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There's these two fellas, and they're always at the gym. You can tell. They're both built like a child's bubble depiction of a man. One of them's called Nick, and the other's called Jamie. I only happen to know this because they refer to each other's first names about once every sentence. How are things going, Jamie? They're not too bad, Nick. How are things with you? Pretty simple thanks, Jamie. I guess they must be here pretty much every night of the week, because I never fail to see them. I could come on a weekend and I'd probably be safe, but I doubt that's because they don't go. It's more to do with time factors: at the weekend, there's roughly ten hours of potential gym time, whereas during the week there's about four, due to work, and most people like to be home before eight, what with dinner and decent TV, so in practice that leaves only three.
Anyway, Nick and Jamie, they like to chat, in between strapping bar weights onto the weights machines, something that enables them to chest press more than the manufacturers thought possible. And these two guardians of the floor, they look at me like a workman might view a kid in the playground. They see me as worthless in my present form, but aware of my hidden potential as well. They know I could join them one day. That I've made the first step. That I've actually come to the gym and I've done so, on a regular basis, for the last six or seven months of my life, and in two, maybe three or four years, I could be like them, I could be one of their apprentices, one of their scrawny little dogsbodies who goes around setting up the bar weights and fetching them bottles of water in return for their expertise.
I choose to ignore them, keeping my head down and my gaze directly forward. It's the best way to keep good with these people. Evasion is okay at the gym. Down the street, it's bad etiquette, but in the gym it's fair game. Concentration, it's deemed too important. These people, they're zoning, they're lost in a maelstrom of counting and breathing techniques, they can't stop to acknowledge an acquaintance.
Anyway, I'm here doing my leg curls, three sets of fifteen at sixty kilos, and they come over, for no reason other than to have a breather from their three reps on the chest press, and this is what Jamie comes out with: She was doing it all, Nick. I couldn't believe some of the things she was doing. I catch about four in every five words: enough, anyway, to work out the remainder. And get this. My shins scream out the last of the curls. My friend Marky, he has it all on his phone. The whole thing, Nick. The whole performance.
Just then, the music comes back to the speakers: a hi-NRG remix of a tune best left to the eighties. You'll have to come and see it. I manage to catch the gist of what they're saying, but I soon lose them as the music gathers pace. Still, I have a feeling I might know what they're talking about. This is the score: we live in a town of ten thousand. As such, it's fairly intimate. Rumours, or rather gossip, travel fast. And this particular rumour, the one that I'm thinking of, and the one that I'm guessing they might be discussing, gained prominence with a police notice in the local paper. Or so someone told me. You don't know whether to believe half the stuff people tell you, even something as refutable as this. These smalltown fabulists, they don't care much for covering their footsteps: if it suits the purposes of their story, then a Mars bar costs fifty dollars; and it doesn't matter that there's proof to the contrary with just a walk to your local shop - they're happy to buy into their own story.
Anyway, there's this girl, or so I was led to believe, and she's about fourteen years old, maybe younger, and she's always at the local parties, hanging around with both the late teens and all the twenty-something rejects who never grew up or found friends in their age group. And every time she fancies a bunk-up, this girl, she'll check first that the person's got a condom, and if they say no, then she'll be forced to refuse; but if they show disappointment and a hankering for more, then she'll give them a private showing, a special performance that they can enjoy behind closed doors. And she's done this quite a few times, apparently, or so Deep Throat chose to inform me; and, naturally enough, the reaction of most gents is to whip out their mobile phones and record the private viewing. For there can be nothing of greater kudos than to come in on a Monday morning and show your workmates, or even your schoolmates, the success of your weekend adventures. But these videos, they've garnered some attention, from the police and the authorities and the contrarians in the local area, who believe it might be wrong for a forty-year-old man to look at a fourteen-year-old schoolgirl completely naked. And they remain in the minority - that's certainly true - but they've still got the power to kick up a fuss.
With this in mind, I finish my leg curls, and look down to the list of operations: the lat pulldown left, as well as the dumbbell press and the calf raise, all to be done before half-time. There's no order, so I choose to move on to the calf raise. That way I can be closer to the talkers, the HGH brothers, and although I hate the calf raise - it pains me to carry so much weight on my shoulders - needs must at this current juncture. Strapping a towel around my neck, placing the pin in the correct weight, I start moving those heels up and down.
The two self-proclaimed gym-floor custodians, they're both laughing quite uproariously at the moment. I don't think she had any idea what she was doing, Nick. To them, it must be somewhat extraordinary, to ever think of the tragedy that could lead to such a scene - that a young girl, fourteen years of age, might need to prostitute her body for a sense of self-esteem. But these people, they're cut off from rounded discussion. The only opinions they might hear are simply echoes of their own prejudice and bias. No one dares say anything different round here - if you do, then you might as well leave and take your frustrations with you. Really, I don't think she did, Nick. You should have seen it.
There's a woman, about ten feet away, who shares my need to listen in, wearing the same frown that she always does - a look of disdain for all that surrounds her. This woman, I despise her greatly. Every time she's here, there's never any attempt to break into sweat, there's never a single breath that's any faster than normal. Two minutes, maybe, on the rowing machine, and each movement as slow as rigor mortis. And that's it. That's all she ever musters. She'll then go to the gym mat, stretch her legs rather feebly, maybe a sit up, or an upward dog; and then, on the rare occasion that she's feeling dynamic, there'll be a couple of reps on a weights machine; but no weights, mind, nothing quite as strenuous as that. You have to wonder why it is that she comes here. Twenty minutes and then she's off for a little catnap. Someone should tell her that it's pointless. Two minutes rowing ten metres: that's not exercise; that's not even a warm-up.
