Benjamin Wal: a story



White Collar


Thirty seconds into the seventh bout of the card, after the usual stalling and flailing, a clean blow unambiguously connects with Giuseppe "The Mechanic" Milano's chin and, for a fleeting moment, a few dozen punters trick themselves into believing they are watching a bona fide sporting contest. It's a loping, telegraphed haymaker that clips and twists Giuseppe's jaw so that his face is jarred into a comic double take, gormlessly surprised, his headguard bracketed with a fine spray of sweat. When he turns back, another glove, a left, is there for him, meeting his nose with a teasing push. Not devastating, but it's too much for his legs. He plonks his arse on the canvas like a protesting child and sits there while the ref counts and the crowd heats up. Violence, finally.


Terry has made his way from the crowd to the ring, banging his palms on the edge of the canvas. An amplified voice – where does it come from? – says, "Please stand away from the ring". But Terry's man is down.


"Clear your head, Giuseppe, you're all right mate, you're all right."


The ref is counting fast and Giuseppe is looking up at him.


"Get up!"


Terry feels hands on his shoulders.


"Easy."


"Get up!"


"Easy, fella."


Giuseppe rises to his feet at the count of eight. The ref looks into his eyes.


"He's fine!" says Terry.


"Step away from the ring, mate."


"Sorry, sorry."


Terry steps back. The men at his shoulders gently pull him further until he's among the tables.


In the ring Giuseppe jumps on the spot and cranks his neck from side to side. The ref asks a question and Giuseppe nods. He asks him again and he nods. The ref signals to resume the match and the crowd lets out a cheer.


"Yes, boy!" says Terry, hoarse with relief.


"That your friend?" says someone nearby.


"Too right. Give him some encouragement."


"I've got the other bloke. Alan."


Terry turns to the voice. He sees a man with a cauliflowered ear and an off-centre nose. He's wearing a suit like all the other men, but the suit is white, and his emerald tie has a dimple beneath the knot.


"Lucky shot", says Terry. "And he's back up. Look, watch."


"Was barely a punch and he went down."


"You take it and stand up."


The boxers are cautious now. Giuseppe is having trouble raising his gloves. He weaves and shimmies, pointlessly. Alan, showing his mouth guard, moves forward, on-beat, clumsy timing. He throws a punch in slow motion; Giuseppe takes it on the shoulder – but there's that left again, quicker than before, more of a jab, but to the nose, and a jab to the nose, for a first timer, is enough to make him reconsider the hard road to warriorhood. Giuseppe whimpers – if Terry can hear it everyone can – and puts his gloves to his face. He is still for a moment, then he falls back on his arse again, waving his arms for the ref to call it off.


As the bell rings, men and women around Terry start to boo. Alan is declared the winner. He gets into position for a photograph with the ring girls. They show their teeth in an approximation of a smile. Alan beams at the camera. Giuseppe is still on the floor, gasping.


"My own son takes a stronger punch", says the white suit.


"Yeah well bring him along and we'll see", says Terry.


"He's six."


"You're fucking six mate. 'Scuse me."


Terry goes back to his table.


"He tried his best, brave soul", says Giuseppe's mum.


"It was an illegal punch, surely", says Giuseppe's girlfriend.


"We got any more Prosecco", says Terry. "He'll want Prosecco. Lots of it."


"I'll get some", says James.


"Hang on, James. Where were you? I was down there."


"Watching from here."


"Why are you smiling?"


"I'm not. It's funny."


"That's our mate. What have you ever done?"


James ignores the question and looks to the table. "Is there a bucket, do we need a bucket?"


"More ice, please", says Giuseppe's girlfriend.


"Prosecco plus ice", says James, already moving towards the bar.


Terry sits down and closes his eyes. Music is playing again, concussive trance at ridiculous volume. He wants to go home.


"They do MMMA here as well."


"What?"


"MMMA." It's Giuseppe's girlfriend. She's drunk, slurring.


"MMA", says Terry.


"MMA."


"What, you want Giuseppe to have another go?"


"Maybe James could. He's big. He said he's taken lessons. In jude itsu."


"He's soft, Vanessa. You could go over to him right now and push him over."


"What about you?"


"I don't believe in fighting."


"You got into that."


