The roadside was lined with figures in gore-spattered smocks, cheering Jasmine on. Were they surgeons? Or butchers? Something glinted in her peripheral vision. A scalpel? Jasmine glanced at the spectators. They transformed into everyday onlookers in T-shirts and shorts. Someone’s sunglasses winked.
If I reach the top of the hill before the guy behind overtakes, I’ll complete the marathon in under 3:40.
She was three kilometres from the finish. An indignant cramping clenched her calves. Her toes felt flayed and blistered. Lungs longed for oxygen.
Sweat and sun. Suck and sough of breath.
She disdained those who relied on iPods while running, preferring the boogie of her body. Limbs in harmony, dissonance of muscles; the chorus of doubt from shins and knees, all buoyed by the relentless rhythm of feet and respiration. Jasmine music.
A sheen of sweat encased her like a protective coating. She was packaged within her skin.
She breached the hilltop with her pursuer still lagging and issued a hiss of triumph. But she sensed him closing in.
The morning was clammy and warm. Up ahead, a procession of jacarandas brandished their upper branches, beckoning, as if commanding her to get a spurt on.
If I overtake the woman in the orange shirt before I reach the shade of the trees, I’ll come in under 3:39:45.
Oh, and Jeff won’t be voted off Survivor.
Perspiration stung her eyes. She swiped at it with flailing fingers. She was cocooned in an immediacy dominated by breath and blood and pounding feet, but beyond that was phantasmagoria: visions, delusions. For a blurred moment she was convinced a skywriter was detailing a cock-and-balls above her, yet when she peered up, the design switched into the brand insignia of an event sponsor.
A dog somewhere was barking in Morse code. What was it trying to say?
The man behind had slowed, shadowing her. What was he up to? Something wasn’t right.
If I don’t pass the jacarandas before the dog stops yapping, I’ll admit myself into hospital to have a lump torn from my tit.
She cleared the trees with the hound still transmitting code. Her jolt of joy was fleeting. She was convinced she could feel the dense little knot bobbing within the left cup of her sports bra. She faltered, dizzy.
Was the dog signalling SOS?
She shook off nausea. Laughter juddered up her throat, threatening her breathing. The situation was absurd.
She pictured herself jogging into hospital, lapping the waiting room, her flared nostrils twitching at the tang of antiseptic. Zooming around zombies shuffling down corridors trailing drips on mobile stands. Circling patients slumped with resignation: invalids whose lives were being prolonged, nursed into borrowed time.
But she was vital, lithe in lycra and bouncing in Adidas trainers, clutching an extensive to-do list. Hospitals were places you slouched into, sick and helpless, surrendering to invasive indignities to restore yourself. After extensive marathon training, she’d go in feeling fitter and stronger than she’d ever been. Then she’d emerge crippled and cut, a lump sliced out of her; facing radiotherapy and a lifelong regimen of hormone suppressants reorganising her chemistry like a junta.
As she ran she imagined herself leaving a trail of hair, shedding like an animal.
The man behind heaved and hacked. He was holding back, perhaps waiting until she was too exhausted to resist as he drew alongside with his doleful puppy-dog expression. Because it was Pete, her ex-boyfriend. She was certain of it.
A stray thought: if she’d stayed with Pete the cancer would have been detected earlier. Pete pausing as he pawed gratefully at her breasts, his taut mask of desire dissolving into an inquisitive frown. Investigating the hard nub with a probing fingertip.
‘What’s this, Jaz?’
Jasmine snapped her fingers fast, three times. It was a flourish her mother once used to spur the adolescent Jasmine into action. Jasmine had adopted the habit as a ritual of her run, using it to banish enervation.
As she plunged forward the surgeons on the sidelines whooped and clapped. She deliberately faced them to morph them back into ordinary bystanders.
Soon after her diagnosis, when only her immediate family were in the know, messages from Pete began to clog her phone. Jasmine suspected her sister of leaking the information. Sally had always harboured a soft spot for Pete’s easy charm.
In the messages, his honeyed tones ached with empathy. She imagined that voice filling a lecture theatre, mesmerising his students. She assumed more than a few became infatuated, despite Pete’s thinning sandy hair and watery grey eyes. He immediately became more handsome when he spoke. Her thumb hovered over delete but refused to press down.
Soon after the first voicemail, a hamper of wine and cheese was delivered to her office. She fumed at the joshing of work colleagues and declined to reveal the identity of her admirer. She imagined him agonising over the wording of the card, before carefully scripting Love cures, Pete xxx.
A little girl jutted from the spectators, presenting her palm for a high-five. Brown bangs framed a face shining with wide-eyed expectancy. Runners shambled past, too self-absorbed to comply.
Jasmine calculated the extra steps she would need to reach the girl, the superfluous exertion required. She steered herself over, hoping her smile wasn’t warped into a grimace. Their hands collided and the girl’s beaming delight stirred Jasmine’s spirits.
She was a sucker for the young, always gravitating towards them with an eagerness to play or read or coo. Pete couldn’t reconcile her enjoyment of children with her refusal to give birth to one. She shivered at the thought of a rogue element writhing within her, pilfering the resources of her body. Cells replicating and massing: what did that remind her of?
