6

Tyson Fury – Making a sow’s arse

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(This is a little taster for a book I’m currently writing, which I’m not going to reveal the title of at the moment. Should anyone be at all interested it’ll be published towards the end of the year.)

I’m at my third press conference in a week and feel no less an outsider. The boxing promoter Frank Warren mills around cheerfully massaging shoulders but even though we met long ago when I had hair and he didn’t have scars on his chest from bullets that almost killed him he doesn’t have a clue who I am. He looks through me and I’m pleased that he does.

My third press conference in a quarter of a century and already there are faces that I am beginning to recognise as regulars. The silver-haired Colin Hart, he of The Sun newspaper is here, eternally shaking hands, boxing’s own Methuselah, but unlike last time around I choose to avoid him. Also present once more is a tall dark-skinned man with a digital camera permanently strapped to his wrist, whom I’m told is called Kugan Cassius, something of a name in the boxing world but most probably anonymous to normal people. He apparently conducts regular interviews for a YouTube channel he started a few years ago that has quickly grown to attract over one million hits. Boxers and managers and promoters seem anxious to court his attention. In the old days newspaper men ruled the roost and could potentially make or break a fighter but nowadays the balance of power has shifted towards young black men toting iPhones or Galaxies who film every second of any event that happens to make the slightest mention of boxing and then upload it on to different branches of social media while they still have battery power remaining.

I’ve come here today to kill several birds with one stone. Having contacted Frank Warren’s press office I am grateful to be invited along to observe three prominent boxing figures strut their stuff. Two of them, Naseem Hamed and Ricky Hatton, are former world champion boxers at feather and light-welterweight respectively. The other is currently the heavyweight champion of the world, a controversial figure known as Tyson Fury. Fury is probably the real reason I am here. For even in the modern era of boxing, possibly the most cynical, financially polluted epoch in boxing history, a chance to see the real, bona fide heavyweight champion of the world in the flesh is an opportunity that few even casual observers of the sport would be willing to turn down.

The press conference is being held in a large room called The Empire Suite in London’s drippingly opulent Landmark Hotel. By coincidence I’d been here only a few months earlier after a former employer died and left a sum of money that was to be spent on a lavish bash in her memory. Unlike that night I stand innocently sipping mineral water and quietly watch events unfold. Ricky Hatton, noticeably heavier than in his fighting days, is being interviewed on film by a heavy-browed young man whom I recognise from the last press conference I attended. More film crews congregate around other fighters, discernible to me only by the stoop of the shoulders and their calcified fists. My eyes stalk Frank Warren, impressed to witness him in action: silky smooth, effortlessly charming, a veteran of more of these type of events than his relatively youthful appearance would seem to suggest.

I think back to meeting Ambrose Mendy at the end of last year. And remember him telling me misty-eyed how he and Warren discovered boxing together in the early 1980s and were entranced by the brutal spectacle. I also recollect him intimating on more than one occasion how the pair of them were close enough for the promoter to be nominated best man at his wedding. As always, however, there is more than one side to any tale in boxing. With even a little background reading such blissful memoirs of friendship lost and found prove not to be taken at face value. In Ben Dirs’ 2013 book The Hate Game Warren claims not to have even invited Mendy to his own wedding three week’s earlier and to have regretted agreeing to being Mendy’s best man. The truth? Irrelevant. As always there is no truth in boxing. And there are no lies.

But I digress… The room is now filling up and people are starting to take their positions in the row of seats that have been placed before a large table at the back of the room, on which rest name plates corresponding to the main protagonists of this occasion. One each for Frank Warren, Ricky Hatton, Naseem Hamed, promoter Mick Hennessey, Tyson Fury and his father ‘Big’ John Fury.

I take a seat and find myself sitting close to Steve Lillis. Back in the day Steve was the racing correspondent of The Sunday Sport and I was that venerable organ’s boxing writer. Among the nipples and haunted fish fingers we tried our best to keep a straight face. If my memory serves me right, we’ve seen each other on two occasions since then and he greets me warmly, which I’m grateful for. He’s older, as are we all, but slimmer and fitter than he used to be. When I left the Sport he comfortably slipped into my moccassins and has been working in boxing ever since. Unlike many of the people he writes about Steve is completely without pretension and has done well for himself in the sport. He is now employed by Box Nation, the television channel that Frank Warren set up in 2012, and spends his time interviewing figures from the boxing world in an honest and unthreatening manner that has won him many friends.

I find myself genuinely happy to be back in Steve’s company, if only for a few brief moments. It’s also quite nice to be recognised by someone, to not be a complete stranger in a room full of people who know each other. As you would expect we swap anecdotes about the past and promise to meet up for a drink, which will very probably never happen.

There is a sudden commotion in the room and a looming figure descends on to the table. Tyson Fury is a staggering 6 ‘ 9″ in height but somehow seems shorter. He also looks a lot slimmer than I imagined him to be, a fact that is in direct contrast to stories of him being six stones overweight that are currently doing the rounds on social media. He issues a terse ‘good afternoon gentlemen’ before taking his seat, where he is joined by the rest of the boxing ensemble with the perhaps inevitable exception of Naseem Hamed. Frank Warren makes a joke about ‘Naz’ never changing, still late after all these years.

