I need some cheering up today so, perversely, I’m posting a scene from Mortal Ghost that didn’t make the director’s final cut. Here it is:
Jesse took a deep breath and swung round to face the four thugs on their heels.
‘Right,’ Jesse said, ‘that’s far enough.’
The four of them came to a halt, astonished to be confronted, and the minions looked uncertainly towards the heavyset bloke for guidance.
‘Not telling us what to do round here, are you, mate?’
‘Well yes, as a matter of fact, I am.’
‘That so?’ said the spokesman. ‘Four of us against three of you.’ He smiled. ‘Four against one.’
Out of the corner of his eye Jesse saw Thomas stop at the sound of those words. He whispered something to Sarah, then both of them pivoted and moved a few steps apart. Shit, Jesse thought, what are you doing? Get her out of here.
‘Too real, Basher, you tell ’im.’ The kid who piped up looked about thirteen. ‘We don’t need no bloody likrice allfucksorts round here.’
The others grinned and nudged each other. They’d recovered from their surprise, and were gaining confidence from the prospect of a fight with some psycho who thought he could take on their gang singlehanded. The girl and the freak didn’t count.
Basher folded his arms across his chest and in perfect imitation of a sinister gangster – though probably, thought Jesse, it was no imitation – gobbed on the pavement at Jesse’s feet.
‘I’ll ignore that if you turn around right now and depart,’ Jesse said. ‘Which means go to dickheads like you.’
Jesse didn’t have his knife with him, which was probably better anyway. He might have been tempted to use it, and slash or stab injuries didn’t go down well with the police. Nothing went down well with the police, he amended silently as he tried to work out what to do next.
‘You’ve got balls, I’ll give you that.’ Basher took a step forward. His face had reddened, and Jesse could see the muscles bunching in his neck and upper arms, but there was the faintest trace of uncertainty which flickered at the back of his eyes at the audacity of a bloke like Jesse, who should have been cowering or at least sweating by now.
Jesse matched Basher’s move. ‘Since you don’t seem to understand the Queen’s English, I’ll put it another way. Bugger off.’
Something like rage was beginning to simmer in Jesse’s gut. He’d spent a lifetime backing off, and taking it, and walking away. A little demonstration of firepower? He might end up incinerating them and half the road as well; he didn’t need any more of that on his conscience. And there were people about – not just potential victims, but witnesses. He could imagine the headlines.
All at once Jesse felt completely calm. He wouldn’t use the fire, that was all. He locked it down, and found that he could build his own version of a firewall. He tested it, tentatively. It would hold. He smiled provocatively at Basher, anticipating the relief and sheer exhilaration of finally losing his temper, of allowing himself the luxury of a good nasty streetfight; the rush of giving in to – being consumed by – his own fury. And it didn’t matter if they damaged him. There had to be punishment sometime.
‘That’s it,’ Basher snarled. ‘I’m going to like wipe that smile off your face, loony.’ He glanced at his mates and jerked his head to the side. ‘Let’s do him.’ Then he caught sight of the kid from the playground, who had wandered away from the swing and was now standing near the pavement, gawking. ‘What you looking at, boy?’
The boy was maybe eight or nine, with a head of thick black hair, high cheekbones, and dark skin. He had what looked like a mobile or iPod clutched in his hand. At Basher’s words he thrust it behind him and started backing away.
‘I’m talking to you, hear?’
The boy hesitated, and his eyes darted nervously first left, then right, then left again – less a cornered rodent than a skinny street-smart cat, deciding which tree or downpipe he could reach first. But Basher had been there before, many times.
‘Get over here. And be quick about it,’ Basher said.
Jesse had been watching carefully, calculating. Now he flashed an even wider smile than before, at the same time flicking a hand as if flipping off something rotten, disgusting.
‘Hey, arsehole,’ Jesse jeered, ‘get your rocks off on little kids, do you?’
He shrugged his backpack off his shoulder, dropped it to the pavement, bent his knees to brace himself for the first blow, and yelled out to the boy, then louder to Thomas and Sarah. ‘Run! RUN!’
For days afterwards a smile would spread across Jesse’ s face whenever he recalled with renewed astonishment and delight what happened next.
It was if a contingent of Samurai warriors suddenly appeared on the spot, transported through time and space at the click of his mouse. Sarah charged from the left, Thomas from the right. Except that it was less an attack than a dance sequence, in which Sarah’s grand jeté just happened to connect with Basher’s nose, and Thomas’ vault and tour jeté would have rivalled any that Nureyev or Baryshnikov could have executed as he flew into the blond, baby-faced punk who was reaching into his pocket for might have been a yoyo or a lollipop – or a flick knife.
