Countdown – Week 10 of the 52 week short story challenge

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‘Twenty – come on – you can do this!’

I was never really sporty at school. I enjoyed hockey but lost interest when they stopped using the bully off. My skills on the tennis court were non-existent; I would still be looking for the ball long after it had gone bouncing across the playground.  It was at netball that I was completely useless however; on the one occasion that I was given the red tabard with ‘GS’ on it I failed miserably to put the ball through the net. The exasperated games teacher sent the other team in to get showered and it still took me another twenty minutes to score. I now know that my problem with hand-eye coordination may have something to do with my ability to use my left hand almost as well as my right.  Due to my extreme short-sightedness, I never learned to swim in school lessons either because I couldn’t see where I was going and wasn’t allowed to wear my specs in the water.  As a consequence of my sporting failures in my final school year I was asked if I would prefer to go into town and attend drama classes at the tech college instead. Freedom!

‘Nineteen – pull your core muscles in.’

I became so enamoured with the tech college that I opted to go there and do my ‘A’ levels instead of attending a nice sixth form college like most of my contemporaries. Wednesday afternoons were earmarked for games-related activities but I found out that I could do ‘A’ level Art instead. So I did. The only other vaguely sporty stuff I indulged in took place at the rugby ground on Saturday afternoons. I went to cheer on my mates, take charge of the oranges  and look after the sponge and water bucket. The high spot of those chilly afternoons was hearing the screams of agony coming from the changing room as the worst player had his nether regions anointed with Deep Heat.  I would cut a few moves at the students’ union disco but then it was very dark and we were all rather uncoordinated due to drink.

‘Eighteen – you are doing really well.’

My time at drama school required a host of talents that I didn’t possess. Exasperated by my inability to put my best foot forward, one of my dance teachers insisted that I wear a bell tied with a red ribbon on my right ballet shoe. Whilst this method stimulated sight and sound reactions, it also caused me huge embarrassment when my classmates giggled. Sufficient to say, I enjoyed the more constructive aspects of stage management and avoided the dancing wherever possible.

‘Seventeen – keep going!’

Once I had accepted that I was not an actress, singer or dancer; and that an enjoyment of stage management, wasn’t preparation for having sex with the director in order to get a job, I changed tack abruptly. A brief dalliance with bar work ended wetly and with much bad feeling, so I moved on to residential social work in children’s homes. This kept me rather busy and I had no need for any other source of sport until the day that my left knee was attacked by a size seven Doc Martin boot wielded by an aggressive young man called ‘Spam’. It put me out of action for several weeks – my recovery was hampered by having to  limp up the four flights of stairs to the maisonette where I lived in with my parents. My GP referred me to a specialist who prescribed ultrasound  – which didn’t work, infrared – which didn’t work either, and as a last resort – circuit training. I got to watch some very attractive  and athletic young men during this last activity but my knee continued to clunk. The specialist sighed and advised me that my knee could ‘go’ tomorrow or it might last out another thirty years. That was thirty-five years ago so I assume I am on borrowed time.

‘Sixteen.’

Moving on a couple of years I was persuaded to accompany two friends to something described as ‘Limbering Class’. Both friends were a good deal thinner than me, and I had the uncharitable thought that I had only been invited to make them look thinner. Limbering classes took place in a loft at the top of an old warehouse that was in the process of being gentrified. The builders hadn’t got beyond the ground floor at that time and the six flights of stairs to the loft were rickety and steep. Not good for an overweight woman with a clunking knee. Imagine my surprise and total delight when I discovered that despite the weight and left/right confusion, I was actually the most limber person in the class – far more bendy than either of my skinny friends. I could get my leg (right OR left) up on the ballet barre. Not only could I touch my toes but I could also put my hands flat on the floor. I became the teacher’s pet because I had the straightest back in the room. My glory was short-lived. I was relying on my friends for a lift to limbering and disappointed at not being bendy enough, they both dropped out after a month.

‘Fifteen – come on!’

