A Lesson in Rough Justice

by Andrew Parker

MASTER COPY " 1/7/08 (No Swearing Version)

A Lesson In Rough Justice

Frank Quinn winced as he stumbled on a rough area of pavement and quietly cursed. He was 73yrs old and arthritis (plus a few other complaints that he chose to keep to himself) had slowed him down over the years from the fighting-fit younger man he still felt he should be. He was proud. Not of anything in particular. Just proud. He had immense love and pride for many actual physical things too, his children, his wife, his grandchildren, a few people. His prideful moments changed almost daily and the counter kept on ticking throughout his life. He never regretted a single moment of it, a deadly sin if the religious nuts were to be believed but he didn't, not for a second. Far too many desperately bad things had happened to him and to people that he cared for and loved for there to be a benevolent god anywhere in this universe. Besides, what use would a god that promised a choice between heaven or damnation based on your devotion to him on Earth be when he didn't have the gumption to teach forgiveness and tolerance above all else. How the hell could he manage to get his message across so thoroughly in every other department but these? And, Frank thought if he was on his soapbox, why on earth would Charlie Big Spuds be able to make his face appear in poppadoms and tears come from statues, for pity's sake and not be able to prevent a school full of kids and teachers being buried, come on; people were so stupid!

'Let it go Frank', he admonished himself.

He saw a bench and sat, trying not to grunt too loudly as he bent to place his backside. (When exactly did that start " the grunting?) He remembered thinking it was funny when he caught himself doing it, perhaps sometime in his forties and laughing with Cath about it when he pointed out that she was doing it too, completely unawares of course. He looked around self-consciously but there was nobody around to hear his old man noises - good. When they had first noticed it, it had been quaint. Now it was hard not to do it because of the genuine pain inherent in movements that should have been fluid and pain-free. Frank had always intended to accept growing old gracefully but, like most good intentions, the reality was much more difficult.

~

'Morning Frank!'

He looked up to see Beth Walker strolling past with her 'boyfriend'. Frank could not get used to calling someone who was 69 years old a 'boyfriend', but what else would you call him " Beth's 'gentleman friend'? Her walking companion? Stud? He laughed inwardly but said,

'Beth, Joe. How're you both?' 'Fine morning ...'

Joe replied:

'I fancied a run, it's that nice, but Beth here just simply won't put the effort in. I don't know, these youngsters eh? (She was 67). No get up and go, it's all just MTV, video games and pop tarts with them and too much effort to make a sandwich.'

Beth elbowed Joe in the side and said:

'Don't you believe a word of it, Frank, he just can't accept it that I always beat him on Jason's Wii.' Best he's ever done is losing 4-1 on the tennis, and that's only because the phone rang and I was talking to Jean at the time!'

They all laughed amicably and Beth and Joe made to move on. Frank never normally solicited company or conversation, though he was sociable if people chose to talk to him, but today he said:

'What's a wee?'

He felt surprise at this own words " why had he said that? He didn't care. He knew that asking questions only begged more.

Beth and Joe did a comedy double-take, completely caught by surprise. Frank was notoriously taciturn. Friendly, but not exactly gregarious, that was.

'It's a video game, Frank, said Beth. A TV game, you know, like "Space Invaders", only far more twenty-first century. You actually move around and wave the remote controls about to play it and they have brain games too. It's quite good exercise, amazingly. Can you imagine teenagers really playing a game that is educational and physical?'

Joe cut in: 'There's even boxing too. You used to be a boxer didn't you Frank?'

Frank thought: 'Why did I ask a question?' But answered: 'So many years ago, it probably doesn't count anymore.'

The inevitable uncomfortable silence popped into the conversation, as usual when acquaintances are exchanging pleasantries. We all know that they last mere seconds, if that but that they can seem like minutes of protracted and excruciating silence, full to bursting point with embarrassment that both parties have fulfilled their obligatory interest in the other and now they have no more to say to them and how the hell are you going to escape? A few milliseconds of hesitation is all it takes, just like the moment you realise that you cannot remember a person's name " you have but a brief moment in which to admit it and graciously say so, exchange apologies and carry on with the conversation, all smiles and pats on the back.

