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!’

‘Waving Hands Pushing the Mountain and Repulse the Monkey’

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Some years ago, whilst gainfully employed by an organisation that I am forbidden to talk about, I received an e-mail inviting me to partake in Tai Chi classes specifically aimed at employees with arthritis and diabetes.  Having an infliction of both, as well as an interest in the participation of an activity that hitherto had seemed to be performed in parks by hundreds of old people wearing silk pyjamas, I signed up.

It was being held at a venue close to my workplace, at half-past five and only cost three quid.  Bargain!

On arrival in suitably baggy clothing and sensible footwear (no silk pyjamas though), it transpired that the email had attracted a diverse bunch of people, a few of whom obviously hadn’t read the ‘baggy clothing’ instruction.  Some of the attendees, like myself, looked quite happy to be there.  Others bore distinctly resentful expressions and I later found out that they had been referred by (scary music) Occupational Health and told that there would be dire consequences if they didn’t attend.

Our Tai Chi instructor, far from being a wizened pyjama-clad martial arts man of an Asian appearance (Grasshopper), was a young NHS physio in a polo shirt, trainers and tracky bottoms.  He was lovely; patient, a very good teacher and particularly kind to those who were obviously pressed men and women.

Most of us participated and had a good time. Some of the hard-core pressed people started wincing and grimacing before they had even been shown the warming up exercises and by the time we actually got around to learning the moves, had collapsed in agony onto chairs at the back of the room.

The drop out rate therefore, was quite high and by the third week there were only half a dozen of us who had been charmed by our instructor’s enthusiasm and relieved to find that the slow, gentle movement did actually help out with management of the achy bits.

It wasn’t easy learning the moves, especially for those of us not blessed with the ability to tell right from left. There was a certain amount of coordination needed between feet and arms too.  After a few wrong turns, minor collisions and occasional fits of giggles, we all picked up the sequences (after a fashion) and I managed to remember enough to be able to practice at home.

I bought a CD of music specifically for use with Tai Chi, and thanks to the tolerance of Hub and the boys, began to have my own Tai Chi sessions before work every morning.

The environment had to be right; not too dark or light, with some fresh air and sufficient room to parade up and down, backward and forward (about 2 metres by 1 metre).  Our front room could just about accommodate this provided no one left diving gear, Airsoft guns or paintball markers in the way.

I did so well that my instructor asked me if I would be interested in training as a Tai Chi instructor.  The NHS would fund my training but I would need a current first aid qualification – either funded by myself or my employer.

Fuelled with enthusiasm and the thought of a weekend learning Tai Chi at a hotel in Stockport, I asked my boss if he would nominate me for a first aid course.  I didn’t envisage any problem; we ran these courses every couple of months and though they were always well-subscribed, there was no desperate rush as the next Tai Chi course wasn’t till after the New Year.

He refused.

He said that we already had two people with first aid qualifications on the team (one had lapsed and she had no intention of taking it again) and that was enough.  I was surprised at his attitude – usually a combination of laissez-faire management and ‘can you do this for me?’ but when I questioned further he clammed up and refused to discuss the subject.

I returned sadly to my instructor, only to be told further sad news that he would not be running any more courses for my employer ( they hadn’t paid), and that was why he had suggested that I do the training so that I could carry on the sessions at no further cost.

I asked my boss again. He refused again and nominated me for a fire marshal course instead.

Six months later, there was another email about Tai Chi classes.  They were going to be held in out own building but with a different instructor.  I signed up and tried not to giggle at the women who turned up at the first session in pencil skirts, tight white blouses and high heels. They didn’t read the bit about baggy clothing either.

The new instructor was dressed in black and spent most of the session telling us to listen and making sure that no one was creeping up on us from behind.  It was all very ninja. Not everyone took his exhortations seriously and as a consequence there was much giggling but at him, not with him.

He didn’t turn up for the second session.

I carried on with Tai Chi at home; not as rigorously as before but enough to try it out in various different venues when we were away on holidays.  The balcony at the hotel in Cornwall was good – if a little damp from sea spray.  The bungalow we rented when we went back down South to visit family was very accommodating and I often had an audience of birds and squirrels as I waved my hands at invisible mountains. I even managed to keep up my routine when I went away on a residential course.  Luckily I had blagged an accessible room with an en suite, my fellow students were stuck in shoeboxes that barely accommodated a bed, chair and desk. I had a longing to return to the scene of previous holidays in Majorca or Cyprus, and a villa with a sun-drenched balcony where I could Tai Chi to my heart’s content.

Hub and I were attending a health and fitness centre and I enrolled in Tai Chi classes there.  The instructor bore a startling resemblance to Gary Glitter in the Vietnam years and even wore a matching scarf.  He lined us up and announced that we would be exercising to music.  Far from the delicate and soothing tunes that I had become accustomed to, he put on a CD of what can only be described as Red Army marching instructions. As the  instructions were not in English, they had to be interpreted for us and as a consequence we were all rather behind with the steps, more giggling ensued and our instructor was deeply displeased.

I didn’t turn up for the second session.

Fate intervened and I bumped into my first Tai Chi instructor whilst shopping in Asda – as you do.  He was running another set of courses on Friday afternoons.  They were supposed to be for the over 65s but if I was interested then he could get me in.  The Tai Chi master behind the sequences I had learned previously, had added another nine moves.

Accordingly I booked long lunch hours for every other Friday afternoon – not really a problem as no one EVER wants a meeting on a Friday afternoon.

The lessons were lovely.  I was the youngest in the class – barring the instructor – I picked up the further nine moves eventually and managed to incorporate them into my early morning sessions at home.

Then I had the accident that I’m not supposed to talk about.

The accident that turned my life upside-down and put paid to any kind of exercise for months.

We also acquired Scooby, his bed, dinner and water bowls.

The combination of Scooby’s stuff and boxes of legal paperwork ate into my Tai Chi space, so that even once my injury had healed, there was no room to move any more.

Ah, but now we have the new kitchen and with it – more than a space 2 metres by 1 metre. I can open the windows for my fresh air and lower the sparkly black blind so that I don’t frighten the horses or distract the mad mother drivers as they round the bend on their way to school.

I have Tai Chi-ed every day since May 22nd.

Rusty at first and I had to send off for the wall charts in the end to remind me of the moves, but it has all come back.

Scoob insisted on watching me for the first couple of days.  He wasn’t sure about the arm waving and the strange music – doesn’t bat an eyelid when we play Motorhead or the Foo Fighters in the kitchen – but this weird tinkly stuff…….

He has settled down now and stays in the front room until the music stops and he knows that toast may be in the offing.

My blood pressure is down.  My blood glucose is down. I have lost the half a stone I put on during the kitchen renovation.  My Tai Chi makes me feel at ease again and able to tackle some of the less palatable jobs that I’ve put off.

The parcel delivery man just called.  He hadn’t seen the kitchen since it was done.  He loves the twinkling lights and the sparkling worktop. Obviously a man of great taste.

Love the kitchen.

Love Tai Chi.

Love family and friends.

Love life.

http://www.taichiproductions.com/[/

Dr Paul Lam – a very bendy man in silk pyjamas who provided the inspiration, the moves, the music , DVDs, books and the wall charts