An excerpt from Emily Bullock’s debut novel The Longest Fight, an exploration of love and family loyalty set in the gritty, ambitious world of boxing in 1950s London.
Fight night had arrived. Jack’s cheeks burned as the cold wind pinched at him. He crossed at the fish and chip shop, turning on to Camberwell Road. He always took the long way round to the gym. He couldn’t risk catching a glimpse of Albany Basin through the arches; its smell of washed-out bonfires, and the last sulphur tang of a match, was enough to make his breath run short and the back of his knees sweat.
Pearl trotted behind, wrapped up in his mum’s old rabbit fur. He should be making sure she didn’t twist an ankle on the wet cobbles; she already had a burn on the palm of her hand from filling the tin bath last night. But Pearl would be all right. She never asked about the long-cuts he took, but it wasn’t as if she could remember back to that night. His footsteps echoed around the deserted street like applause ringing in his ears. The only light in the road was from the top inch of the gym windows that weren’t painted out; the shadows ran like deep scars across the bombed-out warehouses on the other side of the alley.
He beat out a victory drum on the wall as he went in. He parked Pearl in the corner. The noise pounded his ears as if he had tumbled into the public baths on Tanner Street. Men everywhere: in the ring, lounging on the benches, darting between hanging punchbags. Long trousers frayed at the hem and braces stretched tight. The energy made Jack’s step bounce; chalk dust stirred in the air. He licked his lips, swallowed the taste. Eyes watching him; Jack straightened his arms to hide the lumpy darn on the elbows of his jacket. He passed a fight at the first bag, twisting in and out of its swinging arch. The two men sparring in the ring were bundled up in sweaters and scarves, wearing more clothes than Pearl. He wondered if they even noticed the landed punches; that must be how she felt, as if blankets had been swaddled around her and she was hidden somewhere inside. Voices called out to him but he didn’t have time tonight. All the colours and faces bobbed around in front of him but Jack’s eyes were drawn to the only thing that wasn’t moving: Frank, dressed in a thick turtleneck and baggy slacks.
‘Hello, Jack. I’m all ready.’
Frank pulled at the top of his sweater.
Jack stood and took him in: still in the middle range, about a hundred and fifty pounds; on weight for the night, and easily two inches taller than the opponent lined up.
‘You look more than ready. You look like a winner.’
Jack pressed his hand down on Frank’s neck; his muscles poked through the woollen knit. They were the same height but the boy was thickset, the length of his shoulders straining against the knitted seams, standing to attention like George Sanders. They walked towards Pearl. She twisted a strand of hair around her finger, tried to press it into a curl but it didn’t work.
Frank nodded and shuffled his feet. Jack pointed at the old duffel beside Frank and Pearl bent down to get it. Frank clung to the bag, the shadow of his eyebrows hiding his eyes.
‘Jack said you’d burnt your hand. Does it still hurt?’
‘Don’t worry about Pearl. She’s stronger than she looks. But we can’t have you straining something before the big fight.’
‘No need for Pearl to carry it. I want to take it. It’ll help keep me warm on the journey over.’ Frank looked at Pearl and smiled. It was a lopsided smile, as if he had never seen himself in the mirror and wasn’t sure of the muscles to pull. Strange that such a boy could be such a man in the ring. Frank lifted the bag into a clinch against his chest. Jack gave it a prod.
‘Looks full to me. Remember we said we’d wait to see about you moving in until after the fight.’
Frank kept smiling, not at Jack but at her. Pearl grinned back. What a pair.