From behind the taps, Findlay glanced up as the pub door swung open with a bang. Maurice came in looking apologetic. The wind had snatched it out of his hand. Opposite Findlay, on his stool by the bar, Frank listed over with hopeful love. “Hit him with the right,” he said.
“Sure you did,” said Findlay.
At the bar Maurice ordered a Guinness. “With the right,” said Frank.
“I know,” said Maurice.
Findlay poured three quarters of the pint and left it to settle. Separated from Donegal’s green hills by three generations, it was still a point of pride with him to draw a Guinness correctly. While the grey-ish bubbles oozed upwards, he said to Maurice, “So I hear Marcus Greely is back.” It was the same gobbet of conversation he’d passed to each of the evening’s regulars. Findlay liked this aspect of working in a pub: the breezy, uncommitted chat with people you knew, slightly.
“Visited his old gym, is what I heard,” said Maurice. “Don’t suppose he’ll stay long, but fair play. If you retired from the fight game would you hang around Croydon any longer than you had to?”
He carried the Guinness over to a free table. Meanwhile, from his stool, Frank’s watery gaze received The Alma on a Tuesday night. And for a moment Findlay received it with him: a small street corner pub, accessible by either street. On the walls, wooden paneling below flock wallpaper that had once been white, and then yellowed in the years when smoking was still allowed. Opposite the taps, a bench ran the length of the wall and had three tables pulled up to it. Two more tables sat in the centre of the room on a green and red carpet that didn’t reach the bar. Mrs. Curtis, the pub’s owner, had decided this impoverished look was “retro”, and put up a black and white photo of George Formby and a framed program from the 1969 FA Cup Final, signed by Malcolm Allison. From Monday to Thursday Findlay ran the place on his own. It wasn’t hard. There was a small coterie of regulars who minded their own business. You didn’t go to The Alma looking for trouble.
Frank turned to Findlay and smiled. Jamie came up to the bar’s far end and Findlay went down to him, feeling as though he was moving his conscience out of harm’s way. Although, as far as Mrs. Curtis was concerned, it wasn’t a matter of conscience at all. “Take a look at this place,” she’d said with her big, steel-edged laugh. “Everyone’s punch-drunk at the end of the night.” Meaning, don’t bother raising this with me again. Mrs. Curtis was rarely amused but laughed often. A harsh ha-ha, that flattened your concerns under her personality. And taken on its own, she had a point, Findlay thought. Except that the next morning the other drinkers would return to being people who could hold down jobs, while Frank would still be Frank. Findlay imagined the alcohol one day playing Jenga with the man’s remaining memories. A key plank would slide out, the whole edifice would topple and Frank would never find his way home.
Jamie ordered a pint of Bombardier and Findlay passed him the same Marcus Greely opening.
“You’ve got to laugh,” said Jamie. “Going round saying he hasn’t forgotten his roots.” He smacked his lips and paused with that sense Jamie always gave you of reaching up for a word and polishing it before deployment. “It’s patronising.”
“Right,” said Findlay and nodded. It wasn’t his job to disagree with customers. Findlay absorbed all opinions as the truth but, because he absorbed everything, nothing touched his true self. Sometime over the next few days he’d form his own opinion on Marcus Greely, and it would be unencumbered by anything anyone had said.
“You just listen to his voice,” said Jamie, elbow on the bar, warming to his subject. “Way he speaks.”
“On the Graham Norton Show,” said Findlay.
By now Greely’s sentences had developed a mid-Atlantic tinge. The south London dropped “t”s and “h”s slid into long Californian vowels.
Jamie grinned at Findlay. “It’s all just fake, isn’t it?” He moved off into the room.
With a sense of duty, Findlay went back to Frank, who, it had to be said, looked no different today, and no worse for wear: fleshy, twice-broken nose reddening from the beer, a mild, engaging gaze that passed over The Alma’s patrons without judgement. Tracksuit trousers, peeling, once-white trainers and the inevitable tweed jacket. On winters like today Frank would put on a thick jumper and then somehow squeeze the jacket over his heavy frame. In summer he came in with it hanging loosely over a T-shirt, and then sat on the bar stool with the jacket folded neatly in his lap. And yet, Findlay still didn’t know why it meant so much to him.
You only got certain stories from Frank. Regular as a Tube train, he pulled up to the same memory stations every night. Pretty soon now he’d leave the boxing ring and head down the line, towards his daughter.
