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August 13, 2007

getting out of it

monkeyfight.jpg I remember being involved in only a few "serious" fights during my time at school. It seems to me that I was on the losing end of all of them, though being pummelled felt to me far less humiliating than refusing to get into something physical in the first place. (Though that was probably my default option when I had any choice in the matter.) Most of the times that I got into a rumble the damage was very minor indeed.

Once, during the lunch-break, I was playing table-tennis against a very fat boy. Our rolled up jackets placed in the middle of a large desk formed the "net". It was an easy match; I was more preoccupied with showing off my limited range of trick-shots than with worrying about the monotonously hopeless, looping pat-returns he made to me. I remember that from behind and below my end of the table I top-spun the ball diagnonally across to his backhand, the weaker of his two weak sides. He didn't get anywhere near it, but lurched instead into a pile of chairs, compressing them into a weird cross between a Calder-like mobile and a bombed pagoda.

I had watched a Marx Brothers film on the box the night before. "Keep your medals on, fat-boy!" I shouted exulting (I was fat myself), recycling in its entirety a Groucho taunt as my red-faced opponent picked himself out of the wreckage. He started chasing me round the table. We ran round it a few times before I decided that he had decided he was never going to catch me that way and that his next move would be with a mighty heave to shove the table corner forwards into my balls as I was passing. Fearing that possibility, I stopped and turned to face him. The words "medals" and "fat" had unlocked secret reserves of fury inside him. Within a few seconds I was bent double over the table, while he hammered on the back of my head with his fists. My forehead bounced up and down off the wooden surface like the ball a tennis player weighs up against the ground before serving.

All the while, I could hear the helpless, gleeful laughter of the other boys in the room who were delighting in this welcome interlude before French dictée began. "This isn't as bad as it could be" is what I remember thinking in between the thuds which my skull made on the desk. Then I caught sight through the classroom window of the slender, nervous French master, a man with a lank moustache which drooped round his mouth like an upside-down smile. He was fiddling with his tie knot before, in the role of a fearless poilu, he charged officiously into the maelstrom.

My best moment (so far) in a fight came when I was around 17 years old. One of my closer friends and I, dazed with boredom, were winding each other up outside the chemistry labs. "Your mum's a whore." "No she's not." "Then tell her to give me my money back!" That's an old one of course; I think Roddy Doyle even uses it in one of his books about kids in Dublin. At my school in the Kent surburbs, every adolescent schoolboy who was a "good bloke", including me, seemed to spend most of his time either playing games skillfully or behaving like an malevolent idiot. That day there must have been a herd of about 100 boys standing glumly around outside this large brick building, waiting to be let in and so to get the chance to scald each other's arms with heated test tubes or have inhalation-endurance contests with the gas taps in the back row of class.

Suddenly, surprisingly, William flipped from verbal- into combat-mode. I had no idea what I had said. "Hey, come on," I wanted to shout. "I was only joking." But he was incensed. Ignited. Boiling. He didn't want to know, and was coming at me with a series of heavy fist-blows and kicks to my legs, shoulders and sides. They were probably moves loosely adapted from watching multiple sessions of Keith Carradine in action on TV. Even his pale purple chemistry notebook became a weapon.

"What do I do now?" I asked myself as a few more body-blows hammered home. I tried to punch back effectively but there were two crucial differences between us, one physical and one psychological. William was taller, leaner and stronger than I was, and he really wanted to do me some serious damage. He extended his right leg until it reached waist-height, then brought it slamming down against the ground. The momentum carried him forward and as it did he extended his right arm. His fist, with the weight of his whole body behind it, crunched squarely into my left eye socket.

I have read that when racing drivers crash, and even when their injuries are serious, the threatened body's surge of adrenaline means that they feel no pain at first. The pain comes later and seems as though it will last forever. I saw William's straight-right coming at me. But when it landed on my face I felt nothing except a vaguely satisfied sensation, the kind you get when a ball rebounds from the sweet spot in the centre of a club or racket. I went down like a dropped marionette, its face a fixed, inane grin as it collapses onto the floor. My limbs boomed as each one separately hit the paving stones. Then I recall hearing a distant roar of pleasure and approval reverberating from the assembled multitude. And then — what? The feeling was of a kind of No-Time, long and instantaneous, of a darkness which was different from the absence of light, of an empty, contentless space right in the middle of my baseline somatic existence. I belonged nowhere and was no-one. I was just an inert human body.

I don't know how long I lay there. Perhaps ten or twenty seconds? Then I started to come round. There was the far-off sound of cheering and jeering. The world seemed to be rotating slowly in an anti-clockwise direction. Everything was black. I remember thinking "Why should I bother to get up?" Then I heard William asking nervously, "Are you OK?" My jaw had no working muscles in it and so I felt no anxiety about not answering. Then came the exultant thought: "I've done it! I've been knocked out! I've gone there!" It was at that point that the rasp of an adult's voice broke in on my reverie. I opened my right eye; the left one didn't seem to be obeying neural commands. One of the chemistry masters told me to stop being "a fool" and to get up. William was crouched at my side. He helped me gently to my feet and volunteered, in the tones of a concerned onlooker, to escort me to the sickroom. Later we sat in the dining hall, eating lunch together quietly and mutually apologizing as, he informed me, my left eye began to swell and darken.

Looking back now on these two tiny incidents, I notice that their narratives illustrate some of my basic, reptilian brain-stem suppositions about the world. That words are dangerously powerful. That I must be the master of words. That even the tiniest spark of aggression is likely to blossom into a conflagration. That your victim can become your conqueror in no time at all and vice versa. That the code of honour still being socialized into males when I was a boy demanded that almost every confrontation end in some kind of violence, symbolic or actual and that, as a result, I still instinctively assume that this is how events will play out. That it is morally and emotionally better to lose than to flee, back down or merely observe (though the other, dumber person always has to "start the whole thing"). Is it "morally and emotionally better" to win than to lose? That is a difficult question, which makes me uneasy, and I do not know the answer. That in the crunch words will start conflicts but cannot end them. And, finally, that bookish people like me, being cowards, tend to think of truth in terms of a clenched fist.

Posted by njenkins at August 13, 2007 05:25 PM

With the exception of interspersed quotations, all writing is © 2007-09 by Nicholas Jenkins