She’d seen the statistics: women who had never given birth had a heightened risk of breast cancer. She closed her fingers over her palm, protecting the tingle where the girl had slapped her.
One evening she’d been in her apartment checking notes for work when her phone warbled, displaying an unknown caller. When she didn’t answer, no message was left. She regarded the number suspiciously, feeling antsy.
Perhaps it was a specialist with new information. Then why call in the evening? Because it was urgent. So why not leave a message? They’d probably call back. She jiggled the phone in her hand, then, dismayed by her impatience, returned the call.
‘Come to the balcony,’ said Pete, and hung up.
She edged towards the sliding door leading to her neat terrace with its ordered array of pot plants, mustering the courage to yank it open and step outside.
Pete was three floors below on the pavement opposite, a box of chocolates in one hand and a phone in the other. Her mobile warbled again and she answered it.
‘New dress,’ he said. ‘Suits you.’
‘Go away,’ she snapped into her phone.
‘Let me in,’ he pleaded. ‘I can help.’
‘It’s over,’ she replied flatly. ‘We’re done.’
‘I’ll help you train for the marathon.’ He pantomimed a jolly jog on the spot, grinning up at her. She heard the chocolates shuffling in the box. ‘I’ll score you a PB. Guaranteed.’
She drew back so he could see less of her. How did he know about the run? She needed to have a stern word with Sally.
Pete ceased his mime and stared up, holding her gaze.
‘Come on, Jaz.’ He hung his head, gathering himself. He looked raw and ramshackle. A shanty man. ‘Do you know what it is to love somebody and not be at their side when they’re in trouble? I can’t sleep, Jasmine. I can’t eat. I can’t…’
Something within him snapped. He became boneless.
She gripped her phone in silence. Three floors beneath, he looked broken. She saw herself weeping into his shoulder, soaking his shirt. Feeling his encompassing arm pressing her into him.
Soon after their break-up, she’d had a one-night stand. It had proved surprisingly easy to pick up in a bar. He’d wanted to go back to his place but she’d opted for the neutrality of a hotel room.
She felt the stranger’s assessing gaze as she pulled off her clothes, sucking in her stomach. His body was clumsy in her hands. The urgency of his panting had an unfamiliar cadence. His waist slapped onto her hips with a soggy slop and he gave a tiny exclamation at every thrust. For a moment she thought he was counting.
As he tied off the condom she inspected the ceiling, nostalgic for the generosity and patience of Pete’s lovemaking. She felt unfaithful. When they exited the hotel she wanted to skulk, expecting Pete to round the corner, crashing to a halt and shooting them a double-take.
Her oncologist had explained that they would excise the knob from her breast, but it may have already dispatched an advance guard throughout her system, establishing beachheads in her lymph nodes. She knew her Pete-ectomy had acted similarly. Mutated cells of affection had escaped, lodging in her heart, her mind, her groin. Metastasised love.
She swallowed hard and hung up. When her phone starting ringing almost immediately she switched it off. She retreated into her apartment and cranked the volume on the radio to block the shouting.
Later that night she seized a pen and scribbled a letter, assuring him she was fine. Everything was in hand. She would submit to the treatment and kick cancer’s arse. He had no cause to worry. He should forget about her and begin a new life.
She toiled over several drafts, trying to find the right combination of words to set his mind at ease without offering hope of reconciliation. Finally, she scrunched the paper in her fist and pitched it across the room.
The shadow of her pursuer scoured the bitumen beside her. She could see the elongated umbra of head and shoulders. His exhalations contained a wedge of voice: hurrrh hurrrh. She wasn’t sure now if the surgeons were cheering her or Pete. She imagined him milking it, dredging up his winningly wonky grin or flapping a tired wave.
He was always trying to outdo her. When she took cooking classes she caught him poring over recipe books and concocting more elaborate meals. He was ashamed that his university tenure was not as lucrative as her consultancy work. He scrutinised his colleagues jealously, convinced they were more readily published as he fielded another rejection from an academic journal.
His one-upmanship had extended to Ginny, the family cat. He laboured to extract more devotion from her, forcing her to snuggle on his lap. ‘He puts the “pet” into “competitiveness”,’ Jasmine had joked to her friends.
When Jasmine took up running, she cherished the time spent by herself. As she jogged away from their house part of her was aware she was fleeing Pete. She pounded the pavement and her frame thrummed.
She became obsessed with improving speed and distance. Processing pain; exorcising exhaustion. She felt fat fizzing away and flesh firming. It was her own quiet, compact achievement.
Then Pete bought a pair of trainers and a GPS watch and joined her on the pavements and in the parks. Soon he was racing in front of her, glancing over his shoulder. The thing she hated most was when he’d canter in circles, waiting for her to catch up.
As scarlet-stained surgeons urged her on, Pete’s shadow stretched forward and he drew alongside. His laboured gasps filled her right ear.
She expected him to reach out and give her a reassuring squeeze, letting her know he was there for her. He would see her through the race and through the operation and into the foggy, fraught future. She refused to meet the compassionate beam he was directing at her.
