LOOKING around my local parade of shops, it seems the businesses in the ascendency are pushing drugs.
There isn’t a butcher, baker or candlestick maker but there are seven purveyors of caffeine from ceramic and paper cups. Three gyms where you can get your fill of endorphins are within a five-minute slow jog of the front door.
Normally I jog right past these places but now I happen to need what they’ve got: a cross trainer for some low-impact cardio training.
I only require this for about two months so just want a two-month membership where all I do is roll in and pump my arms and legs like a demented puppet on a string for an hour or so at a time. You’d think it would be easy to arrange such a service, but it isn’t.
They don’t want to sell me access to a machine for a few weeks, they want to sell me a lifestyle.
They’re determined to sign me up for 12 months, or six months minimum, with a joining fee and personal training sessions and access to their array of classes and dietary advice and a rucksack and a free padlock for the locker.
I politely tell them I don’t need some lad following me around telling me to keep my back straight, but I may as well be talking to the wall, which in such establishments is usually a giant mirror.
The first gym guy told me that my shoulders were hunched and my arms thin. He said his gym wasn’t a leisure centre but a training centre — one of only five in London!
They would therefore train me and have me looking presentable in a matter of months. I told him I don’t care about that. I’m as vain as the next dude, but I’ve got a girlfriend and she’s stuck with me.
The next place was offering a three-day free pass for me to check it out. Nice one… or so I thought. I arrived down there to meet a confused young bloke. To be fair, the confusion was my fault.
I couldn’t find my bag so left the house with my gear inside a picnic hold-all — it was all I could find at short notice, okay — so he was taken aback to see me rooting through a ground blanket, some plastic knives and forks and Perspex champagne flutes for my printed pass.
So, once we establish that I know my own name and what year it is, we sit down to talk business. £47 a month for 12 months. £53 for six months. £50 joining fee. I tell him that sounds quite high.
He goes off to speak to his manager; comes back and tells me he can drop the joining fee to a tenner. I say drop the monthly fee to £30 and we might have a deal. He says the monthly rates are set by head office. I say they’re still quite high.
Then he offers me a shedload of spinning classes and the like into the bargain. I’m about to say that I can’t do that, I’m just here for a bit of rehab but I learnt my rehab lesson in the last place.
Mention that word and you’ve got physio-supervised personalised sessions coming at you — part of your ‘package!’
I tell him I’ll think about it.
A few moments pass…
“Okay… what are you thinking now?”
I’m thinking he needs to get out of the way and let me at the cross trainer so I can tread the air like a cartoon character who has just run over a cliff but hasn’t realised it yet.
“I’ll have a look at the sums and get back to you.”
“Okay, because it’s not that much money.”
I’m glad he thinks this. There’s clearly more money in gyms than newspapers.
Eventually I get downstairs to a room the size of infinity thanks to the mirrors. I start cross-training up a storm, while others nearby do likewise, all the while spilling beads of sweat onto the chrome for the next person to enjoy.
Overhead are a bank of TVs showing different stuff with the sound down. Chart-pop booms loud from the speakers. A bunch of big geezers on whey heave and holler under free weights.
There is no natural light and the air is being recycled by some vents in the ceiling. We pound and pump on, putting out watts, pushing pedals, running hard, going nowhere.
What am I thinking now? About the alternative; about tyres on tarmac, the wind on the skin, the rise and descent of the road, the feeling of flight and speed and escape.
I’m thinking about jogging through the Heath, the mind wandering everywhere and then going quiet as you settle into a rhythm. And by the end how you feel like every cell that comprises you is full of fresh air and anew.
I’m thinking: how could anybody who has a choice pick all this over that? I look forward to the day when I can get off the machine, pack up my towel and picnic bag and step outside.