“Surely it’s unnatural for an eye to see death twice over?” Bobby said doubled over, fastening two straps around his grey wrists.
He coiled the straps around a one hundred and twenty kilogram barbell, sucked in a chestful of stagnant air and tugged the bar up from the floor. I watched him grind it along the front of his hairless shins, struggling and grunting, testing his joints, barely hauling it up to the top of his legs. I caught him enjoying a moment of pride in his crinkled face, having deadlifted more than me. He had always been so smug about his strength, but officially becoming a pensioner at the age of sixty-eight really thickened up his broth. He let the metal weights crash onto the rubber floor with a loud clang. His white moustache fell over his lips like two wilting petals, parting for his yellow smile.
The gym instructor drew his eyes up from his copy of Fifty Shades Darker and shot us a cutting stare from the back of the old warehouse gym. He was well known round Eastbourne as Slickback Rick – rumour had it that the nickname spread as far as Brighton and Polegate during his doorman days. He sat by the old wooden door which fell into the room at a jaunty angle; like it was pulling itself away from its hinges. On windier days, a salty sea-breeze tickled its way through that old cracked door. Sometimes the sunlight broke through the jagged blind, and fractured the suffocating grey light. It was a strange place for a gym to be: up by the coast, on the Downs. It was too close to nature.
“But you ain’t gotta give your eyes. I chose to. You can choose what goes.”
“I’d never fancy getting rid of all my innards. Especially my eyes. They see it all. Don’t they deserve a rest?” Bobby’s arms were tied in a defiant knot. I watched as his yellow mouth opened to form a long, flat smile.
“It’s just something I’ve had to think about,” I said. “They ask if you’d want to be a donor on the driving licence application.” I lied. A few other men were in the weights section, measuring their manliness by the resonance of their grunting. Their tuneless music of dumbbells clattering onto iron racks rattled through my ribcage.
“I hate the idea of it. Always have. It’s Frankenstein nonsense. Why would I want my heart beating in another man’s body?” Bobby was as stubborn as a wet match. Any transplant of his organs would be useless: they’d reject their new host straight off. Take his bowel. Although it seems loyal to him, in another I could see the thing slackening at will. It’d be anarchy. I imagine no amount of Yakult could appease Bobby’s betrayed bowels.
A bead of sweat plummeted down Bobby’s straight nose, lingering on the tip for a few seconds. His nose had been flattened out from his National Service in the mid-fifties, when he got into a scrap over a cut out of Brigitte Bardot. He never told me any more than that, but I guess he lost, ‘cos his nose was as sheer as a cliff’s edge. “How’s your dad, anyway?” He always shoe-horned that question into conversation, as the people who are never there to ask for themselves will do. He inspected the loose sleeves around my biceps. “You’re slacking, Freckles,” he said. I didn’t like him calling me that. I expected better than a lazy jibe at my gingery skin. A seafront burster whisked Rick’s sheets of loose paperwork up into the air. One fell onto a treadmill and got stuck in its belt, appearing and vanishing every other second. He ignored them and leafed over the next page of his book with hungry eyes.
“So you wouldn’t have another man’s heart, or liver, if you needed it?” I asked, knowing he needed a liver – my dad told me before everything, a few weeks back. “Well, he’s alright for now,” he’d said, “but they say it’s six months an’ old Bobby’ll be out on his back.”
I slipped two plates off each side of Bobby’s barbell and let them clank on the floor. At that, Slickback Rick looked ready to kick fifty shades of shit into me. To him the iron plates were to be treated as sensitively as a grandmother’s rosebush; and his animosity towards weight-clangers intensified if such noises interrupted his spunky imaginings. He gritted his teeth. His jaw tensed and relaxed just below his ear at a slow, pulsating rate.
I went as Bobby did, wrapping the straps about the greasy bar and heaving it upwards towards my mid-riff. It slipped from my grasp as I almost had it, crashing down like a Mammoth onto the floor.
“Rick’s gonna chop your bollocks off if you keep that up, Freckles.”
“Someone else could make use of them then, maybe.” I said.
“No-one’s gonna want a bollock-transplant with you, old boy. Imagine waking up from the op with a pair of tic-tac ginger nuts. I’d rather have no bloody bollocks.” I noticed a burst blood vessel in Bobby’s left eye. Probably from lifting too much.
