by Susan Barsby

Sarah’s face in the mirror is soft at the edges. Lines squirm across her forehead, crinkles cluster and bunch around her eyes and her skin is saggy at the jowl. Despite her hair dye the wiry greys will not be tamed, sticking up at unwanted angles. She considers plucking the unruly ones out but hasn’t the time. She rubs the white scar across her skull, feeling the bump that has lain there since she was two years old and unable to stop in time before railings. She sighs. The body in the mirror is middle aged, past its best, bearing the hallmarks of someone who likes toast and eats it most evenings because she’s too tired to make anything from vegetables. Pale. Droopy. Unremarkable. Her bloom is faded, as are her stretch marks.

She sees the children out of the door to school and pulls on her trainers. A quiet voice in her head tells her she could stay where she is and not bother. She stands. There’s a small stone beneath her heel, a tiny nuisance and she sits back down, pulls off the shoe and tips it out to be hoovered later. She replaces the shoe and ties the laces tight. Pushing her hair back with a band, she sticks her earphones in and leaves the house.

She always warms up with a lap around the park. There are occasional dog walkers armed with ball launchers, but mostly it’s quiet at this time. It matters less at her age; in years gone by she would have been worried about hecklers, young men who felt they had a right to bother her. A younger Sarah would arm herself, turning the music loud and wearing sunglasses, hiding behind sound and vision, every movement hoping no-one noticed her. Age confers invisibility.

Her legs feel stiff, the aftermath of a motorcycle accident in her twenties, and her joints call out as she makes her way around the path as if they are trying to remember what to do, girding themselves to movement. Her mind joins in, working out how far is respectable before she can stop.

There is an invisible line halfway round the park just by the children’s playground, where it starts to become easier, as if she’s been oiled and begins to work smoother. Leaving the park, she strikes out along the river path, past the church and a teenage girl twirling and kicking out beneath the railway bridge, all boots, attitude and delicate fragility. She remembers those years, the frustration, the self-loathing and the yearning to escape. The laughs and taunts, the boys staring at her, making lewd gestures, muttering “More than a handful’s waste,” and cackling as they turned away. And the extra pressure, watching what she wore and how she wore it when all she really wanted to do was curl up her body, its changes, aches and monthly pains, read a book and be allowed to ignore her appearance.

The girl does not meet her eye. Sarah half wants to stop, talk to her, show her the marks on her thighs and explain that she understands whatever it is she’s facing. But she doesn’t. As if on cue, the scars prickle and she runs one hand over them to soothe. They are reliable, the scars, triggered by her watching something on TV, reading a newspaper article, or just walking home in the dark. Out of nowhere the prickling begins and her mind returns to that night at the party: the unwashed smell of him, faintly sweaty and disguised with cheap aftershave; the taste of his salty hand over her mouth, to be replaced by his tongue; hearing him laugh and grunt before zipping himself up as he left the room. She tried to release that pain, eradicate that memory, but it’s still buried inside.

She continues into the greenery, strikes out hard to make herself forget, to find peace. Grasses, shrubs, trees, rushes and reeds. If she listens beyond her music she can catch birdsong, a throaty frog, a coot’s rasp. Nature regenerates and renews; she must maintain. The magazines have been telling her for years the amount of time and money her appearance requires. Maintenance comes with cost. Running at least is free.

The twinge in her Achilles has finally been silenced, she realises. Having got used to the dull ache in recent weeks, the liberation of its absence makes her smile. Today there is no niggling in her left heel; her body has overcome another obstacle. The thought helps her move further down the path for though she is warmed up, her mind is still calculating when she can stop, how far she can go today before reasonably calling it a good run. The mind resists, the body resists and yet somehow she carries on.

Childbirth hasn’t added to her body so much as it reshaped it. Breastfeeding took much of the baby weight away yet her old clothes don’t fit in the same places. She still feels the pain of the childbearing scars each month as she bleeds, as if she needs a reminder of the effort it took. Once a year she takes a trip to the baby cemetery to leave a slab of chocolate for the child that didn’t make it, the one who was lost too early but who left the deepest scar, the scar she doesn’t talk about.

Office boredom and inertia is the real killer for her hips, ennui-relief in the form of biscuits. She recognises in the mirror the pale wobble of her own mother, the softness and lines, layers that are no longer kept completely at bay by these runs. The exercise serves some purpose but she can feel the shoggle of her batwings as she moves her arms, her trousers and bra holding in the cushion of her torso. ‘Body or face?’ offer the headlines but somehow, despite what the magazines say, she cannot find it in herself to truly hate these wobbles, or rue her choices.

She breathes through her mouth, but the occasional blow through her nostrils catches a hair on her top lip, a tickle, a minor irritant. Later, she will seek it out with nail scissors and cut it short, blessing her fine fair hair that has not turned thick and black. But it is another indignity, a sign of ageing she is not yet willing to accede.

Somewhere around the 5k mark the adrenaline starts to kick in, her mind has finally accepted the run and she strides a little stronger. The rhythm has found her and the confidence in her strides, the neat contained style propels her along the path. Twenty-five years ago, a teacher praised her for doing well in her cross-country class, and the surprise of it stayed with her. They never did cross-country again. PE lessons were instead confined to netball and the freezing muddy hell of the hockey field. So she never followed it up until years later, a mother needing respite and release who grabbed a few moments each week to run off her cares.

Twice a week she sheds her responsibilities, passing them onto another for an hour. It is an effort to claim this time, it requires planning that her husband has never had to consider. Whatever he wishes to do, he does. Even something as small as reading the paper without disturbance. What luxury to have time in which to quietly do nothing. And yet, this is luxury in a way. Without it, her mind overheats.

There is no technique, no regime. Sometimes she considers interval training or something to improve her speed. The children giggle at the word fartlek, as she knows they would. But on the whole, the purpose of this exercise is to endure and not to rush. She has adjusted to the effort; she is closer to the end her mind was urging her to earlier. Her route is planned so she finishes downhill and it helps her high, brings her speed up even as her legs begin to cry for a rest. It is this stretch when, on a good day, she is a child again, tearing across fields.

As a young woman she ran when she was drunk, taking the feeling of invincibility and using it for the most basic of pleasures, shoes in one hand, keys in the other, hightailing it over paving stones more fun to her than fumbling with a stranger in a club. Never mind the uneven surface and strange looks she received as she moved, running made her brave, exhilarated alone in the streetlights, brushing off the judgment of others waiting for her to fall. Her knees still bear the marks from those drunken stumbles, the soles of her feet leathery from moving over stone.

Sarah sprints along the road and returns to her house to stand, one hand to the wall before stretching out this body, its weight and scars and memories, its markings of time and love and loss, its despair and its joy. She breathes deep. She is alive.

Susan Barsby lives in Nottingham with her husband and young daughter. By day she works for the city council and by night she writes novels, short stories and creative non-fiction. Her work has been published in The A3 Review, Paper and Ink Zine, and DNA Magazine. In 2018 short stories of hers have been published in 24 Stories, an Unbound anthology raising money for Grenfell Tower families, the Reflex Fiction Anthology, and Beneath the Waves Anthology from Mantle Lane Press. She is currently a shortlistee for 2018’s Blue Pencil Agency’s First Novel Award. Sue can be found on Twitter at @SusanEBarsby