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Make a decent fist of it (copyright Pat Black)

Make a decent fist of it (copyright Pat Black)

This is from a short story collection called Shoot Speed Kill Light which is not available in the shops. You want it though… Just imagine this is one of those big long adverts that you only see after you stumble home drunk at 4am. They’re advertising food processors, quasi-obscene exercise equipment… and my god, is that the real Kenny Rogers?! 

From the car park, the leisure centre was an oddity, a strange tangle of glass, brushed steel and spotlights. Molly couldn’t decide what it reminded her of. While Jack fiddled around in the car, the crowd trickled towards the front doors – mostly men, a great deal of them middle-aged and pudgy. Molly felt herself drifting along with them.

“Do we just join the queue?”

Jack shouldered his laptop computer bag and locked the car. “No… Probably not. Here, wait. Hold your horses.”

“But look – there’s the door. That’s where they’re all queuing.”

Jack sighed and took her by the arm. “I know, love. But that’s the main door, for the punters. We’re using a different door.”

He handed her a laminated pass, about four inches square and pierced near the top. Silvery links passed through this aperture, attached to a necklace the same consistency as a shoelace, and she hung this about her neck. Trapped under clear plastic, images of the fighters raised their fists at her, the faces and poses getting smaller and smaller the further down the billing they appeared.

“This is fancy,” she said, turning it over in her hands.

“It’s a fancy do,” Jack replied, slipping his own pass over his head. “There should be a side door for us. Make sure you don’t lose that pass. Come on.”

Molly felt a little self-conscious as Jack strode past the sidewinder queue, paying no mind to the stares and hawked spit. Why were they mostly bald? She wondered. If they weren’t bald, they were getting there. Sparse hairlines lining their scalps like reeds poking through a swamp, a place where you might dump a body.

Not like Jack, who still had all of his hair after all these years – and a wee tint of the old red in it, too. Most carrot tops had long gone silvery white once their fifties were over, but not Jack. It went well with the camel-coloured sports coat. She’d known this, when she bought him it.

Molly wanted to draw back when Jack approached the bouncers, monstrous in bulky black bomber jackets. But he brandished his pass, and said: “Two – me and the missus.” They let Jack and Molly past without much of a fuss. Jack pushed through the double doors and moved off to the side, away from the gathering throng at the ticket inspection point.

“Is there a cloakroom?” she asked.

“Course there’s not. Come on.”

“Not very fancy if there’s no cloakroom.”

“It’ll get cold. It’s a fairly big hall. Not like the cinema.”

“You’re going too fast for me, Jack. Wait up. Slow down.”

He waited for her, sucking at the side of his mouth.

“You’re not to rush off,” she said. “You know that.”

“Yes, master.”

“You’re not to say that, either.”

“Oui, bwana,” he sighed.

Another two sets of doors and another two bouncers – these ones in smart black shirts and matching ties with name tags, their necks and shoulders more streamlined than the mountain range build of the men on the front doors – and then they were in the arena. Not as big or as grand as Molly had been led to believe. Stands were erected around the four sides of the space, and the seats were beginning to fill up. In the middle of the space, bright under the steady glow of the spotlights, was the ring.

“Over here,” Jack said, nimble as he sidled in between the rows.

“We’re awful close to the front.”

“We have to be able to see, darlin’.”

“The football isn’t this close. We’re up at the back for that. What if I get splashed? What if they bleed on me?”

“I did tell you to wear black.”

“You know black doesn’t go with this coat. You need something lighter.”

“Through here, come on.”

Jack waited for her to catch up, then cut across to the very front row, just feet away from the swaddled corner and taut blue ropes. The front rows were taken up already, it seemed, by a thick wall of men in collars, ties and long black coats. Some of them had laptop computers open. One sported massive headphones, and spoke into a microphone that seemed to place a hand over his whole mouth. His eyes bulged above them, and Molly thought she might have recognised this man from somewhere.

