The Flemish Bond
Short story by Michael Botur
from Hell of a Thing (The Sager Group, 2020)
A battered professional fighter is in for a hell of a ride when he finds out his Uber driver shared an ugly incident at the same boxing gym back when the two were young and vulnerable.
THE FLEMISH BOND
My flight from Christchurch up to Auckland is supposed to land at 3 pm but delays push it back to 4, then 4:30, and by the time I’m squeezing into the back of this Uber fella’s souped-up boyish Honda outside the terminal, I’m seriously watching the clock.
If I don’t get up to Warkworth for the show at 7:30, I don’t get paid. It’s that simple.
I chuck my overnight bag in the boot, not that I’m even staying the night. We have to get out of Auckland Airport and into mainstream traffic by 4:35. I want to yell at Uberman here: you could’ve squeezed into that gap there behind the tanker, or that gap, or that one. It’s a roundabout, man: just go for it. I drum my thick blunt fighting fingers impatiently on the glass. Hopefully he’ll take note of my scarred knuckles, my thick arms. These hands get results– so you need to hurry your arse.
Uberman gets the car a few hundred metres along but it’s slow as fuck and every car seems welded together into a train. No gaps. We’re dealing with Friday afternoon traffic here – every cunt in Auckland’s on the motorway heading to their fancy bach. We can expect this one hour drive to take two and a half.
Air New Zealand made me late, the incompetent wankers. Story of my life, honestly: people taking what they want from me.
The deal is I’m expected at the Warkworth Masonic Community Hall for 7 o’clock. 7:15 is juuuust doable; 7:30 is when the actual bell rings for my wrestle. If I miss the bell, I’m in breach of contract, which means no pay, which means I’ve paid for a flight for nothing, which means I’ll miss my credit card repayments, my rent, my child support. My car could get repo’d. Everything will fail.
We finally screech into a space and point north and I relax a fraction and get a chance to study my driver: Hawaiian shirt, gelled black hair, messy black goatee, Jesus on the dash, rasta air freshener hanging from the rearview in the shape of a weed leaf. He’s my age, more or less. His biceps are interesting. Bit of muscle on him.
‘Vili,’ he goes, offering me an upside-down handshake over his shoulder as he changes lanes.
The fella looks Tongan, I reckon, and I’m about to strike up a little small talk about Tonga’s chances in the World Cup when the driver goes, ‘You’re Tony Timaru of the Timaru Two, right?’
‘Just the Timaru One these days. My partner got himself a house and a spouse. Shoulda followed suit, really.’ I snort. ‘God knows why I chose to fight for a living. Cheers for noticing, though.’
‘I know my fighters.’ His eyes in the rearview are serious. Unlaughing. Some kind of stalker. Great.
My driver suddenly overtakes a BMW and we start leaving hotels behind us. He’s 20 kays an hour over the speed limit but it feels good to dodge the traffic.
My fight is strictly 7:35 to 8:05pm. After that the Warkworth Community Hall is being used by the country music club at 8:30. I’ll need a ride back to the airport to fly home to Christchurch at 9:50 pm because the $110 flight is cheaper than paying for a meal and a mattress in Auckland. Wrestling, kickboxing, Muay Thai, bareknuckle, MMA – none of the disciplines pay much so I have to haggle to find a taxi driver who’ll do the drive cheap and fast to cut down my costs. Being a journeyman sucks.
Auckland is oozing by my window now at a good pace. The driver tells me he’s taking the route past Middlemore. He’s gonna connect with Highway One then we’ll be sorted. I relax one percentage point but I can’t trust this motherfucker completely. I learned a long time ago never to let your guard down even when a man seems solid.
‘You said you know your fighters?’
‘Hard. MMA, UFC, bareknuckle, Golden Gloves. I keep up. This fight tonight’s AAWA, right?’
‘Aotearoa Amateur Wrestling Association indeed. These jokers are a lot less prestigious than they act, I gotta tell ya. Bastards wouldn’t shout me a flexi ticket for the plane.’
Vili flits between lanes then zooms up an onramp and settles in the centre of the motorway where the flow’s pretty good. I look at the cars on either side to gauge whether we’re slipping. I notice us lose a couple places when Vili veers left, races up then veers right again.
Vili stares at the car in front’s bumper, deadly serious. ‘It’s all bullshit, behind the glam. Oi: you see this right here?’
