Working for Rex O'Sullivan was a barrel of conflicted ambivalence. I mean, I kind of liked the old geezer, but those cleaning duties quickly snapped my tether.
"Ye missed a spot," Rex scolds, pointing to a wet patch on the hardwood floor. "Add some fresh pine, Warren. That bleach will ruin the shine."
I watched him saunter to the boxing ring in utter disbelief. I hadn't forgone my duties, and the wetness proved as much.
Why is he so tough on me?
The other lads train tirelessly, eager to appease and make their trainer proud. Dressed in slouch pants and T-shirts, they come here with gym bags in hand, chuntering back and forth about trivial bullshit or upcoming fights and opponents—all while I stand back, dusting fucking shelves and restocking the bog rolls.
I want inside that ring.
I want to smash my fists into some jumped-up asshole.
Hunkering down reservations, I wrung the mop in the bucket and obsequiously restarted the floor.
"Clean these," one lad demands, hurling a pair of boxing gloves at me. "They're bumping."
I caught the sweat-infused gloves, gnawing down on my teeth. "Clean them your-fucking-self."
He hadn't foreseen the mitts boomeranging and crashing into his face. He most certainly never expected my rude, curt response. "It's your job, bum boy."
The glove hit me in the back. Dragging in a deep breath, I briefly closed my eyes, counted inside my head and, in a sangfroid manner, I virtuously walked away.
"Hello, Liam," the old bird beneath my flat chimed. "How's work?"
Her name was Hattie. "Work is work," I regard her with deliberate vagueness. "I got some fodder if you're interested, Hattie."
She beamed from the window. "Let me just get my slippers on."
That night, Hattie, the wrinkled yet charming mare, joined me in the bedsit. She wore her ubiquitous dressing gown, a lace number with pink fur cuffs and collar. Those hair rollers had seen better days, though. In fact, the garden pegs securing the top layer was horrifically unbecoming.
"What is this?" she wondered, sitting opposite me, opening containers onto the small, round bistro table I purchased from the Garden Centre. "You know I am allergic to nuts, Liam."
No, she's not. "No nuts," I lied, handing over a rice dish. "Enjoy."
"I should save some for Chester."
Hattie became my favourite pastime. Most nights, the raconteuse humoured me with old tales and childhood falsehoods. I didn't mind her fabrications, though. "Where's your husband tonight?"
"Oh, that old fool is out spending money again," she said with genuine scorn. "Probably with that Iris—you know how much I dislike Iris, Liam."
Chester died in a motorway collision fifteen years ago. Iris is Hattie's daughter, a thirty-five-year-old bank manager who seldom visits her mother. No judgements. In the girl's defence, Hattie doesn't remember her daughter so believes she's someone who surreptitiously lays down with Chester.
Dementia is a bitch.
"It's quite alright," said Hattie. "These mushrooms taste too salty." Her sleepy eyes rested on mine, a frequent question lingering between us. "What did you say your name was again?"
I smiled impishly at her. "Liam."
"Yes," she whispered, rubbing her temples. "That's right. Of course, Liam." Pallid and weary, she raised from the chair, eager to put space between us. "I need to get home before Chester."
Like clockwork, Hattie opens the front door and teeters to the staircase. I wait until she's securely locked inside her four walls and then clear our banquet.
Showered readily for bed, I killed the lights and crawled under the coverlets, stared at the empty spot beside me until sleep overcame and demons invaded my dreams.
Music blared in my ears. I adjust the headphones, bound tape around my knuckles, warmed up. Rex's Gym has great vastness between the ringside and punching bags. I start with a bleep test, pacing back and forth, touch the white line with my fingers, repeat the process.
Salty mist dusts my body. I tear off my T-shirt, toss it on a chair, pick up the pace. I run through burning obliques and tightening calves, mouth parched, throat working.
Satisfied with my warm-up, I guzzle craved water, quench my thirstiness and then spend the next two hours, killing the bags.
I collapsed onto the mats, breathless, chest caving, wrestling for breath.