First one, then many of these men noted Jack’s nimble progress. Every one of them, apart from the man with the headphones, got up and gave him a round of applause. Once the man with the headphones saw what was happening, he raised a hand, although he didn’t stop speaking for a moment.

Another man – huge, like a walking tombstone, with a massive moustache curling down at the corners and a thick healthy head of iron grey hair – got up and offered a handshake. How slight her Jack looked next to this man; even with his thick overcoat, he was thin and somewhat sunken like a hanger on a sales rack.

“Jackie boy,” the walrus-faced man said gravely.

“Willie,” Jack said.

“Lovely to see you back, old son.” The man clapped a meaty hand on Jack’s shoulder. “Fit and well?”

“Raring to go, William.”

William nodded towards Molly. “And his good lady wife, I presume?”

“Yes, hello. I’m Molly.” They shook hands. William folded a second hand over hers, completely enveloping it. “How lovely to meet you. Please, have a seat.”

The men sitting in the front row deferred to William, all shifting up two seats to allow Jack and Molly a place in beside him, near the very end of the row. Jack protested all the way until they sat down, but soon began to unzip his laptop and arrange his notes. Molly took her place beside him, next to one empty seat.

“This your first gig back?” William asked Jack.

“No, we’ve been doing the football,” Jack said. “Done a few matches now.”

“We were at Pittodrie last weekend,” Molly said. “Hampden Park the week before that. A cup match. Lovely press facilities, there.”

At this, Willie leered like a buccaneer, a pristine row of false teeth poking out from between gnarled black drapes. “Superb! Scotland’s very own Woodward and Bernstein. You keeping him right, then, Molly?”

“He’s not getting out of my sight,” she said, simply.

Jack grinned and said, “What people don’t realise is, she takes all my notes. Her spelling’s better, too.”

William barked laughter. “A thirty-year career lie exposed!”

They began to talk shop, and Molly tuned out. The echoey, isolated voices in the arena had been joined by still more, and the rows began to fill up. There was the same buzz in the air Molly had felt at the Kenny Rogers concert she’d gone to seven or eight years beforehand, if substantially less cowboy hats.

The ring itself seemed much larger than she had expected – an effect of the television, she supposed. TV cameras were stationed directly opposite her, and a weave of wiring enclosed gantries, light stacks and a speaker system.

As the camera swept across the ring, Molly sat up straight and pouted. Ellen and her two boys were apparently watching the show tonight on pay-per-view on satellite TV. Though they were far from her favourites, Molly had worn the earrings Ellen had bought for her birthday, the better to catch the light.

A group of young women congregated at the ringside, just to Molly’s left. Angular, beautiful girls, in white T-shirts bearing a sponsor’s name and small blue shorts, with a lot of leg showing. A few isolated whistles greeted their appearance. Then a little man in a dinner jacket sprung up onto the stage and introduced two fighters who appeared at either corner, hooded and throwing a flurry of punches into thin air.

She gripped Jack’s sleeve. “Oh! It’s started!”

“It’s just the undercard,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“It’s the other fighters. The first ones on the bill.”

She squinted at the laminate pass, at the men on the bill. Scottie McKelvey versus Patrick Ngoma was the big fight – a Commonwealth championship bout. Scottie was a handsome young lad with a blond, spikey haircut and a cocksure gaze. He looked more like a cheeky scamp you’d chase out of your garden rather than a fighter, even shirtless and sleek-muscled as a shark, as he was. Patrick Ngoma, the challenger, looked more like the part – fuller-featured with a rounder face, brawnier and black. Other names and faces trailed beneath them – the undercard, she supposed.

“It’s the two fighters at the bottom. The ones without a photo.” Willie reached over behind her husband and pointed to the bottom of her pass.

These two men were faceless in the ring, too. Both of them had their hoods up, while the MC introduced them.

“Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the Kinclaven Arena. Tonight is Fight Night, brought to you by Barassie Beer and Nova TV sports.”

Applause sounded. Molly looked around, startled to see how quickly the seats had filled in the gloom behind her.

“Either of them any good?” Jack asked.

