It was a bad buttock night tonight at the gym.
There's an etiquette to men's changing rooms in England, quite different to the one I found when I was in Iceland. It may, thinking about it, have evolved from what you did at school when you were changing after games lessons and knew you'd get chased into the shower by a hairy rugby teacher if you didn't shed your childish inhibitions and get your kit off quickly. (Unlike school days, however, it's not the done thing when you're an adult to roll your towel into a tight whip and slash at your fellow changers' legs as they skitter past.)
The approved way of acting is to ignore the other chap's clothing status. If you walk in, kitbag on shoulder, to get changed and spot the fellow you thrashed at squash last week, you simply nod a manly hello, just as if you'd spotted him across the street. You do this irrespective of whether he is fully dressed, stalking back damply from the shower clutching a towel in front of him, or wearing a jacket and tie from the waist up and stark bollock naked from the waist down.
Now, it so happens that I don't know anyone at the club (I'm more likely to play in the traffic than play squash) so I don't need to worry about that aspect of things. I just have to remember the etiquette for my own nudity. This boils down, basically, to one maxim: be cool.
Wrap a towel around you when you're walking to and from the showers, by all means, but if you're too fat or the towel's too small just hold it casually in front of you. Flaunting the fact you're hung like a donkey is a social faux pas, but indulging in desperate contortions to hide yourself is, frankly, just as embarrassing. And buttocks are just buttocks – not worth disguising at all.
Of course, there's an undercurrent to all this studied nonchalence. Or rather, two undercurrents. One can best be expressed as “is he fatter than me?”. The other is, of course, “is my dick bigger than his?”. I shan't comment on my position in these two great debates (you all know I'm overweight anyway), instead I'll just sit here and smile enigmatically. One doesn't stare, of course, but you can learn an awful lot in the split second between noticing the figure in the corner of your eye has dropped his shorts and finding a legitimate and entirely coincidental reason to be facing the other direction. And if the naked figure is waddling out of the showers, and you're heading off to use them yourself, then you'll be practically in a position to produce an anatomical drawing by the time you get past him, despite your best intentions to treat him like your bank manager.
So, a typically English solution – lots of unspoken rules to regulate a potentially embarrassing situation. No-one ever tells you them, you just grow up knowing them. The trouble comes when someone appears who doesn't know them, or doesn't care about them.
Some days ago I was returning from the showers, daydreaming vacantly, and turned the corner to the seat closest to the locker where my clothes were. At first I wasn't sure what I was looking at, so unexpected was the vision that appeared in front of me. And then it snapped horribly into focus. Two very large, very white, very hairy, very wobbly buttocks thrust upwards to the sky as the owner bent forward to dry one of his feet – a foot he'd placed up on the seat I'd been planning to use. I beat a hasty retreat.
Not long after, I found myself drying my hair next to one of the club's few blatant exhibitionists. My secret vice is that I like to use the hairdryer there – with my barnet the length it is at the moment, attacking it with a hairdryer gives me the ludicrously bouffant locks of a WWE wrestler. This guy looked like a wrestler too – he was obviously born to be a snarling bad guy, the sort of wrestler who is basically triangular with shoulders that won't fit through the door and a body that tapers down past endless perfectly-defined muscles to a washboard-flat stomach. In this guy's case, once you got there a tattoo declared ominously “Only God can judge me”. He stood in front of the mirror, twisting this way and that as he teased his close-cut hair and examined his muscles from all angles. He wore no shirt and his jeans were artfully undone, staying round his waist in direct defiance of the law of gravity, the fly open far enough to allow the bulge in his underpants to be on full display. And you know what they say about bodybuilders on steroids? Either it's not true, or this guy's clean as a whistle.
But these events took place a few days ago. So why did I start this post by saying it was a bad buttock night?
Well, I was sat down shortly before leaving, putting my shoes on, when I chanced to look up. There in front of my eyes, close enough to bite, was a pair of buttocks. They were so close that I could have easily stuck out a finger and – well, anyway, you get the picture. The owner, I think, didn't know the rules. I was sitting directly in front of his locker, he needed something from within it (his underpants, hopefully), so he went and opened it, ignoring the effect on me, sitting there at cheek level. Now, I like a shapely pair of buttocks as much as the next man, but there are limits. I felt like tapping him politely on the shoulder and saying 'now look here, old chap, this simply isn't on'.
I mean, if anyone's going to stick their arse in my face like that, I expect at the very least to be taken to dinner first…