Evening Jog: An Adult Short Story

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.

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Dad at the Toddler Group (A short story for adults)

There’s a big sign on the door: “Mum and toddler group”. Even the sign is telling me I should turn around and go home.

I know if I don’t go in Sarah will kill me. I made a promise.

I look around. As expected, I’m the only man in the room.

Out! Out!” Anna cries, bouncing up and down trying to get out of the buggy. She clearly recognises the place and I know there’s no going back now.

Hold your horses”, I say crouching down besides her.

Excuse me, would you mind standing out of the door way to do that?” a woman asks me. She is trying to get past pushing an enormous buggy. It’s like the BMW of buggies. Big, shiny, and all for show.

Sorry,” I hear myself saying, as I steer Anna’s buggy to a corner.

By now Anna is starting to get frantic, “Out! OUT! OUT!”

I see the same woman looking at me with pity or disapproval, I can’t tell which. l I fumble with the clasp of the buggy straps. Why won’t it bloody open? The other woman is beside me now, cramping me. With no effort she lifts her baby out, pops her onto her hip. She parks the buggy in a bay of other buggies and now there’s no room left for anymore.

Eventually I get Anna free and she potters off to the toys. I don’t know what to do with the buggy so I just leave it the corner. I look for a seat, somewhere I can watch Anna.

I sit down on a small chair in the middle of a row and I feel my arse cheeks spilling over the sides. The chair is the kind we had in primary school, with red metal legs and a tiny wooden seat. I feel stupid and too big sitting on it but better than standing there like an iijit with my hands in my pockets.

There are toddlers running around everywhere, screaming. I wonder if I’m the only person in the room who finds the noise head wrecking.

I watch Anna. She is playing with a toy train, rolling it on the floor under a table. She looks happy.

A woman sits down 3 chairs away with a baby boy on her knee, younger than Anna, not yet walking. The woman is about 30, brown bobbed hair. Efficient looking. I smile at her.

Hiya” I say.

How’s it going?” she replies and looks away, uninterested. She pulls out a bottle with water from her bag and pours in milk powder. The boy waves his arms in excitement as he sees the bottle transform into creamy white milk.

I contemplate saying something, but don’t know what to say.

Maybe “Nice baby”, but I think that sounds creepy. Maybe “Have you been here before?” ,but that sounds like a chat-up line. Maybe “It’s my first time”, and I grin to myself at how that could be taken.

Before I can think of something to say, another woman sits down next to her . They start chatting easily. I wonder do they know each other. Why can mothers always start conversations with other women that they’ve never met before?

I hear a yell and see Anna about to bite a little boy who is trying to grab the train off her.

Anna!” I shout, jumping up, “Don’t bite!”

I grab her but I am too late, she has bitten the boy who is now roaring. Then Anna starts roaring. Great, I think. I see women everywhere staring at me. I can feel them thinking I can’t discipline my child. My stomach clenches. Will I get kicked out? My one year old expelled from the group for biting?

Shhh pet,” I soothe Anna, “It’s OK, calm down. You’re a good girl but you shouldn’t bite. Biting is a bold thing to do isn’t it?”

“Yes,” Anna sniffs.

“And good girls shouldn’t do bold things, should they?” I ask.

“No.” Anna says burying her face in my chest.

I look to see the little boy in his mum’s arms, a young woman, early twenties with orange streaky hair.

I’m really sorry” I say to her, “Is he alright?”

I know I should probably insist that Anna apologises herself but I know that’ll start a tantrum and I’m not in the mood to draw that on me. I’ve long known that becoming a parent means apologising for someone else’s behaviour. Repeatedly.

He’ll be fine,” the woman replies, “Don’t worry about it. They’re demons at this age! Peter bit his cousin only last week. And actually it was him to stole your daughters train.”

I feel relief sweep through me. She’s not angry.

Well, she shouldn’t have bitten him, I really am sorry.”

