So I don’t even like running. I’m only doing it because Chrissie likes it. I’m doing pretty much everything right now because she likes it. I haven’t given much thought to anything else. I nearly gave her the present last night at that crowded sushi place, just so I could see her face, her surprise. Inside the tissue paper is a small black block set in a soft silicone wristband. It’s a Pulse! I was going to say. It counts your steps, monitors your heart beat, tracks your sleep—and it’s waterproof! It’s the best out there. Chrissie likes the best. But I wanted the moment to be right, more than right, to be perfect. So I thought, better finish this bottle of Chenin and order another (rude not to with the exchange rate) and just keep the Pulse in my pocket. After I’m done with this run she’ll be up, showered and making smoothies. I’ll give it to her then.
I tread heavily down the slope into the car park by the beach. I’m sweating already even though it can’t be nine yet (it’s supposed to be winter here!) and I’ve got a headache behind my eyes as well as a pain starting in my side, but I’m doing this. There’s no one here except this lone guy, a car guard, in one of those high-vis vests. He’s wearing it over a long jumper, which makes him look like a nutter, and when I get closer he smiles and I can see he’s got no teeth. I speed up a bit then, not looking him in the eye (I’m keeping my head down now, it’s what I promised Chrissie), but as soon as I’m round the other side of the toilet block, out of his sight, I stop running and bend over, hands on my knees, listening to my breath catching in my throat. I straighten up slowly and squint. In front of me is the beach, too long by half, and beyond that the Atlantic. Everything seems sort of supersized here, even the sky, which is empty of clouds today, just like on the website.
I check my Pulse. I bought one for me, one for her, so we can track our progress. But my band is black and hers is green. I didn’t go for the blue and pink like that sales girl on Tottenham Court Road suggested; Chrissie doesn’t like clichés. It’s hard to read the faint luminous figures, so I cup my hand round it to see I’ve done 1,463 steps so far. I’m supposed to do about 10,000 a day but so what, there’s still time. I look around and then I reach for the fags in my pocket. Chrissie hates smoking, but I’m down to a couple a day (not counting last night) and I might just make this my last one. I smoke it quickly, blowing a haze over the ocean and the grape coloured peninsula on the horizon, before I flick it away. I’m going to tell her I’ve quit for good. She’ll like that.
Of course I start too fast down the steps, thanks to the nicotine, but as I reach the bottom and round the corner, I see what looks like a dump of tentacles on the beach. It’s kelp, a bank of it as wide as a river, separating me from the good sand that the tide has washed flat. The stench of it slaps me in the face. I look a bit closer and see, in the middle of the twisted fronds, a rotting seal carcass alive with maggots. I don’t remember to breathe through my mouth and, before I can turn away, I’m retching, pure bile.
When I’m done spitting, I pick my way over the rest of it, cursing as I feel it give way under my trainers. My headache’s bad now and there’s a foul taste in my mouth, but I start to jog again to get away from the smell, to get closer to Chrissie. I look at the sea, all innocent and flat. It’s hard to see how it could have spewed up all that shit and flung it about. They don’t show you that on the website.
But then I reach the flat sand and it feels good under foot; packed like concrete, perfect for a run. Chrissie likes perfect. She ends conversations with it, making the other person feel that their suggestion to meet up at some stupid deli really is the best thing she’s ever heard. She used to say it to me when we first met. My physio suggested her class at that studio in Camden, after the crash had fucked up my back. The first time I just sat there, not moving, next to the only other bloke in there. I just stared at her, over a sea of middle-aged arses, not following the crap she was talking about Hatha connecting the two halves. But the next week I began hearing her. She told me how to breathe, how to stretch my aching muscles in that voice of hers, smooth as honey. I kept going and by the time I asked her for a drink afterwards, chai tea for her, scotch for me, I knew she was the one, the one who would heal me.
Now my breath is coming out in jagged gasps, jarring against the echoing roar of the ocean and those sea birds that won’t shut up. I want to slow down, I want to stop, but I don’t because I’m still a way off and there’s some bloke walking towards me in a wetsuit; some hippie surfer. I can see he’s got big shoulders and thick upper arms that dwarf that tiny white board he’s holding. I clench my fists as I pass but he smiles at me, perfect teeth as well the ponce, so I suck in my gut and speed up, just to show him. As soon as I’m far enough past him, I slow right down, but I can’t slow my heart and I see a pile of rocks just ahead and I think, I’ve got to stop, just for a minute.