Rex absconds his office, pretending not to notice me.
"I wanna fight," I said, rolling onto my side. "Put me in the ring."
"Ye not ready, lad." Thick smoke gyrated around his head while he smoked his pipe. "And ye not makin' an effort with the other lads. Teamwork," he adds, snatching a metal chair, dragging it beside me. "Ye need to understand the definition. Life isn't about a one-man-band, Liam."
I beg to differ.
Rolling my eyes, I compelled myself to stand. "I don't need friends." Solitude, self-comfort and no expectations protect me. "I prefer my shadow. It's not gonna stab in the back."
Rex kneaded the scruff of his jaw. "Sounds lonely."
"Sounds safe," I corrected, ripping tape from my busted knuckles. "So, are you gonna let me train or not?"
He stood then, uncertainty in his dull eyes. "Aye, I can train ye," he confirms, and hope inflated my lungs. "On one condition, though."
I knew it was too good to be true. "Chuck me the rule book."
My sarcasm tickled him. "Ye run each mornin', Liam—"
"I do that already," I interjected, and he pulled a face. "What?"
"Ye lack common social skills, lad," he berates. "Ye impolite and a fuckin' know-it-all. I don't care if ye already rake ye backside. Ye don't need to tell me that, aye?"
"Oh, so, now I am egotistical, impolite, unsociable—"
"Braggart," he snipes, ramming his shoulder into me as he waddles passed. "Arrogant, toffee-nosed, patronising and self-centred."
My jaw hit the floor. "Have a fucking day off."
He spun on his heel to glare at me. "Why didn't ye help Johnny last week?"
Johnny's a fourteen-year-old lad who trains on Fridays. He's quiet, introverted and seemingly rubs people up the wrong way. For some unknown reason, he's gained the awareness of Devin and his ingenious, boot-licking goons. Johnny and Devin scrap often, but lanky, shy, reserved and cowardly Johnny isn't strong enough for his nemesis. "He's not my problem."
Rex's glare intensified. "Get back to work."
"What about my training?"
"Fuck ye trainin'."
I ran for two hours the following morning and, in a foul, stubborn mood, I returned to the gym for pointless domestic duties.
Rex stands in the ring with two teenagers, demonstrating defence.
Puffing out an exasperated sigh, I prepared the speed bags, overheard muffled sobs. Frowning, I flung the towels onto the mats, gravitated toward the unnerving sounds.
Inside the male changing rooms, Devin towers above a cowering Johnny, wildly waving his arms around the cramped proximity. His friends relish in the harsh display, chortling support.
I popped the muscle in my jaw, almost walked away—and Devin brought his leg back, booting Johnny straight in the ribs. The lad screamed, scampering into a protective ball on the floor. "Ye need—"
"No," I snapped, stepping up to him with threatening indifference. "You need to back the fuck up before I rearrange your face."
Devin squared his stance. "This doesn't concern ye, bum boy—" I licked him clean across the face. He staggered into red lockers, horrified. "Ye piece of—"
I punched him once more, swung a combination through the advancing lads, alternatively blowing punch after punch. Gripping Devin by the scruff, I dragged his yelling, thrashing body to the bathroom, lifted the toilet seat and stuffed his head into the pan. "Call me a bum, one more time," I warned, flushing the water, listening to his choking, gargled pleas.
Ripping his head back to the surface, I pinned him to the wall, hand tight, unyielding around his throat. "I am Liam Warren," I said sternly, slapping his face with an open palm. "You will address me so, or," leaning in, I lowered my voice, "I will fucking end you."
Devin whimpered, nodding his head vigorously.
I hurled him towards his friends. "Get out." I don't watch them disperse; I squat beside Johnny, pried his hands away from his face. "Sort your shit out, Johnny. Don't let bullies make a meal out of you. Get in that room, train hard, fight harder. Understand?"
He sat up, fixing his skewed glasses. "I am not as big as you, Warren."
"It's not about size," I tell him, helping him stand. "Determination, self-assurance, confidence and, in the event a bully, who, might I add, never normally has the strength to back their motormouths, targets you, then you show no fear. Never vulnerable or susceptible, Johnny."
