Chapter One: The Fight
It is difficult to be certain when the events and the telling are separated by such a span of time, but I suppose that it all started with a fight.
I was the youngest of three children. My brother, Callum, was nine when I made my entrance into this world in 1930. My sister, Morfydd, was five.
Dark and sturdy, my sister inherited Ma’s fiery Welsh temper when roused. Legs planted firmly apart, one hand on hip, she would wag her forefinger at the object of her ire as her tongue delivered pointed slivers of reproach that could make the recipient cringe. I saw boys twice her size wilt under the force of her rage. Fortunately for the male youth of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, it took a great deal for my sister to unleash her temper and she mellowed as she grew older. She would have developed into a fine woman, good-natured, loving and loyal. She never had the chance. The war claimed her before she reached her twenties.
Callum took after our father, a gentle man who was never quick to temper unless very sorely provoked. Da’s distaste for violence and strong language was all the more surprising when considering his upbringing in a working-class district of Glasgow and his employment in Tyneside as a docker.
Callum was my hero. Tall for his age, he towered over me like a demi-god. Possessing Da’s unassuming manner and quiet charm, not to mention his rugged good looks, Callum was popular with his peers, male and female alike. He and Morfydd were very close; he would do anything to protect her. As I grew old enough to appreciate such things, I knew that he would do the same for me.
Most of my childhood memories are hazy or fractured, nothing more than snippets. Except for one. I can recall with a clarity that hasn’t dimmed over the many intervening years the time that Callum fought the Mahoney brothers.
* * *
I was about five when the fight took place, which would put Callum at around fourteen. He had taken me and Morfydd to the scruffy piece of waste ground, two streets from our house, which the local kids would pretend was St James’s Park, home of Newcastle United Football Club. It was a late summer evening and dusk was approaching as the two teams hammered away at each other’s goal, two rolled-up jumpers placed on the ground a few yards apart. That evening Callum played for the ‘away’ team, Sunderland, and the Mahoney brothers were all in the Newcastle team.
They were a fearsome bunch, those Mahoneys. The eldest was Mitch, so-called because he was never in school. The Mitcher Man (or Truancy Officer to give him his correct title) had given up trying to make Mitch attend school years ago. Mitch was nearly fifteen and more than a match for most boys his age—and, indeed, many older than him—in a fist fight. He was built like a brick shithouse, as we used to say: not particularly tall but almost as wide, with a barrel-shaped torso constructed of solid muscle, supported by legs as wide around the thigh as my five-year-old waist. Mitch later had a spell with a travelling fair as a bare-knuckle fighter, with a great deal of success so we heard, before the war arrived and interrupted everyone’s careers.
Mitch’s brothers were younger than him by three and five years, although they were showing signs of filling out to the same dense shape as Mitch.
That summer evening, I was tired and irritable, a fairly normal state for a five-year-old as bedtime approached. I sat on the ground alongside Morfydd and watched the football for a time without complaint. Then I began to long for home and the comfort of Ma’s lap. I started to whine and tug at Morfydd, getting to my feet and nagging her to call Callum to take us home. She could see that the game was tense with Newcastle, losing 8-9, pressing for the equaliser before darkness stopped play. She tried to shush me with a hug, but she was no substitute for my mother. I started crying and called out to Callum.
At that moment, Mitch happened to be running past the spot where I stood at the edge of the playing area. Zealously competitive as he was, Mitch must have been afraid that Callum would leave and thus bring the match to a premature end before his team could tie the score. I tell you, football is serious business in Newcastle.
Mitch skidded to a halt. He raised one great ham fist and whacked me around the ear. I doubt that he even considered what he was doing but acted upon instinct, much as he did with his own brothers.
There were gasps from the other players. Mitch had overstepped the mark. Even in those rough times, it was not on for a boy to strike a playmate’s younger brother. That was the older brother’s sole prerogative. Not that Callum had ever felt compelled to exercise it.
Mitch’s blow cut off my whimpering in mid flow. Luckily for me, Mitch had not put anything like his full power into the clout. My ear throbbed and felt uncommonly hot, but it was the shock of being struck by one of my brother’s friends that stunned me into keeping my mouth firmly shut. I understood enough to realise that Callum could not ignore the violation.
