The man was in happy denial today.
The leaves dappled him with sunshine as he jogged through the woody section of the park. It was another unusually warm day in London but the trees afforded him some shade. He acknowledged two joggers running in tandem as they passed and casually eyed a street vendor selling one of those delicious hot dogs from a cart. He considered getting one but continued on. No, no more gorging; none of that, he thought.
A thrill of joy shot through him as endorphins kicked in. Okay, so today marked another milestone into middle age, considered approaching old age by industry standards when even top stars found themselves detoured from romantic leads to secondary character roles, pushed out by up and coming youngbloods. He felt quite conscious of each passing year just as his career was really taking off. He dwelled in an in-between world at the moment – almost too old for lead parts but not yet old enough for others in his youth obsessed business. Sure, he had a few more crow’s feet and deepening lines around the mouth, but he didn’t feel old. He felt great, blessed with good health, a thriving career, fabulous friends, a loving family. What more could he want? Well, maybe a special somebody, but that would come. It may be a cliche, but his future was bright. No, there was no need to dwell on this particular day. He would continue to treat it the same since turning 40 – just like any other. Friends had offered to take him out that night, but he’d declined. He had to prepare the script for audio work tomorrow. Accompanying rolling nausea and a pounding headache were the last things he needed in the booth. His friends seemed to understand, although the red-haired bloke had texted they would be at the Club later if he wanted to join them. When asked which club, the bloke replied laconically that he would know. He shook his head. How?
Rounding a sharp curve in the path, he could just see the park’s exit in the distance. It wasn’t too far. He would reach it in a minute flat.
Grinning, he picked up the pace.
“…9, 10, 11, 12…”
Finding himself counting steps, he wondered what his personal best would be. He’d sprinted this many times but it had been awhile, before his long project had started at least. Had it really been over two and half years? He’d tried to stay in shape during filming but the long hours made it difficult for him enjoy long runs.
“…24, 25, 26…”
His feet pounded the path as he concentrated on breathing evenly and rhythmically. Joggers glanced at him curiously as he passed them on the right, a striking, tall, fit figure in black Lycra and trainers. He dodged as a stray runner darted in front of him. He grimaced. That lost him a second or two. He breathed deeper, arms and legs pumping. He had to move faster.
“… 34, 35, 36…”
Willing his long legs to stretch farther, he picked up the pace. His cheeks billowed as he strained to suck in oxygen. Instead of the burst of speed, he realized to his horror that the rhythmic breathing had given way to outright panting. Surely he could do this? He was almost there.
“…38, 39, 40…”
Arms and legs no longer in sync, he lumbered off the path into the grass.
Gasping for air, pace faltering, he stopped finally and grabbed his knees. The bubble of joy popped. He’d always been able to sprint the distance in 60 seconds. Today, he could only manage 42 – to match his 42nd birthday. He groaned and wheezed. How fitting.
The man stomped down the pavement towards home. How had his aerobic capacity slipped like that? He sighed deeply, willing himself out of the funk. There was no need to get his knickers in a twist. Clearly, he’d lost running fitness with all the emphasis on strength training for the films. He needed simply to concentrate more on this part of his regimen. After all, he wasn’t getting any younger. He would start a new running program tomorrow. Today he needed get home, put a dent in the housekeeping, run some errands and start marking the script. Right.
Rounding the neighborhood corner shop, he popped in for a nice cold bottle of Evian for his dry throat. The shop girl, a slight brunette in intricate braids, cutoffs and a tight tank top, straightened up from stacking boxes behind the small counter and beamed at him. He suspected she knew who he was no doubt, but she’d never let on.
“Morning! Looks like another hot one today, yeah?”
The man smiled. Her perkiness was irrepressible. He placed the bottle on the counter and reached into his pocket for the fiver. The water was ridiculously expensive but his throat felt like sandpaper.
“That’s on sale today. Only 42p.”
He startled. That was unheard of. “Seriously?”
The brunette dimpled and cocked her head almost coquettishly. “Seriously.”
Eying her wedding band, he smiled, palmed the change, scooped up the bottle and headed out. 42p indeed.