He stared at me, unblinkingly. "What if they win?"
"If some foolish motherfucker puts me on my ass?" I hedge, curving an eyebrow. "Then he better keep me down. If I get back up, I'll kill him." I nudged him toward the door. "Go. And don't let me catch you cowering like that again."
"Thank you, Warren," he said, vacating the changing room with a sprint in his stride.
Shaking my head, I wiped the blood from my knuckles and returned to my duties. While selecting a song on my Walkman, I felt someone's scrutiny searing into the back of my head. I turned, found Rex rested beside the ropes, arms crossed. He delivered a knowing smirk before averting his gaze, lambasting another lad for lowering his guard when training.
I curbed a smile, chose a song and finished scrubbing the floors.
Carlos Marin's baritone voice became a favourite. In secret, I had a predilection for classical, operatic music. When stuffing clean towels into the tumble dryer at the gym, I lost myself in music and procrastinated. I still had to mop the floor, empty the dishwasher and restock the bathroom with toilet paper, but tonight, I was in no rush to head home.
Rex remains in his office. It's evident the man sleeps here, that's if the makeshift bed on the sofa is anything to go by. Recently, I noticed Rex scarcely leaves the gym. He'll venture into town and buy cupboard food to stockpile under his desk, basic noodle pots or powdered soups.
Sometimes, Rex's granddaughter, Bronagh, swings by with Tupperware, offering baked goods and prepared meals, courtesy of her mother, Rex's daughter.
Bronagh hasn't regarded me since the night she showed me around. She rarely passes me a sideward glance. I hate it—I kind of like the Irish bird with wild, red hair and pale, mile-long legs.
Lately, Bronagh's at the forefront of my mind, especially when in bed at night, pleasuring myself before getting some shut-eye.
"Hey, lad," Rex calls, I blinked away naughty images. "Where did ye go just then?"
I daren't tell him the truth. He'd dismantle my balls. "Thinking."
Inside the locker room, I cleared out a spare unit, claimed it, stuffed Bill's gun at the back, beneath folded clothes. I purchased a new weapon this afternoon from a renowned firearm dealer. I swear the opportunist overcharged me, but I accepted the revolver sans fuss. It's a step on the corruption ladder, another immoral yet handy acquaintance in my back pocket. I am a nobody, so I'll overlook ingenuousness and dishonesty if, in the future, it helps me overachieve.
I no longer work street corners, dealing. Instead, I built-up enough clients to sell from the comfort of my home. Marijuana was a good start in the right direction; however, growing plants and selling ten-bags wasn't lucrative, and it became burdensome.
My newfound, spurious friendship with the arms dealer guaranteed stellar trade. Long gone are the time-consuming herbs in my attic. I pay the baron for cocaine kilos, profit and monetise the game. Still, I wear casual tracksuits, decent footwear and scarce jewellery, though, I cannot wait for my sixteenth birthday to soar alongside my wealth—keeping a low profile is hard work.
"I'm out," I called, ambling to the exit. "I'll be back in the morning—nice and early. And yes, I will make you a cup of tea. Only if you ask nicely."
Rex wiped his hands in a tea towel. "Get in the ring."
I came to an abrupt stop. "What?"
"Ye heard me," he huffed, flinging the towel aside. "Get in, lad, before I change my mind."
Dropping my holdall in pleasant excitement, I tore the hoodie from my body, ducked under the ropes and waited for Rex to join me. He delays on purpose, testing my patience levels. I mesh my lips into a tight line, proving to him that I can obey orders.
"Right," he begins, bounding tape around his knuckles. "Wrap 'em up."
I synchronised his actions, secured inadequate protection to my hands. "Where do you want me?"
"You're a big lad." His grey hair irritates his brows. "But size doesn't mean shite, right?"
Before I can respond, he jabs me straight in the jaw. I collapsed onto the ropes, tasting blood on my tongue. "You fucking hit me!"
