Today Coldwell is desolate, a crumbling town whose streets are lined with empty shops and populated by ghosts. Two decades ago, the city thrived on the back of a coal industry so powerful that in 1984, the union staged a strike intended to bring Britain to its knees. Instead the government broke the strike—breaking Coldwell along with it. The effect is seen in five citizens of the town: a heroic footballer, a Dean Martin–obsessed thug, an increasingly desperate striking miner, a crusading journalist, and the reporter’s troubled sister. As the story shifts between 1984 and 2001, it becomes clear that what was a political action in the mid-1980s caused permanent changes in the foundation of British life. The bodies buried in 1984 will not stay underground forever.
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Born Under Punches
By Martyn Waites
A MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2003 Martyn Waites
All rights reserved.
Roeder punted the ball into the air and Tony Woodhouse, tracking it, seeing it float over the pitch in seeming slow motion, knew it would be his.
It was a lucky kick, a desperate, scrambled attempt to clear the goalmouth from an Arsenal corner with most of his team back defending. Tony saw the chance for a break and moved. He ran towards it, studs spewing gouts of turf in his wake, ignoring the shouts, focusing on the ball, only the ball. His marker, an Arsenal midfielder, clocked Tony's action and moved in, shadowing, then blocking him.
Tony dropped his left shoulder, making as if to follow the move through with his whole body. The Arsenal player anticipated the movement, took a sudden change in direction. Tony pulled back before his foot hit the ground, kept the course he was on and ran.
'Fucker!' A half-grunt, half-shout from the Arsenal man, now left standing.
A perfect dummy. Tony ran on, the Arsenal man just a receding blur of shirt.
Tony saw the ball arcing down before him and jumped for it. He planned on connecting his head to the ball, knocking it on to someone else – Beardo or the Waddler; they were usually up there mouching – then following in support. But there were no other black and white shirts near him. He went up, grunting, legs compressing then combusting like engine pistons. He was on his own.
He pushed harder, higher, twisting as he went, meeting the ball with his chest rather than his head. He absorbed the impact, deadening the ball in the process, dropping it at his feet. Good. He could work with it now.
He looked up. Two Arsenal defenders were making their way directly towards him. He had no time to think, to look around, scope out other players. He put his head down and ran straight ahead, powering up the centre, the ball never more than inches in front of his toes, held there as if by invisible elastic.
The two defenders converged on him, one either side. Tony kept going, still straight at them, glancing side to side for support. He gave a quick look to his left; Beardo was up shouting, gesturing to a spot past the two defenders, where he would have a clear run at the goal. Tony, thinking on the hoof, calculated the distance, lined up the pass. The left defender saw him telegraph the movement and changed his position, challenging Tony by running straight at him. Tony reacted, thoughts and impulses turning into action with lightning speed. He switched the ball to his other foot, then back, keeping his run going, selling another dummy, sending the defender in the wrong direction.
He reached the penalty box. One defender left, eyes stuck to Tony's feet, trying to follow or anticipate movement. The defender made the first move. He slid forward, coming in fast and low, stretching out his right leg, risking a penalty if the move misconnected, committing himself. Tony skipped the ball over the man's leg, followed it through, and there he was with a clear shot at goal.
His chest was on fire, his legs ached with exertion, his breath ragged. He ignored it all. The rest of the ground, the other players, the crowd tunnelled away into darkness and shadow. There was just him, the ball and the goal. The goalkeeper stood hunched, intense, dancing from side to side in anticipation.
He struck the ball, aimed for the top left-hand corner. The keeper read the action, flung himself at full stretch to cover it. If the ball had gone where Tony intended it to go, it would have been saved. But there was too much spin on it. It sailed to the right, missing the keeper's fingers, gliding just under the bar and smacking comfortably into the back netting.
The home crowd went wild. The collective pent-up frustration, hopes and faith of a whole city in microcosm were released in a solid block of cheering so loud, so unrestrained, that it became an almost physical thing. The air warmed with the sound, the pitch vibrated, the stands shook. It was like being at the centre of a minor earthquake.
