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.

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4

The wedding picture

Wedding image

This image was sent to me out of the blue the other day by my mother via Facebook Messenger. It seemed somehow incongruous that a snapshot from a bygone age would arrive in such a thoroughly modern manner. Still. I suppose that we’ve all got pictures like this in dusty biscuit tins somewhere at the bottom of cupboards. But given the events of the last few years this one struck a deep resounding chord with me.
I’m the little chap at the front, by the way, the young fellow in white with the somewhat less than masculine stance. Although in my defence one is never really going to look macho wearing white shorts and a bowtie. I guess I must have been three or four at the time and if I really strain I do actually have some sort of dim recollection of that day, well of those shorts anyway. Standing next to me is my elder sister. We both look so innocent, as should be the way with the very young; she not knowing that she would run away from home at the age of sixteen and be mother to two of her own girls within three years; me never guessing that the shock of hair I was casually sporting at the time would also run away from home by the time it reached thirty.
Standing behind me with an inscrutable expression on his face as he watches, presumably, the best man snog his new bride, is my Uncle Jack. Uncle Jack was semi-famous in Burnley, the location for this picture, for apocryphally playing football for Blackpool, for bearing a passing resemblance to Freddie Garrity of Freddie And The Dreamers fame, and for most definitely possessing a black belt in karate, which he ofttimes used to dispatch much larger men after closing time.
Directly behind him is George Wright, my step-grandfather. Despised by my own father but loved by the infantine me, George was a long distance lorry driver, one-time stand-up comedian and former sheet music salesman on Blackpool Pier. George liked to boast that he always carried £100 in cash. (When he died it was discovered that his stash was actually newspaper sandwiched between a couple of tenners.) George also had a strange penchant for having his Brylcreemed hair combed by yours truly. As a child I would spend hours and hours combing and brushing his hair as he sat and watched TV. He a special stainless steel coiffure set that he would bring out for this purpose. George would literally purr with delight as I did so. It wasn’t until years later that it struck me just how bizarre and possibly perverse this seemingly innocent activity might actually have been.
Before George died of cancer in the 1970s, he paid a visit to our house in Bristol. I remember watching him eat chicken, chewing it to a pulp and then spitting the remains on to his plate because he could no longer keep his food down. ‘I’m getting t’goodness out of it,’ he would explain in the same heavy Northern accent that sometimes advised that the best way to play snooker was to ‘hit it where it shines…’.
Directly behind him in the black bow tie is my father. I’m guessing the tie was the one that he wore when he was ‘singing in the clubs’. A fact that he would proudly remind people of ad nauseum. How I loved and hated and loved and hated and loved and hated my father. He was a source of pride and terror to me; something I’ve never really gotten over. He was an autodidact, a working class hero, an abused child, a Labour councillor, a bully, a sloth, semi-alcoholic. A mass of contradictions that even he didn’t understand. He didn’t understand me either, and probably didn’t even try to.
In the picture he looks handsome and content. When he died last year he was apparently in the running to become mayor of Weston-Super-Mare. For a control freak like him this missed opportunity will have been a source of frustration that he carried to his grave. We spoke maybe five or six times in the last thirty years. How I loved and hated him. How I despised him. How I respected him. How I wanted to be him.
Standing right behind the bride is his wife, My mother. She sought to protect me from my bullying father’s all too frequent ‘good hidings’ by smothering me with love. Literally choking me, squeezing the air out of my lungs with love. For this reason it’s difficult to determine if she’s looking at the bride or actually craning her neck to stare over at me and check that I am all right. She looks pretty in the picture, I think. I like the beehive and remember the choking odour of cheap hairspray that used to saturate the house. When I was a kid I used to think that she was the most beautiful woman in the world. Prettier than Elizabeth Taylor, sexier than Wilma Flintstone.
Towering over George Wright and my mother is Uncle Ken. He was a former Royal Guardsman and stood something like 6’ 4” in an age when 5’ 11” was considered tall. When he left the guards he worked on the trains; sometimes I would be playing football at the end of my grandmother’s street and see the train go by, him standing filthy-dirty in a heap of coal, shovelling it into the burner. When he wasn’t doing this he was drinking. And when he wasn’t drinking he was beating up Auntie Shirley.
If you look over to the right, that’s Auntie Shirley. She dressed as a bridesmaid and even though the photo is old and grainy you can see those teeth of hers that were always her defining feature. She was a naughty girl, was Auntie Shirley, and always mine and probably everybody else’s favourite. Running away to London at 18. Married to her handsome guardsman soon afterwards. Four kids. Lots of laughs. And lots of bruises. I particularly remember the bruises. The black eyes. The split lips. And I recall with crystal clarity the abject poverty that even we were shocked at when we went to her terraced house when I was a kid.
I also remember her kindness: of how I called around unexpectedly in the late-70s and when I said I liked the record she was playing she took it off the turntable and gave it to me without batting an eyelid. She didn’t have much but what she did have she was happy to give away.
And I remember the last time I saw her: about five or six years ago when I visited Burnley and she was in the latter stages of leukaemia. Of how I crept into her bedroom and held the fragile yellow hand of the jaundiced body that lay motionless on the bed. And of my cowardice later when I avoided seeing her again later because it was simply too hard for me to take. I wasn’t strong enough or brave enough to provide her with the comfort that she probably – most definitely – needed.
She’s glowing in the picture, though. Young and cheeky and effervescent and toothy, which is how I’ll always remember her.
To the right of Auntie Shirley is my grandmother. She was a former bus-conductress who fractured her pelvis in a road accident in the 1960s and never worked again. People used to say that she looked like the Queen, and if you hold this picture up against a £20 note you will probably get what they were talking about. She’s even wearing a coat like the Queen’s and holding her handbag in the same manner.
Some said she had Spanish blood in her, others that she was Jewish. Although in truth I can’t even remember where I got that information from, or indeed if I’ve simply made it up. What I do remember, however, is her love for me. And the oasis of safety that she provided for me as a child. I remember her dog, Sheeba; I remember the ornaments on the mantlepiece that used to fascinate me, I remember the bowl of fruit on the window ledge that seemed to be eternally self replenishing.
And her kindness was not only limited to me: when she learned that Uncle Ken’s violence also extended to his children, she took in the eldest, a girl named Lynette, my cousin, and legally adopted her. She brought Lynette up, gave her opportunities that she would surely never have had if she had stayed with Auntie Shirley.
I remember when George Wright died and my grandmother took Lynette and I on a tour of Europe, not wanting to waste the ticket she had previously purchased for her recently deceased husband. And I recall sitting with her in a Dutch bar listening to her explain that the last time she had visited they had played ‘Delilah’ by Tom Jones, a song that George loved. Of course, naturally, inevitably, the song stuck up again the very next instant and I was left to comfort my grieving grandmother in the awkward, clumsy way that only a fourteen-year-old boy can.
Eventually Lynette left home to join the army and years later paid a surprise visit to her adopted-mother-cum-actual-grandmother. And this is what killed our grandmother, who was so shocked to see her darling Lynette turn up expectedly that she had a massive heart attack and tragically died instantly.
These are the people whom I know and remember in this photograph but there are others faces that I dimly recognise. Is that Auntie Florrie standing to the left of Shireley? The little old lady who was actually my great-grandmother, the woman whose house was adorned with home-made rag carpets and who kept a commode in her bedroom? Is that Uncle Jordie on the far left? Auntie Florrie’s quietly spoken husband who worked down the pit and painted exquisite toy soldiers as a hobby? I don’t know but I’m sure my mother will tell me. The woman who has just messaged me while I was writing this to tell me what a ‘bonny little lad’ I was.
Not so bonny any more. Not so bonny…

