Thursday, March 27, 2008

The treadmill


It all started that Tuesday morning he noticed his belly in the shower. Suddenly there it was, a greyish pink dome protruding into the hot spray, compact, conical, a perfect middle-aged gut. He nursed it in both hands, frowning, as rivulets of foam from his half-washed hair unravelled over it. Now then, where has this come from?

The mystery was how he hadn’t noticed it before. Any difference between days was surely negligible, yet somehow, prodded on by last night’s pizza, maybe that Mars bar he’d had on the way home, it had inched across some perceptual threshold, become visible.

Well. It was a sign of age. He hadn’t had anything like this when he was twenty, even thirty. Alarming, in a way. A short stab of panic went through him as he towelled himself dry and he quickly counteracted it, allowed a certain wryness to insinuate its way into his thoughts. Andrew Carlton certainly wasn’t going to let it worry him. You get older, you get fatter, things aren’t always how you would like them to be. He shrugged. Andrew Carlton was smart enough to accept that. Andrew Carlton, and here he appraised himself seriously in the steam-stippled mirror, had accepted all kinds of things, had he not?

He had.

Nonetheless, despite all the long years in which had prided himself on his unconventionality he was preoccupied for the rest of the morning, fretting over his belly, his vision dark at the edges with irritation, and it was only his tendency to view himself with the degree of ironic detachment that any truly balanced outlook on life demanded that prevented him from sliding over into dismay. He was thirty-nine years old and worried about getting a belly. How trite, how obvious. A mid-life crisis no doubt. How formulaic.

He tried viewing himself from the cosmic perspective, reminding himself how superficial and clich├ęd it was to get worked up about as trivial a thing as middle-aged spread. All that suffering in the world and so on. He tried to talk himself out of his anxiety, to snort derisorily at it, as he had talked himself into and out of many things. He was even more deeply introspective than usual that morning and his colleagues picked their way around him, sensing his mood.

On the one hand, why must one accept the indignities of age? But then perhaps not doing so was mere vanity, and surely he was too smart, too knowing, to succumb to mere vanity? He wasn’t status conscious and he wasn’t vain and he readily mobilized his healthy reserves of contempt against those who were. Andrew Carlton had spent his life avoiding all the traps that other less alert, more easily herded individuals so guilelessly blundered into, the financial commitments, the kids, the long work hours, the romantic illusions and entanglements, the fruitless pursuits. Yet he hadn’t noticed this sneaking up on him, had he? No matter how he tried to think it away, to think around it, his belly sat there in the middle of his thoughts

He wondered what else he might not have been aware of. To a large extent he blamed his wife. Why had she not told him? He wondered what else might be going unsaid. When he discovered that she had sent him a text message around ten or so he pointedly ignored it.

Andrew Carlton drank even more coffee than usual that morning, spooning in the sugar, trying to lift his spirits, help himself focus on his brimming inbox, and then had to get up out of his chair to go to the toilet every twenty minutes or so. This only served to worsen his mood, standing at the urinal with his gut mockingly before him. On his fifth visit he found himself in a state of mild panic and decided to go and sit in the cubicle in order to have a serious talk with himself.

Calm down. You are being ridiculous. There is nothing you can do about the situation now, you are in work. You can deal with this later. You’re being childish. There are more important things in life. He gave that part of himself which chided and directed free reign and slumped, hands linked between his legs and head bowed penitently, nodding along with its exhortations. Yet when he heaved himself up again, immediately conscious of his gut tight against his waistband and scratchy with sweat, all that bright scaffolding collapsed under the weight of his unfounded, irrational dread.

How had he not noticed? How had she not noticed, surely she had, it was impossible for her not to have.

He would carry this belly around with him everywhere, an emblem of his failure, of a failure bound up with his dreaminess, his blindness, how he had been sleepwalking through his life. An emblem of the lack of connection, the lack of interest that existed, that had always existed between the two of them. But then, and here he played the well-worn ace he kept in reserve for just such moments, wasn’t it always this way for everyone, that there was much in life to be endured, that life was imperfect, that people were unknowable, that there was so much that went unnoticed and unsaid that the best thing to do was accept the imperfection, not be an idealist, keep your head down, your focus narrow, get on with it.