"Yeah and where were you?"


"I was cheering!" says Vanessa, in mock outrage. Her septum is pierced and glinting with a silver hoop. She has this way of teasing Terry – he assumes it is a technique used only for him – where she lifts her chin, showing the underside of her nostrils, her metal. She holds the pose and puts on a supercilious smile.


"I didn't hear any cheering", says Terry, although he did hear her voice cutting through everything when Giuseppe's arse hit the floor. She yelped and then – he was sure – she laughed. She actually laughed!


"You're not supposed to go to the ring", says Vanessa.


"He trained ten weeks for this."


"He went to the pub", lifting her chin again, "he didn't train."


"I held a bag for him."


There's a fresh bottle on the table, shivering in ice. James is still smirking as he takes his place next to Vanessa.


"Good fight though", says James. "Least there was some action."


"Well I'm proud of him if no one else is", says Vanessa.


Giuseppe's mum makes a noise of assent and James laughs and burps and laughs again.

The ring is ready for the next bout and some entrance music plays: LL Cool J for the third time that night. Then for the opponent a more low-key number by Adele, filling the hall with billowy melodrama before cutting off one line into the first verse. The opponent, refusing to step into the ring, says, "You played the wrong one! That's not my song!"


"Get on with it!" shouts Terry, impatient now for the night to be over.


The opponent talks to the ref and then hops back along the ramp through the entrance way. AC/DC comes on and out he skips, playing air guitar.


"Good tune, this", says James.


Terry looks at him with disdain. At school James was a parasite, always hassling Terry, trailing him across the playground, taking his cue for everything, copying his work, pilfering his best jokes. And now here he was. Somehow employed. Somehow earning more than Terry. Somehow talking to Vanessa and making her laugh, knowing full well that Terry's had his eye on her for a long time – since at least the summer of 2017, when he caught her giving a blow job to Giuseppe in the hedge maze at Tody Gibson's wedding. He didn't expect Giuseppe to capitalise so strongly. It became his first serious relationship, going on three years; Giuseppe was delighted with himself and started to talk like a counsellor – "You'll meet someone, Terry, I know you will, but you have issues…" And every night Terry still thought about Vanessa and how he almost went into the hedge maze with her, but hesitated, he couldn't remember why, and how she'd gone to Giuseppe – her second, yes, second choice – and grabbed his hand and dragged him along towards the maze's gates.


James' mouth is moving.


"What?"


"Where we going after this?"


"Home."


"Fuuuck that – Empire!" says James, before turning to Vanessa and whispering in her ear. She laughs uncertainly and makes eye contact with Terry. Drop him, he wants to say. And the other one. Come home with me.


"We're going out for a fag", says James.


"Giuseppe'll be back in a minute", says Terry.


"He'll be getting some medical attention, I should think."


James and Vanessa leave their seats clumsily, clasping each other's elbows and giggling. Terry finishes his eighth or ninth glass of Prosecco and tries to focus on the ring. The two men – both heavy-gutted, with arms and legs like stretched rubber – are stuck together in the far corner. The ref separates them and within a second or two they're stuck together again, eyes closed, exhausted. At the bell they stumble to their corners where they are wiped down with towels. In no time at all the bell is feebly rattled for the second round. They both stand and wobble forwards, synchronised, their paunches thickly creased. No one throws a real punch – instead they merge ear to ear and lightly pat each other, as though they're divulging secret information, before slumping shoulder to shoulder, knees buckled. This time the ref doesn't separate them. Someone shouts "Bollocks!" and the two men collapse to the floor. The ref counts to ten.


Terry smells the anomalous, babyish odour of talc and lemon.


"Giuseppe!" Terry stands and goes for a hug. Giuseppe's grey suit is starchy and freshly laundered.


"Where's Vanessa?" says Giuseppe with a dazed look.


"She went outside for a minute."


"Where's James?"


"Didn't expect you to be out so quick."


"Oh, my Peppy!"


"It's OK, I'm OK, Mum", says Giuseppe, dodging a kiss to the cheek.


"I can see bruising already!"


"No serious damage, don't worry."


"You're so brave. That man was dirty, he punched you while you looked away!"


"Aim of the game, Mum."


"Supposed to be a bit of fun and he hits you. Whap."


