Kate Mahony’s fiction has been published in numerous literary journals and anthologies including the forthcoming anthology Bonsai: the big book of small stories (Canterbury University Press). Her stories have been shortlisted in international competitions. She has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters at Victoria University.
The girl seems surprised to see me. I’m just as surprised to see her in this tucked-away corner of the gardens. They’ve changed the tracks and this part has become more isolated than I remember it. Back then, you’d see groups of runners clambering uphill, grunting, pausing to spit into the bushes or to re-tie their shoe laces.
There’s a moment in which we both eye each other carefully. She’s wearing black jeans and the kind of floaty black top all the young girls wear now. Incognito. I can see she’s considering whether to turn back or stay and share the bench with some random woman.
The bench is designed for couples or at least for people who know each other.
“Ta,” she says when I move across for her. She glances down at her phone screen quickly, then looks away. “No one usually comes here.”
“Sorry,” I say, although I have as much right to the bench as she does. More, maybe.
We sit, not speaking, until I am aware of her shifting her body, stretching her legs. Finding the silence awkward.
“It is a bit out of the way,” I say, making conversation. “It’s nice here with all the trees.” I wave my hand to indicate the dense forest around us, the tree with pink blossoms, a tiny glimpse of a faraway sun through a gap in the leaves.
I sense her relax.
“Yeah. Nice place.” She returns to her phone. Her black backpack is crammed full. I imagine if she opened it, there might be a wrinkled school uniform squashed inside. Eleven years would be a long time in the life of this girl.
It was eleven years ago that I first came back to this country. I’d worked in London, Paris and Copenhagen. Each had suited me well enough. I never stayed long enough to settle. But returning was a different matter. People had moved away, friends had become mothers and their lives so different, and my new colleagues were friendly but distant. Eating a sandwich in the square at lunch time soon became tedious. Going for a run seemed a better option.
The Botanic Garden was close to my office. That first day a group of slow-moving Japanese tourists making their way towards the lantern with the peace flame impeded my progress. A couple of mothers with buggies caused an obstruction as they paused to wait for a dawdling toddler. But then I’d left them behind and headed up a steep track through the hills. I began breathing heavily, not used to hill running. I remember bronzed leaves on the paths. I slipped on a patch of them. My legs went in two ways, as if I were doing the splits.
You came up behind me. You asked, was I okay? Had I hurt anything? You bent down and knelt beside me, examining first my right leg, and then the left. Then you looked at my face.
I let you help me up. I stood on one leg and then the other. Everything seemed to be okay.
Now I ask the girl beside me: “Do you do any running?”
“Only when I have to, for school,” she says. “Relays and cross country.” She makes a face.
I see her cast me a doubtful glance. From where she sits, do I look like the kind of person who might run? Really, I think that is why you stopped that day. I didn’t look like a person who might be a runner. I was too awkward,; my running shoes too new. I wasn’t sweating enough.
You asked if I wanted to keep going or return to the rose gardens. You would run with me, to check I was all right, if I liked.
“I don’t want you to go another 200 metres and sprain your ankle,” you said.
I made a harrumphing sound. I didn’t want to feel weak and foolish. It made me determined to show you I could run. I didn’t say anything else and we headed off. At first you ran in front of me and glanced back. The path was narrow in places. Then it widened out and we ran side by side. We didn’t talk much. I was concentrating on the uneven path, the stray branches embedded in the rough soil, the leaves which might trip me up again.
“Go on,” I said after a while. “Don’t let me hold you up.”
By then we were coming into a darkened area, one I thought might have been the place I knew from years before. Aged eighteen, I had come from the country to a university hostel in this city. Feeling lonely, I’d had gone for a walk in these gardens. I had got lost. I remember green trees crowding me and a sense of there being little oxygen. Dark and mildewed plants. A rushing sound of an underground stream somewhere. I had looked for a route to take me back out onto the streets but instead, I seemed to walk further into the darkness. No one was around.
Ages later, I had stopped. My heart was beating too quickly and I felt faint. And then a girl and boy in walking boots had marched down the track towards me. They passed me by and said a cheerful hello. I turned and walked back the way they had come. After a time, the path led around a few curves until I was out on a street a long way from where I’d started.
