small steps

When running uphill, the trick is to take smaller steps. Hills are tough and challenging, they break your rhythm, they take their toll on your body. You have to see them not as obstacles, but part of the course. They’re good for you. You have to shift gears, physically and mentally. You must shorten your stride, realise you can’t maintain your pace from the flat, then keep going until you crest the top of the hill. Because the view from the other side is beautiful. Because looking back and seeing how far you’ve come is worth all the effort it took to get there.

 

Pilates class, Thursday night, lying on my side on a thin mat on the cold floor. One arm outstretched, the other balanced in front of me, doing single leg circles while trying not to overbalance. “Make the movement smaller,” the teacher says to me, leaning down, “so you work the right muscles.” So I do less and feel it in my hips, where I’m meant to. I do less and I feel it working. “You need to use your core muscles for this one, ladies,” she says as she walks back to the front. “Activate your powerhouse. This one is harder than it looks.” We stretch it out as she leads us into the next exercise. 

 

“You’ve done very well this year,” he writes, when I say how crushed I’m feeling. And I don’t feel it yet but I see how small steps took me here, and I wonder if this will make me stronger. I wonder when the downhill will begin. 

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Sainsburys, 7 or 7.30pm

He walks up to me as I’m trying to decide which bag of Iams to buy for the cat. “What time is it?” he asks, and I check my watch and tell him it’s ten past seven. “I have to go by seven,” he says. “Oh right,” I say, and start to walk away. He’s smartly dressed, smiling, mid 60s, slightly bent over but more from perennial subservience than arthritis. If he had a cap to doff, he would surely have swept it past the tins of Whiskas by now. He seems fine, just lonely, but I don’t want a lengthy conversation when I’m tired and hungry.

“Do you come here often?” he asks, then checks himself as he hears the cliche, tries again: “do you come here every day?” His second attempt is even clumsier. I say no, not every day, and he talks over me: “tomorrow? Will you come back tomorrow?” I tell him I might do and before I can finish he says “I live in West Norwood, it’s nice there, where do you live?” I tell him I’m opposite the common and he nods and says it’s nice there and I say yes, it is, it’s lovely, even though it’s not, because I can see he just wants to make a stab at a conversation. “Will I see you here tomorrow? Between 7 and 7.30?” Maybe, I say, I might be back, I don’t know. “I must pay for this now, bye,” he says as he waves a tin opener at me and hurries off to the checkouts.

I’ve got everything I need but I dawdle in the freezer section before I go, because I’m sure he’s harmless but I don’t want him to follow me home. I wonder if I’m being mean but think no, it’s best to be safe, I’m home on my own tonight. At the self-service checkout I’m putting my card in the slot when he walks past and leans over. “What’s your name?” he asks. I tell him, and ask his: “Stephen. I’ll see you tomorrow, same place, 7 or 7.30.” He rushes out and I call goodbye after him as I pack away my wallet.

I pause at the noticeboard before I leave and look at the ads. They’re mainly for babysitters and “personal massage” and youth clubs, but there’s one in a shaky hand that catches my eye:

“Lonely older gentleman looking to meet Christian lady, age 50-70. Enjoys dining out and going to the theatre. Call 07xxx xxxxxx. Steve Jones.”

I wonder if it’s him. I think it probably is. I wonder if he’s back every night, trying to meet someone to take to dinner, and the thought of him eagerly standing in the cat food aisle at 7 or 7.30 tomorrow is starting to break my heart.

My garden

My garden is growing but nothing is flowering. Green shoots, stalks and leaves come out of the ground but nothing flowers. It rains and all the weeds spring up immediately and I think: I thought I had you tamed. I thought I had dug you up from the roots so you couldn’t come back.

The books say it can take a while for plants to become mature and you shouldn’t expect too much in your first year. All that work, I think, and nothing to show for it. I know I am laying the foundations but I’m tired. I want everything to be beautiful now.

Another estate agent comes round to value the house. Ludicrously young, ridiculous hair that’s too high for his head, so achingly earnest in his oversized jacket. He must be melting in this heat. After a cursory viewing he pulls out his business card and writes a number down, a sum so big that I have to go into the kitchen to disguise the fact I’m laughing. “The market has really picked up…” I hear him say, and I come back in and say there is no way it’s gone up that much, no way the house has made more money than I have in the last two years, Christine at number 2 sold hers recently for much less than that.

“Why are you selling anyway?” he asks, and I look over and think shit, we haven’t come up with a cover story.

