A fresh start in a new gym in a foreign country. The serious young gym attendant didn’t speak a word of English, so we did the best we could using my limited French. He weighed me then asked me to hold a device that measured my body mass index via my palms — how it does that I can’t even begin to guess — and he carefully wrote down the result on the induction form. Had I ever exercised before? I had, I said, but about three years ago, after a cancer diagnosis, I had lost heart and stupidly given it up. What kind of exercise did I used to do? Swimming, karate, cycling and gym, I said. He carefully, and a touch sceptically, I thought, wrote all that down. How tall was I? Six feet exactly, I said. Neither of us had a clue what that was in metres so he had a good look at me and hazarded a guess.
And what did I want to achieve by coming to the gym? I told him that for three years my testosterone production had been halted by quarterly injections. My aim, I said, was a body like Gina Lollobrigida in Trapeze. That the elderly English guy in skintight leggings and a T-shirt exhorting him to Enjoy Coke was not entirely serious here, he failed to notice. Another note was carefully inscribed on the form.
The gym was on the upper level of an industrial unit next to a roundabout. The diameter and extent of the air-conditioning pipes criss-crossing the ceiling was impressive. The view through the windows was parched mountains. After March, said a notice, all windows were to be kept closed. Basically, it was a ladies’ gym with about 40 fixed-weight machines and the usual rowers, treadmills and elliptical cross-trainers, about a quarter of which were occupied by members. There was no Jurassic Park section, for example, where meatheads could grunt and sweat over their barbells and free weights. ‘Muscle’ vests are forbidden.
The gym guy wrote me out three work-out sessions, or séances, to be used in rotation, then led me out on to the floor to show me how to operate the machines, starting with the rower, or rameur. Sitting astride the latest version of the Concept 2 rower was a young woman whose appearance would be impossible for me to describe to you without using my hands. The gym guy stooped and kissed her first on one cheek then the other. She granted him access by revolving her head this way and that. In for a penny, I leaned in and planted a couple of smackers of my own, which were received a touch less welcomingly, I felt, and I intercepted a glance from her to the gym guy that said something like, ‘Who on earth is this crazy old man?’ I speeded things along here by telling him I was as familiar with the pulling arm of the Concept 2 rower as a galley slave with his oar, and so we bid the woman a sad farewell and passed quickly on to the treadmill, or tapis roulant.
Sprinting like a maniac on one of these was a bald, sweaty Mr Universe type with thighs bulging out of his tiny shorts like the backs of dolphins. His rather frightening, hyper-masculine appearance was cancelled out, however, by tight schoolgirl knee socks. He punched the red button and slowed to a fast walk, then a saunter. Then he stopped altogether and we took it in turns to reach up with our mouths and kiss him as well. In an English gym it can take weeks, months, sometimes years before you are on the curtest of nodding terms with a fellow member. Here, it seemed, very wonderfully, that kissing everybody in the room before each séance was mandatory.
One by one, the young gym guy introduced me to each fitness machine on my list. If someone was sitting astride a machine, he kissed them and I followed suit. At the abdominal crunch machine I got in first and kissed the woman seated there without immediately realising she was the woman I’d kissed earlier on the rowing machine. She whipped out an ear bud and said something to the gym guy I didn’t understand but which made them both laugh.
I’ve had four séances at the gym since my induction session and already I feel like a new woman. I now realise that the young gym guy kissed everybody because it was a politeness demanded of him in his capacity as our host. A lot of kissing does go on between members, but only between those who are already acquainted, however tenuously. So far I’m sticking to kissing the gym attendants only.