“Are you familiar with these gardens?” I find myself asking the girl beside me.
She looks surprised. She nods. She’s here, after all.
“I got lost in here once when I was a student. It was frightening.”
The girl fixes her gaze on me. I’ve seen the same expression on other young people when some older person is telling them something boring like how they hitch-hiked around Europe in their twenties. It is a particular look: very polite and observant but you can sense the indifference, the boredom. Why are you telling me this? Why should I care?
It’s so different now, what with cell phones and all that. No one has anything to fear. Even so, maybe that’s why she keeps checking her phone. That constant checking. It’s annoying. Unnerving.
“I’ve been in here at night,” she says suddenly. “With the senior Girl Guides. We take the younger ones to see the glow worm caves. With torches. We like scaring them.”
I’d know my way through the trees now, I’m sure of that. But that moment when you said, “No, I will run with you”, I sensed relief course through me. Now I might say that was all it was. All it took for me to feel safe with you.
If we met now – today – we’d exchange phone numbers. I’d be waiting here, like this girl, checking my phone. Checking the messages.
We did that loop, that run through the forest, out onto some nearby streets and back, four to five times. Then we returned to the rose gardens, to the slow Japanese tourists making their way back from the outdoor café to their tour bus.
“All right?” You asked.
“Yes,” I said.
The following Monday a group of men ran past me, and then I heard your voice telling them to go on without you. And it was a surprise and not a surprise. We ran in silence. You occasionally shouted out to watch for a fallen branch. I asked you how often you ran, and you said that you ran here twice a week, unless the weather was totally crap. You did longer runs on the other days, round the bays with a harrier club. But all I heard was the same time, same place, Mondays and Fridays. You were so specific. Even so, maybe I shouldn’t have taken it for an invitation.
I did take it up, nevertheless. I think you didn’t expect to see me waiting there the next time. But then you smiled and we set off to run up the path. After that, we met at the same time twice a week, except for when there was a wild storm which sometimes the city was prone to. I no longer felt so alone. I had someone whom I met twice a week. That was enough for me. Then.
I turn now to the girl beside me: “Are you meeting someone here?”
She shrugs. “Maybe.”
I wait for her to ask me the same. But then I understand she’s not interested in me. I’m just a stranger she might share a bus shelter with.
We never spoke much about our lives, you and me. You told me your name. First name. We were on first-name terms. Your name was unusual and I liked that. I used to say it aloud when I walked down the street sometimes. Gideon. Gideon.
I wasn’t going to ruin what we had by talking, asking you too many questions. In Copenhagen when Josef broke up with me he said it was because I needed to exert too much control. I found this hard to believe and I said so. But I was not a vengeful person and I had watched him walk out of the restaurant that night and out of my life and I had done none of the things women in my position sometimes do. But Josef was my employer and the job was important to me. Until I left.
I know I did ask you if you were busy at work, that kind of thing. I sensed running was your escape and you were pleased to drop away from the big group of men you sometimes arrived with at the gardens. You could have run at their pace if you’d wanted. You’d have finished your run well before mine.
Sometimes we did talk. About music. About films. You surprised me by liking the kinds of books I might not have expected. It’s amazing how many topics you can talk about and yet not discuss other perhaps more meaningful things.
This city is a compact one. Everyone says that. A very small place. It’s worse these days. People simply Google someone’s name to find out information. Two degrees of separation, they say it is. I imagine it could get down to one soon enough.
So I shouldn’t have been surprised to see you in the city towards the end of autumn. It was a Saturday afternoon and I almost missed you. You were driving out of an underground car park, beneath a block of offices. Nice car. An Audi. But I was concentrating on the woman in the front passenger seat. Short blonde hair. Something sour and petulant about her expression. A woman who was not happy with her life, I thought. But then the car moved forward, and I saw the two small children in the back, both with tousled curly hair. I turned the collar of my coat up, hiding from view.
I didn’t mention I had seen you. It wouldn’t change things. Why should it? We were merely two people who met twice a week to run together, or that’s what I told myself.