Chugging the water and thinking about the dreaded house cleaning, he spotted a flea market just opening in a side street from the main road. He wasn’t aware of any set schedule; it seemed to appear and disappear during the summers. Not as big as Covenant Garden’s or Notting Hill’s, the market still possessed a fair selection of goods. He passed a few fruit and vegetable stands before stopping at booth containing retro apparel. A few loud ’70’s lime green and salmon pink polyester men’s shirts hung from a rope stretched over the top of the booth. Scanning the tables and the overhanging shirts, he lifted the bottle to his lips for one more swallow. His hand stopped suddenly; his mouth fell open. As a youth, he’d attempted to rebel against his staid conservative parents by buying a pair of tight orange trousers. That had been as far as the rebellion got because he’d never had the guts to wear the trousers. Years later, he couldn’t remember what happened to that garment. Now, before his eyes, a pair of beautifully preserved orange leather trousers hung on the back wall of the booth. He grinned widely.
The seller observed the man’s starry eyed smile and matched it with one of his own. “Ahhhh! You like it, yeah? Vintage ’80’s. Impeccably kept. It’s never been worn! See, the tag is still on it.”
Handing the item to the man, the seller pointed to the yellowed paper attached to its plastic tie. The small type said: ₤95.
The man examined the trousers carefully. No, rips, tears, puckers, still supple, not sign of wear – he had to have them.
The man smirked. 42 again. “30.”
The seller shook his head. “42.””
His smile drooped. What kind of market seller didn’t haggle? This man couldn’t know him and not his age surely. “35.”
The seller crossed his arms in satisfaction. “Perfect very expensive leather trousers. Half off, innit? 42.”
The man sighed. The seller knew simply he’d had him from the start. Pulling out his wallet, the man counted out the notes. 42 indeed.
The man stood with hands firmly planted on hips. The last glance around the sitting room observed the same things as the first four – dust and clutter, but mostly dust. He looked at the dust motes in the air highlighted by the beam of sunlight through the windows. With no housekeeper, if he didn’t clean it didn’t get done. Unfortunately, the more frequent and longer absences grew more dust bunnies. Not really keen to start cleaning, he felt the call of his laptop. It rested on the desk, the only are he kept clean and clear consistently. Seated, he felt suddenly hesitant to log on. He’d not checked his alias “Alia” in a few weeks. What would he find? The day had been constant reminders of his birthday. Suddenly, he noticed the number 42 turning up everywhere: items on sale costing something-42p at the grocery; a shop assistant stating they’d had 42 iPads in stock the day before but had sold out; attempting to tip the courier who’d delivered a package and finding only 42p in his pocket. He wasn’t superstitious but this was enough to give him pause. For a day spent intending to forget his birthday, this was downright depressing.
Resolute, he logged on and surfed to his alter ego’s blog. Her last post concerned the pros and cons of his playing a super hero role recently vacated. Personally he felt indifferent, so naturally Alia was unfavorable. He chuckled, having enjoyed playing the devil’s advocate in the fan-wide debate. Scrolling down, he noted the number of replies received and sighed. He snapped shut the lid.
The man sat on the sofa watching his newest toy, a big wide screen HD telly. The package delivered early yielded a DVD of The Wanderer’s Map to the Universe, the iconic sci-fi comedy which he’d never seen, as well as an unsigned cryptic note saying: “this might help you out.” He surmised that the red-haired bloke had taken pity and sent a clue about the club, in an effort to tantalize him. He still resolved not to go but a puzzle was too intriguing, so he’d popped in the disc and settled back amidst the dust and clutter. Delightedly, he realized it starred one of his new pals from the last project. Not a bad way to procrastinate over house cleaning.
“…we want to know the answer to life, the universe, and everything! You must tell us.”
He arched a brow and leaned forward. This should be good.
“…The answer to life, the universe and everything is – 42.”
He slumped back. What? 42! That number – again? He continued watching the film but felt pretty sure that the ultimate question had nothing to do with the club’s name. But could it be – 42?
Returning to the laptop, he fired up Google, searching for the newest trendy night clubs. A few seconds later, he found what he needed: Club 42.
He threw up his hands and thought. Smiling, he finally pulled out his iPhone and texted the red-haired bloke. “Very funny. I give up, ” he typed. “See you at Club 42.”
The reply arrived almost instantly. The man could practically hear him laughing. “9 sharp.”
He’d wear his new orange leather trousers.
Happy Birthday, Richard Armitage. You’re only as old as you feel. Have a great time.