The first time I saw Mark raise his right hand, I winced. Salutes meant one thing in my experience and after being married to a military man for half my life, they made me want to run a mile. Given the circumstances, that was ironic.
On second thoughts, perhaps he was just waving at someone he knew, after all he seemed like a friendly sort. He had been the first person to greet me at the athletics track, and he was the one who suggested I tag along with his group for my first session with the running club.
But when he saluted again a mile or so later, I had to wonder if he had an ulterior motive. And with nobody else in sight apart from the group of us running, I thought it best to broach the subject. I could hear Jon’s voice – my ex-husband’s constant ‘for fuck’s sake, Karen refrain,’ in my head, as I imagined the headlines in tomorrow’s papers: ‘Divorcee gets duped by marathoning masked murderer.’
‘That’s two,’ said Mark, pre-empting my question. ‘Two for joy.’
I didn’t have a clue what he was talking about, but I wasn’t going to jettison any little bit of lightness coming my way. Soon our feet fell into line and I figured it couldn’t hurt opening up a little, any more than it hurt having run this far already.
‘What do the salutes mean?’ I asked.
‘Magpies,’ he said, quick as a flash. ‘It’s bad luck to ignore them. It’s the only superstition I’ve got.’
I’d forgotten how much easier it was sometimes running with someone. The only time Jon and I had run together, he’d spent the whole time criticizing my running style, even though I was the one who’d run the marathons and not him. Slowly I regained my breath and before I’d really registered, my watch buzzed to mark five miles.
‘Three for a girl, four for a boy,’ said Mark.
From behind us came a grunt.
‘What utter bollocks,’ said a young guy, who had been trailing us.
‘Never heard such nonsense,’ he blurted and sprinted off to catch two other youngsters who had gone ahead.
‘Don’t worry about him; Testosterone Tony, we call him. He’s not quite realized life is a marathon, not a sprint,’ said Mark, his elbow grazing mine.
I knew I’d bitten off more than I could chew going with the faster group, but I had no intention of giving up and turning back now. I slowed my pace, then stopped to pretend to lace one of my shoes.
‘So, what is it that brings you here?’ Mark paused next to me, his breathing heavier than I expected.
I looked up, his legs long in Lycra, his top hugging his not too shabby figure. To our right, one, two more birds floated down to the water’s edge.
‘Five for silver, six for gold,’ he said, apparently forgetting his question. He turned to me and smiled, and I felt the empty space on my left hand where my ring had been.
In the distance, the other runners had stopped by the metal fence to the sports center, stretching languorously. On the bank between the wire and the water’s edge, the fading sun caught something, and it glimmered like a mirror. Mark didn’t see the bird dive towards the diamond light.
‘What is it for seven?’ I asked. ‘Just in case?’
‘Seven for a secret never to be told,’ and I thought I saw him wink, but it could just have been a trick of the light.
Hannah Storm has recently discovered flash fiction, CNF and poetry, after 20 years travelling the world as a journalist. Now she writes to pay tribute to the people she has met and the places she has been and to process her own experiences. She lives in the UK with her two children and husband and when she’s not working, writing and spending time with her family, she runs long distances as a different type of therapy. Her Twitter handle is @hannahstorm6