Craig Faulkner: Novelist, musician, developer, 'owner' of cats (plural), occasional geek, human...ish.
It arrived in a box that was big enough to hold a body. The cardboard stayed in the garage, though not for that reason. If the thing inside didn't get used, it would need to go. Since the idea was so new, there was a chance it wouldn't stick. The intention was that it would get a lot of use. The expectation was quite the opposite. The only certainty was that, if it got too much use, at least there would be an excuse to test my theory about the box.
The first time I used it was the 11th of September 2018. I'd never used one before. I'd never felt the need. It was pure coincidence that I had the right attire and pure luck that it still fit me. That evening, I came home from work, got changed and climbed on board. It didn't take me anywhere, but it started a journey of many miles. For the first time in my life, I was running by choice.
The running machine was just the start. The goal was to get fit, but that alone wasn’t motivation enough. I needed something more; something I could aim for that would give me an additional sense of achievement. Getting fit in and of itself is intangible. Yes, I'm healthier. Yes, I might live longer. But aside from a little extra energy, I wouldn't feel anything else from it. I'm driven by sensation, by feeling, by achieving. Being healthier—while great and good in its own way—wasn't a tick in a box. I needed more.
I'd heard of the Couch to 5K programme. I had the first part down. I knew broadly what the rest involved. I'd just never thought of trying it. Until that point, running was something that happened to other people. I didn't see the appeal. Unless you're being chased, or about to miss a bus, why else would you willingly exert yourself like that, only to arrive precisely where you started—somewhat sweatier and more out of breath than before you left? Again, I understood the goal of keeping fit, but did it have to be like that? There had to be something else. I just couldn't think of it.
I work with a bunch of gym nuts. They love it. I don't. I'm even less excited at the prospect of working out in front of people; not least because I'm built like the slightly less flexible version of a novelty pipe cleaner. Gym people—real gym people—tend to have a certain aesthetic quality about them. They look good in stretchable fabric and are at ease with machines that, in any sensible society, would be confined to dungeons and very specific kinds of establishment whose usually female proprietors tend to insist on being addressed exclusively by title. At least everybody looks a bit silly when they run. It levels the playing field. After the year I'd had, I wanted to get fit. A few years ago, I lost my dad far sooner than I should have precisely because he didn't. I'd spent the previous year working myself almost to death and didn't want to repeat that. So, in the absence of anything better, a running machine appeared.
Week one of the programme is fairly simple. You walk for five minutes to warm up, then alternate between running for one minute and walking for another minute. After you've run eight times in total, you do another five-minute walk to cool down and you're done. Eight minutes of running, spread out over fifteen minutes. It's designed to be easy enough that anyone can do it. And if you can't? Do what you can, then try again in a couple of days until you nail it. As the weeks progress, the running gets more intense. Gradually, it asks you to run for a little longer and a little longer still. By week nine—the final week—you're running for thirty minutes straight and have taught yourself a whole range of single syllable insults to gasp at whichever recorded voiceover you've chosen to accompany you. If you're quick enough, that thirty minutes is enough to do your 5K. It wasn't quite that much for me at that point, but it wasn't far off.
That's all it had to be. Start running. Get fitter. Complete the programme. Find something else to keep you motivated. Unfortunately, that last part came a little sooner than expected and turned out to be the stickler.
I was just over two weeks in when some friends came over and saw the machine. Two of them were runners. I'd never held that against them before. We all make choices in life, and real friends are the ones that are good enough to overlook the more socially awkward ones. I'd tried to do the decent thing and not mention it. I knew they did it, but I'd attempted not to let it be an issue. We all have our quirks after all—goodness knows I do. I'm very much a 'live and let live' type, so I never thought to call them on it. They had other redeeming features after all, and I'm open-minded enough to look past stuff like that. They had no such qualms. Suddenly they saw me as one of them: a 'runner'. I hadn't thought of it that way until then. I was keeping fit. I could stop at any time. It wasn't a problem. But they were right. I had the attire. I had a machine. I was using it. I couldn't escape it anymore. I'd become a thing of ridicule and shame.
