The sun is hotter than a George Foreman grill set to 11. But no amount of dazzling June sunlight that creeps incongruously over the pile of discarded fast food packaging that decorates the entrance to the TKO Gym in London’s Canning Town will ever make it look attractive. It’s here – via a comedy detour courtesy of Apple’s seriously fucked up Maps app – that I find myself preparing for one of those fork in the road moments that we all have to deal with at certain times in our lives. This is how I describe my thoughts when I enter that gym and come face to face with a young super-middleweight prize fighter named Frank Buglioni. And we both know exactly what I’m talking about.
“We knew it was the biggest step up in my career to date. We knew he was a very good opponent but knew that he falls apart after about six or seven rounds,” an eloquently focused Buglioni tells me. “He’s 39 years old so I had the youth on him but I didn’t box to my strengths. I think I could have put the pressure on earlier, settled him down a little bit, made him wary rather than trying to lull him into a false sense of security and catch him with counters.”
A quick recap for the untold billions out there in Twitter land there who quite justifiably couldn’t give a flying tweet about either one of us, me and Frank that is: earlier this year the then unbeaten WBO European Super-Middleweight champion had the dubious privilege of being the subject of the first interview I had conducted with a boxer for more than two largely empty decades. One for the future, intimated my shimmering purple prose to a ringing fanfare of trumpets. Going places, I gushed. A genuine contender.
That Frank promptly suffered his first professional defeat in the ring should not have come as a surprise to someone like me, who considers himself unfeasibly fortunate to have drawn Australia in the World Cup sweepstake. But lose he did. Unequivocally so. Taught a lesson in manners by a wily old coyote named Sergey Khomitsky. An OAP in boxing terms, the have-gloves-will-travel Belarusian could easily qualify for the boxing equivalent of a free bus pass (although perhaps not in these days of Foreman and Hopkins et al). Someone whom Frank should have been able to speedily return to his mobility chair if our would-be contender is to be taken as seriously as he wants to be.
But since when did anything really ever go according to plan? Certainly not for Frank and certainly not for the likes of you and me. Which neatly brings me to that fork in the road I mentioned earlier.
It’s fork in the road time for Frank because he’s GOT to win his next fight, preferably in a manner that can erase those YouTube images of our hero taking far too many punches for his own good before being pulled out of the fight by his wholly sensible and merciful trainer Mark Tibbs. Buglioni MUST win this fight – to lose would set his career in an unpalatable direction, along a pathway that anybody who happens to be 24 and harbouring ambitions to be a world champion will want to avoid at all costs.
And it’s fork in the road time for me because my father is just about to die. Just over a week away from dying, in fact. And I don’t know what to do with myself other than to sit here at four in the morning and write about boxers. Which is kind of ironic really because I have a strong suspicion that on a subconscious level I only write about – have only ever written about – boxers to try to impress my father. And although he’ll never read this one – I can’t actually say for certain that he’s ever read much of what I’ve written – I’ve got to do it.
Fortunately for Frank Buglioni when it comes to getting back on to the yellow brick road the odds are heavily stacked in his favour. Charged with the responsibility of rehabilitating bruised chins and egos is one Sam Couzens. Even Herodotus himself would have trouble bigging up the qualifications of Mr. Couzens. Nobody is pretending that the Hampshire-based fighter is anything more than a ‘W’ to sit atop the ‘L TKO 6’ that currently besmirches Buglioni’s ring record. Nevertheless, when people are throwing punches at each other’s heads for hard cash it’s never a good idea to start counting chickens.
Unfortunately for my father the odds are rather heavily stacked against him being in a position to watch Frank Buglioni climb into the ring on 16 July at London’s York Hall ready to put the hurt on Couzens. Life for him is 24 hours of concentrated misery followed by another 24 hours of the same followed by another. And at the risk of intruding upon what is supposed to be an article about people who punch each other for a living, I’m not there and won’t be there to try to lessen that misery. He doesn’t want to see me and I don’t want to see him. And it’s at times like this, inevitably, that one is forced to wonder how things ever managed to turn out this way.
It is my father who is responsible for this love/hate relationship I have with boxing. It was his enthusiasm for the sport which I am reluctant to call a sport that long ago compelled me to imagine that there might be magic lurking behind the blood and sweat and snot. It was his excitement that carried me along through the long, hot, mainly miserable summers of my youth. It was probably the one thing that we ever really had in common other than the battles we waged against one another.
“You just know in their eyes. I hit him with a shot and his back leg gave way a little bit. And I went in and threw a few shots and he held.” In a distinctly unglamorous back-room Frank Buglioni tucks into a home-made pasta salad and reflects on what went wrong that night in April. “When I was hurt I didn’t have that experience. I didn’t hold. I didn’t tie him up. I tried to fight when my coordination and timing wasn’t there. And that’s what happened in the sixth round. He caught me with a good shot and I went with him a little bit. And then he caught me with exactly the same left hook round the side and on the chin again.”
There is no animosity in Buglioni’s words. He doesn’t hate the man who bespoiled his unblemished record. There is a refreshing absence of hostility. But then why shouldn’t there be? We sometimes tend to overlook the fact that boxing is nine-tenths business and nine-tenths artifice. But then who’s counting? And without wishing to dial in the clichés Frank Buglioni seems to view that night as little more than a bad day at the office. He’s simply relieved to live to fight another day.
“It didn’t hurt,” he insists. “Obviously my legs went, my coordination went and the ropes probably kept me up but I didn’t go down. In the corner of my eye I saw the referee and I thought, ‘don’t jump in! Don’t jump in!’. I was still thinking, although obviously I couldn’t defend myself.”
