The forest rose and fell as I approached it in plodding steps. By my watch it had taken me precisely 2.3 kilometres to reach the edge of the woods, running through snow and slurry from our apartment in the leafy outskirts of Tallinn.
That morning I had had the email of congratulation. Our last cohort, whilst not delivering us the highest pass rate, had succeeded in boosting our mean point score to its highest level on record. I ran with a lightness bordering on emptiness.
The forest was quiet: the odd cross-country skier clipped my heels with their skis as they passed me. The snow might be short-lived: why should a runner clutter up the track, interrupting the rhythmic sway – the left and the right of skiing? Some way distant, an old man, heavily-clad, stood on the edge of the path looking off into the wood.
My splits were not what they should be. To be honest, they hadn’t been the same since the marathon in May. Something had gone from me – some impetus, ambition. Or maybe my playlist was just too low on BPM. Whatever it was, my last kilometre felt like 5 minutes, but turned out to be 6. I dug in and leant forward into the snow’s flurry.
The results were good, and full of positive surprises. You’ll be amazed which students can pull their fingers out when they’re up against it. I made the point, that morning, of emailing one student in particular. Her results were extraordinary and a product of supreme effort. She should know that I know. I promised that I would only do this for one student.
The old man had a bulbous shopping bag in each gloved hand. I imagined crushed empty cans of ‘Kuld’ (a cheap liquid gold), bottles and such: things for which there might be reward for return. Strangely, twigs of pine and birch peeked from both bags.
I put a spurt on as I got closer to the old man and checked my watch. I was slowing down! The effort was greater – I was convinced my legs were turning over more quickly. But the watch never lied: my average was now 6.18. Even accounting for the snow, the wind and the incline, I felt no business in being so slow.
One of the few students who had failed, had baffled me all year. Nothing I did seemed to bring her around. Together we circled her attainment all year and scratched our heads. She found comprehension so hard and I, in truth, struggled to identify with her in her predicament.
The old man is looking not off into the woods, but at a single tree. As I huff towards him, he steps, gingerly for such a round man, off the path and towards the tree. He has left his bags by the edge of the path in the snow. Both hands rise either side of him as if in readiness for something.
By my calculations, I will not be allowed to leave this forest until my watch hits 7.7 kilometres. Not a metre less. I may even drop down into Mustamae to get in a bit of hill-running. Nothing like hill-running to burn off tension in the chest.
Some students had me running a merry dance. A whole year of cajoling, meeting parents, fretting and prodding: and their results proved that they were way and above the expectations of all the adults around them. I should be happy for them. In truth, I am; but that doesn’t mean that they are not blighters. At least they have now proven to us that there is something in the tank for the next battery of tests.
The old man is holding the tree. He rests his well-insulated belly against the tree. His head leans forward, his neck craning to reach beyond the curvature of his stomach. The bristles of his moustache touch the tree’s trunk. His lips rise pink to the tree’s flaking terracotta: he kisses the tree.
The voice is much lighter than I would have expected. Not the voice of an old, fat man in a forest: more breathed than spoken.
The kiss was so tender, such a pinpoint of heartfulness in a mass of bristle and accumulation, that I thought of the dancing hippos in Fantasia. And I didn’t laugh.
I lose my footing momentarily as I pass him; the snow is deeper here at the bottom of a dip in the path’s meander. But I catch and right myself, jogging off up the hill.
Later, I checked my watch. 7.8 kilometres.
One hundred metres in hand, I left the forest – having learned nothing.