Frank was good at this and had learned the lessons many years before so he simply stood and said:

'Well, I'll be on my way now. Enjoy the rest of your athletics ... I think I'll pop down to Currys and have a look at one of those ... what were they called?'

'Wii, Frank, spelled W " i " i, they're really good, made by Nintendo, just ask one of the fellas or girls, they'll know exactly what you're talking about', said Beth. He nodded a short and polite but conclusive gesture, true to type, and moved off along the path.

~

He meant to walk for another hour yet and he had already wasted too long resting. The park was good for walking, whatever the season, but Frank particularly liked it in the early spring. The blossom was just starting to fall. Soon the paths and grass would look like they were covered in pink snow. He was walking, picking up pace and beginning to turn through the gateway into the inner park around the lake when he saw a flash out of the corner of his eye and simultaneously a boy on a BMX bike whistled past close enough for Frank to feel the wind of it.

'Oi! Watch yourself, Sunny-Jim', Frank shouted.

Two more boys barged past as Frank was remonstrating with the first and the last kid whipped Frank's cap off and danced off, taunting:

'This yours, you old tosser?!' he shouted. 'Here, Bobba you want a new hat', he said and tossed the cap to the boy on the bike. Biker-boy was already heading back to circle menacingly around Frank, just out of range. He put the cap on backwards and looked to his mates " this was going to be some unexpected fun...

Frank thought: 'I should have gone the other way', but planted his feet, did a three-sixty scan of the situation as he had been trained and planted his feet firmly. He said nothing for a few more seconds than was comfortable. There were three of them, then " Frank's brain had already assigned names: Biker-boy, Hoody and Quiet. That was the one Frank would keep a special eye on, as if he had more than the standard two. But he had learned, been taught very well if we're talking about it, that the ones with the loudest voices and most menacing body language were rarely the most dangerous. The boys couldn't figure it out. Why wasn't this old sod shaking and crying for his decrepit old body?

Frank wanted them all in front of him, or at least within his peripheral vision, so he just stared until they became nervous enough to close ranks - safety in numbers. Sure enough, they regrouped and the bravado returned. Humans were pack animals unless there were only two of them, then they would probably fight each other, Frank thought.

'What you staring at, grand-dad?' biker-boy shouted. 'You want you minging old cap back, come and get it!'

'Just see if you can make it over here without falling off and give it back and I may let you leave with the same amount of teeth you arrived with', Frank replied.

There were hoots and jeers of derision but Frank just stared.

'This wrinkly thinks he's Rocky!' shouted one. 'Come on then, grand-dad; let's see your moves then!'

'What's the matter, need your zimmer?'

Frank wasn't what you could call a large man and he didn't exactly look menacing in his Matalan beige raincoat but he stood square and true, stocky at five feet nine inches and his body had once been very hard. He was still very fit and strong for his age though he himself didn't believe it. People nearly always have a completely different self-image than the one the world sees.

Biker boy dropped the wheels and moved closer to Frank. As he approached, Frank turned side-on to him, presenting a smaller target, but looked beyond to the other two. The boy about to get in Frank's face couldn't quite work out why he was beginning to feel uncertain about this now and he turned to make sure his posse was still backing him. He turned back and made as if to lean in towards Frank's face to leer at him but he had barely moved and Frank lifted his cane smoothly and swiftly and held it there steadily, a chair for the lion-tamer. The boy's eyes flared with initial fear and his involuntary flinch raised his anger, then his bravado resurfaced and he remembered that he had an image, a position to keep up. He raised his arms above his head and melodramatically mimicked protecting himself.

