The Interpreter

More than 40 languages are spoken by the children at my school. English is (sometimes) one of them. The children quickly become immersed in their adopted culture and language and as is the case with the young; pick up a new language at rate far ahead of their parents.

Luckily, many of our 84 staff speak at least one of these community languages and are able to act as a translator for me when I need to communicate technical issues to parents with still a very cursory understanding of English.

One 6 year old was brought to me today by a rather embarrassed teacher (unrelated fact: she is from Poland). The young child was from Sri Lanka and his mother, suitably new to English so that she needed to support of my Tamil-speaking teaching assistant in order to make sure she understood everything that I needed to convey.

Her young son, for the second time in the past month had exposed himself to another child. This is not as unusual as it sounds and happens a few times a year. Usually it is a gesture used by children to gain a reaction from their peer and thankfully only rarely a reflection of distressed behaviour.

The mother sat across from me in my glass box and stared intently at me as I told the interpreter what I wanted her to relay.

“Tell her that her son exposed himself to another child.”

The interpreter looked at me rather vacant and it was obvious that she herself was struggling to understand my intent.

I needed to extrapolate and said bluntly, “He showed another child his penis.”

The interpreter quickly looked away and at the floor as the reality dawned on her.

She nodded and drew breath, seemingly summoning the strength to pass on the message.

Her few sentences in Tamil sparked an animated conversation which lasted several minutes. I listened passively to the exchange. Both seemed confused as they chattered away pointing at the young boy and gesturing to the empty spaces around them.

Eventually, silence. The interpreter turned to me and said, “Mother says there is some mistake she never sends him to school with peanuts”.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Wedding Reception Conversation

A few weeks ago I found myself deep in the Essex countryside attending the wedding of two old friends/colleagues. They had been a couple for a long while and indeed we had worked together in another time, in another school, in another part of London. Both are fine teachers with unique strengths. Their early courtship was kept private from their colleagues (and myself), harboured safely in the clandestine glances and nuances of language that I never seem to decipher.

Indeed when the prospective groom came to see me in my West London office, in order to finally apprise their love to their fellow professionals, I thought it was a joke. I laughed heartily until I realised my male colleague was not laughing with me. He was merely smiling.

Fast forward 5 years and I am in a tastefully decorated marquee on an Essex farm drinking pink champagne and catching up with former colleagues from that West London school. One had moved on to a village school in Hampshire, another was working for a left wing think tank. Our former senior teacher had left teaching all together to raise a family in the French countryside. It was the newly provincial mother I found myself talking to over my sixth glass of champagne.

“I have been reading your blogs, but you need to write more of them,” she shouted in my ear over the sound of the band playing an old Motown classic.

It has been just over a year since a childhood acquaintance inspired me, via her own blog, to start a journal of my school’s adventures as it moved from failure to success. It was true then and now that I wanted the blog to be an exercise in catharsis, a chance for me to release some of the inner demons knocking about inside my head. If others found that notion entertaining so be it. The first rule of Head Lines was it is cathartic. The second rule of Head Lines is: It is Cathartic.

So I make no apologies for the infrequency of recent entries. I don’t think that this is down to a lesser need for inner cleansing but more to do with busy schedules and shifting goals. The period occurring in the few months after school’s success has ushered in a range of personal physical changes. In January I quit smoking. In February I joined a gym. In April I was diagnosed with diabetes. In May I turned 50 years old.

So the outward looking symbolism of the blog’s first year appears to slowly giving way to a more introspective theme. So be it. As if to reinforce the notion the diabetes clinic has told me that I should abandon my trusted size 11 Doc Martens in favour of something kinder to my feet. (Remember, dear readers, equally at home marching through a period of transition as well as…well…at home in the bottom of the wardrobe).

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Boy with the John Lennon Glasses

Last week, my youngest daughter struggling with an essay she was writing for school asked me, “What is irony?”

I struggled to define the notion but was able to provide her with several examples: namely the lyrics to the Alanis Morrisette  song.

“Imagine an old man had worked his whole life to keep his head above water,” I offered like some great mountaintop guru, “He buys a lottery ticket and wins £100 million. The next day- boom- he drops dead. That’s irony.”