A couple of weeks earlier Frank had contacted me via Facebook asking if I’d like to come back and conduct a follow-up interview with him. The strange thing was that at exactly the same time I’d been contacting him through Facebook to suggest the same. Perhaps deep down both of us knew we had unfinished business. Back in the 1990s when two men shared the same experience – generally physically it has to be said – they might have called it a ‘Ulrika’ moment.
“My trainer stopped the fight because he knew that fella could have finished me and done more damage,” Frank continues. “I’m not naive – I know he could have done that. I was in no position to continue at that time. He said: ‘it’s over. We’ll come again’. And I remember him saying ‘walk back to the corner – you’re walking out.’ And that’s probably why I’m so confident and I’ve come back so strong. Because I walked out of that ring. I wasn’t put on my arse.”
I watch Buglioni work on the pads. There is a marked difference between the man I see now and the man who was training for the Khomitsky defence. On that earlier occasion it was notable – even to my uncultured eye – that Buglioni seemed to lack aggression. Nothing too discernible – one certainly could not have accused him of going through the motions – but there was a sense that the boxer might just have temporarily forgotten about the life and death nature of the world that he inhabits. There is none of that now. There is a meanness to Buglioni’s punches that occasionally makes me wince from the sidelines as he throws them.
“My mindset has changed,” he explains. “When I train now, I train to hurt people. I wasn’t doing that previously. I was boxing nice, I was landing good shots but if I hurt anyone I would take a step back.
“Things have changed now. If I hurt someone I jump on them. If they’re in the ring with me they’re getting it. I’m in there to hurt people. And if I get beat so be it but they’ll know they’ve been in a fight. There’s no way there’re coming out unscathed against me. They’ll have to kill me to beat me.”
Such time honoured boxing rhetoric inevitably draws me back to my father and I struggle to concentrate as images flash by of the two of us perched in front of the TV yelling at Alan Minter as Marvin Hagler brutally exposes the British middleweight champion before being showered with bottles and cans. The perennial abuse that my father was wont to hurl at that great underachiever Joe Bugner as he pranced his way to yet another points loss against yet another American. There are so many moments that we shared together at the shrine of that fuzzy analogue screen: Stracey’s win over Napoles. Stracey’s loss to Dave ‘Boy’ Green. Green’s shocking one-punch KO at the fists of Ray Leonard; Kenny Norton’s frankly outrageous loss to Ali in their third fight. Some of those men have gone now but the memories are indelible.
Boxing was one of the very few things on which my father and I grudgingly walked a common ground. He was a soldier and then a copper and then a white collar worker at a local factory. Latterly he was a Labour councillor. My brother was a soldier and is still a copper. I was the black sheep. I liked to see myself as an artist but never the twain and all that. He didn’t understand me and I didn’t understand him. It was as if we both spoke a different language, with boxing being an occasional but all too fleeting translator.
The rest of the time we were at it like two heavyweight rivals. Him hurling the blows, both verbal and otherwise. Me ducking under their slipstream. Me erecting an impregnable defence that left him pondering and no doubt regretting the mistakes that we all make when we are young men.
“I still live with my parents. Me and my brother are still at home and my sister lives around the corner. We’re a close family.” Frank Buglioni’s relationship with his own father is thankfully somewhat less destructive. “We didn’t sleep that night. Me and my dad sat and watched the fight back. We came to the conclusion that I need to rectify this loss and come back a better fighter and that this could be the making of me. I said if I could fight that fella right now I would.”
I’m full of big ideas, me. I tell Frank that he needs to have an iconic image. That an iconic image is what will get people talking about him. As if I know anything at all.
And for some reason I have it in my mind to get him to recreate that famous Esquire cover shot of Muhammad Ali as St. Sebastian. And Frank is just so nice, so accommodating, that he agrees to my scheme without hesitation. I warn him that he might look a prat in front of his fellow fighters but he doesn’t care. And this is just one of the very many reasons that I am reminded how lucky, how fortunate I am to spend even a little time with one of these extraordinary people; this curious species who risk their lives and their future health looking for some sort of gold at the end of the rainbow. About how, almost to a man, you will seldom come across a nicer breed of person.
This is the incredible dichotomy inherent in boxing: that these individuals, who express themselves through bouts of controlled violence that is so often frightening to behold, that is frequently way beyond the boundaries of what our society deems to be acceptable behaviour, are generally more at peace with themselves than many of us will ever be. A small part of me wishes that my father was standing beside me to witness at first hand the tangible aura of tranquility that glows from Frank Buglioni. And yet another part of me is probably aware that I’m taking no small advantage of somebody who is slowly, I think, becoming a friend. Because actually it’s me who should be standing there looking a prat in front of the other boxers. It’s my flabby body that those arrows should really be aimed at.
There I go again. All too often in the past people have accused me of using boxing as a device to allow me to harp on about myself. But it’s Frank Buglioni who clearly deserves the last word before heading towards his own fork in the road to destiny:
“I take a lot of positives from the defeat: My chin is decent. He caught me with two absolute peaches and I was on the ropes and he was throwing right hands at will. And I was still on my feet. And I see that as a good sign,” he looks me in the eye earnestly as he tells me this. “Since turning pro I’ve never been the underdog. And I’m a dangerous underdog. I like to be at the back of the pack chasing. This has brought out another side of me and I’m spiteful. Everything I hit I’m hitting to hurt. I’m not going through the motions with anything. I’m in there to end careers.”
I began writing this less than a week before my father died. A part of me is, of course, already deeply regretting that I wasn’t there to to support him as his body withered away and succumbed to the truly awful and incurable condition known as Motor Neurone Disease. I hadn’t seen him for maybe two years after what in retrospect was always bound to be a frankly silly falling out that isn’t worth going into here. Over the years there had been many such trivial arguments and long periods in which we studiously avoided seeing each other. I think both of us realised that our superficial bickering masked a deeper chasm that often threatened to rend our father/son relationship into shreds. I believe it’s not that uncommon.
