22 SEPTEMBER 2007, Page 55

Fighting talk

Jeremy Clarke rr he gym attendant is giving me private boxing lessons for ten quid an hour. He used to box for the army. He candidly admits to having perfected one combination only during his short career: a left to the ribs followed by a right cross to the head. It was his secret weapon. It either worked or it didn't, he says. His squashed hooter testifies to the occasions when it didn't.

If he sees me in his gym, he comes out of his office and straps weights to my ankles. I feel like a fool trudging around the place like a deep-sea diver on the ocean floor. But he's obdurate. If I'm going to learn how to deliver a combination, I'm going to need legs, which at the present moment, he says, giving mine a quizzical, sidelong glance, I ain't got. Afterwards, however, when I'm showered, and with the weights removed, I feel as if I am indeed floating like a butterfly. And it was in this condition that last week I bumped into Trevor outside the Silver Grill fish and chip shop. He was in his labouring clothes scooping chips into his already full mouth.

Though entirely self-taught, Trey is well respected locally for his punching, even by those law-abiding citizens who abhor violence and are generally in bed by ten with the latest Ian McEwan, but none the less like to keep themselves informed about local grass-roots politics. There's a growing perception that he's mellowed lately: a perception that Trey, his legendary status assured, likes to foster. No longer the harum-scarum two-fisted farmboy feared by everybody except his old Mum, he sees himself these days as a kind of unofficial town mayor who smashes in people's faces only to right wrongs.

I heard about Trey before I met him. About five years ago I went out with this woman who talked endlessly about this violent bloke that she used to live with. They'd lived together for years. He'd loved her. He'd never once hit her. She'd taught him to read. She'd liked it — no, loved it — that she lived with a man who could use his fists. He'd taught her everything she knew about life and about cars. He was a mechanic. Mechanics were real men. Normally she wouldn't dream of sleeping with someone who wasn't mechanicallyminded. For me, however, she'd decided to make an exception.

Only gradually did the truth emerge that she was in fact still living with him To make time to see me she'd concocted a story about working an extra shift. Then one day I had to listen because she had something important to tell me. She'd taken the big emotional step that she'd been agonising about since we'd met. She'd been home and told him she was leaving him She'd broken the news to him after tea. He'd not taken it too well — as she'd feared. He'd had a sort of on-the-spot nervous breakdown, tried to kill himself with an overdose, and was now under the doctor.

He didn't know about me or where I lived. At least she hoped he didn't. He usually saw through her lies, though. He was probably putting out feelers already. He came from a big family — a clan almost — united by an old-fashioned belief in family honour. Initially suspicious of a tall woman like her, once they'd taken to her they'd treated her as one of their own. They weren't going to take kindly to her defecting like this, though.

Great, I said. Yippee. It was my birthday around this time and as a joke she wrapped up and gave me one of those do-it-yourself wills from W.H. Smith. To begin with he bombarded her with phone calls and texts. I was present at one of these calls. We were in a stable and she was cleaning out the horse. Her ring tone, I remember, was the Mexican Hat Dance. She held the mobile away from her at arm's length, grimacing, because he was screaming at her. Then she dropped the phone and the horse stepped on it. I'll never forget the sight of that mobile phone on the wet cobbles, partly crushed, smeared with manure, and with this tiny voice, incoherent with rage, rising up towards us.

I hadn't seen Trey for ages. Up on my toes and dancing I gave him the left to the ribs then the right cross, lightly. Still shovelling chips into his already full mouth, he gave me a look of genial condescension. Oddly enough, when he'd calmed down he let her go without recrimination. Sharon was such a liar, he told me later, he found life much easier without her. I lasted about six weeks before she went off with a scrap-metal dealer. Anyway, it's all ancient history.

'Where've you been, Bud?' said Trey.

'Pint, mate?' I said.