© Stuart Martin
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Molly, Barney, Sledgehammer Sid and The Deacon.
Molly Smith lowered herself onto the padded seat at the end of their caravan and slid a mug of black coffee across the table. “So, what do you think, now you’ve slept on it?” She pinched the lapels of her dressing gown together against the morning chill.
Barney Smith pressed his life-worn face into calloused hands then raked his fingers through his thick, black hair. “I’m very, very proud of you - you’ve worked hard and got all those qualifications. But landscape gardening, is it really us?”
Molly ground her teeth, suppressing a scream. “Please don’t talk down to me like I’m a kid. Da, we can do this. We know suppliers, we have labour on tap, and I know what I’m doing. Look at the promo video I’ve done on the laptop…Sid thinks it can work, he’s prepared to put money in.”
Barney frowned. “So you said, but I can’t say I’m happy - manipulating your brother.”
“Manipulating!” She gestured in the direction of Sid’s caravan. “He’s not stupid. He’s a thirty year-old man, he makes his own decisions.”
Barney glanced at the clock. “I know how old my son is.” He reached for his coat. “And I know he’s soft on his little sister.” He stepped into a pair of boots. “I’ll look at the laptop thingy later. But right now we’ve got an appointment with the Dooleys.”
“Tell me you’re not settling a business dispute with a fist fight.”
Barney shrugged. “No choice.”
“Oh-my-days, talk about reinforcing the stereotype.” She put a hand to her forehead. “No choice, how do you have no choice?”
“The Tarmac is an excuse. Old man Dooley has an agenda. He thinks young Dooley can take Sid’s place in The Deacon’s show if he knocks him out. That’s why he provoked this situation.”
“And you couldn’t say no?”
“No,” he took a gulp of coffee, “we couldn’t.”
A heavy knock preceded the door being flung open. Sid stepped inside and the space seemed to halve. His shaved head was decorated with a snake tattoo that carried on down his thick neck. “Morning, Molls.” He smiled. “You ready, Da?”
“Born ready.” Barney drained the mug.
Molly took Sid’s hand. “Don’t fight. Other people get through life without risking getting their brains scrambled – please.”
Sid kissed the top of her head. “You worry too much. I’ll iron out Young Dooley.”
“Iron out!” she interrupted.
“I’ll go easy on him.” He ruffled her short hair. “And tomorrow we’ll make a nice few quid from The Deacon’s show – easy work for Sledgehammer Sid.” Still smiling, he landed a hand on Barney’s back that made him take a step forward. “Come on, Da, don’t want Dooley thinking I’ve bottled it.”
Molly grabbed Barney’s sleeve as he followed. “Talk him out of it, we don’t need the money that bad…Please, I worry about him.”
He pulled his arm free. “He’s a man, he makes his own decisions.” He called after Sid as he stepped away, “You’re kidding about going easy on him – right?”
Wearing skinny jeans, a pink, round-necked jumper and puffer jacket, the first clothes that came to hand, Molly scuttled between the caravans to the car park area. A number of vehicles were parked in a circle, she grimaced, mumbling as she continued, “Stubborn, selfish, shortsighted.” Eight men, all travellers, stood in the only gap in the ring of vans and trucks.
An outstretched arm stopped her as she burrowed through the onlookers. “Whoa, what’s your hurry gorgeous? I could lift you up on something if you want to watch.”
“Wastin’ yer time there mate - totally the wrong tree to bark up,” quipped one of the others. Molly curled a hand into a fist with the middle finger sticking up and thrust it in the direction of the comment, then pushed the blocking arm aside and moved alongside Barney. They exchanged frowns.
At the far side of the makeshift arena stood Dooley senior and his two youngest sons. All eyes, and several camera phones were on Sid and young Dooley who were in the centre, a meter apart, edging round clockwise. Young Dooley was taller than Sid, and had steroid enhanced shoulder development. Sid returned his attempt at an intimidating stare with a knowing smile, and glanced at the Dooley clan as he spoke, “This is a hard game, Lad. Get some more experience before you try for a spot on The Deacon’s show.”
Young Dooley gestured to his brothers. “You heard him?” He gave a dismissive sniff. “Experience, that’s what the last fat old slap-head banged on about before I levelled him. It’s like them blokes with small dicks that say size doesn’t matter to a woman. Is that you tubby? You a winkle dick?”
