Cash Only 002: the leisure centre

An abandoned leisure centre, bodies bouncing, a hot, boxy, broken sauna, a bouncy castle experiencing suspicious power cuts and an adventure to find the centrepiece.

A fictional story from the weekend. Same time, same characters, different place, come back every week. Catch up here.

We’re told it’s going to be A fRüity Party. The Facebook page coughs up no identifying details other than a date: no venue, no postcode, just a marmalade splurge of fruit-related metaphors and pictures of cartoon berries with wild, speedy eyes. Is this a joke? There’s mention of a pool – is it going to be a naked thing? We’re up for anything and a couple of the girls bring bikinis.

Saturday afternoon rolls around and a new post appears: the rave’s in an abandoned leisure centre – hence the pool. By 10pm they’ve announced a location via email to a few people, then it’s all word-of-mouth. 

We’ve split into two Ubers – in mine, it’s just me, Jack, Lacey and two fairly random, fairly spangled other girls Lacey went to school with. We get the postcode wrong the first time and end up in front of a dentist – Jack’s nearly set off the intruder alarm before one of the girls thinks to double-check the address.

Twenty minutes, our second split-fare Uber and another sour bottle of £7 Sauvignon later and we’re on a new road, smack-bang in between two pre-gentrified east London boroughs (they’re still out there, I swear). The street is ghostly and desolate, all tagged shutters and long broken street-lamps, but there’s a single, glowing cashpoint and a penguin-huddle of people around it with a familiar buzz about them. It’s not even the drugs, really, it’s the sense of the illicit: the purest, Class A delight, cut up with some dirty millennial anxiety. We know we’re in the right place. 

The girls get some cash out. The leisure centre itself is set back behind the rest of the street, like that bit in Harry Potter when the two buildings part ways to reveal the Order of the Phoenix HQ.

It looks pretty sad from the outside. Austerity-sad. Peeling posters of mouthy kids in dire need of NHS braces; someone has scrawled BORIS JOHNSON KILLED MY CAT” on one, which seems to explain everything. Maybe the coffee shops are coming after all. 

That looks pretty fucking abandoned,” someone says, and it does. Even pressed close to the imposing steel doors, we can’t hear a sound, and one of the newer girls we’re with – anxiously fingering her Burberry bikini – asks if it’s the right one, maybe it’s all just a joke? But we know and, after Lacey gives a few confident knocks, a stony-faced Jamaican woman in an Arc’teryx jacket opens the door. 

We’re in. £10, cash only. Jack slaps down a 50 on the table and says he’ll pay for five; we shuffle in behind him. I’m frisked by a man, which is amusing, but he’s surprisingly respectful, which means to say I could have had Jack and Jay’s weekly delivery strapped to my crotch and he wouldn’t have found it. They’re only really looking for knives at these things, anyway, though they take a backpack of balloons off someone which means they’ve probably got a hospital tank somewhere. 

Inside it’s a playground. Literally. We’ve got the run of the place, and bodies are bouncing and crawling through the building like particles rattling inside an atom. There’s a density to the air, full of heat and smoke and sweat. The walls are all community-centre candy-pink, with a wash of mysterious blue light, and the effect is of a warm, lurid purple dream.

We spend the first hour just exploring: dancing can wait when there’s an adventure to be had. Even Lacey’s forgotten about the Berghain resident she’s come to see – I’m not going to pretend I remember his name – not to mention the pill she was desperately trying to break into two in our last cab.

In the corridors, there are floodlights and a dual-carriageway’s worth of human traffic. Everyone and their cousin presses through the narrow corridors like liberated schoolkids at 3.30pm, eager to see what’s round the next corner. 

We’re all pressed up too close for comfort, but there’s a warm sense of camaraderie, like a GP waiting room in a different, kinder future world, a nicer one, where the NHS is still nationalised and maybe the doctor we’re waiting for is in fact a shaman. 

People walk around in bondage and in elf ears, in Drag and in Queen. A girl with gemstones wrapped into her braids walks past wearing nothing but an inflatable flamingo and a poker face. 

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the sauna is not in fact a functioning sauna. It’s still a hot, boxy, airless room, though, and has clearly become the spot to have a catch-up over a more civilised line. 

There’s one nightmarish open door that appears to be an unlit gym cupboard full of gabber. We steer clear. 

There are even working lockers – the original cloakroom – and there’s a scramble as people empty out their pockets for a 20p coin. Everyone is surprisingly courteous. A kid in an old-school Boy Better Know tee is selling 20p coins for £1, which garners some respect. Jack gives him a comedy bow and a fiver for the fun of it. 

At the end of the corridor, the room opens out into what feels like the inside of a huge, warped spaceship. Room 1. It’s packed. I do a skirt around the room and nearly walk into myself. That’s why the space felt so warped – the entire length of one side of the room is a giant cracked mirror. We’re in the gym. 

Lacey grabs me from behind. Allow it.”

What?”

Please don’t get lost. There’s no reception down here. I’m not tryna be out here searching for you all night, you fairy.” She smiles but a raised eyebrow tells me she’s at least half-serious. I do tend to go missing.

The gang have found a deflated bouncy castle that people are laid out on top of, patched together in a quilt of linked limbs.

Nearby, a group of Lads – with a capital L – are gathered around looking down at someone, pretending to be rolling roll-ups.