My next flirtation with a sporting activity was many years later when I was pregnant with our eldest son and was encouraged to attend Aqua natal classes.  We were all bounteously bumpy ladies and particularly unwieldy when climbing the unsteady metal ladder in and out of the pool.   I am still a non-swimmer with a penchant for swimming pools with steps rather than wobbly ladders.

‘Fourteen.’

We exposed our both our boys to the joys of Tumble Tots.  Our younger son proved more of a handful as he wanted to do everything at once and not in the order that the teacher wanted him to. Luckily he was ready to start at nursery anyway so we took him out before he got ejected. Inspired by the agility of my children, I agreed to sign up at the local gym with a friend. On paper it looked good; ladies only in the daytime, men only in the evening, mixed groups at weekends. It was a small gym, over the top of a couple of shops down at our local precinct and within walking or staggering distance. Suitably attired in leggings and baggy tee-shirts, we signed up and were shown the ropes – and weights. Arriving first thing in the morning was a tad unpleasant as most of the equipment still smelled strongly of man sweat from the night before. After we had been attending happily for a couple of weeks, a group of very thin, very fit, Lycra-clad ladies joined up. They giggled at us. They made audibly rude comments. We complained to the manageress only to find that they were dear friends of hers. We left.

‘Thirteen – stop looking at that man in tights!’

Once both the boys were at school full-time, I went back to work and was lured into joining a ‘ladies only’ gym a short walk away from my office. Despite having to climb two flights of stairs, it was a lovely place. There was no sniggering, no rude comments, they had toning tables that moved all your limbs for you and the whole place smelled of oranges. I found that I could fit a session in during my lunch hour and come back to the office feeling ready to take on the world – or at least my colleagues.

‘Twelve – stay controlled.’

Crisis struck when the gym went bust. Before I could slide into despondency however, the staff at the gym clubbed together and took over. There was a name change but otherwise it remained the same, and to make life even better, our office moved to a building just across the road from the gym. I didn’t lose vast amounts of weight but I was undoubtedly fitter and my knee stopped clunking. It couldn’t last though and it didn’t. The lease was up on the lovely old building and although the gym staff had found new premises, they were outside the town AND up five flights of stairs in an old warehouse.

‘Eleven – one more and you are halfway.’

After a period of inactivity, I joined another gym in town and with the added ‘benefit’ of a pool. The gym was run by a well-known sports company and was next door to one of their stores. It didn’t have the ambiance of my previous gym; the range of equipment was limited, no toning tables and a host of sweaty male equipment-hogs that made it almost impossible to carry out the programme hastily put together for me by a nice, but harassed young instructor. I stuck it out for a couple of months but frustration and the smell drove me away. The company went bust.

‘Ten! Yes!’

After another period of lethargy I spotted a sign saying ‘Motorcise’ when I was getting off the bus to walk to my office.  The notice also stated that this was a gym specifically for older women with mobility issues and consisted of a range of toning tables. I signed up. I was the youngest member and I was in my forties by this time. The sole route to Motorcise was up a flight of stairs – so it didn’t actually cater for ALL women with mobility issues. For many of the members, it was more than a place to exercise; it was a social club where they drank coffee, ate biscuits and cakes, had regular raffles and tombola mornings. It gave them a new lease of life. They were very kind to me and knowing that I was attending in my lunch hour, would always step aside in order to let me use the tables first. It couldn’t last.

‘Nine – right down to the floor.’

It didn’t. Expiration of the lease – again. A light glimmered however. One of the girls who worked there said that she was moving to another gym with a similar set-up – called ‘Gymphobics’. It was still in town , had toning tables and I would forego the joining fee because of her recommendation.  It was a curious place; set in an arch under the railway bridge and sandwiched between an adult bookstore and a tattoo parlour. It was on the ground floor however and smelled of oranges. It was nice for a couple of months. That didn’t last either. The manageress ran off with the takings and I turned up one day to find a ‘closed’ notice on the door.

