“Strangers in the House”

Between nine and eleven o’clock the local gym is a peaceful, almost meditative place, a retreat from the real world. The early birds have rushed off to work in their shirts and ties, after a short, sharp session. The lunch spinners have not arrived yet, still staring at their computer screens. A few seniors, mostly male, are scattered around the place, gently pulling levers and lifting modest weights. Mostly they rest against the brutal-looking machines, or chat softly with other morning regulars. The piped music is slow and low. Day after day they are there. Robot-like pale bodies programmed to unpack their bag, open a locker, change clothes, follow exercise routine, undress, shower, get dressed again, pack bag, close the locker and leave. Most days nothing notable happens to disturb this idyll.

One day a stranger appeared. A rather portly man in stocking feet, grey woollen trousers and a glaring emerald-green hoodie came striding along the narrow corridor between the rows of black and red machines. In one hand a clipboard, in the other a large cellphone with white plugs, round his neck a stop-watch dangling on a black ribbon. He made a beeline for a comfortable seat on one of the machines and flopped down, crossing his legs with difficulty and staring intensely at the phone.

A gradual slowing down of the seniors and their machines could be discerned, as focus turned from training programmes and repetitions to the newcomer.

Warm muscles started to stiffen up when it became clear that the intruder was not alone. First one, then another youth self-consciously followed, dragging their feet and looking around suspiciously. Mid-teens, one slim and sulky, the other seriously overweight. Hardly dressed for training, more like “come-as-you-are”. They dumped jackets and bags in a corner and nonchalantly kicked off their shoes. Gradually they made their way around the gym in slow motion, unwittingly imitating the seniors. Eyes downcast, avoiding contact, they tried a few machines, preferring those out of sight of their leader. He didn’t acknowledge their arrival, engrossed as he was in an animated and loud conversation in a foreign tongue to a person apparently far away.

Two late-comers shuffled along, clones of their comrades in appearance and behaviour. Once installed, they made half-hearted attempts at understanding how the machines worked. Occasionally they lifted a weight or two, between intense staring at the screens of their outsize phones.

The seniors were not too happy about the intrusion, muttering and exchanging disapproving looks as they resumed their training schedules. Order was restored, at least temporarily, until the green-hooded man got up from his machine, announced by a loud clang as the counterweights fell back into place. Greying eyebrows were raised and heads turned as the portly man marched off to find his reluctant charges, stop-watch swinging and clipboard held high. He started to chant instructions and encouragement to the drowsy youths in a bored voice. The only concrete result was the growing irritation of the seniors, defensive of their grandfathers’ rights.

Giving up, the leader retreated with his pupils to a small room fitted out with blue exercise mattresses, designated for stretching rituals. A bad move! The lads collapsed onto the nearest mattress like exhausted dogs, more from lack of sleep than exertion. They lay there groaning, clutching phones like cuddly toys. Stop-watch at the ready, the hooded man ordered the youths to perform a series of sit-ups, one after the other. Enthusiasm for the competition against his clock was definitely low; it was more fun bouncing giant beach balls around the room. Undermined by their lethargy and the increasing hostility of the seniors waiting for their stretching sessions, the leader made a hasty retreat. Gradually the youths summoned up enough energy to grab their stuff and slouch off after him, like sleepwalkers, keeping a safe distance.

The seniors seemed relieved, nodding approvingly, as they recaptured their territory and could return to their daily exercise regime.

“Strangers in the House” is the traditional cry when intruders are found in the British Houses of Parliament.

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