He stands there, his arms wide to welcome me. Le patron. Jean-Marie. His expression is ironic and teasing. He always laughs at me, and I like that. When I return to the gym after an absence, he looks at me in mock incredulity. Where have you been? Usually I say, truthfully, that I’ve had to go back to the UK or I’ve had a virus. This time is different but he doesn’t know it yet. Why have you stayed away? he asks, as if it’s a personal affront. I know, it’s been a long time, I say in French. My father died. I’ve been in Scotland for a month. He squeezes my arm. The teasing mask is gone. Desole, he says, serious. I’m sorry. Now go and get fit.
The gym is my sanctuary. My very own space. I come here to be invisible, without a past or present. Without a profession or an interest. I nod and mouth Bonjour to the regulars, but who knows what we do in our lives outside? I’m a middle-aged woman who comes here to exercise and to restore her sanity when her equilibrium is thrown out of kilter by the world outside.
Later, when I’m on the stepper, Jean-Marie returns for a brief chat. The gym is almost empty so he’s on his rounds, stopping to joke with a man doing stomach crunches and to correct the posture of someone twirling back and forth on the twisty platform that is supposed to whittle away your love handles. He high-fives a bloke doing shoulder presses.
He stops at the stepper where I’m struggling to do five minutes. Bien? he asks. Much better, I say breathlessly, and mean it. Then I tell him my return to the gym will be curtailed. Again. I have return to Scotland on Sunday for a month to sort out my father’s flat. After that, I say, my ties with that cold, unfriendly city are cut. I won’t be going back. He asks about my family. All in London now, I say. My youngest son moved recently from Glasgow. He moves his hand back and forth through the air – a plane going to London and back. I ask him where he lives. Here. And his family? Here. And his wife’s family? Here. He stamps his two feet on the floor and says, I’m grounded. My feet are firmly planted. My roots are deep. So I can welcome everyone. From anywhere. Like you.
It’s true. He’s good humoured and laid back. There is no cloud of tension around him. No angst. He jokes with the regulars and teases people like me – the light weights and exercise dilletantes. It’s obvious he loves running this place with his wife, Natalie. Not that I’d like to get on the wrong side of him – he’s a stocky bloke and doesn’t suffer fools gladly.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to have roots that go deep into the soil. I’m green with envy. An army brat, I lived in twenty-eight houses, flats and tents as my father moved every two years from one posting to the next. From Germany to Cyprus. From Malta to Germany. From Tripoli to Portsmouth. I went to seventeen schools of all denominations. We lived in two war zones. The red-and-white striped barrier lifted, and in we went in and out of another barracks. We knew nothing of the cultures of the countries in which we camped.
Deja? Jean-Marie asks, as he always does when I emerge from the changing room. We have this farewell comedy routine that rarely changes. I’ve been here an hour, I reply indignantly. He shrugs his shoulders. OK. If that’s all you want to do. So be it. Allez. Off you go.
A bientot, he says. A bientot, Jean-Marie.
Is it my imagination, or do I not drift off into the blue beyond as I walk away? Are my feet a fraction closer to the ground?