Jimbob Blakey wasn’t so much given birth to as clambered right out of his mother himself. He weighed in at almost thirteen pounds, came ready-fitted with a shock of fat black hair and a couple of razor teeth.
Jimbob’s folks loved him like most folks love their little ones, maybe more. They’d been trying so hard for a child, suffered more mid-term miscarriages than the ewes they shuttled off to market most Thursdays.
They dressed him in a one-year babygro and took him home to their hill farm. They fought to get up nights and give him his milk. His teeth made breast-feeding impossible. They sat hours gazing down in his cot. They dressed him fine and took him to their church and gave their thanks. Showed him off like the proud parents they were. Others cooed and smiled. But they never asked to hold. They gave thanks the Blakeys were happy, and that the monkey-baby had not been born to them.
Jimbob’s folks never gave a second thought that their boy might be different. The first Spring he walked, he stomped the moors in his welly-boots helping herd the pregnant ewes down in-by. He copied his father, kicking and cuffing at the stragglers, when the flock was returned to the hills in May.
As Jimbob grew, his hair became thicker, his arms longer. His head shrunk down on his shoulders. At check-ups, nurses fixed smiles and pronounced him healthy. Doctors said, ‘he’ll make you a strapping lad.’ His mother smiled, her heart swelled. When he was three, she sent him to nursery. She wanted him to mix with other kids. To taste life off the hard hills. She said, ‘it’ll do him the world of good.’ Jimbob hated leaving the farm. He clung to his mother. She drove away, blinking tears. On the third day, she took a phone call. ‘It’s Jimbob,’ they said. ‘He’s scaring the other kids.’The truth hit Jimbob’s mother like a hammer.
From that day, things changed on the hill farm. Jimbob’s mother shopped for essentials at sunrise. Stopped going to church. Told the Reverend, ‘I see those faces. I see their judgements.’ Cooing, smiling, not asking to hold. The Reverend said, ‘you have a miracle.’ She said, ‘Lord strike me down for saying it, but sometimes I don’t know what to believe.’ She came to shuffling Jimbob off upstairs when visitors came. Scooped him from the paddock when car-clouds rose from the track below. Shushed him in the top room. Told her few old friends he was fine, he was sleeping. Jimbob’s father stayed out longer hours, seldom saw his boy. Back home, they sat up late nights, not talking.
The summer Jimbob turned five, they held him down and sheared his thick hair. His mother stitched longer arms into his school uniform. Packed his lunchbox with his favourite things. Jimbob screamed, slapped the back window.
Jimbob liked school. His hair grew back. His arms grew longer. He grew taller, broader. He stood tall as the kids in class six. They teased him for it, and he learned to thump them back. After three weeks, his mother took a call. ‘It’s Jimbob,’ they said.
For years after, Jimbob seldom left the hills. Twice he got ill – first time they wrapped him in blankets and ice packs and banked on their dwindling faith to see it past. Second time, blood-red blotches worried them: they persuaded the visiting vetinary to diagnose nothing worse than a fever. Pleaded for secrecy, but word slowly spread: the Blakeys had had the vetinary out to see their monkey-boy.
Jimbob would shack up upstairs himself, dive for cover in the neck-high bracken from hikers or neighbours. He even sat out visits by the education welfare man, while his mother dragged excuses and flicked textbooks downstairs.
Only when Jimbob turned teenage and his old man was no longer so strapping did Jimbob venture down to town on market days. The other farm kids would jostle and make fun of him, pull at his arms or jump up to slap the top of his head. The biggest challenged him to fights – Jimbob was no fighter, but he was forced to give in. One right hand laid out the biggest of them round the back of the wagons. Word got round, and the hassling stopped.
When things got bad, shutting Jimbob away became the least of the Blakeys’ worries. Subsistence was all, and some beast was ravaging the value that remained. Was leaving red intestine trails all over their land. They took turns sitting through nights with hot flasks and shotguns loaded. With each sunrise came more intestines and paw prints bigger than any cat they knew.