‘Eight.’

Rescue came in the form of an after-work course in Tai Chi, offered specifically for staff who had diabetes and/or arthritis. The course was run by an NHS physio  – a lovely man who had infinite patience. Half of us attended because we liked the idea of learning Tai Chi and hoped that it would help relieve our physical symptoms as well as making us less stressed. The other half of the class consisted of workers who had long histories of sick leave, and had been told by the Occupational Health department that they HAD to attend. I loved Tai Chi classes and took to it so well that the instructor asked me if I wanted to go on an NHS course to learn to be a teacher. The only proviso was that I had a first aid qualification. My three-year qualification had lapsed so I asked my manager if I could update it – and explained why. He refused. For no particular reason other than he didn’t see the value in losing me for three days or more, and then having to accommodate my taking further Tai Chi classes. Apparently some of my colleagues had complained about me leaving work on time to attend. The last class I went to consisted of me and the instructor. It was lovely but yet again – it didn’t last. For some strange reason my cack-handed and footedness was able to cope with Tai Chi and I still do the odd half an hour in my kitchen when I need to relax.

‘Seven – stop giggling.’

Whilst I was busy mourning the end of my Tai Chi classes, I was offered another post within the company that meant I was no longer working in town. Still angry with my manager I took the leap and left. Not having to wander around town in my lunch hour and having an onsite canteen meant that my waistline was expanding again. I got a call from my Tai Chi teacher asking me if I wanted to join a local gym – with a medical discount that would apply to my husband as well. We visited the gym. It was HUGE. Not only did it have an indoor running track but it also had two swimming pools, a sauna and a hydrotherapy pool. We signed up. There were a few disadvantages; it was a family gym and at certain times of day there were too many screaming toddlers and unattended youths who hogged the equipment and dive bombed each other in the pools – until a brave lifeguard tooted a whistle at them.

‘Six – come on!’

We spent a happy couple of years working out in the upstairs gym and then wallowing in the warm bubbles of the hydrotherapy pool. Then we began to notice the signs that all was not well. Equipment was out-of-order, the changing rooms were grubby, classes were cancelled at short notice. We made enquiries and were told that the parent company had backed out and the staff had clubbed together to take over the gym. This was sounding ominously familiar. We stumbled on for another couple of months and then the local newspaper revealed that the lease on the building had expired and the gym was no more. The building was being taken over by a well-known store. Another gym bit the dust.

‘Five more – well done!’

I managed to find my old Tai Chi teacher and fit in some classes (specifically for pensioners but he made an exception in my case). I learnt the other half of the routine and spent some very mellow Friday afternoons there. Then it was decided that our office would be moving back into the town centre and the leisure centre that had been hosting the Tai Chi classes was being demolished. Shortly before the office move I was involved in an accident at work which resulted in my foot being damaged, nine months of sick leave and an acrimonious parting of the ways between my employer and me. I couldn’t go out alone for fear of falling over and I developed arthritis in my right knee as well due to the pressure put on it whilst my foot was healing.

‘Four!’

I registered as self-employed once I had shed the shackles of office life, and used some of my tax rebate to buy a pair of Nordik Walking Poles – a friend had recommended them as a way of improving my mobility and my confidence. Slightly nervous, I took to accompanying my husband and our dog on night-time walks round the neighbourhood.  I was still relying on an ordinary walking stick to help me get around – except for supermarket trips when a trolley was essential however small the shopping. I had acupuncture to help ease the sciatic pain that kept me awake at night and finally had an MRI scan that confirmed that I had stenosis of the five lumbar discs. The skills of our osteopath – the Phizzard – put me back on my feet when things got bad but a more permanent solution to my mobility issues had to be found.

‘Three – keep going!’

When my ex-employers finally accepted responsibility for the accident and paid the damages claim, my husband and I decided it was time to join a gym again. We had been looking at a branch of a national chain that had opened less than a mile away, was open 24/7, had plenty of equipment, catered for over-16’s only and had excellent security. We applied online, got free three-day passes and went down for a visit. It was SO clean. Air conditioned. Loads of equipment, all on one level, NO STAIRS and the manager assured us that there was no chance of them going bust – fingers crossed.