5

The comeback – Chapter 03

CHAPTER THREE

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.’

‘But…’

‘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?’

‘Yes.’

‘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?’  

‘Nothing really.’

‘Jesus fucking Christ!’

‘Sorry Vincent.’

‘Sorry Vincent!’ echoed Vincent Mortego.

‘Sorry.’

‘Anything else?’

‘What Vince?’

‘Anything fucking else! Did he say anything else! Jesus!’

‘Not really. Only that Long’s been cut.’

‘What?’

‘Oliver Long got cut in sparring.’

‘Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!’

‘What’s the matter, Vince?’

‘Mind your own business Angie.’

2

The Comeback – Chapter 02

Thanks so much for the very nice and very helpful comments yesterday. It’s really appreciated. Here’s the second chapter. Ian x

 

CHAPTER TWO

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.

12

The Comeback – Chapter 01

Been a little too busy to work on this blog for the past week. In the meantime here’s a question for my numerous followers (well, about 12 followers actually). This is something that I began a year ago and then abandoned. I sent this one to an agent and was asked for the full m/s. However, I didn’t have the energy to continue past three chapters.

I’d appreciate a little feedback. Anyone?

 

The Comeback

Chapter 01

 

‘Come off it Dino, you gotta be serious about this.’

‘I am serious, Jimmy. I mean it.’

‘But you haven’t done anything like this for… Just how long has it been?’

‘Twenty-five years… Twenty six, I suppose, if you’re counting.’

‘So why now – after all this time?’

