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Peter Corris

The Black Prince

PART ONE

1

I was lying on my back with my right leg up in the air, trying to get my hands to reach to my ankle. They wouldn’t do it. Mid-calf at best.

‘I call those executive hamstrings,’ Wesley Scott said. ‘Do you play any sport, Mr Hardy?’

‘Cliff,’ I said, still trying and failing. I switched legs. Worse. ‘I play a bit of tennis.’

‘How often? Ease up, Cliff, you’ll hurt yourself.’

I relaxed. ‘About once a month.’

‘Warm up? Stretch before and after?’

‘No.’

‘Like I say, executive hamstrings. Get up and let’s look this over.’

I got up creakingly. Wesley Scott was the proprietor and trainer at the Redgum Gymnasium and Fitness Centre in Norton Street, Leichhardt. He was a West Indian who’d been British and European body-building champion in the 1970s before marrying an Australian Woman and migrating. He had African features, ebony skin, a shaved head and a body of iron.

Lately, my own body had been letting me down. I was tired at night and in a recent tussle with a thug who was trying to maim the man I was protecting, I had to resort to very dirty tactics to subdue him. He was getting the better of me before I eye-gouged him. I didn’t like either feeling and I decided that I needed some toning up. Hence the visit to the gym for a ‘fitness assessment’.

Wesley Scott had prodded and poked me, put me on an exercise bike and used calipers on various parts of my body. He’d entered his findings on a chart and was examining it now. He wore a black singlet, a red and silver tracksuit bottom with matching Nikes and leaned elegantly on an exercise bench. ‘Hmm, not too bad for your age. Body fat to weight ratio okay, could be better. Aerobic fitness above average but not by much. Flexibility poor. You should be ashamed of yourself.’

I was unprepared for that and bridled a bit. ‘Why? You said it wasn’t too bad.’

‘You’re what? Let’s see-184 centimetres, eighty-three kilos. I’d say you did a lot of sport when you were young, right?’

‘Yeah. Surfing, boxing

‘Pretty good were you, man?’

‘Not bad.’

‘You had a naturally athletic physique and a strong constitution which you’ve let run down. When did you stop smoking?’

‘Years ago.’

‘Did it for how long?’

‘Too long.’

‘How much do you drink?’

‘Too much.’

‘What I mean. You go on as you are and you’re going to tear a hamstring playing tennis or do a knee ligament. What kind of work do you do?’

‘Security, that sort of thing.’

‘Shit! Does that get physical?’

I thought of the heavy with the hard stomach and the knuckleduster. ‘Occasionally. Not if I can help it.’

‘So why are you here?’

His manner was a bit hard to take-almost aggressive, not quite. Very serious, but slightly mocking. He smiled, then threw a punch at me. From old habit, I slipped it and moved inside and could have thumped him over the heart except that I suspected it would have hurt me more than it would him.

‘Hey, Cliff, you’re quick. That’s good.’

He was pleased and I was pleased. That got us on a better footing and I told him about the fight I’d almost lost and the tiredness and a few aches and pains stemming from old injuries.

‘I can give you a weight training and stretching program that’ll make a new man of you if you stick at it. Three days a week, an hour per session. Plus some deep tissue massage that’ll hurt but get the kinks out.’

I signed up for five hundred dollars for a six-month program and started going to the gym early on Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. The first day, Clinton, Wesley’s son, a slim coffee-coloured youth with cropped hair and perfect teeth doing a degree in human movement at the Southwestern University, took me through the stretching exercises and showed me how to work the weight machines. Bench press, leg press, leg curls, pull- downs, back extensions, abdominal crunches and sessions on the exercise bike and rowing machine. Gradually, I upped the weights and the repetitions and was gratified to find myself getting stronger and more flexible.

To my surprise, I enjoyed the work-outs and the camaraderie among the people in the gym. No poseurs or narcissists, Wesley’s clients were serious trainers-professional men and women, basketballers and footballers, police, dancers and actors of both sexes-a mixed bunch. When Wesley was on deck the radio played ABC Classic FM; when Clinton was in charge it was Triple J.

Wesley turned out to be a man of many parts. He’d been a jazz musician, a stage and TV actor and stuntman in Britain, a county cricketer and he held a Master’s degree in Physical Education. He had a passion for Mozart and Shakespeare and was apt to quote from Bill when he was pummelling the hell out of me. His wife was a teacher. He had a daughter at the Conservatorium and he was active in Sydney’s surprisingly large West Indian community. After a couple of months, having enjoyed his stories about London, the Portobello Road, Yul Brynner and other big names, and endured his Shakespearian allusions, I counted him as a friend.

Gyms, I found, are strange places. All the sweat and strain doesn’t conceal subtle tensions that can lie under the surface. Workout partners can in fact be engaged in bitter competition; instructors can offend the clients with a misplaced word about technique and the instructors themselves can fall out. As far as I could see things weren’t entirely harmonious between Wesley and Clinton. Clinton’s attendance was somewhat irregular and he struck me as moody. Once, when he hadn’t showed up for a spell I asked Wesley about him.

‘In a huff,’ he said. ‘Pauline, his sister, said something to him about the way he treated women and he took it wrong. Well, he took it right, I guess. He’s treated a few girls badly. He stormed off and said he’d never bring a girl home again.’

‘That’ll blow over when he wants a good feed.’

Wesley smiled without humour. ‘He’s a good boy, but he needs to learn something about reliability.’

‘I’m still learning about that myself.’

‘He takes things to heart. He’s fought with everyone in the family at one time or another.’

I didn’t put much store in that. So had I.

A week or so later I rolled in for my massage after upping the weights on the leg press and increasing the reps on the abdominal crunches. I pushed open the door to the massage room, feeling pretty pleased with myself, thinking of investing in new gym gear. The ancient tennis shorts were getting pretty ratty.

‘Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more,’ I intoned. ‘We’ll stop the gap… Hell, what’s the matter, Wes?’

I’d expected to find Wesley flexing his muscles, leering and slapping his oiled hands together with a sound like a thunderclap. But he was sitting, dressed as I’d never seen him, in jeans, shirt and leather shoes, in a chair in a corner of the room. He was forty-four and normally looked ten years younger; now he looked his age and a bit more. His massive shoulders were slumped and his usually taut, noble face was sagging.

‘Hello, Cliff. You look cheerful.’

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