Friends and Anger 13.

Hello, it’s me.

It’d been nearly fifteen years since Ari had heard that voice, but he’d know it anywhere – it was the little Russian. Ari had run a boxing gym in east London for years before he met the little Russian. It was the only sort of location he could afford when he’d started the concern and it was deep in gang owned territory where everyone paid their protection tithes to the local bandits. When he’d first opened up for business, he’d received the usual veiled threat from a messenger and in return had personally nailed at three AM in the morning an important piece of the messenger to the home front door of the gang boss who’d sent him. Nobody ever saw or heard of the messenger again.

From then on, nobody fucked with Ari, but still, certain small accommodations had to be made, if only to save the face of the petty scum that Ari considered the local criminal class to be, an opinion he didn’t bother to conceal. Obliging them with occasional requests cost him nothing and kept them out of his hair. The little Russian had been delivered to him with the terse instruction – he wants to learn how to fight, teach him.

Ari’s business premises consisted of a big hall that had the usual boxing ring surrounded by lots of gym kit. Punch bags, weights and the usual fitness paraphernalia. Being located between the eastern edge of that part of London known as the City, meaning the financial district, and the impoverished points further east of it, his no nonsense approach to fitness attracted a varied clientel.

But there was a smaller room at the back where he taught unarmed combat. Behind his back, he knew that everybody called it the murder room and it consisted of nothing more than a slightly padded mat that was fifteen foot on each edge, the size of an average room, because he knew those were the confined spaces you’d have to fight in to get out alive. In there, he didn’t teach Boxing, Judo, Karate, Aikido, Ninjutso, Kung fu or all that fashionable stuff, but how to kill somebody. It was as simple as that.

Ari, being a careful man, had already asked around about who this kid was, and the strongest rumour seemed to be that he was the offspring of a local gang boss via one of his stable of eastern European prostitutes, commonly referred to in those circles by the repulsive term the livestock. The kid had been delivered to him in the company of some bulky thug covered in the usual tattoos.

Ari was a Russian Jew and had got out of there before the USSR imploded, but he’d no fond memories of the country and absolutely hated Russians. The kid’s name was Yuri, but the first time Ari clapped eyes on him he thought of him as the little Russian. Small, stocky and with hard eyes. Delivering him, especially with a Russian thug in tow, offended his pride, so he decided to send a message back.

He beat the hell out of the kid. Nothing permanent, but lots of bruising. The Russian thug made a move to step onto the mat but by that stage the kid was down and Ari put his foot on his chest and glared at the thug. The message was clear – take one more step and I’ll beat the hell out of you as well. The big thug backed off. While Ari had been doing his bit of intimidating communication, he felt the kids hands close around his ankle and looked down to see the kid actually trying to get up enough to bite his leg.

Enough was enough, he struck downward hard, and heard the sound of the back of the kid’s head hitting the mat. End of story. He stepped towards the edge of the mat to impress on the big thug that this was an accommodation too far. Take this bastard son of your boss via a Russian whore and never darken the doors of my gym again.

He was just about to deliver that message when he was knocked sideways and onto his back. The kid was on top of him with his hands around his throat trying to strangle him. The kid’s eyes were already swollen shut, so the only way he could have aimed that charge at Ari was by the sound of his footsteps, and Ari walked lightly. He delivered the perfect traversing punch to his jaw. If you can impact the skull so fast, the brain which floats in fluid inside it, can’t keep up with the sudden change of direction. The resulting wrench to the top of the spinal cord instantly induces unconscious, the knock out blow.

Ari saw the head drop instantly but incredibly the hands around his throat kept up their pressure. He’d heard of this, but he’d dismissed it as one of the urban legends about unarmed combat. He used the first two fingers of each hand to prise those two thumbs off his windpipe, he held them away from his throat and watched. It took nearly two full minutes before the pressure from them faded.

When it did, he rolled the unconscious kid off his chest and stood up, looking down at him.

Bring him back next week, I’ll train him, he told the thug.

The kid proved to be an incredibly good pupil and after six months, Ari wanting to know more about him, invited him around to his house for a meal. The murder room wasn’t a place that invited casual conversations. His wife, being a very caring woman who could spot a waif, kept loading his plate and the little Russian kept on eating everything, until Ari had to indicate to her to stop doing it. The kid would keep on eating until he burst out of politeness and Ari knew if they’d not given him a knife and a fork, he’d have eaten with his fingers.