‘It’s my granddaughter’s wedding… I just want to make it a special day for her.’

In the back room of the Royal Oak in Canning Town Dino Andretti stood before the desk of Jimmy Smith like a naughty schoolboy waiting for the cane. He was sixty-two-years-of-age: balding, fat, nineteen or twenty stone. In contrast, Jimmy couldn’t have been older than thirty-five: slicked back hair, wiry thin, scholarly glasses. From an elegant leather seat he looked Dino up and down through those glasses. It was difficult to know what was going through his mind.

‘Look Dino,’ he said, almost tenderly. ‘Our families go back a long way, there’s no denying that. But if it’s money you’re after we can work something out. You don’t have to do something like this.’

‘I can do it, Jimmy,’ said Dino, a hint of iron in his voice. ‘Don’t you worry about me. I wouldn’t be here if I couldn’t… Some things you never forget.’

Jimmy shook his head slowly. Dino and his father had been at school together. They had been best friends until the day he died. It pained Jimmy to have to say this: ‘I’m sorry Dino, but you have to be realistic. It’s a young man’s game. It always has been. At your age you should be putting your feet up. Doing the garden. Something peaceful.’

Standing beside Jimmy in a smart grey suit was Alan Civil. Alan was a muscular twenty-year-old and this was the first time that he had met Dino. He had none of his boss’s sentiment and simply saw Dino for what he was. ‘No offence, mate,’ he interjected. ‘But you ain’t up to it. Anyone can see that.’

Jimmy shot an angry glare at his boy, who took a step backwards and immediately fell silent. ‘Take no notice of the kid, Dino,’ he said. ‘He means well but he hasn’t learned to control that mouth of his.’

Dino stiffened. The buttons bulged on his too-tight jacket. He loosened his tie to let some air in. ‘He’ll learn,’ he said, slowly turning to look Alan in the eye. ‘If they’ve got a brain they all learn.’

Alan stepped forward, about to say something. But a short, sharp glance from Jimmy once again cut him short. Jimmy slid open a drawer in his desk and pulled out a metal cashbox. He opened it and took out a pristine brick of banknotes. He counted it nonchalantly, accustomed to holding large sums of money, licking the tips of his fingers as he did so. ‘Listen Dino,’ he said at last. ‘Here’s ten. You know I wouldn’t do this for anybody else but it’s yours. Just take it and walk out of the door now. No need to worry about paying me back. You can get me some tickets or something… Get the kids some autographs…’

Dino looked at the money and fell silent for a moment. ‘Thank-you Jimmy,’ he sighed. ‘It’s not that I’m not grateful but it’s… it’s not enough.’

Jimmy Smith looked surprised. ‘Not enough? Come again?’ he said. 

‘He says it’s not enough, Mr. Smith,’ said Alan, anxious to be involved.

‘I need sixty,’ Dino continued.

Jimmy’s eyes widened. ‘Sixty?’ he said. ‘What is this? The fucking royal wedding?’

‘Ha, ha…royal wedding,’ said Alan.

‘I know,’ said Dino, ignoring the boy. ‘These things cost a lot of money these days. There’s the cars, the catering and whatnot. It all adds up. The invites alone are almost a grand. It’s daylight robbery, I’m telling you.’

But Jimmy was already suspicious. ‘You sure you need the money for a wedding?’ he asked. ‘You ain’t in trouble are you? You know you can tell me if you are.’

‘No. Nothing like that,’ replied Dino. ‘I just want to give my little girl a special day.’

Jimmy thought for a moment. ‘Listen, I shouldn’t do this but I can let you have twenty,’ he said reluctantly. ‘But I can’t give it to you for nothing. I’ll need you to buy me a drink some day soon. You know that.’

Dino looked at the younger man awkwardly and dabbed at his forehead with a handkerchief. ‘I don’t want to offend you, Jimmy,’ he said. ‘But I need sixty and I hear tell that the purse for this job is eighty.’

Jimmy Smith found himself laughing at the older man. ‘Fucking purse,’ he said. ‘Never heard it called that before.’

Jimmy stopped for a moment and once again looked the older man up and down. He was known for his cold dead eyes. More than once they had seen him though difficult times. Alan Civil took the silence as an opportunity to fill the room with his voice. ‘Listen old man,’ he said. ‘Mr. Smith’s a busy man. Why don’t you just take the money and fuck off like a good old boy?’

Under normal circumstances a speech such as this would have been acceptable. Alan’s main job description was to intimidate people who were getting on his boss’s tits. Today, however, Alan was lacking a proper sense of history. He simply had no idea who he was talking to.