The press conference kicks off in pedestrian fashion. Also at the table is Hughie Fury, cousin of Tyson and another heavyweight boxer; the first part of the afternoon concerns his upcoming fight. But the watching press fidget as they wait for the real meat to be served. A few questions are gently aimed at Hughie, more through politeness than any real intent, and then it’s on the main event.

Tyson Fury has an adrenaline infused smile on his face as he speaks. A glint of madness in his eyes and the confrontational comportment of the habitually pursued. He murmurs something about being a gypsy and as such being used to ruining people’s gardens. It’s a comic remark that is greeted with a smattering of embarrassed laughter from the watching press. But there is also an unmistakable element of menace about the tone.

Like many people I have seen the headlines about Tyson Fury since he unexpectedly relieved longstanding heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko of his belts in Germany last year. Although he refutes the accusations of racism, homophobia and sexism that have blighted his reputation since that night, Fury’s words and demeanour do nothing to further his cause. An ill-fitting armour of belligerent indignation is worn by  Fury and his brethren. They are angry: angry that Tyson is apparently gaining no respect from the press; angry that in their opinion travellers are universally viewed with contempt by the general public; angry with the questions that the press are not asking; angry that they have had to endure a four-hour drive from Manchester to get to this location when they should have been sitting in a chauffeur driven Limousine. They are angry with the whole world when in fact Tyson Fury should be having the time of his life. Furious Fury is the heavyweight champion of the world, one of a very select breed of athlete who can trace his championship lineage back through the decades, through Muhammad Ali, Rocky Marciano, Joe Louis and Jack Dempsey all the way back to John L Sullivan in the late nineteenth century. Fury is the man who beat the man who beat the man. He deserves to be a little pleased with himself. For surely this considerable achievement is more than Fury could ever have dreamed of?

Today Tyson Fury’s specific anger is related to the fact that one of the belts that he won, the IBF belt, has recently been snatched away from him after refusing to fight a nominated opponent. He is furious that his property is now strapped to the svelte waist of housewives’ favourite Anthony Joshua, who gaimed the title in a comedically one-sided performance the weekend before. Fury calls Joshua’s promoter Eddie Hearn a ‘bitch’ and a ‘pussy’. He tells the press that Hearn is a ‘daddy’s boy’ and promises to ‘give him a slap’ when they next meet. Veterans of the press conference genre will understand that such talk is usually to be taken with a pinch of smelling salts before being placed into the context it is intended for: that of a vehicle by which to put bums on arena seats. Yet there is more than a touch of reality about Fury’s performance. It appears to me that there is little pretence contained within this outburst. Fury really seems to mean what he says. His fixed smile is more a grimace of self-righteous indignation. And when Fury grunts ‘next question!’ after yet another abusive tirade it is not an invitation but an admonishment.

Because of this there are few in the press section willing to speak. Or perhaps there are other reasons: the fact that a Daily Mail journalist named Oliver Holt was threatened with physical violence for publishing a taped interview with Tyson Fury. Or the fact that Tyson’s father has been to prison for gouging out a man’s eye. Or the fact that Tyson’s uncle, Peter Fury, manager and trainer of the heavyweight champion, is a convicted drugs baron who, according to The Daily Mirror, allegedly ran a lucrative amphetamine distribution business from behind bars. Whatever the case there seems to be plenty of reasons for the attendant press to keep the heads firmly beneath the parapet. Their silence is more than a little awkward. And when questions do occasionally appear they are uncontroversial, vapid affairs that draw further scorn from the Fury ranks.

Although it is fully a quarter of a century since I last spoke at a press conference I decide to throw my hat into the ring.

I ask Fury about his assertion that a rematch of the fight in Germany will result in the loss of his belts. Although we are all fully aware that boxers who fight in an opponent’s home territory traditionally run the very real risk of falling victim to outrageous mathematical errors in judges’ scoring, Tyson’s performance in Düsseldorf last July clearly did not elicit any such arithmetical aberrations. I am interested to hear in Tyson’s own words why things should be different this time round.

‘Listen,’ he says, ‘don’t try and tempt fate twice. One’s good enough and I’m happy with that. Let him come here.’

‘But you’ve not heard anything to suggest that that would happen?’ I ask.

‘I’ve not heard anything. But let him come here, the German prick…’ he replies in his thick Northern accent, immediately getting testy.

At this point Frank Warren interjects.

‘It’s very, very rare to get a win out there,’ say the promoter diplomatically. ‘Very few British fighters have done it. Why tempt fate?’

Although in terms of ring deportment, any comparisons with Muhammad Ali end before they begin, when it comes to talking there are without doubt similarities between boxing’s greatest exponent and his most recent successor. Despite the acrid mood that permeates all corners of the room I find myself chuckling at Tyson Fury’s circus act. He’s clearly intelligent. He’s certainly articulate. And he does have charisma. Surely with only a few cosmetic tweaks he would stand a very real chance of gaining the respect he feels he is not getting from the press?

‘The only man who could beat Klitschko was me,’ proclaims Fury, embarking upon a long and entertaining rant. ‘I done it through unorthodox positions. That’s how you beat them men. How you beat robots is do unorthodox things. Touch the floor – punch them in the face. Spin around in a circle, kick your leg up and hit him a one-two. What I’ve got can’t be learned. You’ve either got it or you haven’t. Him back there will tell you that!”

