''Are you a goer?" asked the old boy sitting outside the steam rooms. He was harmless. Or was he? He was naked, after all, and his posture was wizenedly flagrant. "We manipulate each other and when we finish, we can't move. Is this your first time?" His face twinklingly registered that he'd succeeded in making me even more uncomfortable than I'd been when I was undressing. He wasn't propositioning me, he was just winding me up. Wasn't he?
It had never occurred to me that a bathhouse on men's day might mean unscheduled extras. And on the basis of a few hours in a towelling robe, my feeling is that it didn't. True, the atmosphere was turgidly masculine. The "frigidarium", where we reclined on loungers, smoking and ordering fried snacks, was a cross between a locker room and an old-fashioned snug. But we were blokey and businesslike, with our tabloids spread out on the pneumatic laptops of our guts. (Incidentally, it's true what they say about a sauna working wonders on your figure. Next to those sumos and say-when refuseniks, I was a clothes horse. I had bones.)
The reason I had been alarmed by the old-timer, the splayed and walnutty sentinel of the baths, was that he had listed the scalding tortures which awaited me. There was the wet room, with its monsoon peasouper. There was the dry room, where the gasping mercury twisted in its glass at 52 degrees.
I said: "I could go and have the poached eggs. I hear they're quite something."
"No," he said, "they're not."
Breakfastless, I had prepared for my sauna a few brief hours before, at a bar called Steam. (It's not just thrown together, this stuff.) I had been drinking dog's nose, a Hogarthian cocktail of beer and gin for which the only possible excuse - that it's a blend of London's two favourite tipples, the Great Wen in a glass - wore thin early on. In the dry room, the alcohol fug left me in the time it takes a gill of aviation fuel to evaporate on the Heathrow apron.
One of the regulars launched into a story about his hell-raising days. "It was when I was young and virile - you know virile, don't you? It's over the water from Liverpool." He had taken a girl out for coffee, and gone back to her place. Later, she invited him to a party. "We opened the door and everyone was stark naked. The only orgy I ever went to. I can't remember the girl's name," he said ruefully, acknowledging the forgetfulness of age rather than male heartlessness.
This tale aside, loosening our waistbands seemed to promote expansiveness of a rarefied order. Beneath a bronze-coloured ceiling relieved by Olympian laurels, toga-clad figures could be heard debating nothing less than creation itself.
"God made the universe in seven days," began one senatorial type.
"The universe?" This was a younger black man. "I thought it was only the world."
"The universe," said the senator firmly.