There’s an iron nail in my left knee the first half mile away from my front door, down the slope past the school, dozing in the silence of its lie-in on a bright Saturday morning.
The nail, where my iliotibial band sticks itself to my knee, warms and melts away as I turn onto the coast road and into the wind, fresh as mouthwash and ice, bumping and kicking me like students in a moshpit.
Across the road from where I run is a bus shelter. It looks like all other bus stops; shabby, with a hangover. Raindrops from last night’s downpour are splattered off its roof by the wind. Sheltered by it are a girl in the shapeless lime green smock of a supermarket and a man that thinks a waistcoat over a tee shirt is cool. Both stand with heads crooked and still like streetlights over their phones.
Pad, pad, pad, pad, pad, pad, I take a deep breath because the familiar bliss of moving, the illusion of a journey, of setting out somewhere, soaks in and I’m settling down. Pad, pad, pad, past the pub that used to be The Badgers Watch and is now The Smugglers Rest, the new name as ignorant and free of apostrophes as the old. Perhaps the badgers might have been interested, many years before I came to live here, by the men that gathered to swim naked at the base of the cliff on which the pub stands. I doubt those men were smugglers.
There’s a shallow rise to the Tye, out of Peacehaven and, it feels, into the sky; a slope of fields on my right rising out of sight and the cliff on my left. I am yards from the edge of our country, England falls here, ceding ground for millennia until engineers and their labour buttressed chalk with concrete through the drought of ’76 and the death of Elvis a year later.
I crest the Tye, clouds shining like worn grey suede, families of them on the run eastward. I pass two cyclists, walking their bikes with obese panniers up the hill I’m about to descend. They nod, a Millet’s couple that, inexplicably I’ll confess, make me think of Norfolk.
Pad, pad, pad, my arms wheel a little more as I control my descent. My legs are in more of a hurry, gravity urging them to cut loose, leave my caution, my middle-age torso behind and burst away. It’s a rest and a warning, this hill. Its hand is at my back now, but it will resist me on my return.
The road levels out. A runway of grass and the odd dog-walker lies between the pavement and the fence that edges the cliff. The white noise of the sea echoes up, raucously enjoying the stone and rock that it fills and overruns. I’m passed by a cyclist of the lycra-and-shades pedigree, covered in sponsors’ logos he represents freely. He looks serious, like all of this breed, not apparently through fatigue. He seems weary of the people and cars he must contend with, a fugitive of both path and road, always the guest.
I look up, a day clear of moisture, the edges of the coast-side houses would cut me to touch them. I’m reminded of the curious sawtooth edges of the 3D models of buildings in videogames, their rendering on a screen digitally imperfect against these analogue, almost Platonic stone lines.
Cars wait at the traffic lights as I jog past. I glance at the car at the head of the queue, a woman in the front passenger seat flashes a glance. It flicks me up and down, curt like a finger on an iPad. I smile, not at her, but at myself, for my first thought was not that there should be any appreciation, rather that she would feel a whisper of pity at my pace, or my legs, white enough that they could reflect the sun much as a mirror does.
Pad, pad, pad, pad, pad, past the lights, into the trough of Saltdean. The beautiful lines of the art deco lido, as with all art deco architecture, remains fiercely ahead of its time, as though waiting for mankind to catch up with the utopia it reflects. This awareness glowers through the neglect; nature’s fuzzy growths find purchase in the concrete, muddy dank water fills the swimming pool. The top of the lido looks across the road itself to the sea beyond. Curious to me that lidos (like that of Barry Island I remember only with an Instagram tint) should offer a squared off, equally cold experience that can be found more spaciously and more freely only yards away.
As I ascend the hill out of Saltdean, I feel like I have a ship to steer, the signals to the captain are that he should be ready to take the strain. The freedom of my thoughts flit in and out with an attunement to the hill itself, a sharp up and down into Rottingdean that plays in reverse from hereon in. Frames go missing as I descend into Rottingdean. One moment I see a girl approach with a dog, the next I register she is behind me, ahead a man with a gleeful little boy on his shoulders. My sweat tickles, cool strokes soaking into the corners of my eyes, dropping across my cheeks as fraudulent tears.
The adventure is over, I’m heading home.
There’s a moment’s pause at the Rottingdean lights. I can smell chips, actually the vinegar, I can picture bubbles of it on a polystyrene tray, a wooden fork shining as nicely as plastic, stuck in a hot golden pile of bricks.
Back up the slope. Pad, pad, pad. Work, family, money, all gone. The wind’s still knocking me about, a cuff here and there, but it’s blowing my way, it can’t help itself, fussing me as though I’m about to leave for my first day at school. As the ground flattens out I look out, trying to summon some of the calm of my earlier, fresher state. A yacht, from the nearby marina no doubt, heels and rears in miniature. There’s barely a lick of foam for whitecaps until the water finds the rising shore, but I’m sure to the sailors it’s like bumping across rolling plates of stone.
As I head down towards the lido I see the other hill waiting, two lines of cars running smooth like ants up its back. The breathing is filling me, excluding cogitation. This is as zen as I ever get, as blank of thought and self. What is it in me that craves this state, to return to it day after day? I have slipped out of time. Each step, my breathing and running’s cadence, presses that which is sensed to my sensing, removing both interpretation or interface. Cartesian dualism dies merely three miles in. It never used to be like this.
“Come on you old bugger.” My words or the hill’s I’m not sure, it’s a challenge regardless of which of us issued it. Its gradient eases slowly, pad, pad, pad, pad, pad. These are the beats of a body on its own, a thing moving. I breathe and run. The iron nail returns, hardening from whatever gel my blood warmed it to. My right ankle pings a line of pain as fine as cotton thread back to the captain, all out of ideas and wiping the salt water from his eyes as he struggles to keep the whole show moving. Pad, pad, pad, pad, just steps, metres passing as I bowl by the bus stop and turn off the coast road towards home.
A few hundred yards later I stop. I feel lovely. My skin flushes as the body seeks its equilibrium, but I still exist entirely in these passing seconds, this flood of sweat and creaking nerves and sore unsteadiness. The sum of me is breath. I realise it’s not so much that I feel lovely but that I’m feeling, I’m merely and only feeling, the raw and fundamental property of being alive.
As I reach the house my daughter sees me from our living room and dances up to the glass pane in the middle of our front door. She pokes her tongue out before opening the door.
“Uuurgh, dad, you’re disgusting, you’re dripping.”
I smile. It will take a minute or two to find the markers and plug back in. I fill those minutes with water, and I wait.