After the last good night kiss has been delivered, I stand in the hall and inhale. It feels like my first uninterrupted breath since I woke up this morning. My mind is a swirl of thoughts and to do lists.
The sofa looks like a luxurious cloud of comfort to my tired eyes. But the doctor ordered me to run. Said I needed to clear my head.
I lace up my mucky grey runners. Once they were white. My children would never wear anything this dirty. I wonder why I hold different standards for them.
Outside the air is colder than I expected. Darker too. The last time I left the house at this time was in the peak of summer, when the night sky held no distinction from the day.
I am about to stretch my muscles out when I remember hearing that you’re more likely to injure yourself if you stretch first. I’m not sure if I believe it. But life is too busy to risk it.
I propel myself forwards, swinging my arms to give myself some momentum. As soon as I am jogging I am glad that I have come. The sharp wind smacks my face, awakening every skin cell that had already fallen asleep.
I feel a pool of thick saliva collecting at the back of my throat. The street-lights hover above me, forbidding me to spit it out of my mouth. Nobody enjoys seeing that.
The foot path keeps breaking for roads, forcing me to slow or stop; the whole neighbourhood designed for cars before people.
I pass others out walking and don’t look to see if I know them. I don’t make eye contact, I just run.
I feel a stone in my shoe. I tilt my foot slightly to avoid it hurting but after a few steps the twisted position hurts more than the stone. I stop, annoyed at losing my rhythm. It’s not a stone but a triangular piece of green glass. I didn’t spot it when I was running, too busy trying to clear my mind to notice the pavement. There is always broken glass around here, though I have never seen anyone breaking it. I pull it out of my shoe and throw it into someone’s front garden hedge. I tell myself the ugly privet deserved it.
I work myself back up to the same speed, this time my lungs struggle to breath as fast as my muscles demand the oxygen. I have lost my focus and my ability to control my breathing.
I see a young boy ahead. Small, shaved head, freckles. That look in his eyes. The one he must have inherited from whoever he lives with. He is no stranger to me.
“You going for a run?” he shouts at me and his voice reminds me how young he is. About six or seven years old.
“Yes,” I say and run past him. Stopping to talk to him only makes him worse. Ignoring him will make him follow me.
“It won’t make any difference,” he shouts after me, “No matter how much you run you’ll still be ugly! Stupid Bitch!”
I usually have my shield at the ready for this boy, but tonight I was still thinking about the glass in my shoe. I could still feel where it had pierced my skin, wondering what diseases I could have picked up. And so I let his words get in. They hit me like stones, pelting my strong demeanour. I chastise myself for letting a kid get to me, but the unsettling doom has crept under my skin. It’s not what he said. It’s never about that. It’s the fact that he feels he has to say it.
I have never been able to figure out where this boy lives. Who is parents are. He cycles his brand new bike around the estate, around and around. Every time I am reversing out my driveway he is there, daring me to hit him, standing in my blind spot. When I need to bring in my bin he is sitting on top of it, waiting for me to challenge him. For awhile I thought it was just me he taunted. But another neighbour complained too.
I try and wipe his face away, try and push his image to the side. But his clean orange Nike runners and crisp jeans keep finding their way back. Looking at him, you’d think he was well cared for. Until he opens his mouth and his words are full of maggots. Neglect is not always easy to see at first.
I try not to feel anger at the boy as I round a corner and see my house ahead. A beacon of light, of home and husband in this neighbourhood of broken glass and souls.
My muscles are screaming to stop. My lungs feel each dagger of breath as a personal insult.
I stop running abruptly as the realisation of defeat sweeps me. I keep walking, my lungs hauling the air in faster than I would like.
Satisfaction trickles through me that I chose the run instead of the sofa. The feeling of guilt I carry around with me lifts a little. The guilt was there before I had children, but by God did it get worse after they were born. Guilt at nothing, when I really think about it. But then, how many of our daily thoughts are rational?
Each decision of the day seems lighter now. Each decision that carried with it the fear that perhaps I should have gone with the other option. Mindless questions, too many options, this evil that is an over abundance of choice. Never more weighty than when directed at parents. If one is the right answer then the other is the wrong answer. How do you know which is which?
I listen to the traffic on the road outside the estate. I see tufts of grey smoke escaping from chimneys and joining the navy clouds, blocking the tiny stars.
I reach my house and I walk around to the back door. My breathing has relaxed by now. I lean my back against the wall and close my eyes in my dark garden. I picture myself lying on a soft blanket with my feet nearly touching a river. I imagine I hear the water, feel the sunshine, smell the flowers, see the clouds, taste the fresh air. My muscles droop and my soul lifts. I open my eyes and turn the door handle. Whatever my faults, whatever I regret, I have never neglected my children. No matter how many times I have lost my temper today, they have never feared losing my love nor losing me. I have succeeded.