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– The Boxer –

 

 

Johnny Morris was going to be married.  Right then, as he drove along South Queensferry’s High Street on that sunny spring morning in 1969, he was the happiest that he had ever been in his whole life.  Mind you, his state of happiness had less to do with the fact that he was going to be married on the coming Saturday, and significantly more with who he was going to marry and the benefits that he anticipated flowing from the marriage.

 

Johnny would have been the first to acknowledge that his fiancée, Susan, wasn’t the prettiest rose in the garden.  That didn’t matter to him, though, because he had recognised a long time ago that she was the richest and best connected, and hence the ideal choice of a marriage partner.  For it so happened that Susan’s daddy was Chairman of one of the biggest breweries in the land, the very brewery which employed Johnny as its Area Manager for the East of Scotland.

 

At only twenty-nine, Johnny was the youngest Area Manager in the brewery’s history.  He was immensely proud of that achievement, knowing that through his own hard work and determination – and sheer ruthlessness, he had to admit – he had risen from lowly barman to Bar Manager to Hotel Manager to his present position in the space of only a few years.  With the help of his soon-to-be wife and her father, he expected a further rapid increase in his status, a directorship being his goal by the time he reached thirty-five.  Quite often these days, and the more so the closer the date of the wedding came, he had visions of himself taking his seat at that enormous, polished mahogany table in the oak-panelled boardroom of the company’s headquarters in Charlotte Square in Edinburgh.  But that was for the future.  Here in the present there was his wedding to think about, and before that his stag party to enjoy, the arrangements for the latter being the reason behind his fleeting visit to the Queensferry Arms Hotel so early on that midweek day.

 

Whistling loudly and cheerfully, Johnny stopped his car directly outside of the hotel, stepped out onto the pavement, locked the car and stood back to admire it.  He couldn’t resist pausing like that.  The car was brand new, a Daimler Saloon, its maroon paintwork still glistening, its cream leather interior still smelling of decadence and luxury.  It was a birthday present from Susan, a precursor of the many good things to come – and a reminder of why he felt so happy at that moment.  Yes, there he was, young and fit and good-looking, on the threshold not only of a new decade, but also of a new life and a brilliant career.  By the time he dragged himself away from the car to walk through the pool of sunlight at the open door of the hotel, his whistling had grown even louder and more cheerful.

 

The hotel was a small, picturesque coaching inn dating back hundreds of years.  It occupied a special place in the brewery’s extensive portfolio of pubs and hotels, but not because of its quaintness or its history.  It happened to be a favourite of the Chairman’s, a regular stopping-off point for him on his frequent trips around the country.  A room in the hotel  - the largest one, with the best view – had been refurbished by the brewery and was kept available especially for him.  As well as that panoramic view of the estuary and the two bridges, it had an en suite bathroom and a king-size bed with real goose down pillows.  Before the day was out, Johnny would be flopping down on that big bed and burying his spinning head in those soft pillows.

 

‘Good morning, Mr Morris,’ the waitress smiled, almost colliding into him.  The large, laden breakfast tray which she held out in front of her seemed too heavy for her small hands and thin wrists.

 

‘Morning,’ replied Johnny.  He tried to give her his sexiest, most dazzling smile in return, but it looked more like a leer to her.

 

‘Mr Burt is at reception,’ she continued before turning on her heels to hurry up the wide staircase and deliver the tray to one of the guest rooms.

 

Johnny stopped to watch her shapely legs and her small, rounded buttocks as they disappeared up the stairs.  It was just like with his new Daimler: he couldn’t resist pausing to admire the sight.

 

‘Thanks,’ he called after her.

 

‘Creep,’ she said under her breath.

 

Having heard the voices, Jack Burt, the Hotel Manager, emerged from the reception office to greet Johnny at the foot of the stairs.  Jack was small, plump and middle-aged, with rosy cheeks and an almost perpetual grin.  The stub of a cigar protruding from a corner of his mouth was also almost perpetual, his trademark.  Like Johnny, he had been brought up in Fife and had learned his trade in the pubs and clubs of its tough mining heartland.