Sid’s smile broadened. “Your trash-talk needs some work. Who told you to work that one in, your granddad?”
“Get on with it,” came a shout from the side. “You pair of ring girls.” Derisory laughter rippled through the group.
“Let’s do it,” said Dooley, and threw a wild right hook. Sid blocked it, but a fraction of second later Dooley landed a kick between his legs. He bent at the knees. Dooley lined up a kidney punch but Sid flicked a fist into his groin. He exhaled sharply and took a step back.
Sid straightened up, grinning, and gestured to his own crotch. “Two cricket boxes with four layers of bubble wrap – never felt a thing…You?”
Barney threw his arms up. “Will you stop arsin’ about? This is business.”
With a grunt, Dooley delivered a flurry of punches. Sid blocked or evaded all except the last, a hook to the body, which skimmed off his arm and caught him in the gut. He gave an acknowledging nod.
Molly was pacing and rubbing her teeth with a thumb nail as she watched. When that punch landed she flinched and called out, “Keep your elbows tucked in.”
“The ‘dyke’ coaching you is she?” sneered Dooley.
His smile crumpled, and Sid snapped out a practiced combination: a left hook, a kick to the left knee, and a right uppercut. Dooley fended off the hook, stumbled when the kick landed, and defied gravity for a second when the uppercut crashed into his jaw. The collective “Ooof,” from the spectators carried a hint of amusement.
Dooley’s family rushed forward as he landed, eyes rolling, in a snow angel pose. Sid stopped them with a glare, then bent over his felled opponent. “Never call my sister that again….” He took a step away before whipping back round, stopping the Dooleys short again. “And I'm not fat - I’m barrel-chested.”
As the watchers compared recordings of the action the young man from earlier held up a hand and called to Molly, “Sorry.” His eyes flicked to Sid. “About earlier.” Molly planted a hand on her hip.
It was dark, and Molly felt around in her ‘functional’ bag for the key to Sid’s caravan. She took a better grip on her laptop and papers before inserting it. Weird, it wasn’t locked. She cracked the door open. “Sid, are you in there?”
“Yes - come in.” Sid’s tone was downbeat.
“What’s wrong?” Molly let her unstable load slip onto the table. “I thought you were going out with that Maxine again.”
Sid was slouched on the sofa bed with his mobile clutched on his chest. He drew a thumb across the screen as he spoke, “So did I.”
“What happened?” She straightened the papers as she sat down.
“We need some space, apparently.”
Molly gave a silent ‘Ah’.
Sid continued to slide his thumb across the screen like a horizontal pendulum. “You talked to da again yet?”
“No - he’d started on the whiskey so I decided to wait.” She half-opened the laptop. “I thought I’d get more work done here, but I’ll go if you want.”
“Up to you, I’m not bothered.”
Forty minutes had flown by when Sid interrupted her train of thought with an exaggerated sigh. “Molly.”
Calling her Molly meant an awkward question. She took a steadying breath. “Yes.”
“You’re a woman. I know you’re a…That you’re-”
She rolled her eyes. “Gay, I’m gay. Your tongue won’t fall out if you say it.”
Sid continued in a thoughtful tone, “You’re gay, but you’re still a woman. Why do you think my relationships never last?”
Molly pursed her lips as she considered her reply. “I think part of the problem could be that the book inside isn’t what you’d expect from the cover.”
He stroked a hand over his scalp. “Don’t talk in riddles, I’m not in the mood.”
“All I meant was that under the surface you’re a sensitive, caring guy. But no one would guess that from looking at you. So, you could be attracting women that are looking for something different. But what the hell do I know? My relationship history isn’t great.” She pressed her mouth into a smile. “Hey, that’s something we have in common, neither of us can keep a girl.”
Sid’s head flopped towards her. “That’s not really true though, is it? Tracy wanted you to go to Manchester together, but you binned her off.” He straightened his head and looked at the ceiling. “I hope you didn’t stay because of da. That would be stupid, and he wouldn’t want it.”
“There were a lot of reasons – and it wasn’t an easy decision.” She gathered the papers, staring at a distant point as she aligned them on the laptop. “But I can honestly say I don’t regret it.” She brought the smile back. “And I’m excited about this project. Help me talk da round, we can make it work.”
