There’s a young girl at our gym who has recently burst into flower. She’s so extraordinarily beautiful she’s like a sport. Here’s one, you think, that even Nature herself is slightly surprised at. I can’t bear to look at her, either directly or obliquely in the mirror. If she enters my line of vision, I look away or down at the floor. Now that I’m a 50-year-old bloke, young feminine beauty of that magnitude, being as it is now unattainable in my case, not to mention highly illegal, makes me feel slightly sick at heart.
I sometimes wonder if she’s ever thought about the ugly old git over there on the cross trainer who’s trying not to look at her. Unlike everyone else. Especially unlike the young bodybuilders from downstairs in the heavy weights room who climb the stairs to goggle frankly at her or shake their heads in disbelief. Maybe she’s noticed my deliberate looking away. Do women who are admired for their beauty from a young age quickly become experts at interpreting non-verbal communication, at recognising basic male psychological types? I think they do. Once, on the warm-up mats, I found myself face to face with this amazing creature, and her clear, ocean-green eyes looked questioningly into mine, as if she was asking me what I thought I was playing at, and it took me the rest of the day to get over the trauma and resulting depression.
It’s not often, however, that I’m disturbed by other gym users. When I work out I keep my head down and concentrate on what I’m doing. This has the added benefit of discouraging those who prefer to talk. There are people who go to our gym who like to exercise only their tongues. If you look up and acknowledge one of these people’s cautious, insinuating greetings, you’re done for. Let them talk to you once, and they’ll think they’ve a right to talk to you every time they see you. If I wanted to talk I’d join an internet chat room. So I keep my head down. I’m a familiar face, but a closed one.
I might even be regarded as something of a mystery man. Who is this chap, they might ask, who turns up dressed as if the gym is a priority in his life; who moves about the place with confidence and purpose; who always does the same workout; who gets a respectable sweat on; who obeys the rules by carefully wiping down the equipment after he’s used it; who comes here year after year; and yet who never says a word to anyone?
Last week, you might be pleased to know, the mask slipped. It has recently dawned on me that an unvaried workout gets you nowhere. I was stuck in my comfort zone. Then I found out that I could have an assessment and a new workout designed for me, for free, by the gym supervisor, John.
I’d made a point of not being drawn into a friendship with him as well. I didn’t even know he was called John, for example. A curt nod was all he ever got from me, and he could think himself lucky. But when I approached him about a new workout, he was the soul of friendliness. If I came in early on Saturday morning, he said, he’d take a look at what I was doing and suggest changes.
On Saturday morning I went in early and John measured bits of me with a tape measure. He also took my pulse and blood pressure and asked me to write down what my fitness goals were. To recover from hang-overs more quickly, I said. We then went on to the floor of the gym and he gave me some simple exercises to perform that would test my strength and stamina. The first exercise was laughably simple. I had to get down into a press-up start position, but instead of supporting my weight with my palms on the ground, I had to press them down on a large inflated ball and stay like that, with my back straight, for as long as possible.
It was harder than it looked. After 15 seconds my arms were trembling violently. ‘I want you to try to hold it for a minute,’ said John. I hung on grimly, eyes tight shut, my arms trembling absurdly. ‘Thirty seconds,’ said John. I couldn’t help it. I started bellowing like a cow bereft of her calf. At 40 seconds my arms caved in and I fell off the ball sideways and lay on the floor quietly whimpering. Then I opened my eyes in time to see a smart pair of gold-trimmed trainers stepping carefully over my face. It was Nature’s masterpiece, on her way to the treadmill. The ocean-green eyes swept over me. I gave an awkward little wave. ‘Hi there!’ I said.