‘Two – nearly there!’

We went for our induction visit. My instructor and I hit it off immediately. She is now my personal trainer and she makes this knackered body do things that I could never have imagined it would do. In my first month I have lost seven inches. I haven’t had to use my walking stick for weeks and I look forward to going to the gym so much that even a viral infection and sinusitis didn’t stop me.

‘One! You did it!’

Creepy Story – Week 9 of the 52 week short story challenge

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Melie looked at me in astonishment.

‘No! You wouldn’t!’

I grinned.

‘Why not? I am young, free and single. It’s 1982 and I can do what I want.’

She shook her head despairingly, a gesture she made quite often when we were discussing my latest fad.

‘You could – anything might happen – it’s dangerous!’

‘What’s so dangerous about it? It’s in the Evening Echo. They have to keep details of their advertisers  – and anyway – he’s given his home telephone number. Melie, I’ve spoken to him. He’s sounds really nice.’

‘Hmm,’ she said, looking very doubtful. ‘He might sound nice but how do you know that he is? He might be very clever and just putting on the niceness to lure you into a sense of false security.’

‘You are SO suspicious.’

‘There are stories in the papers. About girls who get raped and murdered after answering these personal ads. What did his ad say anyway?’

‘Here, I’ll show you.’ I dug the folded page of newsprint out of my weighty tapestry shoulder bag. Smoothing it out on the table top I pointed out the advert, circled in lurid green highlighter pen.

‘Single male GSOH WLTM single female for socialising/romance?’ Melie looked at me as if the words she was reading were in a foreign language. ‘What does all that mean?’

‘You are so seventies Melie! GSOH means ‘good sense of humour’ – which you have to admit I definitely have. WLTM means ‘would like to meet’. They charge by the word when you put an advert in so people use the initial letters instead. It’s like a code.’

‘Yes, but ‘socialising/romance’?’ She pulled a face.

‘Okay, so I’m most definitely not looking for romance but dinner and drinks, cinema, live music. I’m up for all that provided someone else is paying.’

‘You called him?’

‘I did. He has a good sense of humour – well – he laughed at my jokes anyway.’

‘He must have a good sense of humour. You didn’t tell him the one about the pickled…?’

I grinned. ‘I most certainly did. That’s my barometer joke. Not everyone laughs at it, but he did.’

‘That could well mean that he’s a perv though. What does he do for a living – assuming he has a job?’

‘Don’t be sarky Melie.  He fits windows and stuff and drives a company van. I even have the name of the company he works for.’

Melie looked sceptical. ‘He could borrow the van from a mate. It could be a red herring.’

‘He said it was yellow.’

‘What? Oh you idiot! When are you supposed to be meeting him?’

‘Tonight! Tonight!’

‘Where?’

‘Up at The Hop. It’s within walking distance and I can slip out through the beer garden if he turns out to be gross.’

‘Aha! So you have some doubts already then!’

I shrugged, not wanting to give her too much ground. ‘I told you that I was being careful. I even blocked the number before I phoned him. He asked for my contact details but I said that we weren’t on the phone yet and I was phoning from work.’

‘What did you tell him you did for a living?’

Melie was well aware that I wasn’t always truthful about how I earned my crust – especially when meeting a new bloke.

‘I said that I worked in a boutique in town. Don’t look like that Melie. Blokes always get funny when I tell them what I really do.’

‘It isn’t something to be ashamed of you know, social work is a respectable profession.’

‘Yes, but once you admit to being a social worker they either decide that you are a nosey do-gooder and run a mile,  or they start telling you about their disturbed childhood. Life is much simpler when you work in a boutique – and anyway – it isn’t a total lie. I did work in a boutique once.’

‘Three weeks during the summer five years ago. That was the place that went bust after you threw black coffee over the manager’s suit wasn’t it?’