One of the many things I’ve taken from him is boxing, another is music, which I guess aren’t such bad gifts to receive from anybody. And it is to boxing – and you – that I must apologise. On too many occasions I’ve found myself hijacking the sport as a means of exorcising inner demons. And I’m doing it again right now. I hope you’ll understand.
Vincent Mortego’s urgent appointment was waiting for him in the basement of the Papua and New Guinean embassy near London Bridge. Robert Angelis was wearing the same suit that he had on fourteen hours earlier when little Clyde had initiated this meeting. He looked tired and stressed but his eyes were alert with fear.
Vincent’s arrival was inauspicious. After leaving Simon Clarke he had driven to his Hackney home and quickly changed into a tracksuit. It had taken him under an hour to leisurely jog the three-and a-half miles to his office. Vincent liked to run whenever he could. He recognised the importance of a fit body and a fit mind.
‘Mr. Angelis,’ he said, casually strolling into the room holding a bunch of keys and what looked like a small plastic sandwich box. ‘A Greek name, yes?’
Robert Angelis was sitting in the only chair of the basement of Vincent’s offices. Some years earlier it had been converted into a gym so that Vincent could work out whenever he felt like it. ‘Yes… that’s right,’ said Robert quietly, almost embarrassed.
The gym was sparse: there were a few weights lying around on the floor; there was a running machine in one corner where a locked metal storage cupboard stood beside it. In the middle of the chamber was a large massage table which was unremarkable except for the leather straps that hung loosely from each corner. There were no windows in the room, which had also been soundproofed.
‘Catch!’ said Vincent, throwing the plastic sandwich box towards Robert. ‘Excellent! Very good reflexes!’
Standing behind Robert was Clyde Grainger. Clyde was a former bantamweight boxer with the build and stature of a jockey. He had close cropped blonde hair and brown eyes like a squirrel. He often accompanied Vincent and always wore a neatly-pressed suit. Most people who met him assumed that he was Vincent’s second-in-command, although the title had never been made official. He let out a high-pitched cackle which made Robert Angelis flinch slightly.
‘Calm down Mr. Angelis,’ said Vincent. ‘You mustn’t let Clyde spook you so easily. I can assure you his bite’s far worse than his bark.’
‘Look…’ Robert began to speak but his voice trailed off.
‘Do you know who I am?’ asked Vincent.
There was a pause. Robert Angelis shook his head.
‘I can’t say I’m surprised. Although I’m sure we have a mutual acquaintance.’
Robert fidgeted in his chair and felt pain in his ribs. It seemed like a lifetime ago that he had been leaving the Embassy Club in Mayfair when Clyde had emerged from the shadows holding his favourite weapon of choice. Most people used a pestle for grinding herbs and spices but Clyde found that it fit perfectly into his jacket pocket and could quickly disable even the largest person if employed correctly.
‘I guess I’m what you might call an advisor,’ continued Vincent. ‘I help people… I guide people… And I sort out problems from time to time.’
‘What’s this got to do with me?’ Robert finally found his voice. He sounded a little like a school prefect.
Vincent smiled. His pure white teeth were immaculate. He could easily have passed for a movie star. ‘I have quite a range of clients… Although the majority are athletes. One of my clients, for example, is at West Ham – young but an excellent prospect… Another is rather a big name at Chelsea Football Club, scores a lot of goals… I also have another client who is a very famous central defender who plies his trade with Arsenal. He has more than fifty England caps actually.’
Vincent watched as Robert’s face suddenly reddened.
‘Oh… I see that you might have an idea who I’m talking about,’ said Vincent.
‘Look…’ Robert’s voice trailed off a second time.
‘Look at what?’ asked Vincent sharply.
Robert shuffled about in his chair and groaned a little. He clutched his ribs. ‘Look… I was having a quiet night out with some friends and this man… This man bloody attacked me…’ Robert turned his head in the direction of Clyde. ‘It’s a damned outrage!’
Vincent raised a single eyebrow. ‘Oxbridge?’ he said.
‘Oxbridge? Your accent is public school. Are you Oxbridge educated?’
‘Er… No. Exeter actually. What’s that got…’
‘Interesting… Not quite top of the heap. Second division…’
Robert was still holding the plastic container. He felt its weight in his hands. It seemed to be empty. Although when he looked at it he could just about make out something inside wrapped in tissue paper.
‘My client has a problem. Do you think you might know what it is Mr. Angelis?’
Robert did not reply.
‘Nothing to say? Let me see if I can help you remember.’
‘Look… It’s all a big mistake…’
‘There’s that word again. Look at what?’
‘It’s all an error. It’s silly… We can sort it out. There’s no need for…’
Vincent moved closer to Robert. He leaned over towards him so that the other man was able to smell his breath. ‘I know that we can sort it out. I’m completely sure of that,’ he said. ‘Now take your clothes off.’
The room fell silent. Robert’s mouth gaped open. ‘I’m sorry?’ he said.
‘You heard me correctly. I said take your clothes off.’
Robert set the plastic box on to his lap and gripped the sides of the chair with both hands, unwilling to let go. Vincent shook his head reproachfully. ‘Not playing ball, eh?’ he said. ‘Clyde, would you mind popping out and fetching Tina? I assume that you have the address?’
Robert let out a gasp and now attempted to climb to his feet but was roughly pushed back into position by Clyde standing behind him.
‘No problem, Mister Mortego,’ said Clyde in his market trader accent.
‘Let’s see if Tina minds taking her clothes off,’ said Vincent.
‘Leave her out of this!’ said Robert, his bottom lip quivering.
