Hammer toes were something she’d been born with. Her grandmother had truly awful feet – toes overlapping, varicose veins, bunions and all sorts. Summertimes, when she set them free in sandals, were grim. ‘Don’t look down’ was the collective agreement at family get togethers.
Chloe’s weren’t as bad as her grandmother’s – yet. Nevertheless, her weakness for sky-high designer heels was like pouring petrol onto an open fire for her feet. Statement shoes were an indulgence she rewarded herself with too regularly to compensate for her gruelling job in finance operations – a few times, embarrassingly, as costly as her rent.
A numbers wizard, she spent most work days buried in spreadsheets and formulas. Not long after the shock of the first coronavirus lockdown had eased, her boss had looped her into the company’s plans for rationalisation.
‘We need you sign this Non-Disclosure Agreement Chloe, so we can talk to you openly about a new project that’s going to be keeping you pretty busy. It’s really important you don’t talk about this activity with anyone else. If word was to get out it could be very unsettling, so it’s not a task you’ll be able to work on with the team I’m afraid.’
Since then, Chloe had been involved in a review of every department. Each time changes were made, it was based on the data she’d provided to the management team. She wasn’t particularly comfortable with this.
The worst cull had been in Sales. She heard they’d cut the team by more than half, despite the obvious futility in trying to sell office products to people who weren’t in the office. It had made her feel sick. Corporate comms messages of ‘we’re all in it together’ were hugely at odds with her own actions.
Since then, she’d been having a recurring nightmare; the redundancy casualties were chasing her down a street and she couldn’t run to get away, she was paralysed to the spot. As they got closer and closer, she’d wake up in a cold sweat screaming for help.
Jon lived in one of those enviable period properties, with classic kerb appeal on the outside and modern open plan living on the inside. It was meant to be a family home, but his wife had abruptly left him for someone else a few years ago. Now, living on his own, the imprint of his days felt very small in all this space.
He’d long been a salesman of corporate office equipment and printers, until he was made redundant last year in his company’s restructuring plans.
‘We’re letting you go, Jon,’ his boss had said, looking seriously into the camera on the video call. ‘The company’s got to make some changes, rationalise the structure. The numbers aren’t where they need to be, and you’ve not been closing enough deals.
‘We’re sorry to see you go, Jon, but hope you understand.’
‘Of course,’ Jon had said, presenting his best taking-bad-news-well face to the laptop screen. ‘It’s probably a good time to go anyway. I’ve been thinking about making a change.’
Since then, he’d been drinking a lot more. That was the main change he’d made. But he’d also started his own property development company and bought a bright blue electric van with the payoff.
His vision was to take on period property modernisation projects, build a portfolio. In truth, it was mainly handyman jobs he was booked for, and his customers were typically elderly people from the neighbourhood whom he didn’t have the heart to charge his standard day rate.
Bar the odd jobs, there wasn’t much else to do in lockdown and he was caving in to his alcohol cravings at increasingly earlier times in the day. A few times lately, he’d woken up on the sofa without any recollection of passing out there the night before.
The pandemic had brought an unexpected halt to Chloe’s beloved heels purchases. With nowhere to wear them to or to dress up for, this latest pay day she’d swapped buying heels for trainers instead. Her New Year’s resolution was to overcome her bad dreams and her shoe addiction by starting running.
As a complete novice with misshapen toes, getting started was challenging. But Chloe did start. Two or three times a week in those bleak mid-winter afternoons she ventured out, following an app on her phone that had her running more and more and walking less and less each time she went. She’d stuck unwaveringly to its plan, running in rain, sleet and even a sprinkling of snow.
Her route started a few streets away from her block of flats, a long wide road with a slight incline. She loved the houses on this road – a mixture of spacious, stylish period properties. She longed to leave her cramped flat, suffocatingly overrun by shoes and shoe boxes, and move into her own house one day.
Towards the end of the route, there was a smart, shiny blue van that always caught her eye. Parked outside a charming semi-detached house with a pretty white blossom tree, just starting to bud, she was so thankful each time it came into focus – her signal that she was on the home stretch.
Recently, she’d been excited to see someone climbing out the driver’s seat as she approached. After passing it so many times, she was eager to know what the van owner looked like. But as he was locking his van he’d lifted his thick parka coat hood up against the rain, and she couldn’t catch his face.
Disappointed, Chloe had adjusted her pace to get home quicker and escape the rain.
