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Authors: Phillip Hunter

To Fight For

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To Fight For

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To my mum, Betsy, and my sister, Louise, as always.

ONE

Outside, the war raged. Men were murdering each other or siding up to one of the powers or keeping their heads down, shotguns within reach, just in case it all spilled over.

Vic Dunham and Bobby Cole – the lords of London – were at each other's throats. There had been blood on the streets, shootings, arson attacks. Both sides were giving it their all, but Cole was getting out-punched and nobody thought he'd go the distance.

It seemed like most of London was in arms, one way or the other. It wasn't, though. The killing was only among us lot; the civvies had no idea what was going on. They sat on the tube and in their cars and in the pub, and they read their papers and bought their lottery tickets and lived and carried on. But they didn't know what it was all about. They never fucking knew.

I was in a bad way when they dragged me in. Browne was sober, for once, probably waiting to see if I was still breathing. They put me on the sofa downstairs and Browne went at it, fixing me up as best he could, putting me back together. It was like the old days when I'd be led from the ring, blinded by the blood in my eyes, nothing more than a walking chunk of meat. They'd take me back to the dressing rooms and lay me out on a slab, and Browne would come in and prod me, and look in my eyes.

‘This can't go on, Joe,' he'd say.

And I'd nod, not really understanding what he was on about – not really caring.

And now he was near me, night and day, pushing the needles in, changing the dressings, cutting me open to see what was keeping me alive, telling me it couldn't go on. Nothing changes.

In the last few weeks I'd been battered and cut and shot. But that was okay. Those were flesh wounds and I'd recover, or not, or whatever. I thought I'd broken my hand when I'd smashed it on Paget's head, but it turned out it was just bruised and swollen, so that was okay too. I needed that hand. I needed it to destroy things, people.

The knife wound Paget gave me was worse. My arm split with a kind of sharp-dull ache. The blade had cut deep into the muscle tissue and there was nerve damage. My arm was partly dead, but I could still use it, and that was all that mattered. Browne said it might heal, it might not. Some fucking help.

Then there was the pain in my side, the broken rib. Browne reckoned Paget's bullet had hit at just the right angle to ricochet.

‘That rib saved your bloody life,' he said. ‘You should have it stuffed.'

But he was worried about it and kept prodding and cutting me open, looking for any more bone splinters.

‘I'm not a bloody surgeon,' he'd say. ‘You need to go to a hospital.'

‘It doesn't matter,' I told him. ‘Nothing matters,' I told him. I don't think he believed me – not any more, not after what I'd done.

Besides, Cole wouldn't have let me get to a hospital. He sent his own doctor, who came one morning, looked at the wound and gave Browne a cold stare.

No, flesh wounds didn't bother me. It was my head that was the real problem. Browne reckoned I had more swelling on the brain, or something like that. He kept looking in my eyes and asking me dumb questions like did I know who I was, did I know where I was. Mostly I knew the answers.

‘Don't worry about it,' I'd say.

‘Who the hell else is going to?' he'd say back.

I think he wanted to worry. I think it gave him something to do – something other than getting drunk, anyway.

So, I told him it didn't matter, and I told myself the same. But I knew that was a lie, even more than Browne did.

It did matter, in one way; I was losing Brenda. I was losing the only thing that kept me going, kept me fighting. Her face was going from me, even in those moments when she came to me it was fading, and when I was awake it was almost gone completely. The more I did what I had to do, the more beat up I got and, then, the more I lost of her. It was some sick sort of justice. Quit now and I might keep of her what I still had. Carry on and I might finish so fucked up I wouldn't even know what I'd been fighting for; her black hair and dark skin and huge, brown eyes slinking backwards into the shadows.

It had been getting worse, over the years. It used to be I couldn't stop seeing her. Now, with all those bangs, I had trouble remembering her when I was awake. But I'd see her still in waking dreams, in cold moments, in the dark and the night and the emptiness. I don't know why that was, why it was always in the darkest moments that she was brightest.

One time I dreamed about her and woke up coughing, clambering for breath. Browne stood above me, staring down, the light behind him glaring into my eyes. I shook with sweat and panic, and he gripped my head in his hands and I could see that he was shouting something at me, but I couldn't hear him.

‘I'm okay,' I said, pushing his hands away, thinking I was on the canvas being counted out or that my corner had thrown the towel in and the crowd was jeering at me, crying for more blood.

I tried to stand up and pain collapsed me and Browne pushed a needle into my arm and when I opened my eyes again everything was dark, and I thought I'd had it, finally. I felt a surge of anger because I knew there were things I had to do, even if I couldn't remember what they were. But then, after the anger sank and drained away, I felt nothing; no fear, no regret, no sadness. Nothing. I just thought, It doesn't matter.