"Prosecco?" offers Terry.


"No", says Giuseppe, pointing to his face. "Painkillers."


"Sit down."


"Where's Vanessa?" he asks, relentless.


"She'll be back in a second. Sit down."


Terry wishes he could get out from under his own disappointment. He doesn't know why he pinned his hopes on Giuseppe. "The Mechanic". He isn't even a mechanic. He wanted to be a mechanic and meandered in that direction after school, but the pay was bad and the work was hard and he was always hungover. So he became an administrator for the council. Terry is an administrator for the local college. They're all administrators (Terry's parents were administrators; Vanessa is an administrator; Giuseppe's mum has retired after a long career in administration) – except for James, who designs websites and rakes it in. As teenagers, Giuseppe was the tough one, the leader and rule-setter. At the age of fourteen, for having the nerve to wear shorts on a hot day, Terry had cowered as Giuseppe slapped his bare pale legs with both hands, chopping at them until they burned red, Terry protesting wimpily, frightened of what would happen if he dared strike back. Now that they were older – now that they were thirty – Giuseppe had an opportunity, thought Terry, to refine that aggression, that weak-seeking sadism, into athletic form. Instead, here he was: the leg slapper, in a square suit, bloated, unable to look Terry in the eye, a fumbling quitter.


"You did well, Giuseppe", says Terry. "He got lucky with that right. No one could stand that."


"I didn't see it."


"How do you feel?"


"Tired."


"We'll get you home soon."


Giuseppe lifts his eyes to someone behind Terry. It's Alan, tieless in a light grey suit, shirt half-buttoned, radiating a small-time superstar aura, saying, "Don't hate me."

He reaches across to Giuseppe and they shake hands with a mutual "Good fight."


"Yeah, good fight", says Terry.


"How's your face?" says Alan.


"Fine."


"Oi, I got the ring girl's number", says Alan, on to the real subject.


"Which one?"


"Does it matter? She's called Priceless."


"Fair play."


Terry thinks he misheard. "What?"


"Priceless."


"Must be her stage name", says Terry.


"Ring girls don't have stage names", says Giuseppe.


"Why not?"


"It's her name. Priceless", marvels Alan.


"My girlfriend's just popped out for something", says Giuseppe.


Giuseppe's mum is looking at Alan with open suspicion. He flashes a smile and waves at her.


"You need to apologise to my son", she says.


"Mum –"


"Apologise?" says Alan.


"Apologise to my son, for hitting him like that. He could have brain damage."


"Them's the rules", says Alan holding up his hands.


"Ignore her", says Giuseppe.


"Bloody rules'll get someone killed."


"Here", Alan touches Terry on the shoulder and hands him a phone. "Take a photo of us two?"


Giuseppe and Alan put their arms round each other.


"Hold on", says Alan, rearranging his arm so that it is hooking Giuseppe's neck, pushing down his head, Alan's other fist frozen just above it, ready to punch or knuckle the moon-white bald spot. "Take it!"


Terry takes the photo.


Giuseppe pats down his hair and says, "Do a proper one this time."


"Nah, this'll do", says Alan, taking the phone from Terry.


"Take one on my phone, Ter", says Giuseppe. But Alan is on his way, heading through the bustle towards the bar. The man in the white suit stops him and shakes his hand, flicking a sardonic look to Terry and his table.


"Where did you say Vanessa was, out the front?" says Giuseppe, cringing through his various agonies.


"Yeah, she'll be back."


"Is James with her?"


"Nah. I dunno. You sit and rest and I'll go find them."


Terry is grateful to be leaving just as the next fight is due to begin. The Corn Exchange hall is overheated and BO-ridden. A rotten place to spend a summer's evening. And the insistence on suits? Terry got his from Topman that afternoon – it looked perfect in the shop mirror, but now it's obvious when he walks that the trousers are too short, and after a curry and a barrelful of carbonated drinks the jacket is too tight.


Outside it's warm but raining. One or two people under umbrellas scuttle from awning to awning. James and Vanessa didn't bring umbrellas, did they? Terry takes out his phone and dials James. It goes to voicemail.


"'kin hell", says Terry, taking off his tie and unbuttoning his collar.