The sonic wave reached Tony, brought him back from his zone, back to the moment. He stuck his arms in the air, fists clenched, added his own roar to the crowd. He turned to the Gallowgate end, held the gesture, and the roar, if anything, intensified.
Other team members ran up to congratulate him; jump on him, kiss him, share the victorious euphoria of release. They spoke to him: one-liners, crude encouraging phrases, shared jokes. Tony's lips moved, but it couldn't be called responding. He barely noticed what they said, what he said. Coursing through his veins was a feeling beyond anything he had experienced before: money, sex, drugs, booze, adrenalin. Nothing came close. Thousands of people screaming his name in love and adulation. In worship. This was it. This was life – his life, the life – and it was fucking brilliant.
It was a perfect, defining moment, and he held the pose, arms in the air, willing that moment never to end.
* * *
Tommy Jobson stood at the far end of the bar in the Trent House in Newcastle, one eye on the room, the other on the door, mentally trying to block out the noise from the jukebox.
He held himself separate from the rest of the bar both by the sharpness of his clothes – smart two-piece, tie, shined shoes and neatly combed hair – and also the dark concentration that enveloped him like an invisible cocoon. The bar was getting crowded, but no one had troubled him or even gone near him. The noise from the jukebox sounded like a guitar being smashed on the floor with a train rumbling past in the background and an emaciated black-clad heroin addict wailing about bats. It just notched up the rage inside him. He would store that, channel it when the time was appropriate. And that time would be very soon.
Tommy had been waiting patiently for over twenty minutes, a barely touched pint of Becks in front of him, alert, enduring all manner of aural rubbish from the jukebox, picking up inane conversational snippets from the self-consciously arty clientele. The noise stopped, replaced by the Smiths and their whiny art school angst. Tommy took a small sip of beer. At least it wasn't Billy Bragg cranking out dirgy protest songs for the miners again.
The punters lapped it all up. Black Levi's, DMs and quiffs for the students, second-hand antique suits and jackets for the local hipsters, Gitanes and black polo necks for the ultimate poseurs. One of the black polo necks was flinging his arms about, monopolizing his table, not letting anyone else speak. Tommy felt irrational anger well up inside. He wanted to go over there and grind his beer glass in the smug cunt's face, shut him up. But he controlled himself because he was here on business. He breathed deeply, holding it down, putting it in reserve. He took another sip of beer. Went back to waiting.
But not for long. The main door opened and in walked a man, quite tall, hair curly, greying and long, wearing a Hawaiian shirt over Levi's, buttons straining over an expanding gut. Over ten years older than the bar's average punter, he looked self-deluded enough to think he was still one of the kids. The man walked through the bar, straight into the gents.
Tommy nodded. From the far end of the room, Nev, Tommy's partner, detached himself from behind a corner table and followed the man in. Nev, one inch short of a behemoth, with a flat-top haircut, was dressed casually in shades of pastel shirt and slacks. He looked like a nightclub bouncer gone golfing.
Tommy straightened his tie, smoothed his hair and, with a careful, measured stride, followed.
Nev stood guard inside, blocking entrance or exit with his massive bulk. The toilet was small, cramped. A stained stainless-steel urinal trough ran the length of one wall. Two cubicles opposite. The walls were plastered with old posters for bands and concerts, scrawled over with graffiti. Two marker pens by the sink had been left by the management to encourage it. One of the cubicles was empty, the other Occupied. Tommy knocked on the door. A sniffing, coughing voice replied: 'Someone in 'ere. Not be a minute.'
Tommy swallowed, breathed in fully, exhaled slowly.
'Hello, Neil.' The words clipped, controlled.
The sniffing came to a sudden, tense stop behind the door. Tommy waited.
'Who's that?' asked a shaky voice eventually.
Tommy sighed. 'You know who this is, Neil. Don't play games. Come out. I want to talk to you.' The tone measured, the words sounding carefully chosen and rehearsed.