The Bulmers would come from over the valley to compare head-counts, tracking methods. Old Man Bulmer with his gammy hip and sheep-shit-and-snuff stink. Jimbob’s mother would seek solace in how when things got bad, they were never as bad as the Bulmers. In the rag-clothes on the Bulmers’ washing line, the rusting machinery in their yard, the dirt under their nails. Old Man Bulmer would check his gun, remark, ‘I’ve a mind to turn it on myself.’ Jimbob listened through the floorboards. When Old Man Bulmer’s feet scuffed out the yard, Jimbob would wrap a fleece round his shoulders, make up a fresh brew and head out on the night-shift.
On his sixteenth birthday, Jimbob dragged a great black panther in the back porch. Jimbob was caked in blood and scratches and his thick black hair was tufting out. His folks looked up from their breakfasts. They dropped their jaws. Jimbob said, ‘it was worrying ‘em some, so I punched it out.’ His father said, ‘Holy shitting Jesus.’ His mother glanced up, said, ‘Lord, forgive us.’
Jimbob’s father called over the Bulmers. They stood round and prodded it with sticks and tarnished toe-caps. Jimbob hid upstairs, dabbed his wounds. He heard the young lad, Evan, say, ‘you could make summat big of this.’ Jimbob’s father respond, ‘mark my words, we’ll be making nowt.’
Jimbob’s father buried the carcass in the hills and fended off a couple of phone calls from the local press. ‘Nowt but a mad dog,’ he said, and replaced the handset. Some came to the door. He watched their smart company cars glint up the dust-track, waited on the front step cupping his shotgun. ‘No beasts been up here,’ he’d say. Then fix eyes, add: ‘wouldn’t dare.’ Another came, short and fat with gold wrapped round his wrists. ‘I got wind of some giant,’ the short fat man grinned. ‘Talk of the market, so he is.’ The short fat man ignored the shotgun. He pressed a card in Jimbob’s father’s hand. Jimbob’s father didn’t glance. He said, ‘you’re full of wind, all right.’
The man said, ‘have him call me.’
Jimbob’s father tossed the card in the dirt. When the fat man left, he headed straight round the Bulmers. He hair-pulled Evan straight from his table into the yard, barked so help him he’d string him up by his bollocks if any more word got out.
Some day after, there was another knock at the Blakeys’ door. His father cursed. Jimbob scraped his chair, headed upstairs. It was a full-shaped, red-haired girl. The lass of the Bulmers. She offered a basket of eggs. ‘To say thank you,’ she said. She peered past in the kitchen. ‘It ain’t much, but it’s all we got.’ Jimbob’s mother rose up, thanked her, took the eggs. Shut the door while she stood on the step. She set the eggs in front of her, flicked them of muck. She said, ‘we’ll not be eating them.’
The red-haired girl called round two or three times more. Final time, she asked straight out for Jimbob. Jimbob’s mother snapped, ‘Jimbob’s not here.’ The girl said, ‘I seen him out and about only this morning.’ A floorboard creaked. They all looked up. Jimbob’s mother flushed. ‘You’ve got no business with your spying.’ The girl said, ‘if you don’t mind me saying, you got no business in locking him away like you do.’ Jimbob’s mother curled her lips. Reached her hand back in a slap. She said, ‘oh, I mind you saying, all right.’ Then Jimbob appeared at his mother’s shoulder. He wore a wild, grown-up beard, a holey navy jumper with too-short arms. He looked blank at the girl. The girl smiled back. ‘I’m Tina,’ she said. ‘I seen you round.’
Night times, Tina took to trailing Jimbob in the hills. Jimbob mostly ignored her. Had feelings he could not account for. She said, ‘lamped right out of my window, I did, damn near broke my neck just to give you a bit of company. Figured you might need it. Least you could do is open your trap.’ Jimbob took to shaving mornings, clipped at his hair. Stayed out late enough he started sleeping in, missing his father’s morning chores. Still couldn’t do no accounting for it. Jimbob’s mother said, ‘She’s a Bulmer, I doubt she’s any good for you.’ She said, ‘don’t let her go putting fanciful notions in that thick head of yours.’
