“HARD KNOCKS” by Michael Keenaghan

It was summer and I was going nowhere. I was on the dole and skint.

“I’ve got the perfect solution – the answer to all your problems,” Rob said, as we sat outside the pub, drinks on him.

“No thanks, Rob,” I said, before even asking. Rob’s ventures required the kind of luck I just wasn’t born with. Rob managed to dabble in all sorts, maintaining a jail-free existence, while those around him got banged up like one-two-three. It wasn’t worth it.

“Don’t think I’m not grateful, mate, but the last thing I need is trouble from the law.”

“What makes you think the law’s got anything to do with it? Who do you think I am?”

If I didn’t know him I might have thought he was serious. I looked him up and down. His T-shirt, jeans and shoes were designer. Mine were market copies. He wore a gold chain, gold watch and a sovereign ring. I wore no jewellery whatsoever. I ran my hand across my face. I hadn’t shaved in days. I was letting myself go.

“Listen, Mick, think about it. If you’re low on dough – which I think we can safely say you are – then I know people. I can solve things.”

An hour earlier, I’d bumped into Rob down Romford High Road. We’d known each other since school, had hung around for a few years afterwards, then drifted off on our separate ways. The road I’d taken had kept me mostly out of trouble, but certainly hadn’t brought me much in the way of material wealth, or luck for that matter either. But life could be worse I suppose.

We headed back inside. Bar a few old men, the pub was empty. We went into the bogs for a toot. Rob got his bank card on the go then hoovered up a line. “Get a load of that. Virtually uncut.” I tucked in. He wasn’t lying.

We had a few games of pool, then sat at the bar, some of the after-work crowd filing in. By now, with a good few pints inside me, it felt just like old times; the two of us recalling stories from school, or all those mad weekends we’d go out clubbing. I could have sat there reminiscing all day.

Then Rob got a call. He had to go.

“Remember what I said, Mick,” patting me on the back. “Call me.” Then he was gone.

I finished my drink, then remembering that I was absolutely penniless, realised I’d have to go too.

The late-afternoon sunlight hit me as I headed out onto the street. The charlie had worn off now, and with the abrupt end to the drinking, I felt drained. Worse, I felt depressed. I almost wished I’d stayed in today, hadn’t left the house atall. Then when I got in, I remembered why I had.

Janet was barging around the room tidying things up. “Bastard,” she said, pointing her finger. “Don’t you fucking talk to me.”

I sat down as Jan continued. “There I am, out working all day, and you haven’t lifted a finger. Good for nothing, that’s what you are.”

If we argued in the morning, then it sometimes continued when Jan got home. Today was one of those days.

She went to the kitchen, loudly clanking the dishes as she washed up.

I gave it a few minutes then came up behind her, kissing her on the neck. “Come here … I’m sorry.”

“It’s not good enough, Mick, not good enough …” But she didn’t push me away. She was calming down.

“Jan, listen – I might have something coming up,” I said, massaging her shoulders and the soft flesh of her sides. “I met an old mate today. He might have something for me.”

She finished washing-up and turned around. “What old mate?”

“A bloke I knew from back at school. You don’t know him.”

“It’s not Rob, is it?”

“Of course not,” I laughed. “It’s Mark – his name’s Mark.”

“And he might be able to get you a job?”

“Yeah. Delivery work. That’s his trade. He said he’ll sort me out, no problem.”

“Are you sure?”

“It’s pretty much guaranteed. He’s giving me a call tomorrow.”

“Mickey …” she smiled. “That’s good news.”

“I know. I wanted to tell you when I came in, but …”

“Oh, I was just angry, forget about that,” she said, her arms around me.

We kissed, then I said, “So what do you think – me working again.”

“It’s great. I can’t believe it …” Then her face changed. “We should celebrate,” she said.

“Of course, maybe get a take-out or something …”

“Forget about takeaways,” she said. “…You know what I mean. We haven’t celebrated in ages …” She was backing me into the living room towards the sofa.