Willie shrugged. “Keep an eye on Finch, is what I’ve been told. Good sharp left hand.”

The two fighters removed their robes. They were small – smaller even than the referee, a stocky man with a massive bulging gut, who looked as if he was better suited working on the doors. The fighters limbered up, moving lightly on their feet, the red gloves bright as the skin of an apple. Gumshields were applied and laces were tightened.

“In the red corner, from Ibrox… with a record of six wins, two knockouts and no defeats… Stuart ‘Heart Hammer’ Finch!”

Molly began to clap, but stopped abruptly when the other men on the front row failed to do the same. They began to tap away at their laptops. Jack and Willie, she noted, were unusual in that their notepads were open, pens poised, placed on top of closed computer cases on their laps.

“And in the blue corner…. With a record of four wins and a knockout… Willie ‘the Refill’ Toner!”

Applause, and not a few ironic cheers followed this announcement. The second fighter, with black shorts and yellow trim, saluted them before aiming a flurry of punches into fresh air, almost too fast for Molly’s eye to follow.

The fighters took to their stools, and then one of the girls in the T-shirts and shorts took to the stage. The girl had dyed blonde hair and thick make-up, but beneath it all Molly could tell she was a good-looking girl. Her chorus-line legs were as toned as Cyd Charisse’s, and she smiled brightly even when many in the crowd wolf-whistled, cheered and hooted. She held up a placard, with a simple phrase etched on it in black. “Round one.”

“C’mon up here, doll,” one man bellowed. “C’mon, let’s go the distance.”

Molly craned her neck to stare into the crowd, frowning. “That’s a disgrace, that. A disgrace.”

Jack grinned. “Welcome to the bear pit, darlin’.”

“That lassie’s just doing her job. That’s absolutely shocking.”

The fighters touched gloves, the bell sounded, and the fight began. This much Molly knew from god knew how many fights on the television. What she didn’t expect was the first brutal volley of punches, as the boy Toner began with a brisk attack on the front foot. There was a sense of the impact which you didn’t get from the small screen, as close an experience of punches landing and hurting, those terrific boofts and grunts, without actually feeling them yourself. She flinched as Finch took to the ropes and hunched over, abdominal muscles flexing and quivering from the hips. In the middle, moon face intent, the referee kept watch.

Jack and Willie scratched at their notepads, no less rapt. “What are you doing?” Molly called.

“Keeping my own score,” Jack said, eyes never moving from the fight.

“Why?”

“Just so I can keep check when they give the result at the end.”

“Quite brutal this, isn’t it?”

Jack smiled.

Molly folded her hands and watched the rest of the fight, engrossed by the physical contest. It went to Finch, who came through the initial barrage to visit a steady, disciplined destruction on ‘The Toner’. After the allotted three rounds, the referee raised Finch’s hand as the judges’ decision was read put. Toner, to be fair, betrayed no disappointment. As they embraced and grinned, Molly realised that they were just boys, surely not long out of school.

“Looks like The Toner was filled in,” Wullie called out.

Jack nodded. “Too bad he’s not higher up on the card. I’d use that.”

“How did you score it?” Molly asked, scanning the notepad. The pages were covered with the loops and spears of that strange, esoteric shorthand that she knew from reams of paper clogging up shelfspace for their whole married life.

“About the same… I’d have given the first round to The Toner. But I can’t disagree with the decision.”

Molly went to the toilets after this fight. The arena was far more intimidating now that it was almost full. Out of all the adult faces, one little lad, who stood confused by his father’s side, fiddling with an empty hot dog wrapper, caught her eye. At least the ladies’ weren’t crowded. As Molly went to wash her hands, the placard girl from Round One was checking her make-up in the mirror as Molly went to wash her hands.

She nodded at the girl in the mirror. “Hello.”

The girl smiled back. “Hello. Enjoying the fights?”

“Ah, I’m with my husband. He’s covering it for the paper.”

“Oh right.”

Molly swallowed, then said: “I just wanted to say I admired you, earlier on. When those lads were shouting at you.”

