|Image copyright www.rustyrambles.com|
The ducks are going crazy. Jennifer comes at them full stride, the cords of her hoody swinging in a rhythm with her feet springing up and falling down, and her breath passing in and out. The ducks flutter their wings and quack, spinning indecisively as they wonder which way to back off. They eventually scatter themselves more or less evenly either side of the winding path that Jennifer follows towards the bridge. The wind stings her ears, and her ankles ache, but she knows it’ll pass. She picks up the pace as she runs over the bridge. Her trainers make a different crunching sound when they hit the ground, which has changed from tarmac to pebbles.
Two hours earlier she was cleaning her room. She picked the photo frame off the bedside table and wiped its front and edges. With the image now in HD, she thought to herself: you knew this would happen. And then she thought: I know. She knew the smile on her face in the picture was a half-smile. A half-smile on the happiest day of her life. Jordi’s beaming grin didn’t look right, either. Not next to his half-closed eyes. It was as if he was halfway through blinking when the shot was taken, but that’s just how he looked that day. She remembered the smell of whisky on his breath when his uncle Victor twisted the lens of his camera and told them to “say cheese!” You knew this would happen. I know. She shared this conversation with herself for a moment, before she returned the photo frame to the bedside table and moved the dusting cloth to the skirting boards.
Jennifer gets stung and scraped by the tall weeds hanging over the path. She feels sweat on forehead and temples, and her heart’s beating faster, making her dizzy. But she carries on at the same speed, making clouds of yellow dust rise in her wake. On her right is the park, and snapshots of its cricket pavilion and dog walkers are presented to her through the windows of space between the trees that she passes one by one, with every sharp intake of breath. To her left are the locked doors and closed curtains of the backs of people’s houses, and up ahead there’s a gate that’s slightly ajar. It creaks further open in the breeze. The hinges scream over the clinking of tools and the vague sounds of human stirring. When Jennifer passes the gate she turns her head and catches the eye of a man who’s building a birdhouse. He nods and winks at her. She’s seen him before, and it means she’s around 15 minutes into her route. Or maybe more like 13 – this feels like one of her quick days.
She sat there on the sofa with Jordi after dinner the previous night. Their plates on the coffee table were smeared in the crusting leftovers of a meal she’d made sure took a long time to prepare. She was always looking for distractions in the house. A warm yellow glow from the hallway beamed under the door. It fought with the flicker of the TV screen on the wall. They’d been sleeping in separate beds for a while, but now this too was becoming difficult. She looked across at him – at his feet pointed towards each other, his hand positioned limply over his crotch, his head stuck forward as he squinted at the TV – and realised she found even the way he sat repulsive.
Everything’s now running completely in sync. Her legs feel strong, her heart rate has normalised, her breathing is so steady that she could probably hold a conversation if she wanted to. She’s not even really sweating much anymore. Air passes smoothly in and out of her lungs as waves of euphoria crash up and down her back and around her shoulders. She knows she’s been out a long time, but she can go further. Much further. She crosses the road at the traffic lights, and now she’s on the home straight – towards her street, her house, Jordi, the usual. No, not this time, she tells herself. Come on, not yet.
Two weeks ago Jennifer was crying in her bed. It was two in the morning and she wanted to sleep. When she’d started crying, five hours before, she was relieved, because she knew it was possible for someone to cry themself to sleep. But she couldn’t. She just stayed up crying, and awake, like a baby. She’d tried to talk to Jordi, but whenever she brought up a problem that wasn’t a short-term practical one, he’d tend to stare off into the middle distance and then shuffle out of her way at the earliest opportunity. Hearing his footsteps coming up the stairs, she decided to try one more time to summon something caring in him. She couldn’t remember a time when he’d ever looked after her, but she figured he must have done at some point. Maybe if only at the very beginning, when it was all about good first impressions.
“Jordi?” she said.
She heard him climb the final few steps then stop at the top of the landing, outside her room. He pushed open the door and swayed a little.
“What’s up?” he said.
“I need help,” she said. “Can you help me, Jordi?”
He didn’t ask what the problem was, he just rubbed his eyes and nodded.
“I know I’m something, physically at least, but then nothing really,” said Jennifer. She didn’t feel like she was making much sense. But then she couldn’t remember the last time she’d spoken to anyone.
“I feel like I’m someone else’s vague memory,” she said.
“Did you read that somewhere?” he said.
“No, I made it up,” she said.
“Sweet dreams,” he said.
Jennifer sits on the bank of a river, catching her breath. She’s miles from home. Her feet, ankles and legs – her whole body – have refused to move another muscle. She watches strands of freshly mowed grass float in the water, and thinks about jumping in, as the lonely leaves on the birch trees rattle against damp bark, hissing at her.
About a year before, Jordi came home early from work. He flicked his loafers off at the door and walked into the kitchen, where Jennifer was stood by the fridge. She looked at him and knew instantly what had happened.
“What?” said Jordi. “What is it?”
She sat herself down and closed her eyes. Drumming her fingers on the table, she tried to strangle the rush of impending trouble that fluttered around her body. After a few moments she opened her eyes and saw him reading a letter. It was short, and he quickly returned it to his pocket.
“I’m so sorry, honey. We’ll be OK,” he said.
“How?” she said.
“I promise we will. You’ll see,” he said. “You’ll see.”
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