“Jan, are you sure? You know at the moment that I can’t …”

She pushed me down onto the cushions, undoing her top. “Don’t worry about that,” she said, getting down and fumbling with my belt. “I’ll get that thing up and running, don’t you worry about it.”

But somehow I knew that was impossible. Aside from a lack of cash flow, zero employment prospects and no miracles likely to occur in the foreseeable future, my recent problem of impotence was yet another obstacle that was pushing my relationship with Janet to the limits.

Maybe it was the stress. A lack of self-esteem. Maybe I didn’t know what it was.

Janet’s hand was working away.

Nothing.

Finally she stopped, her eyes on me.

“You don’t fancy me anymore, do you?”

“Jan, of course I do. It’s not that.”

“It is that.”

“It’s not …”

“Well what is it then?”

“I don’t know… I …”

“You think I’m fat, don’t you?”

“No way …”

She stood up, putting her top back on. “You do. And you’re right. Because I am fat.”

I got up. I couldn’t believe she was talking like this. I tried reassuring her but she shrugged me off, tears welling.

“You’re a bastard,” she said. “Just like those people years ago … back at school … those bitches …”

“Jan, please …”

“I’m just an ugly fat bitch, that’s what I am … I’ve put on more weight and now you can’t even stand to look at me.”

“That’s not true.”

She turned her back to me, leaning over the dinner table with both hands, breathing heavily. I tried hugging her.

“Don’t touch me,” she snapped. “Don’t come near me.”

I tried again, but “Fuck off!” she yelled, and spun around punching me full in the face. I felt my nose smash inside my head, and flew back onto the sofa.

I sat clutching my face, blood pouring between my fingers.

“Mick I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…”

“It’s okay Jan … It’s okay…”

She was choking on her tears now. “Your face… Mickey, what have I done ..?”

She ran to get a cloth and held it there, while I tried pinching the top of my nose to ease the flow, the ache almost killing me.

***

When I got back from the A&E it was 8.30am and I had a criss-cross plaster across my face. I hadn’t wanted to go the hospital atall, but the bleeding wouldn’t stop and my nose looked knocked out of joint. I’d taken a cab down, but insisted Jan stay at home to get her sleep, she had work in the morning. She’d texted me throughout the night. I looked in the mirror. The bruising had spread to my eye area giving the impression I had two black eyes. All in all though it looked worse than it was.

The flat was empty. I checked the fridge. I’d hardly eaten, but more urgently I was thirsty as hell. I found a four-pack of Stella, and settled in front of the TV. Jan had left a note. MICK, PLEASE FORGIVE ME. I LOVE YOU. JANET xxx. She’d also left twenty quid.

To be honest, I felt sorry for her. She was fretting about it more than I was. It was an accident, she’d been angry, it was one of those things. Surely every bloke got a push or a slap from the Mrs now and then, it was no big deal. Soon I’d have the plaster off and it would be all forgotten. The last thing I wanted to do was burden Jan with any more worries.

Jan hadn’t had an easy life – she’d had a hard time growing up. She’d been bullied at school, and watched her father treat her mum like shit for years. When the old man finally croaked it six months ago, she’d been happy one minute, crying the next. I understood. Jan now went to counselling weekly, and things were improving. Looking up.

After the beers, I must have dropped off because when I woke it was 2.30pm. The kip had done me good. I munched a ham roll, pocketed the twenty quid then headed straight to the pub.

“Christ almighty, what happened to your face?” Tony the barman said as I pulled a stool.

“Oh, nothing, just a little accident.”

“An accident? You look like someone’s kicked seven bells out of you.”

Pouring my pint, he told me about his brother-in-law who’d been attacked up by the bridge. One of them nutting him before the rest laid in good and proper. They nicked his wallet, watch, phone, left him bleeding half-conscious on the floor. He’d had a plaster just like mine.

