John walked into the gym, the receptionist smiled to him as he came up to the desk, a nod of acknowledgement and a slight trace of sadness in her smile. John didn’t say anything, just walked through the open turnstile. He was dressed as normal in workout clothes, trainers. His hair the usual regimented short trim that he had cut once a week. As he moved past the guys using the weights and running machines one of the other staff saw him. “Hi John” the man said brightly but John again didn’t respond. The man looked over at the receptionist confused and she slowly shook her head. The man shrugged and carried on with the induction he was leading. An old lady who wanted to know how the cycling machines worked and if they’d be good for her before she went up to the Lake District to stay with her son.
John walked past the main workout area and into a side corridor, the office he wanted was on the left. The door was open and he knocked lightly, hearing voices inside.
“Come in” a deep voice replied and he pushed the door to find Max the gym manager and another guy in there.
“John” Max said grinning. “Good to see you”. He turned to the other man. “So that’s basically what we need, if you can email me back with a template then we’ll take it from there.”
The other guy shook Max’s hand and nodded to John before walking out, closing the door softly behind him.
Max gestured to the empty chair in front of his desk. “Take a seat. It’s good to see you again.”
As John sat down, his bulky frame barely fitting in the chair, Max looked at his face. He was still the same from a superficial glance, clean shaven, hair kept trimmed with almost military precision but his eyes held a sadness that looked like it was taking him over. There were dark patches under his eyes and Max guessed John wasn’t sleeping. He sat down in his own chair.
“Can I get you a coffee, tea?” he asked, pointing to the kettle behind him.
“No, I’m fine”. Johns’ voice was croaky, like he hadn’t spoken for a while. Max guessed he had been spending a lot of time on his own, too much isolation is a bad thing. It means you think too much.
“So what can I do for you? You coming back? The kids miss you, you know. Little Julie asks where you are every time. Nathan’s been doing a good job but we need him back on the pilates group. He’s not qualified for self defence. As a gap fill it’s OK but…”
John held up his hand and Max trailed off. “I think it’s best if I don’t come back…not ever”.
Max sighed. Worst case scenario, he’d thought this might happen. He leaned forward slightly “Look, no one blames you. For chrissakes, how on Earth could you ever think you were to blame for what happened?”
John’s face remained stoic but his eyes briefly flashed with anger and he exhaled slowly.
“I tried to keep those kids safe.”
“Which you have done, and very well I might add.”
John glared at him and then replied “So safe that someone died?”
Max knew this would be like walking on eggshells, he’d expected this conversation to come but actually dealing with it was another matter.
“John, Tommy stood up for his friend at school. When he fell he hit his head. It’s literally that simple. Even the lad who hit him didn’t mean to hurt him that badly. He’s having counselling himself about this. This wasn't at the club it was at school. Tommy’s mum and dad don’t blame you. The police don’t blame you and I don’t blame you. Why do you blame yourself?”
John paused and Max could see the conflict behind his eyes, keeping his emotions in check. John cleared his throat then spoke again.
“I started the class so those kids could feel safe. So they would be able to stand up to bullies, not walk around scared like I did when I was their age. We do this for a year and we have gradings and then Tommy thinks he’s Superman and….”. He trailed off, looking away.
Max sat back in his seat. “You know Tommy idolised you?”
John’s face turned to look at Max and his calm demeanour slipped. “That was the fucking problem wasn’t it?! He idolised me, he worshipped me. John the big tough guy. Look how much good that did him. All I ever did was put him in a place where he thought he could be a superhero and now he’s dead”. John turned away again, his lips pursing and Max could see his fists were clenched.
Max looked at him for a few moments and then asked “Is stopping this going to bring him back?”
“Don’t patronise me you arsehole!” John snapped back, the fury clear on his face.
Max sighed and then stood up, moving to the filing cabinet beneath the kettle and teacups. He opened the top drawer and slid out a large book. Turning he placed it on the desk facing John.
“Tommy’s mother gave me this” he said tapping the cover. “She asked me to show it to you when I told her you might not come back”.
John looked confused but then leaned forward to look. The cover had a newspaper cutting of him sellotaped to the front, the tape had come loose on one side. It was at his MMA fight for the McMillan Cancer Trust about 6 months ago, holding the winner’s trophy and smiling.
“What…..?!” he said nonplussed, then opened the first page. It crackled as he turned it over and was full of pictures of him, from newspapers and prints from online websites. As he turned the next page there were photos of him and Tommy from the club, at training and at the gradings. Two were were Tommy’s parents, smiling behind them as they posed for a photo at Tommy’s second junior exam. The boy looked happy and tired.
Turning another page there were drawings Tommy had done, of him and John as masked superheroes. He had been a good artist and the pictures were beautifully drawn in pencil and colours.
John closed the book and looked up at Max, his face seething with anger.
“What the fuck?!!…” He stood up, fists still clenched and said through gritted teeth. “I already feel like shit and now you want to rub my face in it. This just makes the whole thing worse. I knew that boy was obsessed but…”
Max cut him off and gestured for him to sit down. “John please…”
Tears were forming in John’s eyes and he slowly sat again, glaring at Max. Max paused for a long time, his elbows on the desk and his hands under his chin as he looked at John. Then he said slowly. “Tommy had virtually no friends. He lived for comic books and the self defence classes you ran. His dad told me that in the space of six months he went from being isolated and shy, afraid of his own shadow to confident and happy. Every night he’d come home and every conversation was about either Spiderman, The Justice League or you.”
John looked away towards through the half drawn shutters on the window, the people working out in the main gym were visible in the background. He said nothing. Max continued.
“He loved you and you were his hero. Do you know why his mother gave me this to show you? She told me that it wasn’t because of you that Tommy died but through you that he lived.”
John started to cry, the pain and grief finally spilling to the surface. His shoulders heaved and he put his hands over his face.
Max stood up and moved around the desk. He placed his hand on John’s arm and said gently “Think about it. I’ll respect your decision if you decide to give up the classes but no one, and especially not Tommy’s parents want you to stop”.
Max left the office, closing the door behind him quietly. He went outside for a walk, stopping at reception to say that absolutely no one was to enter his office until he got back.
When he returned, John was gone and so was Tommy’s scrapbook.
The following week John came back and the kids mobbed him as he came through the door, super pleased to see him again. A new photo of Tommy was on the wall and remained there.
No one would ever forget him.