Body Work by Neil Leadbeater


The building, noted for its long, low roof and floor-to-ceiling windows, lay at the far end of the school grounds on the north side of town. There was nothing extraordinary about it once you walked inside. It was just a large empty space. There was none of the fancy paraphernalia that you see in gyms today. We went to it once a week between French and Maths. The instructor was an ex-Army Sergeant Major, the sort whose talk was all shout; whose face showed no emotion. We were fresh out of the packet, green as grass; boys without names trained to obey his loud commands without any hint of complaint. Our world was circumscribed, purposeful, exact. We were exercising our bodies not our rights.

We had five minutes to change into our kit and then a shrill whistle would call us to attention. We were a sea of white, all arms and legs, awaiting his instruction. The warm-up was ten laps round the circuit. Even at that point, Skidmore was always first off the mark, fighting off the opposition as if he were running a marathon. He was the competitive one. Pringle was more reflective. He viewed the exercise much as a boy who would think up an idea and then learn to run with it. He was more interested in seeing where it lead to than any of the others. No one was allowed to fall out of line. The Sergeant Major stood in the middle watching us closely. It was as if he was holding us on invisible reins and whirling us round like a dervish.

Most of us had put all our concentration into running: running away, running into danger. Coleman, in particular, had let his imagination run to a higher plane, had seen how athletic a body could be in the pure act of movement, how everything pushed with an equal force, driving us upward, propelling us on, the immense flexion of lower limbs each answering to the other’s call, one foot moving in front of the other with the body in forward lean. He knew how stride length could be critical, how arms give lift with the hands uncapped to the higher velocities of running. He saw more than any of us the way the body worked.

After that, we were flat on our backs with our sweat-soaked tops damp on the wooden floor. For a few seconds, our eyes took in the ceiling. To Scriven it was a blank canvas waiting to be filled with voluptuous girls who would all be lying there defying the laws of gravity in a state of undress. That was the artist in him waiting to express itself in whatever form it could find. Five seconds was all he had to imagine the comfort of breasts.

Rocking Sit-Ups were next. We lay back, knees bent, feet on the floor, arms extended over the head. Swinging our arms forward and, at the same time, thrusting our feet forward, we moved to the sitting position and then it was the great reach forward as we touched our toes with our fingers. Some of us managed it easily enough but for others it was a kind of agony, the fingers just falling short of the toes like a missed connection. The awful wrench in the stomach prevented any further exertion to try to close the gap.

The next minute we were lying face down on the wooden floor, our noses full of the stained odour of wood. Arms along sides, palms pressing against our thighs, we saw the dust blow round the room, as we waited for the command. It was not long in coming. “Raise your head, shoulders, and chest as high as possible from the floor.” He walked above us, striding round like a colossus, checking our movements for faults.

Press-ups were followed by slow push-ups, run and half knee bends, arm-flinging, sit-ups, knee raising, lateral bending… he made us feel like India rubber. Our young limbs were so flexible, there was no fear of snapping.

Some days, in a change to the usual routine, he’d place a vaulting horse in the middle of the gym and we’d all line up, single file, in front of it. Every time he shouted “Next!” the one in front would run forward and leap-frog over the horse. Skidmore cleared it like a hero. His trajectory seemed effortless and his performance commendable. He set the example we all knew that we had to follow as the litany of “Next!” went down the line. This was so much more than just physical exercise. There was something in the manner of the instructor that suggested the bigger picture. Although he never said as much, I knew that I was not the only one to pick up on this. It was something to do with stamina. Some of us referred to it as sticking power; all the exertion that we would have to put into living simply to stay alive. Over the years we began to realise that it was not just a physical thing. It was a mental thing as well. It was all about getting everything into perfect balance in order to achieve a state of equilibrium.

Climbing the ropes was never easy for Pringle. He could never quite get his feet off the ground. Every time he tried, the multiplication of past failures only made it worse. He was earthbound and always would be. There was a hidden art to it which we were never told. You either had it or you hadn’t. Coleman had it in spades. He shimmied up them in no time and swung from the top with pride.

At the halfway point we were given the choice of either playing football or going on the trampoline. Scriven and Pringle always opted for the latter. They loved to partner each other jumping up and down. To Scriven it was an act of sheer artistry. The power of moving or of being moved seemed to affect his sensibility; to Pringle it was like bouncing off ideas, an exchange of wordless thoughts. Exertion of the body was like exertion of the mind: a study in music, a set of problems, an academic disputation…out of the two of them, I would say that he was the reflective one. Even then, I could tell where some of us were headed in life. I could be wrong of course, but then I could be right.

Down below on the indoor pitch, the instructor acted as referee. He was all movement, tracking the ball and watching the action until that moment when the whistle blew long and low spiralling down to a low whisper indicating that time was up, the game finished, the class over.

We ran into the changing room in a random orderly fashion, if that doesn’t sound too much of a contradiction. We smelt of dust and body odour. Our skin was wet with sweat. There were no showers. We simply changed back into our school uniforms and set off for Maths.

Visitors never think of the gym. They concentrate on walking round some of the other areas like the library, the houses and the classroom blocks but I took a short excursion to that low-lying building at the boundary end and, finding the door unlocked, wandered in. I must say that I hardly recognised the place at first because of all the state of the art equipment. I had to imagine the empty room as it once was in order to pull together whatever thoughts I was trying to summon up: the moments we shared in the gym. Friday mornings between French and Maths… and I thought to myself, where are they now? All those boys, most of whose names I could no longer remember, what had they done with their lives?