"Problem?" says the man in the white suit, suddenly there under the dripping ledge, with an unlit, half-smoked cigar in his mouth.


"Looking for a friend."


"It wasn't those two lovebirds falling over themselves to leave, was it?"


"Not lovebirds, but yeah, probably, do you know where they went?"


"Possibly downstairs, in the rec room."


"What's going on down there?"


"Nothing, not on a Sunday. But you get some peace and quiet. Plenty of shadows if you keep the lights off. I'm Frank, by the way."


"Terry."


Frank lights his cigar, puffs twice, and exhales a balloon of smoke into the moist air.


"Won myself hundred quid so far", says Frank.


"You're not supposed to bet."


"Everyone's betting."


"It's charity."


"I paid for a ticket. Done my bit."


Frank, who must be nearly fifty, awakens some instinct in Terry to remain polite among his elders. Patiently they listen to the rain and the soft swipe of cars passing through puddles.


"Ever consider getting into the boxing game?" says Frank.


"No. The boxing game? They're amateurs – not even that. Normal blokes letting off steam."


"You seem to have a passion for it, banging on the canvas like that."


"I don't know anything about boxing."


"You don't have to know much to make money from it."


"I'm OK, thanks."


A good time to leave, but Frank steps in front of the door.


"What are their names, your friends?"


"James and Vanessa." Vanessa. When he says her name it's like he's speaking a different, more beautiful language, something Biblical, ancient.


"I'll let you know if I see them."


Terry passes as if through a veil back into the muggy darkness of the main hall. There's action in the ring but attention is scattered. It seemed so promising, three hours of civilian scrapping. But now, after several bouts of lethargic pawing, the thrill is gone. There is only the expanding dread of tomorrow morning – Terry feels it; they all do – and the unbreathable atmosphere of the working week, just starting to fall like heavy pollen from the ceiling.


Giuseppe is the first to see Terry approaching the table.


"Find 'em?"


"Yeah, I think they're downstairs, you wanna come with?"


Giuseppe looks stricken.


"You don't?" asks Terry.


"No, sure, I will. Be back in a minute, Mum. You'll be alright, yeah?"


"Don't you mind me", she says.


"She's fine."


"Here", she says to Giuseppe, "don't let him bully you."


"I'll look after him", says Terry with his cheesiest smile.


Terry is relieved that Giuseppe is with him. This way, if they happen to walk in on something, Giuseppe can take the lead. And if things get too wild, Terry can break it up – yes, he knows he can break it up, is sure he is up to that. Let Giuseppe get his punch in, ideally somewhere tender on the face, to uglify James a little bit. Then in comes Terry with the lads, give it a rest. And maybe Vanessa could see him, Terry, between the brawlers, arms outstretched, holding them at bay, the essence of reason and calm.


The rec room is windowless and cluttered with gaming artefacts. There are three apparently workable table football units. Against the wall stand old arcade and pinball machines with no power running through them. At the far end, beyond a rubble of beanbags, is some rudimentary exercise equipment: assorted weights, a paint-spattered treadmill, rolled up yoga mats. Giuseppe switches on the light.


"No one here", says Giuseppe. "Must be outside."


"They're not."


"Where then?"


"They must have gone somewhere else."


"Empire. She would have texted me. She hasn't texted me."


"You want a game?"


"Mm?"


Terry gestures to the table football. "Been a while."


"Yeah. I'm crap, but yeah."


"You got a quid?"


"No."


"Hang on."


Terry finds a coin and slides it in. After a pause the table clicks and gurgles and a ball rolls out of the chute. He takes the ball, holds it to eye level, and looks past it to Giuseppe.


"You ready?"


Giuseppe is pallid in the excessive light. He is sweating. There are white talc patches on his suit.


"I'm ready."


Terry takes the first two goals and then realises what he's doing and slows down. Intentionally he botches the next few shots and pretends to slip his hand off the metal rod while attempting to save a slow-moving ball.


"How you feeling now?" asks Terry, bothered by Giuseppe's mopey silence.


"I'm embarrassed."


"Don't be. Oh. Nice one. Nicely played."


"It's... it's Vanessa."


"I'm sure there's nothing..."


"Things haven't been right. She's..."