Rex moves into defence, fists shielding his face. "Well, come on."
The old man is delusional. I'd spark him out. "I am not fighting you, Rex—" His fist connects with my cheek, and I dropped onto my ass. "What the fuck?" Staggering upright, I wipe sweat from my forehead, rage escalating. "Quit sucker-punching me."
He charged at me with a combination. "Dodge, duck, bounce-back," he ordered, and I listened, evading his flying fists. "Fists near ye head." Again, I obeyed. "Don't let the blood cool, Warren. Keep it pumpin', aye?"
In a trance, I heeded to his prattling, escaped his slick, calculated blows. In no time, I deciphered his technique, paid great attention to his habits and learnt from them.
"Try again," he shouts, surprising me with a different approach, catching me in the ribs. "Defence."
I nod, shaking my arms at my sides, generating blood flow.
Ignoring the pain in my side, I out-stepped him, outmanoeuvred every blast, skirted around his effortless performance.
"Big and fast," he said, sounding a touch proud. "Now, come at me."
Panic suffocated my chest. "I don't want to hurt you, Rex—"
"Nonsense," he assures, edging me forward with taunting hands. "Give me your best shot."
I clenched my jaw, and he slapped me. "What the fuck?"
"Ye thinkin' too hard," he yells, thrusting me into the ropes, goading me to fight back. "Now. Warren."
I threw a punch, missed, tossed another, missed. He ebbed from each blow, ran circles around me. I held back somewhat but seriously began to question myself.
How the hell is he doing this?
"Stop," he scolds, tearing tape from his knuckles. "I got enough. Ye can leave now."
I was momentarily flummoxed. "What? That's it?"
"Aye." He exits the ring.
"Rex, what the fuck?" I followed him to the office, absently discarding my tape. "So, how did I do? Am I allowed to fight now?"
"No," he snaps, and I growled. "Don't be fuckin' gnawing ye gnashes at me, lad."
Demoralisation washed over me. "Fine. Whatever."
"Ye can be a great boxer," he said quietly, and I hesitated in the doorway. "Ye big, strong, fast and ruthless, Warren."
I sighed in defeat. "But?"
"But predictable." Igniting his pipe, he slumped onto the old, rickety chair behind his desk. "Ye can enter a room with assured conceitedness and uncaring defensiveness," he continues, and I sat on the chair, opposite him. "And they're not negative qualities to possess, so don't get it twisted. In sayin' that, ye unoriginality and obviousness, not only lacks excitement, it exemplifies fightin' mannerisms. Ye box against an adversary next week with spectators and likely win. The night fight, though, ye foe got ye card marked. Ye appreciate my advice?"
I had no idea what he was talking about.
"To be impenetrable, indomitable and undefeated, ye need to learn how to use this." He tapped the side of his head. "Vigilant, eagle-eyed, calm, collected," he counts with fingers, "perspicacious and perspective. Ye can still be indignant, uncompromisin', merciless and callous, Warren. That's ye personality. I see that now, but know that bogus indifference, regardless of hard-hearted characteristics, is more powerful than any right fist or uncontrollable tongue."
I sank back in my chair, not quite understanding.
"It's a weakness," he proceeds, puffing his pike. "Bearing ye soul is a weakness."
I gave him an almost imperceptible nod of the head. "Sure, Rex."
"Give me what I want?" he taunts, grinning like a madman. "And I'll guarantee a fight."
Rex didn't need to tell me twice.
I ran every morning and every night.
I doubled-up on carbs, good fats, protein, trained hard and slaughtered my core muscles.
I stopped bickering about cleaning duties, gleamed his pride and joy with extra care, even purchased and upgraded new boxing equipment, which he refrained from questioning.
Rex laboured the other lads while I listened to music. On occasion, he'd watch me work the bags but seldom conversed with me. He tested me often, too. The man knowingly pressed my buttons, awaited antagonism and argumentativeness. I responded with genuine smiles, took his insults on the chin, learnt to wire my damn mouth shut.
