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Smithfield ABC

Charterhouse Street, EC1

The Murder Bag, Chapter 16

There was a sign at Fred’s, and as the gym emptied near closing time I stood up looking at it. It was placed between a posed black and white photograph of Sonny Liston and a picture of a dozen Cuban kids sparring in a ring with ropes like snapped elastic.


It was a good message, and there had been times when I’d believed in it, and it had helped me. But not today. Today I did not feel that the thick burning knot of pain in my lower back was just weakness leaving the body.

Today pain was just pain.

Fred walked in. He went over to the music system and fiddled about with it until he found some early Clash. The gym was filled with the crashing guitar chords of Mick Jones and Joe Strummer’s machine-gun bark. Fred picked up a towel that somebody had dropped on the floor and went off to put it in the laundry. When he came back I was leaning against the ropes and staring at the square we call a ring. My back was stiff with pain, and I reflected on the fact that the things that hurt me the most were a source of entertainment for others.

Fred and I leaned on the ropes, the sweet stink of a boxing gym all around us, The Clash at full volume, and the silence between us was not awkward.

And then he spoke.

“It’s not about how hard you can hit,” he said. “It’s about how hard you get hit and then keep going – for just long enough to hit the bastards back.”