“My job’s moving,” he says.

“Outside of London?”

“Yes, to Birmingham. We’re moving to Birmingham.”

“I’m from near there, it’s a great place…”

He tries desperately to build a rapport, seeing he’s lost us, as I think: imagine if we were moving to Birmingham. A parallel universe where I’m not buying you out, where we’re packing up and moving to Selly Oak.

“It’ll be weird not living with you,” he says, closing the door on the estate agent.

“I know,” I say, “it’ll be weird for me too,” and I think: can’t we just stay living like this forever? But of course we can’t. And he sees I’m upset and says we should order pizza, so we sit on the sofa and watch Only Connect and eat pizza and I think my god, it’s 12 weeks today since I left you.

We took so long to build it up and then
two conversations, 3 hours, 8 minutes
(3 hours; 8 minutes)
to tear it down.
I turn my claddagh ring upside-down and you move your shoes into the spare room.
And I think: this feels like a new beginning, rather than
an end.

when you go

I met a friend last night whose dad died unexpectedly, ten days ago. In a particularly bitter twist, it was just one week before his youngest son’s wedding. We talked and cried over wine and chips in the pub, and he told me he was going to read a poem I sent him a year ago as part of the eulogy. His dad died in his sleep, in his mum’s arms, so he thought it might be fitting.

When you go, by Edwin Morgan

When you go,
if you go,
And I should want to die,
there’s nothing I’d be saved by
more than the time
you fell asleep in my arms
in a trust so gentle
I let the darkening room
drink up the evening, till
rest, or the new rain
lightly roused you awake.
I asked if you heard the rain in your dream
and half dreaming still you only said, I love you.

I went home after my last post and slept for two hours and woke up feeling jetlagged at 6pm, confused to discover it was still light thanks to the clocks going forward at the weekend.

So I put on my trainers and went out for a run as dusk fell. I tend to repeat the same roads while I’m out, and each time the light was slightly different, there were fewer children playing, more cats out hunting, more lights burning behind living room curtains. This isn’t going to become an evangelical running blog but once I’d found a rhythm there was something very calming about being out at twilight, thinking about nothing  but which street to take next, feeling like I could put one foot in front of the other forever.

I found this on my route. I hope someone took it home.

Image

We have lost so many people unexpectedly this year; all men, all still meant to be here, all gone too soon. It feels like a curse of this unending winter. The same frost that has destroyed all the bulbs in my garden is taking our friends and families. We greet the news with sadness and shock each time, but a growing feeling that this year is somehow cursed. We’re reminded that life is so precious and so fragile. It is not to be wasted.

We need spring to come soon. We need daffodils and crocuses poking their heads through the soil. New life, new hope.

London

I haven’t left this city in seven months, and it’s starting to get to me. I love this city so hard and don’t really understand people who don’t – those who say it’s too dirty or big or unfriendly. Carve it up, make it manageable, make it your own. If you give to London it will give back, a hundred times. But it can be exhausting, and having some time away somewhere less sprawling and manic can recharge your batteries and remind you how much you love this place.

I only left it twice last year, once for a funeral. I don’t know why I’m so stuck here, orbiting the same places. And I don’t know if it’s the endless winter – I swear it’s never been this relentlessly cold before, where it’s a struggle to leave the house even for five minutes – but today I really want to take a train somewhere, anywhere my Oyster card won’t cover. The seaside, chips, a pebbled beach, the penny arcades. I want to stand ankle-deep in water, wind-whipped, looking out.

World Poetry Day

Apparently it’s World Poetry Day today – I thought it was October, but no, that’s NATIONAL Poetry Day. Anyway, here’s a poem that I posted on Google+ back in the days we were all using it. It’s by Don Paterson, whom I discovered via a poetry documentary on BBC2 before they farmed out all that arty stuff to BBC4. There’s something unsettling about his writing, which keeps it on the right side of sentimental. More of his poems here, from the Guardian and from his own website. This one’s about his twin sons.

The Thread
Jamie made his landing in the world
so hard he ploughed straight back into the earth.
They caught him by the thread of his one breath
and pulled him up. They don’t know how it held.
And so today I thank what higher will
brought us to here, to you and me and Russ,
the great twin-engined swaying wingspan of us
roaring down the back of Kirrie Hill

and your two-year-old lungs somehow out-revving
every engine in the universe.
All that trouble just to turn up dead
was all I thought that long week. Now the thread
is holding all of us: look at our tiny house,
son, the white dot of your mother waving.