I’m so used to travelling to the hospital by now that the car drives there itself. Two roundabouts, four sets of lights, swerves, chicanes, zebras, staff arriving on shift in a steady stream, patients drifting the roadway like clouds; a world of purpose melding with a world of the lost. In the strong early sun the features that endear this outpost of the NHS to me are all still present. Gangs of smokers, babes in arms, dressing gowns flapping cluster the entrances. Consultants in suits rattle into their mobiles as they stride the stairs. Ancillary staff, mouths full of crisps and coffee, dot the summer grass.
Along the corridors which run back from that entrance-framing and slightly frightening full-length portrait of Nye Bevan, founder of health free at the point of need, the crowds surge. There is purpose here. Overweight administrators roll Tesco trolleys of paper files, patients are on sticks, the tattooed limp, there are mad bastards in gaping gowns. Heading for the clinics are the aged in catalogue shoes, the young on their career paths to glory, well-meaning volunteers, new patients, returning visitors, the don’t know what work is, the can’t be bothered.
I’m in the hands of physiotherapy, the latest referral in the Service’s attempts to still my synovial cyst. I’m signed on for a series of sessions in the gym. It’s called back2basics or something equally uninspiring. I ask at reception and the woman there isn’t sure what it’s actually called either. You wait here, love, they’ll call you when they’re ready.
Stoically I sit myself among the limping and the lame, the wheelchair bound, the stick bearers, the becrutched; those carried here, and those who stumbled in on their own. Are these to be my fellow gym mates? Nope. They’re real patients around whom hope drains away like sand. On the wall are adverts for support equipment including an ergonomic aluminium exoskeleton that could have been designed for Rocket Man.
With my pain in retreat I feel I should be at the David Lloyd not here. Inside it’s like being back in school. A 50s set-up of varnished wooden wall bars, beams, ropes hanging from a high light-filled ceiling. All that’s missing is a vaulting horse. In its stead stands a fan and next to it a water-cooler. Be sure to drink from here often, instructs the instructor, ice-cold mouthfuls in cardboard cones.
There are nine of us with everyone on the surface looking fit enough to run for charity. In a side room there’s a mad bugger wearing camouflage shorts and covered with tattoos at a density thicker than burning tyres. He has slash scars across the side of his head and a face that would frighten ships. Staff are measuring the strength of his grip. He once, I imagine, could crush scaffold poles and punch holes in reinforced doors. Is he with us? No, thank god, he’s not.
We are each given a set of forms to complete which, in addition to the usual identity questions, ask us how we feel about the lives we live. Write down an activity you find hard to do and measure how much pain is involved on a scale of 1 to 10. The guy next to me, who looks like Nick Hewer from The Apprentice, has written Harry Belafonte down as his name. I’m sure this can’t be right but I let it pass. His hard to do activity is picking up pieces of toast from the floor. I think for a bit then put down shopping at Homebase as mine.
We set to. There’s stretching, floor mat work reminiscent of Pilates, circuits, sessions on a treadmill, stepping on and off a bench while holding a fairly heavy medicine ball. Do this in your own time and at your own level, yells the instructor. A guy in a Superman t-shirt is running at sprint pace on the machine while a woman in a loose-fitting ensemble sourced from Laura Ashley has given up and is collapsed at the side waiting for world to slow down.
I crack on, sweat coming out of me like rain. It’s the old days back. Step up, breathe, step back. Chuck the ball at the wall. Catch it. Squat, stand, leap in the air. That’s it, shouts the instructor, go for it. I do.
After twenty minutes or so we are told to stop. We cluster in a heat-ridden clump around the gym’s single fan. That’s given you all an idea of what we’ll be doing over the next five weeks, Norman tells us. I think that’s his name. No mention of backs. Amazingly mine still feels fine.
Out at the lockers a guy who reminds me of Tony from the Sopranos tells me he’d normally run a mile rather than exercise. But running a mile is exercise, I reply. Guess it is, he says, unfolding a crushed jacket from his brand-new red Cardiff City rucksack. But I did enjoy it all. Sweat drips off my nose and fans out like Australia across my back. Me too.