We’re passing a new housing development called Mangrove Waters that doesn’t seem to end. Linked by new black asphalt are all these McMansions held up by pillars rising up from freshly-poured concrete sitting in brown dirt with sprouts of grass. At the end of the subdivision is a brick house on a tiny paddock with a dozen cows. It’s completely circled by new roads.
I don’t know why the driver’s singled out some standard brick build.
‘Typical Dorkland expansion?’
‘Nah, G,’ my driver tells me, ‘Brick, bro, brick. Built to last. And you know how come? No plaster, no steel– ’
‘Damn, Tone,’ he says from the front. ‘How’d you know about the Flemish Bond?’
‘You lay the bricks, fuck, what’s the word… perpendicular. Looks like they’re goin different directions but they hold together better than anything.’
Vili the driver gives me deep eye contact in the rearview. ‘My man. You lay bricks?’
‘When I was a kid, a bit, yeah. Couple of my stepdads were bricklayers. Made sense to go to work with them after I dropped outta school. Guess Mum had a type.’
Driver Vili is nodding deep and long and slow. He cuts to the right, across two lanes. I watch the needle creep up and hit 140. I don’t care if we die. My life started off shit; let it have a symmetrical end.
‘You got the government tryina vaccinate little kids, you got homos gettin married: while the rest of society crumbles, decent masonry holds tight, my brother. I wish more people appreciated it.’
My driver is positively grinning into the mirror now. He thinks he’s found a friend.
‘One brick watches the other brick’s back,’ he continues. ‘That’s why it’s strong. Get a brick on its own, it can be susceptible. But two united, nothing can hurt it.’
‘You married, Vili?’
‘Used to be. I was an arsehole to live with.’
‘I’d live with you, bro. Watch fights on YouTube all day, am I right?!’
He’s getting a little serial killer-y for me now. Vili punches the dashboard, steps harder on the gas. I study the fascinating billboards we don’t have down south. Wendy’s, St. Pierre’s Sushi, Rainbow’s End… .
‘Bro, layin bricks was meeeean money when I was tryina get out of the hood. Wasn’t much else work in Aranui, eh.’
‘Aranui? Mate, I went to Hornby High. I’m old school Christchurch too.’
‘So you’re a westside whiteboy eh? East Side Bloods over here.’
He passes his hand over his shoulder again for a fist bump while he holds the wheel with his pinky finger.
We blaze past a city-sized shopping mall called Sylvia Park, then a bend in the road where there’s a Tip Top ice cream factory, then a Mercedes dealership and a gigantic church and this smokestack billowing melted Pink Batts, then my driver’s pointing out brick buildings left right and centre as we put Newmarket behind us.
He won’t stop running his mouth, this guy. Tells me his whole life story — after his old man got shot by the Harris Gang he tried to find an alternative dad in church elders, Scout masters and rugby coaches before settling on boxing pretty much because he wanted to punch people constantly from the age of 14.
It’s gotten a fraction colder in the car. I put my bag on my lap for warmth. We’re in a tangle of curled concrete bridges now. Traffic is bunching up and the Sky Tower appears between buildings. My driver looks for a different lane but everything’s slowing.
‘FUCKIN’ SPAGHETTI FUCKIN’ JUNCTION.’ He thumps his door.
‘So you like to get some punches in,’ I chuckle, ‘I used to box at Dutchy’s in Cashmere, dunno if you know the place.’
Vili hauls the steering wheel left and settles in a nicely-flowing rapid. He’s got an anger management problem but my man knows how to hack traffic. My phone tells me it’s now 5:05. We might actually make the venue on time.
‘I was a Dutchy’s boy myself,’ Vili mumbles. ‘Don’t recall seeing your photo on the wall.’
‘I don’t let anyone take my picture less it’s marketing shit. How old are you? Maybe we were a couple years apart.’
He tells me he’s 34; I tell him I’m 37. About 17 years too old to be fake-fighting for minimum wage, I want to add. Couldn’t stick with boxing though, not after what happened.
We reach the top of the Harbour Bridge. Halfway. I’ve got white noise in my ears.
I’ve hardly thought about Dutchy’s Boxing Gym in ages. When I was 18, 19, I doused my brain with so much weed and crack and bourbon my memories of Dutchy’s got pushed wayyyyy down. I found myself smashing people on Colombo Street, jumping on the bonnet of some cop car in Cashel Mall. Can’t even remember how half the fights started.