Dino moved fast. And even though the younger man was a good foot taller than him, he instantly had Alan pinned against the wall by his throat. ‘Watch your fucking mouth, kid,’ he said, hitting Alan hard in the stomach, making him gasp. ‘Learn some fucking respect.’

Dino hit him a second time, this time in the balls. Alan let out a yelp and crumpled to the floor groaning. Less than four seconds had elapsed since Alan’s insult.

‘Leave the little wanker alone, Dino,’ said Jimmy, smiling but somehow looking serious at the same time. ‘He don’t mean no harm. He’s just young.’

‘Sorry Jim,’ said Dino. ‘I know that. Yes, I know that.’ He was aware that he had overreacted. But it was a calculated overreaction. Normally he would have let the boy’s insult go but he was keen to prove a point.

‘Don’t worry about it,’ said Jimmy. ‘All the same, that was pretty to watch, Dino. You don’t waste any time do you? You’re still a sight to behold.’

‘Thanks. You know I appreciate you saying that.’

‘Listen Dino, let me think about it for a day or two. I’m not saying that I’m giving you the work but I’ll give it some consideration. You’re no spring chicken any more, Dino, and this job needs a safe pair of hands.’

‘You won’t find yourself a safer pair of hands.’

‘Well that’s arguable,’ said Jimmy, staring at a pile of papers at his desk like an accountant. ‘There’s three or four boys I know who would have this for their breakfast.’

‘I’m sure that’s true,’ said Dino. ‘But they’re not as hungry as I am right now.’

6

Shotgun Reality – Chapter 04

Image

I’m back in the apartment, my better judgement laid waste by the drink and the drugs. I unlock the safe behind Francis Bacon’s Screaming Pope and pull out an old fashioned paper address book. Wrenching the ancient Nokia from its charger I order a take-away. The voice at the other end of the line sounds French and is surprised and obviously pleased to receive my call. I list my requirements and the voice promises delivery within the hour. We negotiate a fee – $2,000 in used notes. 

Now I’m shaking like a lunatic, part of me is already regretting my recklessness. Another part of me is already plotting and scheming, attempting to rationalise what I have just done. Still another part of me is licking its lips in anticipation. This is the part that I catch a lingering glimpse of as I parade in front of the bathroom mirror, holding in my stomach, fingertips rolling over the muscle, snarling at myself.

The minutes tick quickly by. I fill in the gaps by devouring four more massive, grandiose lines and rolling another spliff, which obviously has no effect but gives me something to do with my hands. I think about ghosts, as I often do at times like this, whether they exist or not, hoping they don’t. I’m not really comfortable with the idea of the ghost of my grandmother watching silently over my shoulder as I do what I’m about to do. As usual I decide they do not exist but I still have one or too lingering doubts.

The Nokia rings exactly 58 minutes after making my order. A voice tells me to go down to the street. I stuff an envelope full of dollars into my jacket pocket and almost skip down the stairs, like a little kid at Christmas, scarcely able to contain my excitement.

There is an anonymous white saloon parked outside the apartment block. The driver leans out of the window and motions me urgently towards him. As I emerge from the darkness I see the silhouettes of two people sitting in the rear, a male and a female. I lean into the car and deftly pass the money over to the man in such a casual manner that he doesn’t even notice the envelope full of notes that has fallen into his lap. He is sweating profusely as he asks for payment and I motion towards his crotch; he laughs without humour and then apologises before turning his head towards the girl on the back seat. She now belongs to you, is what the look on his face is telling me. He barks some unintelligible orders and the girl reluctantly opens the car door to be captured by my arms. I march her trembling body across to the apartment entrance without looking back or saying a word. There are no witnesses to the scene, and if even there were all they would see is a pair of drunken lovers rolling home after a night on the tiles, that’s what I tell myself. The whole exchange has taken less than a minute to complete. We awkwardly walk arm in arm slowly up the stairs, the elevator being far too public. 

Before we reach the apartment I’m feeling an overwhelming sense of disappointment that leaves me dizzy and swooning. Even in the half-light of the stairs I can see that the girl is pretty – beautiful actually. A light blonde fringe hanging over a perfect complexion and the elegant point of a fragile nose. She smells pretty, too, hurriedly drenched in a perfume that is far too expensive for her. I hold one hand in my left, firmly but not too firmly. My other arm is around her waist where it absent-mindedly checks for any excess fat. It is not disappointed, the girl is lean, firm and toned like a prize racehorse.

