As I was getting changed, a naked figure emerged from the clouds of steam in the showers. The upper half was the Incredible Hulk, the lower half Charles Haughtry. I recognised the face. It was a lad I always used to see working out in the other gym. Usually, we’d be the only ones in there: him red-faced and grunting, lifting big weights in front of the mirror; me on the warm-up mats, bending myself into shapes. At first I didn’t speak or even acknowledge his existence. But I saw him there so often that eventually it would have been rude to continue ignoring him, so I used to give him a single curt nod before going down stiffly into Downward-facing Dog or the Plank. But seeing him here, at this other gym, in this other town, where we were both strangers, made me feel like we were old comrades, so for the first time I spoke to him. ‘What are you doing over here?’ I said.
He was a lot bigger than when I last saw him. His chest and biceps were massively pumped, and the absurd disproportion between the huge upper body and the thin neglected legs, which I had been beginning to live with, was even more startling than usual.
My own workout, after stretching on the mats, is 20 minutes each on cross-trainer, treadmill and rower; then maybe some light reps on the fixed weight machines to finish. And that’s it. I don’t even look at the heavy weights. My goal is suppleness and cardio-vascular fitness rather than an altered shape. But in these tough, undisciplined times, it’s great to see unemployed lads coming in and working out with the heavy free weights. If you’re a young man with a suitable body type, and all the other socially acceptable forms of personal power are denied you, formidable muscles are a sensible idea. There must be countless situations in which a wide back, a thick neck and strong arms will carry more clout than, say, a bulging designer wallet or a 2:2 in Anthropology.
But I wish someone would tell some of these chaps to keep themselves in proportion. They concentrate too much on the top half at the expense of the bottom half. And they can become appallingly immobile. To watch my friend make a half turn to the side to lift his towel from the hook was like watching an automaton in need of a good squirt of WD40. It was a simple movement, yet the entire body had to follow the outstretched arm in order to accomplish it. If he’d shaped up to throw a punch at me, I could have gone to Amsterdam for a long weekend to see the tulips and then come back and still got my retaliation in first.
He couldn’t stand the other gym any longer, he said. To come to this gym involved a round trip on the bus that takes an hour, whereas the other gym was right on his doorstep. But he’d grown to hate the place so much it was worth it. Standing there naked, monumental, dripping, his towel in his hand, he then told me about how the staff at the other gym had always wanted to cheat him of his workout time by closing early and getting off home, and how his relations with them became strained over the matter. This one member of staff in particular he hadn’t liked. The one with the huge arse. They’d had a confrontation. No, not the little one with the pointy tits. Not her. She was all right, that one. She was nice. I must know the one he meant. Not particularly fat but a huge arse. You could show cartoons to kiddies on it on Saturday mornings. No?
He was right about the other gym. It is a depressing place. It is brand-new and stands on a windy hilltop, between a township of social housing and a football pitch and recreation area where tenants bring their dogs every day to defecate. What the town had been crying out for was a swimming pool. Nevertheless a new gym was a step in the right direction and had to be applauded. But in spite of it being conveniently sited for the social-housing tenants, and opened to a great fanfare, nobody actually bothered to use the place. Or perhaps even three quid a visit is unaffordable for those living entirely on state benefits. Each time I went there, I either had the gym entirely to myself or shared it with young Hercules here. It’s such a shame.
‘I’ve never seen the staff’s arses,’ I said. ‘They’re always sitting down in the office when I go there. You mean Valerie?’ He looked horrified. ‘Oh, I never asked any of them their names,’ he said.