We push through to see. Obviously it’s Maya.

This is probably the best, most honest introduction to the wonder that is Maya Mae Savage. On the floor, performing something she learnt in Kit Kat last weekend. 

I won’t tell you her handle, but Maya’s an Influencer by trade – our influencer. Instagram created her and her 30s are destroying her. Despite being absolutely spectacular and in my mind, enduringly beautiful, her particular quarter-life crisis involves coming to terms with getting less likes and more wrinkles on a comedown-by-comedown basis.

Cause obviously that’s how she’s dealing with it. Getting increasingly wild on the weekends. Being a couple years older than the rest of us, Maya has cultivated the sky-high tolerance of a TV exec.

Needless to say, the collision of these two sides of her blinding personality causes some problems – and some scenes. She spends a great deal of every night avoiding would-be fans and/​or saboteurs. Hence the sleek bobbed wig she’s wearing now.

Occasionally someone recognises her regardless and tries to sneak a photo, but Maya usually pulls up her skirt/​line/​dignity and intervenes faster than 5G internet. I saw her pause once, mid-balloon, to let the air out in some poor kid’s face. No word of a lie. Be careful where you take your selfie.

Now, though, she’s in her own subterranean world. She peers up at me, bug-eyed and mischievous.

I pull her up to her feet – thigh-highs, patent, RuPaul-pink – and we take it in turns to kiss her hello. She’s carrying a miniature beaded handbag. Absolutely useless, but it fits the essentials. And the neon matches her boots.

How sick is this!”

I know, it’s mad.”

Shame about the sauna.”

Tragic.”

Is there really a pool?”

Na I heard it’s shit you know. Just a hole in the ground.”

Disappointed, the boys wander over to find the plug for the bouncy castle – and end up fucking around for hours with this instrument of power. All blown up, they watch jumped-up ravers excitedly pile on, get comfortable and then succumb to a chorus of yelps when suddenly the whole thing collapses back in on itself because the power has mysteriously cut. And repeat. I dance with the girls while the boys amuse themselves with this. For hours.

I look around and can tell everyone’s hit the wall, or are about to come skidding up close. It’s time to head back to Jack’s. Lacey gives me the nod and I’m about to put it to the group when a Brazilian girl in a life-jacket and thong skips past us with an irresistible sense of purpose. Don’t ask me how I know she was Brazilian.

We can’t resist. Where you going girl?”

She offers a slow, indulgent smile. The pool.”

Lacey gasps. I told you it was a real fucking thing!” She gives a tug on Jack’s Stone Island collar as though he’s a misbehaving terrier. He laughs but shrugs her off. It’s not mean, exactly, but it’s pointed.

Moments later we’re back in the corridor following our new lifeguard. Jack’s right behind her, giving her the sweet talk. Maya and the other girls follow. Lacey’s got a pout on but she comes too, and then Jay’s trudging along behind me, already disappointed by whatever there is to come and attempting to empty his K‑bag onto his fist. I can tell by the occasional grunts of concentration. 

The floodlit corridors give way to the increasingly dark and claustrophobic maze of the men’s changing rooms, and I’m just musing on the shifting light – very David Lynch – when we all come crashing into a set of shutters. I hear a shit” from behind. Jay’s dropped his bag.

An iPhone flashlight comes out. The shutters have been lifted up to reveal a small gap, just enough space to crawl under. Privately, I worry that Jay won’t make it through. 

Lifeguard Girl stands beside it, pointing smugly at the opening like an air hostess.

Maya dives under head-first, fluid as an otter, a flash of crimson lace and a perfectly toned bum.

Jack approaches the opening like a bull in a china shop and when Lacey attempts to follow, the shutters come clattering down on her head. Lace is gritting her teeth now, and it’s not the coke, I can tell.

I hold it open for her, then slip under myself. It takes a moment to get used to the dark, and then to the wonder of it all. 

We’re inside a huge, great hall, doubled in size by its spectacular centrepiece: an Olympic-sized swimming pool, emptied of water and chlorine and laughing, pissing children and filled instead with a smattering of scatty ravers and balloons and laughing, sometimes pissing adults. 

It’s beautiful. Cinematic. It feels just as dark and seedy as it does strangely ethereal, like how I’d imagine a virgin heroin trip to be. Very Requiem For A Dream but without all the terror and despair.

Sweaty and drained, the final flood of intoxicants trickling away, we climb down the battered iron rungs and lie down on our backs at the bottom of the pool. It’s wonderfully cool and solid. There’s a happy, lucid silence, and I’d like to imagine everyone else is thinking about how lucky they are too. 

Outside, finally, everyone’s blissfully discombobulated. Maya’s somehow already sat up on a brick wall. One thigh-high crossed over the other, demanding one of the ballooners take a picture of her. It’s not pretty.

Her wig’s skewed to the left, parting slipping down her scalp like an escaping inhibition. Her lipstick, only hours ago a brilliant cherry, is now jam on her teeth. An icy nipple pokes out of one of the holes of her crochet top. Nobody’s complaining.

But her smile is still electric. It’s speaking for all of us. Her cat-eyes still glitter with a very chemical romance, and she has the inner glow of someone about to say something deeply wise and profound.

Oi you lot, who’s jumping in my Uber?”


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