I know, I know. The pedagogists out there are screaming upon reading this: “An example is not a definition- schoolboy error!” In reality the best definition of irony is using an opposite to covey the truth.  But equally one could apply that to sarcasm and sarcasm is something that percolates deep into the British sense of humour.

Once upon a time, I was a teacher. In fact I was a teacher in the school we now live next door to. At the time (mid 1980s) I was living in the East End and commuting to the six-storey Edwardian school building now adjacent. A quarter of a century later I am living here in the heart of theatre land, in the shadow of the six storey Edwardian school and commuting to a school in the East End. Ironic.

Memory affords me the comfort of thinking I was a very good teacher. I was well liked by parents, colleagues and most importantly, the children I taught. I had a reputation as a strict disciplinarian but with a cheeky sense of humour. My love for sport permeated my work and my pupils would frequently find themselves with me on the rooftop playground; six storey above the streets of Theatre Land.  There we would play football or cricket in the confines of the school’s zenith. There we would have to be perpetually carefully not to let the ball rise above the twelve foot high iron railed fence that ran around the perimeter of the roof; lest it carried over the edge of the school and came crashing down on passers-by.

On occasion the zeal of the game would supersede the twelve foot rule. At those times the ball would indeed fly high in the air and we would all stop and stare as the moment slipped into slow-motion action. It would curl outwards, hanging in the wind with just a hint that it might safely return to the rooftop pitch before disappearing over the side of the building. The unrelenting background noise of the city would never afford us the chance to hear the ball as it hit the street below. Indeed the Twelve Feet Rule specified that whichever child had last touched the ball- sending it on its fateful journey onto the street below, had to accompany me downstairs on the retrieving trip.

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I cannot begin to count the number of times I made that long journey down and then back up the six flights of stairs between the rooftop playground and the street below. Each time I envisaged reaching the street below and finding a passerby bleeding and dazed, holding the tennis ball that had plummeted unannounced from sixty feet above. Each time, thankfully, I would reach the street with the offending pupils and we would find the ball laying harmlessly in the gutter.

Twenty five years have passed. Those ten year olds of the day are now in their mid-30s and have children of their own. I see them as I walk the streets of my neighbourhood and I am heartened by the fact that they take the time to stop and chat and share their memories of primary school.

Last week, I walked out the street door of our block of flats and immediately sought to negotiate my way across the street. I paused outside the neighbouring building; the same six storey Edwardian school where I had started my teaching career all those years ago. A young man with a child stopped me, calling across the pavement, “Sir, sir.” I stopped and immediately recognised a former pupil. He was twenty years older than when I had known him but the facial characteristics allowed me to immediately place him. If further proof of his identity was necessary, the young boy at his side was a carbon copy of his father in his youth. He even had the same small, John Lennon style glasses. I stared at the child as I exchanged small talk with his father, eventually having to offer the observation, “Your boy looks exactly like you did at that age.”

At this point the father employed his son into the conversation, explaining who I was and how we knew each other. The child’s face changed, he became genuinely enthusiastic about our exchange now as I began to replay stories of his father when he was a child. The father embellished by sharing his memories of me and the great games of football, rounders or cricket we would enjoy. “This man was MY teacher, “he explained to his son, “And he was a bully.”

Bully. I am certain that is what he said. It was that single word in the flow of conversation that is half heard. That single word only partially digested but repeated in the sinus and windpipe, foul and lingering on the palate.

The child heard it too. I saw it in his face which melted from enthusiastic to forlorn. He looked up at me disapprovingly. Reflected in the lens of his John Lennon style glasses I saw where we were. Glinting in the refracted, disappointing, weak, London summer sun I saw the rooftop playground in the child’s lens. We were standing in the spot where the ball would come bounding down as it met the street side pavement.

So it was. My warm and comfortable images of a beloved teacher deeply seeded in the minds of hundreds of ex-pupils evaporated. I was startled. The image was one I trusted to keep me warm in the cold nights of old age.