Fifth or sixth time, they sat out over the valley while the last white drained from the sky. Tina said, ‘it gets kind of lonely up here.’ Jimbob said, ‘I like it that way.’ Tina said, ‘you’re a hard one, Jimbob Blakey.’ Her arm rustled his. Tina leaned over, took his chin, kissed his mouth. Kept it pressed, pushed warm. He reached up, tore at her blouse. Smelled a burst of soap and meadow flowers. She squirmed back, brayed, ‘easy, now!’ Her hoots echoed round the moors. Once they’d finished, she patched her blouse back on. She said, ‘the moor’s full of secrets, huh, panther boy.’ She kissed his cheek, trod out in the black toward the light squares.
Jimbob started spending more time with Tina. More nights on the hills. His folks disapproved. ‘Must be a damn lot of big cats out there, way you’re turning all nocturnal,’ his father grumbled. His mother repeated, ‘you mark my words, she’ll bring you nowt but trouble will that one.’
Trouble was brought to them one night on the moors. Tina had shed most of her clothes and made a bed of bracken. She said, ‘what was that?’ She said, ‘there – you hear it?’ Jimbob was already half-way to a gorse copse. Moved so silent for such a big man. He flung himself, ignored its spikes. There was a scream, a struggle. Tina clasped her top. A silhouette flickered away against the moon. Evan. He shouted back, ‘you think you’re so clever. You’ll see. You’ll see, all right.’ Tina pulled her clothes back on, said, ‘I gotta go.’ Jimbob took her arm. She yanked free, said again, ‘I gotta go.’ She left a path as she went.
The markets were hard. The mood of Jimbob’s father darkened. He took to drinking nights. Heard tell of a farmer up the dale who’d blown his own brains out, such was the forecast. He swung his shotgun at a couple of media types who’d got wind of the panther story. His mother sat in, mostly wept. Jimbob camped day and night in the hills, watched the Bulmer house. Once or twice, when he was sure old Bulmer was down the vale, he’d go round, slewed through mud in the yard. Second time, Evan answered the door. He leered at Jimbob.
‘What you want?’
‘Tina’s what I want.’
‘Well, she don’t want you.’
‘Let me hear it from her.’
‘She don’t want you.’ He shut the door in his face.
Jimbob tried a few times more. Till the day Old Man Bulmer hobbled round waving a gun of his own. He reeked so strong of drink it even out-stunk the sheep shit. He shouted out Jimbob’s father: ‘where’s that damn monkey-boy of yours? I got issues.’
Jimbob’s father appeared at the door. He laughed at Old Man Bulmer swaying in his yard. He spat on the ground. He said, ‘you got nothing but a piece of shit whore.’
Old Man Bulmer poked the rifle butt towards Jimbob’s father’s ribs. He said, ‘you say that again, I’ll blow a hole in you so big..’
Jimbob’s father said, ‘you heard me.’
They stood off. Old Man Bulmer said, ‘he’s nowt but a half-beast. He wants caging.’
‘That’s all the thanks he gets for saving that rag-tag flock of yours?’
Old Man Bulmer slitted up his eyes. ‘I don’t buy it. Never did. Likely found the thing dead hisself. Cooked up a ruse as a way of impressing.’ He cracked a deep breath, cocked his head. ‘I know what he’s playing at.’
Jimbob loomed in the porch. ‘Trouble?’ he said.
Old Man Bulmer wheeled the rifle in his direction. He said, ‘I know all about your raping, boy. Don’t you tell me I don’t.’
Jimbob said, ‘raping?’
‘Her word, boy. You stay away, you heard. You think I’m gonna stand by, let some half-breed mess with my daughter, you got another thing coming.’
Jimbob’s father snorted a laugh.
