During a recent spring clean I found a school report from my college English tutor. It said this: ‘Sometimes straying off the point, Ryan gets enmeshed in his own writing and fails to address the subjects fully.’ That was written sixteen years ago. Apart from my ability to grow excessive nasal hair and inability to run, very little has changed. When I started writing this particular piece, it was supposed to be about doing yoga. I ended up getting nowhere near the subject, focusing, instead, on buying jogging bottoms for yoga. So, for the first time ever, this is a two-parter. It is dedicated to my good friend, Emily, who can enmesh herself in yoga and address the subject fully.
Like all dubious endeavours, it first required a trip to Sports Direct.
If I was going to do yoga properly, I needed new jogging bottoms. My existing pair were a sombre, grey Primark affair which were now, like most items I’ve bought from that particular establishment, in a black bin-liner ready to be squished through the chomp-happy metallic mouth of the clothes bank. I’d only worn them once (during a previous failed attempt to ‘get healthy’). Primark clothes generally give the impression that they’ve been made-to-measure by a tailor who can’t count. Their jogging bottoms were no exception. They managed to achieve that unique Primark trick of being both clampingly tight in some areas (groin, ankles) and indecently loose in others (waistline). I couldn’t jog more than three metres without them slinking seductively downwards and treating onlookers to a Sunday Sport-style snapshot of my posterior. What they’d reveal if I wore them for yoga didn’t bear thinking about. All that bending and stretching. People would be throwing up on their mats. No, I had to get serious. I had to upgrade. There was only one place to go.
Sports Direct is the Death Valley of retail. Stiflingly warm, even the staff doze around in shorts and t-shirts, struggling to finish sentences. They speak with desperate panting noises, like car-trapped dogs in late July. When the Sports Direct heat hits you, you stay hit. Sweat congeals and coats your forehead. Your ears burn. Your socks stick to your toes. All around you, training tops and tracksuits weld themselves to their melting hangers. Sondico footballs burst of their own accord. Steal railings emit steam, sizzling to the touch.
Within seconds of entering, my skin had tanned and shrivelled, resembling that of an elderly Mediterranean idler from those ads for Olivio Spread.
‘Ca-han I h-h-help you, mate?’ gasped a young assistant with a walkie talkie.
‘Where are the…’ I wiped sweat from my lip, ‘jogging bottoms?’
‘Down…’ he said, stopping to mop his brow and take on more oxygen, ‘down… stairs… mate.’ He propped himself up against a stack of Karrimor shoeboxes (‘60% Discount – Must End Next Week!’).
Giving him the last of my h2o supplies, I headed to the core. Alone.
In a world of replicas, downstairs was an impressive imitation of upstairs. The same boxes of Karrimor hiking boots (‘60% Discount – Must End Next Week!’), the same cylindrical basket of Sondico balls near the door, the same rows of Chelsea training tops and Manchester United away kits. Rows and rows of t-shirts and sweaters stretching higher and higher. To reach an item from the top rails would require a ladder so tall that even a fireman might call his wife before ascending it:
‘It’s a dangerous one tonight, sweetheart. Higher and hotter than anything I’ve ever known. I just want you to know I love you, my darling, more than life itself… And tell the kids that I think they’re alright, too.’
It was effectively the sports paraphernalia equivalent of the library in Beauty & The Beast. Instead of leather-bound books, it was Lee Cooper t-shirts and Lonsdale vests; instead of candlesticks and teapots pontificating whether the new arrival will break the castle’s spell, there were static-laden walkie talkie conversations about whether or not there were any Reebok Classics in the stock room.
I picked up two pairs of Puma jogging bottoms. They were £15 for the combo. A bargain, I thought. Until I realised that the cat on the logo wasn’t a puma. What was it, though? A jaguar? A lynx? Top Cat? I read the label. Whatever member of the feline family it was, one thing was clear: I’d fallen for the oldest trick in the Slazenger book. I should’ve known. Honestly, around half of Slazenger’s annual profits must be due to people thinking they’re buying Puma. It’s like those cheap movies which come out on DVD at the exact same time as the films they’re ripping off: Hacksaw Fridge; La La Town; Finding Cory; Larry Potter and the Wizard’s Sleeve. People are drawn to the price not the product. They pick them up, they don’t check. I was no different. The actual Pumas were on a rail across the store. Two pairs for £40. No deal.
After my failure with the Primark joggers, I had to make sure my new Slazengers were fit for yoga-related purpose and wouldn’t lead to charges of indecent exposure whenever I attempted the Downward Dog. I asked to try them on. There was only one changing room; it was cumbersome and clammy and smelt of warm bum, an accumulation of years of exposure to sweaty undercarriages. I made an effort to breathe through my ears instead of my nose/mouth. It failed.
Taking my jeans off, but keeping my coat on, I reflected on my reflection in the body-length mirror. Had it really come to this? Was this really what the adult version of myself looked like? When I was younger I had a very clear idea of what the thirty-something version of myself would be doing with his life. He’d be starring in films, saving babies from burning tower blocks, winning awards (for unspecified achievements), and winding down his professional football career. Naturally, the thirty-something version of myself would also somewhat better than this, too: a cross between a matinee idol, a Man of Letters and a Backstreet Boy. The truth, though, like the changing room air, was hard to swallow. For some reason, the Sports Direct mirror had a sort of brutal Brother’s Grimm-style ability to project my past and future and pass silent comment on both. ‘So’, I thought, staring into the glass, ‘this is me: Ryan. Bald. Flabby. Glasses. Lumpy legs. Yet to win any awards for unspecified achievements. Standing in an arse-scented changing room holding a pair of XXL Slazenger jogging bottoms that I’d only picked up because I thought they were Puma…’
The door rattled. ‘You alright in there, mate?’
‘Yep,’ I panicked. ‘Just, er, trying them on. Mate.’
Shaken by the interruption, I put my jeans back on. As I opened the cubicle door, a customer caught the pungent backdraft of bum-air full-on and stared at me in an accusatory manner. I had no defence.
‘I’ll buy both of these,’ I said, handing the joggers to one of the walkie talkie boys. I think I expected him to be impressed with my carefree approach to spending, the way a young car salesman might swoon at the sight of a self-made millionaire slapping his chequebook on the bonnet of a new Jaguar and saying ‘I’ll take it’.
‘Ok, mate,’ he said, refusing to swoon.
There was a queue for the till. All men. All single. All hot-faced. All carrying more than they came in for. Their arms were loaded with crap: Kangol jeans, Donnay socks (in packs of twelve), enormous Sports Direct mugs, Caterpillar work-boots and Liverpool FC wall clocks. The bloke behind me had one of those football team posters that are taken in an empty stadium in the sunny optimism of pre-season. (I love these posters. They go wildly out of date in next to no time and usually end up wrapped around the nearest dart board. He had a poster of the Arsenal team, blue sky, everybody smiling. I’m pretty sure Ashley Cole was on it.)
I queued in hot silence.
‘Would you like a special bag today?’ asked the till assistant in a chirpy register.
‘Special bag?’ I joked. ‘I’m not sure if I can cope with that kind of excitement.’
‘Would you like a special bag today?’ asked the till assistant in a familiar chirpy register.
‘Yes,’ I said, quietly, to clear up the matter once and for all. ‘What makes them special?’
‘Special bags,’ she said, ‘are a pound.’
I left the shop, into breathable air. I was monetarily poorer but two pairs of Slazenger jogging bottoms richer. I was ready for yoga. But was yoga ready for me? I may have had a special bag, but everything else about me screamed average.
To be continued… (I’ve always wanted to write that!)