Rex | By Mike Bonnet
It wasn’t the temperature so much that caused her funk – there were plenty of cooler days in Melbourne too, when the breeze whipped in off Port Phillip Bay; it was the light, all grey-hued and sallow, like the whole country was under a cataract. You noticed it the thick marshmallow ceiling that sat where a blue expanse of sky ought to be, but also in the faces of the people. Everyone seemed oppressed by the dullness, even when they were smiling, even when they purported to be happy. How ya goin? enquired the Australian in her, expectantly. Not too bad replied the English, as if some amount of badness was unavoidable but the fact that today’s quotient was relatively low constituted a good result. She knew she was being unfair, but that’s what this perpetual gloom had done to her.
And yet if you judged Mia’s life solely by her CV, things couldn’t be going better. The job that had brought her here ticked all the right boxes. It was prestigious, well paid, and signified unmistakable progress in her career. When friends and family asked her what work could be so important to drag her ten-thousand miles away, the confidence in her answers appeared unshakeable. London is the financial centre of the world she’d say. The opportunities are on a different scale. I’ll get more experience in a year over there than I would in ten here. Now being so cocksure seemed a mistake, because she knew that any deviation from this plan would look to some like an admission of defeat. In truth, work was fine, good even, on occasion. It was just everything else that seemed, not bad exactly, but underwhelmingly, not too bad.
When the weight of the funk became too much, Mia headed to the park. With no beach to walk to and no mountains to escape to, this, she was repeatedly informed, was where people went to alleviate the claustrophobia. At first, she thought it was a joke. An example of the much talked about but seldom seen ‘English sense of humour’. Paint-chipped benches overlooked pollarded trees. Street drinkers watched schoolkids play football. Runners circumnavigated the perimeter like hamsters in a wheel. Not for the first time she wondered if the expression ‘rat race’ wasn’t intended as a metaphor, but as an accurate description of life in this city.
Back home Mia had always been something of a running agnostic: she knew people that swore by it, she just didn’t happen to do so herself. Here though, with no friends to share her emerging worries with, she reluctantly turned to the tarmac. For one it got her out of her studio apartment. Having experienced one too many flat shares and had to mediate after one too many passive aggressive treatises to perhaps try washing up after yourself, Mia had opted to live alone. She soon realised that she could leave work at the end of the day and often not speak to anyone again until the following morning. She sometimes chose to break this pattern by attending the never-ending litany of after work drinks, all of which were for some reason described as ‘cheeky’ (Cheeky pint at The Grapes? Cheeky vino at the Cellar Bar?) and one of which ended-up with a cheeky groping by one of the traders, whose hand she had to brush off her knee, not once, not twice, but three times. Increasingly running became the most appealing of her available options.
She settled on a morning routine. Out with the birds and the bin lorries, slackening hamstrings whilst the world slept. She made her own loop out of the jigsaw-piece shaped park. One that paid homage to the lake, the trees and the open field, but pledged allegiance to none. Her feet slapped the ground hardest on the first lap, as yesterday’s deferred worries returned to her mind. The 9am conference call with a disgruntled investor, two and a half hours of another interminable business development meeting, half a dozen barely scanned high importance emails still fermenting in her inbox. She nurtured these irritants. Allowed herself to feel legitimately disgruntled; and then, as the sense of injustice grew, luxuriated as the adrenaline went to work. Her arms and legs pumped furiously, both propelling her round the park and sanding the edges of her grievances.
The second lap was always slower and harder work. Sometimes, as she puffed her way up the gentle incline by the boathouse, she’d find her thoughts flitting to home, where the working day was on the cusp of finishing. Grace and Marie would already have their routine planned and ready to roll out as soon as the clock struck 5. A loosener at The Napier, a cycle down to Brunswick, probably luck-out with a free table at one of the Lebanese spots. She tended to get their WhatsApps around 11ish. If she wasn’t too busy, she’d watch the updates appear in real time and scrutinise each first line, though the full messages would remain marked unread until she deemed an appropriate amount of time had passed. Yo bitch, remember that time at Donny’s house when….PSA we’re eating and drinking margaritas…You better not be off with your new pommie friends…
By the third lap she was more aware of her surroundings. Nearby other early risers went through their own routines: runners and dogwalkers crisscrossed the grass, rollerbladers scraped the asphalt. Occasionally their trajectories would intersect, to be over or undertaken, but mostly they pressed on alone, each a distinct entity from the other. Mia liked to imagine a silent bond connected her to these strangers and, over time, she came to recognise a few faces each morning. There were the leather-skinned tai chi devotees, who claimed the top of the small hill by the tennis courts at sunrise; the pot-bellied man she fancied to be a banker, whose midriff appeared impervious to the positive effects of exercise; and a buzz-cut waif she suspected was perpetually hungover, but nevertheless completed her circuits in unassailable time.
