Thanks so much for the very nice and very helpful comments yesterday. It’s really appreciated. Here’s the second chapter. Ian x
The sweet scent of liniment when combined with the ripe odour of stale sweat produces its own unique and distinctive aroma. But most of the people who were going about their business that morning in Dino’s Gym smelled nothing at all. They’d gotten used to that smell a long time ago. To them it was like breathing in fresh air.
Barry Pearce, a young looking forty-five in a tracksuit who helped Dino out, was keen to fill the gaffer in on what he had missed while he had been out on his travels. ‘Vincent Mortego was ’round again last night,’ he panted.
‘Again? What did the flash fucker want?’ said Dino, not even looking at Barry.
‘He wouldn’t say,’ said Barry, whose working arrangement with the older man could at best be described as informal. He had no regular salary as such, but was reliant on sporadic handouts: twenty here, fifty there, a ton if Dino was feeling particularly flush or particularly guilty. ‘Told me he needed to speak to you personally. He had little Clyde with him.’
‘Don’t the cunt know how to pick up a phone?’
Dino had just come out of the shower. He stood naked and steaming on the wooden floor of the gym. Soapy water dripped off his huge hairy belly and flabby white back. Prince Kilimanjaro followed closely behind, all six-feet-five of him. ‘All right boss,’ he nodded seriously, apparently impervious to the contrast that his magnificently muscular black torso provided in comparison to Dino’s grotesquely overweight figure.
‘All right Derek,’ said Dino, addressing The Prince by his real name. ‘How’d the sparring go?’
‘OK I suppose.’
‘You turning your fist like I said?’ Some weeks before Dino had highlighted a weakness in the way that the boxer administered his punches.
‘Yeah boss… Most of the time.’
‘Do what I tell you, son. Turn your fist as you throw it. You’re less likely to break your hand and more likely to cut the other fellow up.’
‘I know Dino,’ said The Prince patiently. Dino had a habit of repeating himself these days but it was a small price to pay for what he still had to offer.
There were perhaps a dozen boxers in the gym that morning. Some were doing rope work, others weights and one or two were undertaking stomach crunches that were painful to watch. Anonymous rap music boomed out of the building’s aged speakers.
Nearly all of the fighters had known Dino since they were juniors. They had seen him naked more times they could remember and scarcely batted a scarred eyelid at the spectacle. In a perverse way Dino was almost proud of what he had allowed his body to become. He took four or five showers a day, determined, it seemed, to place his gut on public display. He would sometimes joke that it had been twenty years since he had last seen his cock but no-one really laughed any more.
The gym was a theatre of contrasts. Situated in a basement underneath a clothes shop in Carnaby Street the passing tourists and shoppers had no idea it was there. While the street above was bathed in colour and light and texture, the gym was like a dark cave, lit only by neon strip lights that added an orange glow to the obligatory fight posters that adorned the walls. The younger generation represented by photographs of Mike Tyson and Tommy ‘Hit Man’ Hearns; the older by images of Jack Dempsey and ‘Sugar’ Ray Robinson. In pride of place was a picture of Dino’s old man shaking Rocky Marciano’s hand way back in the fifties.
Dino had been renting the property for nigh on fifteen years but the rent had gone up and up. Among his many concerns was the thought that he might soon have to seek other premises unless he got some money in. And for Dino the best way of getting money in rested on turning one of his boxers into a champion.
Despite his size and the perfection of his body, The Prince was never going to be a champion, Dino knew that. He was too musclebound and not a natural fighter. The best he could hope for if he kept his nose clean was a shot at the British title. Dino had never told him that, of course.
Dino sat down on one of the wooden benches that were screwed to the walls of the gym and pulled on his underwear: white old man’s underpants. Standing with his back to Dino was Simon Clarke. Simon was a middleweight and as close to the real deal as Dino had ever had on his books. Before he had turned pro he had won the ABAs, an essential pre-requisite on a champion’s CV, and despite one small glitch on his record (an accidental cut that stopped the fight prematurely) Simon was definitely going places. Dino knew had been very lucky to sign him.
‘Hey Simon,’ Dino called, unable to hide the pride and the love in his voice.
But Simon did not hear him. He was standing in front of a giant mirror that covered one whole side of the gym. He was listening to his Walkman and staring admiringly at himself, striking up poses, throwing the jab, throwing the uppercut, sucking in air, scowling at no-one in particular, trying to imagine what his opponents would see when he stood before them in the ring.
Dino squeezed himself into his tracksuit top and struggled into his pants. He got to his feet and tapped Simon on his shoulder. Simon ignored him, unwilling to abandon his posturing. Dino moved in front of the young boxer and pulled off Simon’s headphones.
‘All right, son,’ Dino smiled. ‘How’s the weight? Looking good from where I’m standing.’
Simon did not respond immediately. He regarded Dino with unconcealed resentment in his eyes. Dino stared back.
‘The weight’s good,’ said Simon coldly.
‘Something wrong kid?’ said Dino, although he had a pretty good idea what it was. He’d seen it before. It’s what usually happened when people spotted potential; they’d start whispering in its ear. And lately too many of the wrong sorts of people had been whispering in Simon’s ear. Trouble was, the boxer was not mature or streetwise enough to ignore it and send them on their way. He was a good boy from a nice church-going family.
‘Nothing,’ said Simon, snatching his headphones back petulantly.
Like all boxing gyms, Dino’s place was governed by the bell. Every three minutes it would go off and people would stop what they were doing and rest. A minute later the bell would sound again and people would resume their activities. It was all about educating the body. Life here was measured in rounds and the breaks between rounds.
