The thrum of feet against tarmac – that’s the sound of community. It’s not always been like this, obviously. I spent most of my teenage years hiding in a bush eating crisps instead of doing cross-country. But now, it’s my favourite sound in the world.
I remember the first time I joined this club; painfully shy and limbs like a giraffe, I felt really out of place amongst the lithe, lycra clad athletes, limbering up against fence panels and walls. I pretended I knew what I was doing, obviously, making those whooshing noises you hear as I jogged on the spot, but I didn’t have a clue. Then I saw someone else over the other side of the green doing exactly the same, and she smiled at me and shrugged her shoulders, and I knew I was doing it right. Now, obviously, I am one of those lycra clad athletes, stretching quadriceps and sucking on energy gels, but I never forget that first-day girl in her Asda leggings that bunched up at the ankles, and always look for her at the start of every meet up. Someone always has her with them, and I always give them the same smile I needed to see.
Today’s race is a big one personally. It’s my longest distance, and the one that will clinch me the coveted tiny trophy I’ve had my eye on, if I can ace the hill at the end. But it’s also the first one I’ve done since it all happened. Since I finally said goodbye.
There’s no easy way to explain it: the tug between love and hate, courage and fear, claustrophobia and loneliness. Even now, when I consider it, my heart feels like it’s torn into two dreams; the life that I dreamed and the one it turned into. I still blame myself, when it was him who deserved retribution.
It was one of those chance encounters you see in soaps – I didn’t know him and he didn’t know me. I was riding the tube on my daily commute, nose buried in a book, trying to keep myself as invisible as possible. The fluorescent light above me flickered erratically, slowly driving my eyes away from the page. Defeated, I remember closing Wuthering Heights in a huff, slamming it shut and accidently meeting the gaze of the man opposite.
Though he smiled, it didn’t register on the rest of his face; his eyes were intense, his body rigid. Perhaps now I know what I know, I look back on this first meeting with different eyes. But the signs were there, there’s no denying it.
He was always there on my journey home, but it took at least a week for either of us to speak. When a single seat became available, he offered it to me. When the one beside me was free, he sat without invitation.
The conversations on the tube were always the ones I felt safest. There were people there to see us. It was the ones where we were alone I feared. Strangers turned to lovers, turned to strangers once more; it had been six weeks since I had taken my final stand. I may not have always known it, but I carry within me a strength I didn’t know I had. The bruises were fading, and so too, slowly, faded the fear.
Every day, now, I make time for the open. Feet on tarmac, face forward, wind in my hair. I may not have always been athletic, no. But it’s not about that, for me. It’s about controlling what I can control; the community I surround myself with. Because when I fall, they lift me. When I stumble, they catch me. And when I’m coming up behind them near the finishing line, they watch me pass with grace and humility.
The starting gun sounds, and that familiar thrum of feet on tarmac begins. Yes, this is community. But as much as I love each and every member, I’m sure as hell not going to be beaten today. One foot in front of the other; on.
A short story a day, throughout the Coronavirus Pandemic. By me, for you.
#wordsnotwars #fictionforfriends #proseforpals