“I’ll try. Won’t be easy, old dog new tricks and all that.”
“And if we get him to agree there won’t be any need to fight for this Deacon.”
Sid blew out a long breath. “Don’t start on that again. The money will be handy either way and I’ve already said I’m doing it, end of.”
Molly was half way out of the door when Sid asked, “Do you think growing my hair would help?”
“Worth a try. And maybe stop calling yourself Sledgehammer.”
The next morning when Barney emerged from his sleeping area, a pot of tea, a plate full of toast, and the open laptop were waiting for him. The half bottle of whiskey had taken a toll, and he lowered his chin onto the palm of his left hand with care. Molly filled his mug, hit the start key, and sat down opposite.
The presentation finished as Barney picked up the last slice of toast. He used it to indicate the screen. “Very impressive, very professional.” He folded the toast over. “But Tarmac and paving is what we know, and it’s given us a good living. I’m too old to be starting new ventures.”
Molly put her hands on the table and leant forward. “Da, you need to start thinking what’s coming next. You’re fifty-five, and you make a living doing hard, physical work. You’ve said yourself you feel eighty-five the way your joints ache. And Sid fights to make ends meet. It’s only a matter of time before one of you gets hurt or sick, and then what?”
The toast bounced off the plate and onto the floor. “Now who’s talking down?”
“If you want to work and drink yourself into the ground go ahead, but don’t drag Sid down with you, you selfish….” That sounded harsh as soon as it slipped out.
“Just like your mother.” Barney prodded a finger into the table. “You think you’re right, and people who can’t see it are wrong in the head. Well I never asked anyone to stick around on my account. The last thing I need is someone playing the martyr and expecting me to be grateful. And how do I know you won’t be away on your toes when a better offer comes along – like your slut of a mother – then where would we be?”
“There’s no wonder--” They were almost nose to nose across the table when Molly stifled her barbed response and took a composing breath. “I know it would be a big change for you, and feel a bit odd, being in a sort of partnership with your gay daughter. But I’ll make you this promise - if we do this, anything else that happens in my life will have to fit around it.”
The furrows on Barney’s brow deepened. “Why mention gay? I have never made a thing of that.”
That was true. But she knew he’d ditched friends over their attitude, and though you shouldn’t need to be grateful that your family accept you for what you are, she was. “Sorry, I just meant the way some people around here think it could make things awkward.” Barney’s expression was a response without words. “But I know you could handle that.”
“Too right I can, and have, more times than you know.” A large black car pulling up alongside the caravan interrupted the conversation. Barney put his face to the window. “A Roller – and that’s one of The Deacon’s crew.” He pulled the door open.
A man whose suit jacket was under strain from his broad shoulders stood with a hand poised to knock. “Mr Barnabas Smith?”
The messenger gestured to the open door of the Rolls Royce. “The Deacon would like a word.”
“Just a minute, I’ll be right there.” Barney swung the door shut. He looked at Molly with raised eyebrows as he rummaged for his shoes. “There’s money in this, I can feel it.”
“Don’t get talked into anything dodgy.”
“There you go again.” He put a flatted hand to his chest. “Give me some credit. I know what The Deacon is, but his fights are straight.” He tapped the side of his nose with a finger. “Trust me.”
At eighty-one, and standing just five-foot-four with a shock of grey hair and round glasses, Archibald Deacons fit the clichéd image of a kindly uncle: Barney knew different. The ‘Deacon’ was an underworld figure twenty years ago. He retired from that life to indulge his passion for unlicensed fighting, but still kept the same company.
The driver led Barney through The Poachers Pot pub to a back room where a huge Asian man swung the door open. “The pikey’s here, Boss.”
A ribbon of smoke curled off The Deacon’s cigar as he twisted it between thumb and finger. “What have I told you about using racist language?”
“Remember, nigger, polak, paki, paddy, jock and such, and especially pikey,” he wagged a finger, “not acceptable in these enlightened times.”
“Got it, Boss.”
The Deacon dismissed him with a wave and indicated the chair opposite. “Barney, have a seat. You’ll have to excuse my man there. I try to improve their social skills but it’s not easy.”