Completion of the fourth and final lap left Mia exhausted but invigorated. Though she’d always self-identified as ‘not a morning person’, Mia now found herself bounding into work with purpose. Sometimes this enthusiasm lasted until lunch. Sometimes, if the day was especially kind, she found it left the office with her too. But whereas her colleagues seemed to find their mojo as they stepped out through the air-conditioned revolving door on Friday and into the city streets, Mia lost hers. The lure of jägerbombs, Neighbours impressions and painfully drawn-out enquiries about her relationship status from below average height men called Myles, was, inexplicably, weak. England was a strange place. As far as she could tell this was a country in which people were obsessed with the weather, despite not actually having any. A country that believed itself to be civilised and yet thought it acceptable to put washing machines in the kitchen.
The next morning, or late that night if she couldn’t sleep, she opened her phone to demands from back home for updates and photographic evidence that she was ripping the back out of it. The dearth of activity on her Instagram had not gone unnoticed. It’s cos you’ve found a new ride isn’t it? At weekends Mia found herself gravitating back to the park, not to run this time, but to sit, and with the cover of a book or headphones, to study all forms of life that crammed in. Unlike on her early morning sojourns, the park fizzed. Slacklines had sprung up between trees. Disposable barbecues burned both sausages and the grass beneath them. Speakers competed for attention. Frisbees flew at unsuspecting passers-by. She still saw a human-petri dish, but she now conceded, it was not one without charm.
She noticed the man one ashen Tuesday morning, midway through her first lap. She was breathing hard, trying to blow out the frustration of yesterday’s strategy meeting in which her opposition to “a pivot to retail”, was smilingly dismissed as “PMT” by a chinless junior associate. She rounded the bend at an unsustainable speed and began closing the gap towards him. Only she didn’t. As hard as she pushed, as fast as she pumped, he stayed a good ten metres ahead. What made it worse was that he didn’t seem to be trying hard in order to do so. He didn’t strain or struggle, just kept on putting one foot directly in front of the other, treading the line of an imaginary balance beam. The more she puffed, the more his hair provoked her with its carefree bounce. In the end she passed him out of principle, determined to undo whatever witchcraft had befallen her.
She saw him again on the Thursday and again on the Tuesday after that. Initially he joined the roll call of extras who graced her early morning exercise. She nicknamed him Rex, because the bounce of his dark brown hair reminded her of the glossy coat of her childhood Labrador. But increasingly she found herself distracted when it seemed he wasn’t there. On these occasions it was most pleasing, when, after many furtive glances, she spotted him by the lake, where the easy glide of his stride complemented the serenity of the swans. It wasn’t until she found herself thinking how she must appear from his perspective that she accepted she’d developed a crush. Did her elbows tuck in tight as she ran, or jut out unappealingly? Was the sway of her hips suggestive, or just suggestive of orthopaedic issues? Working with what she had, which was really just his elegant gait, she decided he must be a refined type. Someone who, if they took you out to the cinema, would pick a film with subtitles. She imagined him well-read, but a good listener. Not shy necessarily, but an introvert. She couldn’t picture him in finance, too much bluff and bluster. He’d be more at home in something, not slower exactly, but more dignified. Perhaps he curated a museum or reviewed new restaurants. Whatever it was, he’d be unlikely to talk about it too much unless you asked.
