Barney walked round to the trailers with another beer can in his hand. The sun was just dropping but the air still felt warm. A rough circle was marked out with traffic cones and some of the younger men, those that were fighting, limbered up and shadow-boxed to one side of it. Most of these were over from the Worthing camp. Two older men in shirts and jeans were working out the order of the fights, calling out to the gathering group and drawing names in chalk on a stone slab. Gildy Cooper sorted the money with Lloyd Dozzell.
Lloyd, who took all the bets, liked to hide the ante on top of his head, under a tweed flat-cap. All the other bookies Barney had come across kept tabs in a notebook or a log, pencils lodged behind the ears, and counted the cash meticulously. But Lloyd had a unique way with money. He remembered everything. He took wagers seemingly without listening, glancing at the notes, stuffing them under his cap. Yet when the odds changed mid-fight he knew how much each man was in for, and what the bank was able to return. Gildy said Lloyd could hear money changing hands. He said that when Lloyd was a kid his father had sat him at the canasta table and made him deal the odds and spread the bets. Barney had been present at fairs and carnivals when Lloyd had guessed correctly how much change was in a jar. He measured out money like water. In his caravan he kept all the loose change he’d ever won in a five gallon container and he said that once it got to the top it would contain exactly eleven hundred pounds.
Barney pushed his way to the front of the crowd and took his place next to Ardan Halligan. There were a lot of faces he didn’t recognise pressed in around him. People often came from other camps to see the fights. The crowd listed, shoaled, swaying like waves in the ocean, and a general quiet came over the whole site until two kids, both no older than sixteen, emerged into the open space and squared off.
Straight away, Lloyd was taking bets. Single pale arms rose into the air and waved notes or credit bills. Lloyd walked patiently round, inside the circle, gathering up the money and giving the odds. Barney never liked to place money before the fight started. Most times he could tell early, within the first few exchanges, who was going to win. He either knew then, straight up, or he never knew at all, and if he never knew he never speculated. This first fight he couldn’t tell. It went slowly, both kids going for the jab-and-grab, throwing from range, then clinching. The crowd shouted at them to get on with it but the fight dragged and after a while, thirty minutes or so, one of the boys bent over exhausted, and waved it off. The referee, Jal Hanlon, held the other kid’s arms up and the crowd, those that had won, started to line up in front of Lloyd, who was spraying the money out from his fingers like a hand-fan.
Barney stood next to Ardan Halligan. Two names were called out and a couple of boys Barney didn’t know stripped out of their shirts and walked to the centre of the circle. Jal spoke to them both, gesturing with his hands, and they touched fists. One boy had a rat-tail and wore dark jeans, and the other was ginger-haired, close-shaved to the skull, and in a pair of jogging bottoms. They taped their hands and bumped fists then the fight began.
‘They’re both from the Worthing camp,’ Ardan said. ‘I’ve got thirty on the rat-tail.’
Barney could see why from the way Rat-tail moved. He was active, pressing the fight early on. He bobbed his head well, dipping from side to side, but Barney was unsure about his feet, which looked flat and heavy on the hard ground. Rat-tail shifted direction all in the torso and not the legs, and when he exchanged he came on in straight lines, giving the skinhead open angles to hit. The skinhead came out of a punch, rolling with the force in a kind of loose Philly Shell, and that’s when Barney put Sabine’s five on. The skinhead hadn’t landed anything. He didn’t even throw coming out of the exchange, but the way he drew Rat-tail on, offering out the shoulder, and then the way he moved laterally to free up punching space, told Barney the way the fight was going to go. Lloyd took the five at 4/5 which meant Barney stood to profit four pounds.
Ardan gave him a look and Barney said, ‘Watch the feet. Your Rat-tail man tells you what he’s going to do before he’s done it. Too heavy-footed.’
Ardan looked back to Lloyd, then at the fight and said, ‘Fuck.’
‘Now you know,’ Barney said.
Rat-tail came on again. He was small, a kid really, all forming muscle and unfinished body, yet he fought like a big man, slow in the legs, arms pitching heavily from side to side. The other kid, the skinhead, let Rat-tail duck and weave, and seemed content to wait, to let his opponent come on and come on until the punch was there and the fight could be won.
The small crowd started to get impatient again. Gildy Cooper wandered off. A man on the other side of the circle, possibly Rat-tail’s father, was screaming at him to get inside and to smash the cunt out. Barney watched the feet. Skinhead was in football boots. He stepped in, feigned to put his weight on the leading leg, but then drew back out, letting Rat-tail fall into range. He hit him with a quick snap-jab and the crowd groaned.