‘Then please take your clothes off.’
Robert Angelis slowly got to his feet and reluctantly removed his jacket, looking wide-eyed at Vincent as he did so. It dropped to the cold wooden floor. He took off his tie and then his shirt. He undid the laces of his shoes and stepped out of them. Finally he removed his trousers, also letting them fall to the floor.
‘The underwear if you don’t mind,’ said Vincent.
Robert turned to look at Clyde for a moment and then did as instructed. He stood naked before the two men, his body tanned and slim, except for a slight roll of blubber around his stomach. Under his right arm was an angry bruise the size of a grapefruit. Clyde’s smile mocked him.
‘You see, the thing is,’ said Vincent, ‘as an educated man I’m sure you will understand that there is no better way of establishing superiority over another person than the enforced removal of clothing…’
Vincent slowly circled Robert, inspecting every part of his body. ‘…You literally feel naked, don’t you?’
Robert trembled and nodded his head submissively.
‘It also looks like you’ve shit yourself,’ added Vincent, sorting through the bunch of keys and strolling over to the metal cupboard.
‘Some time ago my client came to me with a problem.’ continued Vincent. ‘Namely £175,000 missing from his bank account. He asked if I could help and naturally I told him I could. It cost me a little money I can tell you but I was able to employ the services of a forensic accountant. You do know what a forensic accountant is don’t you Mr. Angelis?’
‘Good. Being an accountant yourself I assumed that you would. Anyway, it didn’t take long for him to discover a breadcrumb trail and guess where it led?’
‘There’s that fucking word again…. Clyde?’
‘Yes Mr. Montego.’
‘I’m getting irritated. Strike Mr. Angelis if he says it again. Hard.’
‘Will do, Mr. Montego.’
‘If I can continue: The point is, Mr. Angelis, is that my client wants his money back. Are you in a position to return it. Yes or no?’
‘I… I… Didn’t…’
‘Yes or fucking no?’
There was a pause then: ‘Yes.’
‘Excellent. Very pleased to hear it.’
‘Can you do this by the end of tomorrow?’
‘It’s not going to be…’
‘Yes or no?’
‘Yes… I think… Yes.’
‘Excellent. There’s also the matter of my commission. I’m going to be charging you my usual 15%. In addition to this my client is entitled to the interest that he has lost as a result of your activities. I’ve taken the liberty of rounding off the figure to 200K. Do you have a problem with this?’
Robert Angelis’s face grew pale. A vein throbbed in his forehead. ‘That’s not fucking fair,’ he finally managed to say.
Once again Vincent Mortego grinned. ‘It’s not is it? But what can you do?’
Robert was silent once more.
‘Because I don’t need to say that if you do not comply with my request Clyde here will be very unhappy. And he’s know for his temper. There’s no telling what he might do to you… Or Tina.’
‘You fucking bastard.’
‘Not so Mr. Angelis. Both my parents are alive and flourishing thank you very much. The question remains, however, is what is to be done with you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘What I mean is that it’s obviously not going to be enough for you just to return the money that you stole from my client. You must also be taught a lesson.’
‘I don’t understand…’
‘I think you do, Mr. Angelis. As a matter of fact only recently I was having a similar sort of conversation with another acquaintance of mine. He wasn’t quite so educated as your good self. Take a look inside the box I gave to you earlier.’
Robert looked confused. The box was now at his feet. He picked it up and felt its weight once more.
Robert Angelis gasped and dropped the box. Its contents rolled on to the floor. ‘My God!’ he exclaimed.
‘I recall we having a philosophical debate,’ said Vincent. ‘We were talking about what made our species so successful, so efficient. We thought about the wheel… We thought about fire…
‘In the end we decided that it was opposing thumbs that achieved this. Wouldn’t you agree?’
Robert said nothing and nodded his head sadly.
‘Needless to say, the acquaintance in question is fifty per cent as efficient as he once was. Or fifty per cent less efficient, depending on how you look at it…’
‘Look… I don’t…’
There was a flash of movement from behind him. Robert collapsed to the floor in agony clutching his ribs. Vincent waited a few moments before speaking again.
‘I told you to stop saying that fucking word,’ he said, his voice for the first time betraying anger. ‘Now fucking get up and lie face down on that thing.’ Vincent was pointing at the massage table.
‘Do it fucking now!
Robert slowly got to his feet. He was trembling as he climbed on to the massage table. He whimpered a little as he discovered what the leather straps were for. ‘You look ludicrous with your hairy white arse sticking up the air,’ laughed Vincent. ‘Shame I don’t have a camera.’
Robert was now bound firmly to the massage table. The leather straps tight around his wrists and ankles, cutting off the blood supply.
‘You mentioned earlier that you were of Greek origin.’
Robert did not respond.
‘Speak man! Jesus Christ! Fucking speak!’
‘Not… Not really – I’m pretty sure my grandfather was half Greek!’ Robert spoke urgently, his voice muffled.
‘Nevertheless an educated man such as yourself may have heard of falanga.’
‘Falanga. Surely you must be familiar with the word? Let me elaborate: It’s a form of punishment that was used by the Greek Junta during the sixties.’
Vincent fished around in the cupboard and pulled out a stiff wooden walking stick. He walked around to the front of the massage table so that Richard was able to see it clearly.
‘They were a brutal bunch the Greeks. Apparently the technique involved striking the soles of the feet with a stick or a whip… Or a cane.’
Richard made a sound like he was in pain and yelled out something unintelligible.
Vincent continued: ‘From what I’ve read falanga is particularly painful in view of the fact that the feet contain hundreds, perhaps thousands of nerve endings. If that isn’t bad enough the healing process can be very protracted.’
