He liked his supper at six. To come home from the office, briefly look at the newspaper and then find his meal on the table, that was the way he liked it. When they were just married, Margaret had fitted in with that routine. She had never known anything different in fact; her parents had done it just the same. But a few years ago her attitude had changed. Often it would be seven o'clock, half past seven or as late as eight. Sometimes she wasn't even in when he came home from work. On a couple of occasions he had remarked on it, but that only resulted in a depressing discussion about independence, a life of her own, and kitchen slavery. The potatoes were not served one minute earlier. That is, if there were potatoes and not some half-improvised exotic dish or French bread with all kinds of things stuffed into it. Half the time he didn't know what he was eating. Sometimes he wondered how many spare-rib victims England had.
When he first proposed the new arrangement for supper, it seemed as though Margaret couldn't remember it. Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday he had to explain that he would now appreciate it if she would serve the meal around nine. “Oh, yes, that's right,” she said, obviously irritated. “How annoying, I'd promised Wendy to go round her place at eight.” On these days, it seemed, there was always an immovable arrangement, an inescapable meeting or a theatrical performance not to be missed. But, thank God, she'd recently come around.
“Dinner at about nine or half past nine?” she asked.
“If that would be possible . . . By the way, have you seen my shoes? I put them in the shed on Monday to dry, but I can’t find them anymore.”
“In the closet in our bedroom. They were dry already.”
He went upstairs and put on his shoes. In the mirror he looked at himself. That potbelly still didn't want to disappear; actually no wonder. Fortunately Margaret didn't comment on it anymore. He did a brief imitation of a runner, distorted his face in a spasm, like marathon runners he had seen on television (my God, how long those programs went on for, and he couldn't turn it off), reached for his side as if he felt twinges of pain. He moved his feet rhythmically up and down in a sportslike cadence. His breathing became labored. It was time to leave.
Downstairs in the living room again, still panting a bit, he noticed it had just started to rain.
“You'll go just the same?” she asked.
“Yes, I have to keep up the rhythm. My body needs it. It's become a sort of physical urge.” For a moment he thought he'd gone too far.
“Well, I think it is quite an achievement. Six months ago you were nowhere when it came to running, and how far do you manage now?”
“Seven or eight miles, I think, something like that.”
“Goodness, it sounds awful . . . I can't imagine running so far! I suppose you won't want to go to the Meyers’ later in the evening. It's Patricia's birthday and they're having a small party.”
“Well . . . no, I don't think I'll have enough energy left for a party. Or I'll have to slow the pace down or run not so far.”
“OK, you enjoy your run and I will represent us at the party.”
Fine, he thought, she no longer kept on whining and nagging about his lazing around in the evenings, about his ever-decreasing desire to go out to a film, the pub, or to visit friends, about his limited activities in bed. Nice and quiet. She probably wouldn’t get home until he was already asleep.
“I'll just hang on a few minutes,” he said. “It's like a sheet of water outside. I'd be soaking wet in a second.”
She paced the room restlessly.
“Are they comfortable?” she asked, pointing to his shoes.
“Wonderful!” They were her latest birthday present. Very expensive shoes, over seventy pounds. “They make running seem almost effortless. Well . . . not quite effortless . . . It's dry now, I think I'll go.”
He parked the car in the lot near the entrance of Childer's Wood. It was a park, really, but everbody called it a 'Wood.' Here it had started, and here he returned over and over again, three times every week. A few joggers started their run. Another had just come back, immediately driving off in his Renault 5. On the car was a bumper sticker which said “Joggers do it for miles.”
Graham waited quietly till everyone was gone. Then he got out of his car, crossed the street and walked up the path to the front door of the only house opposite the parking lot. It was an odd little house, and looked as though it had been built for goblinlike creatures which might roam around Childer's Wood. Net curtains hung in the windows. White porcelain figures stood on the windowsills between the plants.
He didn't have to ring the bell. The door opened when he was still a few yards away. As soon as they were inside, she embraced him, closing the door with her foot. He felt the full, round form of her body under her glossy, satin dressing gown and was immediately absorbed into the wonderful sweet cloud of perfume surrounding her.
“Oh, darling, I yearned for you all day. I've been waiting for you,” she whispered in his ear. “I couldn't do a thing . . . you were on my mind all the time.”
