The Attercliffe Assassin

The boy is hit, lit up against the sky, like a sign, like a neon sign
And he crumples, drops into the gutter, legs twitching
The flood swells his clothes and delivers him on, delivers him on
Sometimes, when I look deep in your eyes, I swear I can see your soul

The pain was intense with every step but Gabriel kept walking. Standing still was even worse.

Never stand still, his coach Joe said, always keep moving. You stand still and you’re an easy target, a mug. Keep moving and you’ll never go down. One-two, lights out. Keep moving, keep your lights on.

Gabriel had always heeded this advice in the ring. Joe’s advice had got him his big shot. But sometimes you fall short. And you fall hard.

The evening was muggy, one of those summer nights you only get a few nights a year in England. Nights which never seem real and never seem to end, an exhilaratingly anxious feeling. You can’t sleep when it’s like this. All you can do is keep moving; brain and body.

Gabriel’s feet are light on the Sheffield streets. The monstrously large brick buildings tower above him, the shadows as oppressive as the humidity. A jarring reminder of the people congregating around him last night as he sank to the floor. Their dark shadows looming over him with the arena floodlights giving them bright halos.

The sight of a billboard across the road gives him a start. He walks over to the other side transfixed by it.

It’s the poster of his fight last night. His big fight, his big shot.

The heir to Eubank, Benn and Calzaghe. He would deliver his message and confirm his status as the best super middleweight in the country. “He Shall Be Great”, the tag line proclaimed, his arms raised aloft.

All he can think of now is the image of himself falling down. An out-of-body experience as he can see himself falling from afar, like in a film. He had kept on moving but the tough little Mexican Rafael Sariel had caught him flush above his left eye and he fell. The very moment where – and utterly without cliché – he could feel the world turn on its axis.

The photographers’ flashes light him up as he crumples in slow-motion. Every source of light is trained on him and he appears like a cartoon character being electrocuted. And moments later there is nothing, only pain and darkness.

Ladies and gentleman, here he is….The Angel of Death. The Attercliffe Assassin.

He was the unbeaten 24 year old who had been overlooked for the Olympics as a 21 year old. He responded with a rampaging fifteen wins in a row, thirteen by knock-out. The most fearsome boxer of his generation, an electric ball of fury and tight movement.

One punched extinguished not only his consciousness but his career too.

Gabriel couldn’t remember leaving the ring unconscious on a stretcher. Nor the tests at the hospital. Or even leaving the hospital and going back home. Only after waking this evening did he begin to feel in touch with his senses.

But the pain, the pain was unrelenting. His head was hurting so much that Gabriel could only grimly giggle, a touch hysterically. The feeling of hopelessness was simply incomprehensible to him. The loss of his unbeaten record was the loss of his dignity, his honour, his actual being.

Growing up had been tough, living with his grandparents. He never knew his father and his mother worked during the nights. She handed him over for good to her folks when he was nine years old. His grandparents hadn’t expected to raise a child when they were in their sixties and he was off the rails by thirteen. A criminal record at sixteen for a series of assaults and street robberies.

It was a spell in a secure care home that saved him when he was sixteen. When he arrived Gabriel had decided that silence was the only way forward.

Everything he would say normally to people would invariably get him in trouble so from then on, he would barely say a word, communicating with grunts and eye contact. All kinds of social workers tried to engage him. They all failed with their understanding faces, ceaseless jargon and condescending tones.

Joe was different. He worked part time at the care home as they needed some decent security as twelve wayward lads in their late teens could be quite a handful. Joe was a former marine and national amateur boxing champion at light-heavyweight. He was In his late-fifities, a brooding presence with a crew-cut, pale reddish skin and his huge arms covered in tattoos – although they were hard to distinguish underneath his dark, hairy arms

In their first one-to-one “counselling” session Joe didn’t speak. Not a word. Just calmly watched Gabriel whose demeanour was a feigned nonchalance.

He didn’t speak at the next session and Gabriel began to look closely at Joe. Joe was a real hard man, he could tell. It wasn’t just his size but his eerily relaxed nature. None of the lads in the care home behaved badly when he was there, not even once.

At the end of the third one-hour session Gabriel finally cracked. He walked up to Joe and in tears collapsed in to his arms. After a few minutes like that he pulled away from Joe and saw the old feller was misty-eyed too. No words again we’re spoken. Gabriel left the room and on the way out Joe simply nodded at him to which he reciprocated and smiled sheepishly.

At the next session (a day later at Gabriel’s request) he emptied his heart out to Joe – about his absent parents, his bewildered grandparents, the crimes he had committed and the emptiness he felt inside. Joe would barely speak, he let Gabriel unload his problems and after Gabriel finally ran out of words and energy Joe took over the conversation.

He told him about his early life which was very similar to Gabriel’s. Absent parents, an upbringing in care homes and foster houses. An escape to the military was his way out. He had picked up boxing while he was serving and found his calling. Two decades ago, he left the marines and worked at his local boxing gym. He took Gabriel to the gym and started to teach him.

Joe coaxed and coached him. He taught him discipline, technique and about choosing a path in life. When Gabriel realised that he was actually pretty good at boxing and after flooring a former English amateur middleweight champion during a sparring session he made a pledge to himself to become a world champion.

By the time he was 19 he was training intensely, forgoing all vices. No booze, no drugs, very little in the way of any socialising. He had one goal now and there seemed to be nothing to stand in his way. He watched as many boxing DVDs as Joe could find for him. The classic Benn-Eubank duels were his favourites. The intensity and the story they told inspired him. He wanted to become a public figure in England, and go to America and become a great.

To get so near and fail was sickening. He didn’t know what was worse, the physical pain that stung his whole body or the blunt feeling of emptiness he felt in his soul.

The heavy sky finally collapsed and the rain fell down, huge waves of warm rain immediately drenching him. Gabriel realised he was stood on the kerb still looking at the poster for his bout at the Paradise Arena. He was staring at his eyes and he began to feel weak.

Reality and hazy recollections were blurring.

He could see it all, the cameras flashing as he crashed to the floor.

He was on the canvas, in the gutter as the rain incessantly poured over him. And the photographers, and the doctors were around.

Rafael was there too, standing over him, a healing hand on his heart. Floodlights and streetlights, the streets flooding with rainwater and the arena lights reflected back.

A man’s voice whispers something. He looks around and sees no ring and doctors, just an old tramp chasing his phone and wallet as they wash along the gutter by the side of the road.

Gabriel feels his leg viciously spasming, and his head is hurting so much that he doesn’t feel the pain any longer. The man, a tramp, a doctor, a coach, a rival stares in to his eyes, holds his hands and sees imperfection, not a king but a man of redemption.

by Martin O’Brien based on Sometimes – James


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