 

‘I was just about to have my morning coffee, Johnny.  Can I offer you some?’ he asked, brushing a mixture of dandruff and cigar ash from the lapels of his dark three-piece suit with one hand, and pointing back to the office with the other.

 

‘Naw, you’re fine, Jack.  Only popped in on my way to Edinburgh to check that everything was okay for tonight.’

 

‘It surely is.  Come on and I’ll show you.’

 

Jack led the way up the staircase, turning a sharp right at the main landing and climbing a few more steps until he came to a smaller landing and a set of double doors.  Wheezing a little, he opened one of the doors and ushered Johnny into the function room.  With four ceiling-to-floor windows overlooking the High Street, the room took up the full length of the hotel’s frontage.  There was a small bar and an old, upright piano at one end of it, while a half-dozen tables and several stacks of chairs were squashed into the other end.  The two men stood in the wide, empty space in the middle of the room.

 

‘We’ll spread out the tables and have four or five chairs at each,’ Jack explained, adding, ‘Just as you asked, Johnny.’

 

‘We’ll be stocking up the bar later on.  A couple of kegs of heavy and lager, and plenty of whisky and other spirits.  One of my boys’ll be serving for the duration and another one’ll be on hand in case he needs any help.’

 

Johnny nodded.  His ‘boys’, he intoned to himself.  Do you hear him, eh?  He’s always going on about his fucking ‘boys’.  Always surrounding himself with skinny laddies.  The wee, fat poof ...

 

‘Great, Jack’ he spoke out loud.

 

Jack continued, ‘And the kitchen’ll be serving up some food.  Sandwiches and hot pies to begin with.  Then stovies later on.’

 

‘Great, Jack,’ repeated Johnny.  ‘Mind now, it’ll be a free bar.  And mind and keep a tally of the cost of the food and drink and send me the bill.’

 

‘Sure thing,’ smiled Jack, knowing full well that Johnny had no intention of paying any bill.  Not only had he been handed the poison chalice by being asked to host Johnny Morris’s stag night, but he would also have to pay for the thing out of his own pocket.

 

‘Aye, and throw in a few boxes of cigars for the lads, will you?  A selection.’

 

‘Okey dokey.’  Jack’s smile had all but vanished.

 

Johnny turned to leave.

 

‘Right, I’m off,’ he called with his back to Jack.  ‘See you around seven o’clock.  Will my room ... the Chairman’s room ... be ready for me then?’

 

‘Aye, it will!’ Jack shouted after him.  ‘Arrogant prick,’ he added more softly when Johnny was out of sight.

 

 

Back in his car, its V8 engine purring into life, Johnny was whistling loudly again.  He was looking forward to the party.  It would be a good, old-fashioned booze-up, maybe his last real booze-up before he moved into posher circles.  He had invited about twenty Hotel and Bar Managers from across his area.  He expected them all to turn up, of course.  But not out of friendship; none of them were his friends, really.  No, they would turn up because he was their boss; because he held the power of hire and fire over them; because one word from him and they could lose their jobs – and their homes into the bargain.

 

The whistling stopped abruptly.  But they would turn up out of respect as well, wouldn’t they?  He was one of them, after all.  He had come through the ranks like them.  And he was hard like them; tough.  He had shown that often enough, hadn’t he?  He was a fighter, a boxer.  Ever since that day when his old man took him out to the back green and threw a pair of boxing gloves at him, he had known how to fight properly, to hurt without getting hurt.  He had been in hundreds of scrapes, hundreds of bar fights, and he had come out on top every time.  And he still had his pretty looks, didn’t he?  Yeah, just like Muhammad Ali.

 

He grinned at that last thought.  Pretty Boy Morris.  That’s what they would have called him if he had taken up boxing professionally.  Yeah, Pretty Boy Morris.  But not like Jack Burt’s pretty boys.  His young, pretty boys with their long hair and tight trousers and coloured shirts.  They would be working at the party tonight.  But he would much prefer if that waitress was there to serve him and the lads.  What was her name again?  Yeah, Julie.  In her early twenties, probably.  The short black hair, the black miniskirt, the tight white blouse, those big knockers poking over the edge of her tray.  The complete opposite of staid, flat-chested, keep-my-knickers-on-until-after-the-wedding Susan. Yeah, he would much prefer to have Julie looking after him tonight, especially afterwards in that big bed of the Chairman’s ...