To add to the tensions, Ari’s older daughter, who was in her dangerous sixteens, kept making eyes at him which it was plain to see he’d no way of dealing with. It would have been funny if you could not see the dilemma it put the little Russian in.

The meal was over and all the dishes had been cleared away by Ari’s wife and daughters to the kitchen, where he’d no doubt she’d keep them away for the next half hour, because she knew him well enough to realise the whole point of inviting this stranger into their home was to reach the end of evening where there would occur a man to man conversation. That unspoken perceptiveness was one reason why he’d fallen in love with her in the first place. When it came to understanding her man, she didn’t need the I’s dotted or the T’s crossed.

Ari kicked off the conversation.

There’s a certain talk I have with people I’m training. I have to tell them the skills they’re learning might result in them killing somebody.

Ari had heard that expression about seeing a bend in someone’s face when they were on the horns of a dilemma. Seeing it directly in front of him and reading it correctly, the conversation he’d loosely planned went in a totally different direction.

But you’ve done that already, haven’t you?

Across that vast distance of a cheap and cheerful plastic veneered dining table, Ari watched him desperately looking for an answer that might please. He wanted to fit in, be accepted into a family context. He finally settled on a reply.

I would never hurt you or your family.

If Ari had thought for an instant that was a faint possibility, he would have killed him instantly. This kid had no social defenses, this kid was actually a child.

How old are you?

Thirteen.

Ari maintained a watchful look at him, and as if wilting under the pressure, the little Russian added “I think”.

Like all truly strong men, the wellspring of it was to protect others – his woman, his family, the ones he loved, but in that moment all he wanted to do was lean across the table and cuddle him, but he’d seen the way this child flinched at the slightest touch by an adult. What in God’s name had the world done to him?

For the next five years, the little Russian would turn up at his gym twice a week, always punctual, never late. Like all men who’re good at something, you’ll end up teaching it. As always, you plough your way through the common dross and the occasional good pupil, but there’s always that slight whimsical hope of a real star pupil arriving., someone who really understands what you’re trying to teach them.

The little Russian was that sole star pupil.

When somebody made a mistake on the mat in the murder room, Ari always punished them. Then he’d explain carefully the mistake they’d made, and if they made that same mistake again, he’d hit them even harder the next time around. Pain is an excellent teacher, as he himself had been taught. The little Russian never made the same mistake twice. He learnt at a frightening rate.

Yes, as he got older and putting on real muscle mass, he got bigger, quicker and stronger, but Ari was never sure if it was a case of natural aptitude or a more subtle thing that he’d noticed. When he stepped onto the mat in the murder room, it was as if a switch went click inside him. Suddenly, there was this aura of a careful controlled ferocity about him. A terrible strength that seemed indifferent to the pain teacher. You could land as many blows that you could, but he’d still be coming at you with that intense studied rage.

Towards the end of those years, Ari realised a couple of things about him. The first was that he’d evolved. He’d learnt everything Ari could teach him but was now inventing a style of unarmed combat that was uniquely his. The classic T-stance was abandoned in favour of something more nimble and kinetic. He was always moving to one side or another as if to outflank you. Instead of fighting him, you ended up doing no more than containing him.

Ari invited two old friends who were in a related line of expertise, to get their opinion of his star pupil and the way he was moving. Comparing notes afterward, they’d both agreed with Ari that they’d never seen a style of unarmed combat quite like it. Ari’s chest swelled slightly with pride.

But that’s not all we saw. You really shouldn’t be on the mat with him.

The one who’d made the remark was suddenly on the receiving end of a withering stare from the other friend, a look Ari didn’t miss.

If you’ve got something to say, spit it out.

He looked from one to the other of them until one of them spoke what was on both their minds.

You can’t see it Ari, because you really like him, but he’s pulling his punches, slowing down and easing off the attack because it’s you on the mat. Anyone else would be in real trouble. We think he’s even better than you think he is.

Ari, like all true warriors, knew in his heart of hearts that there was no man on the face of the Earth who could beat him in single combat. The next time the not so little Russian turned up for his usual sparring session, Ari confronted him on the mat.

Are you holding back?