The bolt was pushed back slowly, the noise reverberating as if in a dungeon. Neil stepped out, nose twitching, swallowing hard. Tommy, gearing himself up, smiled.
'Long time no see, Neil,' he said slowly. 'Where you been hiding?'
Neil's face blanched white, showing up the redness in his nose. 'Nowhere, honest. I've just been around, you know.'
Tommy waited, eyes boring into Neil's, breathing increasing.
'Look ...' began Neil, 'I know what you're thinkin', but it's not like that, honestly.'
Tommy frowned. 'What am I thinking, Neil?'
Neil sniffed, swallowed hard. 'That I stiffed you. Fucked you over.'
Tommy allowed himself a small smile. Neil's white skin turned almost translucent. 'Let's get this straight, Neil. You're only in business because I allow you to be. Because my bu-bu-boss allows you to be. That's the nuh-nuh-new deal.'
Neil flinched at Tommy's stutter. He knew it wasn't a good sign. He nodded, shrugged. Attempted a smile. 'Aw, c'mon, Tommy, wassa matter, man? I'm playin' straight with yuh ...'
Tommy, with razor-sharp speed, grabbed Neil's collar and twisted, pushing him back against the cubicle frame. Neil's eyes bugged out, almost on stalks. When Tommy spoke, he managed to keep his voice low and controlled.
'Really, nuh-nuh-nuh-Neil? You've been heard shouting your mouth off all over town. Saying huh-huh-who do I think I am? About how you're going to ru-ru-rip me off, how I'm only a boy doing a man's job, how I'm there for the t-t-t-taking. Worthless cu-cu-cunt.' He twisted the collar tighter. 'I'm in chuh-charge now, Neil. I'm your new boss. And just because I'm new doesn't give you the right to badm-m-m-outh me, does it?'
Neil shook his head vigorously.
Tommy took a deep breath. He could feel his face reddening as his control slipped. He exhaled. Kept it together. 'Good. This is what's going to happen. I'm going to give you two days, and in those two days you're either going to come up with my money – all of it – or my product back. And it is my product. OK?'
Relief expelled itself from Neil's body in a huge sigh. He nodded.
'OK. Thank you ...'
'But,' continued Tommy, 'I cu-cu-can't let p-p-people take the p-p-p-piss, can I? I've go to remind you who's boss, don't I?' He pulled out a wooden-handled knife from his, jacket pocket. The blade glinted and sparkled in the toilet's weak yellow light.
Neil stared at the blade, legs buckling, head shaking. 'Look!' he shouted. 'It wasn't just me.'
Tommy smiled. 'I knu-know that. Let's discuss it.'
Tommy pushed him back into the cubicle, following him in. He cut a strip off the front of Neil's shirt, stuffed it into the man's mouth and, with a smile, went to work.
Nev, standing guard, averted his gaze. Although he was hardened to what was coming next, something about the way Tommy worked disturbed him. Not the muffled screams or the blood. It was the fact that Tommy insisted on whistling, or sometimes singing, Dean Martin songs as he got down to business. With no trace of a stutter.
Now that, thought Nev, was really scary.
Ten minutes later, in the car, Tommy was sitting behind the wheel looking flushed but relaxed and happy. Almost postcoital, Nev would have thought, had the word been in his vocabulary.
'Ah,' Tommy sighed, 'that's amore.' His eyes glinted with malicious glee. He had got what he wanted.
Nev grunted in reply.
'Right,' said Tommy, sprightly once more. 'Fancy a trip to the seaside?'
Rio sat on the seafront at Whitley Bay, a pastel and neon-lit palace of exclusivity, supposedly owned by a member of Duran Duran. Brand-new and notoriously hard to gain admittance to, punters had to show they fulfilled the correct criteria of age, attitude and aspiration before they were allowed in, because it wasn't just a bar they were entering, but a lifestyle, a dream.
