He's fully awake now. Graham's feet steadily push the path away behind him and the crunching of the loose gravel is satisfying. His legs bend, rise and straighten, bend, rise and straighten.
An ambulance's siren comes from the Wimbledon end of Martin Way and speeds further into Morton. Its child-like screaming passes over the common and through the fur trees which line the little gardens. Perhaps he'll take her to the countryside, to his parents' holiday cottage in Cornwall. The city never lets you forget you're in it. That you're little more than a red blood cell moving through it; that you're just using and carrying the things it needs to survive.
He had excelled at biology in high school and very nearly became a doctor. If he had read medicine instead of accounting he would probably be in better shape now. Perhaps he would have grown equally as bored of medicine after twenty-five years, but he doubts it. But, then again, if he'd become a doctor he'd never have met her.
There's a twinge in his side. He expects it's a stitch but he's ignoring it. He comes up towards the finish of his second lap. He guesses the path around the garden is about two hundred metres long, but it's actually a hundred. As he comes towards the gates, his starting line, an old man in a flat cap with a Labrador enters the garden.
The old man shouts a good morning as he lets the dog off its lead.
Graham's usually skeptical about this kind of thing, but he grits his teeth and smiles.
'Off for a run?'
'Yes.' He feigns a laugh for no reason. 'Yeah.'
'Lovely morning for it. Bit cold.'
'Yes, lovely. Bit cold.'
He continues on past the old man who pokes at a dead rose bush with his walking stick. Graham's suddenly aware of his Lycra top and his little shorts. He pulls his shoulders back and puffs his chest out. He thinks he can feel his lungs against his ribs. It makes him think of the white cotton membrane Nicola wears in the office. In his mind he watches a camera panning down through her curves with the shirt pulling tight against her body. As it reaches her waist he rewinds back up to the shoulder and plays it again. His imagination runs like a VCR. Nicola's would work like a DVD: newer, brighter, faster, better. He had used his first paycheck with the company to buy his first video player, his first; the first of anyone he knew. He can remember the first colour television on his street. She would have grown up with one in her room.
He begins to think he has no hope with her at all. He's too old. He's outmoded.
Graham tries to push the thought from his mind. He pushes his feet down harder. His shoes aren't made for running. The soles are too thin. He can feel every gravel on the path pushing into his feet. He ignores it. He tries to think of how the exercise will help him be the better man he needs to be to woe Nicola. Better man, the phrase had been rolled out so many times in his youth. He used it in the break-up with Marie at university, and with Emma, and Cathy. He had been something of a heartthrob back then. It all stopped when he met Jackie.
How terrible she had looked this morning. He had been repulsed when he saw her flapping her great arm at the alarm clock like a lame albatross. He had walked to her side of the bed and switched it off. She had snorted and fallen straight back to sleep. His running kit had been left on the chair next to the door. Jackie had excitedly bought it yesterday after he told her his intention (if only she knew).
He smiles at the thought and has to swallow a laugh. He passes the gate again and is closing in on the old man, who's bending and pulling weeds from the circular flowerbeds. The old man must hear his feet approaching on the gravel and stands up and lifts his cap.
'Ha, ha. Hello, again.'
'Yeah. Not bad.'
'Good, good. See you again. Ha, ha.'
Graham smiles, nods and continues past him.
The soles of his feet really ache now. He has to concentrate. He needs to keep his mind on the finished product. Bet-ter-man. Bet-ter-man. Bet-ter-man. He marks each syllable by slamming his foot into the path. He may even use 'better man' to start things with Nicola. He'll walk across the office to her desk. She'll look up at his newly svelte body and nervously twitch her nose. She'll blink her big eyes. You've made me a better man. And then he'll kiss her. Simple. Brilliant. Flawless.
A pain hits his right side. He stops. It's like a knife that digs in then slashes his side open. It may be the karma of his fisherman grandfather coming round to haunt him. He laughs then yelps in agony. He grits his teeth. The pain intensifies. His appendix has burst. He bends and puts his hands on his knees. It starts to disappear. There's something damp dancing on his hamstring. He jumps around and the Labrador's nuzzling him.
'Ha, ha. He likes you,' the old man shout across to him.
'Yeah,' he says and tries to step back from the dog.
'Tough going is it?'
'No. Well, I'm just getting back from an injury.'
'Oh, that's a shame. Still, nice and quiet in here for you to rehabilitate yourself.'
'Yeah, look, I'd better get on.'
'Of course, sorry. Didn't mean to disturb you. Just thought you looked like you needed a break. Here, Roger. Come on, boy.'
The dog bounds back to the old man and Graham sets off again. The pain creeps back within a few steps. He considers stopping. He pushes on and tries to convince himself that he'll get a second-wind at any moment. He curses his mental weakness and his lack of stamina. He imagines making love with Nicola, she'd just call it 'sex'. She's half his age but probably twice as experienced. Would he keep up with her? Maybe he'd get a stitch half-way through.
His side is throbbing unbearably. His breath is heavy. His soles ache. He's approaching the old man. He needs to hide the pain. He grits his teeth.
'That's it keep at it,' the old man says and wills him on with his stick.
Graham nods. A bead of sweat rolls off his forehead into his eye. His eyelashes flinch. The old man winks back.
Graham's mouth fills with saliva. He needs to spit. He tries to but it doesn't separate from his mouth and it just dribbles onto his Lycra top. The stitch annexes his stomach. He's got to keep going. But he's barely moving. He can hardly lift his legs. He tries to think of anything, anything but running. He looks at the plants in the flowerbed. There's a rose bush, a heather, some kind of miniature fir. They're all brown and dead and not giving out any oxygen.
He stops. He puts his hands on his knees and tries to catch his breath but the air's too thick to swallow. The back of his throat is icy. The saliva's freezing his throat and lungs shut. He's going to die. He's going to die, dressed as a fool with sore feet and an aching side in a grotty little London park. He thinks of all the beautiful places he's seen in his life and the places he'd rather be the last he ever sees. He sees Jackie at home with a bacon sandwich and an ashtray ready for him. He sees Nicola with a sesame seed biscuit and an eternity of early morning runs.
'It's not worth it,' he says aloud. 'She's not worth it.'
His breath gets a little easier and the stitch begins to subside. He turns to walk back home.
'Caught you again. Ha, ha. Giving up? Never mind, better luck tomorrow.'
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Laura, Toucan Editrice
Enjoy, and Viva La Toucan
Laura, Toucan Editrice