A couple Findlay had never seen before came up to the bar and the man ordered a gin and tonic and a Babycham. He had dark hair swept back and gelled into place, and wore a tan overcoat of some thick, soft-looking material. The woman had a pageboy cut, dyed to a shade of red that contrasted fashionably with her Prussian blue raincoat. When Findlay passed them their drinks and change, he saw the couple share a look of amusement. He didn’t bother making conversation.
Before he could take his station by Frank, Carlton arrived and brought up Findlay’s opener himself. “You know, there was a girl in my year at school, Susan Crossland her name was, and guess what? Her older sister went out with Marcus Greely.”
“Is that right?” said Findlay. It was funny, he thought, how with a certain kind of local hero everyone wanted to give you their own personal connection. As though, with that one link, their life in Croydon had greater consequence.
“Weird innit?” said Carlton. “Went from Susan Crossland’s big sister to shagging Janis Jones.”
“Easy,” said Findlay. “You just have to become heavyweight champion of the world.”
“Right,” said Carlton, and raised his forefinger, as though a previously unnoticed part of Marcus Greely’s life had now been uncovered. “There’s that.”
In the sound-proofed booth at Croydon FM, Andy Pearson was also thinking of Janis Jones. Greely sat opposite him, speaking into a mike adjusted for his ridiculously large frame, and all Andy could think was that Greely was sleeping with the most beautiful woman on the planet. In his opinion. Photoshopped, his wife said. No thirty-something has skin that smooth.
Anyway, there was no opportunity to find out. She’d stayed at home. Working on her next album, Greely told him with a smile and a shrug of those huge shoulders. Greely’s hefty body had filled out since his boxing days. His cheeks had become chubbier and now had the appearance of squeezing his deep set eyes. Across the studio desk, he seemed to be squinting at Andy’s questions. It gave Andy the feeling of being evaluated, but with generosity. In a black cashmere roll-neck top, worn under the hound’s-tooth Paul Smith jacket, an unobtrusive steel Rolex half obscured by his sleeve, Greely had the relaxed certainty of someone who knew nothing he wanted could be denied him.
And mostly what he wanted was to promote Brand Marcus. That was, after all, the real reason for his return. According to the show biz gossip sites Andy religiously followed, Marcus was after a knighthood. Apparently he resented the global reach of David Beckham and Cristiano Ronaldo. Neither of them was ever the undisputed best at their sport, he’d been heard to complain, where as he’d been the best at his.
“You know,” said Maurice, up for his next pint. “I know someone who fought Marcus Greely.” He held up a palm to disown the glamour of befriending a professional boxer. “I mean, back in his amateur days.”
“Yeah, and?” asked Findlay, not just barman-interested, but genuinely.
“Said it was hell.” Maurice chuckled. “This guy, Gary was his name. Gary Rowlett. He said Greely didn’t fight the way he did later. It was all just jab.” He dug out his wallet. “Said it was like being hit with a pile-driver. Said you couldn’t believe anyone could hit so hard off their front hand.”
Findlay gave that the moment of respect it deserved, and then put the head on Maurice’s Guinness. Meanwhile, Frank looked across to the two of them and said, “Allie’s a great kid.” Maurice didn’t bother to reply before leaving the bar. He was enough of a regular to know that at this point in the evening Frank didn’t mind being ignored. Findlay wondered, not for the first time, what Frank really thought. Did these sentences even connect to memories anymore? He knew the wife and daughter had moved out. Did Frank still see her? Did he still miss her? Did he even know she’d gone?
In the studio they’d got onto Marcus’s plans for the youth centre, and he was talking about understanding the lives of the kids who went there. A message spoilt very slightly by his drifting accent.
“I know what it’s like not having a role model in your life.” (“rowl mahdel“, Andy thought, noting the London to California slide.) “My dad not being around, you know what I mean? Tooley at the gym, he was the man I looked up to.”
Andy nods. It’s a good story and he’s heard it before. How Marcus came back to Croydon and bought his old trainer a house. He decided it was time to get the conversation off Marcus’s long litany of good deeds. He said, “Tell me about the fight you lost.”
Greely giggled. “Did your homework,” he said approvingly. And then: “But of course, I never lost a professional match.” He was confident of Andy knowing this. After all, it became the announcement at the start of every bout.