"Oof, Jesus! Well played. Three on the trot. Need to equalise with this one, come on."


"If I tell you..."


"Tell me what?"


"Tonight I was supposed to win."


"It was a lucky punch. Early on you had him worried. I could see his nerves. Nine out of ten times you beat him."


"I was supposed to win and I was supposed to propose to Vanessa."


"What?"


"I was going to propose to Vanessa."


The ball gently rolls to the feet of one of Terry's players. He leaves it there.


"Tonight?"


"Yes. In the ring."


"In the ring?"


"You gonna kick that ball?"


"No. I concede."


"Who wants to marry a loser, eh?"


"I think it's probably for the best, mate. I mean tonight..."


Giuseppe digs into his jacket pocket. He pulls out a furry purple box and opens it with reverence and expectation, as if it is Terry he wants to marry.


"That's nice", says Terry. A gold band with a row of tiny diamonds. "Expensive?"


"Two grand."


"Ah. Ouch. Shit, really?"


"You think that's enough?"


"What, to spend? Yeah. 'course. 'kin hell, Giuseppe. Two grand!"


"Mum said I should've spent more."


"No. That's enough. That's enough. But, hey, put it to one side, wait for another time, somewhere nice and quiet."


"This would've been perfect."


"You know, I don't think they would even let you propose in the ring. There isn't exactly a lot of time between fights."


"Do you think she would have said yes?"


"Yeah. Clearly. Yes. You dopey twat. Come on. Let's go back up."


Terry was eager for some time alone to think things through. What if she said yes? Would he be the best man? Or – impossible to consider head-on – would James be the best man?


"Wait", says Giuseppe.


"I need another drink."


"There's something else."


Okay, here it is. Yeah, I'll be your best man. Yes, I will. Cheers, pal. Pleasure. Privilege.


"It's Alan."


"Alan? What about him?"


"We had a sort of an arrangement."


"Yeah?"


"He was supposed to go down."


"What?" Terry laughs.


Giuseppe, with pleading, forgive-me eyes: "He was supposed to go down. I... Paid. Him."


The last word is barely audible, a phlegmy crackle.


"Oh."


"I was supposed to win."


"How much did you..."


"Three hundred."


"Knobhead."


"I know."


"When was he supposed to go down?"


"First round. When he hit me – when he really got me – I knew he wasn't going to do it. I couldn't see properly; it was all blotchy. But I knew when I stood up and saw his face that I'd been fucked over. And then, afterwards, what could I say?"


"Give me back my money! For a fucking start."


"In front of Mum? In front of Vanessa?"


"Let's go up and find him."


"And do what?"


"He stole from you."


"No, I can't."


"I will."


Terry's anger takes him as far as the top of the stairs, where he slows and catches his breath. He can feel a headache coming on. In the main hall there are twelve or fifteen people in the ring, dancing. The fighting is over.


James and Vanessa are back at the table, looking at their phones. Terry sits down. They don't register his arrival.


"Where's Giuseppe's mum?" says Terry.


"Called a cab for her", says James.


"Where you been?"


"Out for a fag, we said", says James.


"Giuseppe's worried."


"What for?"


"Try talking to him."


Terry spots Alan and Frank in the ring. He downs a glass of Prosecco – is it his? – and goes to adjust a tie that is no longer there. He walks to the ring, skims under the bottom rope, and clambers over to Alan. It takes a while – ten seconds? a minute? – before Terry figures out what to do. Alan has his jacket off and his shirt is stuck to his back.


"Alan."


"The Mechanic's sidekick! Come on, have a drink with us", says Alan, putting his hand on Terry's shoulder.


Terry shakes off the hand and says, "You owe him three hundred quid."


"Yeah? What for?"


"He paid you to go down."


"Speak a bit louder mate."


"Have a swig of this", says Frank, holding out a hip flask.


"Look", says Terry.


Alan stops dancing and turns his chest to Terry. His pupils are dilated. He is licking his lips.


"You wanna make a fuckin' problem of this?"


"Look", says Terry. "You've crossed a line."


Alan laughs. Frank, who didn't seem to hear the exchange, joins in, laughing even harder.

Crossed a line. Terry doesn't know how to rebound from this. Soapy Tuesday evening shite. Crossed a line. You've crossed a line! Fuck.


