It all started when I received a text message from an unrecognised number that read: ‘This is my new number. Lose the old one. I’ll be around Fri & Sat if you want cheese. Half-life.’
Was he tripping again? I put in a call to find out.
‘You OK, hun?’ I asked.
‘Contacts cock-up,’ he said. ‘Fucking technology. Now every fucker wants a piece of me. I’m going into hiding for the day. Coming?’
‘The spa? I don’t know. Isn’t it all fat people sitting around staring into space?’
‘Yeah. You’ll fit in fine.’
And so it was that I found myself waiting for Half-life outside Brockwell Lido, Herne Hill, the handsome Art Deco Grade II listed building in Brockwell Park that houses a gym and a hydrotherapy unit as well as an oversized outdoor swimming pool. Just standing outside it was making me feel healthy. Or was it simply hot and tired? I took a seat on a bench and tried for a nap.
I dreamed a giant man in yellow micro-Speedos and mid-calf Doc Martins was prodding me with a cane and shouting ‘Arise, sloth!’, until I realised that I was in fact awake and Half-life had arrived.
‘Follow me,’ he commanded.
We strode to the front of the long queue for the pool where Half-life announced to all staff present that he’d brought me along for the ‘free trial’ and that I’d be ‘doing the form’ on the way out. Someone nodded and with this simple exchange, we were in. We headed down to the changing rooms.
‘Alright, big man,’ said a chap with a mop to Half-life in the corridor.
‘Believe,’ said Half-life. ‘Anyone asks, I’m not here.’
I felt honoured to be witnessing yet another facet of Half-life’s mysterious existence, even if I was in a glorified bath-house. In the changing room I stripped, put on my swim shorts and collected together my stuff for the locker.
‘That’s weird,’ I said, ‘Looks like you have to bring your own padlock for the lockers. Who carries around their own padlocks?’
‘Take your pick,’ said Half-life, unzipping his bumbag and tipping out half a dozen onto the bench, along with two Nectar cards and some king-sized Rizla. ‘Never know when you’re gonna need to lock summat.’
We went through to the hydrotherapy room where the Jacuzzi groaned at us and an elderly man was, despite the racket, asleep on one of the loungers. Through the internal window was the disconcerting sight of people exercising in the gym. I looked away.
‘Jacuzzi, sauna, steam, crash,’ said Half-life doing a lot of pointing, and I wasn’t sure if he was showing me the ropes or if this was the itinerary. I stepped into the Jacuzzi.
‘Have a fucking shower first, you filthy dirtbag,’ said Half-life, horrified.
I duly showered and had just about got used to being wafted about in the water like a dead horse when the water-groaning stopped and, to my surprise, a waterfall began.
‘Get it on your back,’ said Half-life. ‘It’s a free massage, innit.’
After a good pummelling, we padded over to the sauna to breathe boiling air and sweat out our own organs.
‘So what was with the cheese text?’ I asked Half-life as we sat in the yellowy gloom. He sighed.
‘Look, I may as well level with you,’ he said. ‘Dirty knows, so I’ll tell you an’ all. Truth is, I’m not a cycle courier.
At least, I am, only I’m not delivering fucking planning apps and court summons’ or shit like that. And it’s not cheese either. You get me?’
‘It’s drugs, Raider. I’m delivering drugs. Top quality drugs. Well, not top quality, but lots of ’em.’
I didn’t have the heart to tell him that this has been blindingly obvious to everyone for years and that not only had Dirty South told me everything about their night out together some months ago, he’d even written about it on these very pages. Next Half-life would be telling me that those years he disappeared weren’t, after all, spent on a ‘silent meditation retreat somewhere outside Aberystwyth’.
‘So I have my clients, yeah?’ he went on, ‘And they have my number, which I change every month. Only this month I’ve been floating around in K-land like a fucked balloon and I sent it out to the wrong contacts, didn’t I? To my girlfriends, my mother, my dentist…’
‘Tell me about it. Now I’ve got normals ringing me on my drugs number and no cunt using my private number. It’s a shambles, Raider. It it any wonder I’m stressed?’
