The daily grind 1: early morning

This is the first of a few posts about what a retired person has time to get up to when other people are at work.


The alarm hastily silenced, I slide out of bed as quietly as I can, so my wife can get another half-hour’s sleep.  In the bathroom, I put on the clean shirt, underwear and socks I left on the landing last night. I will be having my shower at the gym, after aquarobics at 7.30.  I can’t find my slippers, so I gingerly descend the polished wooden stairs in stockinged feet.

It is still very dark outside as I put on the kettle. I shut the kitchen door because of the noise and get on with washing a couple of dirty pans left from last night. When the kettle boils I make tea. I can empty the dishwasher later. In the sitting-room the dog opens one unfocused-looking eye, but doesn’t stir from her basket. She is ten now, and sleeps in like a teenager.

At 7.15 I head for the gym, these days modishly described as a Wellness Club, though this seems not to have penetrated the thinking of the people who run the small cafeteria on the first floor down. The swimming-pool is also on this floor. The changing rooms are on the floor below. On the stairwell wall there is a hand-written poster saying ‘Be Stronger than your Excuses’ alongside others bearing profundities of the ‘work hard, play hard’, ‘no pain, no gain’ type. There is a poster advertising Zen classes, and one offering something called Body Jam, which I have never asked about but I hope is something you can do.

In the men’s changing-room, insipid pop music plays in the background. The room is empty, but as I am changing other people arrive, giving a courtesy ‘bom dia’ as they enter, in the Portuguese way. None of these will be doing aquarobics, however, which is mostly considered something for women and old men.

It’s a 25-metre pool, in an enclosed space like a two-storey hangar. It is overlooked from the second of these storeys by floor-to-ceiling observation windows, which offer a view from the exercise-machine and weights rooms on the ground floor. The instructor is already at the poolside fiddling with the useless little sound-system, which is finally induced to play muffled 90s dance music to which nobody pays the slightest attention.

There are about a dozen women in the pool and one other man, a regular without much hair under his bathing cap but a thick white pelt of it on his back and shoulders. Most of us are in our sixties and maybe seventies, though some are slightly younger. The instructor is a skinny, bounding, high-spirited young woman called Inês, who models the exercises with great definition and crispness, and keeps an eye on what people are actually doing below the surface. This is invariably quite different from what she is doing, so there is a constant flow of grinning banter, mockery, correction and encouragement, which has no effect whatsoever. Most of the participants continue to make only the sketchiest attempt to replicate the exercises, and around half chat through the entire programme, only breaking off to protest with ponderous girlishness at any exercise they consider to demand unreasonable exertion. There is plenty of laughter. As we work our way through the programme, I wonder what these women are like in their lives outside the pool. In it they behave like insubordinate ninth-graders, enjoying every minute.

As I walk back to the car reflecting severely on slogans, their epigrammatic vacuousness, their  sentimentality, their obviousness, their corrosive effect on thought, my eye is providentially drawn to a new and uplifting piece of graffiti: ‘se caires 100 vezes, levanta-te 101’ (if you fall a hundred times, pick yourself up a hundred and one.)  I think this through doggedly, and discover that it is impossible: once you have risen from your hundredth fall, the only way to get up for a hundred-and-first time is to fall over again. I wonder censoriously if it might not have been better for the young author to carry out this simple thought-experiment before putting pen to wall, but know in my heart that he* has probably got it right: nobody expects slogans to mean very much.

*I know, it could be a she.