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Unlike some women I know, I never bought into this mindfulness business. It was one of those things that my GP thought might be a good idea but it’s just about the last thing I‘d want, sitting in silence, being aware of my own thoughts. They’re already dark enough without encouragement.
      Now, counter-irritation, that’s something I do find useful. Getting someone else to pinch hard on a patch of eczema is painful but it does obliterate the itch, even if the effect is only temporary. That’s more or less how the gym works for me, a noxious distraction from something I would otherwise find unbearable.
      I usually start off on the rowing machine which is next to the fan. That way I can keep myself cool for as long as possible. I don’t like the guys to see me sweaty.
      The rower has a digital display which tells me how long and how ‘far’ I’ve rowed. It also continuously calculates my energy consumption, usually about 150 calories for 15 minutes. Like a mute TV in the corner of a bar, your eyes are drawn to the screen even when you make a conscious decision not to watch. So you end up noticing the numbers, start thinking in terms of P.B.s, inwardly punching the air when you beat your previous best. But the fitter you get, the smaller the gains and the focus on the technique takes all your concentration: keep that back straight, snap into that leg extension, pull that T-bar into your midriff.
      If your mind drifts or your posture begins to slouch, the screen will record your underperformance so that, when you do notice, you have to re-double your effort to get back on track. And of course, that extra effort, that intensified concentration, has your brain screaming protests at the bodily pain.
      But that’s a good thing.
      When my butt gets too sore on the rower, I transfer to the cross-trainer. Moving in backward ellipses, I like to imagine myself as a downhill skier, shifting my weight and getting into a rhythm of regular small turns. I’ve never actually skied but when I was a kid, I watched plenty ‘Ski Sundays’ on those slow, grey-cloud, low-sun, wintery, afternoons. In my mind’s eye, I’m wearing a red-for-danger ski jacket and a crash helmet.
      Usually I have to stop and move into a forward motion after about five minutes because my thighs and buttocks are burning. I then become a cross-country skier. In ice-blue from head to toe. Scandi cool. The forward motion is supposed to exercise the calves and hamstrings but I don’t get any burn doing this which means I can go on for longer. There’s usually a little muscle stiffness the next day but that goes away with some stretches.
      When Johnny said his calf was sore, I got him to do some stretches with me. Later, the hospital doctor said he thought that was probably not a good idea but what I think he really meant was that I’d shown Johnny how to kill himself.
      I met Johnny a year ago and he asked me to marry him after only ten weeks. I said yes, with the proviso that we wait six months to buy me enough time to slim down to a size 10. That’s when I took up the gym membership. Those extra pounds came off quicker than expected. So I bought that vintage, ivory lace wedding dress off the internet, before someone else grabbed it. It has a soft, satin lining, sheer half-length sleeves and a cinch just below the bust, and, as it turned out, perfect later on for disguising my developing pot belly.  Yeah, after all that planning, we got careless.
It was only after we had things all organised—the Registrar, the venue, the invites, the band—that Johnny mentioned this leg pain that he’d had for a couple of weeks. The left calf looked swollen but not red or angry-looking like an infection. And it wasn’t hot to touch. He couldn’t remember any injury.
      I massaged it a few times and had him stand on a step, drop his heels and then push up on his toes. He said it helped but looking back on it, I think he was just saying that. When he was in bed, the knee was always bent like it was too painful to straighten and the foot flopped to the left. You could see where the top of his sock had left its imprint on the swollen ankle. When he walked, he limped. Eventually, I asked him to see his doctor. He said he would… after the wedding.
      Unlike the rower’s continuous read-outs, the cross trainer updates on performance at minute intervals, allowing my mind to wander in between times. So if I’m not careful, pretty soon I can be gliding back towards that wedding afternoon like I’m riding a time machine with a homing device.
      From start to finish, it was a perfect day. The Registrar talked as if she really did know us, the sun shone for our photos, the food was good and Alex, well… his best man speech wasn’t too crude. Except for the fact that Johnny sat out the dancing after the first waltz, it couldn’t have gone much better. It wasn’t until the following morning that life fell apart.
      Sometimes, in the middle of my workout, Mike will come over, drape an arm as heavy as a thigh around my shoulder and ask, ‘You okay, Chantelle?’I don’t know what he sees. Maybe a look of anguish or a slump to my shoulders but he’ll have picked up on something and I suppose being the owner, he feels the need to intervene. I just smile and nod because to speak would have me bawling into those bold capital letters emblazoned on the front of his T-shirt, YOUR BODY MATTERS.
      Otherwise I’m mostly left alone, maybe because people don’t know what to say. Or maybe because they just don’t know. And anyway, they have their own preoccupations, keeping to the rhythms of their own ear-plug music or gawping at the Justin Bieber video on the big flatscreen as he emerges from an ice-lagoon in his snow-white smalls for the umpteenth time.
      After the cross trainer, it’s on to the exercise bike. It’s a spinner. Fixed gear. Which means you can’t free-wheel. So I’m always aware of my legs turning, and that’s good. I try and keep the rev count high, towards 100 per minute, because that’s supposed to be easier on the knees and it’s also better for fat-burning. Not that I need to worry about that much anymore. I tried the wedding-dress on last night. It hung loose. I need to get myself round to selling it… just not yet.