We get to the door and the girl turns to face me. There are too many things wrong with the look that she fires at me. Firstly, she is scared, terrified actually. Her whole body is shaking uncontrollably, her teeth are chattering with fear. Secondly, despite the hurriedly applied make-up, she is far too young. On the phone I had asked for someone in the age range of 22-26, this one is definitely younger than twenty, possibly as young as seventeen. Already I’m feeling like killing myself. 

I find it hard to conceal my disappointment as I take the girl’s jacket, (very cheap, pink, fake fur) revealing a body that would be well worth $2000 dollars of anybody’s money. She is wearing a tight grey sweater that emphasises her large natural looking breasts and impossibly slim waist. Ordinarily she would be perfect but now I simply see her as a problem. An enormous problem. I place her in a seat and offer her a drink. The girl shrugs at me nervously so I pour her a neat brandy which she proceeds to drink like cold tea. Immediately she begins to cough and splutter. I hand the girl my handkerchief and ask her name. “Sara,” she replies, when the coughing has subsided. Her accent is a cross pollination of Eastern European and broad Bronx. 

Eastern European. It gets worse. The girl starts to sniff and I realise that she has a cold. I watch a thin stream of mucus hang from her left nostril and gesture towards the handkerchief. She looks at it blankly and then I point to her nose, which she clumsily wipes. Very bad. Very bad indeed. Then the girl suddenly stares deep into my eyes, like Bambi looking at his dying mother, “What are you going to do to me?,” she asks. A single tear trickles down her cheek.

10

Shotgun Reality – Chapter 03

 

If there is any doubt that Meredith Taylor has lived a life one need only look at what remains of her beautiful face. “Merry, I’m not really the one to ask,” I reply, “I don’t do much with movies these days. You know that.”

“Bull-fucking shit,” she replies. “You total cunt. Everybody knows that you’ve been pitching for Jennifer Anniston. She won’t fuck you, you know. You’re too old for her. Too fucking old.”

I take a sip of champagne and pause for a moment. Preserved in celluloid are twenty-three movies that feature Meredith Taylor when her face and body were Hollywood’s most prized assets. In four of them she appears fleetingly, in the rest she dominates the screen with a perfect beauty that places her on the same trophy shelf as Marilyn, Liz Taylor, Angelina. Needless to say the creature that sits across from me – desperately imbibing a Marlboro, hair tied back to hide the bald patches, sunglasses concealing the wrecked eyes – has nothing in common with the Meredith Taylor of two decades ago. And – obviously – the only person on Planet Earth who is not aware of this fact happens to be Meredith herself.

“Whatsamatter?” she snarls. “Suddenly developed an attack of conscience? No… Probably not. You’re too much of a monster.”

Meredith is the reason for my visit to New Work… Well, one of the reasons. If I were as big a monster as she believes I would have dumped her years ago. But Meredith was my first American client and in many ways she is the reason that I am able to own homes in Kensington, New York, Florida and Milan. It was on her reputation that I built my own and with my slice of her enormous earnings I was able to build a fortune that is now many times in excess of whatever Meredith has managed to hang on to in her years of pitiful decline.

Naturally, a sizeable portion of those earning have been handed to a succession of fly-by-night surgeons. First it was the eyes, carved to pieces the morning after she first noticed laughter lines in the bathroom mirror. Then – it goes without saying – the breasts, which went up and up and up in size, amassing evil looking scars and suffering numerous nipple relocations that were all too often placed on public display, along with an infection that almost resulted in a mastectomy. 

During the 1980s Meredith Taylor became the prototype tragi-victim movie star. The drugs, the drink, the breakups, the breakdowns, the designer suicide attempts and the self-induced physical disfigurement took her from the front page of Variety to the centre spread of the National Enquirer. In the process the work dried up and the bank account turned from black to red. And all this time there was only one person to blame.

“You fucker, it’s all your fault,” says Meredith. “It’s your fucking job to get me the movies. I’m Meredith Taylor, for Christ’s sake. What do I fucking pay you for!”

Meredith has not paid me a nickel in over eight years and even though nobody who knows me would accuse me of sentimentality, she has become my personal project, perhaps a way of assuaging guilt. The big roles may have gone forever but she’s right, her name still holds a certain caché; for this reason I’m still able to get her the odd bit part in a low level soap or sit-com. She stumbles through her words and is more curio than actress; even so she seems unaware that I have ever had any hand in securing her these roles.

“Ian,” she says and as always I find myself looking away as she speaks, “Give a gal a break – c’mon speak to some people for me, you can do this.”

A week ago Meredith tried to kill a man in a motel room in Nebraska. Even she cannot remember what she was doing there. Newspaper reports claim that she chased a black man in his twenties out into the motel forecourt with a shard of broken mirror in her hand. The man, who is obviously a dealer, refused to press charges.