Another short story written from the hip. (And, lest anyone forget, copyright of the writing on this blog is retained by me, even though there may be some echoes of ancient myth in this tale.)
Running in the wood
Keys, I mustn’t forget to take my keys. They’re right there on the counter-top in front of me. I start lacing up my running shoes. Focus on one thing at a time, Larry. Laces, then keys. Then make your way across the road to the entrance of the wood, away from this white kitchen, so bright with the light from above. It seemed such a wonderful idea when we ‘opened up’ the house to enclose the extension in glass doors and fit the skylight. Now nothing grates like bright light when the children kick off, when I stumble into the kitchen after too many glasses of wine the night before or when Mel starts.
“Larry, sweetheart, L.” Yes, there’s her song from the tv room. Dash, why can’t I get loop over a double tie of this lace. It’s really simple. I’ll just start again. Measure the lengths, right under left, left over right.
“Larry, Laarriee,” that’s the summoning tone.
“Coming, love. Just tying a lace.”
It is true. She doesn’t look herself at the moment. There’s that grey pallor under her eyes. Huddled on the couch, under a brown blanket, you can’t see her bloated stomach. For months, she had masked this under her flowing blouses, laughing it off as late-onset gluten intolerance. But her face is gaunt and her arms and legs are all bone. Without the armour of blanket and couch cushions, she might end up crushed by today, by the world. The bright light of the kitchen would probably incinerate her in a strike.
“You will be back in time for the call.”
“Yes. 11:30 you said.”
“It’s already 10:45. How long are you planning to go running for?”
“I’ll be back by 11.30.”
“Take your phone, just in case.”
“Honey, I’m not taking my phone. I just need some fresh air. You won’t need to call me, I’ll be back in time.”
“I’m not sure. You say you promise, but it takes ten minutes to get from the house to the wood, another ten back. Are you telling me you’re only going to run for, I don’t know, fifteen minutes?”
I try to keep it light. This is no time for whipping up a disagreement and the best avoidance method is to avoid any direct eye contact. “Let me be off and I’ll be back before you know it.”
“Please, don’t go. Just stay here, with me. We can find something to watch. Something funny.” She starts up a chuckle, “Funny. Laughter is the best medicine! Best!”
I really need the fresh air and to feel my body pound. “Mel, I’ll be back before you know it.”
The Spanish au pairs and Polish nannies cluster outside the playgroup at the end of the road. They are helping each other fold-up the empty buggies to leave in the buggy shed until they will fetch their charges at the end of the playgroup day. There are a two older siblings, perhaps the ones with colds or chicken pox (it always does its rounds), hovering. One is absorbed by a screen, playing a game or watching a video. The other is in mid-meltdown. The yell is bound to decrescendo to a whimper soon. At least, as a dad of two, that’s my pennies’ worth.
At last, the gate to the wood. Oh, but a moment from the twitter of birdsong and rustling green! Oh, secret idyll! A large, black dog pushes through the gate, followed by
“Sorry, excuse me.” A squat and portly woman dressed head to toe in white pushes past, followed by a second large, black dog.
“Not to worry,” I smile and continue with my run.
Wearing white, with a white rose stuck behind her ear, in a wood while walking her dogs. She must be a little bit crackers.
Kat, my younger daughter would call me up at this moment. Dad, she would point out, you are not to make unkind observations about people’s appearances, physique or dress. You definitely should not be judging any woman. But there’s a particular buzz word Kat uses. I’ve heard it around. Ah yes, shaming.
Now step up the pace along what I call the warm-up incline. I pass two women in their mid-forties, power-walking. They’re discussing the most prestigious local schools and their entrance exams.
“I can’t believe how much testing these children have to go through!”
“My dear Persephone has done so well. I’m so proud of her, coming through it all. I think she may have made it to the next round.”
“What a relief for you! I’m not sure it’s been so easy for Hephaestus.”
Trust parents in this neighbourhood to give their child such a name.
