He and his wife had joked, for several years, about having a race around the streets where they lived. Now, in the week of their divorce, before they moved out of the house they’d shared with the children and stepchildren for twelve years, they would do it, neither of them having been able to find a reason to back down. It would, he guessed, be the last thing they did together.
He’d jogged twice a week for the past five years, but had rarely managed more than twenty minutes. And while she practised yoga and liked to dance the bossa nova, she took no other exercise. She had the racing edge, though, being in her mid-forties, while he was in his early sixties, which, he had discovered, was an uncomfortable age of earnest and critical self-reflection.
Compared to him, his rival wasn’t in bad shape, but she couldn’t be said to be in good shape. In her teenage years, she had been a cross-country runner. She was built for it: tall but chubby, with strong, thick legs. She would be very determined, he knew that. Nonetheless, he didn’t believe she had suf – ficient stamina. You couldn’t just run for over an hour at a hard pace if you hadn’t done it for twenty-five years. Or could you, if bitterness was your fuel? She had said, when they discussed it, that she could “never, ever’’ let him beat her. She would rather kill herself. Let her die then, he thought. He’d bury her gladly.
Now the two of them strode out through the house to the pavement. The kids and their friends, excited and bewildered by the eccentric behaviour of the adults, banged at the windows and waved them off, before going back to playing football in the echoing rooms which were empty now, apart from packed boxes marked with his and hers stickers.
He was aware that none of them would forget this day, and he wasn’t taking it lightly. For a start, he realised they had seriously underestimated the distance. Based on the course they had agreed, the whole race would probably take an hour and a half. This was, for them both, more than an effort.
Ever since they’d finally agreed to the “death match”, he had started to practise, running about thirty minutes most days, exhausted at the end. The previous evening he’d attempted ten press-ups, drunk little, worked out and retired to his room at nine thirty where he’d imagined himself, the next day, crashing into the house ahead of her, with his arms upraised like Jesse Owens in Berlin, but with a rose in his teeth.
Central to his hope was that fury would inspire and carry him through, particularly after she’d said, “Truly, I hope I get home first. Then I can call you an ambulance, and you can see me wave from the pavement, flat on your fucking back, you gutted loser.”
The kids, he noted, were keen to know what he’d put in his will.
Outside on the street, he bent forwards and backwards and jiggled on his toes, churning his arms. She stood next to him impatiently. He couldn’t bear to look at her. She had said that she was eager to get on with her life. For that he was glad. Surely, then, he couldn’t take this ridiculous bout seriously? The two of them must have looked idiotic, standing there glaring, seething and stamping. Where was his wisdom and maturity? Yet, somehow, nothing had been as important as this before.
He concentrated on his breathing and began to jog on the spot. He would run to the edge of himself. He would run because he’d made another mistake. He would run because they could not be in the same room, and because the worst of her was inside him.
When he thought she was ready, he said, “All right?”
“Let’s start then. Are you sure?” he said.
“Yes I’m sure.”
“Ready?” She said, “Say ‘go’, not ‘ready’.”
“I will. When you agree it’s time to say it.”
“Just say it now, please,” she said. “For God’s sake!”
“Okay?” she said.
“Go!” he said.
“Right, thanks,” she said. “At last. You made a decision.”
“Go, go!” he said.
“Good,” she said.
“Go!” And they went.
He started first, taking a few careful paces to try his knees, only to see her hare off, flying past him and turning the corner a few yards away. Soon she was out of sight.
He kept to his plan; he was slow, as he had intended, conserving his energy for the final fifteen-minute burst. Turning the first corner himself, he slowed down even more. He’d felt a tightening in his left calf. Something stringy must have pulled. Could it be multiple sclerosis? Or perhaps cramp? These days he even got cramp reaching to cut his toenails. Not that anyone was excused: you’d see them before extra time at football tournaments; on two hundred grand a week, the world’s greatest footballers, lying on the turf as if they’d been shot. He knew their agony; he shared it, this hopping devastated fool in luminous running shoes, with linen shorts over scraggy legs.
