When I was a whelp, my Dad – who was a fair-sized scrapper – would tease me and use the same favourite lines over and over again as I attempted to box. ‘You couldn’t knock snow off a rope’ or he’d get me to flex my non-existent biceps and say: ‘God help us, they’re like knots in cotton.’
It was this kind of encouragement that made the sporting colossus you can read about on these pages. I recently wrote a book (buried in slushpiles the length and breadth of the UK) about a strange young man called Elijah Cotton. One of the characters in this book was the skeletal Bones. I like Bones’ cheek and spirit. He also gave me the opportunity to resurrect some of my Dad’s ‘character-building’ lines.
Dad: You meant well and you still make me smile, but put the motivational speaking career on hold.
No one could remember cold like this. The cut was so thick with ice it could hold a man’s weight. Old folk said it was like years gone by when they’d held fairs on the rivers and canals. Bears in chains had danced to the flute and ox had been roasted on huge fires. Some said horses had been out on the ice, but Bones doubted it. It’d been bitter for weeks, but finally the weather had given a little and Bones had spent three gruelling days cracking and smashing the ice. He sighed and watched plumes of his breath drift skyward. Frosted thistles and turf were gleaming and brittle as glass. He shivered, clutching his feet. He’d found rags, little more than scraps of canvas, and bound them to his feet with twine. He rocked back and forth, kneading his toes and heels with icy thumbs. When his feet began to tingle with blood, he got to his feet. He stretched his calves and thighs and shook out the pins and needles. His stomach churned like an empty furnace, for want of something to eat. Clem belly, they called it. He rubbed his guts and wondered if there’d be food today. The barges were belching out smoke and grease from their tiny stoves. Bones sniffed, drawing cooking smells deep inside. Rook was frying bacon. He liked to taunt Bones. Though it was ungodly Bones learned to hate Rook. He’d sit up-top in full view wiping his tin plate clean with fried bread, smacking his lips and savouring each greasy morsel. Rook had a lazy eye and a hair on his chin that coiled like a watch-spring. Bones turned away, jumped onto the lock gate and vaulted the cut.
‘It’s you, is it?’
Bones doffed his cap. He hadn’t seen Jack Myatt approach. Myatt grinned. He’d lost teeth since Bones had last seen him. There was a scarlet welt on his cheek and the ghost of a bruise.
‘How are you going to shift that?’
Bones got to work on the key. His palms seemed to draw the cold from the iron and he shuddered. Myatt gripped Bones’ bicep, winking at him.
‘Like knots in cotton,’ he said.
‘I can hold my own.’ Bones smiled. ‘You could train me.’
Myatt chuckled, ‘To do what?’
Bones took up a fighter’s stance – his feet were shoulder width apart and his fists cocked in readiness.
‘You couldn’t knock snow off a rope, young ’un.’