Then a light came on.

Browne came over and peered at me. He must've been waiting for me to come round. He was sober, too, so that told me how worried he was.

‘How are you feeling?' he said.

‘Okay.'

‘The flashbacks, the blackouts … they'll get worse.'

‘They've been getting worse for ten years.'

He nodded. His mouth was drawn tight, his lips thin, but he wasn't getting angry.

‘I can't imagine what damage you've done to your head. I've seen fighters who've taken less than you end up dribbling wrecks. I'm amazed you can still function, to be honest. Well, most of the time you can function.'

He smiled a soft, sad smile and I had the feeling he was being with me as he must've been with a terminally ill patient back when he'd been practising.

‘You're killing yourself,' he said quietly.

‘I know.'

So, yes, I sometimes wondered if I was dead, murdered by my own rage. It was like I was standing in front of this body, laid out on a slab – my body, cold and grey – and even though I knew it was dead, I kept stabbing it, trying to kill it all over again, but no blood came out and I knew it was really dead, even though it moved.

But I had odd thoughts like that in those days. And it was getting harder to sort things out. I was running out of time.

Everything I did was too late. I'd wake from some half-sleep, drenched in sweat, not sure where I was, when I was, who I was – what I was. I'd be in the ring or on that fucking mount in the Falklands, and I'd see a shadow near me, and I'd reach out to her and she'd reach forward with red hands.

Then, of course, people wanted me dead. They hadn't come for me yet, but they would – or, anyway, they'd try. A lot of people had tried. A lot of people weren't alive any more. Maybe I was one of them, a victim of my own hatred finally turned inward. Browne told me it was all I had, the hatred. He might've been right.

But it was something, at least, the rage. It was some fucking thing and it kept the blood pumping, kept me alive – just.

Outside, hell was let loose and it didn't matter a thing to me. Let them destroy each other, let them tear London apart, let them bleed, just as long as I got Glazer and gutted him and watched his blood spill over the ground, watched it pool at my feet.

TWO

It had been a lousy winter. Now it was a lousy spring: cold wind rattling the thin trees, rain coming at you sideways, sleet, snow, mud.

I hated mud. I'd had my fill of the stuff years back. When I saw it now it reminded me of the misery of slogging for days, dragged down by hundred pound bergens, the straps covered in gaffer tape but still cutting into our shoulders, unable to keep from slipping every few yards, trench-foot rotting us from the ground up. The mud clumped and clung to our boots when we tabbed mile after mile after mile, making heavy legs a few pounds heavier, as we moved towards the dug-in Argentineans who were probably as sick of the mud as we were, sicker even.

Maybe that was why I stayed in London, so I wouldn't have to walk in mud again. But Browne lived out a bit, in the suburbs, and there were playing fields to cross, and parks to cross, and verges to cross, and I was sick of it all, sick and old and going nowhere, living out of my time in a world I didn't understand, where gangs imported small girls and sold them, where I no longer knew how to rob an armoured van, where my business was now as muddy as the sodden ground after all these lousy months of rain.

When I was able, I'd go for a walk twice a day, once in the morning to pick up a
Times
for Browne, then in the evening to get a
Standard
.

The first time I went, I was still in a daze, my head murky with things half-thought, half-remembered. I knew I had to find Glazer and kill him before he got to me, kill him for what he'd done, but I didn't know how.

I probably shouldn't have gone out.

‘You're not up to it, man,' Browne had said.

‘I'll be okay,' I said.

‘Joe, son, I hate to tell you this, but you'll never be okay again.'

I think he liked telling me that.

I said, ‘I know.'

I went anyway, and trudged across the playing field, staring down at my feet as they sank an inch into the ground. I looked up at the bank of fog ahead. I'd seen fog like that before. Only, back then, it hadn't been fog. It had been smoke. I could taste it as it crept down my throat, filled my nostrils. It burned with the taste of cordite.

But this was only fog. I had to remember that, had to keep remembering that. Fog, mud. That was all.

The field was flat, greasy with mud and trampled grass. I saw the broken white lines marking out a football pitch. That was good. Visual signs helped. I knew where I was.

I remembered a playing field like this when I was a kid. It was in Edmonton near the North Circular. I'd go there by myself and run, just for something to do, just to get out of the house, away from the old man. Even then, it was always muddy. Football pitches must be about the only part of the country that haven't changed in a century. And the smell of them was always musty, dank – at least, in my mind it was.

I couldn't run fast as a kid, but I could run for a long time, which was all that mattered. I'd spend hours plodding around that football field, following the white line, going miles and going nowhere, just running for the sake of it, in circles.

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