Gavin is not just my flatmate, but probably my best friend. He likes to swim nearly as much as I do, though I’m off it at the moment due to the virulent skin condition I seem to have picked up. So, while I have to lather my pustules every three hours with Scabbo dermatological cream, Gavin carries on his late-night swimming sessions at Newbury Leisure Centre without me.
When I got home last Tuesday and Gavin wasn’t there, it was nothing unusual. Friends and flatmates yes, but we’re not each other’s keeper. His being the impetuous sort, he sometimes disappears for a few days, returning with stories about great swims he’d had in far flung towns across the country, in pools he’d never swum in before, some even Olympic sized. So when Tuesday became Thursday and he’d not come back I wasn’t worried, his flip flops and nose pinchers were gone so I had no reason to suspect anything untoward.
Then on Friday his work called me. They had not seen him for three days and did I know where he was as he was needed at the factory. I put the phone down. Something was wrong. Gavin loves his job, screwing the metal blades into pencil sharpeners and would never pull a sickie, certainly not a three-day one. I suspected foul play.
We’d always thought there were strange goings at the pool at night – rumour had it that the council were bringing in the old folk from the nearby care homes to bath them in the warm water, but I could not say whether this was true. You certainly see car loads of old people leaving the leisure centre if you ever go for an Early-Bird swim. Then on our evening swims it always seems we get shooed out as quickly as they can, particularly by Gunter Thrip, the pool manager. He has a face like a full bowl of cereal, and always hurries us up, telling us he has to get out of there by midnight. We always tease him that he gets the inflatables out and paddles around in the kiddy pool when everyone had gone, but he never rises to our bait or even smiles, though his porridge face suggests he is hiding something.
I’ve seen Thrip outside of the leisure centre a couple of times. Once at Thatcham Garden Centre, in the next queue along, clearly trying to hide from me behind the greenery of a trolley-load of plants. I ignored him. Then in Wilkinsons, he jumped a mile when I said ‘hello’ as I passed him in the gardening aisle. He threw packets of seed and plant labels everywhere with the shock and was most indignant when I tied to help pick them up. I told him I’d seen his photo in the Newbury Weekly News of Newbury, being presented with the ‘Best Petunia’ award at the local horticultural show, but he just mumbled something under his voice that sounded like ‘pesky varmint, always trying to stick his nose in’, but I could have been mistaken.
I suspected Thrip may have had something to do with Gavin’s absence and immediately went down to the Leisure Centre, despite the discomfort from the chafing buboes of my worsening skin condition. Gunter was on duty. I asked him if he’d seen Gavin. His face turned even greyer, as if he’d found a condom in the foot rinse and said ‘Who? Oh yes, Gavin. He, err, said he was going to where was it, oh yes – Acapulco. On holiday – erm, for a month or maybe two’.
This had to be a lie. I knew jolly well that Gavin is highly allergic to Guacamole and feels queasy if he even stands on the same side of the street as a Chimichanga Tex-Mex diner, so there’s no way he would choose Mexico as an impromptu holiday destination. I had to find out the truth and was convinced it lay poolside. I went to the latex outfitters next door to buy a skin-tight body suit to protect my sprouting hives, then hid behind the giant plastic dolphin that acted as a bin outside the Leisure Centre, waiting for Gunter to walk to take his usual lunchtime walk to his nearby allotment. Sure enough, he left to nurture his marrows and I walked in through the doors and booked myself on the Zumba class, due to start in 10 minutes.
Of course, I never went to the class, but it allowed me access to the changing rooms and whilst no one was looking, I climbed into a locker and carefully pulled the door behind me. I planned to sit here, cramped admittedly. until midnight, then climb out and find what dreadful goings-on were going on. My plan was perfect apart from one small detail – I reached down to the pocket of my rubber body stocking – but of course there wasn’t one. I had left my 20p coin at the outfitters – I could not unlock the locker. I was as stuck and contorted as a squid in a jam jar.
Hours passed, my face was squashed up against the grille, the partial field of view allowing me only to see the waistlines of all the swimmers who came in, towelled themselves down, changed and went again. I saw some harrowing sights I can tell you. Then, mercifully, it went quiet for an hour. I guessed it was around midnight, when I heard geriatric voices.
‘Oh Charlie, aren’t your begonias beautiful.’
