Racing Hearts Go!
I am sixteen, and at the starting line, scanning the crowd for a particular set of eyes, a distinctly choreographed gait. I am in love with a boy who is more elusive than alchemy. Like me, his feet are on fire. Like me, he feels alive when he runs in the solitude of a pre-dawn summer morning. That he understands this about me seems like a luxury, but he is not as free with his heart as I am with mine. The race looms larger with every passing moment. With every passing moment, my expectations dwindle, and yet, suddenly, he is lifting me off the grass, and embrace of cool skin and slippery nylon uniforms. This good luck ritual is nothing like a promise of anything real. It's just an acknowledgment that something in him recognizes something in me. It's what I make do with.
I am sixteen and at the starting line. The race official raises the starter pistol like a mailbox flag, and I become the race. There's no room for anything else. We are all of us poised with the tension of coiled energy, ready to spring from the chalked line, guarding against false starts. I have never been more conscious of the topography of the ground, as I feel it through my running flats. I understand what unites me with every other girl on this starting line, with the amber-eyed boy and his loping gait, with the spectators on the sidelines. We are incendiary. We have racing hearts. The starter pistol cracks the silence, and we go.
'Racing Hearts Go!' Alex kept shouting.
In a milder moment, David might have reflected on the imaginative confidence of a seven- and nine-year-old in making up their own pursuits, especially in twinning two card games which David himself scarcely understood.
But in the present, David's thoughts were elsewhere. The white noise of the children's game in the caravan's tiny kitchen-cum-diner mingled with the ethereal shrieking of gulls and the relentless tappet of rain on the thin plastic roof. David tried to imagine the joy of being a gull, the swooping and diving and gulling about, but he couldn't break through the grey mist that had settled inside his head.
Through the bedroom's bleary perspex window, David could just about make out the cliff-edge that marked the end of the campsite. Below was a foaming, gnashing sea. It seemed to beckon him.
From this daydream, David struggled to remember the point at which things had begun to turn, to identify the moment when his life had gone bad. In a miracle of cognitive dissonance, he blamed himself utterly and excused himself completely.
David sat hunched on the end of the small bed. He turned to the wall, where a mirror was mounted next to a narrow wardrobe. He stared at himself. What was left of his hair was flecked with a dirty charcoal colour and patches of silver. His eyebrows were that same charcoal, with individual roving hairs working their way almost down to the bridge of his nose and out towards his ears. The ears were large and, he thought, elephantine. His one-bright green eyes seemed to have faded, as his focus had turned in on himself. His drooping cheeks were rough with dark stubble. He looked terrible.
David wondered how he could have been so stupid. Of course, there had been many difficulties over the past several months: his mother's illness, all the changes at work, the relentlessness of loving and supporting and feeding two young children. But one incident - one moment of stupidity - had put all that in its place, put it all into proportion.
Anna was asleep in the children's room. David still hadn't told her. Perhaps she never would. She could find out, but it needn't be from him. His employer - no, former employer, he has to keep reminding himself - they could tell her the news.
It happened like this. Six weeks ago, a new girl started. Her name was Marie. She was French, petite, sparky, confident, and attractive. She had surprisingly large breasts for her slight frame, which David noticed immediately. However she tried to conceal them seemed to make them only more prominent to him. When she wore a grey polo-neck, their lurching largesse appeared to strain and stretch the semi-elasticated fabric, at the same time as her narrow shoulders seemed greatly reduced. When she wore a man's shirt with that short navy jacket, the middle buttons on the shirt seemed bound to pop off, cartoon style, leaving her exposed to the entire council office. Once, he had glimpsed a patterned pink-and-white brasserie between those buttons as he waited at the water cooler near her desk. When she wore jeans, their figure-hugging quality emphasised her nubile bottom and slim legs, making her seem only more top-heavy, as if she might topple over at any moment.
And what was she doing working for a regional council, anyway? Perhaps she had a fetish for greying, paunched men who worked in local administration.
On such fantasies, David fuelled his lust.
David began to masturbate regularly, for the first time in his eleven-year marriage. He did it in swiftly the train bathroom on the way to work, quietly in the cubicles of the council office, self-indulgently when Anna went out for the afternoon to take the children to see her parents, and riskily when she had nipped to the corner shop for the paper on a Sunday morning. He was obsessed and alive, and he felt like a crazed adolescent.