Even so, plenty can happen when you run with someone, a closeness, an understanding. My running style never did improve and now and then you would have to reach out to grab my hand or my arm when it seemed I might slip. I’d feel warmth flood through me. The electricity between us was tangible. I know you felt it, too. One time I saw you look at my mouth, your gaze serious and careful, as if you were thinking about kissing me. I wanted you to kiss me. But then you turned away and began running, your pace faster than usual.
We ran all through winter. There are always bright, sunny days to be had at that time of the year and the season was particularly mild. I noticed sometimes that you looked tired as you approached. Drained. But when you saw me waiting for you to catch up, you smiled. I liked that. One time you talked about changes at your work. Restructuring. Redundancies. It was happening everywhere then. Everyone was talking about downsizing. Cuts. Later, I thought of your blonde wife with her sharp features and downturned mouth and I wished I’d said something reassuring. Said, I’m here for you. Or even reached out my hand to smooth away the worry lines on your forehead.
The girl beside me is texting. I hear the ping of a reply. Then her fingers are darting across the phone again. Fast and furious.
I woke up that first morning of spring and looked forward to our run. When we met at the gardens, I saw sweat on your face. You were pale. I ran behind you, letting you set the pace. I didn’t say anything, just allowed you to run. Then you pulled up sharply and bent over, coughing. I told you to breathe in and out, just as you had instructed me that time. I reached out my hand to touch your back but you had already straightened up.
“Overdoing it,” you said.
And then you collapsed.
I screamed for help. I began to pummel your chest, trying to remember the life-saving skills I had seen on television advertisements. Some people came up to us. Two men. One took over, breathing into your mouth, pressing your chest. The other ran back to the café to use their phone to call for help.
When the ambulance officers arrived, one of them asked what happened. I was shivering so much I couldn’t speak.
The man who had helped you took charge, speaking to them. By the time I tried to say your name was Gideon, the ambulance officer was already talking into the radio, telling them two “Members of the Public” had come across you. You were unconscious.
They took you away on a stretcher. The man who had helped out had his arm around my shoulder, trying to comfort me, the other stranger who had come upon you.
The girl beside me swears. “Stood me up.”
She looks at me. “Same for you?”
I stare back at her, distracted.
There are things I could have done – I may even have done. I could have gone to the hospital and walked into the ward; if your family was there, I would’ve apologised, said I was in the wrong room, the wrong ward. Or I may have sent you a card and flowers care of the hospital. I was your running partner, a friend, I had every right.
I may have waited some time and phoned the hospital again. You had been discharged.
These are things I may have done: I might have looked up your address in the telephone book. I might have travelled to your home in the evening and stood outside on the street. Waiting. Watching you through the curtain less windows of your centrally-heated home.
You’d had a heart attack. It should’ve made you re-assess your life. It should’ve meant you looked at the hard-hearted bitch who was your wife, and made the right decision. But I think you made another decision, and that didn’t include me.
You didn’t return to the gardens, not on the days I went there. In the months which passed there were so many things I could have done, may have done. There was one thing I know I did do.
The management of the gardens welcomed gifts. A new wooden bench for members of the public to take a rest on, to sit awhile and reflect in the midst of such beauty, the manager was so grateful. Afterwards, I went to Europe again – work in my line was easy to find in those days. I left before the bench was installed.
The girl stands up now. She picks up her backpack and stuffs her phone in her pocket. She raises one eyebrow in farewell.
After she goes, I think of you. I think of our conversations. I think of your brown eyes, the mole on your cheek, the clean tangy smell of sweat from you after we’d been running. Maybe you never returned to the gardens. Perhaps what happened there that day is something you don’t want to think about. No one likes to think they almost died. Maybe even thinking of me felt like bringing bad fortune on yourself.
I, on the other hand, thought of you often. As I sat at my desk in Brussels, I imagined one of the men you used to run with, or perhaps a colleague, pausing to tighten a shoe lace and noticing the new bench. Looking closely at the inscription. Sometimes I imagined your wife and a friend taking a walk through that same track, pondering the words on the brass plate embedded in the centre of the bench. “Gideon and Miranda. In memory of our trysts.”
You might’ve thought you could walk away from what we had, but here in this corner of the gardens you and I will always be together. You cannot escape from me.