“Oh!” the girl said, somewhat archly. “It’s just a job. The way I see it, I’m giving them a view of something they’ll never have.”

“Well… I admire you anyway. Some boys out there need to mind their manners. If they were my son, I’d have them over my knee. Right there and then.”

The girl giggled. “They should have you in the ring!”

A little flattered, Molly made her way back to her seat. Another fight was already under way; and she noticed a man sat down on the seat at the end of the row, beside hers. He was bent forward, tense, a tall man in his late forties or early fifties with a stud in his ear. Jack whispered something in his ear and the man stood up and allowed Molly back in, barely giving her a second glance as she sat down.

His head bobbled and weaved like a cat’s, following the progress of a bird or a light reflection on the wall. “Come on, lad,” he called out, in a strong North East of England accent. “Come on… Do it now! Do it now, lad!”

As his voice reached a pitch, he actually threw a punch in the air. Molly flinched, and turned her back away from him. Jack looked over and frowned briefly, then went back to the fight.

The two fighters could not have looked more different. One had a pigeon chest, bleached skin and carrot red hair cut into a strange bouffant style. The other fighter was dark-haired, handsome and devilish looking, with a good thatch of hair on his chest. He was more appealing to look at than the other fighter, and seemed to be having the better of it, too, with his ginger opponent hemmed in at the ropes at one point.

“No, no, no, weave! Weave out of it! Use your jab! Come on!” cried the man to Molly’s left, demonstrating the manoeuvre. She clutched Jack’s side.

“Don’t worry,” Jack said.

“If he hits me, I’ll hit him back.”

“He won’t hit you.”

The fourth round ended with the ginger boy having a cut treated as a doctor looked on. Vaseline was smeared over it and his chest rose and fell as he sucked in air and swirled and spat water. Spots of blood spotted the canvas around the legs of his stool. Molly wondered where else the blood had gone as it came flying off the gloves, exploding into the air with the sweat. Did they breathe it in, perhaps? Did tiny particles dust the threads of their clothes, the skin on their faces?

“You don’t take that!” the man to Molly’s left said, stabbing a finger at him. “You don’t take that, you never take that!”

The boy glanced over to the man and nodded weakly. Then the bell sounded, and more punishment came his way from the handsome man, who was boxy and determined as a man in a video game, raining punishment down on the ginger lad.

“What’s this?” bellowed the man to her left, taking to his feet. “This isn’t you! Come on, weave, weave…”

And then, with an explosion of satisfaction from the crowd, the ginger boy began to hit back. Two quick punches smashed off the side of the handsome man’s head, and his eyes bulged cartoonishly. Two, three, five solid blows followed and the handsome man got into a clinch, requiring the referee to separate them. The ginger boy was breathing hard and seemed unsteady on his feet, but he jabbed and crossed again and again into the handsome man, who seemed rattled for a moment.

“That’s it!” shrieked the man to her left. “You’ve got him! Now put him down! Put him down!”

But the ginger boy did not put him down. The handsome man – with his corner roaring at him through the rising excitement of the crowd – seemed to uncoil himself, before returning to that staid, turgid, machine-like jabbing, finding the mark again and again. Both fighters glistened with sweat, clearly tired, and the ginger boy went to the ropes once more before gathering himself for a final effort. He began to snarl and shout at the handsome man, lips peeled back from the jutting gumshield. The punches grew less disciplined, wild swings that began to seem almost comical. Most of the blows missed their target by a good distance. The handsome fighter should have taken advantage – it seemed much the simpler thing to put the ginger boy down, and Molly winced in anticipation of him landing the killer blow. But he didn’t, staggering back instead of pulling the trigger, with the ginger boy flailing at him. He was tired, tired and maybe a little unsure of himself.

Molly gripped her knees. “Come on!” she shouted. “Come on, son!”

The man to her left clutched his head in his hands as the final bell went. Both fighters stopped, mid-swing, and glanced at each other. With a bizarre thrill, Molly thought that for a minute they might keep fighting, well past the bell, well past all sense and logic, until one of them lay unmoving. But instead, they embraced.

