Our neighbour Matt goes to West Ham Park to work out. I have seen him twice when he has been at it and I keep my distance, because the social implications of approaching an acquaintance, when one of you is exercising, and, worse, in shorts, and the other isn’t, are too much for me. It’s all right to talk about it when one is away from the scene, however, and when chatting at his gate I referred facetiously to his practice of tai chi. He was indignant.
“It’s cardio,” he said. “Not tai chi.”
“Ah,” I said.
“Today I achieved a personal best.”
“Though I believe that tai chi can have positive benefits.”
“I don’t. It looks silly and it involves mysterious and possibly malign Oriental magic.”
“I have a friend who does tai chi,” said Matt, “and…”
And he described some improvement to the friend’s physique in terms that I didn’t understand; so we agreed to leave it at that.
When I was younger it was safe to assume that someone talking to themselves in the street was either preoccupied to the point of unsociability or mad. These days, the assumption is that they are talking on their mobiles, using the ear attachment with the little microphone. A genuinely mad person, these days, could escape detection for years by raving into one of these things – but with it turned off. The practice of tai chi has raised this problem to a new level of complexity. It looks from a distance indistinguishable from insanity, and even close up it is often impossible to tell – because of the absence of a tell-tale wire coming out of the ear. We live in challenging times.
There is a man who does tai chi in the Park. That is undoubtedly what he does, and he does it for hours. I take Bella, the dog, for her walk at widely different times of the day and as often as not he is there, scowling into the middle distance and hanging his wrist out in a manner that in less enlightened times people used to designate members of the male gay community. Once he was accompanied by a tiny Chinese man who was observing him closely. The man doing the tai chi was wearing the appropriate tunic and baggy leggings, but the tiny Chinese man had a navy blue suit and he kept his arms to his sides. I didn’t hear him speak but I assume that he was there to tell the first man if he was doing it properly, to critique his performance as we are encouraged to say these days. But maybe I caught the observation phase and the feedback phase was to come later: possibly in private.
One day, as I turned on to the path beside which the performer of tai chi was to be found I noticed that one of the man’s leggings was rolled up to the knee.
“Aha, a Mason,” I thought to myself. “He is a practitioner of tai chi and he is also on the Square.”
I congratulated myself on my cosmopolitan level of knowledge, whilst immediately becoming aware that this would be a most unusual combination of belief systems. As we came level, I slowed to the extent compatible with good manners and, from a distance of twenty yards or so, casually examined his shin. It was hideous, covered with angry red marks. At first I thought that they were sores, but as I came closer I could see that they were gashes, imperfectly healed. It was as if he had been savaged by a dog, or maybe a small demon.
Bella of course made straight for the bloody shin and I had to call her away, which rather spoilt my attempt at discrete observation. The man looked balefully at me and raised the damaged leg into the air, where it hung for a moment.
But I did wonder why he left his wounds uncovered. Was it a sign, and if so was it to all those who shared the Park with him, or was it something more arcane? Was it to whoever had caused the injury? Was it merely to heal his wounds through the medium of fresh air?
There are developments in the Park even more worrying than tai chi. Now that Spring is here various sporting and philanthropic organisations have secured permission from the Corporation of London, who own the Park, to mark out pitches in white on the grass. There is a baseball diamond (as I believe they’re called) and a four hundred metre running track, marked to show one hundred and two hundred metre lengths as well. When I was watching the other day I saw several young people achieve personal bests.
Tucked away in a relatively unvisited corner of the Park, there is another device marked out in white. It bears no relation to any known sport.
One can imagine the application process:
Corporation of London: Your device bears no relation to any known sport. It would bring no Amenity to the Park.
First Applicant: But it is our culture.
Corporation of London: That’s all right then.
Second Applicant (later): The fools! They were soft in your hands, like soft-boiled eggs. But Ashtoreth will be satisfied – when She comes.
First Applicant: A little more white on that top pentangle I think…
If my fears are right it is a landing-strip for Hell. It explains the tai chi man’s wounds. It was demons: a dry run. And his exposure of his wounds is a gesture of defiance to the Queen of Darkness: you may have the powers of Hades but I stand in your way and I am clothed with the power of – with whatever power it is that tai chi imbues you with: I must ask Amy.
We must pray that when the Horned One comes it is during the Corporation’s Opening Hours and the tai chi man is in position to save us all.