Lay-dees and gentle-men, the UN-defeated, UN- disputed, heav-y-weight champ-ion of the woooorld…
Even now, a decade out of the ring, Marcus just had to remember those words to feel a hollowing out in the pit of his stomach. A mixture of fear and desire and unquenchable hunger that together formed the components of his particular rocket fuel. Nothing would ever replace it. Not the red carpet walks with Janis on his arm, not the adoring kids shouting his name, not the Maserrati upgrades. Not even the knighthood. He said, “One fight at amateur level.” And then, in a way that is typically Brand Marcus, “He did me a favour though, that guy. Because I was cocky. Humility, that’s what I lacked. And getting dumped on my arse taught me a lesson.” Marcus’s big body leaned forward in his chair. “See, this is what I tell the kids I meet. Don’t be scared of your failures, man. Don’t regret them. My failures, I’m telling you, taught me more than I ever learned from my successes.”
Andy’s read more or less the same sentiment in Marcus’s other interviews. But, he had to concede, the man might actually mean it.
“You know what we did?” asked Frank. “We went in when she was asleep and filled her room with balloons.”
“Is that right?” said Findlay.
This was the birthday story, which came on so reliably that Findlay had essentially poured it into the glass with pint number two. He wondered if Alison remembered her birthday as well as her dad, and where she was now.
Later they’d get to June, who would be “a great little thing. A little firecracker, she is.” Not for the first time, Findlay wondered how Frank went from one memory stop to the next. Didn’t he go through any intervening years? Wasn’t there any intervening reality?
The truth, though Findlay will never know it, is that these aren’t stops at all. In Frank’s mind everything is happening all at once. June’s bathing Alison and he’s marveling at the tiny perfection of her hands and feet. And he’s being told this is his last chance, and he’s promising he’ll take it. And Alison has finished with her milk bottle and burps contentedly. And the blood’s still pooling in his mouth guard. And he’s waiting in his corner for seconds out, but doesn’t feel invincible any more, in spite of everything he told the promoter. Because there’s been too much pain in the ring for Frank not to know his place on the boxing food chain. And now he just hopes he can find a combination that will get him out of the trouble he knows he’s going to get into. And he’s telling June they can fill Alison’s room with balloons while she sleeps. And he’s seeing the blood spatter onto the canvas and his mind is whispering sorry June it’s gone. But he’s writing Happy 8th Birthday Alison on balloons and his hand doesn’t shake at all. And he’s in the booth at the fairground with the hot dog smell, and out in the feral darkness, beyond the light of the chain link cage, shuffling bodies and the wafting smell of beer. Because they always need Dutch courage to step up. And Mr. Judkins is calling ten pounds for three rounds. Fifty quid if you can go the distance with Frank the Fury. And Alison is opening her eyes to the explosion of colour. And the Irishman who can do a bit, and is not as pissed as he first looked, is holding Frank in a clinch and breathing into his ear, “This is for Bobby Sands, you English cunt.” And Frank already knows Mr. Judkins will have to pay out on this one. And Frank and June are looking at each other in triumph and knowing that, even without the Bratz doll, the day will be a success. And Frank is writing “Alison” with his steady hand and doesn’t know it’s the second last birthday the three of them will share. And he’s in the Dixons warehouse plagued by facts that have escaped him, and Reg is saying, “If you unloaded the monitors Frank, you must have put them somewhere.” But he’s also still an amateur boxer in that gym off Blinton Street and everything is still ahead of him, and he’s still enjoying the overarching power of his own body. Can still step into the ring with unbound confidence. And when Mick is telling him he can win, he believes it’s true. “This wossname. This Greely lad. He’s handy, might even go places, but he’s a cocky bastard. Good jab, but you can get inside it, Frank. And he’s too lazy to protect himself properly. One-two, son. One-two.” And Frank is in the ring, waiting for the bell, knowing his perfect body is capable of perfect motion. No fear, no future. Just this. Now. And the jab comes and he steps inside. And the guy crumples, and Frank turns to the tiny hall’s scattered applause. So few people see his perfect combination, but Frank’s unconquerable body knows it’s just the beginning. Now he walks into a future of gold, and when Carlton comes up for his pint, Frank meets him with the love he meets his future, and Mick holds up ten fingers for ten fights undefeated, and alive on this wave, not knowing he’s already at the crest, Frank smiles at Carlton and says, “I hit him with the right.”