Heads in the room swivel to see that Naseem Hamed has finally entered the room. It’s the first time I have seen him in the flesh since he turned pro back in 1992 and the difference in his physical appearance is astonishing. Back then he was a talented skinny kid from Sheffield with a cocky attitude. Several world titles, a spell in prison and countless millions later he is unrecognisable as that person. I’ve seen pictures in the papers, of course, but nothing prepares me for the transformation.

Hamed is wearing a loose fitting white shirt and is simply ENORMOUS. The peevish part of me is reminded of that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer purposefully gains weight as a means of avoiding work and ends up wearing a blouse in the style of Demis Roussos. It is as if the new Naseem Hamed has swallowed the old. And it is no exaggeration to say that Hamed could easily campaign at heavyweight these days if he were to consider a comeback. But then who am I to talk? Who is anybody?

(I can’t help but think back to a day earlier, when I had lunch with the recuperating Herol Graham and we spoke about his long-time friend. ‘Next time I see Naz,’ he had said. ‘I’m going to have a word with him about his weight…’)

‘Come on Naz,’ calls Fury. ‘Don’t be quiet at the back.’

‘It’s all right,’ grins Hamed. ‘You’re doing really well.’

‘Forget Anthony Joshua,’ laughs Fury, casting an eye over Hamed’s bulk. ‘I’ll give you a first defence.’

‘I’d come unstuck,’ says Hamed.

‘This ain’t the Prince show, this is the King show,’ replies Fury. ‘My son’s called Prince. I named him after you because you’re my favourite fighter, from England anyway…’

‘Big respect…’

‘I used to watch you. Try and do the things you do but about ten stone heavier. It might look a bit more awkward but it’s effective still.’

The interchange provides welcome relief for everyone in the room. The toxic atmosphere begins to dissipate and shoulders noticeably relax. But then Tyson Fury’s father begins to speak.

‘Big’ John Fury is an ex-fighter himself. The facial resemblance he shares with his son his striking. Moreover, the vocal similarities are uncanny. You only have to listen to him speak for a few moments to understand the origins of Tyson Fury’s scattergun rants.

‘He’s just toyed will all of ya,’ says Fury senior, in the sandpaper voice of an erstwhile Bernard Manning. ‘He’s got about as much respect for you lot as you have for him…

‘Looking at all off youse laughing at bullshit, I’m astounded. You’re supposed to be business men but you’re playing games like school kids. Get real.

‘I’ll tell you what, people, show a bit more respect. I’ve done time back in my life and I know real people. Not paper, plastic people. You’ll have to pull your socks up, all of you. All these interviews here are pointless because the paying public don’t want bullshit like what’s going on here. I was shocked when I come here today four hours in a car to watch this ping pong game. Ask some serious questions, show some serious respect and you’ll get some back.’

The elder Fury’s unfocused diatribe is endless and without punctuation. I once again find myself wondering why nobody from the press ranks is offering up any objections. Fury addresses the room in the manner of a headmaster reprimanding his assembly for spraying graffiti in the wrong colour paint.

‘I don’t think he is undervalued at all,’ I pipe up, trying to reason with him. ‘I think everyone does respect him.’

‘No they don’t, mate,’ says Fury senior dismissively. ‘You’re having a laugh.’

‘I think you’re talking about the mainstream press…’

‘You’re having a laugh! You know, there was not one genuine question asked today.’

‘Well I certainly respect him,’ I add. ‘I think he’s a great fighter.’

‘Show it then!’ demands Fury. ‘Show the rest of the world. Cause I’m telling you now it’s a joke from where I’m sitting!’

What follows is a five-minute rant designed to illustrate the injustice and indignities that are gratuitously heaped upon his son. There is no point at all in trying to reason with the man. He only hears what he wants to hear; and in the main that seems to be the sound of his own voice.

‘I’m not fucking happy with that!’ grumbles the white-haired journo seated next to me in a voice not so loud as to carry.

***

I spend a fitful night mulling things over and decide to try to continue my discussion with ‘Big’ John Fury. I Tweet to him but get no response. Finally, I contact the press agent of his promoter Hennessey Sports, who gives me the number of Tyson Fury’s manager, Peter, he of that alleged indoor candy floss business.

I call Peter Fury and tell him that if John’s willing I’d like to come up to Manchester and sit down with him for a cup of tea. I tell him that I’d be interested in continuing our discussion because I think John’s wrong and needs to be told so. Peter Fury is friendly and laughs a lot. He tells me that his brother’s opinions are not shared by the rest of the family. That John can sometimes get ‘a bit carried away’, and that the family’s relationship with the boxing press is generally a good one.

We talk about Tyson’s fight with Klitschko: I tell him that what impressed me most about his nephew’s performance was not how he threw his punches, but more the way he threw the feint. We talk about what it’s like living in the north and he laughs some more. And I tell him what a pity it is that Tyson Fury’s confrontational attitude yesterday ended up alienating people who are actually fans of boxing. My fear is that he runs the very real risk of making a sow’s arse out of a silk purse.