“Coffee?” The Deacon’s right-hand man, Marty, held up a decanter, “or something stronger?”
Barney’s eyes flicked to Marty who joined The Deacon in a controlled smile. “No thanks, I just had breakfast.” The familiarity was unnerving.
The Deacon balanced his cigar in an ashtray and rested his fingertips together. “I can see you’re not in the mood for small-talk, Barney, so I’ll get to the point. We have a bit of a problem, and it could be a real opportunity for you.”
“A real opportunity. As you know, Terry Peters was supposed to be fighting in the main event tonight. Well, two days ago Peters got a tug, and he’s still in custody. And, unfortunately, the reserve broke a leg last night. Now, I’ve brought Rodney ‘Lightning Rod’ Kirk over from the US, and I have a lot of punters eager to see him fight, and they would be very disappointed if the fight were cancelled.”
“That is a problem.” Barney nodded slowly.
“So I’m giving a fighter from the undercard the chance to step into the main event, and I’m giving you first refusal for your boy Sid.” The Deacon picked up his cigar. “Explain how the money will work.”
Marty unfolded a sheet of paper. “The payment is two grand up front for taking the fight, five grand for stepping into the ring, and five grand for every completed round. All paid in cash.”
Barney stroked his chin. “Let me see if I’ve got this right. The way things stand right now you have a bunch of high rollers coming and no fight for them to bet on. It’s too late to get someone with the same rep as Lightning Rod to take the fight, so you come up with a plan. Get someone who likes a stand up fight, and who can take punishment and keep going. You put the word out that the stand-in is paid by the round which will encourage betting on how long the fight will last. And the ‘someone’ who fits the bill is Sledgehammer Sid Smith.”
The Deacon took a long draw on his cigar. “As I said, a real opportunity.”
“And there are plenty of others in the frame who would be happy to take it up,” added Marty.
“Really?” Barney pointed at the decanter. “I think I will have a small one now – if it’s no trouble?” Marty’s smile flattened out as he poured out a whisky and shunted it across the table. “And how much does the winner get?”
“Fifty grand,” said The Deacon through a veil of smoke.
“Hmm.” Barney teased the glass round as he spoke, “But Lightning Rod is the business, right? So shall we say five grand up front, ten for getting in the ring, and five for every round?”
Looking at Barney all the while, The Deacon held out his glass for Marty to fill. “If he doesn’t turn up I’ll want the money back, understood.”
“Understood,” answered Barney.
The Deacon held up his glass. “Then we have a deal. Let’s drink to it.”
Barney tapped his glass against The Deacon’s and both men downed the golden liquid in one gulp. Barney put the glass on the table with a thud and stuffed the bundle of notes Marty had produced into his pocket. “Nice doing business with you.”
The venue for The Deacon’s shows, known as ‘The Church’, was a warehouse on a disused out-of-town industrial estate. Inside, four scaffolding grandstands surrounded a boxing-style ring. From a leather arm chair fixed in the centre of one of the platforms The Deacon acknowledged favoured guests with nods and gestures in the style of a Roman Emperor. The crowd, a mixture of underworld faces, minor celebrities, and people prepared to pay to mix in their company cheered as one when the penultimate fight was ended with a head kick.
The office section at the end of the building had been converted into changing rooms. Sid flexed his fingers and rotated his shoulders as he looked down on the scene from a top floor window. “Where the hell’s da? I’ll be fighting in fifteen minutes.”
Hunched over her phone, twitching, Molly answered without looking up, “Probably trying to wring more money out of your pain.”
Sid exhaled through his nose. “I don’t need that negative vibe.”
“I can’t help it, I’m worried.” She held up her phone. “Look, he’s massive, he’s ripped, and he’s as fast as Conor McGregor.”
“I’m not going into this blind, I know all about ‘Lightning Rod’.” He knelt down in front of her and lifted her chin with a finger. “Hey, I want this. Da hasn’t forced me into it, and it’s not just the money. It took me nine years to get to being the warm up act at events like this, and I never thought I’d get the chance to top the bill. Well tonight I’m the main event. I know everyone and his dog thinks I’m going down, but I don’t care. I’m going to give this my best shot, and I want you with me – are you with me?”
