goodbye to them. They are still here. They walk in my heart. Today and tomorrow they are with the saints. And soon I will be with them too.’

Chirrup. Daddy….

He turned the phone over on the seat next to him.

‘Every day since they went away. Every day.’

Joel gripped the steering wheel and more clouds rolled across the sun, heavy, electric. He breathed in. ‘What happened, auntie?’

And she told him. And when she had slowly, unsteadily, got out of the car, he gripped the wheel still tighter and cried. Ghosts today, saints tomorrow, and then the dead.

When he arrived at the market, all the stalls were closed.