‘Thank God he didn’t swing,’ Ardan said.
Bartley Dozzell turned from the fight and said, ‘Be all over if I had that shot. Hook, uppercut, anything but that.’
They closed in for a few wild exchanges, then Skinhead moved out of range again and waited, hopping from one foot to the other as if to convince himself and his opponent he wasn’t as slow as he was. Both of them were bleeding from the nose. Barney finished his beer, crushed the can in one hand, and let it fall to the ground. Dogs on leashes barked. Barney could just hear them above the crowd. The punters screamed out for what they wanted their man to do. Ardan was quiet, but he threw little ghost jabs with every one of Rat-tail’s punches, willing him on, teeth bared. Some of the children lurked between the trailers, trying to catch a glimpse of the fight, while others, those that were allowed, sat on their fathers’ shoulders and looked down on the spectacle like little stone idols.
Rat-tail threw a wild right hand and the crowd roared. Skinhead bobbed, coming out head first, launching up with his own right. Rat-tail narrowly avoided it but the speed at which he was forced to move put him off balance. He stuck one hand on the ground and tried to spin away and around, in a kind of one-eighty, to keep himself front-on for the next punch. As he turned, Rat-tail brought his right hand, the one he’d had on the ground, swinging with the momentum of his body, in a wild arc. It was easy for Skinhead to stay inside this punch, to sit neatly inside the shadow of the slow-swinging arm, and get his feet planted. In the time it took the fist to come round, all the way from out wide, to meet him, Skinhead was already lining up his own shot.
‘Game over,’ Barltey said.
‘Fuck,’ Ardan said.
Skinhead hit him hard with his left hand. The crowd knew when to go quiet and the connection of fist on face cracked out of the trees and the earth beneath Barney’s feet. The punch came from the shoulder, not the wrist, so it travelled all the way along the arm, picking up momentum as it went, like a tidal wave. When it landed the crowd made a kind of sucking in noise. Barney kept his mouth shut and watched as Rat-tail went immediately horizontal. There was no mid-movement, no tumbling heavily down. One moment Rat-tail had been standing, throwing that clumsy, ungainly roundhouse, and the next he was reaching up off the ground, clawing on the air with both hands in an attempt to pull himself up, the eyes in his head like paper plates.
The crowd stayed for the next fight but Barney wanted to get back and check on Francie. He got his money from Lloyd, two copper coins and the returned five, and made his way back to the caravan. He’d wanted four pound coins so it felt like more money. Ten yards or so from the caravan the door opened and Gildy Cooper stepped out, coming down the mini-steps in his skin-tight red shorts, and closing the door behind him.
Barney was in his boots but they were still roughly the same height.
Gildy put his hands up and said, ‘Alright, Barney, I’m leaving.’
‘You like sneaking round a man’s home when he ain’t there, Gildy?’
‘Well, it ain’t technically your home, is it?’
‘Technically it ain’t yours neither.’
‘Hey. I saw Sabine was in and wanted to see how the little man was.’
‘I told you how he was earlier. If you wanted to see him you shoulda come to the hospital yesterday.’
‘Alright. Well, I’m leaving now, anyhow.’
‘It’s what Da woulda done, when he was rom baro.’
Gildy looked past Barney, to show he wanted to get round him, but Barney wasn’t moving.
‘You want me to explain the rules, Gild? You the rom baro and all. A man’s home is his castle,’ Barney said.
‘You got that?’
The smile slowly went and Gildy said, ‘Barney, I think you and I are gonna have a big falling out one day.’
Barney went inside. He looked out the door before he closed it. Gildy was hobbling away, back to the trailers. Sabine stood with her back to him, both hands on the table. Her apron lay in a heap on the floor and there were steady drips of water falling on it from the sideboard. Barney went into the bedroom. Francie and Queenie were playing with some toy cars on their bed. They looked up as he entered, curious.
‘Gildy been to see you?’ Barney said.
Francie nodded slowly, dumbly.
Barney closed the door. Back in the main interior, Sabine turned round. She took a deep breath and smiled hopefully, smoothing herself down with both hands. Barney approached. He drew out the five pound note and gave it back to her. She waited, leaning against the table. Barney angled his head to one side and gave her a look. Then he took a small step back, his boots scuffing the carpet a little. She tried a smile. He took his watch off, placed it carefully on the side, turned back to Sabine, lined her up, and lashed her hard across the face with the back of his hand.