‘I could say the same about your antirrhinums.’
‘And have you seen Harold’s dahlias? Blooms big as blooming big…well, dahlias.’
There must have been a dozen old men, coming into the changing rooms all carrying pots of the most beautiful flowers. Then I heard a voice I recognised and immediately felt very scared. It was Gunter’s.
‘Yes gardeners, all of our plants are splendid. As I told you, a night-time soaking in the pool gives them the perfect mix of warm water for irrigation, chlorine to kill any pests and copious amounts of children’s urine to provide perfect nourishment for the roots – an alchemic soup of such potency that at last we will surely win the West Berkshire in Bloom Award this year.’
‘But Gunter,’ said one of the old men ’You know the Royal Horticultural Society ban the use of this brew, it giving plants a growth and vigour unobtainable to those towns and villages without a public pool, whilst our soaking of our pots and baskets every night in the pool leaves the water toxic enough to cause serious skin conditions in almost 22% of swimmers?’
My lesions itched. I could not scratch them as my arms were stuck behind my back by the confines of the locked locker.
‘Silence!’ demanded Gunter. ‘To hell with the Horticultural Society Rules. I will not bow down to the blossoms of Bucklebury or the efflorescence of East Ilsey any longer. This year, the title of West Berkshire in Bloom will be all mine!’
‘Ours’ reminded another of the old men.
‘Yes, alright. Ours. But just you remember this; you gentlemen are up and over the top of your wellingtons in the proverbial manure about our nightly illegal irrigations. If word gets out about this from any of you, our chances will be ruined – and we will all be banned from the Allotment Society – For EVER!
The men flinched at this awful prospect but were clearly committed despite any misgivings they may have had about their despicable behaviour.
‘Now’ commanded Gunter, ‘Let’s get the gimp’.
I could just make out him unlock a door at the back of the changing room and he hauled out Gavin, tightly bound in one of the floating blue and white swimming lane demarcation ropes, a snorkel gaffa-taped into his mouth to keep him silent, apart from the tubular sound of his strained breathing.
‘Untie him and get him to soak all of our plants in the pool for an hour then string him up again’
From the spout of Gavin’s snorkel came the strangest sound – uurreevvvaggewyyfrrrthhhss – which I took to be his best effort of saying, ‘You’ll never get away with this,’ without any freedom of movement of his mouth, though I could not swear to this.
‘Shaddup,’ shouted Gunter. ‘Or it’s the compost bin for you.’
Gavin’s eyes bulged in fear.
I was trying to work out what to do, when it happened. A stray mote of talc from an earlier bather’s ablutions blew in through the grilles and rested on the edge of my left nostril. I tried to dislodge it by twitching but couldn’t, my nose being so firmly squashed against the inside of the locker. The warm air currents coming in through the grille caused it gently to drift further and further up my nose until, despite my desperate efforts not to, I sneezed massively, buckling the metal sides of the locker, blowing open the front door and send me flying out onto the floor.
‘Good grief!’ squealed one of the old men at the sight of my agonised frame. ’It’s a human cube!’
‘Run, Gavin Run,’ I managed to shout. The old men, distracted by my unexpected arrival and possibly empathetic with my ricked back, were slow on the turn, enabling the nimbler Gavin to get to the door.
But Gunter was cool. ‘Let him go – but let him hear this first’.
The old men wheezed at the effort of turning their heads whilst Gavin stood at the door, poised to leg it, but ready to hear what Gunter has to say.
‘You forget that the post of Manager of the Newbury Leisure Centre comes with no little power and influence. Go tell the RHS if you wish, but know that I will not only rescind your Swimming Membership, but make sure you are banned from every pool in the country, if not the world.’
He snarled a laugh as Gavin fell to his knees in despair and called out ‘You fiend!’ I would have fallen to my knees too but I was already in that position, my limbs obstinately stiffened from 6 hours self-imposed incarceration.
In the days running up to Award day, Newbury’s blooms were certainly the most florid in West Berkshire, thanks to the blackmailed Gavin’s continued overnight soaking of pots and hanging baskets in the pool, ensuring a colour and vibrancy unrivalled in the county. But they didn’t win – it’s surprising what damage to hanging baskets that a surreptitious smearing with dermatological cream on the petals the night before judging can do can do.
illustration by Charlotte Strike