Tom Caruth’s short story, “Pilgrimage”, was selected as the winner for its category in our recent Creative Writing Competition.
His t-shirt, several times oversized, fluttered as he jogged into the wind. He crested the hill, then stopped, catching his breath for a moment and admiring the view. The sun had risen fully and shone over the rows on rows of houses, dispersing the early morning mist. Like flowers turning towards the light, people began stirring from sleep: curtains opened, post was collected, inside, perhaps, kettles were boiled. He saw a handful of people open their doors in slippers and dressing gowns and retrieve morning papers, that relic from times gone. They must give those of older generations some comfort, he supposed. There was something special about holding a newspaper in your hands. The words on it had a sense of permanence. Edits could not be propagated. Mistakes could not be unmade.
Just two years ago, the shirt he wore had clung to his body tightly, highlighting every inch of his beer-gut. He took a moment to savour the view from the top of the hill, filling his lungs with the crisp morning air before continuing to run down the opposite side of the hill. If he stopped for too long, cramp would set in.
At the base of the hill, the cobbled pathway flattened out, and he carried on with renewed vigour. When the sun rose above its morning sluggishness and began to blind him, he took a slight turn to take shelter in the shade of houses. Their windows were thick with condensation and edged with frost, and the gutters had that delicate sheen on their surface suggesting the memory of ice from the night before, partly melted. Goosebumps now crept up his arm. He should have worn a hoodie, really. He picked up his pace, speeding past the pub, catching only a glimpse inside of the cleaners behind the frosted glass. He wondered if they still remembered him.
At the end of the road, left, then right, then another left, past the old statue with some rogue traffic cone toppled at its feet. He wasn’t sure who the figure was, and despite features long-corroded, still it appeared to stare at him. After the statue would be the base of the hill again. This was the part he hated. He kept to the grass embankment and pumped his legs as hard as he could away from the statue’s stare, felt the dew-soaked grass wet his ankles as his thighs and lungs burned at this push for their limits. At the top, gasping and sweating, he looked down at the residential estate.Though it seemed a million miles from the adorable village he’d just run through, rent was cheap and nice people lived here. He had a chummy enough relationship with his next-door neighbours: he’d bonded with Sanjeev, on the left, over their mutual love of cinema, and Mrs Johnson, on the right, always had tea in the pot, and was always welcoming of guests.
He took a step, but then noticed – his legs had turned to jelly. Even so short a break had finished him. Less than half a kilometre to his front door, though, he had little issue walking the last of the way. Plus he wouldn’t be too sweaty when to collapse onto the sofa. As he meandered through the estate, though, watching the Sunday morning stupor lift, he felt a second wind come along, and – almost without thought – began to run again. He passed his front door without pause, giving a jovial wave to Mrs Johnson, smoking her morning cigarette. The caustic whiff of tobacco jolted him further and he hit his stride. He missed smoking. He couldn’t deny that much.
Outside of the confines of the estate, trees replaced buildings. Cars were few and far between, so he decided to hop off the narrow footpath and run along the road itself, just for a bit. An old friend lived somewhere round here, he remembered. He wondered if she’d answer if he called. Probably not. He glanced at his step counter and realised he was verging on ten miles, a personal best. He thought he ought to turn back and head home, but his legs kept moving beyond his better judgement, an instinct beneath instinct.
The aching in his legs intensified but he carried on running, ignoring the pain and sucking in more lungfuls of air. Hunger knotted his stomach and his head seemed to lift beyond itself. Still his legs kept moving and he felt a fear of stopping supercede the ache of carrying on.
Trees gave way to fields, with the scent of manure overpowering that of pine. The footpath widened here and he moved back on, nodding conspiratorially to another jogger going in the opposite direction. He was now nearly halfway between his estate and the main town, and any thoughts he’d had about going back home on his own legs dissipated. He’d get to the town then take the bus home, maybe picking up a chocolate orange on the way as a little reward for himself.
He slipped slightly on an unseen crushed beer can. It momentarily disrupted his rhythm, but he stayed on his feet. He wondered what the can was doing all the way out here. Maybe someone had walked from town to the estate. He couldn’t imagine how long the walk would feel when you were drunk. It felt like a long way now, and he was running sober on a beautiful morning.
The litter annoyed him, but he didn’t want to pass much judgement on the people who left it. People drank a lot round here: there wasn’t really much else to do inside the confines of the town and estate. Him and his old friends, they’d all go to the big Wetherspoons after work and drink and chat and drink some more. Then they’d all pile into his tiny Corsa and drive back through all the villages, dropping everyone off as they went. They didn’t do that anymore.
Eventually he reached the place his legs had been taking him the entire time. The cracked fence post had long been repaired, but the tree that had eventually stopped them still bent away at an unnatural angle. A bouquet of flowers rested on the post. It had been nearly three years now, but Sarah’s mum still replaced them religiously every week. It was her little ritual: walking from her unhappy little house, collecting wildflowers as she went, leaving her little tribute and walking home.
This was only the second time he’d come out to this spot since it happened. The first was intended to be a sombre affair, instead turning into a relentless recriminations. Why did anyone let him drive? Why didn’t he go more slowly when he knew he was drunk? What was she doing in the car? The memories of what would have been just a boozy night out and an ill advised hookup between friends mixed together in his mind as a kaleidoscope of vodka, and cigarettes, and lipstick.
He leant against the partway broken tree, legs too tired to run anymore. The town was only a short walk away, but he didn’t want to take a bus. Instead he decided to walk. As he sloped the long journey back to the estate, he thought of Sarah. Not too much, though.
Eventually reaching home, he walked a bit farther and knocked on Mrs Johnson’s door. She noticed his sweaty clothes and seemed about to scold him for not showering before coming over, but then saw his face. She immediately invited him in, sweat and all, and offered a cup of tea and a biscuit. He sat on her uncomfortable sofa, fixing his eyes on the flock wallpaper of her ‘70s-style living room. Mrs Johnson rinsed the scum out of the teapot, and prepared to make a fresh one.