Tony Woodhouse had no trouble getting in. The management even bought him free drinks in recognition of his achievements that afternoon. Consequently, he loved everything about the place. The décor, the atmosphere, the music. The girls.
Poised and confident, stylish and sophisticated, they were there for more than just a Saturday-night pull. They were showing what they had, giving glimpses of where they were headed, expressing, but not flaunting, their upward mobility. The boys all loved this and responded accordingly, raising their game too.
Tony was dressed in a double-breasted suit, the dark weave of the material shot through with a silver check that caught the light when he moved the right way. With his sleeves rolled up and his shirt buttoned to the neck, he knew he looked the business. He was with his old school friends from Coldwell, the mining town along the Northumberland coast. They couldn't match Tony financially, being either down the pit, in office jobs or unemployed, but they could match him in their hopes and ambitions. That was why, dressed in their finest smart casual, they came back to Rio week after week. Because once inside it didn't matter what they were the rest of the time. Once inside, they willingly surrendered to their dreams and allowed themselves to be held – like Tony – in Rio's aspirational Miami Vice-like grip.
Post-match had been a blur for Tony. He had conducted a short interview for Match of the Day while still on a high. The only thing he could remember about it was telling the interviewer he still had a long way to go, a lot of things to prove. Then out of St James' Park and down the coast road to keep his weekly appointment with his old school mates. Although life seemed to be taking him in a different direction, that was no reason to stop seeing them. If the Match of the Day interviewer had asked him about that, he would have said that they were still his mates and they still had a laugh together. And that, Tony would have said, looking straight to camera, was the important thing.
If he had been asked what he intended to do with the night he would have answered: Have a few pints with the lads, a few laughs, do a few lines and if I'm lucky pull some skirt. Well, maybe not the bit about doing some lines. Jimmy Hill wouldn't be happy with that.
They had bar-hopped along the seafront, ending up in Rio where they' stood drinking beer, scoping the action, telling their stories, having a good time. The music was brilliant. Frankie's 'Two Tribes' segueing into Jeffrey Osbourne's 'Stay with Me Tonight', which in turn became '1984', the Eurythmics needlessly reminding everyone what year it was. Tony, high on the booze, the drugs and the goal, had barely stopped grinning all night. He couldn't have been happier. Time of me fuckin' life, he would have told Match of the Day if they had still been listening.
And then he saw her. Standing with a group of friends but, to him, she stood out immediately. Quite tall but given extra height by her spike heels, she was dressed completely in black. Short, flared skirt over tanned legs, tight vest top, short jacket. Her hair was long and dark and her figure curved in all the places he considered important. Make-up used only as and when needed. Tony couldn't help staring. She stared back, their eyes locked and he was in lust.
He looked at his friends, pointed at their glasses. Despite none of them being empty, they all nodded. He pushed his rolled-up jacket sleeves even further up his arms, tossed his gelled-back floppy fringe from his forehead, and walked – like the camera was still on him, the crowd still watching – a circuitous route to the bar. She stared right at him, watching him, letting him approach.
'Hi,' he said.
She smiled back. It seemed brighter than neon. 'Hi.'
Tony, using his charm but playing it safe, offered to buy her a drink.
She thought for a moment. 'You can, but I'm with friends. We're drinking in rounds.'
Tony stepped up a gear, gave his dazzling smile. If smiles could win games, he thought, this one would get me a hat-trick. 'No problem.' He turned to the other girls. 'What would you like, ladies?'
The girls all giggled, made comments about his generosity and accepted his offer. The girl he had singled out rolled her eyes at such an obvious and tacky gesture, but she smiled when she did it.
Excerpted from Born Under Punches by Martyn Waites. Copyright © 2003 Martyn Waites. Excerpted by permission of A MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsPROLOGUE: Nowhere Fast,
PART ONE: Dead Man's Town,
PART TWO: Two Tribes,
9. Now and Then,
PART THREE: Secret Lovers,
PART FOUR: Reckoning,
Epilogue: How Soon Is Now?,