‘He deserved it, and it was his fault it went bust not mine – he was stealing money from the company. It doesn’t matter how long ago I worked there anyway, nothing much changes when you are flogging knock-off clothing.’

‘What time are you meeting him?’

‘Seven-thirty.’

‘I’ll be outside in the beer garden then.’

‘You really don’t have to be so protective of me.’

Melie gave me that look.

‘Yes I do.’

*********

I walked into The Hop just before seven-twenty. In our house, being less than ten minutes early was considered to be bad manners. My Single Male had given me a vague description of himself; slim, short dark hair, glasses, jeans, navy tee-shirt and denim jacket. I was wearing my customary uniform of black; jeans, scoop-necked tee-shirt, and a cheap Chinese satin jacket that I had picked up in a flea market. The weather being a little inclement I also wore a pair of black fingerless gloves and an enormous knitted scarf. I thought I looked the business. Dr Who had a lot to answer for.

There was no sign of anyone remotely resembling My Single Male; a couple of guys playing pool, the usual drunken teacher propping up the bar and some old chaps eking out their pints in a corner.  Looking through the window to the beer garden, I could see a rather chilly Melie huddled in her Army Surplus greatcoat and woolly hat.

Reluctantly I bought myself a barley wine and found a table near the ladies’ toilet – and the door to the beer garden. Three sips later and a denim-jacketed male walked through the doors. He was slim-ish, dark-haired and his glasses broke up a pock-marked and sallow face. I waved in a slightly regal fashion and he walked over to my table. I had obviously been more truthful about my appearance than he had. The dark hair was greasy, as were his jeans, and his tee-shirt did not look as if it had ever been near a washing machine.

I took off my jacket and bag while he was at the bar, placing them so that he would have to sit opposite me rather than on the bench seat next to me. He sauntered back with an overflowing pint of lager and after shooting some glances at my barricade, he opted for the chair I indicated.

He must have been talking from a script when we had held our telephone conversation because he seemed barely able to string two words together now. I chatted – a little manic perhaps – about nothing very specific.

He grabbed my free hand across the table and tried to take my glove off.

‘Stop it!’ I yelped as I pulled my hand back.

‘Sorry.’ He picked up his pint and slurped it noisily. ‘I just wanted to read your palm. It’s my hobby. You can tell a lot about people from reading their palms.’

‘I bet. What other hobbies do you have?’

The question seemed to throw him a bit. I could almost see the cogs whirring under his lank locks. I knocked back my barley wine quickly while he thought.

‘Films. Yeah – foreign films. I’ve got a mate who works on the boats and brings them in. Do you like – you know – art films?’

I knew exactly what kind of foreign films were brought in by mates on boats, and no, I didn’t like them. My smile was fixed as I placed my empty glass on the table.

‘Want another drink?’ he asked.

‘Yes please. Barley wine. I just need to go to the loo.’

I waited till he was at the bar and ordering before I made a dash for the beer garden, dragging my jacket and bag behind me.

‘Melie! Quick! Creep alert!’

Melie and I ran out of the beer garden and down the road as fast as we could. We didn’t stop until we got to the safety of Melie’s house. I was sure that we’d had enough of a head start but we spent a good half an hour peering round the edge of the curtain in case a yellow minivan drew up outside the door.

We bribed Melie’s brother and his mate to go up to The Hop and see if the Creep was still there. It was worth the price of two pints just to know that he wasn’t hanging around for us. I gave that particular pub a miss for several months anyway. I took Melie’s advice and gave the personal ads a miss too.

A couple of months later a young barmaid was raped and murdered when she finished her shift in a town centre pub. No one ever got caught but a friend of a friend said that she had been in the habit of looking at personal ads in the Evening Echo.

There was a photo fit of the bloke she was seen talking to at the bar before she finished work that night.

Slim-ish, dark greasy hair, glasses, denim jacket, tee-shirt and jeans.

Creepy.