Old Man Bulmer said, ‘I ain’t joking. How’d you like every shitting newspaper man this side of Fleet Street heading up, poking around in your business?’
He turned away. He half-turned back, said, ‘you hear me, boy?’ He trudged out the yard.
Jimbob got back to work, re-applied himself. His father seethed – at Old Man Bulmer or Jimbob, sometimes both. Jimbob kept an eye on the Bulmer farm, hoping for a glimpse – a toss of red hair, anything. Nothing till the following summer when he saw her in-by, waiting for her old man and Evan to bring the old ewes down off the hills for clipping. He scooted down, surprised her in the yard. Shocked, her eyes flashed wild. She said, ‘you’re not supposed to be here.’ She was broader, fuller-hipped. Her tee-shirt strained. Her nipples pressed through. He recalled the nights. She said, ‘please go.’
Jimbob said, ‘I wondered, is all.’
Tina said, ‘they’ll kill you.’
Jimbob curled a laugh. He said, ‘maybe some things is worth the killing.’ He reached for her arm. She pulled out, coughed, said, ‘what the hell?’ It bounced off the farm buildings. The yard creaked with rust. She said, ‘what the hell?’ again.
Jimbob said, ‘‘I never did nowt.’
She said, ‘You did summat.’
He said, ‘it were nowt.’
She said, ‘call this nowt?’
She hooked her tee-shirt up over her swelling belly, stared in his eyes till she was sure he knew. Tears stained her cheeks. She let Jimbob take her, press in her hair. ‘They’re after taking it, Jim,’ she whimpered. ‘After riving it right out. Say the last thing they want’s another mouth to feed. And a damn son of a monkey boy’s mouth at that.’
Some days later, Jimbob snuck out to the yard in the dark, shushed the dogs. The farm was busy with clipping, the ewes scuffed in-by. Jimbob being out and about in the early hours was no cause for suspicion. He gently keyed the lock on his father’s old Volvo and sat in, tossed his rucksack in the back. He got back familiar with the pedals. The moment he turned the engine, the upper light of the house flicked on. He saw his father’s shape silhouetted against it. He turned the lights, fired the Volvo out of the yard, across the valley.
They wound down the black lanes till the lights of town loomed before them. Jimbob watched the rear-view mirror for follow-lights. There were none. Tina stared ahead. She rested her hand on his when he lingered on the gear-stick. On her lap was a handbag filled with the cash her old man had been saving for the getting-rid. Enough for a couple of nights at least. Tina directed Jimbob through the outskirts, read the signs past the empty market. ‘Furthest I gone,’ said Jimbob, clasping tight to the wheel. Tina smiled. ‘It’s gonna be okay,’ she said.
That first night they spent in a lay-by, lolled on the back-seat for the last hours till the sun poked up. Next day they still headed south, sticking to back roads, aiming nowhere much. Evening, they turned back to the by-pass, spent most of their money on service station snacks and a bed for the night. Jimbob lurked behind while Tina booked. The desk assistant looked twice. She said, ‘you’re big.’ Tina snapped, ‘you’re fat, but we don’t cast no aspersions.’ The assistant gasped. The pair glared. Jimbob said, ‘we’re just wanting a bed.’
They stayed awake most of their first night in a bed, about spent up on a pair of great fry-ups they had brought to their room. After, they nuzzled some more. Tina said, ‘I can’t go back, Jim. Not ever.’
Jimbob fished in the back pocket of his bunched-up jeans and said, ‘I got this.’ It was the card from the short fat man. He’d pulled it out of the muck once his father stomped off and thought not much of it. Tina shrugged. ‘We gotta do summat. For the bairn, if nowt else.’
Jimbob had Tina call the number. ‘Up Wether Cote,’ she said. She pulled a face at Jimbob. ‘Aye, a big lad is right.’ She said, ‘I don’t know owt about no cat.’ Then, ‘the market is fine.’
She put down the phone and reached for her clothes. She said, ‘we got us a meeting-up.’