‘Please… I didn’t know…’
‘…Who you were dealing with. Well now you do. I hope you’re a good liar Mr. Angelsis. Because your going to have to explain to Tina – and your business colleagues – why you’ve suddenly developed a limp.’
Vincent moved behind Robert Angelis. He swished the cane through the air. Robert began to shake violently, as if the temperature in the building had suddenly dropped below zero.
‘Left or right, Mr. Angelis?’
‘Left or right? Make your choice or I’ll do both.’
Robert began to sob.
‘Left or right? Last chance.’
‘Left,’ said Robert, his voice weak with terror.
There was a loud swish in the room. This was immediately followed by a scream of agony that would have been heard in the next street were it not for the soundproofing.
Vincent moved around to Richard’s front once more. He lowered himself on to his haunches so that his head was at the same height as the crying man’s.
‘Don’t fuck with me, Mr. Angelis,’ he said calmly. ‘Don’t fuck with me. Because next time I won’t be whipping your feet – I’ll be cutting them off. Do I make myself clear?’
In between his sobs, Robert managed to nod his head. ‘Yes! Yes!’ he cried.
‘I want that money back in my client’s bank account by close of play tomorrow. To repeat: that’s 200K in total. Understand?’
Robert seemed not to hear him.
‘And if it’s not there Clyde here will come looking for you and your lovely wife. And then things will get really messy. I can promise you that.’
Vincent scooped up the severed thumb and put it back in its container. Then he moved back over to the cupboard to return the cane. He locked it up and put the bundle of keys in his pocket.
‘One more thing, Mr. Angelis. There’s always one more thing, isn’t there? Clyde over there has had a very busy time because of you. He needs some form of compensation for his trouble. Isn’t that right Clyde?’
‘Yes Mr. Montego.’
‘As I said earlier, I really do hope that you’re a good liar Mr. Angelis. Because as well as that limp of yours, you’re going to have to explain to Tina why your arse is bleeding to fuck. I have every confidence that you can do it. Tell her it’s your haemorrhoids. ‘
Vincent moved to the exit of the gym. From the corner of his eye he could see that the diminutive figure of Clyde had already moved behind Robert Angelis and was unzipping his flies. In a few moments the walls of the gym would reverberate with the sound of more screams.
Vincent Mortego parked his silver Porsche in the most prominent position that he could find and waited for the crowds to arrive. They drifted in from the shadows of the large metallic waste bins and from the dimly lit stairwells, tiny pinpricks of light that twinkled like stars in the black night.
Vincent smiled to himself as he exited the car and locked the door, his fingers weighed heavy with gold. ‘Good evening gentlemen,’ he said confidently. ‘And how much is it going to cost me for you good people to look after this vehicle?’
There was a delay as the figures in the shadows assimilated the vision before them. And then one of them moved forward and spoke: ‘Fifty, Mr. Mortego.’
Vincent smiled almost indulgently and beckoned to the voice: ‘Come forward so I can see you,’ he said quietly.
A large black youth moved into the light. He was probably about eighteen and wearing a spotted bandana. Partially obscured in his hand was a lit reefer.
‘It’s Lyndon, isn’t it?’ said Vincent. ‘Lyndon Carter.’
‘That’s right Mr. Mortego.’
Vincent knew everybody in the estate. And everybody knew him. ‘How’s your mother?’ he asked.
‘She’s all right.’
‘Is she getting over the operation?’
‘Yeah… She’s all right.’
‘I’m very pleased to hear it. Give her my regards won’t you?’
‘Yeah… I’ll do that.’
As his eyes grew accustomed to the darkness Vincent made a few calculations. He counted fifteen figures surrounding the car. He felt no danger but that wasn’t the point. He smiled as one by one the windows in the estate began to light up, interested to see what was happening below, expecting violence. This was the point: Vincent wanted everyone to know he had arrived.
‘I’ll tell you what I’ll do,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you twenty-five now and another thirty when I’ve finished my visit. How does that arrangement suit you?’
‘That’s sweet, Mr. Mortego… Thanks’
‘Excellent. It’s a pleasure doing business with you gentlemen.’
Vincent reached into his Armani jacket and pulled out his wallet. He peeled off five £5 notes and handed them over. Then he moved to the back of the car and opened the boot. ‘Give us a hand with these, boys,’ he called.
Soon Vincent was climbing the stairs to number 25 Bentham Court, the modest Islington council flat that was home to the boxer Simon Clarke. Behind him strung out like servants attending to royalty Lyndon Carter and his gang struggled with their packages.
With Vincent Mortego it was difficult to disentangle the lies from the truth. Like oil on water the lies usually floated to the top. Most people knew that he was a poor North London boy but his accent seemed to suggest that he came from finer stock. Cursory research would reveal that Mortego had enjoyed no less than three separate spells at Her Majesty’s pleasure and yet Vincent claimed an honours degree in marketing from Harvard, as well as the ability to speak four different languages. It did not matter that nobody had ever been present to hear him demonstrate his polyglottism.
Vincent was a handsome thirty-two with refined coffee coloured features and an elegantly cut goatee. He wore only the best clothes and was seen with only the best people. He had appeared almost from nowhere five years ago when employed as the press agent for leading British boxing promoter Vinny Reilly. In that role he had perplexed and confounded the sporting press with his combination of style, grandiloquence and unrelenting charm.
In under a year Mortego had outgrown his boss and started up his own PR agency. Quickly added to his books was the standard combination of Page Three girls, disgruntled footballers, sub-standard/faded pop stars and even the odd politician. He liked to tell people that he was the black Max Clifford.
What Vincent didn’t have on his books, however, was a boxer. And that was why he was currently ringing the doorbell of number 25.
‘Good evening Mary,’ said Vincent to the large West African woman who answered the door. ‘Is Simon in?’