'Ooh, please don't whack me with your cane grand-dad!' He glanced around quickly to make sure his mates had heard. (And to check they were still there too " there was something about the way this old boy looked and acted that was making him more nervous by the second).

When the boy turned his head back to the old man he found himself looking straight along the length of the cane right into the old man's grey eyes. Frank had moved it from waist to head-height, fleet and silent, as the kid had turned away and his body had leant almost imperceptively forward, his right shoulder muscle cocked and ready. The moment the kid's face was watching the blackboard again the cane instantly jabbed towards him and he knew he had no time to move out of the way. The cane connected dead-centre with the middle of his forehead like a hammer blow. The millisecond he had left to think about it was used up with trying to work out how the old man had moved so fast and how someone that old could have pushed the cane so hard. The movement had been like a snooker cue but the force of it landing felt as if he had run into a steel girder at full sprint. Then his head snapped back, his brain rotated inside his skull and the lights went out. He fell unceremoniously to the floor. Frank had pushed the cane through the blow, aiming behind the kid's head to gain maximum momentum " he wanted at least two of these idiots down quickly. He dropped the cane and raised his fists again.

Hoody-boy had reacted faster than Frank had thought he would but the blow he swung, though vicious with intent, was amateurish and wild, swinging roundhouse style towards Frank's cheek. He had time to think:

'Where do these kids learn to fight, cartoons?'

He swung away to the right, pain flaring in his elderly back and he felt the wind of the fist as it passed, waiting for the boy to look up to see why his blow hadn't landed so that he was facing full-on (keep your eye on the ball, dafty, thought Frank), he pumped out the coiled left jab he had waiting, piston-like. He watched in slow motion as the second boy saw it coming and his arthritic hand screamed in Technicolor as the liver-spotted fist landed on the bridge of the boy's nose. But no amount of pain could have diminished the thrill of the ease with which he had landed that punch and the satisfying but nauseous loud crack as the boy's nose broke and blood exploded, hot, coppery and bright. The adrenaline was flushing his systems now, so long a distant friend, now returned, his brain filling with endorphins and numbing the pain instantly.

'I've missed you', Frank thought crazily, and in his mind he heard someone laughing. (Perhaps this is a dream or I'm finally off to the funny farm, he thought.)

Then he saw the quiet one move to his left, the flash of steel, a blade. Then Frank thought:

'I definitely should have walked'.

Too late now, he thought and turned side-on to the new threat. Keeping his eyes on the boy's eyes

'Don't look at the blade, Frank " the fight comes from the eyes, your peripheral vision will keep an eye on the blade for you, you see' - the voice of Eddie Vance - his mentor in the specials, long dead and sorely missed said. He waited for the lack-wit to make his attack.

Frank saw the move coming when the boy's eyes signalled it as clearly as an Aldis lamp, almost certainly before the kid even knew he was going to make his move himself. It's the eyes, they give you away. He had less than half a second to calculate where the slice was going and which way to parry. The tip of the knife sliced open his coat and crazily, that made Frank madder than anything else about this situation.

'Damn, that's going to cost me another twenty quid now', he thought.

Insanely in that tiny moment, Frank had had the time to hum The Eagles: "...you just can't hide your lying eyes ...' in the time-dilation phenomenon that makes you remember your first car-crash as if it lasted ten minutes, instead of two seconds. It's called 'flashbulb memory' in psycho-speak. The way people remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when Kennedy was shot and so on. All this passed through Frank's mind as the knife made its slow motion pass through to the lining of his coat.

'Cath will freak " I'll have to stop for a new one on the way home', he thought. In his mind's eye he saw his wife angrily shouting that he had no right to put himself in danger after all these years. All the years she had spent waiting for his call, knowing he was performing noble and righteous work, but so very dangerous. Then he saw her sobbing and tears rolling down her cheeks, usually so composed, so serene and calm unless he had upset her. He knew that he would not tell her of this incident (if he survived) and he just hoped that the news did not arrive at her door some other way. He loved her unconditionally and wholly and some of the worst moments in his life were when he had had to see his wife in anguish ... especially if he had been the cause.