The short fat man took one look at Jimbob and said, ‘aye, he’s a big ‘un right enough.’ He looked at his arms, said, ‘fair reach, too.’
He squinted up. ‘They tell me you tapped out a panther.’
Jimbob shrugged. Tina said, ‘they tell you right.’ The short fat man flicked his eyes. They lingered on her front. He said, ‘how’d you fancy making a bit of brass?’ Tina said, ‘he fancies it, all right.’ The short fat man leered. ‘You too, if you’re inclined.’ Tina steel-stared back. ‘Well, I ain’t. And nor’s this bairn of mine inside me.’
First hit, Jimbob felt a fuzz in his head and a hot mouth of blood. The second stuck in his ribs and knocked the wind right out of him. He stumbled back and the tall guy attacked, flailing fists in Jimbob’s face, knuckles dragging red ribbons over his forehead. Jimbob loped out a wide right hook and the flailing stopped. Blinking back to focus, he saw the tall guy stretched in front, twitching in the dew. The short fat man wore a gold-toothed grin shiny as sheep-dip. Another pair slapped the tall guy back. The short fat man came over, shook Jimbob’s sore hand. He said, ‘we’ll get you fixed up, all right.’
Jimbob and Tina moved in an old caravan round the back of the greyhound track. The short fat man – Lenny – let them have it on tick. It reeked of damp and stale sweat. The linoleum floor stuck to their feet. Woodchip peeled off the inside walls. A stained, sunken mattress was their bed. No electric, no water, no heat. Tina said, ‘I ain’t going nowhere near.’ Lenny pressed a fifty in Tina’s hand. ‘Just needs a bit of smartening up,’ he said. Tina said, ‘bit more than smartening.’ They bought a new mattress, still slept curled up on the Volvo’s back seat while they waited.
On dog days, the mutts whizzed round after the lure and travelling folk queued at the betting booth, hollered on their tickets. Out back, Jimbob took on all-comers, matched the challenger’s bet for winner-takes-all. Lenny put up extra, took half the profits, plus extra for early rent and a likely packet on side-bets. They were bare-fist fights – no clinching or holding, twenty seconds to rise from a knockdown. They fought till one was knocked out or gave up. They seldom lasted long. Jimbob’s looping right hand accounted for most. The old leather-faced men at the front told Len he had a legend on his hands.
Stakes rose and the opponents came from further. They fought stripped to the waist, smeared in each other’s blood. Jimbob broke his nose and his knuckles, cracked a few ribs. He was butted, gouged and wrestled – sometimes the referee overlooked. Once or twice he took a dive. For it, he got a bigger cut of Lenny’s betting, tempted bigger stakes next time out.
Tina never watched him fight. She started showing and stayed in the caravan. Jimbob would bring home cash. There was little left after Lenny took his cut and the rent and food was paid. They sold the Volvo and had the caravan fixed up best they could. They painted it from top to bottom and got the roof fixed. That winter, they hooked up a generator and huddled together round a couple of bar heaters. In the new year, Tina gave birth to a boy. Eight pounds only, but with Jimbob’s long arms and thick black hair. Zack, they called him – he was a sickly baby, hacked out a cough in the caravan’s damp. Tina sat up nights stopping him crying, feeding him up. Jimbob would come home all hours, out from a night with the boys or a fight far away. She’d swaddle his knuckles, dab at his bruises. They’d lie, listen to Zack turning, the wind buffeting the van. Till one night she said, ‘oh Jimbob, we gotta get out of here.’
Jimbob said, ‘got nowhere.’
He turned. She searched his back.
It went on that way till one early morning, Jimbob rolled up home and no hacking or crying met him when he clicked the door. No-one to swaddle his knuckles. He lay down and slept off the beer. Next morning, he found a note. Too ashamed, he tossed it aside. He fingered the spare cash in his pocket, figured maybe his life just got a whole lot simpler.
