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Thursday, June 16, 2005

Ten thousand steps - short story

Chloe looked out of the window and saw that, for once, it wasn’t raining. This is it, she thought, there’s no excuse now. I have to go. The box with the pedometer inside lurked on the kitchen table. Kate had brought it round saying she needed to get out and do something, had seen this thing on TV where you had to walk ten thousand steps a day. ‘That’s all. It’s not many, really, when you think about it. It’ll be so good for you, Chloe,’ and she scrutinised Chloe’s face in that way people did now, watching for the signs Chloe tried to conceal. ‘Fresh air, exercise – all those things that’ll really help you. You know?’

Ten thousand steps sounded like a bloody marathon. How long would it take? Hours, surely, but Kate had said, no, it was an entirely reasonable distance and she should go out instead of watching daytime television all day, every day.

So now Chloe clipped the pedometer onto the waistband of her jeans – Kate had already programmed it all for her so it would know how big each step was, or something like that, Chloe hadn’t been paying attention – and tried to feel enthusiastic.

But where to go? Was it better to have an objective? A purpose? Or should you just walk aimlessly until the required number of steps had been notched up?

Chloe stood in the hallway, the brief moment of activity cancelled out by her indecision. She couldn’t walk to the shops, that was without question. Too many people – perhaps even her mum, or at least Mum’s cohorts. Nosy old cows prowling around the shopping centre ready to report back to her mother the moment she went into Woolworth’s. No, she couldn’t go there. It had to be somewhere quiet – where she would be unlikely to meet anyone. If there was one thing, of many, that she couldn’t face right now was conversing politely with dog-walking strangers. Or mothers with toddlers and prams. So that was the park out then. She took in a deep breath. There was only one place she could go, where she hadn’t been since…

She leaned against the wall, the wallpaper smooth beneath her fingertips. It would have to be the woods and fields that lay just behind her estate. There were several footpaths crossing the farmland there, open countryside below which a woodland clung – sprouting out of the side of a steep hill. On the other side lay the sea. She knew it was a good few miles and if she made it to the top of the hill at least, that would be several thousand steps. Probably. Jake would have known these things. He had a head for numbers and distances and stuff like that. He'd’ve known exactly how far you’d need to walk.

She opened the hall cupboard, pushing aside the pile of boxes she’d shoved in there, to get to the coats at the back. She grabbed the nearest one, a heavy waterproof, professional looking – muted reds and greens with a famous logo on the front. Pausing just for a moment, she slung it on – at least it would keep the wind out.
Outside, the rain was still holding off, but the wind was strong – late Autumnal gales that ripped the apples from the trees and bounced conkers down for kids to collect. She zipped up the coat, its heavy-duty fastenings guaranteed to be weatherproof, or something, she couldn’t quite remember, and took the first of her ten thousand steps.

In the woodland, the trees were swinging in the wind – their remaining leaves flapping dryly. An earthy smell of mulched leaves rose up damply, reminding her of the compost heap Jake had insisted on constructing in the garden, onto which he’d enthusiastically tipped everything vaguely organic. It was probably perfect now, not having been disturbed since…
But, taking a deep breath, she forced herself not to think of that, and pressed on up the crumbling path through the woods, arms swinging, concentrating on the trees as she passed. Onwards and upwards, as her mother would say.

Then, without being aware of it, she’d made it – right to the top of the hill – the highest point, and from here she could see the sea. Shafts of light punched through the clouds – gleaming metallic on the water. The wind was picking up again, so, after staring at the sea for a moment, she turned and headed back down the narrow path that cut between the newly turned earth of the fields. It was almost impossible to walk in a straight line, the sea-driven gale buffeting into her, pushing her maliciously as she picked her way down the rutted path. For God’s sake, this is ridiculous, she thought – trying desperately to hold onto the ends of the coat which flapped about her. The toggles on the hood whipped into her face, the strings much too long, stinging. In the next field cows stood and stared like pensioners as she battled down the path barely able to stay upright. It’s all right for you, she wanted to shout, you’re big and heavy and haven’t got a coat two sizes too big flapping about like a bloody sail. But that would have been childish – shouting at cows. Even for her. So she glared at them, stumbling her way down the hill. She shouldn’t have worn this coat. It had been Jake’s and was obviously much too big. He wasn’t exactly a huge man, but his height was deceptive – clothes of his she always thought would fit swamped her. The sleeves dangling over her fingertips as if she were a child. But she hadn’t been able to throw it away – couldn’t even take it to the charity shop where it would have been useful. Instead, she’d kept it. It had been his.

She glanced down at the pedometer again. Four thousand two hundred steps – not bad. Almost halfway. And she did feel a little better being out in the fresh air – things didn’t seem to mean so much out here – at least that’s what she tried to tell herself. She attempted to smooth down her hair, but it was useless – the wind had knotted it into uncombable tangles. Her nose was running too, she must look a sight. I thought it was supposed to be romantic walking in the countryside? she thought. It’s what you’re supposed to do at weekends – stroll smugly along with your lover in matching wellingtons with a dog. A spaniel or Labrador preferably – one of the friendly breeds. Jake had wanted a Labrador, something soppy, that would bound along happily beside them. But they’d never quite got round to getting one.

Rounding the hedgerow and the remains of a dry stone wall, Chloe reached the edge of the wood. Some sort of bird crashed out though the branches, but she had no idea what it was. Perhaps she should buy a book – bird watching or nature observation or whatever. She could even go to a class – there must be a night class in that sort of thing, recognising birds and flowers – and her mother would approve, so would Kate. She could hear them now, urging her to go and ‘meet someone.’ They’re the best places for women your age, her mother would say, all sorts of professional men sign up for adult education classes these days. Kate had joined a French class and was always at the pub afterwards. Said she had a great time – loads of good-looking men chatting her up. Perhaps she should go – get out of the house – have a meaningful conversation with someone other than herself – or the telly. But she knew she wouldn’t, or at least if she signed up, would never make it to more than the first class. She couldn’t bear the thought of all those new faces, all those new people wanting to know her, asking questions – and her not telling them about Jake. It would be like a betrayal, not telling them, but you couldn’t, could you? People don’t want to know that sort of thing straight off – it makes them uncomfortable. No, she wouldn’t join a class.