 

He tried to picture Julie’s face.  She reminded him of that pop star.  He had seen her on the telly a few times.  Her name was Julie, too, wasn’t it?  Uh-uh, Julie Driscoll.  That’s right.  What was that song of hers again?  This Wheel’s on Fire.  Yeah, that was it!

 

The power of the engine was surging through the car, which seemed to leap forward suddenly on its way out of the town.  Johnny grinned again, leaned back in his seat and began to hum to the words of the song:

 

This wheel's on fire

Rolling down the road

Best notify my next of kin

This wheel shall explode!

 

 

If I had known that Johnny Morris was lusting after my fiancée, Julie, I wouldn’t have hesitated at all to obey his request that night.  I was one of the ‘boys’ whom Johnny regarded so contemptuously, although at eighteen (going on nineteen) I didn’t consider myself a ‘boy’; most certainly not a ‘pretty boy’ in the way that Johnny implied it.  While Johnny’s party was underway, I was working downstairs, looking after the lounge bar.  When I locked up the bar after closing time, the party was still going strong, so I went upstairs to join Billy G and Jim R, the two other ‘boys’ who had been detailed to serve in the function room.

 

The room was smoke-filled and noisy.  I could see that all of the tables were occupied, a handful of stout, hard-faced men engaged in a rowdy conversation at each one.  Johnny was sitting at the table closest to the bar.  With the jacket of his expensive suit hanging on the back of his chair, his shirtsleeves rolled up, his tie loose, a large cigar clamped between his teeth and a big smile on his face, he seemed to be enjoying himself.  Sitting opposite Johnny and looking equally relaxed, but still wearing his jacket and waistcoat as if in deference to the presence of his Area Manager, was Jack Burt, the Boss.

 

Billy G and Jim R were standing idle at the front of the bar, each with a pint in front of him.  According to them, the party up until recently had been quite a jovial affair, with a good deal of banter and a bit of piano playing and singing.  But now the guests had settled down to do some serious talking and drinking.  With the Boss’s agreement, his ‘boys’ were taking advantage of the lull by relaxing and having a few drinks on the house.  Naturally, I did likewise.

 

About half-an-hour later, the Boss beckoned me over to Johnny’s table.

 

‘I just wanted you to meet my best barman,’ he said to Johnny, a distinct slur in his voice.

 

‘Nice to see you, best barman,’ Johnny drawled, sticking out his hand.

 

When we shook hands, Johnny’s grip was unnaturally tight, as is often the case with drunk men.

 

‘He’s usually a sensible laddie, this one,’ the Boss continued, ‘but the daft bugger has just got himself engaged to our wee waitress, Julie.’

 

The Boss had already made it clear to me on several occasions that he didn’t approve of my engagement to Julie.  She was five years older than me and divorced, with a kid from her previous marriage – a ready-made family.  He felt that I was destined for better things.  Quite correctly as it turned out, he predicted that the relationship wouldn’t last.

 

‘You’re far too young to be engaged,’ agreed Johnny, his hand shooting out again, ‘but congratulations anyway.’

 

When we shook hands that second time, I noticed that Johnny’s smile had disappeared, his eyes had narrowed and his grip was even tighter than before.  I could sense the aggression in him.

 

Then the Boss lit the fuse of the explosion that was soon to follow.

 

‘He can look after himself, though,’ he said.  ‘A bit of a boxer, this laddie.  Just like yourself, Johnny.’

 

Swaying a little, Johnny stood up immediately and brought his face closer to mine.  He was several inches taller than me, and at least two stones heavier.

 

‘Boxing, eh?’ he asked.

 

‘Yeah,’ I lied.  ‘But only amateur stuff.  Some medals in the schoolboy championships a few years ago.’

 

I had only ever worn boxing gloves once before.  And I had been in a boxing ring just the once.  It wasn’t even a ring, really, but some benches that big Dan, our PE teacher, had put together in the form of a square.  Being small and skinny, I had made up the whole boxing myth as a way of keeping the local thugs at bay.

 

Johnny looked me up and down.

