The first sport I did was serving orange quarters to Amazonian Australian girls who were on the teams. As these things tend to go, the same girls didn’t just make one team; they stormed onto all of them. As a small, migrant child dispossessed of hand-eye co-ordination, I was forever doomed to be the last one left standing when the captains chose their crew. Looking back perhaps they felt the same way when I played most of the parts in Shakespeare. I don’t really think so.
Most of these kids had emerged from the womb already swimming. Besides the dread of the weekly school lesson, there was the nuclear cloud of chlorine that hovered above the pool. It was impossible not to inhale which was pretty much my major take-out until we learned privately when I hit the ancient swimmer’s age of eight and they took the chlorine down by about fifty shots.
That’s pretty much how it went in Australia in the 1970s. Unless you were any good – no let’s make that very good at something – you were excluded. By Year 10, I’d adopted the waiter’s trick of spitting on the oranges and excelling at something none of them were interested in: cross-country running. Meanwhile, they were too busy chugging ciggies as they walked the course. I should have taken note back then.
I ran for a few years after that – until knee pain sent me to a specialist who took one look and said: ‘Well, you’re not built like a runner are you? You’ve got hips. Go swimming instead.’ Determined to turn my diminutive, curvy body into something it was resisting, I persisted. Away from the gaze of school bullies, I perfected my freestyle until I moved to London where people did not do laps in swimming pools. They floated on their backs and kind of gurgled like toddlers.
And then along came strapping Sean from NZ and a love affair with weights. Trainers are like medical professionals, you are not allowed to covet them. And for about 20 years, I trained like a boy, watching with amazement as my muscles became more defined and grew. I delighted in wearing sleeveless tops and flexing my muscles at every opportunity. It was death or glory, I chose the latter, I even learnt to ski at the age of 47 having figured out that since my life was probably half-over, injury would not be so bad.
A life spent sticking to the Mediterranean diet, a good measure of genetics and things ticked along nicely until I was about 52. Up until then, I had not given the slightest consideration to the possibility that my investment in myself could go down as well as up. My first oversight.
The second was menopause. Okay, I had no control over that one but while I expected the sudden bursts of tube rage, I didn’t anticipate that every past injury and some new ones would all surface at once and suddenly instead of a fighting machine, my body would become a nagging old aunt.
I started to feel very, very tired. I now realise I should have adopted the Keith Richards fitness regime way before. With barely a couple of glasses of wine a week and the same healthy diet, the GP informed me two months ago that I was ‘highly methylated’ with dangerously high copper and stupidly low zinc. I got capsules for that. I also acquired a physio for the hip bursitis – that’s a menopause thing apparently – and Pilates Reformer classes for the neck. I briefly tried opiates but my tolerance maxed out after two days. Go figure.
I recently opined to my mum who has never been ill in 89 years but then she stuck to gardening, that I should have stuck closer to the Middle East staples of cigarettes and alcohol with minimal exercise – my cousins don’t eat. The rather delicious irony in all this is that because the pharmaceutical painkillers either don’t work or hurt my stomach, my effective painkillers these days are vodka or scotch and the odd cigarette.
Two nights ago, the osteoarthritis in my neck reached beyond a level of tolerable pain, I helped myself to a couple of vodka shots and felt good enough to dance to random You Tube tracks for four hours. I’m not sure that particular recipe will work long-term, but right now a modicum of the Keith Richards’ methodology is working just fine.