It was mid-afternoon, and Jon was closing the living room curtains as a runner was passing his house. He recognised her electric blue sports top and knew he’d seen her before. The January joggers were still out in force in March this year, collectively escaping the monotony of lockdown which had itself been described as a marathon and not a sprint.
Earlier today, he’d woken up to find himself in a vomit-drenched top which, even by his standards, was a new low. It had freaked him out, making him retch at the thought, and smell, of himself.
He’d called an old friend.
‘Ewan, it’s Jon. Have you got time for a quick chat?’
‘Sure mate, sure. One sec.’
Jon held on while he heard Ewan calling out, ‘Guys – I’m just going to take this upstairs, carry on without me.’
‘Right, I’m back. What’s up?’
‘I’m a bit scared Ewan. I’ve got that falling feeling again. I had a really rough night last night. I’ve been drinking too much on my own again, you know – getting pretty hammered every night, truth be told. But I’ve started having these blackouts. Anyway, today I woke up on the sofa covered in sick and I have no recollection of anything, not even throwing up.’
‘Bloody hell mate.’ There was stunned silence, before Ewan continued, ‘Ok. Well, we’ve been here before, remember? When Cassie left.’
‘I know, I know. It’s just it took so long to get better last time, I’m not sure I can do it all again.’
‘But you can,’ Ewan interjected. ‘You know you can, because you’ve done it before. And this time you already know the steps you need to take.
‘After this call, I want you to bin any booze you have left in the house. I’ll take a lunch break tomorrow and come over. We can go for a good walk in the fresh air.’
Jon had come off the call resolved to detox, Ewan’s parting ‘you’ve got this’ giving him a boost. He’d gone straight online and ordered himself a pair of high-tech running trainers with express delivery.
In years gone by, he’d been a regular marathon runner. Working in a competitive sales environment, he’d found running to be a great stress reliever at the weekends. However, after a few setbacks from injuries, mainly to his heart following his divorce, he’d lost motivation and hadn’t run in ages. He missed the release of it, though, and sometimes he dreamt he was still running long distance. He’d wake up sweaty and struggling for breath as if he’d actually been running.
Ewan headed back downstairs to rejoin his family in the living room, not for the first time thankful that he had a family to rejoin after a talk with Jon. The kids were on the floor, still engrossed in the movie, popcorn crumbs multiplying around them. In their fleecy onesies they looked like some modern-day breed of pet. He sat down with a heavy sigh next to his wife on the sofa, and put his arm around her.
‘Everything alright?’ his wife asked quietly.
‘Yeah. It was just Jon. You know he’s going through this rough patch? It’s as bad as when Cassie left, maybe worse, actually. Drinking way too much again. I said I’d pop round tomorrow and take him for a walk. I don’t really know what else to do.’
‘Well, a walk sounds like a good idea, get him out of that house. I said to you the other day, it’s so depressingly empty, there’s something about it that seems to scream ‘broken marriage’, something in the air. And now there’s the redundancy weighing it down too, poor guy,’ his wife said. She shuddered as she folded her arms across her chest. ‘But at some point, you know, he does need to start getting well for himself.’
‘I know, I know,’ Ewan said, slowly rubbing his temples with his free hand. ‘I just feel guilty that I’m still working and he was made redundant when he got me that job in the first place.’
‘You shouldn’t feel guilty. He did get you the job, but it was so many years ago and you’ve worked really hard ever since. You’re their best performing salesperson. They know they’re lucky to have you – that’s why you’re still there and he isn’t.’
‘True. But even now, some of my best deals come from customers he passed over to me when he was training me up. We go back such a long way, I just wish there was something more I could do for him now.’
‘I know love, but before you ask, we can’t have him to stay again – it will be a total nightmare. We’ve got so much more on now, we’re both working flat out here and you have all this extra work and pressure now your team is smaller. And with the kids home schooling around us, there’s really not enough space. Look, you know I love Jon, but we’ve got to think about our own wellbeing too, otherwise we’re going to burn out ourselves.’
Shushing noises were rising up from the floor.
‘Okay, okay, we’ll stop talking – but only if you give us what’s left of the popcorn,’ Ewan offered the fluffy floor creatures by way of negotiation. The shushes instantly turned to groans, but they relinquished the bowl.
Still feeling guilty, Ewan struggled to get back into the movie but he knew his wife was right. It had taken a long time to nurse Jon back to wellness when this last happened – the kids had been a lot younger then and didn’t remember, but it had been tough and emotional. He picked up his half-drunk tea, took a swig and grimaced at the lukewarm liquid arriving in his mouth.