Dutchy’s was so refreshing at first. We used to have Fight Club at school with a few uppercuts and kinghits but Dutchy’s was a hundred times more disciplined. My mum drove me there one afternoon just before dinner time cause her boyfriend had pinched my ear and I’d busted his nose and my mum was shrieking if I wanted to fight so bad I could at least get some exercise while doing it.
She dumped me on old Coach Dutchy’s driveway. Coach Dutchy came out in his white singlet and flip flops. Springy curly white chest hair stuck out around his tits. His eyes were 100 percent on me. Didn’t ask to meet my mum or anything. No fees, no paperwork, no names, no nothing – just shoved these sweaty, manky leather gloves in my arms, tossed a roll of cotton bandage on top and told me to glove up and get in the ring. We’d sort out money later. He didn’t have a wife or kids anymore; we didn’t have dads.
The boys at the gym were skinheads, Crips, gingers, Māoris – the only thing we had in common was Dutchy was like a father, punishing our arses, making us soldiers. We had to do sit-ups while he dropped heavy leather balls on our stomachs. He made us skip for 10, 15, sometimes 20 minutes. He blasted these corny Irish resistance songs with violins and big rousing choruses and cause Coach’s ears were warped and puffy like fungus he wouldn’t hear his shitty 1980s CD player skipping and all us boys would be haemorrhaging sweat, looking for sympathy from the photos of shirtless graduates smiling on the wall, praying for the skipping and the CD to end so we could snatch a quick sip of soothing water.
When we got in the fuckin ring though, by God: we had incredible leg work from all the skipping. Plus the combos he’d force us to practice a hundred times paid off. I was shit-scared going to my first Golden Gloves but a 1-6-3-2 combo won me my very first fight. My mum was at the casino and didn’t see it but the boys were all hugging me and shit. It was all thanks to the fitness – Dutchy’s people had gone through famine around the Second World War and he was obsessed with self-denial. Pain makes you strong, he’d tell us. The first dude I fought saw right from the ding of the first bell I was in for a long, hard dance instead of a quick knockout. I made him drain himself chasing me round the ring till he let his guard down then I pummelled the cunt and got me a medal.
I started to love Dutchy’s after that. He offered three sessions every week and I took them all up. Other fights in life had brought me only trouble but Dutchy’s was a place to turn your anger into gold. Every dude that turned up for training was from a different clique but we all bowed down to the god of discipline.
That discipline took a lot of forms not even related to boxing. We weren’t allowed to smoke or drink or eat pizza. He’d use forceps on your stomach. He whipped you with a skipping rope if you had any fat on you. If we wanted an energy snack it had to be sunflower seeds. Some days there was zero boxing and Dutchy had us laying bricks. We built something called a heat wall where the bricks face north to catch the sun so Ol’ Dutch could grow kumara around his house, which was on the same section as the gym. And he was proud, don’t get me wrong. For a few minutes a week he’d be all mushy, nuzzling your hair and telling you he loved you. Then he’d whack you in the guts for not standing up straight.
I boxed all through 14, 15, 16. At 17 I was still going hard. Partly I was waiting for a chance to earn a one-on-one session with Dutchy on some rainy Friday night when he’d get all fatherly, dust off the camera and take a photo for the Wall of Fame. Dutchy didn’t give all the boys the honor of being photographed with their medals dangling between their pecs. His head was as banged-up as his ears and he’d go months forgetting to take a new photo before quietly leading a boy aside to arrange a photo sesh. Kom met mee, jongen, he’d always go. A few days later there’d be a picture of a boy on the wall, freckled with sweat, neck flared, chin upthrust. The heroes. The favorites. I woulda given anything to have my picture on that wall.
One night we witnessed Coach Dutchy face down a whole carload of Road Knights out in the blue and orange woodsmoke of a Christchurch winter night. The gangsters were calling out little Hori for a one-out and our coach, bro, he mighta had vegetables in his head but he knew how to win a scrap, woo whee. It was obvious Hori wasn’t being called for an actual one-out — a buncha bearded 40 year olds were planning to stomp his face into the gravel. Dutchy went over to the car, cocked his finger like a gun, pointed at the passenger then each of the two goons in the back of the Holden and shouted, ‘YOU FIRST, THEN YOU, THEN YOU, JA, COME OOOOOOOOOON.’