Where the boys met trouble in town, they called for Jimbob. He seldom had to go so far as to use his fists. They came to respect him. Jimbob came to telling the panther story, how he wrestled it down, beat it out. He had girls huddle round, pinch his muscles, gaze up at his height. He took to taking them back to his caravan, sometimes two at a time. He fucked how he fought. When he’d finished, they’d fall asleep and he’d sit up drinking home-brew till he about passed out. The boys came to get a little jealous of his womanising. They mocked him for how such a big man could get drunk so quick. The taunts got louder the more he fell towards unconscious and his fists fell helpless.
One night, they shaved all the hair from Jimbob’s head and stuck it back on his body, stuck it with paint and strawberry jam. When he woke, Jimbob caught sight and punched holes through the side of his van till his knuckles re-broke. He waded out, still naked, grabbed a plank and took to smashing generators and other van windows. One-night-stands shrieked out the doors, clutching clothes to their chests. Jimbob bellowed. The frightened men bawled, ‘the monkey-boy’s lost it!’ It took four to pin him down. Lenny loomed, took one look at Jimbob’s broken hands. ‘You’re no good to me in this state,’ he said. His breath bit of booze. ‘You fight once more to fix up the damage you caused. Then you get the hell out, you hear me?’
Jimbob nursed his swollen hands and laid low in his battered caravan. The heating broke, he slept nights wrapped tight in dirty blankets. He took to drinking more heavy, ate boiled-up rice packets pushed through the door. From outside, he heard blurred talk of the big fight.
Till one Sabbath morning, a crisp light came up and Lenny fisted the door. ‘You’re on,’ he bellowed. ‘You got an hour.’ Jimbob shook the booze from his brain and reached for jeans-bottoms still bloodied from last time. He winced when he crunched his hands to fists. He glanced in the mirror at his blood-shot eyes and stubble-hair. Felt his bones creak with cold. He peeled back the cardboard he’d stuck over the broken van windows, saw a trail of travelling folk gathering round a makeshift ring, double-bale high. Regular folk from the gypsy camps and market pens, the boys who’d daubed him for the hell of it. Saw Lenny doing deals, wondered who his money was on. Was surprised he’d not been asked to swing nothing – figured either Lenny had lost faith, or else he’d came to assuming what with the state of his hands he was a match for no-one.
Lenny came and pushed Jimbob through the crowd. The crowd mostly jeered and spat insults, depending where their money was at. He pushed aside a bale and clambered in the ring. On the other side, a tall thin man stood struggling to hold back a twisting pit-bull. Lenny studied the surprise in Jimbob’s eyes. He clapped his shoulder, hissed, ‘you got your chance, panther boy.’
Jimbob circled, crouched, felt his heart thump. The dog foamed on its leash. Lenny bawled, ‘fight!’ The thin man clicked the leash, jumped backwards on the bales. The dog shot at Jimbob – he swept a kick, missed, instinctively threw out his forearm. The dog clamped it in its jaws. Jimbob felt a scorch of pain, used all his strength to swing and shake, but the dog held firm. Jimbob swung his second arm round, began fisting the dog’s soft underbelly. Its weight shifted, sending the pair spinning to the muddy grass. Jimbob side-rolled to protect his face. The dog still savaged his arm, tore his shoulder half from its socket. The crowd bawled. Jimbob had the dog on top of him, felt it crunching in his ribs, squeezing out the wind. He worked his spare arm free and poked his fingers in the soft of an eyeball. Wrenched and twisted till the dog’s grip slightly slackened. Jimbob pulled free. The dog recoiled. Jimbob worked the other eye and slammed its nose. Each shot sent shards of pain up his arm and into his chest. Caked in blood, he worked up to his feet, began stamping the dog till it limped up and the thin man pushed past. Jimbob held his elbow, reeled out through the bales. Asked for nothing, nor did he get it. Blanked the crowd’s taunts and cheers. Figured on hitching a ride. He reached the road-side, felt a tide of nausea sweep up. He saw the sky spin, and the hills and farms that were in it.