I was very young, 19, and a student. He was from the Caucasus, dark, swarthy, handsome, chivalrous.

Being an exile, he often felt powerless, and the way he would deal with his stress would be to get into a fight. Many young men are like this, they can almost sniff each other out, like dogs, and when they meet, they collide. One will say something, the other will react, no one backs off, and bang, they're fighting. And that's how they release their aggression, that's how they deal with their stress.

And he loved fighting, it made him happy, it made him feel that whatever was wrong in his life, at least when it came to violence, he would be supreme.

Otherwise, he was extremely well mannered, he was polite, refined in his behaviour, very considerate, and, side by side with this rougher aspect, was deeply attractive.

Although he had a capacity for extreme violence, it would only be channelled towards what he would consider a legitimate target; for instance, if someone threatened his family or one of his friends, he would see it as his duty to protect them. If someone insulted him, he would have to avenge the insult. He would never dream of hitting a woman, or using violence against someone weaker, which he felt would reduce and diminish him as a man.

It was very exciting to come across this completely different culture, where men are men, and they do manly things, and I found this wildness and completely non- English aspect deeply intoxicating and seductive.

Violence was never far away. Once we were in a car, and a Capri tried to force us off the road, and then chased us back to where he was living. There were three guys; they must have thought, fine, great, we're going to beat up this foreigner.

I was in the car, watching.

At first I was absolutely petrified, I felt physically sick. And then when I saw, like 10 green bottles, they were all going down, I felt better, I enjoyed seeing my man win. He was a very wild fighter, he got one of them on the ground very quickly. He butted another one, who had a long metal pipe, and the third one ran off. It was legitimate violence, he was defending himself: the underdog was actually winning out against a gang.

It's very exciting to feel that your bloke can defend himself. I enjoyed the violence.

My reaction shocked me because I was used to people who would walk away from a fight; all the people I know had great contempt for this kind of thing. And here I was with someone who was profoundly non-liberal, who believed in an eye for an eye, and it was devastatingly attractive, appealing, intoxicating, exciting.

A few days later, we were in a pub. He was speaking his language and someone said: 'Why don't you speak English?' and my guy, without pausing, just clamped a hand around this guy's neck and went on talking. This went on for several minutes. After a while I had to say: 'Look, you've made your point, I think you should leave him now . . .'

Another time he phoned me from a public phone box. There were two guys wanting to use the phone. I heard voices saying, 'hurry up, you bastard.' He deliberately prolonged our conversation, so they became more and more worked up, and pretty soon a fight started, which I could hear down the phone. Suddenly, I heard one of their women screaming out, 'Get the police, get the police, he's killing them. . . .'

It was thrilling, I thought, well done.

Only once did I fear for my safety. I'd been corresponding with some Soviet prisoners during the campaign to get people out of Russia. One was released, looked me up when he came to London, and we arranged to go for coffee. It was completely innocuous.

When I told my guy afterwards, he pulled out a gun, and held it to my neck. 'What did you do with him, just tell me what you did with him?' It was so exciting, it was like being in a movie. Here was this passionate wild man from the mountains who was so possessive and so jealous, and half of me thought he would never pull the trigger, but, on the other hand, this could be it: Helen, it could be bye-bye world. It was wonderful, it was romantic, it was passionate, it was erotic. It was the high point of my life.

I talked him down. I persuaded him that I was extremely loyal, and I loved him. 'Put the gun away, there's a good boy.' I felt a great physical attraction to him after that episode.

Rather than any dramatic rending apart, the relationship just wound down; there was a gradual cooling, a drawing apart. He became Anglicised and learnt to control the violence. The violence had been a function of his extreme powerlessness, and as people become more established and more secure in themselves, the need to be violent diminishes.

He was seduced by what was on offer here and went into business. He did very well, but that kind of materialistic longing destroys character because your aspirations are so banal, and he just changed. He was a sweet, violent boy, with a flame of revolution burning brightly, but he became a smooth businessman.

I wouldn't have missed that relationship for the world, but it did screw me up. Going back to mixing with nice boys from Edgware or wherever - everyone else seemed pallid. I had to have a complete change in mentality to interact with them, and even then I'd always think, ah, but I knew this wild guy from the mountains . . .

He's the only man I've ever known who was violent, but he's the one I remember, he's the one I think about, and I suppose I've been looking for him ever since.

'True Romance', published by Secker & Warburg, is Helen Zahavi's second novel. 'Dirty Weekend' was her first.

(Photograph omitted)

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