Maybe. No, of course. Coming back down the corridor to the office a cold wave broke over him, heart-sickening, gut-cramping and he leant against the wall for an instant to get his bearings. Well, from one perspective, of course, a vertiginous perspective that twisted his life suddenly inside out and left him flailing, he had simply done everything he could to avoid acknowledging his own desires.

He was thirty-nine. Thirty-nine. A surge of hope. His hand was trembling slightly. Perhaps there was still time.

Andrew Carlton was not one to fall into the trap of being less than fully informed. In the newsagents across the road from work he bought a copy of Men’s Health as furtively as if he were buying Reader’s Wives and then, half way to the counter, resolved not to be ashamed. Even so, the contrast between the six-pack etched in charcoal and granite on the magazines glossy cover and his own fibrous hump brought a surge of self-loathing up into his throat. He was surprised to find these feelings within himself, but somehow now his default brusque dismissal, the mechanism that had protected him for so long, was malfunctioning, he was bound up in comparison and comparison brought shame.

He read the magazine on the bus home paying particular attention to the article “ From Fat to Flat, Rock Hard Abs in Five Weeks,” his heart sinking. He would have to change his diet radically, he would have to stop drinking, more than anything he would have to do a great deal of cardiovascular exercise, forty-five minutes every day plus three days of working out with weights. Andrew Carlton had always regarded watching his weight and working out as yet another trap, the mirrored pit of narcissism, but the magazine assured him: There Is No Other Way.

In bed that night after a ready-meal and a quietly tense evening in front of the television, Andrew Carlton asked his wife why she had never mentioned to him that his belly was getting bigger. She opened her eyes wide with surprise and chuckled softly then rolled toward him, her hands snaking across the space between them to caress it. Andrew Carlton tried not to flinch. She had that look in her eye, a small spark of lust he had become expert at dampening. It’s a part of you, she said smiling, it doesn’t put me off, you know. Andrew Carlton gently plucked her hands away and returned them to her, eyebrows raised. Then he in turn rolled over and fulminated on the inadequacy of her response. His rectum was also a part of him. His snot, his earwax, the hard skin on the soles of his feet, the fungal nail on his right big toe.

Don’t be angry, his wife said to him, why are you angry? She laid a hopeful hand on his back. He resisted the desire to shrug it away and simply lay there, teeth clenched, taking a small, hot, bitter pleasure in her not knowing what to do next. After a few flummoxed minutes she withdrew it, with a sigh.

He turned out his bedside light. A few seconds later she turned out hers. Perhaps it would all be better in the morning.

But the next day he was still out-of-sorts, angry both with his gut and with his wife, who he watched with distaste as she shuffled puffy-faced around the kitchen making them tea, his belly seeming to point accusingly at her. Andrew Carlton was accustomed to growing angry and disaffected for short periods of time and then becoming reconciled again. Indeed he took pride in the speed with which his own manful stoicism realigned him with his life.

It seemed that this, however, wasn’t going to go away.

That night he told his wife he would not be eating any more ready meals, nor would he be eating any carbohydrates with his evening meal. No pizza, no pasta. Not even oven chips? Not even them.

His wife smiled, reached out a hand and laid it on his, clenched beside his plate on the table. What’s brought this on? she asked. Is this you worrying about your tummy? She had always encouraged him to look after his health a bit more. Andrew Carlton flashed an icy look back at her. No it was not about his tummy, he didn’t have a tummy, only children had tummies, he had a stomach. He saw how she had always mothered and indulged him and how he had allowed it, drifting along through years of underachievement and on into fatness with her smothering him, a substitute for the baby she was always reproaching him for not wanting.

