Wrap your hand around the pen, put your pen on the paper, begin to make marks on the page, and keep on going. Lace up your trainers, walk out the door, put one foot in front of the other, and keep moving. One helps me figure; the other helps my figure. Suffice to say that Seamus Heaney’s father kept himself fitter by digging the garden than his son did by sitting at his desk with his squat pen resting in his hand, ‘sung as a gun’. We need both, or at least I do.
The failsafe way to a good figure is to eat less. Over the years, though, my periods of eating less have been accidental. Eating less has only ever come about as a side effect to various emotional burglaries: stresses, traumas, a liberal dash of heartbreak, all of which have led me either to lose my appetite or forget to eat. It’s not a recommended weight loss programme; there’s little sparkle or vibrancy associated with unhealthy self-neglect, yet, twisted creatures that we are, I know that many women who count it as a silver lining to sadness. I hope I am done with all that, and lately (for which I am grateful) my trauma quotient has been low and the act of lacing up my runners has been resurrected.
It’s cold and dark. I wrap up head to toe like a house-breaker, buff pulled up over my chin, beanie down over my eyebrows. I zip the front door keys into the little pouch built into my running tights at the small of my back knowing they’ll rattle there safely like a cat’s bell for the next half an hour. I self-seal: tucking the ankles of my tights into my socks, the cuffs of my top into my grubby gloves. I make a mental note to wash the gloves soon. I wonder if anyone sees me blowing my nose into them as I run? To be fair, it’s not a full-on blow, more like drip removal – unavoidable when the cold night air hits me. The night. My slow, plodding return wears a cloak, I feel protected and hidden under cover of darkness. In a few months that veil will be lifted, and maybe my shyness will lift with it.
The pace I strike is easy and steady. Downhill, past the tenements, eyes ahead scanning for dog poo. They say it’s a genteel city. Not round these parts. Gum, cigarette buts, cans, broken glass, plastic bags blown into hedges. Ahead of me a scrawny young woman is yelling and punching the air: alone, raving, fighting invisible demons. I wonder if she is dangerous. Her madness seems old-fashioned, rather than drug-induced. I speed up to pass her. Pounding steps and heaving breathing is gaining on me. Has she started running? No, it’s just another runner. Twenty years younger than me, ponytail swinging right to left as she bounces past at double my speed, an invisible hand propelling her. I want one of those. I realise she’s not running very fast, just steadily. It dawns on me that I am crawling.
When we were children we watched wide-eyed when Dilly-down-the-road took up jogging, and laboured up our street ever other evening like an exhausted old spaniel coming home from his last hunt. Running wasn’t the done thing for middle-aged women in Ireland in 1982. We thought Dilly was ancient. A horrifying thought occurs to me: I might be older than she was then. Even more horrifying is that I’m not even a Spaniel; I’m a 14 year-old Labrador who hasn’t left the heat of the hearth in four years.
Knots of people stand at bus stops, couples pressed into one another, more in an act of heat-keeping that love-making. Blinds are still up, curtains not yet drawn for the night. Someone is propagating Aloe Vera plants; another has a collection of brightly coloured good luck waving cats. They’re waving at me. Maybe I should buy a lottery ticket. The Persevere is the first of many pubs I pass. That’s a good name for it, in this weather, as pokes of determined people huddle in the freezing cold for a smoke.
I hug where the pavement meets the houses and run straight into a hand-holding couple coming at me around the corner. They’re nice about it, we all mutter apologies. I re-calibrate my speed, switching to a slower setting, if that’s possible. A dog, straining on his lead, comes towards me, taking his master for a walk. He stops for a sniff and lifts his hind leg while the owner obediently waits. I look the other way and add an inch to my step. I think about the chat with M. on the phone last night. We were talking life, work, making money.
“What about dog walking?” She was serious. “I’ve thought it through: decent money, you like being outdoors, it’ll give you lots of thinking time.” “Yeah right, and you should be a private chef.” That was the end of that.
The route is a long rectangle, the section along Duke Street takes only a few minutes, even at my speed. At bottom of Leith Walk the hard bit begins: the climb. “You know there would be no shame in walking some of it,” I tell myself. Truth is, I’d be shamed to the hilt. Besides, this is the peopled street, and they glance at me in what I decide is pitying-admiration.
Leith Walk is filled with pubs and bookies, takeaways and restaurants, nail bars and Turkish barbers, corner shops and late-night Asian supermarkets. Young ones are trudging home from work, earphones in. One man is ploughing through a giant bag of Walkers crisps in an, ‘I’m too hungry to wait for dinner’ moment. Outside the Spey Lounge an old man grips the wall and empties his guts. So much for the gentrification of Leith. Twenty strides further and a pair of archetypal hipsters slink skinny-legged into White Sushi clutching a bottle of Albariño. Maybe it is being gentrified after all.
I’m getting close to where I can duck out, opt either to shave off five minutes and plod down Montgomery Street or dig in for the last incline and rubberneck as I pass the grandeur of Hillside Crescent. How the other half lives usually wins out, unless I need a pee. Besides, by the time I get to Hillside I’m back on the flat with the chance to get my breath back as I peer into opulent front rooms with stags heads growing out of the walls and giant aspidistras as tall as a pre-decapitated stag. “All that money and that’s what you go for?”
I slow, turning the corner at the top of my road, falling into a walk-run for the last few hundred metres, rummaging in the pouch at my back. I climb two flights of stairs, turn the key and vow to stretch before I get distracted, but my mobile phone is ringing in the kitchen. I get there in time. “Hi M., I’m just in from a run. Do you remember Dilly?”