The little toerag prospect calling out Hori got the fuck back in the car reeeeal quick and disappeared. Dutchy hadn’t even thrown a single punch.
That was one of my last memories of Dutchy, actually. I dropped out of the gym not long after then.
‘Dutchy died real sudden, eh.’
‘That he did,’ Vili says.
God, I’ve drifted off. We’ve moved up the map. We’re passing a huge glittery spire sticking up out of Takapuna. The motorway is wide and generous. Saints be praised, we may just make it to Warkworth on time.
I’m about to ask what happened to the gym, how long it kept going after I dropped out, when Vili goes, ‘How much you weighing these days?’
‘Eighty. Reeeeal good fighting weight. Lets you be nimble if you keep yourself at 80 kilos. You?’
We’re passing a KFC beside something called North Shore Stadium. God I could go for some fried chicken. I hate having to stay paleo.
‘Me, I don’t weigh myself any more,’ Vili goes, swearing at a Mini as he moves around it. In the mirror I notice Vili gritting his teeth. He’s pissed about something.
I’m getting a flashback of when Coach Dutchy used to weigh us boys. Dutch started doing weigh-ins at 7 am. The gym was always cold, nobody moving, nobody speaking. Hardly anyone showed up to the before-school sessions, actually. I would’ve appreciated some of that Irish music but the first half of the day was just warming the air up. Wiping the dribble off the windows. Dutchy’d told me we were here to scrub the gym clean. After I’d mopped and hung the knuckle-bandages on the clothesline to dry he had me strip naked and stand on the scales. Coach Dutchy then asked me, ‘Do you think you are weighing more if you are having a piece of wood on you, yes?’
Dutchy reached between my legs. I froze. Dutchy peeled the foreskin off my diddle and started stroking it. He was close enough a few of his chest hairs tickled my arm. I felt static electricity. He got down on his knees and put his crusty lips on my cock and moved his tongue and his gums. Then he pulled his mouth off and told me to jack myself til I got a “schtiffcock.” I said I was scared.
‘Son, I will knock you out lickety split. You are doing what I am tellingk you, ja?’
I did what he said. I could’ve smashed just about any cunt in Christchurch back then. Anyone except Dutchy.
The car is silent as we put Auckland behind us. We gobble up farmland with mist settling on it like bedsheets. Overpasses, roadside turkeys, sheep, Snowplanet, Silverdale. I grab the headrest of the passenger seat that’s in front of me and crush it, fingers digging into the foam. Maybe I’ll dig out an eyeball in my fight tonight. I’m pissed about everything. These McMansions we’re hooning past? Fuck those people. Fuck their luck. They never got pulled out of the mainstream for a private photo session. All them homeowners in Millwater, Auckland’s most expensive development, all them cunts had daddies and mummies to hand them a fuckin’ chequebook and say Here ya go, son. Take as much support as ya want. It’s bottomless.
Me? My life is layin’ bricks and takin’ hits. I can’t get a straighto job. I’ve got convictions for, God, you name it, GBH, assaulting a female, assault with a blunt instrument, armed robbery, drug utensils, you name it. Put your body on the line for a dime. This fuckin’ world didn’t give me many alternatives.
As we come up to some tunnel near Puhoi, we pass under a bank of cameras.
‘What’s with all the photos?’
‘They snag your licence plate. Government’s always watching citizens, bro.’
‘I fuckin’ hate being photographed. Dutch, the bastard, he took…. Never mind.’
I don’t say anything while we’re in the tunnel. We emerge and race past the Puhoi turnoff. There’s a billboard saying you can get oysters and chips for ten bucks. I could use a feed. No time tonight, though. Pay the driver, fight, get dressed after, scoff some sunflower seeds, hop a taxi to Auckland Airport. Catch the late flight back down south. Eat white bread and margarine to balance the books. Keep my phone in hand til the next gig lands.
‘He took photos of you, I’m guessing,’ Vili the Uber Driver goes, ‘Said he was weighing you then started taking your photo and shit?’
‘Mind your business.’
A sign says Warkworth is 35 kays away. The time is 6:49 and the sky is indigo. Hurry, driver, hurry.
‘I quit the gym, god, 2003-ish,’ Vili goes.