“My grip’s still so weak,” I said, thumbing the golden callouses at the bottom of my fingers.
“It’ll come on with time.”
“I don’t know.”
Bobby snatched at my nose, squeezing it between his index and middle finger, before drawing his hand away and pursing his thumb between the two fingers.
“Got your nose! I’ve got it lad — hope it’s not on the transplant list.”
I had a bad habit of trying to grab Bobby’s fist when he did that. It felt like I had to, otherwise he’d win and I couldn’t bear that. Bobby hid his hand behind his back, and then lifted it above his head as I scrambled around him to try and lock his hand in mine. With his spare hand he patted me away. Brushing me aside, he started to laugh. He was at least six inches taller than me and twice as broad. He kept laughing at my attempts to grab his hand which made me more angry and so I started to hit him on the arms and chest. But he was still laughing, more and more with every punch. His long, flat mouth dissected itself into an open red wound, bleeding laughter. I started telling him to “shut up” and “stop now,” and “let’s just carry on with it”, but by then he knew, and he could see the tears that blended into the sweat on my whiskerless cheeks.
“Why won’t you just have a transplant when you need it, Bobby?” He stopped. Like a marble statue, he was fixed. He wrapped his arms around me and lifted me up off the floor, clicking what felt like each separate vertebrae in my spine. My chin rested on his hard shoulder.
“There’s no point, Freckles.”
“Of course there’s a point. What’s the point in all this, then? Building yourself up, making yourself stronger, just to give up?”
“Give the worms more to chew on when I’m six feet under, won’t it?” Bobby’s sandpaper cheeks became colder and wet. His face had fallen green at the mention of death – the colour of an apple that would never run ripe.
“You’re giving up.”
“I’m not,” Bobby rubbed away the teardrops from his eyelids.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I said. Bobby sat on one of the old leather benches that had lost half of its covering. I sat down next to him. His back crumpled over into an arc, and his face dropped into the palms of his hands. My arm was around his wide back as we spoke. I think Slickback Rick had been put off his erotic fiction by this point. I spotted him in the reflection, slumped on his stool, eyeballing us.
“It’s just not meant for me, Freckles.”
“But you love your life. You always said about Beachy Head and how people would be stupid to throw away their lives down there. Why won’t you try? There could be a donor out there already.” I just wanted him to understand how much I wanted him to stay with me.
“I just want to enjoy what’s left. Now let’s see you lift that thing properly.”
We left the gym. I hopped on my old red bicycle, ready to get home to see dad and tell him how strong I’d been that day. I could feel the crest of the waves that night; I heard the foaming whitecaps crackle over the black sand from the roadside. Bobby shook my hand, squeezing mine between both of his hard palms. Before he left me he patted me on the chest and offered me his packet of aniseed balls. He always had a half-empty packet of aniseed balls. Bobby pulled his backpack straps taut so that it sat on the tops of his shoulders. It looked heavier than it needed to be, he looked hunchbacked.
Bobby left, meandering over the South Downs in the half-light, along the Seven Sisters. I thought it strange because Bobby didn’t live that way. I carried on anyway.
At home the smoke clung to the walls. Dad sat in his armchair, wearing a light blue shirt unbuttoned to the chest. He was whistling some flat tune that I didn’t want to know. I thought there was something wrong with it, it sounded like it struggled in the thicker air, or that the melody was blackened by his sticky lungs.
“Why won’t Bobby do anything?” Dad carried on with his tune. I went into the kitchen and fired up the gas hob. The clink of the pan in the metal grids reminded me of Bobby slamming down his weights. Dad’s whistling drowned out the hiss of the gas. The kitchen worktops had a dusting of ash scattered across them, and an empty bottle of Bell’s laid against the skirting board. Dad let out a hacking cough. I knew he didn’t care, but I wanted him to pretend to. He picked up his tune again a few moments later. I heard the footstool rush out of the armchair, thrusting his body back. On the table there were dog-eared family photos that Dad had stubbed his cigarettes out on. I picked up the glass bottle, felt the weight of it in my hand, wrapped my fingers around the bottleneck and drew it back over my shoulder. I imagined the impact of it on the wall, how it would explode and release everything. But I couldn’t do it.
“Don’t cry, George,” dad said from the other room. I could have cried for hours. But Bobby wouldn’t have let me.