That's when they hit me with the big one. You should join us for the Coventry Half Marathon next year. The bastards. In my novice state, never saw it coming. Just when I think I'm doing something for my own benefit, they go and hit me right in the goals. It was a cheap shot. Imagine having something big to work towards instead of just flailing about on a treadmill and hoping I don’t fall off. Something that would be a challenge. Something that would test me. Something that not only had a sense of achievement, but had lots of little goals along the way—not to mention a shiny medal at the end. I didn't stand a chance. Oh, I laughed it off pretty hard at the time, but the seed of the idea had already taken root. By the next morning, it had started to grow.
A few weeks later, when the application window opened, I was on the website, my cursor hovering over the 'submit' button. Then I clicked it. To this day, I'm not sure why. I had a confirmation email minutes later. Congratulations on signing up to take part in the half marathon. "Congratulations." Can you believe that? They actually used the word 'congratulations' and meant it. Not even a hint of sarcasm or irony. That's how I knew these weren't my people.
In case you're unaware, a half marathon is thirteen-point-one miles long. And if you sign up, they expect you to run it. You can't drive because they close the roads. You have to go on foot. All that way. And the best bit? The best bit is that the end is only just down the road from the start. You could walk it in a few minutes. But no. They send you miles out of the way first, up and down all manner of hills that—despite living locally all your life—you'd never noticed before. "Congratulations," they said. "That's a smashing blindfold you've got there," said the leader of the firing squad. Same thing.
I did my first outdoor run in January. Having conquered the Couch to 5K over a month earlier, I was confident I could manage the transition from treadmill to tarmac without issue. My ankles disagreed. It took a few attempts and an expensive footwear upgrade before I could set out and make it back to the house without stopping to walk at least once along the way. As the weeks ticked by, I gradually increased the distance; ably assisted by one of the sadistic friends who'd coaxed me into it in the first place.
Countless miles and even more swear words later, I'm almost there. The race is this weekend. Along the way, however, I've decided that 'race' is the wrong word. A race implies I'm in this to try and compete. I'm not. I know several people who are running it; friends old, new and, in the circumstances, former. More or less all of them are likely to beat me. I'm under no illusion there. Of the four-thousand-plus people running it, it wouldn't surprise me if most of those did too. At this stage, I just want to prove to myself that I can complete it. It's not a race. I don't know if I can call it a run either. Over that distance, what I do isn't really running. I'm too new to this. I'd be generous to even call it a jog. Given some recent setbacks, I might be better off calling it a limp, or maybe a hobble. In truth, it's only recently that I've started to believe I might survive it.
I've learned several things from this experience. I've learned that if I take how fit I thought I was, and how fit I hoped I was, I'd fall somewhere in the middle. I've learned that I have muscles in places I didn't think you could get them, and that you only find that out when you make them angry. I've learned that I'm very quick to rise to a challenge, and only slightly slower to realise that doing so was a very silly thing to do. I've learned that, having made a point of accepting said challenge, I'm too worried I'd disappoint someone by backing down, and too stubborn to do so anyway, because the person I'd disappoint the most is myself. And above all else, I've learned that, no matter what, you should never buy a bloody running machine.
I stare at the light, or rather the projection of it. It appears on the far wall; a vague rectangle of white upon a field of grey. 'Umm.' The leather chair beneath me squeaks an addendum to my murmur. She asks again. 'Try the top line.' I squint a little. There might be something else there, but mostly it's a white haze on grey. I know what it's supposed to look like. I've seen the same thing every six months for years. It's just that normally I'm looking at it through some kind of lens. Unaugmented, it's all a blur.
With lenses, the smallest line I can see is the second one from the bottom. V. N. L. C. I'm so used to the letters, there's a chance I don't really see them anymore. Every time I'm asked for them, my brain searches its memory, pulls out those letters and lets my eyes find their shapes amongst the distortion. V. N. L. C. They might change one visit, but I'd still find them. V. N. L. C. Picked out from amongst a haze of shifting static and noise until they're all I see, huddled together where they shouldn't be. I hope they do change. It's not supposed to be a test of my memory after all. 'Is this the same as it's always been?' Sure. Probably. I don't need my memory testing. Granted, I don't always remember the things I told myself not to forget, but I remember the important stuff. Names. Dates. Places. Events. Songs. Conversations. And letters apparently. V. N. L. C.