We talk for about a quarter of an hour and as always I’m struck by how friendly and welcoming the boxing fraternity can often be, even to strangers. Peter Fury’s attitude towards me compared to what I experienced yesterday are as chalk is to cheese. As bacon is to eggs. How could the man I have just spoken to be in any way related to the angry apparition that confronted the press yesterday?

The thought of food sets my stomach gurgling and I realise I run the risk of being late for an appointment that could not mean any more to me. In an anonymous restaurant in Stoke Newington, ex-boxer Michael Watson awaits. The man who started it all.

2

The Hardest Fight

I was very honoured this week to be the guest columnist for Boxing News. I last wrote for them back in 1988 would you believe?

Here’s the piece:

 

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1

We’re all going to die screaming in agony

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God I’m getting old. I know this because I’ve met people recently who a/ Can’t name any of the Beatles except for Ringo; b/ Have never seen The Jungle Book; and c/ Ruin my wonderfully amusing anecdote about meeting Joe Stummer in The French House by not having a clue who Joe Strummer is. Yes I’m getting old. We all are. And as the days tick by I’m more and more aware of the fate that awaits all but the very lucky ones: WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIE SCREAMING IN AGONY.

I’ll say it again in italics: We’re all going to die screaming in agony.

‘The human species is the only one which knows it will die, and it knows this through experience…’ Wrote Voltaire in his Dictionaire Philosophique in 1764. This statement, with very few provisos, is a distinctly inarguable truism. But what that eminent brain box failed to point out was the sheer, abject misery that destiny has in store for us. The fact is, death is an unequivocally unpleasant experience. It is full of pain and agony and torture and all of us have it waiting for us. We can’t avoid it any more than we can avoid inhaling oxygen. And yet we know this and still carry blissfully on.

But I lie a little. Because actually there are more pleasant ways to die. Well not pleasant. What can be pleasant about shuffling off your mortal coil? What I mean to say is, less unpleasant. You could, for example, ‘die peacefully’ in your sleep. Or be hit by a bus. Or get blown up in a plane. All of these are events that tend to evoke universal sadness from friends, relatives and tabloid headlines. But it could be said that the only one not to suffer is the person who actually died. One second you’re alive and kicking, thinking about what’s for dinner or about having sex another alive (or dead) person. The next, absolute nothingness. Zilch. The final countdown. Totality. But the complete unexpectedness of death could actually be a godsend. That’s if you believe in God, which, it has to be said, is a fairly important if somewhat moot issue when you’ve just died.

They are the lucky ones. The ones who meet their maker completely out of the blue, without forewarning, sans advance notice, are the ones to be envied. For the rest of us the grim assassin is set to creep upon us in a predictably attritional manner. One moment you’ll have that dull ache, followed by a frisson of blood, followed by a period of denial, followed by a trip to the doctor, followed by those inevitable tests that are surely designed purely to humiliate, followed by that grim diagnosis (we’re all destined to experience that dark conversation with a doctor which begins ‘I’m very sorry, I have some bad news for you…’), followed by a period of fruitless drug consumption that is nearly always going to be a total waste of time, followed by a period spent in your bed, followed by a return to infancy in which your wife or husband or a complete stranger becomes your mother, feeding you and cleaning up the shit, followed by pain, more pain, pain and agony.

If I seem depressed it’s because I am depressed. Any doctor reading this would immediately dole out the Citalopram and hope that I go away and start smiling at people. But I’m not really depressed because if I am I’ve been so since I exited the womb screaming in agony. This, I believe, is what may separate someone like me from a lot of other people. We’re all dying, folks. And some of us are more dying than others.

4

My sterile prison cell


When I was younger I got drunk one night end ended up in a police cell. As I lay on the solitary piss-stained bunk I looked up at the ceiling of the cell and felt a tremendous feeling of placidity wash over me. This isn’t so bad, I reasoned, if this is what prison is like I can handle it.

The reality was, however, that unless I killed one of the guards with a sharpened lolly pop stick I was most likely going home in the morning and the little bit of notoriety that this experience would afford me would be healthily repaid in beers and possibly women. I knew plenty of girls back then who liked a bad boy. Perhaps I would be a bad boy once I’d done my tiny dribble of porridge.

That happened 35-years-ago and truth be told I never quite made it to bad boy status. The last guy I actually fought with is now dead of cancer, and the reason that we fought was because he accused me of plagiarism. It was a distinctly middle-class difference of opinion and an equally flocculent variety of skirmish: he aimed a punch at me and I sort of wrestled him to the floor, where we rolled about in the Zerox dust like a couple of wrinkled teenagers. Isn’t that what Christmas parties are supposed to be all about?