She stared above her at the scratched-on canopy of branches, and vague memories of a school nature trip crept into her mind. It was in infant school, a trip to the local nature reserve. Each pair of children had been given the task of identifying one sort of tree – the teacher had prepared notes and a guide with the relevant information – and, clipboard clutched in hand, Chloe and partner had stumbled about looking for an ash tree. For some reason, she could still remember the picture she’d been given – the little black buds neatly arranged on the silvery branch. Even now, she’d be able to recognise an ash tree. How ridiculous was that? To be able to tell an ash tree from a beech thirty years on? Why was her brain filled with these random threads of memories – memories taking up space that could have been more usefully employed; reminding her, for example, of things like, when to pay bills, her mother’s birthday, overdue library books. These functional, sensible, items were pushed out in favour of how to identify random flora and fauna – not even important flora and fauna. And terrible things. Well, one terrible thing. She stopped on the path, dizzily swaying with the trees, unable to take another step. The painful memory of Jake filling her head, the terrible image that wouldn’t move aside for everyday memories. That’s why she couldn’t go out. Her mother – Kate – didn’t see that, they were always trying to force her into activities to make her forget. This bloody pedometer for a start. But she couldn’t. If she stayed at home she could concentrate on the television, watch other people’s misery and not think of her own. Then the nausea started again, the sickness that unfurled itself within her at the thought of what had happened to him – and she’d tried, really tried, not to think about it, but it was always there. Lurking at the edges of her mind until it became too much to push back, and it flooded in, paralysing her. And now, under these trees she felt herself falling again into the blackness – tears had appeared on her cheeks of which she had no memory, and Jake’s death was there. Fresh, raw, clawing. She pulled the edges of his coat around her, clutching at the comfort that it had once touched him – been worn by him – fighting the urge to sink onto the path and curl up there amongst the leaf mould and brambles. But before she could, a rustling in the trees behind forced her to turn and she saw a fluffy mongrel come trotting out. Close behind it was a ruddy-cheeked man, swinging the dog’s lead cheerfully in his hand. He paused for a moment, the ‘good afternoon’ stilled on his lips as he stared at her, frowning, concerned. ‘You all right, love?’ he said.

She forced herself to smile, ‘Yes, fine. It’s a lovely day, isn’t it? Shame about the wind though. Does terrible things to one’s eyes.’ And she grinned, she hoped, in a healthy outdoors way, blinking the tears back.

The man nodded, he wasn’t much older than her, and returned the smile, but she could see in his eyes that he wasn’t convinced. ‘On your own, are you?’

‘Yes. I, erm – ‘ she didn’t really know what to say. I had a husband, but he died after a particularly drawn out and painful illness, so now I have to walk on my own. Hardly. No, she decided, a lie would be better in the circumstances, ‘I had a-a dog, but it died recently and I haven’t quite found the right one to replace it, you see. So…’
‘Oh dear. What a shame,’ he said, ‘Bess here is knocking on a bit, but she seems to be doing all right, for her age.’

She looked at the dog.

‘She’ll be eleven soon.’

Oh, please stop talking to me, Chloe thought, please.
‘That’s old for this sort of dog, but we’ll see…’ and he smiled at it as if it were some particularly pleasing child.


But then Jake had only been thirty-seven – young for a man, so age didn’t really come into it, but you couldn’t say that to a stranger in the woods.
Dogs yes, husbands no.

‘Well…’ she said.

‘Yes, come along then, Bess,’ the man said, then ‘I might see you again, here. If you find the right sort of dog.’

‘Yes, perhaps,‘ she said, ‘Bye.’

‘Good luck,’ and he smiled warmly at her.

She returned the smile, but with little of the warmth his had contained, and turned to go. Why were people so bloody friendly and helpful? These dog-walkers were the worst. Always being cheery and saying hello and good morning and talking about the weather.

That’s it, Chloe, she said to herself, you’ve got to get home. He was just trying to be nice. It’s what good, healthy people do. To refocus her thoughts she took another look at the pedometer. Eight thousand five hundred and twenty steps. Despite herself, a tiny flicker of achievement glimmered and she managed to force herself on – counting each step in her head as she went, filling her thoughts with the numbers. Not far to go now. Just keep thinking of the steps and nothing else – nothing else at all.

She reached her front door having amassed the grand total of nine thousand one hundred and five steps. ‘I tried,’ she said, out loud, as she let herself in, and did feel something – a glow of having completed a task beyond getting out of bed every morning. She carefully removed his coat and hung it back up in the cupboard, tucking it back behind the boxes. Perhaps walking ten thousand steps wasn’t impossible, she thought. She’d even survived a conversation with someone – someone she’d never met before. And maybe, if it wasn’t raining tomorrow, she could go again. Just to see if she could do it. Perhaps walking a little further over the hill, down to the beach. Jake had always liked it there – he even went swimming in the summer, and she smiled a little at the thought of him splashing about in the sea.

Yes, she thought, I think I could do it. Ten thousand steps tomorrow, maybe even the next day, and perhaps at the weekend she’d go and buy herself a proper coat. Maybe even have a little look at the dog rescue place – see if there were any Labradors. Perhaps Kate was right and ten thousand steps weren’t as difficult as she’d imagined. Yes, tomorrow, she’d go again. She would. It was a start.

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