Mia’s favourite person at work by far was Gloria, the Brazilian receptionist. Gloria who booked their taxis and ordered their lunches and arranged their diaries and scolded delivery drivers for slouching against the walls, or sitting on the chairs, or breathing too loudly. Gloria who spent mornings with her head on the desk, pores oozing rum and ginger, groaning intermittently. When Mia brought her coffee from the cafe downstairs, Gloria joked “kill me now querida, because I am dying for sure”. Gloria didn’t take any shit from anyone. Seeing Mia cram last into the lift pressed up against an analyst with a blemished reputation for respecting women’s personal space, it was Gloria who yelled at the man to “keep your hands where we can see them”, then stared down his defensive laughter into stony silence.
As far as Mia could tell Gloria was out most nights. Sometimes she’d see her transformation from office chic to femme fatale first-hand, as she traded trouser suits for playsuits at the end of the working day. On occasion, the morning after, she’d see the reversal, when Gloria arrived from God knows where and used the work bathroom to take off the remnants of her just try me makeup and pull on the old clothes she’d left in the cloakroom the evening before. More than anyone else, Mia wanted to be Gloria, but with no obvious route to achieving this goal, she’d have settled for being her friend. But despite all the nudges and hints and ever-increasing directness, Gloria politely kept her at arm’s length. If Grace or Marie were here, they’d have folded into Gloria’s entourage within a week. But alone, in a country as far from home as it’s possible to be, Mia found she’d lost that part of herself.
Try as she might, Mia could not instigate the opportunity to wake up too late to run, jaded from a night that had gotten out of hand. And every time she ran, she saw the man with the springy hair. She began taking the same route as him, but in the opposite direction. She looked forward to the long straights where they’d run towards each other and she, hidden by the tint of her sunglasses, would have time to study his face. Objectively, he wasn’t beautiful, though closer to that than the opposite. He ran with his brow furrowed, a sign Mia decided, that he remained deep in thought. She wondered what he listened to through his headphones and began muting her own as their paths crossed to try and catch a snatch of the music, but to no avail. She decided she wouldn’t recognise it if she did. It would be something obscure (pretentious if you asked Marie or Grace). Not classical, he wasn’t a serial killer, but she guessed something music journalists would use the word ‘ambient’ about. While she was sure her friends would love Gloria, she felt pretty confident they’d make a face about this man. It was the way his back stayed pencil straight and he held his head a little too high. They’d interpret this as a sign he had an overinflated opinion of himself and likely a path through life that hadn’t provided enough friction. Mia would agree outwardly but remain sceptical in private.
She began synchronising her arrival to the park with his, and driven by her growing infatuation, stretching on the bench adjacent to him as he warmed down. But brazen as she might, no chance to speak presented itself. Each day at 7:30 they left the park and headed in different directions. Throughout the day Mia mulled and fretted over the fortunes of various funds, argued and then doubted herself over the potential yields of prospective assets, but mostly contemplated all the possible days that her crush could be having. Did he snaffle a sandwich at his desk and watch crumbs disappear in the chasms between letters on a keyboard, as she did? No. Almost certainly his lunches involved tablecloths and schmoozing. Would he tackle his ‘to do’ list in a disorganized frenzy of phone-calls and curt emails, or did he – as she wished she could –focus with clam precision on each item in turn, until all were slain?
Her parents pressed for updates “from Europe”. How is it mooching round a different capital each weekend, having half the world’s cultures on your doorstep? Can’t be bad, eh? She began predicting their questions and preparing her answers in advance. Yeah, moaning is the national pastime. No, they haven’t all been to private school. I spend a lot of time walking the city she told them. The free museums are great, but too busy. No one seems to mind that the pubs all close by 11. But she wasn’t able to give them enough detail to satisfy their curiosities. She couldn’t say whether they really suspected a secret love interest, or just began joking about one because the fiction was more palatable than the apparent fact that their daughter was lonely and homesick. Either way, they began asking her regularly about the “mystery man”. Is he tall? her mum would ask out of the blue, in the middle of a conversation about the exploits of the family’s black sheep. Is who tall mum? she’d reply. Okay, okay, she’d chuckle, you can’t hide him from us forever though.