It’s not comfy, but I sit on the slab of cold rock and check my Pulse. I’ve done, wait, 2,107 steps. Out here, the sun is in my eyes like a spotlight. I should have worn shades, but I only have that pair I bought at the garage and I know cheap brands aren’t Chrissie’s favourite. I hear a yelping behind me and I turn to see a collie chasing a small hairy dog in crazy circles. Down the beach I see who I reckon must be the owners, two fat birds chatting, oblivious. The high-pitched barking is working on my nerves, so I get up, my shorts clinging damply to my arse, and I start to slowly jog on, but the dogs shoot across my path nearly tripping me up. I feel it rising in my shoulders, gripping me like an old friend, but I stop myself from shouting at the two fat cows to get their bloody dogs under control. I spit noisily and begin to jog on, but the dogs come tearing in front of me again, so this time I kick out hard and get the small one in the neck. I hear a gargle but I don’t look back.
I’m trying to keep my pace steady now; each step I take is one more on my Pulse, one more to show Chrissie. Maybe tomorrow we can run this stretch together. Because up here it’s better, the wind is blowing a bit and it’s cooling the sweat that’s running down my back. The sea is roaring on but up here it sounds like a crowd rippling with soft applause. Yeah Paul, go on my son. There’s a crunch under my shoes and I look down to see the sand is littered with little shells. It’s as if the sea knows it mustn’t puke up its kelp where the thatched houses begin. I keep looking down, there are thousands of them in butterflies of navy blue and crowns of patterned brown. I should stop and pick some up for her, but I want to get there now.
Of course, I stop short at the wrong house. All the rentals look the same from here. It’s all whitewashed walls and thatch lying thick over dormer windows and fancy balconies. But then I see the right house come into view. It’s the one that’s set back a bit, behind a dune that’s covered with scrubby grass and a small painted sign that says Keep off. Dune restoration. I slow down and stop; I don’t want to be panting. Then I walk the last bit towards the dune and climb up it, my trainers sinking deep into the sand, until I see the decked patio. I can see Chrissie and me in those easy chairs later, our drinks on that low wooden table, sitting there like they do in magazines. But I know it’s too early for her to be outside now and the retractable glass doors that lead in to the lounge are shut, blinds down. For a second I catch my reflection in the glass and see my bulk framed against sea and sky. I bend down and quickly wipe my face on my shirt; I don’t want to be dripping. Then I check in my pocket again, like a best man at the altar, for her present, her Pulse.
To the left of the deck, I see the doors to the open plan kitchen are standing open. The room is bright from the east facing windows, showing off the stone counter tops, the cream cupboards and Chrissie. My Chrissie. I can see her in her white towelling gown with her dark hair twisted up into a wet knot. Her head’s bent over a chopping board, she’s slicing strawberries, kiwis, bananas, making smoothies like I knew she would be. I can’t help but watch her for a moment, like that first time I saw her, her long swan neck bent to the task. And then I can’t wait any longer.
I’m standing up, walking towards Chrissie, her Pulse in my hand, when I see him. He comes into the kitchen, that same, short, silver haired fucker who was with her at the restaurant. I watch as he turns on the coffee machine and gets a mug from the cupboard. He doesn’t know that she can’t stand the smell of caffeine, her own bloody father. My fingers tighten around her Pulse. I can’t go back now. I can’t wait for perfect.
As I walk straight towards the glass doors, I see Chrissie’s head turning. I watch her mouth open as she sees me. I call out to her; Chrissie, it’s me! I’ve something for you, a present! But her eyes look too big and her voice comes out too high, not like honey at all. Oh my God…oh my God! How did you find me? How? And she is clutching the knife in both hands now and the blade is pointing towards me not the fruit. I am holding up her Pulse thinking, if she will just listen to me, see what I’ve got, but her father is coming towards me now, shouting and swearing. I’m not listening to him, only looking at her, calling to her. If she will only hear me, she’ll understand I’ve changed. Her father is trying to slam the glass door shut but I have my foot there already. I’m looking at her, my Chrissie. I just need to give her the Pulse, then she’ll understand.
Anna Hug has worked as a copywriter in London, Singapore and Hong Kong before moving to Cape Town a decade ago. She lives with her family in Kommetjie, and is currently working on her first short story collection.
Cover photograph copyright © 2016 Michael Hardaker, all rights reserved. Used by permission.