“I said I had an accident, Tone, okay?” I took my pint to a window seat. A couple of old boys looked at me then turned away. What was it with everyone? Maybe I’d have to concoct a story, get people off my back about it.

I spread out the paper, lost myself in the sports for a while. West Ham was rumoured to be signing a star player. They were on the up. I hadn’t been down Upton Park in maybe a year now, but back in the day the rucks were legendary. Hundreds of us running the rivals up Green Street and Barking Road. Mad times. Those were the days alright. Almost made me want to cry.

Life was so simple back then. You had your mates, a few quid in your pocket and not a worry in the world. Pop a couple Es and go clubbing, and that was another kind of happiness as well. But really, what it all boiled down to was money. In those days I was never without work. I’d have done anything, I wasn’t fussy. Carry a hod, fill a skip for the price of a night out, no problem. These days I just wasn’t in the same condition. I’d taken a few knocks, once slipped on a dodgy scaffold and very nearly broke my back. Maybe I’d just lost motivation. I didn’t know.

Jan said I should try night courses, try to learn something, get a skill. At Tesco she’d worked her way up from checkout girl to supervisor, and was now looking to become assistant manager. She’d done well. But college, me? I was in my thirties for God’s sake. I’d missed the boat.

But what were the other options? Sit back and remain skint and useless forever? No way. I’d have to reconsider things, I had no choice. I had another pint then picked up my phone. Called Rob.

“I want in.”

A pause. “Into what?” he groggily said.

“What we were talking about yesterday.”

“You’ll have to remind me mate, I’m fucked. I’ve been caning it since I saw you. I was up all night with this bird who was pure fucking psycho. Wouldn’t let me rest, Mick, serious. Couldn’t get enough of it. Thought she was going to grind me to death …”

“Glad you enjoyed yourself – but you know, what we were talking about. Work.”

“What work?”

“You – putting some work my way.”

“… Oh that,” he said atlast “Yeah Mick, of course… I can sort you out if you want… Yeah, course I can.”

We planned to meet within the hour – up the road, same pub as yesterday.

Rob was two hours late. Business, he said on the phone a minute before he walked in. People fucking him around, no end.

Heading into the pub he stopped. “Jesus H!” he pointed, every drinker in the pub turning my way. “Mick, your fucking face.”

Sitting in, he wanted to hear the news. “Right, fill me in. Every detail. I want to know who done it and where the fuck they are.”

There was nothing to tell, I told him. But I’d known the bloke for years and couldn’t exactly lie to him. “I had a little bust-up with Jan, you know how it is.”

“No I don’t mate,” he said. “What did you do to her, burn all her shoes or something?”

“Nothing like that. We just had a row.”

“You mean you whacked her and she walloped you back – with a baseball bat?”

“I didn’t touch her. She just gave me a slap, it was nothing.”

He looked at me. “Your bird did that to you?”

I tried to brush it off but Rob was serious. I wished I’d just told him a lie – got jumped by a stranger, anything.

“Come on, Mick,” he said, leaning in. “How long have we known each other? You can tell me. Whoever did that, I can have them sorted out.”

“Rob, it was nobody…” I said, then: “Look, let’s just forget about it. I want to talk about – you know.”

“Alright. It’s up to you.”

We got down to business.

“Well,” he told me. “Good news and bad news. Yes, I’ve got something for you – if you’re interested, that is – but unfortunately, you’re not going to become a millionaire overnight. Or anywhere near it. Which is a shame, because had you spoken to me a few weeks ago …”

“Look, Rob, just tell me what it is.”

***

HASAN’S SUPERSAVE CAR WASH AND VALET SERVICE was tucked in behind a parade of shops on the road into Romford. It was far from what I’d expected, but atleast it was semi-legit. Most of the blokes were illegals and spoke little English, but we still managed to have a laugh or two, and the odd prank as well. Because of my bruises they called me ‘the Fighter’.

