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24 April 2024

The superhuman I’d pictured turns out to be a super human indeed

I finally meet the boxer I’ve heard so much about. Unexpectedly, we hit it off.

By Nicholas Lezard

As you may know, it is the habit of this column to refer to its supporting cast by a capitalised initial, followed by a long dash. For example, if  I were to appear in it, I would be called “N—”. OK, I always appear in it, but you know what I mean. But this week I am going to pseudonymise so much it will make my characters’ heads spin. You’ll see why in a minute.

It’s a Sunday lunchtime. I get a call from my friend, um, “Gervase”, who has invited me along with some friends and family to a lovely family-run restaurant on the — Road, in Brighton.

“You still coming along to the buffet at —?” I tell him I am, but I notice that his voice sounds strange, stilted, as if he were a drunk man trying to sound sober. But I have known “Gervase” for some time and he can hold his drink. –

“Looking forward to it,” I say.

“Yeah, and finally you’ll get to meet my friend ‘Tarquin’,” he says. “Tarquin”, which is most emphatically not his real name, has come up frequently: a professional boxer and trainer, and a man with, apparently, a life rich in incident. The latest one involved being interviewed at some length and in some depth about a crime which I will not specify except to say it made regular appearances on The Sweeney. Of course, he had nothing to do with it, but “Gervase” was alarmed at the insouciance with which “Tarquin” was treating the matter. He didn’t even hire a lawyer, on the grounds that he was innocent of any knowledge of or involvement in the episode. “But he really needs a brief,” “Gervase” had said. “The kind that makes the police shit themselves when he walks in to the station. But he can’t afford one of those.”

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Anyway, “Gervase” is still talking oddly but he is happy I’m coming.

“I’m a bit annoyed because there’s going to be one bloke there I can’t stand. He’s sort of invited himself along.”

“What’s wrong with him?” I ask.

“Where do I start? Loves Trump, is an anti-vaxxer, thinks Covid was a government plot, yadda yadda yadda. The last time he came here I had to leave the room and hit my bed with a stick for ten minutes.”

“What’s his name?” I ask. “Just so I can avoid him.”

“His name,” said “Gervase” with great disgust, “is also ‘Gervase’.”

“Oh dear.”

“If I sound a bit funny, it’s because I’m hiding under the duvet. I think he’s in the living room.”

The restaurant is a good half-hour walk from the Hove-l, placing it at the far end of operations as far as I’m concerned. I have no money, not even for a bus, but “Gervase” has said he’ll pay for me, a kindness I will never forget. When I get there I see a couple of people standing outside the restaurant, in the manner of people who have arrived early and haven’t seen anyone they know inside. I go in but I’m early too, and there’s no one there I know, so I go back out and look at the couple. The man is good-looking with brown hair and a pleasant, welcoming air about him. The woman is tall, blonde and strikingly good-looking. (It goes without saying that they are both obviously at least 15 years younger than me.) However, there is something about them that suggests they are not, actually, a couple, for they are acting politely towards each other, and seem interested in what the other has to say, because they haven’t heard it 5,000 times already. I steal the occasional glance at them. Joe Jackson’s “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” plays on the internal jukebox.

At this point “Gervase” arrives, along with his wife and a couple of other friends. He introduces me to the pleasant-looking young man and says “This is ‘Tarquin’.” (His name is really a lot better than “Tarquin”.)

Over the years I’ve been hearing about him, “Tarquin” has taken on superhuman characteristics in my imagination. I had assumed a massive bruiser of a man, with muscles the size of yams all down his arms, a nose folded sideways and ears reduced to stumps. What I had not imagined was someone about my height who doesn’t look as if he would hurt a fly, not because he couldn’t but because he’d rather not, because being good at hitting things does not make you want to hit things when it is uncalled for. Nor had I suspected he would be quite so instantly likeable.

The lunch is very jolly indeed. The food is excellent and cheap and the wine is flowing freely. I go outside for a smoke and the blonde woman, whom I shall call, oh I don’t know, “Annunziata” – I give up – joins me for a vape, and she is as lovely as I’d hoped. I still don’t know whether she and “Tarquin” are an item. But we all go to the pub afterwards, and we swap numbers, at her suggestion, and we’re meeting next week, but I shall behave myself because I do not want to end up smeared like jam all over the Lewes Road.

[See also: Weighing the options in a country where nothing works any more]

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This article appears in the 24 Apr 2024 issue of the New Statesman, The Age of Danger