I’d seen Bernie out on the track. I didn’t know he was called Bernie back then. He was, if I’m truthful, intimidating. Very muscled up looking black guy loping around, occasionally breaking into a sprint, then turning off the juice, easing back into the pace. Then the after burners would kick in and he would flash round. Fast.
He looked good. Like a confident guy who knew he had it. We would nod to one another from time to time. Both of us would use the track to warm up, him looking far more purposeful than me, then slope into the falling down hut which passed in those days for a changing room.
The track and ‘facilities’ were located in the middle of Finsbury Park. It was 1983 and this down at heel part of London had not yet opened its doors to the investment bankers and marketeers. Not a particularly welcoming part of the world. But we made the most of it.
The ‘changing room’ was, we all agreed, far too grand a way of describing the space. Blistered, peeling paint, and on the floor something that may or may not once have resembled a carpet. So worn and grey and holed and shot that it had long since thrown in the towel.
The smell of ancient, unwashed foot traffic, so ingrained, pungent, that it would waft out through the vandalised door, then to linger trackside. It was, we all agreed, inescapable, infecting as it did so resiliently every fibre of our clothing. Hanging fastidiously on the damp walls, obdurate and oblivious. But still we came. Because that stinking changing room harboured a medieval looking device, a multi gym machine. You know the kind of thing – or perhaps you don’t – this was after all 1983, when work out machines were primitive.
There was a 30p charge to use the multi gym. Supposed to be. No-one ever seemed to come and collect it. I had never encountered anything like it back then, happy enough as I was to plod around the track, maybe throw in some bad form push ups and grunt through a sit up routine. I had some idea that maybe, somehow, a six pack would magically appear. The kind of sculpted abs that guys like Bernie casually sported.
As i became more confident with how the machine worked, began to up the weight on the bench press stack, I started to feel more at ease in the company of the few souls who drifted in an out. One day, Bernie, heaving and struggling, trying to shift 100 kilos on the bench, asked me to spot for him. I obliged, and we got chatting.
The usual guy stuff. I was trying to make my way as an actor, having just left drama school and acquired my Equity card through persevering with a truly terrible stand up comedy routine. I had plenty of time on my hands. Bernie, like me, was doing casual bar shifts, but what he really wanted to do, he confided in me one rain sodden day, as we huddled in the gym doorway gloomily contemplating the rain hammering down on the track, was to be a trainer. Maybe a boxing trainer.
I nodded. Sounds good. This was in the days before the now ubiquitous concept of personal training took root in our now bloated work out culture. I got to like, do exams n’ stuff, he explained. Trouble is I ain’t too good with the words, you know what I mean? Man, I need a job because I am like getting married and stuff and I want to bring home the bacon like any man does, but man I am no good with putting those words down on the paper.
You know what I mean, Dave? No-one called me Dave in those days. I was always David. Bernie preferred Dave.
He looked at me solemnly, coal dark eyes searching for some glimmer of a solution reflected in my face. I nodded earnestly, grim in my tacit agreement. Bernie, look at you man, you look like a god walking among men. You just need to get that foot in the door. You’ll blow them away fella, make no mistake. Bernie was unconvinced. He and his girl planned to get married that autumn, and we were already at the beginning of the long, sultry summer of 1983. You’ll be fine, Bernie, I breezed, making heavy with the reassurance.
One of the reasons Bernie and I used to hook up on the track or in the stinking gym most days back then was that we were both out of work. I was going to endless auditions, occasionally I would, much to my astonishment, land a job. But they were few and far between, until one day I was called in to read for a part in a new tv series.
It was going to be about Robin Hood, said the producer, – ‘for ITV! Prime time, Saturday night!!’ – who was preoccupied with working on Chariots of Fire. He didn’t look at me when he asked me to read, and he apologised for the fact that the casting director was not present that day. She was, he said, staring at a script sprawled out on his desk, unwell. Womens’ stuff, he winked, looking at me for the first time and flashing a wide smile, revealing, grey and chipped molars.
A few days after reading for the part – to play a medieval assassin equipped with the useful ability to kill people by teleporting destruct thoughts directly into their brains (a talent which i have often wished in later life I did indeed possess), I was called by the producer. David, can you ride a horse, he drawled, gruffly, I thought. Yes, I lied, I can ride. Excellent, he said. Filming starts next month. We’ll be in touch. I called my girl friend, told her i had a job, that I was actually an actor after all. A working actor. I just need to get some riding lessons going. And then I hit the gym, wondering what it was like to get onto a horse. Worse, what it was like to fall off a horse.
Bernie was on the track, ambling one moment, turning on the heat the next. I chugged along beside him, telling him I had landed a job that morning, that I would be going away for awhile…that I wouldn’t be making it to the gym for a few weeks. Yeh, what you doing, you like going somewhere nice. Out of town, he asked. Just down to Bristol I said. Never been there, but if you getting out of town it gotta be good, man, no? Yes, I said, I guess it has to be good.
As we came off the track, headed for the gym, Bernie said it was too nice to go inside, so we went through a push up and sit up routine track side. It was a beautiful early summer’s day, what clouds there were occasionally eliding and fragmenting. Man, dig this weather, said Bernie. You get into shape, work on the abs and the guns, and you get the tan. Now Bernie was black, very black, I didn’t think he would be too bothered about a tan. Not me, brother, it’s whitey who needs to go to work. Tan up, man, feel good.
Over those languid summer days we worked out a lot together. Occasionally we would be joined in the sweltering gym by one of Bernie’s chums – I remember one guy, also black, in good shape, who set himself the target of 1,000 sit ups and 500 push ups a day. Obsessive. Ma-aaan, I ain’t proud of this stomach man. It just ain’t coming together. And so on in that vein, self critical, constantly pushing. It felt like, well, like family.
Every so often an actor who’s name I have long since forgotten, American guy based in London, very cool, would drop in to lift some weight. Mid 30s, he was in a big tv series, Tender is the Night, playing one of the lead characters. And while clearly way ahead of me in terms of career success, always had a lot of time to share some tips of the trade, and I would make him laugh with my stories of harrowing auditions with openly hostile casting directors.
So with the passing of those languid summer days, we became an unlikely alliance in that intimate, cruddy space. The camaraderie was indisputable. But we all knew it was not going to last. As I prepared to go off to Bristol to film Robin of Sherwood, Bernie came into the gym one morning, and solemnly advised that he had a job. Got this personal trainer gig, dude. Down in Brixton. He pronounced the second syllable with a fierce emphasis. Bernie’s manor was north London, and hoods like Brixton he could do without. Not into all that brother shit, you dig what I’m saying?
The last time I ever laid eyes on Bernie was out on the track, him loping around effortlessly, barely breaking sweat even after punching in with the after burners, me, grunting and heaving myself around, as I did. Work on that, dude, throw in some more fast time, you’ll soon be up there. We parted that day, for the first time shaking hands, some slapping on backs. Take care dude. Keep on, he said, flashing a huge white beam. And then he was gone, jogging off through the park, back to tell his girlfriend about the new job. She’ll be pleased dude. I’ll be the man.
I’m still trying, Bernie, still trying.