One thing I miss most about the closure of the old Leisure Centre swimming pool is the changing room badinage and those who over the years have become friends. True enough, in a small place like Monmouth, we occasionally pass each other on the street, but a nod and a smile proves a ghostly reminder.
Respectable pedestrians on the pavement, but within the privacy of the changing room something else.
There was Sirius, an elegant, skeletal 85 year-old, who never bothered to dry his toes and calves with a towel. Instead he’d stretch himself out on the bench and position them beneath an electric hand-dryer: Algy, who once worked in Rockfield Studios and helped produce The Stone Roses: Marmaduke, who arrived each day with the regularity of a cuckoo clock. You’d first hear a scuffle as a bicycle pushed it’s way through the door. In winter, he’d be muffled up like a medieval Mr Toad, his eyes encased by goggles, his head kept warm by a vivid red C14th coife: Ginger, who’d enter with a bounce whenever Liverpool won and wore a weary smile when they didn’t: Tom, a country boy in a small, modern estate, always ready to advise on the best ways of killing a magpie or indeed any rural pest. Conversation was varied and rich. A small coven of three weirdly owned Skodas and would talk about distributers and parts of a car I’d never heard of before. Marmaduke was an astronomer, who talked with equal authority on local archaeology.
The names are clearly fictitious, the people real, each of us eccentrics in our own different ways but now adrift in picturesque streets.
It was one of the reasons I joined Monmouth Boys Gym and Pool, less to become a bronzed man-god than the fact I missed the non-consequential banter between strangers; easy, uncomplicated.
The sauna I found disconcerting. Silence and steam is comforting, the conversations less so. One woman talked non-stop about her daughter's pony, another about her son's disappointing grades. One man talked about an upcoming triathlon.
The changing room was equally disconcerting––At first. The body furniture, If I'm to be honest.
It put me in mind of those online sites that sell steamy romantic novels. They tend to have covers that look much like another: ripped young men staring moodily into the middle distance. Some wear Stetsons but little else, others have a woman draped around them doing interesting things with long, coloured nails. These new, temporary strangers in my life looked like book cover models, many preoccupied by triathlons, marathons and relative track speeds.
I felt like a chubby Corinthian surrounded by Spartans until the norms of the changing room once again proved universal. After a particular gruelling session in the Gym, two others joined me in the shower room. Both were in their late seventies but looked much younger. One had been wheezing with exertion, balancing on some kind of wobbly ball and pumping iron at the same time. The other had been riding the bicycle at a speed approaching warp factor 9.
They had nothing but encouragement for my own feeble performance, friendly, wanting nothing more than to be generous. I may have been prejudiced against perfection, afraid perhaps. A week had sorted it out. Old or young, Spartan or non-Spartan, the urge to wind down and talk about nothing to strangers seems nigh universal.
No one has talked about Skodas as yet.