Both Basher and Babyface went down, the latter screeching and Basher gushing blood from his flattened nose. The other two exchanged looks, retreated a few steps, and then seeing Jesse advance on them with his face hard and set and savage, turned and ran. The boy from the playground had already disappeared.
An appreciative peal of mirth rolled along the road, bouncing a few times before coming to rest at Jesse’s feet. Basher had risen to all fours, his head hanging low and limp between his arms. Jesse hauled him to his feet, none too gently. Then he turned to locate the source of the laughter. An elderly woman stood a little distance away at the kerb, her white hair neatly blued and permed, and her scrawny, bird-like body rollicking with gusto. Upon catching Jesse’s eye, she raised her arm in a power salute.
‘Way to go,’ she cackled. ‘It’s about time someone showed those boys a thing or two.’
In the meantime Thomas was kneeling on Babyface, whose face was mashed into the pavement, one arm twisted behind him in Thomas’ iron grasp and the other flailing helplessly at the concrete. He wasn’t going anywhere till Thomas was good and ready to let him up.
Sarah marched up to Basher and stood with her arms akimbo, her eyes sparkling. ‘Shall I show you what else I can do?’
‘Bitch,’ he spat at her, wiping the back of his hand across his mouth and wincing. The fight had not quite gone out of him, but he eyed Jesse, saw him tense, and took a step backwards.
The old woman approached.
‘Watch your tongue, young man,’ she said. ‘I don’t like to hear women disrespected.’
‘You dried-up old cunt,’ he began through his split lip, ‘mind your own –’
But he didn’t get a chance to finish his sentence. The woman raised her handbag, swung it in a wide arc backwards, and began beating him about the head and shoulders with the strength of a woman at least fifteen years her junior. Her bag was good-sized, with a thick metal rim and clasp, and made a very satisfactory weapon. Basher yelped, whipped round, and staggered away. Jesse glimpsed the tail between his legs.
‘That’ll teach you to prey on the weaker sex,’ the woman hurled after Basher’s retreating back.
Thomas, Sarah, and Jesse were laughing so hard that tears were soon running down Sarah’s face. Jesse had to double over to catch his breath, and Thomas nearly let go of Babyface’s arm.
The woman turned back to Thomas.
‘Let him up now, lad,’ she said. She prodded Babyface distastefully with the toe of her black lace-up. ‘He won’t bother you any more, and I’ve got a few things to say to him. I don’t like speaking to someone’s backside.’
Babyface rose with a groan. For a moment it looked as if he’d make a break for it, but he evidently feared the old woman might pull out a lasso or a harpoon or even a semiautomatic assault weapon from her bag, and decided not to risk it. Her harangue was long and colourful, and it was followed by a round of applause, cheers, and even some whistles from the spectators.
At this point Jesse remembered that the street was far from empty. He was astonished that it had slipped his mind during the skirmish. Not only were cars and vans trawling past, but there were quite a few shoppers and pedestrians about, a number of whom were now clustered around their little scene. Jesse grinned to himself. I should pass the hat round, he thought. Live street theatre is even better than reality TV. But then he sobered as another thought crossed his mind. There were no police in sight yet – he supposed the traffic warden writing a ticket in the distance didn’t count – but it might only be a matter of time before someone rang them. The city’s anonymity had been breached. They’d best move on.
‘Where did you learn to do that?’ Jesse asked Sarah and Thomas a few minutes later as they found seats in a café.
Both of them laughed. ‘A ballet we once performed together,’ Sarah said. ‘A modern piece with rival gangs and all kinds of fighting.’
‘Westside Story?’ Jesse asked.
‘No, more contemporary, but along those lines,’ Sarah said. ‘A karate master even worked together with the choreographer and helped us with some of our movements.’
‘Not karate,’ Thomas corrected. ‘A kung fu lion dancer. Chinese.’
‘Maybe I should start taking ballet classes,’ Jesse said. ‘Useful training in self-defence.’
Thomas regarded him critically. ‘If you insist on confronting nasty sods like those four – and on your own – you’re going to need a lot more than an arabesque to save your skin. How about full-body armour and a magic wand?’
The coffee, sweetened by their triumph and easy familiarity, was delicious.