The Free Gift


I made my 50th visit to the gym yesterday: half a century of work-outs since joining early this year. 50 is a significant number. In 24 days I will turn 50 years old. But in honour of my 50th gym visit the nice man at the reception counter gave me a gift. It was a meaningless trinket but I appreciated the thought.

50 visits: fine, let’s mark it by all means. 50 years old is not fine. A reminder isn’t needed in regards to half a century of life on this planet. I am not exactly embracing that milestone.

That incessant advert keeps turning up on the television: the one where some aging British B celebrity is selling funeral insurance for the over 50s. From £5 a month I can leave something behind for my loved ones. And I don’t have to visit my GP, no health questions and I get a free Parker pen just for enquiring. Mrs Head smirks every time the advert comes on the telly. I pretend I am too old and deaf to notice.

Meanwhile back at the gym, I open the gift: it is the latest issue of a well known men’s magazine. Not THAT kind of magazine, dear readers, rather one that focuses on articles such as

20 Abs-Busting Exercises,

What Women REALLY Want

and Protein Shakes- We Test Tell Them All.

I like my gym but I am the odd one out there. It is a young person’s dominion, full of fit 20 somethings; all toned and rock hard. I have identified only two or three other members who are older than me and they don’t seem to attend that regularly. At five sessions a week I have become a curiosity, a thorn amongst roses, if you will. In that degree everyone seems to know me. The staff all greet me by name when I walk down the stairs from the street and into the basement gym in the bowels of the great hotel once owned by a man who went down with the Titanic.

They check in with regularity as I sweat away on the rowing machine or treadmill. I picture them in the backroom watching me, worrying in huddled whispers that the old fat man will have a heart attack in the middle of the gym. That wouldn’t be good for business. One of them will walk past and casually ask how the school is going. I nod and smile breathlessly not having the stamina for a conversation. I know what they’re thinking: How could an ambulance ever get a stretcher down the steep stairs beneath the hotel?

50 minutes of cardio work later I held for the sauna. 50 is a significant number these days. The sauna is full and I squeeze in (literally) to get a seat on the hot wooden benches. Two American tourists, using the gym as hotel guests sit in complimentary white robes and slippers discussing the English music festival scene. Another steaming bather is flipping through a copy of the same magazine I was given on entry. “50 visits?” I offer as I indicate the magazine in his hands. He nods and continues reading.

He is young and toned and 25 and is reading an article proclaiming that the Brazilian or Hollywood is out and a full bloom of pubic hair is making a fashionable come back. I remember them first time around. I am not getting old, I am retro.

At some point, when I wasn’t watching, I went from being the younger to the older generation. I strike up a conversation with the magazine reading 20 something, pointing to the muff article and telling him, I remember them first time around. “I’ve seen you in here a few times,” he politely retorts, changing the subject from the picture of Kate Moss’ ounce of Old Holborn on the page in front of us. “You work hard for an older guy.”

He laughs to emphasise the remark was meant as banter but the fact he recognises me reminds me how out of place I am in this place far below the posh hotel.

I feel the need to tell him “I don’t feel old,” as I rise from the bench, joints cracking like a bowl of Rice Crispies as I do so. I tell him it all reminds me of that Pink Floyd lyric “And then one day you find ten years have got behind you.”

“Pink who?” he says and turns the page. It is an article about the Falkland Islands and the threat of the area becoming a new flashpoint, 30 years after the original conflict. I don’t have the fortitude to tell him I remember the first one.  I slink out and go off to order my free pen, just for enquiring.

In the shower, I hear one of the gym staff calling my name and asking if I am ok.

I am singing softly:

So you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it’s sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again.
The sun is the same in a relative way but you’re older,
Shorter of breath and one day closer to death.

Every year is getting shorter never seem to find the time.
Plans that either come to naught or half a page of scribbled lines
Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way
The time is gone, the song is over,
Thought I’d something more to say.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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