Mary Clarke was a god-fearing woman for whom her door was always open. She never saw the bad in anybody. ‘Why, it’s Mr. Mortego. Don’t you just look a vision? How have you been keeping?’ she exclaimed. ‘Come in – Simon’s watchin’ the telly.’
‘Oh please,’ smiled Vincent. ‘It’s Vince.’
The Clarke’s council flat was modest and lived in. The furniture well worn but clean and homely. The only thing that set it apart from any of the hundreds of similar flats in the council estate was the silverware. Everywhere you looked there were cups and trophies, testament to Mrs. Clarke’s youngest son’s extraordinary aptitude for controlled violence. The pair moved into the kitchen.
‘Simon – you’ve got a visitor,’ called Mary, through a serving hatch.
It took a few moments for Simon to appear. He seemed irritated to be dragged away from Eastenders. ‘Mr Mortego,’ he exclaimed in surprise.
‘I’ve told you before… It’s Vince… please,’ said Vincent, holding out his hand and shaking Simon’s firmly, his dark eyes exploring the younger man’s.
‘What can I do for you?’ said Simon awkwardly.
‘It’s just a courtesy visit,’ said Vincent. ‘I’ve brought a few things for your mother.’
Vincent gestured towards the front door, where Lyndon Carter and his cronies had deposited their boxes. ‘Please,’ he said.
Simon regarded the boxes warily. ‘What’s this about?’ he asked.
‘Just some gifts,’ said Vincent.
Simon’s mother had a broad smile on her face as she tore open the boxes. ‘Look Simon!,’ she exclaimed. ‘It’s a fur coat! Oh my, it’s beautiful!’ she held the coat against her cheek, luxuriating in its warmth and softness.
Vincent regarded her with genuine happiness in his eyes.
‘Oh my word,’ continued Mrs Clarke. ‘These are beautiful flowers!’
Christmas in the Clarke household continued as a new hat was revealed that was perfect for Sunday morning service, chocolates, a new Walkman and an expensive looking set of ring boots for Simon. There was no present for Mr. Clarke senior. He had flown the coop when Simon was only two months old.
Simon stood impassively in the kitchen, his arms crossed. ‘I’m sorry Mr. Mortego but we can’t accept these,’ he said.
Vincent frowned. He looked hurt. ‘Why ever not?’ he said.
Simon shrugged, looking uncomfortable. ‘I don’t know,’ he replied. ‘It just don’t seem right.’
A smile appeared on Vincent’s handsome face. ‘That’s very impressive and not entirely unexpected,’ he said.
‘What do you mean?’ Simon looked confused.
‘I mean it says a lot about the kind of man you are,’ explained Vincent. ‘It shows that you have intelligence and loyalty and principles. These are qualities that are hard to find nowadays.’
Simon seemed to relax a little.
Vincent continued: ‘Please don’t refuse my gifts. They’re for your mother really and I think she would be very disappointed.’
‘I think I know my own mother better than you do!’ snapped Simon.
‘Of course! Of course!’ said Vincent defensively. ‘Naturally I have no wish to offend you with my last comment. These gifts are merely a token of my appreciation of your tremendous talents. Please take them.’
Mrs Clarke turned to her boy. ‘Don’t offend the gentleman, Simon,’ she said gently. ‘Don’t insult his generosity.’
Simon thought for a moment and the tension seemed to drain from his shoulders. ‘OK… OK…’ he said. And then: ‘Thanks…’
‘You’ve got a fight coming up soon?’ said Vincent, changing the subject.
‘That’s right… Mike Chulumbe.’
‘Chulumbe?’ said Vincent frowning. ‘Surely at this stage in your career you’re ready for a sterner test of your abilities?’
Simon looked angry again. ‘Mr. Andretti’s in charge of who I fight.’
‘Of course he is. And you won’t find a better matchmaker in the whole of the country.’
‘That’s right,’ said Simon, sounding a little unsure of himself.
‘It’s just that…’
Vincent looked around at the flat. ‘It’s just that someone with your talents deserves to be fighting bigger names… And earning bigger purses.’
‘What are you trying to say Mr Mortego?’
‘I’m not trying to say anything, Simon. I’m merely applauding the decisions you have made. I believe that in Mr. Dino Andretti you have a manager who will always look after the best interests of his fighters. I mean… Look at what he’s doing for Oliver Long.’
Now Simon looked confused again. ‘What do you mean by that?’ he said.
Vincent Mortego pulled back his shoulders and prepared himself for a longer speech. ‘Haven’t you heard,’ he said. ‘Why only this morning Mr. Andretti flew off to Milan with Oliver…’
‘We all know that…’
‘…And I think it’s incredibly commendable that Mr. Andretti is prepared to risk his licence so that his fighter does not forfeit his purse.’
Simon once more looked confused.
‘A little bird tells me that Dino’s doing the old pro’s trick of concealing Oliver’s cut so that the fight can proceed. I think it’s a fantastic thing that he would do that.’
‘Oh… That,’ said Simon, pretending to be party to the subterfuge.
‘One can only hope that everything goes according to plan,’ said Vincent.
‘That is to say: Mr. Andretti has to consider himself fortunate that he has a fighter who is able to prevail with only one eye. Oliver Stone is, of course, a genius. One of the most talented fighters to have come out of this country in twenty years. Present company excluded, of course. ‘
The room fell silent as Simon took in Vincent’s words. And then the other man ostentatiously pulled back his sleeve to reveal a gleaming watch that seemed to have been cast from a solid block of gold: ‘Anyway, it’s been a pleasure to spend time with you, Simon. And you too Mary. I shall have to leave you now. I unfortunately have an urgent appointment that I can’t afford to miss. Please accept these gifts with my sincere affection. I just want you to know that you have a friend. Heaven knows we could all do with a friend in these troubled times.’
