Roll With The Punches
Con bent slowly bent to sit on the bench outside the Arts Centre - he could feel every night spent sleeping out in the damp weather through his rheumatic, aching joints and bones; the problem with sitting down was getting back up again. He didn’t need weather reports – or even to know what month it was – to tell him that autumn was fading into winter fast; the swelling of his big toes and misshapen knuckles made it obvious. As he raised the two-litre plastic cider bottle to inspect its contents, he sneered at its lack of volume. He placed the contorted bottle on the bench and ran both calloused hands through his snow-white hair, muttering pleas for a ten-bob-bit, to the passing people heading into the city centre after completing the Micklegate Run.
The pedestrians glanced in amusement at his short, stocky figure lost in an over-sized, stained beige mac, dark grey baggy pants and worn-out boots with string in place of laces; the bleary eyes and weathered face, the bulbous nose creased and broken, distinguished from the rest of his tanned face by its bright red hue. Occasionally, a young man would agree to toss him some spare change.
Despite the alcohol-fuelled haze, Con could make out the young dosser with the mongrel dog across the road, stealing some of his custom. He had no time for people who took to the streets because they had no choice. Some of the passers-by joked and laughed at his expense; yet even had he been sober, their disrespect of him wouldn’t have had fazed him in the least. Con had never lacked pride, he’d been a Lightweight contender and had more pride than the lot of them put together, only he could swallow it better than any of them. He held the bottle up full-tilt, drained the last dregs of the flat, golden liquid and eased back on to his throbbing feet.
During the five-minute hobble to the off-licence, passing Jack the Lads slapped him on the back, eager to associate with the old gladiator, despite his fall from grace. Con patronised them for the coins they placed in his hand, but had no real opinion of them either way; they were simply part of the scenery, belonging to that world he’d once inhabited in another life.
On reaching the offie and peering through the plate-glass window, Con spotted a broad back stretching the wool of a pale grey, chequered trench coat; Ed was back and in the process of purchasing some apple juice. Ed turned in response to his greeting, placed an arm across his shoulders and called him brother; the shop assistant couldn’t make out a word they said and looked at them as though they must be speaking Gaelic. Once Con had made the same purchase as his comrade, they walked out leaving the young man with a bemused expression on his face: he didn’t have the slightest clue regarding the tribulations of life – perhaps one day.
Ed was above average height and well-built, with steel-grey hair and the same obligatory, telltale ruddy nose. As they made there way towards the river, Ed kept an arm over Con’s shoulders, like a protective brother. Re-supplied for the night, they avoided the attentions of the patronising young men, keeping their heads low and ignoring them. Someone offered to buy them food – but not booze, not realising that food would ruin their appetite for drink.
Home for the night was a riverside retreat behind the Viking Hotel, an area set aside for numerous benches enclosed by walled beds full of shrubs. From the midst of such a bed they collected the stashed cardboard boxes used as bedding. They reclined on an extended bench set on brickwork, head-to-head and wrapped in the flattened boxes. Across the river, the illuminated upper story and spires of York Minster towered majestically above the rest of the city. Con took a blue, woollen, tea cosy hat from a coat pocket and pulled it on. Both of them uncapped their bottles and guzzled greedily. For some time they gazed at the stars, without speaking.
Ed finally broke the silence. ‘Hey, Kid, do you remember them three mad punk rockers who took us in the Acropolis for tea and dog rolls?’
‘I do,’ Con replied with a chuckle. ‘What a bunch of characters.’
‘That big one strolled into the women’s toilets by mistake. Everyone in the café were watching the door and waiting for him to come straight back out; but he must have spent a good ten minutes in there before trying to sneak back out without being noticed.’
‘That’s right, Ed, I nearly pissed myself laughing. They’re all off there heads them punks. Fancy walking around dressed like that? Sodding tea and sausage rolls – they might as well have just bought us a bottle of Strongbow.’
‘Ah, they were good lads though, they meant well.’
Con retreated back into his own world for a time, struggling to recall vague memories.
‘I stood toe-to-toe with ’em,’ he said, eventually. ‘Took everything they could dish out. Only got stopped twice… second and third bouts… that were before I learned ring craft, you see. Lost a fair few on points; but we can’t all be Don Cockells winning more than we lose. Gave Rocky a good go he did.’
‘You’re the champ, Kid,’ said Ed.
‘Shaw stopped me in Sheffield – real hard-case he were; matched him in Grimsby though… in the rematch. Thought me ribs were busted up but still fought him to a draw.’
‘You did us all proud, Mr Bailey,’ Ed slurred.
‘How come you disappeared like that, Eddie? I missed you.’
‘It’s that question. How come you’ve got a house but you won’t live in it? I get sick of hearing it.’
‘I know, Ed, I…’ A long pause followed. ‘I know you can’t bear to live in that house since she passed away.’
‘Kid!’ shouted Ed.
‘You’ll always be the champ.’