He pulled ahead and she saw that it wasn’t Pete, but an elderly gentleman with sinewy legs and tussocks of hoary hair protruding from a battered cap.
Jasmine didn’t have the energy to castigate herself for her delusions. She’d resigned herself to her paranoia. Last week, she’d arrived home to find Pete in her kitchen, at the stove, stirring a steaming pot. The table was set with wine and a single rose. She thought she was seeing things.
He turned to her. That wonky grin. ‘Chilli con carne coming right up,’ he announced. ‘With rice, for carb loading.’
‘How did you get in here?’
He dipped a spoon into the pot and raised it to his mouth. He smacked his lips.
‘I buzzed the neighbours,’ he said. ‘Remember how you kept a key next door at our place? I figured you’d do the same here. I apologise, I played the cancer card. I didn’t know you hadn’t told them. They were really upset.’
‘Did you tell them who you were?’
‘Apparently I’m your current beau. I had to do some fast talking, but they eventually agreed that dinner would be a lovely surprise.’
He added chopped chillies to the cauldron.
‘You need to leave, Pete.’
‘Your hair looks nice. I like it that colour.’
She drew her phone from her pocket.
‘I’m calling the police.’
‘Come on, Jasmine. You can’t do this alone. You need me. I’ll make sure you achieve a personal best with the marathon and with the fucking, fucking cancer.’
His face contorted with anguish at the repeated expletive. He twisted away. Jasmine hesitated. She’d need someone to drive her back from the hospital after the operation. To accompany her to radiotherapy.
‘Ginny misses you,’ Pete said in a small voice.
Weariness washed over her. She wanted to collapse and sleep. She lowered her phone.
Pete turned back, giving her a steady appraisal.
‘Are you having chemo?’
‘Don’t know.’ She closed her eyes. She swayed, the mass in her chest throwing her off-kilter. ‘Depends what they find when they cut into me.’
‘You can’t handle chemotherapy by yourself, you know that. I’ll be beside you all the way. We’ll get through it together.’
She opened her eyes and he swam in her watery vision. She wanted to fall into him, feel his arms hoisting her up.
‘And listen, babe. Hear me out.’ He fixed her with his stare. ‘Before you do chemo, have your eggs frozen.’
‘You’ll become infertile. It’s your only opportunity to have kids.’
Jasmine blinked back the blurriness. She found herself peering over the kitchen bench into the lounge, where a tangle of lycra spread across the sofa.
She’d had a tough training session that morning, forcing herself to tramp on as dawn seeped around her. She’d staggered home and flung her damp clothes on the couch.
More than any team sport, running was an activity where you contended with yourself. Competing against your own times. Jasmine vs. Jasmine. And cancer was like that too. You were your own opposition.
Jasmine snapped her fingers fast, three times.
She raised her phone.
‘Oh, come on,’ said Pete.
She dialled triple zero. Pete threw the spoon into the pot and held up both hands in a gesture of surrender.
The slam of the door behind him scolded the apartment. The smell of the cooking besieged her. Jasmine hauled the pot to the toilet, where she plopped the contents into the bowl. Tugging the leggings and lycra off the sofa, she headed for the park. It was reckless to run twice in one day so close to the race, but fast sprints were cathartic.
Was she regretting them now? No, she refused to.
The marathon participants had thinned into straggling individuals. The only other runner in her vicinity was the old man. Somewhere up ahead another mutt was signalling Morse.
She thought she was close to the finish line – a kilometre or two – but she refused to check her watch, wanting to rely on her body and its knowledge. She calculated she was near enough to expend her last reserves. To risk meltdown and collapse.
She forced more fuel into her limbs and her hobbling gait stepped up a notch. The gap between her and the older gent shortened by increments. At the curb, the surgeons championed her progress.
If I achieve a personal best, the operation on Tuesday will be a breeze and the cancer won’t have spread.
The signalling hound was something large. Labrador. Rottweiler. The transmission was in a lower register. Steadier and less panic stricken than the yaps of the previous dog.
If I come in under 3:39:30, I’ll keep both my breasts.
She was neck and neck with the elderly man. His countenance was drawn, a series of taut vertical cables, like rigging. He turned towards her and there was pleading in his eyes, although she knew he hadn’t registered her.
‘Not far now.’
It was an effort for her to wheeze the assurance. She attempted a smile but the mechanisms of her mouth malfunctioned.
She steeled herself to pull ahead but a fusillade of barking came abruptly from her right. Beyond the old man she caught an impression of a snarling maw, a straining leash. He flinched and baulked towards her.
Her mind shuddered and jarred, processing the information. She was in no condition for evasive moves. She veered away from the startled, swerving older runner, but overcompensated. Her foot turned beneath her. Pain detonated through her ankle, and she yelped and stumbled.
Angled to one side, bent like a snapped match, she fought to regain equilibrium, hauling herself upright. She was still moving, lolloping. She tried to repair the limp but every time her foot slapped down her heel exploded and shot hot needles into her shin.
She pushed herself on, issuing a whinny with each expulsion of air. She was aware of the old gent falling behind, receding. The surgeons applauded and shouted encouragement.
If I come in under 3:39 I’ll still be alive in ten years.