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

Scenes from the Inverness Half Marathon, March 2018

The Build Up
pipes skirl prematurely triumphant
flags crack in the morning breeze
a drumroll march to the starting line

 

The Starting Line
The marching band refused to yield
to the endless queues for the portaloos
Spare a thought for those caught short
who had to run in wet training shoes

 

Mid Race
Drumbeats on the downhill stretch
Children beating pans
Prosecco passed from hand to hand
Parties in the gardens

 

In The Traffic Jam
He had the face of an eighty year old, eighty years lived thin yet heavily. He leaned back in the driver’s seat as Jagger howled his frustration. A curl of smoke wisped out of the open window. He looked at the runners and gently, perhaps regretfully, shook his head.

 

Finished, Done For
The wind has risen. It’s sharper now and our sweat is chilling our skin. We have cried without wanting to, the effort was so great and the relief, but walking away, back along the course, we smile and cheer and clap those still running. They are the bravest.

Jogging on Halloween

It hit him on the shoulder like a hammer hurled from hell. His legs were still running as fast as they could so the blow knocked him off balance and he stumbled down the grassy slope and into the icy water of the lake. The mud grasped his ankles like bony hands and pulled. He struggled briefly and tried to scream but the mud and the water were in his mouth. A few frantic bubbles then nothing. Minutes later the nightbirds were gliding gracefully across the lapping water.

He had often joked about being the only jogger not being chased around the park. He went at his own speed but everyone else, the serious ones, the ones who sped past him up the hill, they were being chased by something large and terrifying and invisible. That was why they went so fast, they did not dare slow down. Then, as he ran and the nights grew longer, grew towards his running time, he thought more about the story and as people passed he squinted after them, trying to make out their demons.

Then one evening, just for a flash, he saw one. As the path came out from the trees, the man in shorts ran past him, face contorted, and John caught a glimpse of the animal chasing him. Wolf-like, foam dripping from its jaws, eyes coal red in the dark, it ran snapping at his heels, never quite touching but close enough that he could feel its cold breath on his legs.

And then it was gone. John shook his head. He was sure he had seen it but it was gone. He walked the rest of the way home.

The next few times he went for a run he looked carefully as people passed him. Nothing was chasing them that he could see but still they ran faster. He felt odd, uneasy, when he ran now.

He thought twice about running on Halloween but then put on his kit. It was only just dark and there would be people about, trick or treating. His front door creaked as he closed it and his footsteps seemed to echo on the stairs. As he had imagined, clouds scudded across a deep black sky.

He jogged slowly down the road. There was nobody about. Strange. The castle on the hill hung in its own red light. He crossed the road and squeezed through the gap in the hedge into the park. The trees whispered.

He turned down the hill under the trees. It was darker today and the knobbly roots were hidden. He tried to slow down, tripped and fell. As he pushed himself up onto his knees something touched his hair. Heart pounding he jumped to his feet and looked around and there it was. He had never seen it before but he knew what it was, his blood felt what it was and froze. Down the hill again he half staggered half ran then at the bottom, lungs bursting, he ran and ran and ran until he could not run any more but run he did. He looked around. It hit him on the shoulder like a hammer hurled from hell.

Those times when you look back and wonder what you were thinking

Those times when you look back and wonder what you were thinking. Running through the scrub, I saw a snake coiled on the path ahead of me and thought my reflexes would be quicker. It moved a little as I got nearer, shimmering mirror silver on black. I thought I could just jump over it and, in my mind, I think I saw it flattening itself against the dirt, against the dried red mud, holding itself down to avoid me. At the same time my mind’s eye saw it reaching out to strike me in slow motion and saw me twist and lift my leg so that it missed. Two views already and both successful.

Those times when you look back and wonder what you were thinking. I’m not sure where I was when my body or my deepest brain screamed to stop. Perhaps I was already in the air, perhaps a stride short. My body twisted and lifted both legs and both arms and twisted on itself and through the screaming felt the bite.

Those times when you look back and wonder what you were thinking.

Running and driving

Things I saw each day, running from Castro to Marittima (and back)

Day 1: Dog, snake, dog cat dog

Day 2: Dog, dog, snake dog dog

Day 3: Sheep, sheep, sheep, sheepdog

Day 4: The car that nearly hit me

Day 5: Flies, more flies, dead badger

Day 6: Dog, dog, flies, dead badger still there, flies, sheep, sheepdog in the distance

Day 7: The car

Things I saw each day, driving to Marittima

Day 1: Tractor turning into olive grove

Day 2: Man on a moped with an umbrella

Day 3: Couple of vans parked by the convent

Day 4: Runners I only saw at the last minute

Day 5: I stayed at home

Day 6: I went the other way

Day 7: I didn’t see the runners