Rob knew the boss, Mr H, through some extremely dodgy dealing (I didn’t ask) and told me I was in the right place for more lucrative opportunities, when those opportunities arose. Which they would. And soon. But to be honest I was glad just being back in the swing, doing a nine-to-five and taking home a wage. So the idea of a big score that could possibly land me a stretch inside was, for the moment atleast, not a pressing priority. I was happy.

Yet not all of my problems were solved.

One Sunday afternoon I went for a drink with Rob. He’d been caning it for two days and was filling me in on his weekend so far. There’d been Claire, Mandy and Brooke. But tonight he was gunning for Natasha, a raging tigress who spent her weekends drugging and shagging, then come Monday morning it was back to chambers and the boys with the wigs for her job as a legal secretary. The posh ones are the most perverted, he smiled, trust me.

“What about you and Jan?” he winked. “Do you ever experiment – roleplay, games and that? You must do something more than the old wham-bam thankyou ma’am.”

He was half-cut and so was I. I came clean. “No mate. In fact at the moment, quite the opposite.”

I elaborated further and he sat back to digest what I’d just said.

“What, not even a flicker?”

“Nothing. It’s gone dead.”

“Have you seen the doctor?”

“No way. Too embarrassing.”

He leaned in. “Well in that case, I’ll have to sort you out.”

“How?”

“You never heard of viagra?” he laughed. “I’ll get you some of the real deal. None of that fake internet shit.”

“But will it work?” I asked. “I mean, say there’s something wrong with me?”

“Mickey, trust me. We’ll have you back in the saddle in no time.”

That’s the last we talked about it, and as per usual, I didn’t see Rob again for weeks, and when I did, I didn’t bring it up.

Work carried on. But things with Jan were not improving. She’d be fine one minute, have the hump with me the next. Once, when she came home stressed, I suggested she maybe cut down on coffee. Try it, see if it helps. It was only a suggestion, but she went ballistic and threw a tin of beans at me which, if I hadn’t ducked, could have taken my face off.

One day I came home late. Jan asked me where the hell I’d been. Two wine bottles were on the table in front of her, one empty, one halfway down. She often had a glass or two, but tonight had gone overboard.

“You didn’t reply to any of my messages, where were you?”

I told her I hadn’t checked my phone. I hadn’t time. I’d done a late one, been working my arse off. I wasn’t lying.

“You’re seeing someone else, aren’t you?”

“Not now, Jan, I’m tired.” She’d been dropping hints about this for days.

I went to the kitchen for a cold glass of Coke. Jan was still ranting in the background. “Will you stop going on?” I called.

She appeared at the doorway, her eyes looking insane. “Who is she? The bitch that you get it up for. Come on, who is the slut?”

“That’s hilarious,” I said. “I think you need to sober up. Go to bed.” I lifted my glass and took a lug.

“You bastard!” She sprang at me and I felt something hard smash over my head, the glass of a wine bottle showering the worktop. I staggered sideways and saw her holding the remaining bottle-neck, lunging for my face. Dazed, I grabbed her arm and we wrestled left and right, Jan hysterical, growling like an animal.

Finally I got her hand to drop the glass, but then I felt a blow to my right eye, then to my left, and then the lights went out.

***

I woke up on the sofa with a cold flannel on my forehead and Jan crying tears as she nursed my wounds. I could hardly remember what happened. In fact, I was more worried for Jan – her make-up was streaked down her face and she was choking on her tears. Had someone died?

“Mick, I’m sorry… I’m so sorry…” she kept saying. Then it all came back to me. She’d done it again.

My face throbbed and I had a splitting headache. But all the crying, all the misery. I didn’t want to see her like this …

“Look, Jan, calm down. I’m alive, I’m in one piece, don’t worry about it.”

