Alex jogged through the footpaths of Staunton Country Park at a steady pace, watching his breath fly away into the woods. After every three steps or so, he would jab the thin, misty air that lay in front of him, adding an aerobic exercise to his cardiovascular workout, ever increasing his high stamina. The sound of twigs and sticks snapping beneath his black Lonsdale training shoes along with the crunch of the path’s loose gravel could be heard with the joyful singing of the waking birds. He left the woodland in his wake, catching his breath, flicking his red hair away from his eyes as he stood hands on hips overlooking Leigh Lake. He appreciated the ever-passing moment, inhaling the peace and serenity of his surroundings, thinking how it seemed a million miles away from its adjacent low-income housing estate. The full moon was still visible as the low winter sun took its rightful place over the clear, baby blue Hampshire sky.
Alex Williamson, 35, of Leigh Park, was partaking in his daily morning routine of road work across the Warren, then a couple of laps around the rambling trail of Staunton Manor.
A 10-4 professional boxer in the middleweight division, his record was hardly exemplary. In most of his bouts, he’d came up against journeymen such as himself. But this Saturday night at Portsmouth’s Mountbatten Centre was his chance to prove to himself, the Southern Area Boxing Council, and all the spectators watching that he wasn’t just another bum and not just some low life chav or spiv from Leigh Park.
The number one contender for the Southern Area middleweight title had been ironically panelled badly in sparring by a man he’d previously knocked out in the first round of a previous fight. So Alex, to his pleasant surprise, was selected as a late replacement to fight reigning champion Ben Quinn of Basingstoke for the belt.
Alex made his way out of Staunton and cantered along through Leigh Park Gardens, making his way to West Leigh Boxing Gym to begin his bag work and speed rope circuits.
He picked up the tempo running through the public gardens, noticing the last of the autumn’s brittle golden brown leaves blowing in the breeze, waiting to be disintegrated by the first snow of winter. Judging by the current temperature, this wasn’t far off. The garden’s frostbitten perennials were accompanied with fallen conkers from the horse chestnut trees. Once Alex exited onto Sherfield Avenue, he sprinted passed the street’s post-war terraced council houses and frosty grass verges to reach the boxing club at the end of the road.
After his session of circuits followed by some ring work with his trainer, Alex took a shower, drank a protein shake, then had a leisurely walk to his workplace, which was a local pub called the Agincourt. On his way there, he strolled casually down Broadmere Avenue shaking off the mild cramp from the morning’s exercise. The temperature seemed to have dropped another five degrees since daybreak, as a strong wind blew in from the east which made the avenue’s bare oak tree’s branches sway almost violently. Alex leaned against the railings of the front lawn recreation ground and contemplated how lonely he was truly was. As he took a sip from his bottle of Lucozade, his eye caught two young boys around the age of ten playing truant from school. They were kicking a ball in which looked like a game of heads and volleys and using two rucksacks as goalposts. He wondered what kind of life lay in front of them here in Portsmouth’s post-blitz slum overspill.
His shift went by fairly quietly and uneventful; nothing out of the ordinary for a standard Thursday lunchtime. The usual regulars, pensioners, and alcoholics, mainly. Alex passed the time by rearranging glass ware.
One of the pub’s regulars, an elderly, recently-widowed man named Bill, wished Alex the best of luck in the fight and said if he brought home the belt, he would become the most famous person from Leigh Park since Roland Orzabal from Tears for Fears. Alex laughed and said, “I will give it my all, Bill.”
About half an hour before Alex was due to finish his shift, in walked Degsy. “I need a quick word please, Alex. Let’s head outside for a minute,” Degsy said.
Degsy was somewhat of a local legend for all the wrong reasons. He controlled the flow of heroin and numerous other drugs into the estates.
When Alex was discharged from the Royal Navy twelve years ago, his father died of pancreatic cancer soon after. This unfortunate grieving period in Alex’s life led him to spiral into depression, alcoholism, and eventually heroin addiction.
His skag addiction eventually became so bad it resulted in him racking up a lot of debt with Degsy’s dealers. Alex only managed to get clean out of what was nothing short than a pure fluke. One evening seven years ago, he was shooting up in the old disused public toilets of Barncroft Park. When he eventually came around, he discovered that the groundskeeper or whoever had locked him in. A week nearly passed until a council worker overheard his crying and unlocked the door. He spent those days living in a mentally torturous hell, including cold sweats with projectile vomiting, vivid nightmarish hallucinations, tossing, turning, and rolling around in other people’s stale urine.
Alex saw this accidental cold turkey as a kind of divine intervention. Maybe it wasn’t God that caused his week of suffering that he wouldn’t have wished on anyone. But he felt it was a power much bigger and stronger than him. That whatever it was, it had been cruel to eventually be kind and that this was fate or destiny. His second chance at life.
In the following weeks, Alex managed to get his life back on track. He was awarded compensation by the borough council for his unintentional imprisonment in the park’s abandoned lavatory. With some of the money, he moved out of the squat he was staying at and into a bedsit. It wasn’t much, but it was a world better than where he was previously.
