It's not often you answer the phone to a man saying he almost blinded someone. Unless you're an ophthalmic surgeon, I guess. "Hi Doc, may have just blinded someone with my fingers. Any... any chance you can undo that, at all? Only it's his wedding on Saturday." Or the emergency services. "Hello mate, is that the police? Bit of a bad one: I may have just blinded someone with my fingers. Yeah. Yeah. More gristly than you'd expect them, yeah. Yeah. Ambulance, if you could. Ambulance and a pack of wet wipes, for my fingers, newly bloody as they are with warm and sticky eye blood."
But that's what happened the first time Stephen Gerard-Hayden called me. "I've done some bad stuff," he said. "I've broken some arms, I've almost blinded people, you know – but I'm on the right track now." In case you are wondering how you go about doing that: you get in a car park pagga with them while they are wearing a motorcycle helmet, ask them to lift their visor so you can fight like men, and just go at them with two fingers through the window. Here's something you might not know: there's something quite disarming about someone with a breezy Scouse accent telling you this before running on into an anecdote about roofs.
But then that's who Stephen Gerard-Hayden is now: a roofer, living and working in Warrington; but formerly an incredibly strong three-year-old, a misguided youth, an alcoholic, a debt collector, a misser-outer on an estimated £23 million fortune, an inventor and a guy who almost blinded someone once with his fingers. Now he's 54, and he's gotten over his various hurdles – alcoholism, homelessness, the fact that a doctor once looked at a scan of his brain and said "it looks like corned beef", an attempted triple murder, three years intermittently spent in a mental home, stab wounds in the head and torso – and he's one of the happiest, chirpiest people I've ever met.
Much of that he puts down to his training regime – he's replaced one addiction with another, swapping massive booze benders for tough work outs ("I can lift over 780lbs with my legs," he tells me, as I sweat at the thought of just transcribing our chat), training at Shaun Smith's Muscle House Gym, as well as relying on a raw form of faith he has ("But I don't go on about it, you know?"). But mostly it's down to his journey – crawling through a metaphorical sewage pipe of shit, metaphorically, to metaphorically come out clean and born anew, metaphorically, at the other end. Sort of like a metaphor.
What happens to a hard man once he stops being hard? It is difficult to know without truly being hard yourself, but here's an approximation: the body ages and weakens, the pure adrenalin aggression of youth starts to pump less quickly and boring things like mortgages and children make you half-think every punch. And then you find yourself, more reputation than man, training the anger away in a gym full of your peers, for all the world just wanting a quiet word in the ear and someone telling you that you don't have to scrap any more. Post-hardness. Meta-hardness. Hard in name but less in action. Hardness as a resource drying in a well. And, along with that physical breakdown paired with that mental maturity, so often comes a breakdown in self, a rebirth and a rebuild, or – occasionally, but not so occasional to be classed as uncommon – an early death.
The rebirth one is what happened here. Stephen Gerard-Hayden was born hard, and then just got harder. That sounds bad. It's probably best if he explains it, because that sounds really bad. "When I was a young boy I was extremely strong, in an abnormal way. When my mother was 21 and about eight stone, I could run and turn her off a chair and tip her on her back when I was in a mood – that's when I was about three. The kids who were bigger than me would be frightened of me because I could throw them around. I wasn't the sharpest tool in the box, in the academic sense, but I was very strong so people steered clear. It's not a nice way to grow up, but I did."
Freaky baby strength coupled with a troubled home life gave him a scrappy start. "When I was younger – in my early twenties – I did some stuff I'm not proud of. That was the way it was, really. I was an amiable character but I could turn very quick if I thought people were taking the piss. I would get all het up and it would manifest in violence. But people didn't usually punch me – they'd hit me with something, as they knew that otherwise I wouldn't go down. I've got 14 scars on my head alone and I've been stabbed four times." Working as a debt collector, fighting became part-work, part recreation – as well as a release.
"In a strange way it helps you vent things that you can't control in other life situations. You feel that by giving someone a good hiding it has a cathartic affect and makes you feel good because you're venting that aggression and anger. Then you realise it was done in the wrong way, so you feel guilty.
"When I was younger I didn't feel guilt. I wasn't interested in it, and it didn't bother me. But when you're getting older and you've got your own kids, you feel different. You start to mellow. I guess I got a little more understanding about people and know it's not necessarily their fault. Kids beat other kids up because they're feeling things they can't control in an inward manner so they vent it outside and it manifests in violence, fighting and bullying. It's frustration and confusion."