“That was close!” Molly said, to no-one in particular. The man to her left rocked back in his seat, looking exhausted himself. A bead of sweat trickled down his seamed smoker’s face, and he chewed the inside of his mouth, ear stud glittering.

The judge’s results were announced. A unanimous decision in favour of the handsome man.

“Oh!” Molly cried. She turned to her left. “He was brave. Your boy. He was a brave fighter. I thought he should have won.”

The man turned to her; his eyes were reddened and –she was almost embarrassed to note – brimming with tears. He simply nodded at her, swallowed, and then took off, striding down the row of seats.

“Well, I thought that was very unfair,” she said to Jack.

“Good fight,” he said. “The other boy went for it. He had to.”

“Only one winner,” Willie intoned, not looking up from his pad.

Her mobile phone buzzed in her pocket. Not a call, but an alarm. She prodded Jack in the side as he rattled the laptop’s keys at a dazzling pace. “Pills time,” she said, lifting out a packet and a bottle of water from her bag.

“Not now,” Jack said.

“Yes, now. You know the score, Jack.”

Willie simpered at this scene. “Yes, pills time, Jack. Come on. You heard the boss.”

“Aye, you do what you’re telt, auld yin,” one of the younger reporters said, to general merriment.

“For Christ’s sake,” Jack huffed. But he took the bottle and the pills anyway, spiriting them out of view.

Willie called over: “Oh, Molly – would you like a cup of tea or something?”

“Oh… I’m fine at the minute, Willie. Thank you, anyway.”

“How about you, Jackie? Feeling okay?” Willie’s forehead was kinked with concern as Jack slipped the pills between his lips.

Jack took a mouthful of water and took his time before swallowing. “I’m brand new.”

“You sure? You just shout up if you’re not feeling well, alright squire?”

“I said I’m fine.”

The main event was up next. Spotlights picked out the two fighters as they made their way from opposite ends of the arena, and the crowd began to roar and cheer as the glittering championship belt came into the arena, borne by a tiny, wizened man. The champion, Scottie McKelvey, looking relaxed with his hood down, bounced into the arena, fists up. He had changed his hairstyle from the blonde spikes he’d favoured in the shot in the posters and on Molly’s laminated pass. Now he had a strange two-tone buzz-cut, pointed in the front like an industrial drill. It wasn’t until he’d gone past her and climbed into the ring, saluting the cheers from the crowd, that she realised he was supposed to look like a badger, or a raccoon.

On the other side of the ring, Patrick Ngoma, the challenger, climbed in, a bustle of constrained energy, his dark skin shining under the lights. They were both flyweights, and again it struck Molly how small these men were; surely no taller than she stood herself.

The crowd roared in appreciation. “Kill that clown,” offered someone over Molly’s shoulder.

“Drop him, Scottie!”

“Give him a black eye!”

After the introductions were completed by the MC and the card advertising Round One was paraded around the ring by the girl she’d met in the toilet – who waved at Molly as she climbed back out of the ring – the fight began. Or, didn’t. The two men circled each other, hardly any shots being offered from either side.

“Slow start,” Jack muttered.

“McKelvey always starts that way,” William replied. “Bit of an unknown quantity, this other boy.”

“Southpaw, isn’t he?”

“No, he’s from Ghana.” They both laughed.

Molly leapt as she realised someone was in the empty seat to her left; she hadn’t noticed. He was a little barrel of man, whose skin was as dark as Patrick Ngoma’s. His shoulders were at least twice as broad as most of the men around him – which made him three times as broad as her Jack – and it seemed impossible that someone whose flesh was so dense could sneak into anything. A shaven head was stuck on the top of those shoulders, and a well-cut suit did little to disguise his girth.

He called out to Patrick Ngoma in a strange language which might have been French, his exhortations in much the same tone as the man from the North East had used, and like him he also weaved in time to the rhythm of Ngoma’s sporadic combinations. After flinching at one murderous jab, as much to make him aware that she existed, Molly said to him: “Do you know that fighter?”

