Under ‘large floral patterned chamber pot, used once, slightly damaged, £5 ono’ I came across ‘Abmaster stomach exerciser, boxed, unwanted gift, £10.’ I’d been looking out for a stomach exerciser in the small ads for a long time, so I dialled the number. A small inarticulate child answered. Was the Abmaster still for sale? There was the sound of laboured breathing, then she went away, and after a while an adult male came to the phone. I repeated the question. There was a long contemplative silence. He didn’t know nothing about no Abmaster, he said, then he too went away. Next a woman came to the phone. Obviously the dynamo of the family, this businesslike woman assured me that the Abmaster was indeed still for sale and she told me how to get there.
Her directions led me to a farm beside a bend in the road that is known locally as Pooh Corner. It’s called Pooh Corner because the road there is always covered in liquid cow manure, the result of a herd of Friesians crossing the road there four times a day, twice there and twice back, to be milked. The woman selling the Abmaster said she and her family lived in the caravan in the farmyard.
The farmyard, I saw as I stepped out of the car, was inches deep in a mixture of rainwater and cattle slurry. There was no high or dry access to the caravan’s door; I simply had to paddle through the muck. After a few paces I could feel it oozing coldly into my shoes via the lace-holes. A pair of slurry-caked rough collies came slinking across the yard to check me out. One had one startlingly light-blue eye and one smoke-grey one. Otherwise the dogs were a uniform mud colour. What colour their coats were underneath was impossible to say. The foremost collie was straining forward to sniff my trousers when the caravan door opened and a man put his head out and growled at it. ‘I’ve come about the Abmaster,’ I said. He motioned me to follow him inside. I was relieved to see him, because it has been my experience that farm collies are inclined to nip.
There was nothing to wipe my feet on as I went in. I stooped to take off my shoes, but straightened up again when I saw that areas of the caravan floor were caked in slurry. When I tried to prevent the dogs following me inside, the man told me to ‘let the buggers go’, and in they trotted, pleased to be there.
The ‘missus’ wasn’t in, said the man. But before she went out she’d got the ‘whatsit’ out of the box and screwed it together so I could try it out before committing myself. I followed him through the caravan, which smelled strongly of cow dung, and into the bedroom at the far end. A stomach exerciser is a light cradle of aluminium tubes that rocks back and forth supporting the head and upper body while you perform sit-ups and abdominal crunches. It relieves pressure on the lower back and helps you to focus your effort on specific muscle groups. It’s the sort of thing I generally use once, then spend the rest of the year being reproached by it.
It looked in good condition. The man looked sceptically at it. The collies jumped up on the bed and looked down at it from their grandstand position. Their wet slurry paw prints were all over the eiderdown and pillows. But far from throwing them off the bed, the man seemed not to notice them. ‘I’ve been looking forward to seeing how it works,’ he said ruminatively. And judging by their expectant faces, so had the collies.
I was reluctant to get down on the floor to try it out, though. The bedroom floor was encrusted with mud and I was wearing a clean shirt. On the other hand, I didn’t want to let my audience down. I lay down on the caravan floor, inserted my upper body into the cradle and did 20 sit-ups. It squeaked a bit, but was otherwise fine. After I’d finished, the man said, ‘Well, I’ve seen some rubbish in my time, but that takes the biscuit. What’s the point of doing that, then?’ To strengthen my stomach muscles, I told him. He lifted up his shirt and vest to expose his own lily-white, quite trim stomach and thumped it, hard, drawing quizzical looks from the dogs. ‘Hard work, that’s all you need to keep in shape. Hard work. Something you youngsters these days don’t know nothing about.’
I did 20 crunches, 20 sit-ups on the left and right sides, 20 sit-ups with both legs raised, then I stood up and paid him. ‘I don’t know what the world’s coming to,’ he said, sadly pocketing the tenner.