Ria forced her way onto the busy roundabout at the Elephant and Castle, navigated the throngs of manic lane switching traffic and edged her way slowly across to the other side of the roundabout, into the lane she needed to take the exit onto the New Kent Rd.
She didn't know why she still took her dad to fights. He'd been beat up pretty bad at the last one. Pete, known as Pitbull to those who populated the seedier pubs of south east London, sat in the back hugging two of his canine friends, drawing courage and strength from their powerful innocence. Her dad was all but a lost cause, thought Ria, as she engineered her way over the New Kent Rd. flyover and down into The Old Kent Rd.
It was a cold November night in 1981, an era before all the pubs and clubs had been turned into swankey flats or doctors surgeries, when London pub culture was the lifeblood of the capital. It was eleven o'clock at night and late Friday drinkers were beginning to pour out of the pubs under cover of darkness. The night would soon spark into life with the usual Friday night street brawls and police sirens. Many of those who didn't get picked up by the initial sweep of the meatwagons would be making their way to a warehouse at the back of the Old Kent Rd., the warehouse where Ria's father would be working that evening.
Ria whinced at the thought. She knew her dad was getting too old for this; they'd had a hundred arguments - but he was always adamant.
'It's what I do babe. We need the money. I know no other way.'
His stubbornness was legendary and she always gave up, in the end. In the end she always found herself waiting outside in the car while some young buck smashed seven shades of shit out of her father. In the early days, when she was a little girl, it had been different. He usually won and came home with no more than a scratch or two; and a wad of cash. It had paid for holidays in Spain and fabulous days out in London. But not anymore. Now he always lost, and the cash barely put food on the table. These days the arguments came think and fast. She begged him to stop but Pete was adamant, and always made the arguments about money. But deep down she knew it was more than that. It was a life he couldn’t give up, even if they won the pools. It was the life that validated him; made him someone.
Outside the sirens had started and the dark night closed in around them. Inside the car no words were exchanged. The atmosphere was tense. She felt claustrophobic and suffocated, as if a python had wraped itself around her and was slowly squeezing the life out of her. Pete lit up a fag, took a long drag and release his tension with a slow exhale of breadth.
A crowd was already building when they arrived. Blood lust was in the air. Ria swallowed and held back her nausea as she got out of the car and said hi to Reg, the fight promoter. Reg was sharp suited, good looking and full of blarney. He'd always had a soft spot for Ria and welcomed her with a big promotor hug.
'Hi darling, how you doing. Hope the old boy's up for it tonight, he's facing a geezer called ‘the brusier’ - he’s been making quite a stir in north London for the last couple of months.
The nausea at the pit of Ria's stomach had intensified when she received her hug from what she considered this most loathsome of men. Her father stepped out of the car and was shouldered by Reg, who quickly took him away.
'Coming to watch,' said Reg.
'No. Bring him out when it's done. I'll be here.'
She knew her father was there to take a beating, give the bruiser another victory, build his momentum, build his reputation. It didn't matter than The Pitbull hadn't won in ages, his old reputation was still enough to give some gloss to the new kids on the block. The younger kids. The fitter kids. Her father was now no more than a punch bag. She hated this game and everyone in it. Especially the promotors and the bookies, experts in the art of drawing a crowd of drunken thugs so they could scam them in the betting.
As she sat in the back of the car she grimaced at each crescendo of the screaming crowd, bonded by the blood lust, jeering and joining in unison at the humiliation and physical destruction of her father, and wondered where their need for violence came from. She hugged the pitbulls for strength, like her father had done just before the fight, and prayed that he would not get too hurt.
Five minutes later it was clear her prays were not answered. As the two minders bundled Pete into the car she looked on in horror. Broken nose for sure, eyes as battered as she had ever seen them. Coughing blood. She acknowledged the minders with polite contempt in her eyes as the pitbulls jumped on their leader and licked his wounds.
‘Better get hom to the doc sharpish,’ said a minder.
It was a small place, just a few streets away. The same doctor who was always there. He was very kind and did his best to put Pete back together again. He didn't ask any questions.
In the morning Ria went into her father's room. It was sparsely decorated - one bed, one bedside cabinet, one wardrobe. He was slumped in agony. She handed him a strong tea and four aspirins.
'This is it dad. The last time. I'm not taking you anymore and if you fight again I'm leaving. And just like mum I won't come back, again, ever. You know me. I don’t make threats. I always mean what I say.'
Pete made no movement nor sign that he had heard or even paid any attention to his daughter, who he loved more than life itself. But he had. She’d never said this before and he knew, like him that she only ever said what she meant. In some ways the words hurt more than the beating he had suffered at the iron fists of the Bruiser. And they were the only reason Pitbull Pete survived to see his grandchildren.