What a glorious day. Another almost cloudless afternoon in a long Summer with only a gentle onshore breeze to blow cooling air onto my face. I was sitting peacefully in my beach chair watching the sea with my mind wandering. I felt very drowsy on that balmy afternoon and the sound of the waves occasionally slapping up against the promenade made it a real temptation to just dive into the water below. As I listened to the sea, I was suddenly brought back to the present. I heard tables being pushed across the path and the sound of breaking crockery. When I opened my eyes and looked across to the centre of the disturbance, I saw a group of four youths, probably in their late teens or early twenties, walking in a line side by side taking up almost half the promenade. Holidaymakers ambling along had to move out of the way to let the group pass.
One man wasn't going to move and he continued with no deviation towards the group of noisy youths giving no sign that he might feel intimidated. His face showed no recognisable expression.
Inevitably, this individual and the line of youths reached the same place. The line didn't break and a face-to-face confrontation looked likely as everybody came to a stop. The lone walker stood facing one of the youths in the middle who displayed a well-tanned skin and was wearing a heavy gold neckchain and chunky gold wrist bracelet. None of them wore any topshirt.
"What's your problem, Mister? You're in the way." The man remained silent. The two faced each other. One a man and the other not much more than a boy and he had a really cocky and surly look on his face.
"I said you're in our way," he repeated. Even I noticed he had said 'our' and not 'my' way. He was only blocking his way and he gave the impression that he was used to people doing what they were ordered to do, especially when he had his mates to back him up.
"Excuse me," was the reply. It wasn't a question. Simply a brief statement as though he had not heard the order.
"Move, Mister. F***ing move. Your in our way."
The mood had changed in those few moments and the sun itself had retreated behind a cloud. The coolness of this man was remarkable. Here was a group of four intimidating young men and this one man didn't seem to be concerned. I was fascinated and scared. The atmosphere of trouble had always unsettled me.
The loner made a quick and unexpected movement as his hand shot up towards his face to take off the sunglasses he was wearing below a bright red-coloured baseball cap. Everyone in the group flinched as if they had been physically attacked. This man had the sun to his back, but the sunlight was very strong and the glare hurt my eyes. Although I was scared, I had become even more fascinated by what I was witnessing. I found it difficult to imagine how a lone man could be so visibly unaffected by the situation that caused me to worry for my own safety. And I was only a spectator. He was either very brave or very stupid.
They stood about 2 feet apart. I sat only 10 feet away. I didn't move. I couldn't move. I didn't want to move. I could see that he was looking at the youth in front of him with an unwavering gaze. I couldn't really be sure, but it looked as if he was staring straight into only one eye as his eyes didn't flick from side to side. This unwavering look was very menacing. I had seen head-butting before and maybe these memories are what scared me even though the range at 2 feet seemed too great. Maybe this man knew what he was doing, standing just out of range. I hadn't noticed before, but he had turned slightly to position his left shoulder forward as he must have stepped back with his right foot. He no longer stood square on to this youth.
I studied the man more closely. The relaxed stance gave the appearance of, perhaps, a dancer. He was not particularly big or bulky, but even though he wore a short-sleeved shirt and summer shorts, his well conditioned physique was plain to see. Nothing had changed in that gaze, but the mood had darkened considerably closely matching the gloom caused by the sun disappearing behind a cloud. I still felt scared, but my anticipation of trouble was now diluted by my growing fascination.
As he folded his sunglasses and placed them in a breast pocket in his shirt, he continued to engage the young thug's face in the steady grip of his stare, seemingly boring into it like a laser beam. Drilling into it. Burning into it. Watching. Waiting. Something must surely happen. The cocky look remained, but I was sure his tanned facial skin had paled slightly. I couldn't be sure if this was a sign of fear or anticipation, but I could almost feel the sense of isolation. The silently communicated message in this unwavering gaze was clear and he wasn't going to budge.
I heard the one on the very right say:
"Get out of the f***ing way, Mister."
With every syllable pronounced slowly and carefully in a loud and very commanding voice, he just said: "Shut you're mouth."
He hadn't moved when he said this, never taking his eyes away from the lead youth's face and added a final: "You will be next."
The group reformed. The one on the right moved forward and the two on the left moved around so that one was behind him and one was to his right. They clearly expected trouble and they were the ones to provide it. The look on the man's face still didn't reveal any indication that there was a problem and he stood still facing the one who had first spoken to him. He remained apparently unruffled.
The atmosphere had become very threatening and people were moving out of the way in the expectation of violence. The crowd in the immediate area had become very quiet though the noise of people farther away and unaware of the drama unfolding before us continued unchanged. This man, who must have been in his early forties, alone and facing a group of four men half his age, just stood there looking relaxed with his arms hanging by his side. He may have looked calm, but my adrenalin was really flowing and my heart thumped rapidly in my chest. I was both excited and afraid. I had never experienced this feeling before. The thug who had been promised he'd be next looked nervous and although it had been said without looking at him, he must have taken the comment very personally.
There was a deathly silence amongst the group as all cockiness vanished. Their demeanour had changed and I sensed a readiness for action. I felt an isolation for each of them and it felt so real. This may have all been in my imagination, but it seemed as though he was making them use their own fears and doubts against themselves.