‘Good for you.’
‘Lemme finish.’ He’s looking at me hard in the rearview now. Can’t be long til we hit Warkworth. May as well hear the weirdo out. Dude seems to think we’re some kind of equals.
‘So I dropped out of my apprenticeship. Drinking, burgs, fuckin’ gangs, Tone. That was the life. Anyway one night I got really wasted on BZP. Member that shit? That was just after the 90s, cuz. I used to pushbike everywhere back then, I didn’t give a fuck, and if my bike got nicked I’d just boost another one. Anyway I wound up at Dutchy’s house when I was real baked. This was like four months after I’d stopped showing up to training cause Dutchy’d taken those bloody photos of me, on the scales of course, butt naked, as ya do – and he tried the old “got wood” trick on me too, the unoriginal cunt – so anyway, it’s summer when I bike round for a catch up, I’ll never forget that. Cicadas in ya fuckin’ ears. Bugs crawling on the light on his porch. And I’m high as a kite, right, and I pedal from Aranui all the way to Cashmere on autopilot. It was 8 o’clock on a Saturday night, I remember cause they were drawing the Lotto and one of my aunties had my birthday as her numbers. But you don’t wanna… ah, sorry man. I shouldn’t’ve… never mind.’
Vili matches my eyes in the mirror. I can feel the car slowing slightly. This better be good.
‘Anyway I bang on his door and Dutchy’s real happy to invite us into his warm lounge, even though I’m looking rough as guts. I’ve got an NBA singlet on and gumboots. Dutchy lays two cocktails on the coffee table and sits beside me on the couch zif we’re on a date. The movie was E.T., I’ll never forget that. Classic Saturday night family shit in front of a roaring fire, nice drink, everything’s happy endings.’
A sign says Warkworth is five kilometres away now. The clock has just spilled past seven. We’re going to make this.
‘God knows why but Dutchy got a stiff from E.T. He was real engrossed in the movie, the fucking paedo, and it was only when the ads came on he put his hand on the back of my head and kinda nudged my face down towards his cock. I whacked him with a left hook to the jaw, of course, all while sitting down. He was stunned, right, sitting there in his old man robe. I didn’t wanna get a hiding so I put the cunt in a sleeper hold. Lights out, old man. Then I kneeled on his shoulders and held a cushion on his face. Musta choked him for a good ten minutes, eh. Made it look like a accident. Then I went through this box under Coach’s bed and I found all photos of diddles and boys crying and standing on the scales naked and shit. Burned those fuckin’ photos in his fireplace, eh. Oi: here’s Warkworth. We did it.’
We bend through a couple streets and find a parking lot. The Warkworth Masonic Community Hall is a brick building beside a low muddy river. Palm trees and wrought iron lamps and paving stones. Cars everywhere. Bass and treble and voices on the breeze.
‘I’m a good guy,’ I tell my driver, ‘A babyface. Just so you know. In the ring, I mean. Not one of the bad ones.’
I pay my driver, pull my gear from the trunk and head for the green room. 7:13pm. A respectable time, all things considered.
‘I’ll find a taxi back,’ I tell Vili as I slam shut the trunk of his car and prepare to go put my body on the line. ‘I don’t expect you to wait for me, man. Laters.’
The small crowd cheer and whistle as I stride through them. Amateur wrestling brings joy and escapism to their lives. I realize that now. I replay a charade I’ve done over and over – Tony Timaru the superhero. People rip my epaulettes off, firstly, then the cuffs of my shirt, then some of my buttons. Souvenirs. People have always taken a piece of me.
The Beehive is a heel in a beekeeper suit whose signature move is The Sting. Backstage we plan our battle, synchronizing a couple of choke slams then go out and smash each other round the ring for half an hour. After our fight, everyone poses for photos with me. I escape after four minutes, sweaty, struggling to breathe. I’ve knocked fans unconscious in the past. I can’t always control my fists when I get anxious.
In the parking lot beside the salty river, a shitty Uber is waiting for me. An elbow is pointing out of the driver side window. The radio is playing Bob Marley. Vili is giving the Eastside with his fingers and grinning, waiting to take me home. This hall is built of 120 mil bricks. I knock on the masonry and wink at him. Call it shitty, call it shabby, but the Warkworth Masonic Community Hall has stood since 1895 cause nothing can bring down the Flemish Bond.