The man stood before him on the mat and made no reply. Ari slapped him hard on one side of his face. For the first time ever, the little Russian didn’t make a defensive move, just stood there with both arms by his side. Ari hit him harder, on the other side of his face and all he got was that baleful look. Ari slapped his face a third time, and still no defense.

Ari took a step back to look at him carefully. This was the warrior code. He could beat the Russian to pulp, but he wouldn’t fight back. He’d given his word as a child that he’d never hurt Ari and in that moment, the pride and affection he’d always felt towards him turned into love.

Show me your best game, he asked.

Those dark volcanic brown eyes gazed back at him.

Please.

After a moment, he fell into that big cat attack stance that was uniquely his, and Ari knew it was game on. He came at him and this was little Russian version 2.0, a totally upgraded and unfamiliar one. The blows rained in from all directions, and Ari had to utilise every defensive technique he’d learnt in 30 years teaching unarmed combat, just to hold him off. X-blocks, Y-blocks, shin, elbow, forearm, shoulder, anything he could use. He was in totally defensive mode. Where’s the fucking kitchen sink I can throw at him?

It was an understood convention of the murder room that if you forced someone off the battle mat, you’d won the bout. Ari was backed into a corner of it for two solid minutes, which is an eternity if you’re doing unarmed combat, where three seconds can decide if you’re dead or maimed for life. In the end, the little Russian backed off, but Ari knew what had just happened. He’d shown him his best game, but frighteningly, it might not have been.

He’d pushed Ari right to the limits, but Ari knew he hadn’t gone in for the kill. Ari had never once been forced off the mat and a lot of people were watching the bout, because they sensed something was up. The little Russian was protecting Ari’s dignity as a legendary combat guru. Just as the little Russian would let Ari beat the hell out of him to conceal his growing prowess, his respect for Ari would never allow him to disrespect Ari by beating him off the mat.

Shortly after, the little Russian disappeared from the scene and there were lots of wild rumours flying around about the Russian mafia gang wars that were currently going on, Ari wondered if he’d been caught in the cross-fire. Despite all those TV who dunnit programs, when it comes to professional gang warfare stuff, it’s all about laying down plastic sheeting, buzz saws, wood chippers and your remains are never found. Ari wondered if he should start saying Kaddish for the little Russian.

Six months passed.

Ari had a fondness for good cigars and indulged it by buying one decent cigar every weekend. A Romeo y Juliet cigar, always purchased from the same tobacconist shop the size of a telephone box run by another Jew in Leadenhall market in the City of London. As usual, he bought his weekend cigar after an easy chat with the vendor, but this time around he found a slip of paper inside the thin aluminum tube that contained the cigar as a humidor.

It said quite simply – “I’m safe – Yuri”. He’d known Ari would be concerned at his disappearance.

After not hearing that voice in a decade and a half, a lot of memories came flooding back; so much so that Ari couldn’t think how to respond immediately. In the silence, the little Russian continued on.

I would like to place the woman I love under your protection, but it could prove to be dangerous for you.

Only the little Russian could phrase a request for help so precisely or so honestly. In all the years he’d known him, he’d never asked nor received any quarter in the murder room. On any occasion. No mercy. Ari, as the loving and doting father to daughters that he was, had always had a guilty feeling about hankering after a son, but he also knew the little Russian was as close as he’d ever come to having one, and the exact ideal one he’d always seen in his mind’s eye.

Whatever you need from me my little Russian, you’ve got it.

©Pointman

Click here for all currently written chapters of Friends and Anger.

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Comments
3 Responses to “Friends and Anger 13.”
  1. Blackswan says:

    Pointman,

    It’s possible to smell the stink of sweat in that gym – and see the faces confronting one another.

    Beyond a masterful telling of a story of violence and dog-eat-dog, it clearly shows how any preconception and relationship can evolve over time into something else entirely … and that happens in any walk of life.

    Have to agree with Ari – “What in God’s name had the world done to him?”

    A disturbing glimpse into ‘how the other half lives’.

    Great work Pointy.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. hunterson7 says:

    I look forward to reading your chapters so much. Your voice is so clear and unique.
    The storyline so fascinating, and the plot so compelling.
    Thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Valda Redfern says:

    Oh, this is good! I’ve just seen this installment, and now I realise I must read all the others so far.

    Like

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