The boom and bust collapse of his business was what sent Stephen into an eventual downward spiral, though. It all started, as so many stories of unrelenting misery do, with golf. In 1996, Stephen, a keen amateur golfer when he wasn't getting bottled in the face, invented the Tee-Mole – a sort of golfing multitool that let you prise tees up, push them faultlessly into even the hardest ground, sharpen those little pencils you use to mark your score, repair divots and mark balls. This is the exact kind of thing you could buy your dad for Christmas and he would actually like. Soon after securing the patent, pre-orders went through the roof, so Stephen moved towards the first manufacturing run, but an error with the injection moulding left the prototype riddled with flaws. The resulting unsellable Tee-Moles were scrapped, leaving Stephen £50,000 in the hole, and his pre-orders were cancelled. As part of the resulting court case against the manufacturer, accounts estimated his loss of earnings from the fuck up as £23 million, or £12,000 per day. It took four years for the case to go in front of a judge.
"When you're waiting for a court date to come around and it takes four-and-a-half years, and you're going to bed seeing '£12,000' written on the ceiling every night, you tend not to sleep very well," Stephen says. That's when Stephen found an outlet in alcohol, with his nightly two or three tins before bed quickly turning into eight, then ten."Then I'd get up in the morning and carry on. So invariably, I was drunk for four years. Or actually more like seven years. I didn't just stop after the court."
Alcoholism, in case you've never been near enough to see the whites of its eyes, is horrible; an under-appreciated ugliness in a country that so likes a drink. Alcoholism isn't just "Oh, you know Robbie – you know how he likes a tipple." It's drinking to the point of throwing up, alone in your room, at 2PM on a Tuesday. It's sleeping on the sofa under a duvet without a cover in case you need to piss yourself. It's the cheapest, strongest cans of cider or the worst possible wine, guzzled until you're just making unintelligible noises through the fog, then waking up and doing it all over again. It's two hands in your brain and a fist around your day-to-day life, and the have-a-drink, buy-a-drink, need-a-drink cycle is an incredibly – near-impossibly – difficult one to break out of.
When the case finally went in front of a judge in November 1999, Stephen was a husk of his former self: drunk, destitute, smelled a bit, flirting with homelessness. ("I was wearing an Armani suit while lying in a stinking old sleeping bag in a bus station. It was mad, you know?") Despite that, he won his case against the joint venture manufacturer Technician Moulds/S. Horne Fabrications, with the judge awarding damages of £23 million – but instead of paying them, the manufacturer folded up and liquidated, leaving Stephen with nothing. That's when everything came together – the slow-building anger, the drinking, the destitution, the unerring feeling of being wronged – and he did what anyone would do in the same situation: started sincerely plotting the murder of the men, with a gun, who he felt had wronged him.
Safe to assume Stephen wasn't operating at his absolute mental peak, here. "I was consumed with thoughts of murdering the three men who destroyed my business," he says. And it's only logistics and an intervention that really got in the way of him going ahead with the triple-kill: of the three men responsible, two were a father-son combo who were rarely at the factory at the same time, and the other was a specialist toolmaker who only worked on an erratic freelance basis. "I couldn't shoot just two of them," he says, still in that disarmingly chipper Scouse accent. "It wouldn't satisfy my deep hunger for revenge. This is how mad it had all got. So yeah: they all had to be shot."
"I've not been drunk for 12 years," he tells me. "I had a can of Guinness last night and I have a can of Guinness in the fridge. That will last me a week now." Instead, five times a week, he goes to one of his two churchs: the gym and an actual, like, church. "Training is a great way to get that feeling of wellbeing again. I go to the Gypsy church. You know My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding? I go to that church." Now he travels the country as a motivational speaker and gives kids in the local area don't-do-crime-or-you'll-end-up-with-14-scars-on-your-skull lectures. "I walk in with a T-shirt sometimes, with my scars and my tattoos and my muscles, and they go, 'Fuck – what's this?' And I go, 'You alright lads?' and they go, 'He's quite nice, actually.' You build trust."
I ask Stephen whether he regrets any of it, because I would really regret pretty much all of it. That's because I'm shit. He doesn't. "I didn't choose to be in the predicament I was in," he says. "That was made of other people, which is the most perplexing thing about it. But when I look back to sitting in the station in the cold or drunk as a pig and locked in the cells again, when I should have been sitting in a villa in the sun; and I look at the stabbings and the chokings of my friends, and the death and the freezing on the bench; and 15 years later, I've been up and running for a long time. I look to where I am now, and I'm at peace. It's been an intervention. If it had happened to everyone, I'd have 15 friends here, but they couldn't make it because they died. I know that the big fella helped me through this, and now I want it to help other people. No matter how tough you think you are, death will catch you early if you keep it up. You'll either be murdered or you'll die from drink or drugs. Your life will be a load of shit. But the feeling you get when you come out the other end is like conquering Mount Everest. You get to the top and you sit down and you think, 'I knocked the bastard off."
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