“I’ll never touch you again, I promise… do you forgive me?… I’m not a bad person… please, tell me I’m not a bad person …”

“Of course you’re not.” I leant forward to hold her, but something went in my back. Apparently she’d kicked me a few times on the floor as well. My pain caused her to wail even louder.

“I forgive you, I forgive you,” I said. “… but I think I just need to rest …”

I missed a couple of days from work, but when I returned I had the men crowding round me, admiring my bruises, patting me on the back with more jibes about being ‘the Fighter’, and there I was going along with it, doing all the moves. Work, despite the low pay, was admittedly quite a laugh.

One day, doing a full valet on a nice Audi A4, I got a call from Rob. He spoke quietly. “I don’t know if you’ve been told yet, but Mr H will be rounding some of you boys up tonight for a bit of work. A shipment’s in so it’s all hands on deck. Don’t say no, Mick – you’ll be rewarded, believe me.”

Rob was right. A few hours later we were told to shut up shop, and then we jumped in the vans and drove in a convoy down to Southampton, a warehouse near the docks. We spent hours loading up boxes (‘Turkish Olives’ the labels said) then drove back to London, to a lock-up in Dagenham for the off-load. It was a long night.

Afterwards, in the early hours, Mr H brought us to a little gambling club round the back of a grocery shop where he paid us generously. He smiled, patting me on the back. “I hear about you, Mick, ah? The fighter they call you.” Then he winked and said, “You like to fight with the woman, ah?” his mustashioed face creasing into laughter, and the whole room going up.

I laughed along hoping it was probably just a joke I didn’t get. But whatever, I didn’t care. I had a beer in my hand, a wad in my pocket and I was happy as Larry.

“Tomorrow, guys,” Mr H told us, lighting a cigar. “More work to do.”

I brought Jan out for a fancy meal. I bought her little gifts and even bought a new fridge for the flat. It was the first bit of decent wedge I’d had in years.

“See, Mick,” Rob said, noticing my new threads when I met him one evening for a drink. “Told you old Robbie wouldn’t let you down.”

He was right. It was all go-go-go. If I wasn’t at the car wash I’d be out in the van delivering boxes, or even in the lock-up helping to cut and bag the stuff up myself. Heroin. An unfortunate thing to be at the wrong end of – but a big profit maker.

I left Rob at the pub around ten o’clock and walked home. I’d told Jan I’d be having a drink after work and she’d said it was fine, no rush, enjoy yourself. We were getting on these days, hadn’t argued in ages. Strangely though, over the last few weeks she’d become pretty quiet. Uncharacteristically quiet, you could say. One day when I came home with another gift for her, a teddy bear thing with a love heart, she looked at me, then broke into tears.

Walking home I looked at the cars on the street. I spotted a nice Audi. A decent Saab. Right outside the flat was a bronze BMW M3 saloon. What a machine. I stood looking at it for a while. It was my dream to own one of those things. But who knows, the way things were going maybe one day I would. I headed up the path and into the flat.

“Jan, I’m home.” I threw my keys on the shelf in the hallway. No answer. The living room door was closed, which was odd. Then I heard noises. Moans.

I opened the door and this is the scene that greeted me – Jan leaning forward over the table and a six-foot black man behind her, his arse banging out a four-bar beat.

She turned. “Mick!” quickly righting herself and grabbing a piece of clothes.

The man, looking embarrassed, began swiftly slipping back into his trousers, white shirt and jacket.

I was speechless, holding the doorframe for support.

“This is Trevor, my manager …” Jan said, as if it somehow lessened things. “We were just … we were just …”

“Excuse me,” Trevor said, head down, brushing past me towards the front door.

My brain was moving fast and slow at the same time.

Jan was in front of me, crying now. “It was just sex, Mick … it was just sex …”

Something clicked and I sprang into action. I reached into the cupboard for the baseball bat and headed after Trevor.