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I looked back into the face of the father. He winked and smirked simultaneously. The Brits say they take great delight in playing the fact Americans can not read the sarcasm in their humour, the irony in their daily existence. For the most part I can. But as the pair tottered off into the swarming London pavements I wanted, but couldn’t, call after to ask if the bully tag was serious.

I stared up at the rooftop playground wondering what had hit me; just as the passers-by must have done in those mid 1980s days. The word bully had dropped on me from high, glancing off that part of my brain that holds memories, or at least holds the lies we tell ourselves to keep ourselves sane. It hurt. I touched my head and looked at fingers checking for blood. Six storey up someone had broken the Twelve Feet Rule; the one that keeps things contained and safe and controllable.

Oh the irony that the conversation happened in that very spot.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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The Venetian Diaries

Oh the irony! I am scribbling the draft of a blog on snatched hotel stationery;  at a corner table in Harry’s Bar where Hemingway wrote Across the River and into the Trees.  It is humbling. Papa himself always sat at the heavy oak corner table. The panel walls are more English than Italian. I press my cheek to the warm wood and I detect a waft of his ghostly breath.  It smells of Prosecco and a fresh peach Bellini, it smells of Aperol and gunpowder.

The barman is dressed in an art deco period white dinner jacket and black bow tie. It is 10.30am and far too early to be dressed this way. He serves us rough, broken almond shortbread and the best coffee we have had in two days. Without speaking my wife hands me more paper as I furiously write. It is like she is feeding the furnace of a steam locomotive.

Days ago the doctor confirmed I was diabetic. The unwelcome but inevitable family inheritance has come home to roost at my 50th birthday. I picture my father: confused and lengthening vacancies in between insulin injections. I think on my sister’s half amputated foot. Her organs burned out and propped in her coffin at the age of 47. I think on my maternal grandmother; sweetened blood bursting the walls of her 57 year old heart. Their genes half century ticking like a time bomb deep in my bones.

Ernest knew. Hemochromatosis. His father had it.  Oinbones showed the same symptomatic signs. He didn’t wait around. Heavy drink and see the world until the small hours of the night when he swallowed that shotgun.  He knew how the story ended because he wrote it himself.

And in this bar: Harry’s Bar, dear readers, Hemingway wrote a novel about the ages of man. He wrote about our creeping greyness and thickening blood and the lessons we learned as we think back on our youth. He wrote about seemingly meaningless acts 30 years prior that take on new meaning and symbolism as we ponder them from the vantage point of age.

Once I knew a Venetian. She was the only one I ever met. 1983: the communal payphone in the university dorm rung for me. A halting Italian accent on the other end is Paola, my roommate’s legendary friend. We call him Jarhead as he is an army brat and has lived all over the world. Memory does not afford me the story of how they met; no doubt at some sunny Mediterranean military base. Jarhead  had spoken of the girl he had met and her promise to one day show up on his doorstep in America. Now she had made good. She is at the Port Authority bus station in the city. She had made the long trip alone; across the sea from Venice. The army brat does not know. We entice him into the car with some concocted tale of an emergency situation in the city.

Paola surprised Jarhead.  His face was consistently stone and never betrayed by emotion. He cracked that night.

Paola- petite and exotic with the soul of an artist stayed for weeks. I was painting a mural on the wall outside our dorm at the time: a screaming white mask with heavy dark eyes. One night, Paola deliberately painted the sole of her right foot with the remnants from the black can and pressed the print on the wall. There it stayed for ever; or at least through 1983, reminding us that she had passed through.

And now, thirty years on, what do I remember of that dorm room? The aging lazy boy recliner we had rescued from some vacant lot, the mural outside the door and Paola’s footprint on the wall.

And now, thirty years on, I was in Paola’s city, in Pound and Maughan’s bar,  at Hemingway’s table.

An elderly American tourist shuffles past the door of Harry’s bar; white Reeboks and a baseball cap with the name of a battleship on it, “Bridge of Sighs. Not size. It’s SIGHS . You know- exasperated”

The skin of my face seems to be collapsing and collecting in my vast double chin in every photo that I review on our camera.