Vincent reached into a side pocket and pulled out an embossed business card. He handed it to Simon. ‘Here’s my number,’ he said. ‘Call me any time you like. Anything I can do to help, you’re always welcome.’
Vincent left the flat and headed back to his car. Lyndon and his group were sitting on the concrete pavement waiting for him. Vincent smiled at them as he opened the door. ‘Many thanks for your assistance, boys,’ he said. ‘It’s greatly appreciated. ‘
There was a pause and then Lyndon spoke: ‘What about our thirty quid?’ he asked.
Vincent eased himself into the driver’s seat and his smile broadened. ‘Ah…’ he said. ‘It pains me to have to do this but I’m sorry to say that you are about to be the recipients of one of life’s hardest lessons…’
‘What?’ Lyndon grunted.
‘It’s all about market forces,’ explained Vincent. ‘You see, the mistake you made was to accept my offer of half the funds up front and half the funds upon receipt…’
‘Don’t know what you’re talking’ about…’
‘I’m sure you don’t Lyndon. Let me explain: The next time that you find yourself in a similar position be sure to demand that you receive all monies in advance. Because I’m now sitting in my car and you no longer have any control over what I do next. And what I’m doing next is starting up my engine and driving away. I’ll see you later boys. And do be sure to remember me to your mother, Lyndon.’
Posting this while on holiday in Portugal.
Paula Chan stood in the back room of Dino’s Gym that served as his makeshift office. ‘He wants to fight,’ she said. She was well spoken, probably educated, no real trace of an accent.
Dino sat back in his chair behind his desk amid the disorder, papers spilling everywhere, old fight posters peeling off the walls. ‘With all due respect darling,’ he said. ‘I think Ollie knows what’s best for Ollie. Don’t you?’
‘Well that’s the problem, isn’t it?’ said Paula. ‘He doesn’t, does he? He never has done.’
Standing sheepishly beside his girlfriend not saying a word was Oliver Long. Equally unconventional outside of the ropes, Long was wearing some sort of three-piece suit accompanied by trainers that were falling to pieces. The beads in his dreadlocks hung over his shoulders like baubles on a Christmas tree. The odour of cheap after-shave was unable to mask the smell of sinsemilla on his breath.
‘Paula, he’s in no condition to fight. He’s got a cut in his eye or haven’t you noticed that?’
‘A cut that you caused,’ said the girl. ‘Or haven’t you noticed that?’
‘That’s not fair,’ said Dino dejectedly. ‘It was an accident, you know that.’
‘Was it?’ said Paula.
Dino frowned. ‘What’s that’s supposed to mean?’ he said.
‘Well what kind of manager messes around like that with only three days to go to the fight?’
‘It was an accident,’ repeated Dino grimly. ‘And it’s probably gonna cost me a fortune.’
‘Cost you a fortune? What about Ollie? He needs that money, Dino. He’s desperate.’
‘Ollie’s always desperate…’
‘I’m not joking, Dino. He wants to fight – don’t you Ollie?’
‘Yeah certainly… For sure… That’s right boss,’ said Oliver to both or either of them, sounding to all intents and purposes like somebody had just asked him if he took sugar in his tea.
‘He can’t fight, Paula. He’s got a cut. How many times do…’
‘He can fight.’
Dino shook his head in frustration. ‘Just how do you work that one out Paula?’ he sighed.
‘The doctor said it’s not too bad. He doesn’t need stitches, you know.’
‘Well that news to me,’ said Dino. ‘Good news for a change.’
‘And he’s a good healer… He’s always been a good healer. Haven’t you Ollie?’
‘Well I can’t disagree with you there darlin’,’ said Dino.
Paula Chan crossed her arms. ‘Cut out the fucking ‘darling’,’ she said. ‘This isn’t Victorian times you know. He’s fighting and that’s that.’
Dino stood up and moved closer to Long. He took a long hard look at his boxer’s injury. ‘I’m sorry Paula,’ he said. ‘They’ll take one look at that eye and call it off. He’s cut, Paula. There’s no other way of saying this. He’s cut!’
‘That’s where you’re wrong,’ said Paula.
‘Oh come on…’
‘Look away a second.’
‘Look away. Go on… Do it…’
Dino was on the verge of losing his temper, which was a rare thing for him to do and a complement to the persistence of Paula Chan. Even so, he did as he was told and turned his head away from his fighter.
‘You can look now,’ said Paula Chan after a couple of moments.
Dino once more stared into the eyes of his boxer. He moved even closer. ‘What’cha do?’ he asked.
Paula was holding a jar of foundation in her hand, the sort that would cost you a couple of quid on the high street. She smiled.
Even Dino looked surprised. ‘Well I have to say… It’s… It’s pretty good.’
‘It’s more than just pretty good,’ said Paula. ‘It’s pretty fantastic.’
Suddenly thoughts were going through Dino’s head. Maybe his boy could still fight. Perhaps Long could do it after all. Maybe they could just about pull it off. Even with that cut he still had more than enough for the Italian. ‘He’d have to make sure that Rossi stays away from that eye,’ he said.
Now Oliver Long was smiling. ‘Nobody touch Ollie Long,’ he said.
‘I gotta think about this. I don’t want to put you at risk. I wouldn’t be doing my job if I did.’
‘Nobody touch Ollie Long,’ repeated the boxer, puffing out his chest.
‘He’s only got to last until the opening bell goes,’ said Paula. ‘And then we can say that he got cut in the first round.’
‘He needs the money,’ said Paula. ‘You need the money.’
Both of these statements were true.
‘I gotta think about it,’ said Dino. ‘I could lose my licence over this.’
