I CAN’T keep my eyes off his nose. There is a scar jutting across it like the fossilised imprint of some long extinct creature, a horizontal relic from a different age. And even though I’ve seen that scar countless times I still ask him about it. My efforts at filling the silence are clumsy, almost laughable.
Herol’s mind coughs and splutters. The concentration on his face is almost painful. It is from one of his final fights, he eventually explains, understandably disinterested in answering my question.
“Was it Frank Grant?” I urge, still trying to keep him engaged.
“Yeah, that’s it,” he says, grappling with the memories. Then: “No… No… It was Chris… Chris… Chris…”
And still I can’t stop looking at that nose. It’s bigger than I’ve ever seen it before. Everything is bigger: his head, his chest, his arms, his shoulders. Everything is BIGGER. Like a strange, inflated caricature of what he used to be. A Spitting Image puppet from an alternative and infinitely cruel universe.
“I had to have plastic surgery,” he explains. “He caught me with his glove… The lace was loose… And it went… Splat!” He illustrates the last word with an upward sweep of his arm.
Herol’s head is shaven. A roughly cropped beard is peppered with white bristles. He wears a hoody that covers a T-shirt whose logo is indistinguishable. He looks nothing like a boxer any more.
I sit in a chair at right angles to him and try to keep my gaze steady. Every now and again when things get really bad I will rest my hand on his forearm and gently squeeze, rubbing my thumb up and down as if to console somebody who has suffered a recent bereavement. The last time I can recall doing this to another person was when my infant daughter fell off her scooter many years ago.
Although the room was described to me as a ‘quiet room’ it’s actually more like a storeroom. It is small enough to be claustrophobic and is in dire need of a lick of paint. In one corner is an abandoned treadmill. Propped against a wall is a folded up ping pong table. I tell Herol I like to play ping pong, although I have no idea what makes me say this.
I think back to the summer, the last time that I’d seen the former boxer in person. An image pops into my head of a smiling Herol Graham sitting at a table in our garden with one arm behind his back. Looking slim and happy, Herol is pretending to look at his watch as he gleefully thrashes all-comers at arm wrestling. Most of his opponents are too young to have any idea that they are challenging a former British and European championship boxer. As always, however, the twinkle in his eye is infectious.
Occasionally our privacy is interrupted when somebody opens the door. A dislocated head will appear and eye us suspiciously: the still boyish black man with the eyes that stare into nowhere and the serious looking white man. The odd couple. And then the head will quickly retreat from view, proffering a curt embarrassed apology.
Twenty minutes before I’d been wandering the grounds of the hospital like a restless nomad. The bitter cold burned a hole in my face but I was in no hurry to locate the ward, almost as if I did not want to find him. And in truth I didn’t want to. Who wouldwant to find Herol Graham – find anyone – in a place like this?
Row after row of apparently empty buildings stand enshrouded in the inky gloom. Wire fences too tall to scale. Bare lightbulbs casting shadows as if in a Hopper painting. Messages, instructions, crudely written in biro and taped to doors.
“I know what you’re doing,” he says suddenly, as if snapping out of a dream. “I know you’re trying to get me talking.”
Elsewhere in the ward there is a scream. I try to hold my face still, to keep my fear under control as we hear the soft thud of flesh upon flesh. Walls judder as someone is wrestled to the tiled floor. This will happen two or three times before I eventually manage to leave this place.
And Herol is broken. Utterly broken. All the pieces of this once elite boxer have been thrown to the floor and stamped upon before being scattered to the four winds. It’s hard to believe that he will ever be whole again.
Yet still, occasional glimmers of the old Herol Graham will force themselves to the surface. When I first arrived at the hospital, for example, he’d stuck his tongue out at me from the other side of the door, a comic face framed by reinforced glass. And I’d laughed. Relieved by the absurdity of the gesture.
For several moments he’s talking as lucidly as anyone can do in a place like this. He’s talking about how he might get out in three … four… five days. About how the hospital has offered him a job training the other inmates. About the future. About hope. The drugs blur his words. Every syllable melts away into nothing. More than once I have to ask him to repeat himself. I find myself smiling when he pronounces the word ‘little’ as ‘lickle’.
But normality and optimism prove to be fleeting bedfellows: no sooner do they arrive than they disappear in a puff of smoke. Herol’s body begins to tremble and tears rake down his cheeks. He talks about his childhood, about his mother, about his elder brother. The words tumble out in a disassembled clutter and once again I’m stroking his arm. Trying to console the inconsolable.
Got. To. Keep. Him. Talking.
I hand him a book that I’ve brought along. It’s about depression (as if Herol Graham needs to know anything about depression!) The former boxer tells me that he’ll swap it for the one he’s currently reading: it’s a generic sort of self-help book that tells you how to succeed in life in ten easy steps.