I never quite earned bad boy status but I’m getting to know what it’s like to do my time. Because life for me at the moment is all about living in a prison cell. Lights out is around nine-thirtyish and my prison wardens are all young and beautiful. (And even if it wasn’t 2016 and I get a detailed daily breakdown of visitors to my web site I’d still be saying that, ladies.) From there on in it’s the sounds of silence that fill my head. The noises made by anguished, frightened children crying for their mothers (never their fathers) which, without fail and usually in exactly the same order, elicit from me feelings of abject sorrow followed by selfless pity followed by aching sadness followed by mild irritation followed by red hot anger followed by if you don’t shut that whining fucking brat up so I can get some sleep I’m going to chuck the fucking whinging parent out of the fucking window and really become a fucking bad boy. Sleep deprivation is a very efficient torture method and has been known to start wars.
As I wrote that last sentence an electronic alarm sounded from a gadget by my daughter’s bedside that looks a little like the one used by Bones to check out unconscious Klingons. It keeps doing that. It’s letting the whole ward know that the drug being pumped into my daughter’s arm via a thin plastic cable is not reaching its destination. It’s a bit like what happens when the hose pipe bends while you’re watering the garden (Oh, to stand in the sunshine watering the garden…). And amid the farts and burps and snores and slurps of the rest of the ward I am aware of a murmur of irritation. Some other sleep-starved parent wants to throw me out of the window and earn themselves a slice of bad boy status.

But none of us can do this. Because we’re in a hospital for sick kids and whatever feelings you have about your lot in the world you have no choice but to make like an erstwhile Page Three model: grin and bear it. And this is actually no bad analogy because when you’re the parent of a sick child in hospital you are naked. Every routine, every ritual, every secret practise that makes you who you are is cast aside and laid open to the universe.
7:34 a.m. and lights have just come on. I’ve already been up for two hours. At least we don’t have to slop out. In the beds around me anxious parents are already talking in not quite so hushed tones about their own concerns, their own damaged children. Soon a damp mop will be dragged around the ward and my daughter will be offered a breakfast menu which she’ll refuse to choose from. Interesting the speed in which new rituals worm their way into your life. In two hours’ time Sofia and I can go home for the day. Compared to many here we’re the lucky ones. But it’s not really home because it’s a home that is invaded twice a day by still more elegant prison wardens as they refill my daughter with drugs. There goes that alarm again.

Each time that alarm goes off you’re aware of an onrush of footsteps. This is followed by the bustling image of an impossibly pristine young woman in a sparkling pressed nurse’s uniform, a mere child of flawless skin and glossy hair. We’re all destined to get to know nurses in one way or another and I can tell you that they have very little in common with the old Benny Hill version of a nurse. While they can occasionally be seen to move at Benny Hill double-quick speed it is there that any similarity ends. Without going all political on you, you only have to spend a couple of minutes in the company of these young women to start wanting to see Jeremy Hunt’s flaccid dick stuffed into a sausage roll and force fed to David Cameron via any orifice that isn’t his mouth. How dare these Oxbridge Bullingdon buffoons play God with loaded blue dice? How dare they attempt to stand in the way and block the paths of these people who give so much and get so little back?

It is the nurses – my stoic, uncomplaining, smiling prison wardens – that I find most interesting of all. Each one is my daughter and each my mother. Because even though my own mother was actually a nurse I never actually had any understanding of what she really was. I don’t remember her having the driven look in her eyes of the girls who surround me here. And she never struck me as someone who was prepared to sacrifice herself for others. But she must have been. How could I not have noticed?

This is the long haul for me. Life has temporarily ground to a halt. My days are spent waiting for the nights and my nights are spent longing for the days. And already I’m finding out more about myself than I’d really like to know. More than any person would really like to know.

14

When your child falls ill (Life is what happens…)

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Who was it who said that life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans? Well for the moment, at least, he was right.

Just under three weeks ago I had everything kind of planned out for the bulk of this year. I was writing the sequel to my book ‘Rope Burns’ and in order to do so I was rekindling lost contacts from the world of boxing whom I hadn’t seen for 25 years. Weirdly, it was all about coping with the death of my father by going down an extremely unusual route. And wonder of wonders it was actually sort of working. Meeting up with these people was having a considerably more palliative effect than the idiot therapist whom I saw last year. When I’d finished writing what I’m calling ‘Dangerous’ I was going to get to work on the sequel to my kids book ‘Johnny Nothing’.

And then my daughter got ill.

The first symptoms were flu-like. She had fevers, chills and was exhausted most of the time. I kept her off school, believing that after a day or two’s rest she’d be right as rain. However, she didn’t get better. Day after day went by and all she could do was lie on the sofa and sleep. The fevers intensified and she refused to eat a thing. After five days of this I called the doctor who suggested I bring her into the clinic. ‘She’s too ill to travel even short distances,’ I said. He mumbled something about Calpol and feeding her and that was that. That was my first mistake, well second actually: I should have insisted that something was done straight away.

By day 8 my wife and I were getting really worried. Apart from a little bit of fruit she’d still not eaten at all and was shedding weight faster than a supermodel preparing for a Vogue shoot. I called the doctor again and this time insisted that she see her. When we got into the doctor’s surgery Sofia looked so ill that no-one could deny that she needed urgent attention. The doctor very efficiently filled in a few forms and sent us immediately to A&E. There she was seen within minutes and given a variety of tests. Later, a doctor spoke to me privately and told me that she they didn’t know what was causing the illness but that she needed a drip and at least an overnight stay.

Here comes mistake number two, or three, depending on how you look at it: That afternoon, having not eaten all day myself, I dragged myself to the nearest eaterie, which happened to be a MacDonald’s, leaving Sofia with my wife. While I was swilling down a coffee I got a call from Laura, who told me that Sofia had been discharged and would not, after all, be staying overnight with a drip. For the second time I should have insisted that something be done immediately.