It's midnight, and the gym closed hours ago. Spring-cleaning aside, it hasn't been the worst shift. I power sequels on the punch bag, hear someone climbing the stairs. Bronagh enters the gym, teary-eyed and woeful. Within fifteen minutes, she's arguing with her granddad, something about her mother—fuck knows.
Rex chastises her for leaving her house at night, delivering the predator speech and her safety. "Warren," he yelled, followed by chair legs shrieking against the floor. "Get in my office."
What the fuck did I do?
Unravelling tape from my hands, I guardedly entered his private space, trying hard not to look at his granddaughter. "What?"
"That whippersnapper upset my daughter." He points to Bronagh, displeasure in his narrowed eyes. "She doesn't live far. I need ye to walk her back—ensure she's safe."
I almost said, why can't you do it? And then I recalled his recent garrulous text and dipped my head.
"I don't need a babysitter," she cried, hugging herself. "Why can't I stay here, granddad?"
"No," he protests. "The gym is no place for my grandbaby. Ye leave with Warren immediately. And ye better hope my daughter is happy before I visit tomorrow."
"Aye, granddad," she said, defenceless and miserable. "I'll apologise."
He eyed me, an ominous warning emitting off his shaking body. "Do I need to instil any boundaries?"
Heat claimed my cheeks. "No," I spat, jaw locking into place. "I'm good, Rex."
"Good," he repeated, worry lines wrinkling his forehead. "Get her home safely. And I'll see ye nice and early, right?"
I walked Bronagh home. She cried for the entire duration, frequently apologising and rubbing streaked mascara from her cheeks. Her home sat merely a few blocks from my building, which I found useful, and she even offered me inside.
I glanced at the windows, stupidly contemplating her generous offer. "I don't think that's a good idea." Defeat hindered her pretty features. "Plus, you gotta speak to your mum..." I lingered, cataloguing her small nose and thin lips. "And Rex will chew my ass off."
"Liam, surely, ye not frightened of old Rex," she half-teased, green eyes twinkling under the moonlight. "He's all bark ye know."
I respected Rex. He's a decent man, nothing to do with terror. "I'll see you around."
Putting on foot in front of the other, I left Bronagh beside her garden gate and returned home. I reached the street corner when I heard her calling me. Lightening-fast, Bronagh's approaching shadow collides into my chest, taken aback. "B—" Her lips slanted across mine, stealing the air that I breathe. I dropped my bag to the floor, coiled my arms around her curvy body, welcomed her unexpected kiss.
"Liam," she whispered into my mouth, tongue poking out, seeking entrance.
I had never been kissed.
My tongue met Bronagh's skilful lead, hands touring her body, cupping her head. I wilted before her, heart beating a hundred miles an hour, breathing staunched.
She eased back, lips swollen. "I couldn't help myself."
I used my thumb to wipe the corner of my mouth.
"Shite," she muttered, combing a hand through her hair. "Don't worry, Liam. Rex doesn't need to know."
I roused alone in bed, hand resting on my heaving chest. In the ceiling mirror, I stare at my reflection, eyes falling to where Alexa once laid. Closing my eyelids, reopening them, adjusting to enclosing darkness, I climbed out of bed and opened a drawer, searching.
Before the panoramic windows, I balanced a pre-rolled joint to my lips, inhaled haze, let it roll around my lungs. The River Thames soothed me. The London lights fed my soul. "I am drowning," I whispered, respiring smoke, assuaged by pine-infused veils.
Dialling Reginald's number on my phone, I set it to my ear, awaiting his thick voice. "Warren," he groaned, indisputably disturbed from slumber. "What can I do for you?"
"The judge," I said, and he hummed. "The guy Brad paid to grant my bail and drop charges."
He sighed. "What about him?"
"I hear he has a predilection for young boys." Silence vibrated between the receiver. "Correct?" Blood, I thought, pressing a hand to the window. I need to alleviate this all-consuming resentment. "I don't like repeating myself."
"Yes," he confirmed. "Try and keep it clean, Warren."
I end the call and send Nate a text message.