‘I started in the gym for Lent, which was a terrible mistake’

The General says exercise can be bad for your health

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock


A Traveller woman I know gave up cigarettes for Lent. She was sitting with her father by the fire on Pancake Tuesday feeding him pancakes. He was very quiet so she said, “A penny for your thoughts, Daddy.”

“Well I was remembering,” he said, “when we lived on the side of the road and you were thinning the beet beside me in the fields; in frost and snow, and then we’d go back to a cold camp with no fire.”

“But Daddy,” she said, “didn’t it make hardy people of us?”

“Yes,” he said sadly, “but I can hear your chest. I can hear your lungs wheezing away. And I do think sometimes – I did that to you.”

“No Daddy,” she said, “that was the fags done that to me.”

And the next morning she decided to give them up for Lent.

I started in the gym for Lent, which was a terrible mistake. I thought it might improve my cardio-vascular energy. The man behind the desk said, “We can make out a programme for you.”

I said, “There’s no need. I’ll just start using the machines on my own for a few weeks.”

So that was fine. I changed into the leggings of a tracksuit that was in the bottom of the wardrobe for decades, and cheap running shoes and an old T-shirt. I started on the walking machine, then the rowing machine and finally the bicycle.

That night I was so exhausted I fell asleep during Prime Time , which I thought was a good sign.

The following morning I was at the door of the gym for 8am and I did the same again, listening to Carthage , a novel by Joyce Carol Oates, on my headphones. The book was so good that I went round all the machines twice.

But the following morning I had such a pain in my backside that I couldn’t get out of bed. In fact I could barely keep the foot on the accelerator that afternoon as I drove to Mullingar to meet the General.

“Exercise can be extremely bad for the health,” the General warned as he inhaled smoke from a fat cigar. We were sitting at an outdoor table in Red Earth restaurant and we were lashing into a couple of Paris buns and latte’s.

“Smoking is bad for your health,” I retorted.

“Agreed,” he said. “But at least I’m dying for my country.” He put his fist to his mouth and loosened his chest in a ferocious cough.

“Considering the tax on tobacco,” he said, “it’s only fair to say that I am smoking myself to death, like a true patriot.”

To change the subject I said that the clocks would be going forward soon and we would be enjoying the long evenings again.

He said, “Did you ever notice that in summertime the peasants forget winter. And when it’s winter they can’t remember the summer. No long-term memory. That’s why they remain peasants from one generation to the next.”

I was offended but I said nothing.

“It’s the natural condition of the beast,” he explained. “They forget everything. The pain of childbirth. Last year’s weather. And the crimes of their ancestors.”

My back was still in pain.

“My dear boy,” he said, “you look wretched.”

“Did you ever smoke?” he asked. “I’m sure that an occasional cigar might improve your health.”

“I smoked when I was a boy,” I replied. “I would keep butts in my sock all day in school and then light up in the bicycle shed before cycling home.”

“And when did you give them up?”

“When I was a teacher in Cavan, ” I replied. “Do you not remember the bakery?

The bakery was a small shop at the back of which there was a pub with a daytime licence. It closed at 6pm. But from 4pm onwards it always hummed with farm labourers down from the hills on bicycles, local-government officials and schoolteachers. People would order pots of tea and Paris buns.

When the conversation warmed up the whiskies and stout would flow. And there was usually a particularly beautiful woman in attendance; she smoked cigars, her elbow on the ledge at the wall beside the pot-bellied stove.

“Yes of course,” he said, I remember it well. “Why do you mention it?”

“Because,” I reminded him, “that’s where you first met her.”

“Indeed,” he said, and he whispered her name, as he quenched the butt of his cigar on the saucer.

“I must admit,” he said sorrowfully, “that there are some things in life too painful to remember.”

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