This left us looking after Sofia for a second long and anxious weekend. On Monday I called the doctor again, who was able to log on to the hospital computer and get the results of the tests they had run at A&E. The flu test had come up negative and the results on her lungs were ‘inconclusive’. He advised me to give it one more day and if there was no improvement to take her back to A&E.

At 5:00 am the following morning I was awoken by Sofia coughing. The cough was alarmingly constant and aching painful. No-one wants to hear their child coughing like that. I tried to give her cough medicine and hot lemon, the usual things, but these were hopelessly inadequate, a bit like throwing rice at a machine gun. Later that morning I told my wife to get ready to take Sofia to hospital but as luck would have it the fever suddenly disappeared, as did the cough. I didn’t think it would do us much good to take Sofia to A&E saying: ‘She was really ill this morning but she’s improved since. Can you take a look at her?’. With this in mind I packed my wife off to work and waited to see if Sofia’s cough and temperature would return.

By mid-day both symptoms had returned with a vengeance and so I dragged Sofia to A&E. This time they didn’t mess about. Within ten minutes she’d had her heart rate measured and declared dangerously high. Next came a speedy X-Ray and a very difficult conversation. Sofia, they explained, had a very rare condition. She had what appeared to be a 4 x 5 cm cyst or abscess on her lung. She was dehydrated and had lost a lot of weight (she’d eaten only a little bit of fruit in 10 days). Oh… and she also had pneumonia.

From there on the wheels were set swiftly into motion. Sofia was immediately put on a drip, feeding her nutrients and very powerful antibiotics five times a day. My wife and I took turns sleeping on a camp bed by her bedside.
For the first couple of days I stupidly attempted to try to write ‘Dangerous’ by her side while she slept. But I wasn’t able to concentrate – who would be able to concentrate? As a parent, of course, you end up blaming yourself. And the more I thought about it the more I realised that there had been definite warning signs in recent months. In December, for instance, I had taken her to the doctor’s after she had continually complained of shortness of breath. He had examined her heart, taken her blood pressure and asked whether she was stressed at school before declaring her fit and healthy. After she left that doctor’s room Sofia had burst into tears. I had then returned to speak to the doctor only to be very curtly told that that he could find nothing wrong with her and that he had other patients to see.

That was very definitely mistake number 0.5. I should have been more assertive. I should have insisted that Sofia have an X-Ray. However, the benefit of hindsight and all that… Whatever the case, on the afternoon of Sofia’s diagnosis I fired off an angry email to that doctor and promptly received three very nervous, guilty, apologetic phone calls from the health centre in question.

From then on it was a waiting game. Thankfully Sofia’s recovery, although not rapid, was definitely in the right direction. And as I sat by her bedside over an 10-day period I had a lot of spare time on my hands. Most of it was spent aimlessly tinkering with my iPad while simultaneously fretting about Sofia and the looming deadline for ‘Dangerous’ that I was sure to miss.

Inevitably I began to form relationships with other patients and their worried parents, as well as the doctors and nurses who were in attendance day and – sometimes annoyingly – night. There was the little girl who had been there for two months after an innocuous fall at school had left her with a badly infected foot. She is a picture of cuteness and grim intelligence; if I could take her home with me now I would.

Yesterday was the best and worst day: by the far the biggest cross that Sofia has had to bear has been the cannula (a word I didn’t know until last week) that has been put into her arm in order to administer her drugs. It seems she has inherited my sensitive skin which means that the needle has been regularly rejected. Eight times in seven days actually. Listening to her whimper at night as they tried to find a new vein in which to torture her some more has been impossible to take. As a parent it is sometimes your responsibility to provide reassurance just at the time when you are most in need of reassurance yourself.

As a solution to this awful situation Sofia was put to sleep yesterday and something more permanent called a PICC line was inserted into her arm. As I held her hand outside the operating theatre and watched the morphine send her instantly to sleep I finally let the tears go. The next hour-and-a-half was too painful. While I sat sipping coffee by her empty bed my mind began to play tricks on me. I wondered how I would break it to her mother if things went wrong. I wondered how our relationship could possibly survive the death of our only child. I selfishly toyed with the idea of killing myself if I had to do this. And then I thought about the effect it would have on Laura to lose both members of her family.

But now, less than 24 hours later, things have changed considerably. I’m sitting here at the dining room table typing away as Sofia and three friends sit playing together on the Wii. Screams and shouts of delight fill the room. Sitting beside Sofia is a community nurse, who is administering the second of two lots of antibiotics that Sofia must have at home every day for very possibly the next six weeks. In the evening Sofia and I must return to stay the night at the hospital because community nurses do not work at night and Sofia needs six doses of drugs per day. It’s going to be a tough month and a bit but already it’s not quite as tough as it was yesterday.

This morning, after being given the good news about Sofia being allowed to go home during the day, I was shown a recent X-Ray of the lung abscess. In little more than a week the drugs have exceeded all expectations.The object, whatever it is, has considerably reduced in size. The outlook suddenly looks a lot less bleak. Lots of Ts need to be crossed before Sofia gets a clean bill of health, and the holiday we planned is off due to the fact that Sofia is not allowed to fly for six months, but she’s alive, I’m alive, Laura’s alive. And I’m suddenly left with whole new appreciation of normality. Boring dumb normality. What bliss.