During his time in the Navy, Alex had been coerced into enrolling in their amateur boxing program and had become a tri-services middleweight champion. When on a South Atlantic deployment, the Navy even flew him back to the U.K. from the Falkland Islands so he could fight at a major armed forces boxing night at London’s York Hall. Within the space of one hundred hours, he went from scrubbing dishes on a warship sailing off San Carlos Water to a squared circle in Bethnal Green, punching the face of a Royal Engineer at Britain’s home of boxing.
Sometime after sorting his living arrangements out, Alex decided to start training again at the local boxing gym. To begin with, he was mainly building up his stamina and getting back in form on the speed bag and skipping rope.
It was only a matter of time before Degsy’s street level dealers found out where he was living and cornered him one day as he was walking home past the communal garages on the Botley estate. One of the thugs struck Alex with an iron bar to his right knee, demanding payment of four grand to Degsy within a week
This incident kept Alex out of training for nearly a month. With just over a grand left from his compensation and no employment, the only option Alex felt he had was to pay a visit to Degsy. The local villain’s regular office was inside Park Parade Snooker Club, where he was the proprietor.
The snooker hall’s receptionist was a woman with blonde, greying hair in her mid-fifties that escorted Alex into the office.
“A visitor for you, Mr. Farrell.”
“Send ‘em in Audrey,” said Degsy.
Degsy was dressed sharply in an expensive-looking black suit with Brylcreem in his receding brown hair and three days growth on his face.
“Well, well, Alex Williamson, I’ve not seen you since you were a lad riding your Raleigh chopper around the estate. What do I owe the pleasure?”
“How exactly do you know me?”
“You’re Maria Riley’s boy. Me and your mother were friends many years ago. We were at Broomfield High together.”
“So ’cause you fucked my mother a million years ago, I’m supposed to feel some kind of bond? Especially since you had your yobs cave my knees in.”
“Yeah, sorry about that Alex. But you do owe me a fair amount of coin.”
“That’s why I’m here, obviously. Here’s a grand in cash. Can we come to some sort of arrangement for the rest?” Alex placed a sealed envelope on the desk.
“You’re not intimidated by me, are you, Alex?” Degsy grinned as he slouched back in his chair.
“And why should I be? You’re just some old man who doesn’t realise his best days are behind him.”
“Fair enough, you’re entitled to your opinion. Danny Beardsmore down at the boxing club told me you’re quite the pugilist?”
“So, that’s my boxing club. I want you to come fight for my stable.”
“You serious? Is there any business you don’t own around here?”
“Sign with me. You have the warrior’s code, Alex. I will sort you out with a professional license. I’ve got a charity fight night on Hayling Island coming up. We’ll set you up against some bum to make you look good for the first fight.”
“What’s the catch?”
“The catch is one day, I will call in a favour, and when that day comes, you do it. No complaining, no questions. Just get it done.”
“I will give it some serious thought.”
“I’m sorry to hear about your mother. I heard she passed away many years ago.”
“Yeah, well, I heard she ran off to Cyprus with Theo, the old Greek guy who used to own Park Parade Fish and Chip Shop. Point is, what does it matter? She’s not fucking here, is she?”
“She didn’t go to Cyprus, Alex. Theo moved to London after I purchased his chippy.”
Back to the Present Day
Degsy and Alex stood outside in the pub’s smoking area. The rain belted down heavy, making a thumping noise on the shelter’s makeshift tin roof.
“The time has come for that favour.”
“What?” Alex frowned as he leaned against the smoking shelter.
“You think you can go the distance in this fight tomorrow night?”
“I don’t just think I can go the distance, I know I can knock Quinn out.”
“Well, you’re the underdog. In all your losing fights, you’ve lost by decision. But you’ve never gone ten rounds before, though.”
“No, but I prepare in my training for 15. I’m old school like that.”
“I believe the bookmakers have underestimated you. Which is why I want you to go down in the 9th.”
“Go down? What the flying fuck are you talking about?”
Degsy reached in his inner jacket pocket, pulled out a packet of Benson and Hedges, and lit a cigarette using a brown clipper lighter. He inhaled slowly.
“The bookies are offering 100-1 for you to make it to the 9th round and be knocked out.” He exhaled the smoke into the bitterly cold rain.
“I didn’t realise William Hill or Betfred took wagers on regional title fights.”
“Yeah, it’s not that kind of bookie that’s laying my bet. A Serbian crew who do book operating out of Fratton are taking it.”
“Oh well, that’s nice to know, So you’re asking me to throw the fight? Throw the fight for the only pro belt I’ll ever win? And also screw over some unhinged, psychotic, sadistic Serbian gangsters while I’m at it.”
“I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. You’re going down in the 9th. It’s the fight or your life. The choice is yours. Look at it this way: we’re square after this.”
“I can’t do it.”