He gave her the present. When she had opened it she gave a small squeal. “An ankle chain, how lovely! It's beautiful!” She kissed him passionately. He enjoyed her sultry gratitude. Her hands disappeared under his tracksuit jacket. Don't scratch, he thought. She pulled him upstairs. Half stumbling they entered her bedroom. Apart from an enormous bed there was only a huge dressing table full of bottles, tubes, and small boxes, some of them still open. Probably she'd spent half the day sitting at it. For him, only for him!
Now he had to lie down on the bed, while—as far as there was room for it—she walked around it, seductively moving her hips, looking at him with shy eyes. Slowly and deliberately she took off her dressing gown. He kept staring at her. Suddenly it entered his head that most men would probably find her unattractive, too fat, but then again he let himself be carried away by the lust she aroused in him. He was about to take off his tracksuit, but she said: “No, keep it on. Remember: you have to sweat. Running means perspiration. Even Margaret knows that much about it. I will undress you, but later.”
He wondered whether it was for strategic reasons only that she pressed him to keep his tracksuit on while they made love or if it gave her an extra kick. Sometimes he felt like a sweating fool, the trousers of that stupid suit pulled down a little, but the way she made love to him and her subtle technique of undressing him after his orgasm made up for a lot, perhaps for everything. Still, for once he'd have liked to be nude from the start. Perhaps that was even more exciting. He heard Whisky scratching at the door. Quiet, Mumsy has to have her screw. Still it had all started with the dog. He should be thankful to him.
About seven months ago he had decided to do something about his general fitness. Sometimes he even had to take a rest halfway up a staircase. Once, when he had just caught a train after having to run for it the length of the platform, he had had the feeling that his chest was being crushed and that his body refused to take in oxygen.
Actually the thought of any kind of sport filled him with violent distaste: the fug of the gym dressing room, having to do difficult exercises, ending up hurting yourself, and the noisy sports programs on television. Running seemed the most neutral sport. You could run by yourself, everywhere, any time, and you didn't have to get involved with other people or be in a club.
The first time, after just a very slow five-minute jog, he thought he would collapse, that he would die if he let this torture continue for even one more second. The trees and the bushes moved in a green haze before his eyes. He was forced to rest for some time on a bench (did the passing, experienced joggers really look at him with a little bit of compassion?) before he was able to walk back to his car as slowly as an old man of eighty coming out of the hospital. The times after that it didn't get any better. His muscles, his lungs, every part of his body tried to tell him that it was impossible. Still he had continued, each time a few minutes longer. The sixth or seventh time, he was only a hundred yards from the parking lot, when suddenly a black shaggy dog darted out from the bushes. “Whisky. . . Whisky . . . here!” he heard a woman yell. Almost the same second the animal bit into his ankle, growling menacingly.
Actually, you couldn't see anything, just a few scratches, but the woman insisted he go with her to her house, “to dress the wound, and to have a glass of something for the shock, a whisky perhaps . . . or is that too alcoholic for athletes?” When he came home Margaret had said: “Well, you're late. You must have run quite a distance.” “Oh yes,” he had answered, “when you have built it up properly, you can add on an extra mile.”
“Heh, listen to this: a big road race, three miles, six miles, or half-marathon.”
“This is about running, Graham, your one and only passion in life.”
“Think you're funny or something?”
“OK, your hobby then. In two weeks there's going to be a road race. Start and finish on Willborough Square, for semi-professional and amateur runners. You will go in for it, won't you? You might even win a medal.”
“Maybe.” He wondered why Margaret couldn't leave him alone. When he had come back, she had already submitted him to a rigorous interrogation. Had he had a good run, how many seconds less than the day before yesterday, when could he put his distance up with another mile? A dangerous kind of interest. He couldn't stand it when she breathed down his neck like that. It had been the same a few years ago when she had criticized his office job, but then he could only point out that there was the mortgage to consider. “Oh, damn the mortgage. We could sell this bloody greenhouse.” That had become a favorite expression: bloody greenhouse. “We bought this house together,” he had said. “Yes, we did, but that was five years ago.”
She wouldn't drop the subject. “What's going on? You train and train, but when there is a race, right here on your doorstep, you back out.”
“You don't understand.” He tried to sound cool and easy. “I don't run for competition or for medals or things like that. I just do it for the sport.”