Alright, Andrew, she said quietly and busied herself with her Tagliatelle. She expected this from him, he was always sinking into moods, bitter reflection, all his frustrations welled up in him and passed, and though he never said anything was wrong, never admitted to it she could sense the dark waves on which he was lifted, the way he rolled waterlogged about in the bed at night. She expected it would pass, as it always passed, only to discover that he was being carried further and further away with each passing day.


Andrew Carlton got off the bus a few stops earlier than usual, strode purposefully through the April drizzle to his local, Council-run Gym and asked to be shown around.

It was five thirty or so and the place was filling up as a pockmarked teen in a polo-shirt and jogging pants escorted him back and forth. This is the weight’s room….ok?…. you can do your stretches here…..ok?… this is the cardio suite…..ok?…. all the machines here have been recently installed as part of a two-hundred-thousand-pound upgrade…..ok?…these are the lockers, you can put your bag in the locker for 20p….ok? Andrew Carlton shuffled along behind him feeling ridiculous, there was something about publicly being the neophyte that humiliated him, traipsing along in his suit and cagoule, fixed grin on his face, nodding along to everything, desperate to get out of there. The fact that the gym was largely filled with middle aged fat people didn’t console him at all and he felt a combination of pitying contempt for them, for their and his own inability to live with the world of wobble and sag that forty winters had brought to their door, and burning resentment for the small cabal of buff, boisterous black boys lounging around by the free weights. He felt conspicuous and absurd. This was not his domain.

And yet over the past week, as he had been mustering up the courage to come here, once getting as far as the entrance before finding some excuse to turn home, certain ideas, and the absolute necessity of certain actions, had obsessed him.

More and more he had mused on the situation with his wife, how they had met at university when he was studying Sociology and had been together ever since. She hadn’t been the first woman he had slept with, but almost, then quickly after graduation they had married. He saw how clearly he had rushed to use her as an excuse, to limit the range and freedom of his actions, to dam up those dark, serpentine currents he felt twisting through his soul, how she had shielded him from fear of his own lust, fear of his own power, perhaps, of how high he might have risen or how low he might have sunk had he given himself over to them.

Was this why he had married a plain girl, a girl of limited ambition, to persuade himself that he too was immune to the seductions of beauty and acclaim, that he was above them, a poor plodder maybe, but morally satisfied, grounded, solid and real in a world tormented by illusion? Perhaps he had been unfair to her all these years, certainly he had, using her as a barrier and then resenting her for holding him back from pursuing what he truly wanted.

Perhaps it wasn’t always this way for everyone. No, he began to be more convinced everyday that others lived more congruently with their desires and did not, as he had, construct a life designed to divide them from themselves. There was another man there on the other side of her, the man he had denied himself, the man he must reclaim. A fullness and a solidity of self that he had always imagined he possessed, but in reality had never known.

And so the next day, after an intensely self-conscious scrabble to dress himself in his new workout gear in the changing room, he took to the treadmill.


Who was this man before him, clad in strange clothes, sweating and red-faced, his teeth sunk in his bottom lip, his legs pistoning, the breath flaring raggedly through his nose, eyes fixed on some point deep within the mirror?

Andrew Carlton always waited for the treadmill in front of the big floor-to-ceiling mirrors to become available. He liked to imagine that he was running toward himself, that if he went fast enough or lasted long enough slowly his image would come gliding through the dust specked glass and pass into him.

Mostly he looked past himself, not being, by habit, a vain man. What did he see within those depths but a future that was slowly being pulled toward him, each footfall bringing it closer just as each footfall incrementally excavated the man he had buried deep inside himself. One day, if his will held out, he would encounter, here on the treadmill, a moment of consummation, a moment of perfect congruence, in his place there would be a man he had never known inhabiting a place he had never been.

He was thirty nine. He closed his eyes as the sweat from his forehead stung them. Thirty-nine. There was still time.

Andrew Carlton chuckled to himself, he was a realist, he accepted certain things. He had come to terms with his situation, had he not?

He had.

One way or another a man ends up on a treadmill.


Anonymous said...


Luciano said...

I agree,that's really excellent Carl... I wonder if there's something autobiographical on it...