The music stops for a split second and then hammers back, louder, waves of synthetic bass throttling the room. Alan gurns and twitches, lost in the rhythm, forgetting Terry, seeing through him.


Frank says, "Your friends are back, I see. Had quite the ron..."


Terry can't hear him over the music.


"What did you say?"


"The lovebirds", shouts Frank. "Had quite the rendezvous in the gents!"


"Yeah fine not my business", Terry shouts back, just to say something.


On his way out of the ring Terry bumps shoulders with one of the ring girls – Priceless? – and she says "Owww" louder than she needs to. The man she is with says "Watch the lady!" Terry can still hear laughter behind him, around him.


Bleary-eyed, Terry roams to the gents, skirting tables and knocking his hips against empty chairs. A large man, a bouncer, stands at the door.


"Toilet's closed."


"I need a piss."


"Closed."


"Just a piss."


"You're not doing coke in there."


"No, no coke, you can watch."


They go in and the bouncer watches as Terry unzips in front of the urinal. His ears are ringing. His piss is clear and nearly endless. He is conscious of, but somehow comforted by, the presence behind him, the shaved head, the black bomber jacket.


"Did you see a couple in here, few minutes ago? I mean a man and a woman. Getting up to... stuff. Or anything else suspicious? I sort of have to know."


The bouncer clears his throat and says, "Done?"


"There you go, done. You can lock up now."


"Wash your hands."


Terry turns back and washes his hands, avoiding the mirror.


Back at the table Giuseppe is drinking, glugging, from a bottle.


"Steady on, Giuseppe", says Terry.


"Here he comes", says James. "The fun police."


"I had a word with Alan", says Terry to Giuseppe.


"Woop woop! That's the sound of da po-lice", says James.


"James, I just want to say, actually", says Terry, "I just want to say you're a fucking prick. Doing this in front of Giuseppe."


No one says anything and Terry wonders if he really spoke out loud. There's a looseness to him now, a passing shimmer of confidence that seems to arrive and leave simultaneously.


"Did you hear what I said?"


"What are you on about? Doing what?" says James.


Terry lunges across the table. His fist leads him – then seems to waver at his arm's full extent and twist ineffectually in the air about three feet from James' face.


James stands, shouting, "Fuck you doing!"


Terry, on the right side of the table now, gliding for an instant above his sense of humiliation, passes Giuseppe and goes to strike James, who picks up his chair and wields it, legs pointing at Terry's chest.


Someone says, "Got some aggro over here!"


The music cuts out and the lights come on. The jubilation in the ring falters and dies. Terry is dizzy, out of breath, definitely drunk. Everything is too vivid and happening too quickly.


"It's all right, Ter, we're going to Empire", says Giuseppe, close to his ear.


James puts down the chair and brays maniacally, trying to shift the scene into fun and games. Vanessa is looking at her phone, looking at herself in the phone, pouting.


"Easy tiger, the old fighting spirit", says James, jabbing the air. "We're going to Empire. Giuseppe and Vanessa are getting married. Woo!"


Giuseppe can barely stand.


"You proposed?" asks Terry.


"Ye—yeah. She said yes, Ter. I was rea... realwistic with her, Ter. I said, I'm not perfic. 'cause I'm not perfic, Ter. But now, now is the time. I shouldn't... I shouldn't be drinking. Painkirrers."


"Congratulations. Congratulations, Vanessa."


Without lifting her head Vanessa says "Yay", and feels for a zit on her cheek.


"Chanks", says Giuseppe. "Cheers. Thanks. Ha!"


"Who's the..." says Terry. Everyone is looking at him now. "Doesn't matter."


"Let's go for him – Alan – me and you, we can take him, I'm ready for him."


"No, no."


Vanessa says, "Terry doesn't believe in fighting."


"We'll get him. Rematch. Later." Giuseppe taps his temple. "I know his tricks, his moves. But, no, forget it", his voice rises to a squeak, "forget iiiiit. The party... starts now, my friend." On tiptoes Giuseppe takes Terry fully in his arms and gives him a wet kiss on the neck. "Come on – Empire! Let's cerebrate!"



Benjamin Wal is a writer and playwright from Bedford, England. White Collar is his first published story.