With a watery-eyed smile, Molly nodded and stroked a hand across his smooth head. “What happened to growing your hair?”
“I’ll start tomorrow.” He tilted his head down, “I wanted the viper looking sharp tonight.” He tapped the iphone. “And that’s an optical illusion. Black guys always look more defined. That’s why white body builders have a spray tan before competitions.”
The door swung open. “Time to head down there.” Barney reached into the carrier bag he was holding. “I got you this,” he held up a silk robe with a snake motif and the words - Ssssledgehammer Sid Smith - embroidered on it, “for your entrance.”
Sid threw off his tracksuit top and did a full turn as he slipped his arm into it. “It’s great. Thanks, Da.”
Barney rubbed his hands together. “I’ve got a good feeling about tonight.”
In the ring, Sid paced in a tight circle with his head down. Opposite, Rodney Kirk and his entourage of six wore matching black outfits with gold lightning bolts back and front. The excited murmur in the crowd quietened as the announcer put the mic to his lips. “Churchgoers, it’s time for our warriors to fight the good fight – with all their might.” Muted laughter came from the stands. “In the blue corner, making his fourth appearance in The Church, Sssssssledgehammer Sid Smith.” Sid acknowledged a small group on the top row of a stand who were chanting his name and pointed at the snake on his back with his right thumb.
“Sledgehammer Sid, Sledgehammer Sid,” roused Barney.
“And in the red corner, all the way from the US of A – Rodney - ‘Lightning Rod’ - Kirrrrrrk.” Cheers and applause echoed through the building as the referee stepped to the centre of the ring. Lightning Rod flexed his taut physique as he waited for the off.
“That’s no optical illusion,” said Molly as she took Sid’s robe. Unblinking, Sid walked to the middle.
The referee projected his voice, “Deacon’s rules – five minute rounds, no biting, no gouging, no head butts, break the rules and I will disqualify you. A knockout or a tap-out ends the fight.” He pointed at their corners. “Get ready.”
“Don’t you worry,” said Rod in a soft tone, “I’m gonna beat on that old man who’s been holding you back.”
Sid edged towards him. “Are you threatening my da?”
Rod growled, “I was talking to the snake.”
“Ahh,” Sid shook his head, “schoolboy humour. I expected more.”
“You’re gonna get more, butterball, don’t you worry none,” said Rod, grinning.
At a wave of The Deacon’s cigar the referee dropped his arm. “Fight.”
“Don’t let him get to you,” said Molly as Sid stepped out.
As soon as they tapped knuckles Sid feinted with a left and threw a right hook. Rod swayed out of the way at the last moment and thudded two short punches into Sid’s face, then fended off a leg kick and dodged a body punch with ease. Molly bit off a chunk of thumb nail as Sid took more punches to head and body. Rod finished the combination with a spinning back kick which Sid just managed to deflect over his head. Sid brought his hands in front of his face, tilted his head down, and walked forward.
On his toes, Rod flicked out left jabs as he backed away. “Come on slick, show me something, show me you deserve to be on the same canvas.”
With a dart forward Sid launched his favourite combination. The left hook found thin air, the leg kick was blocked, and Lightning Rod moved so fast the uppercut missed by a meter. A front kick knocked Sid against the ropes and an arcing elbow ripped open the flesh above his right eye. Rod stood off. “I seen you use that move on You Tube – embarrassing.”
Molly, who had shared every blow, looked to her phone. Barney pulled up on the ropes and shouted in Sid’s ear, “Stop making it easy for him. Cover up.”
Pawing the blood away from his eye Sid moved forward, absorbing punches and kicks as he chased, but Lightning Rod was always gone when he arrived. When the round ended Rod bowed to the baying crowd. Sid slumped onto his stool and Barney smeared Vaseline over the cut. “Keep your guard up until you get close enough to throw body punches, no more wild stuff.”
A blast of air from Sid’s left nostril blew a mixture of mucus and blood into the slop bucket. “It only looks wild because he’s so fast.”
Molly turned from the screen and touched Sid’s arm. “You don’t need to prove anything else.”
“I never quit.” Sid pushed up ready for the restart, “That’s the one thing I respect about myself so don’t ask me to.” He hunched his shoulders and snorted forward at the referee’s signal.