'So, what’s the smallest line you can see?' I can't see a line. I'm in a grey room. There's a rectangle of white light projected on the opposite wall. I know this because that bit is brighter than the rest. I can't see its outline; not really. The blur turns it into a mess. There's white and there's grey, but the blend could have been airbrushed on. With lenses, it's sharp and solid. The separation between one and the other is stark and obvious. Today? No. 'I can't...' But that's not good enough. That's not what she wants to hear. V. N. L. C. That's what she's hoping for. Anything else is just effort. Here's some ridiculous spectacle contraption that we can slot multiple lenses into. Let me tighten it so it feels like your nose is being pushed towards the back of your skull. Now I'm going to drop circles of glass into them until the extra weight makes your eyes water. With this lens, is vision better, worse or the same? The difference is minuscule. It probably doesn't matter. It could be the same lens for all I know. Better? The same? I can't tell. What should I be looking at for this? If I look at the rectangle of light, it's worse. If I look at the rest of the room, it's better. If I look at you, it's the same. What answer do you want? V. N. L. C. The projector behind me makes a whirring noise. Another slide. I remember that one too. L. V. N. K. Always that line on the other page. Not the smallest line I can see. This is the top line. 'Read the top line.' But I can see the others. 'Read the top line for me.'
Does it matter what letters I say? Sometimes they're so blurred I see something else entirely. Same slides. Different letters. Stupid eyes. I'll read what I see. Or what I think I see. Maybe it's different. There's a R in there this time, isn’t there? Where did that come from? Why didn't she call me on it? I'm doubting myself now. 'Read the smallest line you can see.' Printed in Sweden. Copyright 1998. I don't say that. It isn't there to see. There's no way I'd see it if it was. But I want to. I want to see something smaller. I want to see something different. I want to see what's really there. I want my eyes to work of their own volition. Or failing that, I want lenses that just do what they're supposed to do; that don't rely on my opinion on whether the red is brighter than the green. The red is always brighter. I tell her that and hear her sigh. She changes the glass circles. My nose protests. 'Read the smallest line you can see.' I don't even know what I'm seeing anymore. V. N. L. C. That'll do.
It's all about perspective. Different lenses, different view. With this lens, is your vision better, worse or the same? I don't know. I stare into the distance. I can't see the smallest line. Maybe I never could.
Facebook doesn’t tell me it’s my dad’s birthday tomorrow anymore. I have to remember it for myself. It’s one of a handful of dates I’ve collected during my life that I can’t forget. Like the others, it’s etched on my memory along with the birthdays of all those I’ve ever been close to, and all the dates where something significant happened that somehow changed my life. Take away my phone and turn off my computer and I’ll still tell you when it is and why that matters. But that’s not true for everything else.
Technology has limited my ability to memorise the things I used to. Everything is stored in digital memory now, called up on a screen on demand with a minimum of effort. I don’t need phone numbers anymore; just names. I don’t need dates; I have reminders. Addresses are pins on a virtual map with blue lines plotting my fastest route. Everything I need to know is a few taps away. I needn’t trouble my brain for any of it.
Before I had a mobile phone on which to call them, I could remember the addresses, birthdays and phone numbers of everyone I knew. I can still remember those details for people who haven’t been in my life for years, but I couldn’t tell you my current landline number without checking.
I don’t need to call many of those people now. I don’t need to write. Visiting would be pointless in most cases, since the people living at the addresses I have memorised wouldn’t know me. I know my friends’ houses by sight. I find them by landmarks instead of numbers. I phone them by name. I write to them on a screen and post things by tapping send. My email apps finish single line addresses so I don’t have to. Everything is instant and effortless. Everything is mindless. And that bothers me. Quite aside from the fact I’m not exercising my brain the way I used to, it feels less personal somehow. Once I’ve added them on WhatsApp, I know as much about someone I’ve just met as someone I consider myself close to. I can learn more about a Facebook friend I met in passing than a family member I’ve known since birth.