 

‘What weight, then?’ he persisted.

 

‘Flyweight,’ I replied quickly, hoping that that was a plausible answer.

 

‘I used to fight in featherweight class, but I’m a bit heavier than that now.’

 

Johnny was swaying more pronouncedly now.  Suddenly, he took a step back from me and began to do that Muhammad Ali thing with his arms hanging limply at his sides.

 

‘Hit me!’ he goaded.  ‘Go on, hit me!’

 

While I hesitated, Billy G and Jim R came up behind me, the Boss stood up and the rest of the company fell silent.

 

‘Come on, hit me, you little prick!’ Johnny shouted.

 

So I did, square on the nose, with a short jab driven by the power from my stomach muscles, just like big Dan had shown me that day in the makeshift boxing ring.  If Johnny had intended to display his lightning reactions by ducking or blocking my punch, he must have forgotten, because he sprawled backwards on top of his table and the one next to it, spilling drinks and ashtrays as he went.  In their haste to avoid the latter, the men at those tables jumped up from their seats and lurched into neighbouring tables, causing more spillages.  The domino effect was complete in seconds, by which time the room had been transformed into a landscape of overturned tables and chairs, broken glass, and some twenty drunken, newly angered men, seeking revenge.

 

Then, as if a cue had been given, the men began to take out their anger on each other, attempting to settle a lifetime of old scores and grudges in the process.  In the space of another few seconds, Johnny’s guests were turned into a mass of cursing, grappling, punching adversaries.  The scene was like one of those barroom brawls that you saw in the old Wild West movies.

 

Having had some experience of dealing with barroom brawls, the Boss had sidestepped the melee early on.  Now he was opening the double doors of the function room and ushering out the ball of flailing fists and feet.  The ball, with me, Billy G and Jim R at its front, tumbled out of the room, along the main landing, down the staircase, across the foyer and straight out of the hotel, the Boss having had the presence of mind to rush ahead and throw open the door.  As the ball began to untangle on the pavement, the Boss grabbed me by the elbow and propelled me into the back seat of a waiting panda car, the Boss’s wife also having had the presence of mind to phone the police as soon as she heard the commotion coming from the function room.

 

‘Everything’s under control here, lads,’ I heard the Boss say to the two policemen.  ‘Just get this one home, will you?’

 

A couple of minutes later, still protesting my innocence, I was deposited at my front door.  Back at the hotel, Johnny was still out for the count, spread-eagled on his back among the debris of the function room.

 

 

When I returned to the hotel the next morning, I wasn’t sure if I still had a job.  After all, provoked or not, it was me who had punched the Area Manager and thus triggered the whole episode.  The Boss, Billy G and Jim R were sitting in the office drinking coffee.  Jim R was sporting an enormous black eye (apparently from a kick delivered unwittingly by his best friend, Billy G), but Billy G seemed to have emerged unscathed from the fracas.  Apart from a few little bumps and grazes, I had nothing much to show either.

 

I was relieved when I heard the Boss chuckle.

 

‘If you think that’s bad,’ he said, nodding in Jim R’s direction, ‘you should have seen Johnny Morris’s two big shiners.  He left here first thing this morning, white as a sheet, muttering something about getting a pair of sunglasses and worrying about what his fiancée was going to think.’

 

Then he turned to look at me and chuckled again.

 

‘Aye, well done.  And don’t worry.  We’ll no’ be seeing the bold Johnny back here again for a good while.  I handed him a bill for his party ... and the damage.  Somehow, I don’t think I’ll be waiting too long before his cheque comes in the post.

 

‘Have a dekko upstairs,’ he continued gleefully in response to my puzzled expression.

 

As I climbed the staircase, I could feel the breeze coming down to meet me.  When I reached the landing, I saw that the door on the wall directly ahead of me had been wedged open.  The door gave access to the fire exit corridor, at the end of which was another door leading out to a set of iron stairs at the rear of the building.  The external door had also been wedged open.  And there, propped against a wall in the narrow space between the two doors, drying in the sea air, was the mattress from the Chairman’s king-size bed.

 

From then on, Pretty Boy Morris became known as Pee-The-Bed Morris in our place.

 

 

– o –

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