I wake and decide to go for a chilly early morning 5 mile run along the Thames. I jog along dead man’s beard pavements covered in frozen chewing gum and dog turd. I reach the river and turn towards a beautiful mouldy peach sunrise, bands of purple and orange and crimson, topped with dark wisps of cloud. Streetlights – reedy metal pensioners – sucking on an amber fag, huddle together on corners and avoid all the really dark places. The underpass is lit, and less threatening than during the day. Even the litter is frozen to the spot.
On the horizon, I can see planes stacking for Heathrow. Even they look beautiful in the sunrise, sleek black metallic swans picked out perfectly against the bruised sky. They are relentless, a factory of new arrivals, soon-to-be-memories and occasionally, hope. I wonder if each successive plane carves the path a little deeper, like runners on a trail.
I wave at nothing in particular and carefully blow my nose into a hanky while running. It is an idiosyncracy of mine, I know. But it does not feel right to make snot projectiles. Once a catholic schoolboy….
My only companions are fellow travellers in fluorescent clothing – poking in drains or sitting hunched up in misted up Transits, willing the clock to go slower. I wonder about the vans, parked up in an area of dim repute, and pity anyone who has to work this early. As for working girls, well, I cannot imagine the desperation. Or from the man’s perspective, the satisfaction. I plod on.
A car stops several times on the road alongside me – about 20 yards or so across the riverside scrub. I fancy I’ve interrupted something illicit, and that the car’s occupants are sizing me up, or are looking for clues to find me again – they can hunt me down by the insignia on my running hat. But it is just a woman trying to get a signal on her mobile phone, leaning out of her metal cocoon wrapped in coats, gloves and furry hat. The call must be important. Or she is quite madly in love with the view across to Barnes.
A flock of geese trundle overhead, flying in perfect formation. I wonder if geese aspire to be the pilot, the navigator, or whether they’re quite happy to be ‘Right Goose Three’? I suppose they’re just happy to be alive. Flying in formation. ‘It’s what we do’, say the geese. That and ruin the grass. A lone parakeet skirrets across the sky. I hope it’s cold. Then maybe it will go home. They don’t belong here. Perhaps it could hitch a lift from Heathrow.
I pass several hardy runners. Most are resolutely doing the five yard stare, the learnt mistrust of apparently smooth surfaces all too apparent on their unhappy faces. All are plugged into their own private world, tell tale wires dripping from their ears – perhaps they are running androids, and this is their feeding mechanism? They are wrapped, like me, in layers of synthetic clothing, while doing very real effort.This isn’t fun. This is duty. Like flying in formation.
I listen to Underworld and try to ignore the pains in my legs. I move my hips forward but my shoulders slump. I try to elongate my stride but I appear to be doing a fast duck walk. I settle for old chinese lady running, all pitter patter feet and hip wiggling. A brief memory of favourite races I’ve done – marathons mainly – flits across my head like the parakeet and my eyes moisten. Bloody weather.
I’m nearly home and the light is spreading. A tower block somewhere in Mortlake is bathed in a pool of fiery gold, but my homeward streets are still flecked with frost spittle. Security guards from the brewery move as slow as is humanly possible. There is not much beer rustling in Chiswick. A woman’s hair catches my eye, ribbons of gold bobbing up and down as she marches to work. I pass and steal a look at her face. All I see are a mole and a nose. Goodbye mole-nose-hair lady.
I’m turning for home now. Schoolchildren ignore me, and the post van tries to run me over. He’s lost. The scent of de-icer hangs heavily in the air, and I can smell the thickness of the ozone near the roundabout. I make my last road crossings and into my road. I need the loo. I speed up – I always like to give the neighbours the impression I am faster than I really am. Of course this ignores the shuffling shambles they will have witnessed 45 or so minutes earlier huffing and puffing in the other direction.
But here, with 100 yards to go, I am imperious. I am a running machine. I am the joginator. And here, here is my home. My door. I switch my Garmin off. My legs respond to their digital prompt by shouting a miscellany of complaints to me in muscle and nerve language. But it’s immaterial. Here is my home. Here is my not-running place. Here is my hot shower. Here is my tea.
Yet my thoughts continue to pile into each other. No machine tells my brain to stop running. Well, not until the hospital – at some unspecified point in the future. For now, it’s just me, tea, and the memory of a mouldy peach sunrise.