Since he passed away, my dad’s Facebook page has become ‘in memoriam’. It’s not so much a profile anymore as a place to look at the few memories he shared with the world. There aren’t many. Despite a vague fascination with technology and online trends, he didn’t use social media much. He had accounts on all the big ones, many of which I didn’t know about until I found them after he died. A much younger version of me is even stood next to him in the profile picture of one of those I discovered. He followed me on all of them. It’s the sum total of everything he did on most of them. On Facebook, I see a handful of pictures and the last few years’ worth of birthday messages. That’s about it. It’s not much of a memoriam. The footprint he left on the world may not have been huge, but he was more than that profile page admits. And I remember the finer details of it better than anything technology has given me since.
Tomorrow, my dad would have been sixty-six. I don’t need Facebook to remind me. He’s in my memory.
I grew up surrounded by strong women. Both sides of my family were, and still are, highly matriarchical. My mother is the eldest of three sisters, with an older brother who, with the best will in the world, never stood a chance once they started appearing. My nan ran that household. As I mentioned in an earlier post, my granddad was a very quiet man. What I didn't say was that this may have been because he wasn't given many opportunities to speak. My dad was the youngest of another four-child family. He was the runt to three older sisters, all far stronger and more sensible that he would ever be. (Well... stronger.) I have only vague memories of my granddad on that side—he died when I was two—but, at least as long as I've been around, I remember my nan running things there too. She was very much the centre of the family, holding us all together and making sure we were fed. A decade after her passing, that influence still lives on. (That and the echo of being asked if we've had enough to eat.)
My mum wore both the dresses and the trousers in our household. (Though judging by the pictures, lots of people dressed like this in the eighties.) She was the bread-winner, decision-maker, thing-doer and noise police all rolled into one. While my parents were at work, I spent my earliest years with childminders. The first, and longest-serving, was a woman with two daughters of her own—both older than me—and, several years later, a third on the way. I rarely saw their father, or indeed any other males except my dad and uncles, until I started school. Mainly I just remember the childminder, Yvonne, being such a kind and inspiring woman that, when she eventually decided to go back to full time employment, I was near inconsolable. (At least, that was, until my mum told me the next childminder had a hamster. I could put that down to being very young and fickle, but if I'm honest, my preference for animals over people started as soon as I realised what pets were.)
As a child, I always tended to get on better with girls than I did boys. Perhaps this is because of the number of women that shaped the first few years of my life. Perhaps it was because I've never been especially 'boyish'. I didn't like football, like all the other boys did. I didn't like fighting. Pushing people over and laughing seemed mean, and I bruised like a peach whenever someone did it to me. I also didn't regard the girls in my classes as being an entirely different species. This gave me something of an edge when it came to crossing the gender divide during lessons. Indeed, the first non-teacher I spoke to on my first day of school was a girl. I don't recall the conversation itself, but I'm sure, even at age four, that I would have dazzled her with my sparkling wit, as I continued to do for many years afterwards. (Sorry, Dawn. Truly.) Of course, the natural tribalism that occurs at school tended to see the children group themselves by gender when it came to break times, but for me at least the integration was never much of a chore when it eventually happened.
As a teenager, girls became a lot more interesting to most of my male peers. Pushing them over lost much of its appeal, and croaking faint praise on the off chance they pushed back became preferable instead. Having spent several years, by that point, in predominantly male social groups, seeing my current group merge with an all-female equivalent (in our case, over a shared love of music) was a welcome development. While, admittedly, still battling the usual teenage demons, I was at least able to make use of several hitherto dormant skills to form new friendships. I may not have had much luck on the romantic side of things, like several of my peers did, but I earned more stars than any other boy in my year on my lifetime 'Friend-zone' membership card. (Granted, at the time, teenage-me would happily have swapped that card in a heartbeat if I'd found anyone willing to trade, but in the long run, I'm glad I didn't.)