At bedtime, he was still racking his brains on what he could do. Finally, whilst brushing his teeth, it struck him – a garden office. Now they were both working from home full-time, an extra workspace would be ideal. They could order it online and hire Jon to do the installation. He’d also ask around at work to see if anyone else had home improvement projects that Jon might be able to do, line up a few jobs to keep Jon busy and away from the booze.
To sweat, to burn, to fully let go. The freedom Chloe had found in running these past months was a dream – just having to put one foot in front of the other, no spreadsheets, no management bullshit, no guilt. Best of all, no unemployed predators chasing after her.
Her head resembled a beef tomato at the end of every run – a vivid shade of red from all the blood pumping round her system – but she didn’t care. Today she was on fire, for this was a special day, the last run in her app planner to get to 5k.
There was the blue van coming into view.
‘Yes!’ she thought. She’d done it. After nine weeks, she’d run the full distance without stopping. The sense of achievement was overwhelming. She felt like she’d run a marathon, even briefly raising her arms into the victory ‘V’, before lightly skimming the van’s bonnet with one hand to prove to herself this was real.
As she paused to catch her breath before walking home, a courier van pulled up.
Jon opened the front door to the parcel courier before he’d even had a chance to knock. Despite having nothing on today, he had gotten up early. Having not drunk anything the night before, it had been a restless night; now there was a lot of day ahead of him for further restlessness. Not helped by the three cups of strong coffee he’d consumed since breakfast, he’d been nervously pacing around the house and twitching the curtains waiting for the parcel to arrive.
Over the courier’s shoulder, he glimpsed the blue running lady walking past. She looked utterly spent today, but fit, healthy and like she’d given her run her whole-hearted all.
‘I want to look like that,’ Jon thought as he took hold of the parcel and closed the door.
In the kitchen, he perched on a high stool, opening the box and taking out his slick new trainers. With their new trainer smell, he was almost giddy with excitement at the prospect of running again.
Jon got out his phone and started plotting a running route – a straightforward 5k to start with, he decided, down past the block of flats, round the village and back up to his house. He’d use the walk with Ewan as his warm up and then go on for the run. ‘Sorted,’ he said to himself.
But not long after, Ewan had called to cancel their walk.
‘I’m so sorry Jon, I’m not going to be able to get away now. My boss has put something in last minute and I’m back-to-back again all day. Stay strong, and I’ll call you again tomorrow.’
To sweat, to burn, to fully let go. Jon was dreaming he was running through a field, but this time he was on fire and he was trying to run away from himself.
He woke up soaked in sweat on the sofa; his eyes were finding it difficult to adjust but it wasn’t from the dream, it was from the hazy heat emanating from within the living room. The ringing sound in his ears was actually the smoke alarm in the hallway. The smoke fumes shooting up his nose started to make him cough and splutter.
A couple of candles he’d lit hours earlier must have been knocked over when he blacked out, setting the coffee table, floorboards and then a bookcase on fire. The room was quickly becoming dense with smoke, as every row of books was up in flames.
‘Shit, shit, shit.’
He shielded his face, tripping over an empty whiskey bottle as he jumped off the sofa and ran over to the bay windows, opening them up as far as they would go. He was about to climb out when he stopped. He wanted the keys to his van.
‘Keys! Think, where did I put the bloody keys?’
He could hear banging at the front door. He darted back through the room and into the hallway.
‘Thank God,’ he exclaimed as he spotted the keys on the window ledge.
As he grabbed them, he noticed his pristine running trainers calling out to him from the floor – he seized those too, hugging them close to his chest. He opened the door, gratefully gulping lungfuls of icy cold air as he stepped outside.
Now a certified 5k runner, Chloe was determined to keep it up to do a charity race later in the year.
There was no blue van anymore on her weekly runs and she missed its beacon.
She’d heard from a neighbour about the fire at the house with the blossom tree. Thankfully no one was hurt, but there was considerable internal damage. The owner had moved out for a while and was staying with a friend. Rumour had it he was likely to sell the house when it was all repaired.
Although the house was well out of her range, the news had given Chloe a new appetite for house hunting, maybe a bit of a project while there was nothing else to do.
She’d lined up some virtual viewings; first on the list was a Victorian terraced house she really liked the look of for its potential, but it needed a lot of work. The previous owner had lived in it for decades before recently passing, and the whole house needed modernising.
Chloe had no experience of major home improvement projects, but she’d been talking about it with a colleague at work – he’d given her the details of a friend who had set up his own property development business after being made redundant. Encouraged, she was going to give him a call.
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