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I poured myself a coffee, and as I stood there sipping it, Nathan walked in, dressed and scented with aftershave. He gazed at my bare legs.
‘I just met George,’ I said.
‘Nothing he can’t teach you about glutes. You got your running shoes, right?’
‘Hah!’ I took a sip of my coffee but Nathan was looking at me expectantly. ‘Nathan, nobody said anything about running. I’m not a runner. I mean, I am the anti-sport, the sofa-dweller. You know that.’
Nathan poured himself a black coffee and replaced the jug in the machine.
‘Plus I fell off a building earlier this year. Remember? Lots of bits of me went crack.’ I could joke about that night now when, still grieving Will, I had drunkenly slipped from the parapet of my London home. But the twinges in my hip were a constant reminder.
‘You’re fine. And you’re Mrs G’s assistant. Your job is to be at her side at all times, mate. If she wants you to go running, then you’re running.’ He took a sip of his coffee. ‘Ah, don’t look so panicked. You’ll love it. You’ll be fit as a butcher’s dog within a few weeks. Everyone here does it.’
‘It’s a quarter past six in the morning.’
‘Mr Gopnik starts at five. We’ve just finished his physio. Mrs G likes a bit of a lie-in.’
‘So we run at what time?’
‘Twenty to seven. Meet them in the main hallway. See you later!’ He lifted a hand, and was gone.
Agnes, of course, was one of those women who looked even better in the mornings: naked of face, a little blurred at the edges, but in a sexy Vaseline-on-the-lens way. Her hair was pulled back in a loose ponytail and her fitted top and jogging pants made her seem casual in the same way that off-duty supermodels do. She loped down the corridor, like a Palomino racehorse in sunglasses, and lifted an elegant hand in greeting, as if it were simply too early for speech. I had only a pair of shorts and a sleeveless T-shirt with me, which, I suspected, made me look like a plump labourer. I was slightly anxious that I hadn’t shaved my armpits and clamped my elbows to my sides.
‘Good morning, Mrs G!’ George appeared beside us and handed Agnes a bottle of water. ‘You all set?’
‘You ready, Miss Louisa? We’re just doing the four miles today. Mrs G wants to do extra abdominal work. You’ve done your stretches, right?’
‘Um, I …’ I had no water and no bottle. But we were off.
I had heard the expression ‘hit the ground running’ but until George I had never truly understood what it meant. He set off down the corridor at what felt like forty miles an hour, and just when I thought we would at least slow for the lift, he held open the double doors at the end so that we could sprint down the stairs that took us to the ground floor. We were out through the lobby and past Ashok in a blur, me just able to catch his muffled greeting.
Dear God, but it was too early for this. I followed the two of them, jogging effortlessly like a pair of carriage horses, while I sprinted behind, my shorter stride failing to match theirs, my bones jarring with the impact of each footfall, muttering my apologies as I swerved between the kamikaze pedestrians who walked into my path. Running had been my ex Patrick’s thing. It was like kale – one of those things you know exists and is possibly good for you but, frankly, life is always going to be too short to get stuck in.
Oh, come on, you can do this, I told myself. This is your first say yes! moment. You are jogging in New York! This is a whole new you! For a few glorious strides I almost believed it. The traffic stopped, the crossing light changed, and we paused at the kerbside, George and Agnes bouncing lightly on their toes, me unseen behind them. Then we were across and into Central Park, the path disappearing beneath our feet, the sounds of the traffic fading as we entered the green oasis at the heart of the city.
We were barely a mile in when I realized this was not a good idea. Even though I was now walking as much as running, my breath was already coming in gasps, my hip protesting all-too-recent injuries. The furthest I had run in years was fifteen yards for a slowing bus, and I’d missed that. I glanced up to see that George and Agnes were talking while they jogged. I couldn’t breathe, and they were holding an honest-to-God conversation.
I thought about a friend of Dad’s who had had a heart attack while running. Dad had always used it as a clear illustration of why sport was bad for you. Why had I not explained my injuries? Was I going to cough a lung out right here in the middle of the park?
‘You okay back there, Miss Louisa?’ George turned so that he was jogging backwards.
‘Fine!’ I gave him a cheery thumbs-up.
I had always wanted to see Central Park. But not this way. I wondered what would happen if I keeled over and died on my first day in the job. How would they get my body home? I swerved to avoid a woman with three identical meandering toddlers. Please, God, I willed the two people running effortlessly in front of me, silently. Just one of you fall over. Not to break a leg exactly, just a little sprain. One of those things that lasts twenty-four hours and requires lying on a sofa with your leg up watching daytime telly.
They were pulling away from me now and there was nothing I could do. What kind of park had hills in it? Mr Gopnik would be furious with me for not sticking with his wife. Agnes would realize I was a silly, dumpy Englishwoman, rather than an ally. They would hire someone slim and gorgeous with better running clothes.
It was at this point that the old man jogged past me. He turned his head to glance at me, then consulted his fitness tracker and kept going, nimble on his toes, his headphones plugged into his ears. He must have been seventy-five years old.
‘Oh, come on.’ I watched him speed away from me. And then I caught sight of the horse and carriage. I pushed forward until I was level with the driver. ‘Hey! Hey! Any chance you could just trot up to where those people are running?’
I pointed to the tiny figures now in the far distance. He peered towards them, then shrugged. I climbed up on the carriage and ducked down behind him while he urged his horse forward with a light slap of the reins. Yet another New York experience that wasn’t quite as planned, I thought, as I crouched behind him. We drew closer, and I tapped him to let me out. It could only have been about five hundred yards but at least it had got me closer to them. I made to jump down.
‘Forty bucks,’ said the driver.
‘We only went five hundred yards!’
‘That’s what it costs, lady.’
They were still deep in conversation. I pulled two twenty-dollar notes from my back pocket and hurled them at him, then ducked behind the carriage and started to jog, just in time for George to turn around and spot me. I gave him another cheery thumbs-up as if I’d been there all along.
George finally took pity on me. He spotted me limping and jogged back while Agnes did stretches, her long legs extending like some double-jointed flamingo. ‘Miss Louisa! You okay there?’
At least, I thought it was him. I could no longer see because of the sweat leaking into my eyes. I stopped, my hands resting on my knees, my chest heaving
‘You got a problem? You’re looking a little flushed.’
‘Bit … rusty,’ I gasped. ‘Hip … problem.’
‘You got an injury? You should have said!’
‘Didn’t want to … miss any of it!’ I said, wiping my eyes with my hands. It just made them sting more.
‘Where is it?’
‘Left hip. Fracture. Eight months ago.’
He put his hands on my hip, then moved my left leg backwards and forwards so that he could feel it rotating. I tried not to wince.
‘You know, I don’t think you should do any more today.’
‘But I –’
‘No, you head on back, Miss Louisa.’
‘Oh, if you insist. How disappointing.’
‘We’ll meet you at the apartment.’ He clapped me on the back so vigorously that I nearly fell onto my face. And then, with a cheery wave, they were gone.