In a London accent, he replied: “Which one? McKelvey or Ngoma?”

“Patrick Ngoma,” Molly replied.

“Well I know them both, but Ngoma’s my boy, alright. What do you think of it so far?”

Molly shrugged. “Slow start. But McKelvey always starts like that.”

He nodded carefully, then leaned in and whispered: “Yeah. Between you and me… McKelvey? Mediocre fighter.”

“Yes?”

“Yeah, totally. Gets an easy card. Looks good in the papers. Not tonight, though. My boy Patrick will put the fear of god into him. He wants that title.”

“He’s an unknown quantity, over here.”

“Over here? Yes, that’s true. It’s not true everywhere. My boy didn’t get a title shot by being an unknown quantity.”

Molly nodded. “That’s fair comment.”

The fight trundled on, and the crowd grew bored with it. There were few punches and little excitement. Ngoma was the doughtier, it seemed, thudding home combinations. McKelvey seemed to absorb them with little obvious effect, grinning each time they fighters embraced in a clinch. At one point, McKelvey landed a solid punch into Ngoma’s body. McKelvey drew back for another, more obvious punch, and then grinned as the Ghanaian cringed and double back, blinking. The audience roared with derision.

“That’s alright,” the man to Molly’s left called, meaty hands not so much applauding as colliding. “That’s okay, Patrick!”

“This guy’s a bag of shite, Scottie!” someone called out, very close to Molly’s ear.

The fourth round of the eight was when it happened. Molly wasn’t sure when this change had taken place, or why, but McKelvey grew showy. His weaving took on an impudent air, and his shorts billowed as he shook his rump, sidestepping and turning away from Ngoma’s diffident shots. The audience cheered on each fresh kink and strut. Molly was reminded of a much larger man she’s once seen at a wedding, thoroughly enjoying the kaleidoscopic swirl of his kilt and the raucous applause that greeted him. He had ended up flat out on the dancefloor.

“I don’t think I like that Scottie McKelvey,” Molly said to the man beside her. “Too showy by half.”

“Just you wait,” the man said. “It’s hard to be showy when you’re asleep.”

“That’s the truth.”

It ended quickly. McKelvey faked one, two, three punches without actually throwing them. Ngoma, the sweat beaded across his shaven head, waited out for the first two, attacked after the second, and fell heavily when McKelvey connected smartly underneath his jaw. Molly’s heart leapt; Ngoma’s eyes rolled in his head as he propped himself up on one elbow, his posture almost relaxed. He pawed the canvas with one glove as the referee began to count. The Ghanaian blinked and stared into the referee’s eyes, breathing heavily.

In the background, before the count reached ten, McKelvey began a long, slow lap of the ring, fist raised in triumph, nodding, expressionless.

Molly turned to commiserate with the man to her left; but he was not to her left any more, nor anywhere else in sight.

Jack nudged her. “Come on, we have to go.”

“It’s only just finished.”

“We’ve got to get into the changing rooms.” He drew a line under what he’d been scribbling. “Interview time.”

Willie got up, fastening his overcoat and closing over a battered satchel. “You may see some sights back here, Molly,” he said, gravely. “You must prepare yourself, love.”

As the front two rows filed out, Molly glanced back at the ring. McKelvey’s title belt was fastened around his waist, outlandishly big on his slight frame. He spoke into the bright lights of a mobile camera, grinning and nodding at the interviewer. In the other corner, Patrick Ngoma was sat on his stool, the doctor and his corner tending to him. The man in the suit who’d sat beside Molly crouched beside him, whispering into his ear, while Ngoma sucked on a bottle of water.

“He seems fine,” Molly said. “He’s alright.” No-one replied to her.

The changing rooms were closed off by another row of bouncers. The press phalanx and Molly were directed towards sets of lockers with bright blue and orange wristbands, where they waited until one of the bouncers gave them the nod.