But as the knife flashed by Frank stepped deftly to one side, off the line of attack, and grabbed the boy's hand and wrist in both of his own old, but wiry hands, twisting it and keeping the attacker's movement going, turning with it, using it against him. The kid performed a rapid and perfect involuntary pirouette and ended up almost nose to nose with Frank but balanced precariously on his back foot. Frank twisted in and up, manipulating the kid's elbow and suddenly the knife blade was in front of the boy's now white face.

'Where would you like this?' Frank said with deliberate malice in a voice aged as vintage claret, strong and syrupy.

The boy just trembled and shook his head very carefully, a tiny movement almost imperceptible, terrified that more movement would end in blindness. Someone could have set an air-bomb into the ridiculously low belt of his jeans, lit it and sat back to wait for the huge explosion and the boy's eyes would not have moved a millimetre from the point of the knife. Frank manipulated the boy's hands a little harder and pressed the pin-point end of the knife into the boy's cheek, just below his left eye. The boy's bladder let go and Frank almost took pity on him then but immediately said:

'Carry a knife around and pull it out on anyone, especially an old man you little worm and you better know how to use it. Here - have something to remember me by.'

He made a sharp, quick movement and the boy gasped out in shock and pain as the tip of the knife drew a deep 2cm cut open down his left cheek.

'You go get that stitched up and when you look in the mirror ask yourself if you really want to be the hard man anymore. Most of them are dead, you know that?', Frank said.

He pulled the knife from the boy's limp hand, tossed it aside and smashed his elbow into his right cheek. He went down, moaning but not unconscious. Frank had pulled the punch on purpose. He picked up the knife, threw it into the lake and brushed himself down, preparing to move on.

Hoody was sitting up, blinking and snuffling. Frank walked over to him and said in a voice that simply would not be disobeyed:

'Get up and go pick up my hat and cane.'

The boy stood, unsteadily and silently picked up Frank's things and handed them to him meekly.

Frank looked at him steadily and held him with his eyes.

'Question?' Frank said.

The boy was reluctant, uncertain what to do now.

'Where'd you learn to fight like that then mister?' he eventually said.

'School boxing club, army unarmed combat, street, prison' replied Frank.

The boys eyes widened when Frank said 'prison' and Frank noticed.

'Yeah, that's right, prison' Frank said 'And you think this tough guy act of yours will help you there, do you. You think you could handle it? Because that's where you and your stupid mates are headed acting like that' Frank said. 'Let me tell you ... you do not want to go there. There are people much worse than me there and they want to hurt you because they enjoy it ... and do much worse things to you just because they can, know what I mean?'

'You want to learn to fight like that, do you boy?' Frank said. The boy didn't answer but Frank went on anyway.

'Garibaldi Street. Frank's gym. Wednesday. Seven o'clock. Don't be late. Ask for Frank.'

~

A police car drew up on the other side of the gates and a policeman and woman strode over. Frank put on his cap and marched off. The policewoman caught up with him and placed her arm on his shoulder as her colleague began to take stock of the budding gangsters.

'Do you need any help, sir?' she said.

'I'm fine actually.' Really fine, he thought and meant it. 'You may want to order an ambulance, though', he replied.

'Erm, we'll need you to make a statement sir. If you feel up to it', she added.

'I'm not sure I'll bother if it's all the same to you' Frank said thinking of the waste of time it would be but more importantly, thinking of Cath.

'I think this lot have learned a bit more of a lesson today than can be given out by any court, more's the pity.'

The policewoman looked around at the scene and the grin she had been trying to hide surfaced involuntarily.

'If you're sure you're ok and there's nothing I can do for you sir'.

'No, thank you', said Frank. 'I think justice has been served.'

... And he walked on home.

~

Word count - (3387)

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