Degsy moved in closer to Alex until they were face to face, prodding his left index finger into Alex’s chest.
“You will fucking do it. This place used to be the biggest government housing project in Europe and I took it all for myself. I own Leigh Park and I own you. Never forget that, Alex. Who the fuck do you think lined this fight up after Tommy Shuttle got battered in sparring?”
“You horrible old cunt.”
“Indeed, I am a horrible old cunt. You just remember that fact, boy.”
Alex spent the morning training down at the club, going over final preparations for the big fight. It appeared his team didn’t have a clue about Degsy’s alternative plans.
At the end of the session, Alex took an iron bar off one of the gym’s dumbbells. It had an uncanny similarity to the one he was attacked with all those years ago. He looked around and slipped it into his sports bag.
He took on another afternoon shift at the Agincourt, then in the evening, he mentored a youth boxing class at the community centre. The class was organised by a local charity to keep kids off the streets and away from drugs. Yet unknowingly to them, the community centre’s boxing equipment had been donated by a man who sold the youth narcotics by the truck load.
After the class ended, Alex went back to his flat, followed by eating chicken breast and Uncle Ben’s microwave rice for dinner. He tried to sleep with no success, as there was an extremely loud party going on in the flat above which didn’t help his already anxious state of mind.
There was no point in trying to sleep. Alex put on his jeans and hooded Everlast top and tied the laces of his Reebok Classics.
His sports bag was just staring at him by the door. He walked over, unzipped it, took out the iron bar, and hid it inside his hoodie. Before leaving the flat, he placed his Aquascutum cap over his short ginger hair.
The cold breeze whistled up as sleet and snow began to fall and fly around in the wind as Alex walked the lonely troublesome streets of Leigh Park. He made his way to the centre of the estate, the shopping area on Greywell Road known to locals as Park Parade.
The aging boxer stood in the middle of the precinct with his hands in his hoodie’s front pockets. He glanced up at the neon sign of the snooker club with the street lights glowing down on him like a stage light from a West End show. A pair of bald-headed drunkards in their fifties staggered out of the neighbouring bar and lit their cigarettes in the snow as they shivered away in nothing but polo shirts.
He walked on around the back of the club to the car park, clocking the walls of the building. He snooped and surveyed the perimeter for twenty or so minutes and could find no surveillance cameras.
He waited patiently, squatting behind the back of a third-generation racing green SEAT Ibiza. Snowflakes fell onto the leaves of a holly bush next to the car as it began to resemble the front of a Christmas card. He was anticipating the moment Degsy would call it a night, exit the snooker club, and drive his luminous yellow Lotus back to his McMansion in Rowland’s Castle.
After nearly an hour of squatting and sitting between the holly bush and the SEAT in the freezing snow, Alex spotted Degsy saying his farewells and goodnights to his associates and saw him trotting down the fire escape of his snooker club.
When Degsy was opening the driver’s door of the Lotus, Alex came out of nowhere and swung the iron bar right in between Degsy’s eyes.
“You still think I owe you, Degs?” said Alex.
“What the fuck are you doing, you silly cunt! I’m your old man, for fuck’s sake.” said Degsy as blood was pissing from the massive gash on the bridge of his nose.
“You’re not my father. My father died of cancer twelve years ago. You’re just a parasitic piece of shit who makes money off of other people’s misery. Say goodnight, old fella.”
Alex got on his knees and held the bar over Degsy’s throat until he stopped breathing.
The crowd cheered in good spirits as Alex’s well-wishers in the audience chanted, “fight, fight wherever you may be, we are the boys from the New West Leigh” to the tune of “Lord of the Dance,” which played loudly over the sports hall’s sound system during Alex’s ring walk.
The fighters touched gloves and the bell rang. Alex was wearing blue and white shorts with a silver eight pointed star and gold crescent moon on its front, along with an oversized hawk on his rear with a pair of small Celtic crosses down his sides. He started the fight in his usual orthodox stance and hit Quinn with a left jab, followed by another. Then he suddenly switched to southpaw and proceeded to hit him with a counter, which backed young Ben Quinn into the ropes. Alex made a left body shot to Quinn’s right hip, followed by a right uppercut which knocked Quinn out as he fell to the deck of the ring like a sack of potatoes.
Soon after, the master of ceremonies entered the ring and announced…
“After twenty two seconds of the first round in this contest for the Southern Area middleweight title, the referee has stopped the fight due to knockout…and here is your winner and the new Southern Area middleweight champion, ALLLEEEX ‘THE HAWK’ WILLLLLLIAMSONNNNNN!”
Joe Murray has been a merchant mariner for many years and has been lucky enough to travel the world with his job. He took up writing short stories as a hobby to distance himself from the drinking culture that is heavily ingrained in his occupation. Murray was inspired by his father, who used to enter short story competitions for Ireland’s Own. His stories are often like an enjoyable mix of Dennis Lehane and Irvine Welsh. Murray divides his time between Somerset, England and Ibiza, Spain.