My wife found it hilarious, Nick. She couldn't stop laughing. She must have watched it over two or three times. I almost can't believe what I'm hearing. He showed it to his wife. He showed it to his wife and his wife, she found it hilarious. That sentence alone, it disgusts me. And so too, the old woman. I can see her creasing her eyes, with haughty disgust, before returning to her torturous activity. How could a wife find it hilarious? It's beyond me. This is a wife, a potential mother - probably not even potential, probably active - and she can watch this sort of filth and find it funny. Not only that, but to demand further viewings? What led us to become so immune? These videos, they get bandied about, watched almost daily, bluetoothed and shared across borders, and it's although we expect these things to be factory-produced and provided for our own amusement. If they're real, it doesn't matter. Our priorities, they're becoming lost: we're collecting for our own self-aggrandisement. Collecting simply for the praise of our peers. This Marky fella: he's the worst. Storing the videoclip, and then screening it, to the sound of macho cheering.
Fifteen reps of the calf raise and I take a break and wipe the sweat from my moistened brow.
Maybe I was too quick to presume the worst of these people. I shouldn't be so judgmental, should I? She was doing it all. The whole performance. This could be anything. This could be any manner of female performance. Yet, almost instantly, I narrowed it down to sex. And more than that, I made a stab at what it could be. A fourteen-year-old pseudo-ecdysiast. Of all things, an underage stripper. I'm so desperate to hear word of this story, that I'm hearing it in innocent phrases. I don't think she had any idea of what she was doing. This could be a kid, a two-year-old kid, doing some dance steps, or something similar. It could even be Marky's kid. On stage, playing the recorder, making a fool of herself, in a good way, in a way that made her seem cute and happy for the attention.
The bubblemen, they've now left, and they've moved on to the realm of the free weights. I'm alone, stranded in the corner, wondering if my calves really need this, or if I should find something else. I feel dehydrated and so I take my empty bottle and go to refill it at the silver fountain. There's someone already there. He looks a little peeved that, of all the moments to pick, I've chosen to replenish my Powerade bottle at the same time that he's there. He deliberately takes his time, letting the water run off when he's finished, just in case he wants a little more, something that causes the fountain to overflow onto a four-way down below. Still, it's not his fault that such a hazard exists. I doubt, though, if he really cares. I doubt if anyone round here really cares about the danger.
I fill up.
The water tastes slightly fruity, tinged as it is with the strange blue isotonic flavouring of the plastic's previous contents. Taking a seat on one of the benches, the ones reserved for the use of dumbbells, I sit watching a girl, as she marches up and down on the stepper, wearing a smile so out of place here that I get lost in it for a second. I know her. She works at the garage. But rather than acknowledge my measly presence, she chooses to look the other way. It's time, I think, for the treadmill: time to incinerate my thoughts into dust.
Maybe I was right. Maybe it was about sex. But that's not to say it can't be harmless. It could have been a stripper, a proper stripper; one that was a hired for a pal on their bucks night. She could have been a little new to the denuding experience: full of ideas, but without the proper training. What would be the harm in that? They've paid for the service and the right to have it filmed and, I guess, if they want to show it to their mates, then it's no different, really, than an uncle showing his slide show from Naples. Or it could be a clip from a porn film, a particularly tongue in cheek look at sexual intercourse. What would be the harm in that? I guess nothing.
I happen to pass them as I proceed to the running machine, catching a sample of their new conversation. You should have seen it, Nick. You should have seen some of the things I was doing. Alpha-maling. Once again. Jamie talking himself up; and Nick stroking his chin, arms folded, biceps squeezed. She deserved it. The tone of his voice sounds harsh. I think she might have realized it once I'd finished. But she deserved it, Nick. She really did deserve it. It could be anything. It could be any application of comeuppance; I realise that. But it's so hard not to assume in this context. It's so hard not to assume the very worst. Because they're thugs. These people, they're thugs. That's why they come here. That's why they do it. They come here to exert their physical might and assert control over the town's rangy minions. They do it for the sense of power. They do everything for some total sense of power.
I'm different. Me, I come here to forget. All those stresses and recurring reminders, I come here to drop them off, to try and lose them. Immediately after work, with a mind that's beset by the same prosaic and nagging worries, I come here to think of nothing. Nothing at all. That's why I do it. That's the one and only reason. And if I'm getting healthy, then that's just a nice side-effect. I'm here to empty my mind and feel free. And there's other people who are doing the exact same; you can see them. Every time you look up, they'll be staring at you, or off in to the distance, their gaze one of tired contentment, their thoughts so happily contained and subdued by their workout, it's blissful to see them.
Right now, it's time to start forgetting. I can't be dealing with the Jamies of this world and their need for retribution. I need to start sprinting, uphill, the incline set to three, maybe five or so minutes, so that my thoughts are just a breeze, a simple breeze, one that's interrupted only occasionally by numbers and thoughts of rehydration.
That's what I aim for. As long as I'm here, expending my energy, pushing myself to the edge of my limits, there'll be no bragging Jamie and no cackling wife; there'll be no old men looking at naked, naïve schoolgirls. There'll just be a breeze. A quiet breeze.
I start sprinting. I start running up that hill, chasing freedom. I start feeling that girl turn to dust.
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