Morfydd scrambled to her feet, looking scared and uncertain. I scrabbled at her dress until she grasped my hand and held it tight. Never one short of words, she too was stung into silence.
Mitch stared at me. His eyes grew wide as realisation stole across his broad features. Even had he been the apologising sort, he knew, as every child present knew, that Callum could not accept an apology and forget about it. The issue could only be settled in that time-honoured playground tradition: the fistfight. I believe that Mitch genuinely regretted striking me. Not because of the inevitable consequences—he had never been one to shy away from the rough stuff, and often instigated it—but that he felt ashamed of the act itself. Still, it was done and could not be undone.
Mitch shrugged his shoulders.
“Oops,” he muttered.
He turned to face my brother.
Callum strode towards us. The other boys, the match forgotten, wordlessly gathered behind him and followed. As Callum halted in front of Mitch, the others formed a loose semi-circle and waited. The expressions on their faces were anticipatory, lustful, like hyenas about to gorge on carrion. There is an unwritten code of honour in the playground and these boys knew it had been breached. It could only be remedied with the use of fists. It mattered little who won the fight, only that there be a fight. That was the way things were.
My brother slowly raised his fists into the classical boxer’s stance. He said nothing, but his steely grey eyes bored into Mitch. It is one of my abiding memories of Callum, standing there on that patch of waste ground in the fading light, the breeze ruffling his deep-brown hair, his expression one of grim resolution as he beckoned his opponent on with his eyes. He looked so noble and downright heroic, and I loved him at that moment with a strength and clarity that has barely faded over the years. At the same time, I was scared for him.
Although some months younger than Mitch, Callum was a good six inches taller with a far superior reach. His willowy frame belied a wiry strength and feline agility. Da had taught him boxing and wrestling together with some less ethical moves for use in times of dire need. This was more than likely one of those times.
I had seen Mitch Mahoney fight once before. It had not been a pretty sight. Callum had let me watch for a few minutes before whisking me away home, but it had been long enough. Mitch fought like a wounded tiger. He employed any means at his disposal to maim his opponent. He punched, squeezed, scrammed, kicked, bit, gouged and pummelled. He used any part of his anatomy that happened to be handy—forehead, elbows, knees, heels, teeth, thumbs—to inflict pain. He was one of the most feared boys in the area, even among older youths, and for good reason. I was afraid he would kill Callum.
Mitch’s brothers formed part of the semi-circle of bodies behind Callum. As my brother squared up to Mitch, one of them broke the silence by shouting a message of encouragement to Mitch.
It was enough to spur him into action. He lowered his head and charged at Callum with frightening speed. For a split second, it looked as though that initial headlong rush would end it there and then. Mitch would catch Callum in the midriff and his bulk would bowl my brother to the ground where Mitch could immediately bring to bear his repertoire of dirty tricks. As Morfydd yanked me out of harm’s way, my bladder nearly let go, so certain was I that the game was already up for Callum.
Mitch was fast, astoundingly so for one so bulky. Callum was even faster. At the last possible instant before Mitch enveloped him, Callum deftly stepped aside. Mitch clutched at air, his momentum carrying him on. As Mitch shot past him, Callum aimed a short, straight right that connected with a dull slap to Mitch’s left ear. There was a sharp intake of breath from the onlookers and I felt the excitement go up a notch.
It should have ended there. Callum had repaid with interest the blow that Mitch had dealt to me and it should have been enough to satisfy the playground code of honour. I thought they would shake hands and call it quits. That was until I saw Mitch’s expression.
Mitch stopped in his tracks and turned slowly to face Callum. His ear must have been smarting from the force of Callum’s blow, but he made no move to rub it. His eyes were alive with excitement and a grin approaching rapture creased his face. His bloodlust fully aroused, Mitch looked vibrant, as if the very purpose of his existence was being fulfilled. Callum must have known in that moment that there was no chance of ending it quickly. The reason for their fight had become irrelevant. It was enough for Mitch that there was a fight. Everyone present could see that Mitch would scrap until he or Callum dropped.
Callum did not waste breath speaking. He simply stood and waited.
He didn’t have to wait long. Mitch charged him again, less wildly this time and ready for my brother’s side-step. As Mitch approached, Callum tensed as though to spring aside once more. Mitch’s eyes darted to the side in anticipation, but Callum stood his ground and pole-axed Mitch with a right hook that sent a shudder through the onlookers. Mitch thudded to the soft ground with a splat, left cheekbone already swelling.