The next movement was so sudden that I am sure if I had blinked I'd have missed it. No warning, just the attack. I leapt from my chair pushing it with the back of my legs over the edge of the promenade into the sea. There were no railings on this lower section as it was not usually such a dangerous place. My fascination had held me to my seat until actual violence brought me to my senses.
He had suddenly turned his head to look to his left and an instant later raised his left knee high directly in front of him, almost to the level of his face. Both his open hands came up in front of his face then his leg had shot out to his left as he turned on ball of his right foot, which ended up pointing behind him in the opposite direction to the kick. The thug took the kick high on the chest, just below the throat. It was with the edge of his sandalled foot and it had acted like an express train. The leg was rapidly brought back as he then turned back to the right, again on the ball of his standing foot. He then lightly placed his left foot down to where it had started, though with the heel off the ground. At some time in the movement his open hands had formed into fists. If I hadn't seen this kick, there was no way of saying what had happened as it was so fast and everybody seemed to be where they had been, except the one who had been struck. He was lying prostrate on the ground five feet from where he had stood. Almost kicked into the sea.
Immediately, he turned his head to glance behind him over his right shoulder and this time raised his right leg, but not quite so high as before. As he slipped towards his target on the ball of his left foot, his right leg shot out rearwards directly into the chest of the thug standing behind. The instant after the kick had struck its target, he turned his head so he could look again at the thug who was in front of him. As he had turned so fast to look behind him, his cap had came off, remaining stationary in the air for a moment before falling to the ground. The thug behind didn't move backwards very far, but after a second simply collapsed to his knees. He looked as though he was unable to breathe. The force of the blow must have literally knocked the breath out of him.
He had brought back his leg towards his body as he turned again to face his original opponent, even before his latest target had collapsed. His foot did not touch the ground and somehow he had twisted his leg to kick around to direct a kick at the youth on his right with his right foot. It struck him hard in the abdomen. His head and top body were bent forwards as his knees buckled, leaving his head very exposed as his hands had reactively moved to hold his stomach. He was lucky. The attack for him had ended.
One against four had seemed such unfair odds, but the suddenness had taken them by surprise. It had taken me by surprise. He had first of all attacked the one he promised would "be next". I had assumed he meant he would be second. Maybe it had been deliberate, misleading them. The speed of it all had really stunned me.
The last target who I had imagined would have been the first attempted to throw a punch with his right hand. One of those untrained swinging punches. The lone fighter easily parried with his left forearm then circled this arm outwards, over, downwards, inwards and then upwards trapping his attacker's arm under his own armpit. He pulled upwards just below the opponent's elbow in a move that must surely break it. As he applied pressure to lift the thug by his arm I heard him scream in pain. And then I saw it. An emptiness in his attacker's face. Black eyes caused by enlarged pupils and his face screwed up in rage. An anger. Or was it excitement? He held him there without moving. Just standing there looking like he was trying to lift the thug by his elbow. Applying pressure. Applying pain.
All of this could not have taken much more than three or four seconds. I was truly terrified and I had only been watching. I stood transfixed. I had never seen real fear until I saw the look on that last youth's face. The one who had brought this upon himself. Upon them. In those few seconds that had passed between the first and second and third victims being felled he must have seen the enormity of his mistake. An older man being so dangerous, totally outclassing them all with apparent ease.
Pulling the thug closer to himself while turning to the left slightly, their faces came to within inches of each other and through clenched teeth I heard him say almost in a whisper:
"If we ever cross paths again, I will hurt you. If I ever see you again, I will hurt you. If you imagine this is as bad as it gets, it's only a warm up. Don't ever threaten anybody ever again. I will know and I will find you. You. Do you understand me?"
"Do you understand me?" he repeated in a much louder voice and lifting his elbow upwards some more increasing the pressure on the elbow joint. Increasing the pain.
The whimper the youth made was probably meant to be a "Yes". In his agony it was probably all he could manage, but that was the only sound I ever heard from him ever again.
As he released the thug he pushed him hard in the throat with his open right hand. The fight was over, although it wasn't really a fight and the attack had ended as suddenly as it had begun. He calmly knelt down on one knee so he could retrieve his cap and at the same time pulled out his sunglasses from his shirt pocket. He slipped them on.
My heart was still thumping hard and fast as I wondered what I might have done. I would have moved out of their way in the first place. I know that, but maybe they'd received no less than they'd deserved. Maybe more and I was still shocked by what had happened. I was frightened. I was pleased. I was elated. I was concerned. I was shaky and felt terribly confused. I just didn't know how to feel or what to think as I stood there in a daze. I looked at the expressions of shock and horror on the faces of the people around me. The looks of disbelief at what had just happened. Did it really happen? It was all over in moments, and on such a busy promenade no innocent person had been hurt or even physically touched.
The four youths had recovered enough to stand up and walk away. They did this in silence. The menace in that warning I had heard was terrifying. This man was capable. Devastatingly capable and I was sure he had meant his warning. It was no threat. It was a promise.
By the time the police had arrived, he was gone. In the mayhem, he had just disappeared, dissolving into the crowd. I was left wondering about what I had seen. Nothing that I could tell the police. Nothing that I would tell the police.
Who was this man? What was this man? He had looked so very ordinary, but was a long way from being very ordinary.
© Louis Brothnias (2005)