Angie Fuller was not a psychiatrist. On the front door of her shabby one-bedroom flat at the side of Berwick Street Market was a cardboard sign on which the words ‘YOUNG MODEL INSIDE’ had been roughly scrawled in biro. This was usually ignored by both the local constabulary and any members of the Trading Standards Commission who happened to be passing. Her modelling days were long gone and she was no student of Freud. But she was happy to play that role so long as her hourly rate did not drop.
‘I don’t know why you bother with him,’ she said. ‘He’s always causin’ trouble.’
‘Well I suppose I like him,’ said Dino softly. ‘He’s a decent kid. And he really could have been someone. One of the greats you know. It’s a crying shame.’
Angie was thirty-nine-years-of-age but could have passed for ten years older. The drugs had mostly done that to her but she also suspected that being fucked by up to fifteen different men a day for the last twenty years may have played a part. That and the four kids.
‘You know most fighters hang around outside the gym asking for money,’ said Dino. ‘And most fighters try to tap you up for a couple of hundred, sometimes a couple of grand. But with Ollie it was always ‘Can I borrow a fiver for the weekend? Can I borrow twenty?’. He hasn’t got a bad bone in his body that one.’
‘But you can’t let him hit you like that,’ said Angie soothingly.
‘I know darlin’,’ said Dino. ‘I know.’
Angie was sitting naked in bed smoking a Marlboro Light. Beside her, also naked, Dino was absent-mindedly scratching his balls. Dino had been calling on Angie for almost as long as he had been at Carnaby Street. Although he still paid for the privilege of spending time with her, in many ways they were a couple. They were used to each other: comfortable and at ease in each other’s company. He never felt this way with his wife.
‘What you gonna do then?’ she asked.
‘I dunno. He’s getting that eye checked out. Depends how bad it is. With any luck we can get him training again in a couple of weeks. Problem is, I don’t think the Italians are gonna bite a second time. I could be out of pocket big time.’
‘I told you you should have paid the insurance darlin’.’
‘Thanks Angie, that makes me feel a lot better…’
‘Poor little Dino…’
Angie’s breasts hung loose and heavy, no longer the prized assets that they used to be when she worked in the clubs. As gravity had made its inevitable impression on her body, so the fees that Angie charged had also headed downwards over the years. She knew that she was entering a pivotal phase of her career, if you can call it that. In a year or so’s time she would be struggling to find a punter willing to pay for her services. Christ, it was happening already.
For this reason she was grateful to have Dino as a regular. He visited three or four times a week and stayed for at least an hour. He always settled up, never hurt her, and wasn’t really that interested in the sex. It was a secondary consideration for him. You almost felt that that he was going through the motions because he had to, because it was somehow expected of him. Angie and Dino had much in common: in his heyday he was renowned as a person who could finish off a street fight in seconds rather than minutes; and Angie was equally businesslike when it came to finishing off her clients.
Dino didn’t come to see her for physical contact. He came mainly to talk:
‘Yes poor little Dino. Well might you say that…’
‘What about Jimmy Smith?’
‘I went to see him, didn’t I?’
‘Did he help you out?’
‘I dunno. He might he might not.’
‘Ungrateful little rat. After all you’ve done for him.’
‘He don’t owe me nothing, Ange. Just cos I knew his father…’
‘You more than just knew him… You and Billy were like that.’ Angie bowed her fingers to illustrate the degree of closeness.
‘It don’t work that way, love. Jimmy’s his own man, just like his dad was.’
‘What about Vincent Mortego?’
Dino frowned. ‘Why’d you mention him?’ he asked. ‘What’s he got to do with anything?’
‘Well he’s got money, ain’t he?’
‘So he reckons.’
‘He could… Couldn’t he, you know, make an investment?’
‘An investment? An investment in what?’
‘You know – in one of your fighters.’
Dino usually valued Angie’s advice. Lord knows she’d helped him out over the years. But he felt himself growing irritated.
‘Angie, I’ve been managing fighters for thirty years and I’ve never sold a piece of them to anyone.’
‘And I’ve got no intention of starting now. Anyway, Bill Saxon in New York tells me Mortego – and that’s not even his real name – gets all his money from cocaine. I’m not going anywhere near that.’
‘What about Mickey and Jarvis?’
‘I’m not going to them… It’d be… Humiliating.’
There was a pause. Angie stubbed out her cigarette and lit up another one.
‘They won’t do you any good, you know,’ said Dino.
‘Them’s the least of my problems Dino,’ laughed Angie.
Dino rolled off the bed and began to dress. ‘Well I’m not spending the afternoon catching cancer,’ he said.
‘So what are you gonna do?’ asked Angie, suddenly growing serious.
‘I dunno. We’ll have to wait and see. Something will turn up.’
The phone rang almost as soon as Dino had left the building. From a café in the market one of Vincent Mortego’s many lookouts had immediately got on the phone to his employer, who in turn called Angie straight away.
‘Jesus Angie, I don’t know how you can bear to look at that big fat lump of shit,’ said Vincent Mortego.
‘He’s all right Vince, at least he don’t bother me.’
‘Did you do what I said?’
‘Is that all?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Jesus, it’s like getting blood from a fucking stone! Explain… Elaborate… Give me a fucking description of what happened. That’s what I’m fucking paying you for!’
‘I did what you asked. I told him to go to you.’
‘What did he say?’
‘Jesus fucking Christ!’
‘Sorry Vincent!’ echoed Vincent Mortego.
‘Anything fucking else! Did he say anything else! Jesus!’
‘Not really. Only that Long’s been cut.’
‘Oliver Long got cut in sparring.’
‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’
‘What’s the matter, Vince?’
‘Mind your own business Angie.’