I couldn’t help myself. I squealed and jumped up and down on the spot, nearly wetting myself once more. I felt Morfydd’s hands on my shoulders and her breath on my ear.
“Hush, Johnny!” she hissed. “It’s not over yet. Look at Mitch!”
Mitch was sitting on the ground, shaking his bear-like head. His grin widened. His left eye was rapidly closing, giving his beatific expression a lopsided, manic look. He lumbered to his feet. This time he walked towards Callum, his arms raised to protect his face as he approached within range of my brother’s fists.
The battle proper began.
It must have continued for at least ten minutes, although it seemed much shorter to us looking on. Callum made his greater height and agility count. He inflicted more damage to Mitch Mahoney in that one fight than had been inflicted upon him in countless previous fights combined. But it was not one-way traffic. Mitch achieved some measure of success on the few occasions that he was able to penetrate Callum’s guard. One of Callum’s eyes was also closed, his lips and cheek wet with blood, and he grimaced as he moved as though one of his ribs was cracked. But Callum could be thankful that the fight was taking place in open space where he had room to keep skipping out of reach and avoid too much close-quarter stuff. Mitch’s sheer bulk, brute strength and enthusiasm for confrontation would have quickly overwhelmed Callum in a confined space.
Night-time had almost completely fallen. The sky was clear and the stars that twinkled into view provided sufficient light to illuminate the combatants as they continued to batter away at each other. I watched transfixed, clinging tight to Morfydd’s hand. We both knew better than to run to fetch an adult to stop the fight. Much as neither of us wanted our brother to be hurt, Callum would resent our interference. We feared that resentment more than his pain. Besides, young and inexperienced as we were in the art of pugilism, we could tell that Callum was inflicting far more damage than he was sustaining and the end of the fight was nigh. This must have also been apparent to the other onlookers.
Morfydd noticed first. I heard her sharp intake of breath and sensed her stiffen. I followed her gaze. Through the gloom, I could make out two figures that had detached themselves from the cluster of boys that followed every blow of the fight with rapt attention. The two figures tentatively approached Callum and Mitch, who were too engrossed with each other to notice them. As the two interlopers circled behind Callum, I realised who they were: the younger Mahoney brothers. As their identities became clear, so did their intentions. They each meant to grab one of Callum’s arms from behind, giving their older brother free access to Callum’s face and body. Although I have sometimes wondered about it, at that moment there was no doubt in my mind that Mitch would take full advantage of such an opening.
I drew a deep breath and yelled at the top of my shrill voice, “Callum! Look out behind you!”
Callum whirled around just as the younger Mahoneys were reaching out to grab his arms. He reacted to the new threat upon instinct. He drove a fist into each of their faces, rocking them backwards. But his attention had swayed from Mitch who seized his chance. Mitch leapt onto Callum’s back, the full force of his considerable weight bearing Callum face-first to the ground, tearing the breath from his lungs. Mitch sat astride Callum, gripping his ribs between his knees like he would a horse, and began to rain club-like blows onto Callum’s head, neck and shoulders. The two younger Mahoneys rallied and aimed kicks at any exposed part of my brother they could reach.
Low mutterings came from the crowd of boys but not one of them made any move to help Callum. It was left to Morfydd and me to provide what little aid we could.
Screaming, “Cowards!”, Morfydd dragged me forwards and ran at Mitch Mahoney. Releasing my hand, she attempted to shove Mahoney off Callum’s back. She might as well have tried to move a mountain. Mitch raised one hand and contemptuously flapped her away as if he were swatting a fly. Morfydd thudded to the ground on her bottom with a surprised yelp.
I attempted to grab hold of one of the younger Mahoney’s legs. It was like trying to grab a swaying tree trunk. I too was simply brushed aside. I lay where I fell, sobbing with frustration at my inability to do anything to prevent my brother’s annihilation. Callum did not stand a chance pinned to the ground with Mitch pounding the back of his head and the other two laying in with their feet. But Callum had other ideas.
