I looked out of the window at Saturday morning. It was cloudy, but not raining.
I opened the front door to feel the air. It was cold, but not freezing.
The day was growing light, a busy week was behind me and the next hour would be my own.
As I crept out of the front door and left my family asleep, it felt as though I was stealing into a secret.
I ran my favourite route: around the block to test my legs and the local park to see familiar faces. Then residential roads took me out of town and alongside fields where winter is settling in. I saw a succession of single magpies but resisted their promises of sorrow and aimed for the DNA path and its first double helix. There I would check the time and turn around.
However, my legs and lungs told me to keep going, and a long tempting path lay ahead. Trains heading for London whipped by, parallel to the path, and I played a game of trying to keep up.
Half-way along the stretch I saw a man cycling towards me in the opposite direction. As he passed by he smiled with what appeared to be an element of malice. I smiled back because I didn’t know what else to do – his smirk or grimace might be an unfortunate but natural expression of friendliness. And yet I recognised this man from two weeks ago, and I remembered the unease that I felt then as now.
I sped on and calculated whether or not I could scale the fence on my left if I had to, and in which direction I’d sprint if I did. At the second double helix – the end of the path – was a road with people: life, safety and relief.
I checked my phone, clicked on a message from Portugal, and got a glimpse of lunch in the sun.
Basking in this, I set off for home, thinking I’d probably been winding myself up about Grimacing Man (poor man – what an affliction).
But within a few metres, just before the blue railway bridge, there he was again. On his bike, coming towards me, and with the same unpleasant grin.
He went by, I veered to my left and ran up the steps of the bridge. The man would not be able to cycle up there.
Once in the field on the other side, I looked behind me – nothing. I carried on running but the ground was uneven and once or twice I stumbled. I slowed to a walk and hoped there’d be a way to rejoin my original route.
I enjoyed seeing things from a different point of view (I’d never run here before). The first double helix was less striking than it is up close, I found rusty tunnels springing with weeds, and I spotted a single black shoe adrift on the earth.
At the top of the field I also found a stream that I couldn’t cross. I followed it to the next corner, and still no exit. The track just kept curving around the field’s greatest length.
The warmth of my run had dissipated and I wanted to get home. And the only viable way out was the railway bridge.
So I retraced my steps beside the stream and avoided holes in the earth dug by enterprising creatures while admiring their means of escape. As I walked to the bridge I checked the DNA path on the other side of the tracks. The morning was wearing on, more people were out and about, and Grimacing Man would have gone.
It was a long walk home and an icy wind was blowing. I zipped up my jacket and crossed my arms, tucking a hand into each of my armpits. I trudged on, and others passed by with jackets like duvets and gloves thick enough to facilitate the movement of fingers.
I knocked loud on my front door. I was back, I called, could someone please open up?
Let inside, I grabbed my warmest coat, made a coffee, and sat on the sofa with my feet tucked beneath me. My words came out in a defrosting stream of consciousness. Grimacing Man was grimacing, or he wasn’t and that makes me feel bad, but I was cold – oh so cold – do you know how cold I am – I can’t speak properly I’m so cold. My husband listened and said he’d join me next time to make sure I felt safe. Which was lovely of him to offer, but the thing is, I like stealing away into my own little secret – just for an hour or so. It always seems such a good idea at the time.