Fortunately, the bell sounded right at that moment to break the tension. Simon smiled at Dino like he used to when he was a kid and Dino smiled back, even giving a little wink. Dino made a mental note to get Barry to keep a closer eye on his investment.
In the meantime Dino had work to do. In the centre of the gym stood a full-sized boxing ring. Prowling around the outskirts of the ropes, charged with electricity was the dreadlocked Oliver Long. He was Dino’s only current champion – although he could hardly be described as a cash cow. He had ended up on Dino’s doorstep because no other manager wanted him. Despite his manifold talents he simply wasn’t worth the bother.
In three days he was due to defend his European Welterweight title in Italy. Sitting beside the ring and watching intently was Long’s oriental girlfriend, Paula Chan. She was Yoko Ono to Long’s John Lennon. She followed him around like a bad smell. A journalist she called herself, and a right royal pain in the arse.
Dino climbed into the ring and pulled on the pads. They were upholstered soft vinyl, like a small mattress attached to each fist that allowed the boxer to throw his punches freely without hurting himself or the person wielding the pads. The bell sounded almost instantly. Dino’s body clock was very finely attuned to that important interval.
Oliver Long was thirty-seven-years-of-age, a granddaddy of a boxer whose beard was white when he let it grow, but despite years of self-abuse everything still seemed to be working. He had not lost his speed. If you touched his stomach you would think that it was made of baked clay. Under Dino’s tutelage Long was currently enjoying an Indian summer.
Dino took to the centre of the ring and allowed Long to circle him. Long was singing to himself softly like he always did as he threw a lazy jab followed by three straight right hooks that were heavy enough to knock Long backwards a step or two. ‘Saucy bugger,’ Dino smiled, regaining his position at the centre of the ring. Long was looking good: he had just about hit his peak. Even fighting away from home, Dino knew he was more than the Italian Rossi would be able to handle. And Dino obviously knew all about Italians.
More jabs followed and Dino began to issue his instructions. ‘Three-six-two,’ he called. This was his own special code for a patent combination. Long responded by throwing a left jab followed by a right hook and a right uppercut. Long administered the punches with the grace and style of a ballet dancer.
‘Three-six-two, I said, you dozy fuck!’ panted Dino.
‘Sorry boss,’ said Long, his Jamaican twang muffled by his gum-shield.
Long effortlessly continued his dance around Dino. Skipping like a teenager, holding his arms low and letting them swing freely.
‘Arms up, Ollie,’ urged Dino. But experience told him that he was wasting his breath. Everything about Oliver Long was unconventional: the way that he moved, the way that his legs supported his weight, the way that he threw the jab and the uppercut. What Long did could not be found in any text book.
And ironically, Long’s unconventionality was actually his greatest asset. When he went into the ring his opponents suddenly found that they had only three minutes to unlearn everything that they had ever been taught to do in thousands of hours of practise. Only the very best fighters possessed the ability to make such a profound real-time adjustment.
Added to this was the fact that Long was also a southpaw, he was left-handed – a physical difference that was often enough to tip the scales in a battle of equals. This made Long a formidable opponent. Formidable but ultimately flawed.
A small crowd of boxers had stopped what they were doing to watch Long in action. For a boxer to be admired by his peers in this way was a great tribute. But Long was used to it, it had been happening since he turned pro in the mid seventies.
‘Cover up!’ yelled Dino. Instructing his fighter to adopt a defensive stance against an imaginary onslaught.
But Long was having none of it. ‘Don’t need to cover up,’ he grunted, his exertions polishing his body with sweat. ‘Nobody touch Ollie Long.’
Dino smiled at Long’s arrogance and suddenly jumped forward, playfully pushing his fighter into the corner of the ring and buffeting him with the pads. Having fun. ‘Oh yeah? That so?’ he said teasingly.
But the smile quickly turned into a frown at the first appearance of red. ‘Oh fuck!’ said Dino, lowering his hands and waving a halt to the proceedings. ‘You’re cut.’
Long froze in his tracks and dabbed at his brow with a glove. He turned pale when he saw that it was covered in blood.
This was another aspect of Long’s unconventionality: unlike every other boxer on planet Earth, Long refused to wear a head guard when sparring. Dino had lost count of the number of times he had told him to do so. And now it had come back to bite him.
Dino put his head in his hands and audibly groaned. He took a long look at his boxer, somehow hoping that he had imagined the injury. The cut was in the corner of the left eye. It wasn’t a bad one but it probably needed a couple of stitches. It meant that Long’s title fight was off. It meant that the boxer would not get his purse. And it meant that Dino would lose the money he had already spent on plane fares and hotel bookings. Not to mention the weeks he had spent preparing Long for this fight. This could end up costing Dino thousands.
‘You fucking cunt!’ before Dino had time to speak, Long was yelling at him. ‘You fucking cut me you fucking ras-clat!’
It was all a blur. There was no time to talk about justice or injustice. There was no time to mention the fact that Dino had told Long to use the head guard on innumerable occasions. Because now Long was throwing real punches at Dino.
As well as his unique approach to boxing, Long was also known for his blinding speed. And before Barry Pearce could haul him away Long had already caught Dino twice in that great big fat open target of a belly of his. And another punch had caught him square in the mouth, staggering Dino and making him taste blood.
Long’s girlfriend Paula Chan had also managed to get in on the act. She was quickly into the ring, talons bared, aiming and missing with swipes at Dino’s face. She was screaming something at him in Chinese.
Dino would have loved to have landed one sweet right hand on her jaw. It would have made him feel a whole lot better. But he stopped himself.