We all walked determinedly down the wet, charcoal-grey streets, flanked by the debilitated Victorian terraces. The sky was dark and the clouds black and menacing, threatening to let rip torrents of rain. Out of the score of people there, none of us spoke, heads faced only one way; forwards, jaws locked in a semipermanent grimace, concentrating on nothing more than marching. Slowly, a magnificent white dome, seeming very out of place among the ancient red bricks and grey concrete, emerged in the distance from behind the terraced houses, and as we trudged on towards it, all signs of residence petered out, and we were left standing in a clearance next to a run-down factory. The River Thames ran just a few feet from where we were standing; a dark green, opaque serpent of water.
We had come to an abandoned part of Canary Wharf, somewhere quiet and secluded, just as agreed.
I pulled up the collars of my coat, and blew into my cupped hands, but it did little against the cold. I felt a hand land on my shoulder. I turned and looked at a severely pockmarked face with small squinty eyes, barely visible under the messy jungle of hair. I smiled and nodded at the man. ‘Do you think they’ll be here, Jim?’ I asked.
‘Definitely. Them Millwall guys might be dumb, violent and dirty cheaters, but I’ve never heard of them backing out of a good old fight,’ he replied. He was right of course. Jim was always right. You never lasted very long as a ‘gang’ leader if you were always getting things wrong. Jim never liked the idea of us being called a gang. He said it was too low class, too amateurish. So we all settled on being called an ‘organization’. The West Ham Organization…
I had been involved with all this for just a few months, but already I had seen enough violence and blood to see me through the rest of my life. During every game, we went to watch the Hammers play. We all went together, all twenty of us, and cheered for our team until we had no breath left, shouting and encouraging our players as if their failure meant our death. But as soon as the matches ended, our minds were set on something else. Finding a suitably quiet street, we hung around in search of trouble.
We looked out for the opposing team’s ‘organization’, and they looked out for us. Once we came face to face with them, at first only looks were exchanged, and then someone feeling brave that day would say ‘What the hell are you lookin’ at?’ and that remark would be replied by a string of exotic verbal abuse, which would itself be countered by numerous gestures, some of which I still don’t know the meaning of. A few bottles would be hurled aimlessly, sometimes bricks, and then the fighting would brake out. Going home with dry blood on my face and clothes was not something my mum took a liking to, and each time I promised to stop all this ‘nonsense’, knowing that I would only commit myself even more for my Organization the next time.
Jim waved a hand in front of my face and I snapped out of my daydreams.
‘You sure you’re ok Tommy?’ he asked. I nodded my head and gave him a smile. ‘I’m fine, I’m fine. I just can’t wait till I get my hands on those Millwall bastards.’
‘That’s the spirit. But remember son, be careful out there, yeh?’ Jims face turned serious and he gripped my shoulder so hard it began to hurt. ‘You know we’ve hated them Millwallers for a long time… And here’s our chance to finally show them what we’re all about. But remember Tommy, watch yourself out there.’ I was taken aback by the sudden change in Jim, and made to reply when-
‘They’re here! Look, they’re here!’ We all looked towards where the guy that shouted was pointing to, and sure enough, a group of men were walking towards us. They carried on coming our way, and stopped within throwing distance. They had a few extra men more than us, and most of them were heavily built. All of them were scowling, spitting on the floor, anything to show their resentment for us. And yet we had never seen or got to know them before; we were just continuing a feud from another generation. We stood in a long line, parallel to them, both sides eyeing each other up, calculating, waiting for something to happen.
‘Come on lads! Let’s have them!’ Jim shouted suddenly… There was no foreplay here like the other brawls we had, just straight simple combat. For a second I went numb and froze to my spot, a thousand doubts flying around in my head, but then I saw all my companions running and shouting. Summoning up all my courage, I screamed and ran forward too. The other side’s reaction was the same and we crashed onto them like a stormy sea on cliff rocks.
I grabbed someone and head-butted him on the nose. Blood splattered all over my new coat as I stepped back to shake off my dizzy head. The guy I had head-butted was on the floor now, being trampled by the other people viciously fighting. He was holding his face in pain, his eyes screwed shut. He looked like a nice guy, someone I could say “Hi” to on the street. I kicked him a couple of times, and when I made sure he was out of this fight I went on to find someone else.
Before I even got the chance to turn around, something hard smacked me on the back of my head. I fell immediately, with my senses deserting me and my vision going black. Thinking I was finished, the guy that hit me left me there on the ground and I bided my time, keeping low for a minute or so while I recovered before standing up again. I looked around now, I wasn’t in the thick of it anymore, but everyone else was still fighting and it was difficult to tell friend from foe. I threw a couple of wary punches at anyone that came near enough, but I concentrated more on finding Jim. I knew it wouldn’t do my health much good if I stuck around fighting without Jim having my back.
And then I saw him. He wasn’t brutally attacking an opponent as I imagined, or helping a fallen comrade, in fact, he was the victim this time. Jim lay on the floor, not moving, being stepped on occasionally in the mad confusion. I rushed to him and turned him over to face me. I grabbed him bye his collar and dragged him to a safer, if not safe distance and held him in my arms while I crouched down beside him. “Jim. Jim, you OK?” I asked desperately. I got no answer. I shook him. Still silent. My hands ran over his body quickly and rested when I felt a warm wet patch. Blood was slowly gushing from a gash in his thick jacket, leading to his stomach, and I was dumbfounded at how I didn’t notice it before. “Help! Somebody help! He’s dying, he’s f***ing dying!” I shouted till I nearly lost my voice, and I continued screaming long after everyone stopped fighting.
Jim died before we got him to a hospital. His muscular body lay limp on the stretcher when they carried him in, eyes closed forever, a victim of his own sport. His death affected all of us. Even the Millwallers grieved a little. To us, he was a martyr of our underground street life, a wise older brother to us all. After Poor old Jim’s death I just wasn’t the same again. I stopped all this gang nonsense, but I never regretted it. Jim showed me how to stand up for myself whenever I had to, and never to be afraid. I couldn’t thank him enough for that, and in that way, his death wasn’t totally in vain. God bless you, and good luck Jim, wherever you are…