I turn a corner onto a secluded, unpaved path that cuts through the trees. Half-way, and I know this because I have so often run this track, is a bench in memory of a Lissa Harrison. She had grown up with us in the neighbourhood. I had been in the same circle of friends at university. I know I was at her twenty-first and wedding, I might have been at her thirtieth, but my memory of all is a blur after 28. We had one child and were expecting a second by then. Lissa was 36 when she passed away unexpectedly. It was such a shock to her family, especially her mother who used to live near mine. At the turn of every season, the surviving daughters and Lissa’s mum attach a bunch of flowers and a letter to the bench. When I see it I stop to read the update. The last I read, the daughters had started at university.
Here, at the end of the secluded stretch, I step back onto a concrete path and I kick into what looks like a black sheep. It whimpers at the near sacrifice. It’s a thick-set, curly haired terrier of some sort chewing on stick. I avert my route and hope no-one can identify face. From within the trees a whistle blows and an elderly voice calls, “Oona, my little pet, where are you? Time to get going.”
Here at the second incline, the steep test. At the top of this section is an information board, which marks the turning point for my self-determined route. Sometimes I’ll stop and stare at the board while I catch my breath. On it there’s a map of the wood and a brief history. Apparently, this remaining section is part of an ancient woodland that extended across neighbourhood. As I make my way towards the board, I count down my steps from a hundred. Ninety-eight, the birds are in song. Ninety-seven, from my raised viewpoint I spy the top of a bus as it slows at the stop. That would usually be me, on my commute into the office, a good four hours earlier, of course. But these last few weeks have been a bit different.
Here is the board. I turn. These changes might continue. I’ll find out soon enough. But now, as I run, is no time to think about such things. I return to my counting. Ninety-nine, ninety-eight, my heartbeat matches my empty enumeration. All I’m counting are the thoughts out of my head, ninety-five, ninety-four. I follow my route now reverse: down the steep incline, the medium incline. I pass the elderly hunchbacked man with his trio of hounds. He greets everyone and I get a “morning.” I nod a “morning” in reply. The children used to call him Old Father Time, for even when they were little he was walking his dogs in this wood. It does occur to me that there are a number of elderly people in the wood today. Because the able-bodied are being bussed into their day-jobs, or if they have stepped out of their working routine, they are waiting in limbo for news. More accurately, waiting in purgatory. At the entrance gate, which is now my exit, I cross the road for my final leg home.
I pull out my keys, turn the lock. Mel is standing in the corridor, the bright light from the kitchen catches around her hair. She’s half-wrapped in the blanket, as if it is a toga or a brown chrysalis. She’s sucking on a pomegranate.
“You’re late,” she whispers.
I step closer. She’s been crying. “Surely not. I’ve only been gone half-an-hour at most.”
“The call came hours ago. What took you so long? I’ve been dying here.”
“No.” It’s not meant to be like this, “Please. I’m so sorry, Mel. Please. No.” I can hardly form an apology, a consolation. What am I trying to say? She turns. “ Mel, wait. What did the doctors say?”
She drops the pomegranate and shuffles in her chrysalis into the kitchen. I follow her, pick up the fruit.
“Dad, what are you doing?”
“Huh?” Larry blinks, comes to. His daughter Kat is standing next to him.
“Dad, why are you holding a half-chewed tennis ball and staring at the skylight?”
Kat holds up a bunch of flowers, “We’re going with grandma to lay these at the bench. Neave and I have chosen a mixture of daffodils, narcissus and baby’s breath because it’s spring. I really think mum would’ve have liked them, don’t you? Oh yes, and the dogs are coming. Are you? Because you’ll have to put some shoes on if you are.”
The image used for this post was originally used to illustrate the poem ‘trees‘ that was inspired by my many wood walks. In an even more uncanny resonance, the cropped trees of this image are from a photograph of an old altar of St Luke’s, the patron saint of doctors and physicians.