My wife laughs as I tell her, “ Mr Pineapple would like the Bridge of Sighs, he is naturally exasperated”. The elderly American tourists shuffle onto the Ponte della Paglia in white Reeboks and jostling to have their photo taken. Bridge of Sighs: the prisoners last view of the sea and sky before descending into the darkness of prison. How ironic thousands turn to looks at it, their backs to the sea and sky every moment since.

My feet are swollen. We walk and get lost. We stop for a coffee and get lost again. There are no cars to watch out for. The last of the cars are abandoned on the end of the long bridge Mussolini built to the mainland. Boats are the default setting for transport. Boats and feet. I scan the lapping canal water at the base of crumbling facades. I am looking for Paola’s left footprint on the wall.

The plague ravished this city. It did it time and time again between the in the 14th and 17th centuries. Half the population would eventually succumb. Venice, it seems,  has never recovered from the shock and every few meters there is a reminder of the tragic past and frailty of life. Every other shop window contains the mask of a plague doctor: black shrouded and with a long hollow beaked mask. 400 years ago the beak would be filled with herbs as a misguided science against the disease.

The city is stunningly beautiful. Built on pines driven into the mud 1600 years ago and now long petrified; the medieval homes of wealthy merchant survived while the rest of Europe burned and burned again. The crumbling plaster falls from the facades, wooden bare shutters drawn throughout the day. It is the aging beauty of Sophia Loren. Weathered and lived in, radiant and timeless.

Look closer: skulls are chiselled and sculpted into the walls. Stray cats are held in high regard. They keep the rats at bay which rules this city by night. Despite the reputation I have yet to see one and it disappoints.

We have lunch in a rough eatery in the Rialto market. I have Pasta Pescadore. I am Col Kurtz. Sell the house, sell the kids. I am never coming home.

I am reading a guide to Venice’s 400+ bridges. I coax my wife on the long walk to Ponte Delle Tette. “This I have to see,” I tell her as I relay the story of how 15th Century prostitutes would stand topless on the bridge or on nearby balconies. It seems this was a quality assurance exercise. Mrs Head reluctantly poses on the bridge in a more dignified and modest pose.

Our hotel bed is positioned facing the window, not the telly. I like it that way. A switch to the side opens the electric shutter and the lagoon is in front of us. A day of boats on shifting water remains in my inner ear and the large bed rocks with my lingering equilibrium. I shut my eyes and my sea legs wobble.

My wife is silently reading a guide to Venice Bridges. She tells me the story of the Ponte Dei Pugni: the Bridge of Fists. In the 17th Century fights on the bridge were common place and an accepted means of settling disputes. “There is a marble footprint embedded in the stone of the bridge,” she reads aloud, “to mark the spot where the fighters stood at the start of a bout.”

And so it was. I scuffed the bottom of my walking shoes, my swollen feet on the marble footprint. I pushed off of the spot with the same foot my sister had half amputated. I was a fighter. I am a fighter. I pushed off from the footprint and shadow box on the bridge. I will not succumb like Ernest did. I can change my destiny.

Paola’s footprint now forever linked on the Bridge of Fists.

I thumb through Hemingway’s Across the River and Into the Trees:

 

‘Tell me some true things about fighting.’

‘Tell me you love me.’

‘I love you,’ the girl said. ‘You can publish it in the Gazzettino if you like. I love your hard, flat body and your strange eyes that frighten me when they become wicked. I love your hand and all the other wounded places.’

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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The Test Event

There are less than 100 days until the Olympic Games come to London. I know it, the kids know it and with the amount of media hype around the landmark 100 day countdown, I imagine there are some comatose patients at University College Hospital that know it. The large custom-made clock, the one shaped like the 2012 Olympic logo (and affectionately known to Londoners as the Lisa Simpson blowjob- look at the logo for yourself and you will understand)   has been ticking away in Trafalgar Square, for the first time, displays the DAYS TO GO in double digits. Woo hoo.

