It is 8.44am, and my wife and I are arguing on the way to pilates. We’ve been exercising together for about a year – with assorted Covid-induced breaks – and over time it has got competitive. The first competition is to be the person with the most legitimate reason for running late.
“Sorry,” I say, pulling the front door shut behind us. “I couldn’t find my shoe.”
“That’s fine,” my wife says. “I was making a business call.”
“And I didn’t sleep well, due to existential worry,” I say.
None of this matters, because our pilates instructor, Ruth, only lives down the road. It’s a 30 second walk.
“Sorry we’re late,” my wife says when the door opens.
“You’re not late,” says Ruth.
“It’s his fault,” my wife says. “He’s preoccupied.”
“With what?” says Ruth.
“I don’t know,” she says. “Thoughts of impending death.”
“Oh dear,” says Ruth.
“That’s a private worry,” I say.
“Death, death, death,” my wife says. “Am I on this thing today?”
She is pointing at the reformer. The second competition is to be the first to use the only reformer, because lying on it is the closest thing pilates offers to going back to bed.
“You had it last week,” I say.
“I guess it doesn’t really matter,” my wife says, lying down on it.
“So Tim, if you can start on the mat,” says Ruth. “Legs in table-top position.”
“Ow,” I say, lying down.
“Oh dear,” says Ruth. “What hurts?”
“All of it,” I say.
The final competition is to be the one who complains the most, thereby sucking up most of the attention and doing the least actual exercising. My wife used to be much better at this than I was, but I’ve learned from her: complain hard, complain early.
“Maybe just lie there for a minute, feeling your lower spine against the mat,” says Ruth.
“Yes, I can do that,” I say. I lie still, eyes closed, listening as my wife pushes the sprung carriage of the reformer backwards with the balls of her feet, over and over.
“Right, enough of that,” she says.
“Eight more,” says Ruth.
“Go on,” I say. “Dig deep.”
“You shut up,” my wife says.
“Tim, when you’re ready, come into a kneeling position,” says Ruth.
“Yes, I’m on my way,” I say. “Something weird going on with my left thigh, but I’ll cope.”
“So, hands on the mat in front of you, right hand on top of the left, back straight, and then you’re going to reach the right leg out behind you,” says Ruth.
“OK,” I say. “Wait, what?”
“Look, he’s wasting time again,” my wife says.
“I’m willing to comply, it’s just a lot to remember,” I say.
“Do you get many married couples coming along together?” asks my wife.
“No,” says Ruth.
Back when I was going to the gym regularly I sometimes saw couples working out together, but it never lasted: one would eventually start turning up without the other. Years ago, when I shared a trainer with four or five other middle-aged men, I remember one of them getting divorced, disappearing for months and then suddenly re-joining the sessions with his much younger girlfriend. The rest of us were disapproving: we resented being minor characters in someone else’s short story.
I am trying to remember that guy’s name when I find myself crouched sideways on the reformer, head forward, pushing the carriage away with one leg in the manner of a speed skater, having lost count somewhere around 15. I’m exhausted and sweating, and I can’t remember if I’ve done the other leg already.
My wife, meanwhile, is doing step-ups on the box while describing the pain in her lower back – claiming attention, seizing the initiative.
“Is it nearly over?” she says.
“Nearly,” says Ruth. “Remember to keep your weight on the outside of your foot.”
I dig deep, perform five more extensions and stop, the springs twanging as I stand up and breathe slowly – once, twice, three times.
“When you’re done resting, Tim,” says Ruth. “You can turn round and do the other side.”
I look up to see them both staring at me.
“You’ve got to watch him every minute,” my wife says.