      If I’m feeling energetic, I can adjust the resistance knob and get out of the saddle like I’m on a hill-climb and though I can’t keep that up for very long, the effort of just getting air into my lungs keeps my mind occupied so that I don’t think of Johnny waking up, complaining of  breathlessness and asking me to phone for an ambulance.
      ‘Does he also have chest pain?’
      ‘Have you got chest pain?’
      He nods, afraid to speak.
      ‘Yes,’ I say.
      ‘Does he look pale? Sweaty?’
      When it gets to hurting too much, I turn the resistance knob down a bit, settle back on to the saddle and watch myself in the big mirror that occupies the whole of the side-wall of the gym. I’ll be red-faced and dripping by this time, gasping and grimacing but no one would look at me and reach for an oxygen cylinder the way the ambulance driver did as soon as he walked into our hotel room. And it made such a difference, that and the morphine. Johnny didn’t look so scared anymore and I felt less anxious.
      In the Accident and Emergency department, lines went in, bloods were taken and injections given. Investigations were arranged. He was booked and transferred to the X-ray department, maybe only for an X-ray, they said, or maybe for a CT scan of his chest. They told me that I couldn’t go in with him because of the radiation and that I should go and get something to eat or perhaps return to the hotel and rest. I could see him on the ward in the afternoon and, yes, they had my mobile number if they needed to make contact urgently. I was in the shower when my phone started blasting out ‘Uptown Girl.’
      When I got there, they had him in a side-room. He looked at peace, on a bed as neat as a cemetery garden. It was only later that I learned that he’d been found on the toilet. I wept to imagine him dying alone and for the indignity of his pyjama bottoms concertinaed round his ankles.
      I usually finish up on the treadmill. The big bonus for me is that every time I have an intrusive thought, I can up the speed and watch a new set of numbers appearing on the screen. If I’m still running after ten minutes, I’ll press that 12 o’clock arrow until the treadmill reaches its maximum speed, ten miles per hour. When I think I’ve reached my limit, I’ll hit the big square red STOP button, and wait until the roller slows and then carefully step off on to what sometimes seems like an unsteady floor. I’ll bend over, put my hands on my thighs to splint my chest and wait until I can breathe comfortably once more.
      Inevitably the shower is a place of contemplation but I’ve physically exhausted myself by this time, and Johnny’s story, my story, well, for a short time, they seem to belong to some other couple.
      A post-mortem was arranged, even though a diagnosis had already been made. For reasons not known, one of the major veins in his left leg had developed a blood clot. Thrombosis was the word the doctor used. But what killed him was the piece of the clot that had broken free and been carried in the blood stream all the way through his heart and into his lungs. A pulmonary embolus, they called it and they used the word ‘massive.’ A massive pulmonary embolus. It hurt to think about that. It made me think that his suffering, his pain, must also have been massive.
      Of course I didn’t know any of this medical terminology at the time and most of the questions you want to ask only occur to you afterwards. So you look on the internet for answers and you find out that squeezing the calf or stretching it might actually dislodge the clot and cause it to shift to the lungs. I took that little burden of guilt to my doctor.
      ‘Some thromboses are complicated by pulmonary embolus, and others are not,’ he said. ‘We don’t know why that should be. What we can say though, is that it wasn’t your fault. So, please, don’t blame yourself.’
      But he would say that, wouldn’t he? He also said he wanted to ‘explore’ my feelings, have me fill in a depression questionnaire, consider counselling, talk about ‘the stages of grief.’ It felt like he was deliberately poking about in my wounds and I wanted to tell him to fuck off. But I didn’t. Instead I said I’d do my mourning in my own way, in private.
      When I’ve dried off, I sometimes examine my belly in the mirror. Stretch marks. Still livid. I used to avoid looking at them, hide them even, but sometimes in bed at night, I can imagine Johnny stroking them, telling me how natural they are, telling me how over time they’ll fade. Sometimes I find myself touching the biggest one, feeling for that slight defect in the skin surface and then wonder where she might be right now. Somewhere better, I hope. Better than I could have managed, anyway
      When I’ve finger-dried my hair, I sign out and say goodnight to Mike, maybe get a hug. I’m usually a bit light-headed by this time because I won’t have eaten yet but I like the sense of detachment. It’s enhanced when I step outside into the chill of the evening, lean against a lamp-post, light up a ciggie and inhale deeply, the most satisfying draw of the day.
      And don’t look so bloody surprised. You’ve read this far. So, you already know. I don’t do all this exercise for the good of my health.

© Thomas Malloch 2018

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Author Bio
Thomas MallochThomas Malloch is a retired doctor, living in the south-west of Scotland.  Always a reader, he  thought he might try his hand at writing and is currently enrolled in the Open University Masters in Creative Writing course. He has twice won the weekly Adhoc Flash Fiction contest run by Bath Flash Fiction Award.