She smiles again and moves to comfort her son away from the biter.

When Anna has calmed down I look for something new to play with. I spot a xylophone. I let her bang away at it and walk back to my chair. There is a woman sitting on the chair next to mine. I sit down enthusiastically, seeing my chance to get to know somebody. Sarah seemed to know everyone here, before she went back to work. The woman tenses as I approach. Now I feel awkward. Maybe I look desperate. I probably am desperate.

Hi”, I say to her, “I’m Adam”

Lucy,” she says, blushing. I realise that there are two tiny legs poking out from under her jumper. She’s breastfeeding a young baby, only a couple of weeks old probably. Tiny little bare feet.

The woman starts to squirm in her chair.

I wonder should I tell her that my wife Sarah breastfed Anna until her 1st birthday, only 4 months ago and it’s really no big deal to me, she doesn’t need to feel awkward. I consider the word breastfeeding and realise there is something intimate even in the word itself. Maybe I could use the word nursing.

Her baby kicks me in the elbow. I look down just as the mum takes the baby off her breast. I catch a glimpse of her nipple and look quickly away but I can see she is embarrased. Her embarrassment is contagious. She starts fumbling, trying to clip back her bra while holding the baby and trying not to expose herself. I can see out of the corner of my eye that she is blushing bright red.

I decide now is a good time to go play with Anna. I walk tom Anna without looking back.

Do you want to do some painting?” She looks at me excited, flapping her arms and babbling in her own baby language. I take this to mean yes.

I walk with her to the art table and put one of the plastic aprons on her. The sleeves are too long and I struggle with her wriggly body trying to roll up the sleeves.

One second Anna”, I say but she is starting to whine. Eventually it is on. I have sweat on my forehead. I feel exhausted. I’d kill for a coffee.

Anna clambers onto one of the tiny chairs and the woman doing the painting smiles at her.

Hello angel,” she says “Here is a paintbrush. You can use any colour you like.”

Thanks” I say to her, helping Anna dip the brush into the yellow paint. “Let’s go with yellow first.” “Lellow” Anna sings to herself, “Lellow lellow lellow lellow”

She squashes the brush onto the paper, then the table, smearing yellow paint blobs everywhere. Thankfully everything is covered in plastic, fully equipped for a toddlers lack of painting skills.

I look at my daughter. She is beaming. She has a large blob of yellow paint on her nose. I can’t help but laugh at her. She laughs back at me, thinking it is hilarious but not knowing what I’m laughing at. This makes me laugh even more. The facilitator smiles at me. My first truly friendly smile at the toddler group.

After awhile I can see Anna starting to lose interest. She rubs her eyes spreading paint over her forehead. She’s tired.

Have you had enough painting?” I ask her.

She nods her head and climbs off her chair.

I take off her apron and use one of the wipes on the table to clean her hands and face. She squirms when I rub her nose.

Will we go home?” I ask her, hoping she’ll say yes.

She frantically shakes her head from side to side, no. We both know who the boss is.

I walk her over to my chair. The breastfeeding mum has gone. I sit down and help Anna climb onto my knee, trying to balance us both on the miniture chair. She rests her head on my chest and I give her the soother from the changing bag. She relaxes into me, her eyes closing.

I see a woman start handing coffee out over a counter but now I’m stuck under Anna.

Maybe I should just sneak out when she falls asleep. I look at the buggy and wonder how easy it would be to escape around the toys, kids and other buggies. Impossible. There is no way out amidst the bedlam. I look at the door just as it opens.

A man walks in holding a girl in his arms, younger than Anna. He looks around the room awkwardly, unsure where to go. His eyes fall on mine, I smile at him, give him a wave. He looks relieved and walks over.

Heya,” he says sitting down next to me, “For awhile there I thought I was the only man here. Imagine how hard that would be?!” He sits his daughter on the ground. She picks up a building block and shoves it into her drooly mouth.

Tell me about it.”