Among that group, there were several very strong girls, who would go on to be even stronger women. Since then, I've had still more strong female friends who have each, in their own way, made a significant impact on my life. In fact, to date, it's the women I've met who have shaped me the most. Whether as family or friends, I am who I am today because of the women I have been lucky enough to know—and by some, of course, more than others. I wouldn't be half the person I am, nor have the vast majority of the things I have, nor do the things I do, if not for those women. They influence my deeds, my decisions, my work, my creativity and my ambitions. If only to honour them, I hope that shines through in the things I put out into the world; not least in my writing, where—in art, as in life—it is often the strong female characters who carry the day.
I know my contributions to achieving true equity are but a drop in an ocean, but then I'm lucky enough to come from a background where—at least in a social and familial sense—that wasn't too much of an issue. But, since I firmly believe that everyone deserves the same opportunities in every aspect of life, on this International Women's Day 2018, and on every single day before and after it, I am proud to declare that I am a feminist. As the women in my life, past and present, are the most inspirational people I know, how could I be anything else?
My granddad on my mum's side was a man of many hidden talents. During the second world war, he was deployed as an army chef, and, for many years afterwards, he was an inspector at Alfred Herbert Ltd; then one of the world's largest machine tool manufacturers. By the time I knew him, he was already retired, but the echoes of his various talents were still dotted around the house. Throughout my childhood, for example, there was always an organ in the living room, and, after he died, I learned too that there had been a piano accordion hidden in the attic. I never saw him play either, though the musician in me wishes I had. My memories were of his enthusiasm for all things mechanical.
I remember him as a very quiet man. In all the time I knew him, I rarely heard him say more than a few words at a time, and it is his laughter I recall more easily than his voice. I knew him instead as a man of routine. He'd rise at the same time every day, go through his morning ablutions, then, eventually, arrive in the living room to take up his usual seat on the sofa, where he would remain for much of the day. My nan was a serial organiser of dances and indoor bowls events at the local community centre, and he'd regularly spend his afternoons there while she did her thing. Whether he had once been more active, I couldn't say. By the time I knew him, various ailments, along with series of heart attacks and strokes from his sixties onwards, had left him somewhat subdued. And yet a certain spark remained, given the right provocation.
As a child, I spent my summers at my grandparents' house while my parents were at work. In the absence of anything more interesting to do, I would often follow my nan around while she did whatever needed doing. From time to time, we would wander into the garage, where I would find all manner of weird and wonderful contraptions that she would then have to try and explain. My granddad, I discovered, was an avid tinkerer. Anything mechanical fascinated him. He had a passion for taking things apart to find out how they worked, before putting them back together. He was a collector of watches and mechanisms, and had a toolbox almost as large as the garage-spanning workbench it sat beneath. He was also a builder and inventor, in his own quiet way. I'd regularly find odd little contraptions, whose function and purpose baffled my childish mind, and which my nan wouldn't even try to explain. My favourite, and one that was easier to figure out, was a Ferris wheel that would turn under its own momentum thanks to a series of hanging weights around its circumference.
Perhaps my fondest memory, however, was on a day one summer that I took a set of Lego to their house to keep myself amused. The kit in question was a set that built either a JCB digger, or a combine harvester, complete with functioning pneumatics that—depending on the vehicle—would raise, lower or rotate its various working parts. I spent most of an afternoon disassembling one vehicle, and reassembling it as the other while he watched on in silent fascination. For reasons I can't recall, I left the room to talk to my nan and, when I returned, the kit in question was on a tray on his lap on the sofa, being deconstructed. What followed was perhaps the longest conversation I ever had with him about how it might be further improved. Here was a kit that, presumably, a team of talented engineers at Lego had put a great many months of work into designing and building to be the best it could be, while remaining suitable for anyone aged eight and above... and my granddad made an even better version with the same parts after about twenty minutes of tinkering.
It was my youngest cousin who reminded me of him today, on what would be the twentieth anniversary of his passing—at the time, just under four weeks after his eighty-third birthday. Sadly, she would never have known him, having been born a little over a year after he died, but I have no doubt that he would have adored her, in his own quiet way, the way he did the rest of us. It occurs to me that, despite him being around for at least the first sixteen years of my life, I perhaps didn't know this quiet individual all that well either. What memories I do have of him, however, are of a kind, smiling man, sat in his living room, thinking up ways to improve the world around him by tinkering with it. I like to think he'd be okay with that.