Jeremy Clarke

Space invaders

A social leper tells you of his miserable existence

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There is a Japanese concept known as ma. A loose translation of ma might be ‘the space between things’. In Kyoto, at the temple of Ryoan-ji, is a famous Zen garden. It is a dry garden of 15 rocks positioned on a surface of raked gravel, symbolising clarity and openness. (One of the 15 rocks, however, is always hidden from any human vantage point on the ground.)

The exact opposite of ma would be the 15 or so fixed weight machines crammed into the small and stuffy space that is our local council-run gym. From the moment you drop your sports bag on the pile of other sports bags, under the eye-level notice advising you that it is a ‘Snatch Point’, you are entering a ma-less environment.

Our ‘warm-up area’ consists of three blue Duflex mats under a low, slanting ceiling. The other day I was on the middle one doing the Downward Facing Dog yoga stretch, when two biggish women came and slumped down on the vacant mats on each side. You could tell it was not often that either of them made the trip all the way to the ground. I’d seen parachutists jump out of a plane at 10,000 feet and touch down more gently. Once these ladies had got their breath back, they resumed the uninhibited, sexually explicit conversation they’d been having on the exercise bikes, and before that on adjacent rowing machines.

Basically, the Downward Facing Dog stretch is an arch and these women traded smut through my human archway as if through an open window. The bigger of the two did cursory floor stretches as she talked. The other simply lay on her side supporting her head with her hand.

I knew one of them by sight. When she was 17 and thin as a gazelle, the bigger one had made the front page of the local newspaper. Her car was stolen and recovered from a river. The thief was caught, convicted and ordered to pay compensation. The Gazette reported that she’d stood up in court and pleaded with the magistrate to lift the compensation order because she’d fallen in love with the defendant and was expecting his child.

Mr Rupert Gadd JP OBE was a lenient old buffer. (I remember waiting my turn to appear before him and seeing the town’s problem dwarf spit at him from the witness box and get away with it.) Mr Gadd lifted both compensation order and fine. I heard, too, that the first time he encountered the defendant, girlfriend and newborn baby in the high street, he clucked over the child, then peeled off a 20 and presented it to the proud parents as a small token of his esteem.

Since then, of course, that particularly intricate weave of the English social fabric called ‘local justice’, designed originally by Richard the Lionheart, has been unpicked by chimpanzees. Our ivy-covered 17th-century courthouse has been flogged off. Now we have to travel 15 miles across difficult country and explain ourselves to a total stranger.

I changed position from Downward Facing Dog to the Plough. In the Plough you do a shoulder stand then lower your legs and touch the floor behind your head with your toes. It’s a difficult posture to do well because it puts a strain on the neck vertebrae. You often see it done extremely well, and held for minutes at a time, however, in Californian porn movies.

The chatter from either side ceased as I assumed the Plough and I sensed them scrutinising my inverted posture with the meticulous seriousness of cognoscenti. ‘I wish I could do that,’ said the one who fell in love with the man who stole her car. She sounded sincere. The other threw back her head and laughed like the wounded horse in Picasso’s ‘Guernica’. ‘If I did that for my Tony,’ she yelled, ‘he’d think it was Christmas come early.’ Then it was her friend’s turn to collapse with mirth on the mat.

I wasn’t going to be drawn. If I’m doing the Plough I have to concentrate. There is a checklist to run through. You have to make sure your shoulders are relaxed and kept well away from the ears. You have to broaden your ribcage, suck in your solar plexus, soften your navel and, if necessary, the anus. You have to lengthen the toes and focus your awareness on the rise and fall of your breath. The mental image of Tony’s surprise and delight on seeing his girlfriend smiling up at him from the Plough position was intrusive and unhelpful.

‘You know what Tony’s like,’ she said, archly. ‘Yeah,’ said the other, half nervously and half enviously. ‘He’d make a right pig of himself.’

That’s the trouble with our gym. Not enough space between things. The music, on the other hand, is fantastic.