To be honest, he looked the least stressed person I could imagine as he gave his jumblies a good jiggle about in his Speedos with one hand and waggled his little finger in his ear with the other, before smelling it. By now sweat was running in rivulets down my ruddy folds.
‘I’m hot,’ I said. ‘And not in a good way.’
‘Come on, let’s cold shower,’ he said.
If shouting is good for the soul then my shower shrieks filled up the tank good and proper and I was more than ready for the tropical wet heat of the steam room.
‘Phew. It’s like a sauna in here,’ I said, channelling Kramer. How I’ve longed to say that line.
Afterwards we dripped our way round to reception where Half-life nodded at the gate man and we were let through to the Lido. Here we swam, had an intense game of ‘Bottle-top’ that involved spinning a bottle-top to one another and a bewildering scoring system that Half-life was loathe to fully explain, and then ate fig rolls as we dried off in the sun.
‘Now,’ said Half-life, ‘We do it all again.’
Our body temperatures dropped as we headed back round to the hydro room and wading back into the warm Jacuzzi was most welcome. And that’s when it happened.
There we were, lying on the tiled loungers, the water lapping around our ears, when I thought to myself, I bloody love this. Right there in the dreamy half-light, relaxed and carefree, I became a spa convert.
‘I feel magnificent,’ I said.
‘You think this feels good,’ said Half-life, ‘Wait ’til your first pint.’
‘I really didn’t have you down as a spa man,’ I said.
‘You’re kidding, aren’t you? These places are massive for me.’
‘Right. Where else do you go?’
‘The Pestana Hotel is nice, over in Battersea. Lovely chill area. But the big new gaff is the Elephant. Very popular. With an Axess card it’s only 75p. Now every bugger’s in the sauna, chatting shit. That Aphex Twin was about the other day.’
‘Ever go in the gym?’
‘Don’t be daft. I did the yoga here for a bit but the teacher was so peng I started seeing her after hours and gave it up. Why pay for what you get at home, right? Namaste.’
We fell silent again, possibly thinking about sexy yoga teachers. I know I was.
Back in the changing room I realised I hadn’t brought a towel.
‘Don’t worry, I’ve got one,’ said Half-life, pulling a bottle green Wimbledon bath towel from his rucksack.
‘Nice,’ I said.
‘Used to be Gabriela Sabatini’s.’
‘Had a little thing with her in the ’90s.’
‘Yeah, I was on the squeegees, she was an international tennis star. Was never gonna last. Somehow I ended up with the spider plant, her God-awful CD collection and this towel. You can still smell her arse on it sometimes. Wanna share?’ he said, offering it to me.
‘You’re alright. Thanks, though.’
‘She was all like, would you be with me if I was a just squeegee girl? On and on. Did me bonce in. In the end I was like, “No, love. Sorry, but no”. And that was it, she had a fucking meltdown, right there in Habitat.
Out in the bright sunshine, Half-life grimaced at his phone.
‘Fuck-a-doodle-do, 12 messages,’ he said. ‘I’ll have to get another phone. Right, beer. One in the Regent, one in the Nanny and two in the Tavern. We’ve earned it. Your round, plus you owe me 15 quid for the spa.’
Half-life took a call and we sauntered over the road to the Prince Regent. As I stood at the bar I marvelled at how refreshed I felt. I wasn’t sure if it was just down to taking some time out – absconding from life for a bit – or simply the wonderful sensation of spending some time in a different element, but I felt re-booted. Ready to top up my toxins. And Half-life was right, that first sip of beer was tremendous, like tasting it for the first time.
I took our pints outside, where Half-life was finishing his call.
‘That was my dentist,’ he said, shaking his head. ‘She wants a pound of Stichelton and some Cornish Yarg.’
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