“I don't get it. Why would such a pure athlete refuse to run in a race now and then. Those six miles must be a piece of cake for you. Ha, I'd like to see people's faces when they see you storming along.”
“I'm just not interested in that kind of thing at all, people watching me storming along amid hundreds of other idi—eh, runners.”
“So, if I want to see you run, I have to go with you to Childer's Wood?”
“Eh . . . perhaps, eh. . . ”
“I could go there on my bike when the weather's good. Then I'd ride along behind you.”
“I don't think that's such a great idea.”
“Why not?” she asked.
“Well, don't you think it's a bit odd, you following me on a bicycle in the park. And really, I don't understand what you want to do that for, why do you think it's such a big thing.”
“I don't know, I just want to. I do make sacrifices for all that running of yours, you know. And this way I'd at least get something back.”
At half past twelve the six-mile race started, first came the semi-professionals, the real athletes, and a few minutes later, the amateurs. Graham started off cautiously. He quickly found himself at the back, among a group of older men. Margaret had kept on at him. She talked over and over again about the road race, and the alternative of following him on her bike in Childer's Wood. That seemed so much worse. Here he was at least more anonymous. She could hardly see him. It was also easier to fake an injury, leave the others and hobble back to the start via a few side streets, or even better, go home.
He felt a slight stitch in his side. It would get worse. How far had they run now? Not even a mile. He was already in the tailing group, or perhaps right at the back even. Spectators were yelling and clapping, probably for the couple of obvious old retirees right in front of him. Don't look, just concentrate on running.
It was as if he was running behind his own breath. Every new gasp of breath supplied him with just too little oxygen, and all those missing parts amounted to a growing void in his lungs. He couldn't let this go on much longer. Running a few miles was a very different matter from making love to Joyce, wonderful Joyce, with her round, soft shape.
His legs refused to go on. Everything in his body protested. Suddenly he heard someone calling his name. “Come on, Graham, come on!” A shrill cry from somebody with not much volume. In the corner of his eye he saw Margaret standing among other spectators.
Keep going, just keep going for a few minutes, he said to himself. Try to think of something else, that'll make it easier. He tried to imagine Joyce in her house, in her bedroom, in her bed, but it didn't work. This torture had taken possession of him, not just physically but also mentally. For a second he had the idea that he was standing still and that the street was moving rapidly under him. The sun was shining brightly and the next moment it was nearly dark with a few patches of light here and there. Now nobody was running near him. His lungs almost exploded. At the same time it seemed as if a heavy, strong hand on his chest was trying to push him back. It was impossible to continue. He wanted to lie down on the road. They would cover him with a blanket, and he could sleep, sleep, sleep until Joyce would wake him up. In her satin dressing gown.
“Graham!” he heard again.
A lashing pain made him powerless and, jerking, he fell down on the tarmac.
Margaret threw her arms around him. He felt her nails scratching his back through his jacket and shirt. “We're free, we're free!”
She nearly climbed into him. He hardly understood what she meant, did not dare to understand it. First she wept silently, later with great sobs. Finally she cried out with a thick, tearful, cracking voice which made her completely incomprehensible. He tried to calm her down.
“Take it easy, take it is easy. Come and sit down here, tell me what happened.”
“Graham . . . Graham, he is . . . his heart . . .” and the rest was muffled by her tears.
“Has he told you?”
She shook her head.
“Is he going to leave you? Does he want to move to that strange little house near the park?”
“No . . . that road race . . . you know, this afternoon.”
She embraced him violently. It was as if her slim, tawny body wanted to fuse with his. While they kissed, he felt her tears on his cheeks. He had the impression that she didn't want to say any more, that she only wanted to sit here, very close to him.
“What about the road race?” he asked after a while.
In a flat voice and half whispering she told him the story. Graham had to take part. In the end, she had nearly forced him. She had only intended to tease him a bit, to humiliate him because of that Joyce and all those stupid lies which he had himself probably already believed.
“But all that time you knew his physical condition was awful, that he could never run such a distance?”
She nodded and laughed between her tears.
“So you knew this could happen?”
Again she cried and laughed at the same time. “Of course, my love.”
Translation of '”Hardlopers.” Copyright René Appel. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2010 by René Appel. All rights reserved.