These expectations only fuelled her fantasy further. Daydreaming during conference calls, Mia would play out different scenarios for her first drink with Rex. Clearly, a repeat of her last date – two-for-one sugary cocktails at a deafening Caribbean chain restaurant – was not going to convey the required level of sophistication. But she couldn’t decide if the atmosphere of a cosy pub or minimalist coffee shop would be most conducive to their inevitable clicking. This rumination was new. Mia had always seen herself as someone decisive. She did the things she wanted to do, whether that was ending a mediocre relationship so that she could go on holiday with her friends or moving to the other side of the world for a job. At least that’s what she told herself, except when was the last time she’d actually seized a day? Of late she’d spent much of her time making-up anecdotes about her new life to text home, failing to make friends with the receptionist at work, and engaging in early morning stalking of a man in the local park. It was a strange type of isolation, she reflected, to be constantly surrounded by people and yet unable to form a meaningful connection with any of them.
Autumn came and the daytime, such as it was, shortened to preposterous levels. Overnight the cataract must have hardened further and brought the lead-coloured sky a good fifty feet closer. In the endless hours between sunlight, Mia studied her phone. Impossibly happy people grinned back from impossibly beautiful locations. Her friends chilling bottles of wine in the rock pools at Mornington peninsula. Her friends crammed into a camper van and hurtling down the Great Ocean Road towards the horizon. Mia imagined herself with them – screeching along to the power ballads on the radio, passionately making the case for salad cream as the best condiment in the face of their heckles. It didn’t make her any happier.
Running now provided Mia’s most intimate glimpse into the lives of others. Though her attentions were primarily taken with the man, she still had time for the epic arguments between a mum and her teenage son, as they trained for some charity race. Or the urgent phone calls, fired off breathlessly by the balding man in between bouts of capoeira. Mia couldn’t understand what he said, but she sensed the tragedy of the situation, as he attempted to maintain some connection with a life being lived elsewhere, in a different time zone, on a different orbit.
Rex began wearing a neon orange hat in the colder weather. The positive of this was his whereabouts in the park became much easier to track, the negative was that Mia was no longer able to admire his hair bounce. With the trees denuded, his orange halo was visible at almost all times and Mia stalked it diligently from a distance. Each day the park felt more like a wasteland, with the substitution of greens for browns creating an abandoned, unloved, atmosphere. This, Mia decided, was apt. Gloria had left work the week before, jacking it all in to go and study anthropology in Mexico. Apt again, she thought. Mia had finally been invited out with her for leaving drinks. She made a point of staying until the death, shotting mezcal and pretending she smoked to remain part of the warm huddle beneath the picnic bench umbrellas. It felt bittersweet: validation that her instinct and personality remained intact, and yet sad that this was discovered in a farewell rather than a greeting.
It had been an unseasonably cold run. Chilblains swelled Mia’s hands and the air stung her ears. For the most part she’d ran in the twilight, crunching frost beneath her feet, trailing the undulations of a disembodied orange hat. The sun only deigned to make an appearance on the last lap and was still in the process of clambering up into the sky as she stretched at her bench. Mia sat to admire the spectacle. Tracts of light extended out across the ground and over the buildings, animating whatever they touched. Transfixed, it took her a few seconds to realise that a man had joined her on the bench. He too sat watching, catching his breath. Mia’s heart exerted itself more than it ever had on any run. She sensed the inevitability of what was about to happen and decided to let him speak first. She wondered what he’d sound like. What words he’d choose to break their silent courtship. With one hand he pulled off his orange hat, and with the other gestured to the scene in front of them. The sun rising, the park beginning to fill with early morning commuters and keen-eyed school children.
“There’s so many fat people about these days isn’t there?”
“Excuse me?” she replied, annoyed at herself for mishearing at this of all moments.
“Fatties” said the man. “There’s loads of ‘em isn’t there, just look. Wobbling their way along. The kids are the worst. Ginormous some of ‘em. Real monsters. It’s the parents I blame, letting them sit in front of the TV all night, stuffing their faces with chips.”
He swivelled his head and looked her square in the eyes for the first and only time.
“Depressing isn’t it?” he said.
About the Author:
Mike Bonnet is a social worker and short-story writer, previously published by the likes of Structo, Riptide and The Honest Ulsterman magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org