So ‘Dangerous’ resumes tomorrow. And boxing, as it always has done for me, is rallying around me. Tomorrow I’m due to meet heavyweight contender Anthony Joshua, and on Sunday super-middleweight world title challenger Frank Buglioni is coming to the house so that we can watch his last fight together. He’s asked me to write something on it for his new website and I’ve suggested he do a sort of ‘Director’s Commentary’ like they do for DVD extras.

So far writing ‘Dangerous’ has proven to be more than a little life changing. I’ve already laughed, cried, been hit by a bike after dining with Colin McMillan, almost lost my daughter and I am due to travel to Birmingham with Kellie Maloney early next month to have a little adventure. That sounds a lot worse than I mean it to.

 

2

Waterlow Park


This is the final instalment of Waterlow Park. I stopped working on it after this. Hope you enjoyed what there is of it.
Chapter 21

At exactly 8:07 mum comes walk up the garden path to find me shivering outside the house. For a moment she looks puzzled and says nothing. Then she frowns and says: ‘Stephen… What are you doing outside, it’s raining?”

I try to reply but I’m too wet and cold to speak. I sort of mumble something and try to cough out the words. Mum moves over to me and scoops me up in her arms.

“What’s happened Stephen?’ she gently asks.

‘I got locked out!” I splutter, not able to stop the tears. ‘I left my bloody key in my room!’

Mum hugs me close to her chest so that I can smell her perfume and feel her body heat. She does this for several moments and then she suddenly draws away from me as if struck by a thought. ‘But why didn’t Sofia let you in?’ she says. “Have you two been arguing again?’

Some more words leave my mouth but even I cannot make any sense of them. I panic and shake my head back and forth. Mum takes hold of both of my arms and pulls them down by my side. “Look at me Stephen,’ she orders. “Try to stay as calm as possible and slowly tell me what has happened.”

“Sofia’s not here,’ I splutter.

Mum frowns again and then something like a smile seems to creep on to her face. ‘What do you mean she’s not there? Where is she Stephen? Is she hiding?”

‘She’s not here,’ I say again. ‘She’s gone.’

Mum pulls away from me and opens the front door as if she doesn’t believe what I’m saying. ‘Come inside,’ she says, roughly grabbing hold of my hand and heaving me inside the house. The she shuts the front door and begins calling Sofia’s name.

“She’s not here,’ I say. ‘She’s on the Bayswater Road.’

Mum abruptly stops yelling and turns around to stare at me. ‘What did you say?’ she asks. ‘Look Stephen, I’ve just got home from a hard day at work and I can do without this silly nonsense. Now where is Sofia hiding?’

‘She’s on the Bayswater Road,’ I repeat.

‘Stephen!’ she snaps, snarling like an angry dog at me.

And then I sort of slump to the floor and more shouting than talking I tell her all about what has happened since I got home. I tell her about Sofia not being here, about me calling and calling her and only getting voicemail; about me using Find my Phone to trace her whereabouts. And about Bayswater Road.

Mum starts to look worried as she takes this in. ‘Show me,’ she says, her voice raising in pitch.

’What?’

“Show me Find My Phone.’

She follows me upstairs as I try to tell her that it won’t work now. That Sofia’s phone has disappeared. That the red dot is gone. But mum won’t listen until I’ve shown her, and even then she seems either completely unimpressed or unable to understand what I’m showing her. Now she gets angry. ‘Why didn’t you call me?’ she says.

‘You told me I’m not allowed to call you at work,’ I say, looking down at my feet.

Suddenly there is a noise downstairs. The sound of someone putting a key into the door lock. For a moment I feel a deep wave of relief wash over me. Everything going to be all right. Sofia’s home. She late and she’s really gong to catch it from dad but at least she home.

But it isn’t Sofia. It’s dad. He doesn’t say anything but mum ands me both know straight away that it’s him. ‘Tony!’ mum cries.

0

Waterlow Park – Chapter 20


Yet another chapter of the dumped ‘ Waterlow park’. My God, I really did do a lot of work on this. If you’re following at all you’ll notice that there are a lot of chapters missing. This is because I jumped a little forward in writing it and intended to go back and fill in the blanks later. I never did. I’ll have those words carved on my gravestone: ‘HERE LIES IAN. HE NEVER DID’.