Outside he was just closing the door to his Beemer. “You fucking cunt!” I yelled, and he put up both arms to protect his face as I shattered his side window. Again I swung the bat, putting a bruise in the windscreen, Jan screaming at me to stop, stop…

Trevor jumped out of the motor and I swung for the bastard, wanted to take his head off, but he ducked and came at me like a rugby forward. I fought hard, but before I knew it I was on the ground being beaten with my own bat. I heard the wood land next to me on the road. “No hard feelings!” he said, before jumping in his Beemer and burning rubber.

***

The next day, when I first woke up, I actually felt warm and happy. I’d been dreaming about all the money I was making. Then very quickly the events of last night fell over me like a ton of rubble. Janet was by her wardrobe, getting dressed for work. I sat up in bed, the bruises suddenly killing me.

“It’s over, isn’t it,” Jan said.

Out of habit I opened my mouth to protest, then heard myself say, “Yeah. I suppose it is.”

Jan, her back to me, started quietly sobbing. She left the room.

I lay back in bed for a while. There was no way I could go to work today in this state anyway.

Jan opened the door. She’d stopped crying now and looked stubbornly defiant. “You’ll have to move out you know – it’s my flat!”

I nodded, not looking at her. “I know.”

I heard her leave for work, slamming the front door behind her. I lay there thinking things through. I’d bought Janet everything, but all said and done, it hadn’t been enough. I’d been wasting my time. It was over.

Heading down the shop for a paper, I looked in the window at the ads for flats. A studio in Chadwell Heath was going at a good price. I phoned the number and the landlord must have liked me because he said if I had the funds I could move in as soon as possible. I did. I rounded all my worldly possessions into three black bags and moved in that very day.

I was just like everybody else I suppose. Absolutely useless at relationships.

The next day I signed-on then headed to work. When I got there, the car wash was cordoned off and the whole place crawling with police. I quickly turned back and phoned Rob, asked if he knew what was going on.

“Mickey, I’ve just had a call from Mr H. You are the luckiest man alive. The car wash and the lock-up have been raided. Hasan saw them coming and made a run for it – he’ll be out of the country by evening. All the other guys have been nicked. I thought that meant you as well. I was gutted. But you turned up late – good timing! Listen, I might shoot off for a few weeks as well, let it cool off. If I were you I’d keep your head down too. Let it all blow over.”

That day, I came to my senses. What had I been doing? I’d been swept along in the whole camaraderie of things, when in reality I was out of my league. Half an hour earlier and I’d have been picked up and thrown in jail. No way. Give me freedom any day. Even if it can be a bit shit sometimes.

I never heard from Mr H or the boys again. I didn’t see Rob for quite a while either. The last I heard he was running a bar on the Costa Brava. As well as doing other things of course. But that’s Rob.

Eventually I settled into a job driving a van for the Post Office. It’s a regular job, I can’t complain.

As for Jan, I saw her once down Lakeside Shopping Centre. She didn’t see me. She was with a man. Smallish bloke, a hard-done-by look about him. She was bossing him about, making him carry all her bags, and in the pushchair their twin babies were bawling away.

I’ve got a new bird myself. Of course we’ve rowed now and then, but she’s never hit me, not even once. Also, things in the trouser department are looking up, as they say. Turned out I was probably just drinking too much. I cut down. I was turning into a slob.

I like my new bird. We get on. You could say I’m even in love with her. It’s funny, people tell me she looks just like Jan.

Michael Keenaghan lives in North London. His writing has appeared across the web. Visit him here: www.myspace.com/michaelkeenaghan or www.twitter.com/mkeenaghan.


4 thoughts on ““HARD KNOCKS” by Michael Keenaghan”

  1. That was plain out enjoyable a good story of an okay guy who almost, but not quite, managed to bumble his life away. Most of us in this mugs game of writing can relate to that. All of us agree that we needed a bit of luck along the way, some of us (me) a whole lot more than a bit. Cool.

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