An image flickers into my mind: an absurd picture from long ago taken during Herol’s failed attempt at the WBA middleweight title. It appeared on the front cover of Boxing News back in May 1989. He and opponent Mike McCallum seem to be dancing. Both men are pulling comical faces, tapping each other on the side of the head with clenched gloves as if they’re having fun. Indisputable evidence that the camera really does lie.
I was watching from ringside that night, when Herol’s silly little habit of wrestling his opponent to the ground cost him a point but earned him a split-decision defeat. That one incident – like so many in the life of Herol Graham – would have far reaching consequences.
Incidents such as the Julian Jackson fight a year-and-half-later and THAT punch – we all know what punch I’m talking about. A punch that signalled the inevitable slow decline: the losses, the scrappy wins, the retirement, the comeback. And the final defeat, coming fully 20 years after a fresh-faced Herol ‘Bomber’ Graham, stuffed full of outrageous natural talent, had made his professional debut.
Somehow it’s difficult not to view those ringside setbacks as heralding the start of the journey that Herol has been forced to endure ever since. A bitter voyage that reached its nadir in 2009 when Herol, depressed, broke and friendless, drank a bottle of brandy and slit his wrists ready to die. Or, at least we thought it was the nadir.
It was former girlfriend Karen who saved him that night. And it was she who took him into her London home, rekindling their relationship and bringing an element of normality back into his life.
A week or so before Christmas and once again it all became too much for Herol Graham. Just as in 2009 he could finally take no more. They thought they’d fought it off but the cancer had returned with a vengeance and Karen was back in hospital. This was the final straw for Herol Graham in nearly 30 years of false starts and jobs that ended before they began. With the woman known as ‘Angel’ in Herol’s contact list fighting for her life, Herol was found wandering around his living room in an incoherent daze. For the second time in his life the ex-boxer was sectioned for his own safety.
As if things needed to be any worse, in his confusion Herol somehow managed to block Karen on his mobile. The end result was that the couple spent weeks apart unable to contact one another – she on a cancer ward, he trapped inside a mental heath ward – each believing that they had been abandoned by the other. The two spent Christmas alone.
Got. To. Keep. Him. Talking.
I tell Herol about the latest research into depression: about how serotonin inhibitors such as the one that is currently tenderising his anguished brain are beginning to be seen as a red herring. He nods along but it’s plain to see his mind is elsewhere.
I explain how current theories maintain that man’s inherent desire to feel they are doing something worthwhile with their life is a huge factor in depression. Still no response. I’m desperate to talk about anything. If we talk it will make everything all right.
Finally, of course, it’s boxing that provides a common denominator, a thin veneer of salvation. We talk about opponent Vinny Pazienza, about how rough he was inside. About the canny McCallum: so slick, so clever. About Charles Brewer, his final opponent in a final world title challenge that (in this writer’s view) was prematurely (crookedly?) halted.
As he listens Herol is once more Herol for a few moments. “You’re keeping me talking,” he reminds me again, aware of the little game that we’re both playing: neither of us really wanting to bring boxing into the room – into this place – but having no choice.
Then Herol is gone. Back in the room is that sobbing, broken, shattered man with no future. Herol mumbles something about Karen and I’m back to stroking his arm. It’s all I can do really, even though both of us are acutely embarrassed by my gesture.
For a week, a month, a year we sit together in silence. There is nothing left for us to say. Suddenly the stillness is broken and a female nurse enters the room. It’s time for Herol to eat his evening meal. We walk together into a crowded corridor. Surrounding us are other unfortunates locked away for their own good. Oddly enough most of them look disconcertingly normal, although all have that strange faraway look in their eyes.
We find seats next to a disused pool table, a hard wooden covering screwed down to protect its green baize. And then Herol’s phone rings and once again the former boxer is back with us, smiling, laughing, happy to be talking to the other person.
The phone is duly handed to me and I’m suddenly speaking to the next Prince Naseem Hamed. “I’m having my first fight soon,” says the voice at the end of the line. “And I’m going to let YOU be the first person to interview me…” Amid the rumblings of unhappiness that echo throughout the ward, Herol and myself and the next Prince Naseem are giggling.
It’s been several hours since I arrived and I tell Herol I have to leave. He looks disappointed but tries to hide it. In truth every pore of my being is desperate to get away from this place. We hunt down a nurse – no easy task. Only the desperate worry etched into their eyes makes them distinguishable from the other inmates of this place.
We are slowly led to the door. People stare at us as we walk by, whispering at us, uttering unintelligible words. Escape for me. Escape. Herol and I stand face to face and look into each other’s eyes. I place my arms around the ex-boxer’s shoulders and squeeze for all I am worth. Harder than is appropriate. And then I do it again. And again.
As I leave this place I think back to the last time that I might have hugged Herol Graham. It would have been after the McCallum fight and that stupid photograph when I believed that Herol Graham still had a future. A good future. Certainly not a future like this one.
A JustGiving appeal has been set up for Herol Graham’s partner Karen Neville. She desperately needs cancer killing therapy that is not available on the NHS. The family also need financial support while she undergoes this life or death treatment.