On he went towards the Green, believing he’d either run his twinges off or become accustomed to the pain. Much worse than this, he soon learned, was the public exposure, the panting parade of shame. Many pedestrians seemed to be walking faster than he ran, but he did get past a banker’s au pair pushing a child. A Polish builder he knew was unloading his van, and the Hungarian waiters from his local café, on their way to work, were keen to smile and wave, and offer him a cigarette. A lawyer, a madman and a journalist were easy to pass. The dry-cleaner, contemplating eternity outside his shop, didn’t see him.
He noticed couples who could abide one another all day, who would eat breakfast and talk together in holiday hotels, and felt like a man who’d opened a pornographic website only to see awful images of consummated happiness and joyful lovemaking among the married, more obscene than obscenity.
He ran past the private school, the state school and the French school, as well as the Chinese church, the Catholic church and the mosque which occupied the ground floor of a house. He flew past Tesco’s and several corner shops, as well as an Indian restaurant, a Moroccan coffee shop and several charity shops. In the window of one, he saw a display of the books he didn’t have room for in his small new flat where, he believed, the nights all lasted a hundred years. He would wake to no family sounds. He had to learn to live again. And why would anyone want to do that?
It was some relief to make it into the park and to see other grimacing self-scourgers, many even older. This was where he spotted his rival again, the wife he couldn’t love or kill. There she was, a tiny figure pumping strongly into the wind, across the far side of the grass. She disappeared through the trees, without seeming to be tiring.
After a concentrated circuit of the park, he came out on to the pavement for a bit. After dodging the commuters, he headed down into a fetid underpass where his footsteps were loud, and up and out on to the towpath beside the vast surprise of the river. Publicschool boys and girls in wellington boots, with their lives ahead of them, pulled long boats out on to the water.
He skirted them, and, after about fifteen minutes, came to the bridge. He looked up, and ran half the steps. It would be wise, he thought, to plod the rest. He was breathing heavily, and coughing, being not a Cartesian vessel of higher consciousness and rationality, but rather a shapeless bag of bursting tendons, extruding veins and screaming lungs.
Yet some spark of agency remained, and on the bridge he jogged again, glimpsing the wide view, and the eyes of the lovely houses overlooking it, places he’d never afford now. Home is for children, he thought, tossing his wedding ring over the side. Perhaps there was a pile of the golden ones down there, just under the surface, the bitter debris of love, and a tribute to liberation.
Holding tight on to the handrail for fear of plunging down head first, he reached the bottom of the steps on the other side and turned, with a madly confident kick of speed, on to the street. After another hundred yards he took a breather. He had to.
It would be a lengthy final stretch now, along the avenue of loss, with the tree-lined river on one side and the reservoir on the other. Further along this path, if he didn’t have a heart attack, he would find his wife collapsed and whimpering, or perhaps even vomiting, with only sufficient energy to claw at his ankles, pleadingly. Not that he’d stop. He’d leap over her, maybe giving her a little accidental kick in the head, before firing on to victory.
After slogging up and down those steps, he knew he was tiring, or else could die. He’d had enough of this run, and required all his reserve power. Where was it? He tied and retied his shoes and then ran on the spot, afraid of stopping, as he contemplated the wet vista of mud, trees and clouds ahead of him. And all the while his mind whirled and turned, counting his losses, until the search for suffering came to a stop. He’d had a better idea. He took a step.
Instead of following her, instead of perhaps catching up with her at last, he turned and faced the other way. He took another step. He took several steps, a little off balance, as if he’d never walked before. He was away. Going in the other direction.
Like Zeno’s arrow, shot through the air for ever, he would never get there. He would get somewhere else. Weren’t there other places but here? He would be a missing person. Sometimes you had to have the courage of your disillusionments. No more the S&M clinch, the waltz of death. Ruthlessness was an art. He regretted everything, but not this.
The sky was darkening, yet he felt a new propulsive energy, formless and uncompetitive. Run, run, run, said all the pop songs he’d grown up on. He would take that advice, while never forgetting that anyone who is running from something is running towards something else.
Hanif Kureishi’s most recent book is “Something To Tell You” (Faber & Faber, £8.99 paperback)