Scottie McKelvey was sat wearing only a pair of grey, sweatmarked underpants with some kind of jockstrap contraption penning him in to the front. Molly hesitated at this sight, feeling like an intruder, but Jack steered her in. She stood by his side as the press prepared their notepads and laid their digital recorders down on the treatment table just in front of where the champion sat. There was no sign of his belt anywhere, nor his gloves or boots.

“Hey, Jackie,” McKelvey said, hailing her husband with his bandaged hands. “How you feelin’, old sir?”

“Aye, not bad, Scottie.”

“You ready for a wee sparring session, then?”

“I don’t think you’re ready for that, Scottie,” Jack said, and Molly was thrilled to hear everyone in the room bark laughter.

“Too right, mate,” McKelvey said, delighted. “You take care of yourself now, alright? Nice to see you back. Right, questions.”

Without raising his hand or indicating that he might speak first, Wullie began. “Scottie, congratulations from all of us on holding onto your Commonwealth title. You got a great welcome out there, and we were all very entertained. It seemed to me that Ngoma was a brave opponent and yet… rarely seemed to land a glove on you. Do you think you maybe need a stiffer test?”

“Well, Wullie, who did you have in mind? I mean, the boy, eh, Ngoma? He’s the top challenger. He gets put down in front of me, I put him down, that’s how it goes. I think he was a tough cookie. He took a fair few shots early on and that put him on the back foot. He had a plan, but I guess it didn’t work out.”

Molly said: “Why did you mock that boy?”

Heads spun around to take her in, and she felt a sense akin to vertigo. McKelvey was unfazed, cracking open a bottle of mineral water as he said: “What publication are you from, miss?”

“She’s with me, Scottie,” Jack said.

“Oh, you’re Mrs Jack! She here to keep you out o’ trouble, Jack?”

“Something like that, yeah.”

“Well, I’ll answer that. I wasn’t mocking him. I just wanted to wind him up, bring him out. He had his tactics, I had mine. I didn’t mean to demean him as a fighter or as a man. But there’s a paying audience out there. They came to see two men fight, not dance. I wanted to get him het up, so he’d come at me, and we’d put on a show for people. So I hope that answers your question, and I hope you’re not offended.”

“That’s fine,” Molly muttered.

Once the questions were over, they filed outside. Molly said to Jack, “Look, I’m sorry I butted in. I wanted to know, that’s all. I didn’t mean any harm.”

“We’ll talk about it later,” Jack said, poking his pen back into his inside pocket. “It’s not as bad as that time at the mixed zone at the football, I’ll say that for you!”

“I only asked that lad if he was ever bullied because he’s so short.”

“I don’t know if anyone wants to know that Lionel Messi was bullied on account of being short, honey.”

“Of course they do.”

Behind them, a familiar voice rumbled: “Jack – before you go.”

Wullie lumbered along the corridor, laptop computer bag dangling off one shoulder. “Now, I want you to take care of yourself, son, alright? Nothing too hectic, now.”

Jack accepted the handshake. “No problem, Wullie. Yes, I’ll take it easy.”

“And Molly. Lovely to see you.” He pressed her hand to his mouth; she had the awful slug sensation of his lips, topped off with wire brush bristles. “And you remember to take care of him, now, alright?”

“I think I can manage,” she said. “Thanks for being so kind.”

“Not at all, Molly, not at all. And Jack – you take care of her too, alright? In fact – take care of each other.” He held up a finger and grinned lop-sidedly. “Or you’ll have me to answer for.”

“Oh, piss off, Wullie, you boring tosser.” And Jack turned away, perhaps not even seeing Wullie’s slack-jawed expression.

Molly scuttled after him. “Jack! That was damned rude of you. Isn’t he your friend?”

Jack was laughing, shoulders quivering in mirth. “Yes, he is. Most of the time.”

On their way out, they passed another dressing room. Inside, sat on another treatment table was Patrick Ngoma. He was stark naked, hands clasped between the knees and head bowed. For a moment, Molly thought he was praying.

(c) Copyright Pat Black 2015

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