Seeing the way that both Morfydd and I had been summarily dealt with injected into Callum a fresh surge of rage and energy. Ignoring the kicks of the younger Mahoneys, Callum braced his arms on the ground and heaved upwards with all his might. So confident was Mitch that Callum was beaten, the manoeuvre caught him completely by surprise. Mitch first lurched ungainly to one side, then was thrown clear as Callum surged upright.
Morfydd was just rising to her feet as Mitch’s bulk thudded to the ground next to her. She didn’t hesitate. Leaping high into the air, she tucked her feet beneath her as she fell. She landed squarely upon Mitch’s stomach with her knees, driving the air from his lungs in a startled “Whoof!”
Terrified at what Mitch would do to her, I scrambled to my feet and pulled her away before he could recover. My urgency was unnecessary. Mitch writhed and squirmed on the ground, eyes rolling, gasping desperately for breath. He looked for all the world like a stranded fish.
Callum’s expression as he turned to face the younger Mahoneys was one of such seething anger that they took an involuntary step back. Callum swarmed at them, fists pistoning with short, powerful jabs. They had only to separate to prevent Callum from taking them out together, but they were so disorientated by the speed and ferocity of Callum’s onslaught that they backed away side by side, trying to cover up in vain. Within seconds they were bloodied and bowed, the fight beaten from them.
Callum hissed between his teeth, “Get out of here! Both of you! Now!”
They needed no second invitation. Turning tail, they fled, leaving their older brother to face Callum’s wrath alone.
Callum watched them disappear into the twilight through narrowed eyes. Then he turned and strode towards Mitch, his shoulders set and his fists clenched. Mitch had managed to clamber to his knees, but was doubled over, breath coming in ragged gasps. Callum stood and waited, ignoring the odd shout from the onlookers to finish Mitch off. At last Mitch gained some control over his breathing and rose shakily to his feet. He eyed my brother and, for the first time since Mitch had struck me to set the whole thing in motion, they spoke to each other.
“Well then, Callum,” said Mitch.
“Well then, Mitch.” Callum sounded calm, but I could tell from the tension in his stance that fire still raged in his belly.
“You fight well.” There was a note of grudging admiration in Mitch’s voice. My heart sank at his next words. “But I’m not finished yet. Ready to go some more?”
I turned away as they squared up to one another again. I could not stand to see Callum suffer more harm and I hid my face in my hands. Clearly, Morfydd was of the same mind.
“No!” she shouted. “No more!” She strode forward belligerently, a slight girl, barely ten years old. The starlight picked out her pale features beneath her mop of curly black hair as she stood between Callum and Mitch, a dwarf between two giants, and glowered at them.
“I’m telling you Callum Andrews, and you Mitch Mahoney, that’s enough!” She nodded in my direction before glaring at Callum. “You’ve more than paid Mitch back for slapping John.” She glanced sternly at Mitch. “You’ve more than defended your honour, or whatever you call it.” She raised one arm and pointed a finger at each of them in turn. “If you carry on fighting now, it’s only because you’re both too pig-headed to know when enough’s enough. Everyone here knows it too.” She glared pointedly at the boys who stood watching. “But nobody else has the balls to come out and say it.”
The onlooking boys shuffled their feet and stole quick glances at each other. One of them cleared his throat and spoke.
“She’s right, Mitch, Callum. You’ve a’ready hit lumps out of each other. Unless you stop, one of you will end up seriously hurt. We don’t want to see that happen, and Cal’s kid brother certainly shouldn’t. Take him home, man.” A murmur of agreement arose from the other boys.
Morfydd shot a look of gratitude to the speaker. She regarded Callum and Mitch, hands planted on her hips. “Well, what about it?” she demanded.
The tension drained from Callum’s stance. He shrugged his shoulders and looked Mitch in the eye.
“I’m willing to end it here if you are,” he said.
Mitch took a moment to consider his reply.
“Let’s just call it the end of round one, shall we?”
He stepped forward and held out his right hand. Callum gripped it. He stared grimly at Mitch.
“Say the word and we’ll start round two. You know where to find me.”
“Aye, that I do.”
Mitch grinned but the smile never reached his one open eye. He turned on his heel and strode away into the darkness without glancing back. Callum watched Mitch go, his lips pressed into a thin line. He knew that he and Mitch weren’t finished yet.
He was right too, although their next encounter would also be their final one. It took place when I was seventeen.
By then, Callum had been dead for over seven years.
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