The round settled into a pattern, Sid trying to close the space, but Lightning Rod moving left, right, taunting, always out of range and throwing punches and kicks in clusters. Sid blocked most of the blows, but Rod found gaps, and kept hitting the same spot with his leg kicks. By the end of the round Sid had a raised black and purple welt on his left thigh, and the bulbous swelling over his eye had forced it shut. Chants of ‘Lightning Rod’ pulsed through the arena.
Barney pushed an ice pack on the closed eye as Sid sagged onto the seat. “You’re doing great. He’s tiring, keep tight and keep pressing forward.”
Sid took a long swig of water. “Tactical genius, it’s in the bag.”
Barney threw the sponge into the bucket. “Sarcasm spoils you.”
Molly pushed between them, holding up her phone. “I’ve noticed something.” They huddled closer. “When he gets tired he likes to take his opponent down to finish it, and he always touches his nose first and dives for the legs to the left.”
Sid looked bemused. “And?”
Barney gripped his chin. “All you have to remember is to bring your left knee up as soon as he touches his nose. Got it?”
Sid banged his fists together. “Got it…Does he really look tired?”
Rod was bouncing from foot to foot. “I just said so didn’t I?” said Barney as he pushed him up on the call to ‘fight’.
Rod opened up with a sustained flurry of punches. Sid took them on the arms and the top of his head, but a kick smacked onto the growing bruise as he ploughed on and his eyes pulsed wide. For the next four minutes Molly winced and flinched with each blow Sid took. He limped on, his face a Picasso of blood and snot. When Rod tried to push him off balance, Sid landed an instinctive punch under the ribs. Rod shouted as he retaliated with a series of wide, arcing punches, “You’re done, you ugly, pork bellied bitch.” A right hand landed flush on Sid’s nose, splattering blood into Molly’s face.
Rod relaxed his stance, as if he expected Sid to fall. When he pushed his nose back straight and said, “Is that your best?” Rod took a deep breath, cuffed his nose, and dived. Sid’s rising knee caught the point of Rod’s chin. The sound in the building went out like a snuffed candle as Rod landed at Sid’s feet in the foetal position.
A lone voice from the top of the stand pierced the moment of surreal silence: “Sledgehammer Sid….” The rest of the group joined in and Sid stood, hands raised, with his name ringing out.
The chant continued as Barney put a hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Champ, let’s get you cleaned up.”
Sid called back as Rod was helped up by his people, “Hey, I’m not fat.”
Molly glared at Barney as she hugged Sid. “Look at the state of you, you big lump.”
Sid held her close. “It looks worse than it is.” He raised a hand to the spectators. “I want more of this, Da.”
Barney pointed. “Go see the doc. Molly’s right, you look rough. I’m going to see The Deacon.”
Twenty minutes later Marty waited for Sid to finish recounting his winning move to supporters before speaking, “The Deacon would like a word.”
In The Deacon’s office, Sid perched on a chair. “Is something wrong, Mr Deacons?”
“Son, that was one fantastic performance you just put on, fan-tas-tic.” The Deacon’s smile inverted. “Unfortunately, after what the doc told me about that eye you can never fight in my shows again. If you do fight again you’ll end up blind – in both eyes. I may not be mother Teresa, but I don’t want that on my conscience.”
“But I feel fine, apart from...” Sid touched the swelling, and his leg.
“And you will be fine, as long as you don’t fight again.” The Deacon pointed with his cigar. “Take my advice, go out on a high. Not many in this game have the sense to do that.”
Sid walked to the door with his chin on his chest. “Da’ll be gutted.”
“He’ll get over it.” The Deacon took a long draw on his cigar. “Nothing is more important than your health.”
Ten seconds after Sid left, Marty opened the door at the back of the office and Barney stepped through. “Thanks for that, Archie. I owe you one.”
“You certainly do because I don’t like lying to people, especially when it costs me money.” The Deacon released a plume of smoke. “A rematch would mean a big pay day – you sure you want Sid to retire?”
“I’m sure. We’re going into a safer line of business, with my daughter.” Barney stopped at the door. “Fancy having your garden landscaped, by way of payback?” The Deacon twisted his cigar and raised one eyebrow. Barney grimaced. “Thought not.”