Short story competition

Worth 1000 words: Summer Herald will each day publish a short story competition entry. The winner will be announced on January 30. Picture: Jonathan Carroll

杭州桑拿

SEVENTEEN degrees and wide awake. Michael was stroking smoothly through the sparkling early morning water at the baths. It was just 6am and he shared the pool with a dozen or so other swimmers – it had gotten much busier since the renovations. He kept checking ahead to avoid a collision. He’d never swim alone again.

Life was now divided into before and after the heart attack. Nine months had passed and he was getting back to somewhere near normal routine. Exercise had never been a problem but now every muscle twitch, every pain, scared the hell out of him. He was in survival mode.

The dietitian said he’d soon get over the fatty fast foods. He’d bought his mate Jeff’s bobcat and was making more money than he’d ever had landscaping, without the backbreaking work. Working for himself, he didn’t have to talk to anyone – a bonus after he’d become irritated and short-fused during the rehab. He was a few of years off 40, the age his mother had died.

“Made it,”he thought as he climbed the ladder out of the pool. He dressed and began the slow jog home along the new walkway past the beach, dodging walkers, dogs and bikes. Occasionally he thought he saw the girl who’d dragged him out of the pool after the attack, she’d had long blonde hair which partially covered her face as she’d looked down at him, smiling. When he got close he realised his mistake and turned away quickly.

He jogged on and felt a familiar wave of nausea followed by what felt like a balloon being inflated inside his bowels. The doctor had warned of medication side effects.

As he sat on the toilet at the surf club he thought of Katrina, the girl he’d met at the pub the night before the attack. She’d seemed surprised to hear from him when he rang a few months later. Couldn’t believe someone as young and fit as him could have had a heart attack.

“Sure,”she’d said when he’d invited her to dinner.

The date had not gone well. He’d lost his appetite for food and partying and felt a similar wave of nausea and diarrhoea, making several visits to the toilet throughout dinner. And he couldn’t keep drinking. She barely concealed her disappointment when he needed to go home early from the nightclub.

She’d invited him back to her place for a nightcap, which he didn’t finish. He hadn’t slept with anyone since he broke up with Stephanie before the attack and felt a cocktail of fear, guilt and excitement as Katrina led him towards the bedroom. The doctor had mentioned possible erectile dysfunction, words that reverberated in his ears as the two of them lay unfulfilled in the darkened silence.

“I’ll call you,”were Katrina’s parting words.

His jog was more of a shuffle. At Dixon Park there was a “whoop”as a surfer pulled into a crystal-like tube, a moment of personal bliss from amongthe procession of joggers and walkers on the path behind the beach.

Michael slowed to a walk when he reached the Bar Beach carpark. He chose the steep stairs of the new clifftop walkway instead of walking beside the road. He’d take his time. Aerobic exercise was good as long as he didn’t go too hard.

There was a shag perched on a rock below, drying its wings in the morning sun, unruffled as it eyed the plentiful fish in the clear green water at the bottom of the cliff. Large white streaks of droppings on the rock showed this was a favourite spot.

Passing the soldiers memorial he thought he saw his mother’s family name inscribed. On closer inspection it was Scott, not Stott. His great grandfather had enlisted in World War One when he was 42 with the aim of looking after his 18-and 22-year-old brothers. The youngest brother hadn’t come back.

He made out the heading of a plaque honouring the work of nurses in war which made him think of his ex-girlfriend Stephanie, also a nurse. He pictured her face, stern and safe and caring, but not in one of those perfectly ironed white uniforms and starched veil.

Why hadn’t she visited him in hospital? She ignored most of his texts and had stood him up on dates. The break-up had been traumatic but they’d both agreed to be friends. He hadn’t been ready to commit to children then, while she increasingly talked about them. And marriage.

But things had changed. He checked his phone and realised it was Remembrance Day. Ten years since he’d first gone out with Steph. He could not think of a message so he sent a heart emoji.

At the end of the walkway he joined the path beside the road which was flatter than going through the park. He was sucking air in a bit hard. He slowed and took a swig of water.

He checked his phone again – still no reply. Maybe she’s coming off nightshifts? Or asleep, not exactly a weird thing to be doing at 6.30am.

Was she sleeping with someone?

Slowly he made his way up the narrow rocky stairs at the back of the Obelisk, one step at a time. He’d done these stairs a million times before.

Something familiar about a girl jogging through the park in the distance caught his eye.

She reminded him of Steph, except for the bobbed hair and toned body. Steph looked shapely and would outlast anyone on the dance floor, but fitness hadn’t been her thing. She slowed as she got out her phone and tapped on the screen.

He could see his house in the street below, the tipper and bobcat out front and ready for work. He looked around again and she’d gone.

Ding.

He checked his phone. His heart jumped as the message alert read “Steph”.