Chapter 20
The house is quiet when I get home which is a bit odd because Sofia usually gets back before I do. She goes to Coleridge Primary School and it’s only 0.75 miles on foot. I know this because I used to go to Coleridge and most days Sofia and I would walk to and from school together. I sort of miss doing this. In fact, I really miss Coleridge. The new school is so much tougher and more serious. At my old school we didn’t get any homework but at William Ellis we get some almost every night.
I go into the living room and switch on the TV. I flick from channel to channel but there’s nothing on but the news so I go upstairs to my room. As I enter I find myself instinctively feeling behind the boiler to see if bag of money is still there and of course it is. Except there isn’t much left of the £10,000. I decide to count it and lay out the money on my bed, keeping an ear out for the sound of anybody coming into the house. There is exactly £3,275 remaining. This means that I’ve managed to get rid of £6,625; of course, I gave a lot of it to dad but it’s still pretty frightening to discover how quickly you can get rid of money. I lay on my bed and try to remember everything I bought with the money.
I soon lose track of time and begin to get bored all alone in the house. Mum and dad should be home some time around 8.00pm and even though most of the time Sofia irritates me I’m missing her company. I can’t remember if she has joined an after-school club. She hates after-school clubs but mum and dad are always putting pressure on her to join one; same with me, actually. I’m pretty sure she hasn’t so I decide to call her. She has my old phone, which is an iPhone 4s. I got this when dad upgraded and gave it to Sofia the next time he upgraded. She’s lowest on the mobile phone food chain so she always gets the worst. I ring her but it goes straight to voicemail. I try a second time time and a third but the same thing happens. I leave a message: ‘Answer the phone you little idiot. Where are you?’
I go downstairs and try the TV again. I watch an episode of Futurama which is ok but not very realistic. Then I go upstairs again and play The Sims for a while. ‘I’m lost in the game when I notice that it is beginning to get dark outside I check my phone. It is 5:45pm. Sofia is more than two hours late. This is getting really strange. I call her again but she still doesn’t answer. By now I would normally have cooked her dinner – beans on toast tonight – and I’m starting to feel hungry myself. This makes me angry with her. How could she be so late? What does she think she’s playing at? The spoiled little brat!
I have a brainwave: I quit The Sims and launch Safari on my iMac. Because it’s such as old iMac – dad got it from his office for me – it takes ages to load. I drum my fingers on the desk in irritation until it’s finally ready. On Safari I go to Find My Phone – this will allow me to trace the location of Sofia’s iPhone – and type in her user name and password. I know the user name and password of everyone in our house. I study the computer screen as a map appears with a small red dot that represents Sofia’s phone. I watch for a few moments as the dot slowly moves along a road. She’s heading west along a road I’ve never heard of before called Bayswater Road. This puzzles me so I zoom out of the map only to discover that it’s 6.8 miles away from our house. What’s Sofia doing so far away from home?
I sit quietly for a moment wondering what to do next. It’s going to take Sofia ages to get home and she’ll probably miss her dinner. She’s really going to be in trouble when dad gets home. I move closer to the screen again and scrutinise the map. And it suddenly occurs to me that Sofia is heading away from home; she’s actually going in the opposite direction. Why? Why is she doing this? I can feel myself starting to get worried; I can feel my face redden like I’m embarrassed. Then I realise that Sofia sometimes gets invited to birthday parties and I feel a bit better. Yes that’s it: she’s been invited to a birthday party at someone’s house. But I don’t think that Sofia knows anyone who lives so far away from us. And Sofia has never been invited to a birthday party on a Wednesday evening. They’re always on the weekend. Now I feel bad again.
I call Sofia for the fourth time and again I get nothing but her voicemail. I call her a fifth time. And then a sixth. But then, as the phone is ringing, something weird happens. Without warning the little dot moving along Bayswater Road disappears. I frown and quickly refresh the page and as I’m doing so I get put through to voicemail again. I leave a second message: “Sofia it’s your brother. You better come home right away. Dad’s gong to be very mad if you don’t!’ I frown and refresh the web page and when the little dot doesn’t reappear I refresh it again. My heart begins to pound like a little drum in my chest. I don’t know why it’s pounding but the house is so quiet that I can even hear it. Then I have another idea. Sofia’s phone has been stolen and she must be at school. She must be there right now, waling for me to go and get her. She’s probably crying because her phone’s been stolen and she thinks dad will shout at her.
I drop everything and put my coat on and leave the house. I half run and half walk to the school and I’m there in under ten minutes. The gates are still open and a few kids are playing on the swings; I rush into the main building. This is the first time that I’ve been here since I left Coleridge last summer. It looks identical but there are no people around at all and the inner doors are locked. I move into the playground and then walk around the grounds looking for Sofia. Without really noticing that I am doing it I begin calling ‘Sofia! Sofia!’ at the top of my voice. Some of the kids stop playing on the swings and look over in my direction. I ask them if they know where Sofia is but they’re in a different year than her and have never heard of her. I leave the school and run back home full pelt. By the time I get there I’m out of breath and my lungs are burning. To make matters even worse, I fish around in my pockets and can’t find my front door key! In my rush to leave the house I must have left it on my computer table, which is where I always put it when I get home.
Now I have to fight to stop myself from crying. My lip is trembling and I’m suddenly freezing cold. I reach into my pocket and pull out my phone. I call Sofia again and again again but she still won’t answer. As I stand by the front door to the house it starts to rain. This is no gentle shower either. It really starts to bucket down. The rain is like shards of ice; it cuts into my face and burns my skin. I’m cold and wet and miserable and I don’t know what to do. I just don’t know what to do. For a moment I think about calling Debra. Debra used to be out childminder when we were babies. She only lives in the next street and she would probably invite me indoors and keep me warm until mum and dad get home. Then I remember what dad said to me: ’Stephen, you must never – I repeat NEVER – mention to any adults that you look after Sofia when we’re not at home. We could get into big trouble if you do that. And if we get into to trouble that’s nothing compared to the trouble you’ll be in…’
I put my phone back into my pocket and sit down on the cold front step. The rain beats down on me like it will never stop as I wait for mum and dad to get home.