You will forgive me if I seem cynical, dear readers. I didn’t start out this way, honestly. Flashback to an early summer afternoon in 2005, finishing lunch in a school I was visiting somewhere in Chelsea: an unknown teacher burst through the door breathlessly announcing that London had got the Olympics. I remember a feeling of elation and surprise we all expected Paris would get it due to Britain’s involvement in George Bush’s Second Iraq War. The elation came as it dawned on me that the greatest sporting show on earth would be coming to my home and I would be a part of it.

I was even more thrilled when in 2009 I took on my current school, deep in the heart of the East End and in the sight lines of the new stadium. Immediately, I forged every link I could with the Olympic powers. Our school was one of the first in the country to be awarded the Olympic Quality mark. In my head I harboured a great dream of our school’s children taking part in the opening ceremony. And that’s where my enthusiasm started to unravel.

I approached the organisers with a request for a set of large Olympic rings to put in the school entrance. Denied.

I approached the organisers with a request to use the Olympic rings on our school letterhead. Denied.

Denied unless we were a corporate sponsor that is. MacDonald’s, Coca Cola, Visa could all use the logo but a local school was not afforded the same opportunity. The lottery for tickets came and went and no one I know got a single seat at a single event. This was about the same time polls were being published reflecting those who lived in the shadow of The Games were feeling disenfranchised from them. Increasingly 2012 was becoming a sponsored corporate money event that had nothing to do with the city at all. Yes I was naive enough to think it would be different.

So I made a display from the posters that the organisers sent our school (instead of a set of rings). I blew up the balloons that marked the countdown from 300, 200, 100 days to go. I planned for the school to shut early and open late to accommodate the Games.

I went to the meeting called by the local government in which we were briefed on security and how it would impact on our school during The Games. We learned that staff could not drive to work, that stations would be closed and to expect journeys taking two hours longer than usual. We learned which of our children’s’ families were being watched by unknown security police.

At some point The Games became something happening to us, not for us or even with us.

But still I tried to keep positive. When 20 tickets for the Paralympics arrived at our school, we were thankful. At least a handful of the children would get the Olympic experience.

And when 16 more children were invited to take part in a Test Event at the Olympic Park; one which aimed to smooth out the kinks in a 90 days to go dress rehearsal, of course we said yes.

The bus that dropped the children off at the edge of the Olympic Park went as far as security would let it. In the pouring rain the children had to walk from there. A few were in wheelchairs and were pushed along the sparkling new pavements until…well until the pavements were no more. The park is still a building site and finishing touches are being undertaken everywhere. It was vast and windswept in the unseasonable cold rain. It had the feel of a sea-shore pier before the season had started.

The walk was compounded and complicated by the pockets of ongoing construction. The group, wheelchairs in front snaked around the back of the stadium like a train. Nearly an hour after being deposited by the bus we had arrived at the arena.

“We have a shuttle scooter for the wheelchairs,” an organiser announced.

I wanted to award a 10.0 to the man for stating the bleeding obvious.

As the event wound down to its conclusion, our staff noted some of the other schools with wheelchairs leaving the arena early. Outside 50, maybe 100 wheelchairs stood in a long line waiting for the single shuttle to take them back to the gates.

“We will need at least 10 shuttle scooters for The Games,” an organiser announced.

And so this once in a lifetime event will pass me by. I have begun to look at air flights for the period just after July 27 so we can leave this city to its party. I haven’t been invited, nor has anyone I know. It will be the neighbour’s big shindig on the other side of the wall and we can listen to the dance music and hear the merriment all night but we will never be invited in.

The school is expanding. A new extension is being built. The architect asks me what pattern I want in the brickwork. I ask him to do the Olympic Rings. It will immediately identify the date it was built for all eternity. That will be this school’s Olympic participation. That will be my addition to these Games so long-awaited. By the time the bricks are laid, the corporate sponsors will have long left town in search of the next hyper venue. The bricks will be there a century, maybe more.

 

Keep the Faith,

 

The Head

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The Skull

The smell of the breakfast cereal called Fruit Loops immediately takes me to my childhood home. We all know the power of the olfactory and its innate ability to forge a link in some cranial abyss: a link that we instantly associate with a time or a place, or both. For me, nearly 30 years removed from the land of my birth, it is Fruit Loops. The faux fruit aroma from the brightly coloured rings instantly transports me to my mother’s kitchen.