She appeared to pay him special attention. She was a distraction from the banalities of home life, and the stresses of his mother's dementia. She was young and hopeful, and David was thrilled when they were assigned to the same project, which aimed to improve the efficiency of parking-attendant patrols. When she came over to his desk to collaborate on work, she sometimes brushed his ear or shoulder with a heavy breast. Once, in a meeting, she interrupted his point about the relative merits of purchasing electric micro-scooters for the parking wardens by resting a hand on his forearm. They took coffee together and, though the primary topic of conversation tended to be about the relative importance of formality against ease of movement for parking wardens' footwear and other such seriousnesses, he could tell that they were flirting, and began to see the truth: she had fallen in love with him. So, last Tuesday morning as she waited for the kettle to boil, he stepped close behind her, and cupped her enormous right breast.
Her slap was immediate, and hard. It caught him high on his right cheek, and clipped a significant portion of his ear. It hurt.
The next day, David was called into the council Executive's office, and encouraged to tender his resignation. He did so immediately.
As the rain continued, death seemed like the only reasonable option. In his mind he was a spurned lover, some kind of less successful Romeo. The reality was that his father would never forgive him, would take Anna's side. And Anna herself... who knew?
The gnashing sea beckoned. Its jaws were wide and hungry. He would leap to a glorious, noble death. His family would survive on his substantial life insurance, forgetting his transgressions, remembering his noble suicide. It would be the easy way out.
Slowly, creakily, David got to his feet. He pushed open the thin door to the living room, and walked through to the children's bedroom, where Anna was snoozing.
'Racing Hearts Go!' Alex shouted.
David knocked on the bedroom door, and opened it. Sleepily, Anna murmured 'Hello you...'
He took a deep breath.
'Darling,' he said, 'There's something I have to tell you.'
His feet pounded beneath him. Heart racing, feeling as if it would jump out of his chest with every beat. He could not breathe, his throat choked with a burning lump of fear. Nausea lapped in waves at the top of his stomach. Tears stung the backs of his eyes.
"Do not cry", he thought to himself, "Do not let them see you cry, it will only make it worse".
He continued to run across the oval, through the crowd of leering faces that watched in amusement, snickering sadistically at his plight. Their lips curling in snarling laughter, their eyes slitting in cruel pleasure. Each person stepping out of his way as he ran, no matter how big, how tough they were. Even those that had that small speck of sympathy reflected in their actions. Those that looked down, looked away, not able to watch the horror unfolding before them, but still unwilling to intervene to save him.
Not a single person wanted to be touched by his shaking hands as he ran. Scared to be dragged in to his fight, too afraid to stand with him, on the chance that the evil pursuing him might turn its sights to them, encompass them within it's gaze, consume them with it's intensity.
Clarity and a sense of timelessness coming as his mind flashed on all the things he wanted to be, who he wanted his first love to be, how his first kiss should have felt, tasted, smelt. He could hear it's heavy breathing closing in on him, feel each thunderous step it made pounding on the ground.
"Please may god have mercy on me? I am sorry for playing my PSP in church on Sunday. If you save me, I promise I won't do it again" A litany of promises, wishes, ran through his mind as his legs began to fail, to shake and tremble under him, his chest began to constrict on his lungs, preventing air from entering.
He could not go on any longer. His only hope was to reason with it. To beg and plead if he had to. He was ready to cry now, he didn't care if they all saw it. He would trade that shame for being scarred by this being any day of the year.
He stopped, turned, hands dropping to his knees as he bent over in both supplication and pure exhaustion. Ragged, gasping breaths burnt their way down his throat, fighting with the bile and vomit that wished to travel in reverse.
"Please, ... (sob)..., please, just (gasping breath)... let me go. I'll do anything, I promise, just let me go" the words mixed with spit that had pooled in his previously parched mouth like a biblical flood, drooling out of his mouth as he dropped to his knees. Tears streamed from his stinging eyes, blurring his vision of the atrocity, careening down his cheeks to join the snot that ran from his nose, running along his upper lip and finally mingling with his drool before flowing from his chin to run in a constant line to the ground.
"I can't, (gasp), just can't, (sob) please" he wailed, but it kept coming closer, leering at him, enjoying his pain, eyes alight with the fires of hell as it leaned in, lips peeling back from it's teeth, too wide a smile for the face, too wide to be natural.
"Caught ya!" a sing song, teasing whisper. "I got him" she called, louder, to her friends. Her hand snaking around the scruff of his neck, gripping the back of his hair and head, talon like nails digging in to his flesh, putting pressure on him, pushing his face closer to hers.
He gave up, he could not stop sobbing long enough to breathe, let alone try talking to her, reasoning with her. He just tried to find a calm happy place in his mind to retreat to when she closed in and kissed him.
As she flounced happily away with her friends, and his peers, fellow males, fellow victims, finally came to his side, patting his back in the universal symbol for comradeship, he wondered why the year 5 girls at his school had to play kiss chasey every lunch time.