Hurt me, Gunther!” Steve shouted as he struggled to catch his breath.
“Why you always call me Gunther?” asked Karol.
“It’s an old – oof!” The medicine ball crashed into his solar plexus. He just about caught it.
“Now,” said Karol. “You drop and 20 squat thrusts. Now! Nownownow!”
Thighs lancing with agony, breath coming in ragged gasps, Steve did as he was told. The air in Ravenscourt Park was crisp, mist still on the ground. It was some relief, but not much. If he’d had spare brain space, Steve might have wondered what masochistic impulse caused him to pay this burly Pole £150 an hour to inflict agony on him at a time when most people were still in their beds, cost free. But he also knew that Karol was the best of the best: the toast of the west London fitterati. He’d pulled strings to get him.
Plus, when he could talk, he could talk shop. With everyone’s nanny an eastern European astrophysicist, here was a former finance officer at a Polish bank who had come to the UK to work as a personal trainer. And there was an extra advantage – an advantage that was coming around the corner just about… now.
Ponytail jouncing, legs pumping, clock precise, it was Helen. Steve well knew that his fitness-fanatic boss spent an hour every morning from 5am beating the bounds of the park. Helen – aka She Who Must Be Obeyed, aka The Helenator – tended to look upon Steve as a representative of Homo inferior patheticus. It certainly couldn’t hurt his status to be seen working out with the famous Karol.
He made himself stand upright, letting the yak-shaped sweat patch on his grey T-shirt tell its own story of manly endeavour, of pain mastered and endorphins pumped. “Helen,” he said, raising a hand and working to control the tremors in his legs.
“Steve,” she replied, pulling up and jogging on the spot. Jog, jog, jog. Her eyes strayed appraisingly to Karol, and then back to him. “You’ve got Karol,” she said, impressed. “We should talk.” And then – pace quickening – she was gone.
Later that day she summoned him into her office. Helen, it turned out, had been trying to get a slot with Karol for months. If he could help her swing it, it might do some good for his career. She didn’t say as much, of course… she didn’t need to.
Steve worked on Karol all that week and the next, between the controlled bursts of agony. The big man was obdurate: “I have many client. No more.” Steve wheedled, pleaded. Karol looked impassive. He had a reputation to maintain. Timorously, Steve brought Helen the bad news.
She looked at him with a disappointed twist of the mouth. “Give me his number.”
“Give!” He fumbled it out of his phone and scribbled it on a Post-it. “I really don’t think there’s anything…”
“You can go,” said Helen. “Thank you.”
“Yes, sorry. I did, y’know, my best…”
Steve might have brooded on his failure, but soon he had bigger things to worry about. For at the end of the week, Steve’s line manager Frank was abruptly sacked. Cardboard box of belongings, thunderous face – the whole works. Steve had been friendly with Frank. He felt the whisper of the blade over his own neck too. Dangerous times; trouble in the banking sector. And Helen wasn’t exactly pleased with him after the whole Karol debacle. He resolved that if he really couldn’t swing it for Karol to take on Helen as a client, he’d give up his own sessions and let Helen have them. Protection from redundancy, he reflected, was worth more to him at this stage than washboard abs.
But, as it turned out, he didn’t need to. Because on Monday morning he came into work and saw – as unexpected and disconcerting as a lobster wearing a cardigan – his personal trainer bulging out of a very expensive suit. And sitting behind the desk that had belonged to Frank.
“Er, Karol?” he said.
“We come to arrangement,” said Karol.
“New boss, yes. Hah. No more Gunther, no?”
“Now,” said Karol, clapping his huge hands. “Year-end accounts. Nownownow!”