There are others, dear readers. The smell of soft whipped vanilla ice cream, of pickles fermenting in good quality olive oil, of cut grass and barbecue smoke, of the ocean: all remind me of home.

England is the smell of damp brick, of mud centuries old. It is the smell of rain and frosted breath. England smells of thick, cold air and blankets.

My daughter returned from a trip around the world last week. In less than a month she had seen sights I can never hope to in my next 50 years: the steamy streets of Kuala Lumpur, the neon deserts of Vegas, the slick shine of dolphins in Australia. On her return she eagerly distributed gifts from her suitcase. The colourful cartoon toucan on the box was unmistakable; she had brought us Fruit Loops from the golden hills of California.

And when I ate a bowl for breakfast, dear readers, it was not some industrial chemist’s interpretation of 5 fruit flavours that I savoured. No. Drawing the smell deep into my lungs (drawn slightly more efficiently having been a non smoker for 3 months now) I shut my eyes and was transported to my mother’s orange and oaken kitchen. My reminiscence was disturbed only by my youngest daughter’s observation, “These remind me of nanny’s house.”

And so the story might have ended there. Lacking conflict or resolution, it might not have been a story at all. Instead, it might have merely been an observation; a moment of illustration to be relayed in passing.

The great glass box will soon be no more. The school is being redeveloped and with it the administrative block and office that surrounds me will be transformed into something quite different in the coming months. Today we met to consider the immediate implications; where items will be stored, where office staff will be re-located during the building work. One of the Assistant Heads pointed to his jumble of teaching resources and wondered where they could be housed. I scanned the shelf and the treasures it held; a wooden marionette, a replica Eiffel Tower, a skull. A skull.

Not smell this time, dear readers; it was not the aroma or lingering odour that transported me back to my youth but the sight, the view the image of the skull on the shelf.

The summers of my youth were spent camping with my family. It was one of those purpose-built camp sites which while set in a pine forest clearing, still had electrical access and showers.  Each evening my father would build a bonfire and we would toast bread smeared with peanut butter and jam while he turned the portable black and white television to the local baseball game.

Afterwards, as darkness settled on the summer heat, the game would finish and Doctor Shock would come on the tv. He was my hero. Dr Shock’s Scream In: a cheaply made studio dungeon hosted by a local magician dressed like a corpse. Zombie make-up and hammish magic tricks would fill the gaps as he introduced the next segment of some B movie horror offering. The Crawling Hand, The Slime People, The Screaming Skull; they were titles to enthral an 8 year old.

The show would start, at least in my remembrance dictates that it started with a close up a stage skull and organ music. This was followed by a piercing scream as the show’s title would overlay the scene. The Dr Shock would be summoned from his coffin (bizarrely) by his toddler daughter Bubbles.

We would huddle around the flickering black and white telly burning our tongues on the pine smoked jam sandwiches and watch as Dr Shock stroked a live rat or pulled a rubber chicken from a hat whilst encouraging us to watch the commercial break. Then each of us would dare the other to walk to the toilet block and brave the macabre shadows that lie there in-between.

And there it was, in the Assistant Head’s office; a skull. A skull reminding me of those treasured summer nights around the campfire; a  rickety black and white portable television flicking in the dark of the forest. The sound of baseball cheers and beer jingles echoing amongst the pine trees, giving way to Dr Shock and Bubbles’ screaming skull. The warming envelope of my childhood was there on the shelf.

I pull the skull down and hold it , looking into its vacant eyes like Poor Yorick. “We will have to keep this safe,” I mutter out loud. The Assistant Head looks puzzled as he scans my face for some clue as to why the prop is any more important than the rest. “You know it is not real, don’t you?” he offers.

But I know better.

I sniff the air for a hint of burning peanut butter and jam, or pine, or even the waft of the toilet block across the campground. There is none. I hold the skull’s jaws open and make a screaming noise.

Keep the Faith,

The Head

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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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