This morning I caught a profile of myself in the mirror, and in a moment of confusion imagined that a woman close to full term had wandered into the bathroom mistaking it for a maternity hospital. Truly, I am grotesque and it has to stop now, before the gates of middle age clank for the last time in my face.
Rebecca sighs inconsolably at what I have to tell her over dinner. "Oh no, not that," she says a little later. "Not again. Not straight into the full triathlon training regime after years of utter sloth. It will end in disaster, you know it will." I know no such thing. I can't imagine what the woman is thinking of.
What Rebecca is thinking of, it transpires, is eight years ago when, after a period of sustained indolence, I launched a fitness campaign by lifting weights, walking six miles to my barber, walking home, lifting more weights, and peeing blood. At 2.30am the emergency locum said that while there were many possible causes, sudden exertion was not among them. The next day, I was halfway through writing my will when Rebecca rang Sarah Jarvis - and she was halfway through describing the incident when the doctor interrupted: "He hasn't by any chance suddenly started exercising, has he? That or eaten beetroot?" Marcher's Haematuria is what happens to soldiers on forced marches after a lay off. Once the panic subsided, I was flattered. I'd never seen myself as a soldier before. Or since.
I have an appointment for tomorrow at Courtney's gym in Bayswater for my "introduction" to all the running and cycling machines and various instruments of torture. Or rather, in my case, a reintroduction.
At the gym a cabal of nauseatingly trim 24-year-olds works out while my instructor, Rami, shows me the ropes. Smugly, I mention being a member already. "And when were you here last?" "Late August." "Oh, that's good," he says, "but I've never seen you." "Late August, 1997." For some reason, his look of combined pity and bemusement makes me panic. "Mourning, you see," I murmur. "I"ve been in mourning for Princess Diana." There is something sweetly melancholic in his smile as he gently guides me to a mat.
The voice on the phone is guarded. "Where are you?" asks Rebecca. "Look out of the window." She looks out and I wave sheepishly from the front seat of the car. Although I feel that if somehow my legs were moved for me into the upright position, I might from there be able to force them into action, but I wouldn't want to bet on it. "I've seized up," I tell her. "And," I go on, "as I was limping out of the gym, I think I heard some 20-year-old weightlifter mutter, 'Oh look, there goes Grandpa Lard,' to his mates." "I suppose I'd better come out," she says morosely, and two minutes later she is leading me into the house much like a nurse helping a wounded man into the ward of a hospital near the Somme. Once again, it seems that exercise has imbued me with a soldierly air.
Thank God there's a week before I leave for the Olympics. Were the flight any sooner I might need a wheelchair to board the plane. Pondering the trip late at night, I become concerned and dial Sydney for reassurance. "Mercure Hotel, good morning?" As a soon-to-be resident, I explain, I want to know if there's a gym. "Certainly, sir." "Good. The thing is, I want to know about post-gym medical care." A hotel doctor is available at short notice at all times, she replies. "That's not good enough. What I will need is a team of four to carry me about when my legs seize up. Hello? Possibly with access to a sedan chair. Are you there?" She isn't, of course, and dejectedly I hobble to the loo. "Becca," I scream up the stairs on emerging a minute later, in a wild if familiar panic: "Can you remember when we last had beetroot?"