Photograph by Martin Brigden
by Tristan Foster
In the ring there is a snake.
— Dal Stivens, Well Anyway
Light comes from a single bare globe that looks like it was jammed without thought into the kitchen’s ceiling. Libby peers into the oven to check the baking fish while the children jig around Ted. He wants eggs.
“It’s too late in the day for eggs.”
“What do you mean? It’s never too late.”
“The boys don’t like them.”
The oven door slaps shut. Libby stands and folds her arms. The sound of a cartoon skids in from the living room.
“The boys don’t like them,” Ted repeats, looking sideways at the boys.
James, the eldest, still has his school uniform on, dirty and creased. He keeps one foot on a small, hard-plastic skateboard, threatening to ride it. Marty is topless and wears footy shorts, a temporary tattoo fading on his forearm. He has a rat’s tail that flicks behind his head and a grin that won’t go away. He thrusts a truck at his uncle’s face, tells him to look at it and laughs as Ted slips under it.
Libby tells James to get changed then starts saying something to Ted about how much egg he eats but he’s busy ducking the whirling arm of Marty.
He grabs at a thin arm but can’t hang on. The child weaves and laughs as he escapes from Ted’s grip. Ted has to smile but he isn’t playing.
“Can you get control of these fucking kids? Please?”
“This one’s going to bust my eye open with a matchbox tractor,” he says, pointing at Marty. “And this one…”
He’d forgotten all about the boys, only remembering them when he turned away from their front door after not getting a response to his knocking, and saw them lope out of the car, each with a schoolbag as big as them slung over a shoulder. He had just wanted to talk but now he was stuck having an early dinner.
“Don’t worry, it’s good fish. It’ll be salty. There’ll be spinach and some other vegetables.”
“Forget the vegetables.”
The boys face off.
“Training’s training. Training’s alright.”
“How’s the woman?”
He frowns at the floor.
“Not alright?” she asks, but her attention is on the boys. “Behave please!” she says.
They begin to fight, each of them smiling wetly and watching Ted. James wraps Marty in a headlock. Ted can’t believe the energy coming from them. He thinks that real fights—his fights—don’t have this much electricity. They remind him of angry dogs; the room is alive with them in it, like anything can happen. Marty jabs James in the stomach.
“Get him, Marty,” Ted whispers. “Get him. Go for the kidney.”
“Boys! Christ, Ted. Don’t.”
James tightens his grip then wheels Marty around, knocking into the trestle table, rattling the sauce bottles; Ted catches his glass of water before it spills.
“Stop!” Libby says, tongs in her hand. “Both of you! James, let him go. Take your school gear off.”
The boys laugh harder. Marty, to help the performance, lets himself be manhandled. James pulls Marty’s head back, showing the whites of his eyes, then flings him across the linoleum. The effort sends James falling back into Ted, the boy’s head almost catching him on the lip, and the skateboard crashing into the fridge.
“Relax, James, fuck ya,” Ted says. He helps the boy get on his feet before slapping him on the back of the head, harder than is playful, so he knows.
“Ted, stop swearing!”
The boys laugh.
“Get control of them, then. They’re making me nervous.”
Ted stands up, needing to get out of their wake, plunges his hands into the pockets of his trackpants, shakes them so his keys and spare change jingle.
“Boys, go and clean up!” She emphasises every syllable. “James, change. Marty, put some clothes on. Take the skateboard. Dinner’s almost ready. Go!”
They hurry out of the kitchen, leaving the skateboard next to the fresh dent in the side of the fridge, James flicking off the light as he leaves the room.
Libby clicks her tongue. Ted switches the light back on and turns to watch his sister slide the tray of baked fish out of the oven and put it on the benchtop. She pulls back the foil on one of the fillets then licks the tips of her fingers. The damp, deep ocean smell of the fish fills the room.
“You’re getting fat.”
“Seen your face lately?”
“I’m a boxer.”
“So why are you being such a bitch?” she asks, meeting his eyes.
He smiles, taken back to the many corners of their childhood together, pleased there is still fight in her.
“They’re just kids. They’re excited you’re here for dinner, you prick.”
“Nice to be wanted. But, Jesus.”
“I don’t, I don’t know. I don’t know what to what to say to you about it. It’s just that she can’t find the words anymore. Just can’t. It’s like her ability to put things into words, into written, you know, words has just, you know. It’s like it got stolen. Like she went to sleep one night and put it on the table or the dresser in reach of the window which she left open and now, now she woke up and it’s gone. This is basically what she told me. But not only that—here’s the thing—not only that, not only has her ability to communicate in writing been lifted, all she can think of now is the stealing of it. The arm reaching in through the window’s grill. And so she feels, I guess, violated by this, this arm, reaching in and taking something that was hers. Like that’s all she can think about and she can’t get over it. She can only think of this intruder taking her ability or skill or whatever and holding it as he disappears into the night with something that was hers in every possible way. This is what she said to me. Which she has only just realised or thought of in the morning when she has woken up and realised that it’s all gone, all of it, the ability, this, you know, this instinctive ability or skill or whatever it is to communicate in words her, all her, her, everything. Her innermost, deepest, you know, observations and feelings and. Wait. Yes, but communication that doesn’t only communicate but also transfers to you not just, not just information or, or, or, I don’t mean to complicate it or turn it into something it’s not but, fuck, I don’t know, not just plain words that have fixed meanings or whatever but to also make you feel the words and the idea within you. To give you the idea like somebody gives you an apple. To transfer to you this thing whole and solid. No, what? No, I haven’t been drinking, just listen, will ya? Like a punch, yeah. A chin check with simple written words. But here’s the thing, it’s gone now. That’s gone and see the thing that’s especially hard for her is the getting over of that. Which I actually think is the hardest part of all of this because of course it wasn’t taken from her. Who can take something like that? It’s impossible, and actually she said, as in actually told me, that it was like holding a bird in your hands—a dove or a pigeon—and feeling it. Hold, hold on can you hear me? You’re breaking up, it’s, it’s, yep, you’re back. Yep, you’re back but listen: she said it was like holding a bird, alive in your hands, then throwing it up in the air and watching it flap away and only really when the sky is empty and quiet, the bird gone behind the rooftops and not coming back, realising that you didn’t want the bird to go. That’s pretty much what she what she said to me. So there’s, I guess, that’s the thing, but I don’t think it’s quite. Hold on. Mate, I can’t, you’re breaking. Yeah. OK, so what I was going to say is I don’t think it’s like that or maybe not even like having something stolen or, like this, like this, it’s like having a dog you raised from a pup. It leaves fur through your house and on your clothes and that sits on your lap, warm when the weather’s cold, and then one day you come home and it’s clean fucking gone. Something you raised. And because it was and wasn’t such a big part of your life, in that you watched it become what it was and take up a small, I don’t know, percentage of space in the world, I guess. Mate, just listen. Please. It dug holes and ate your socks and, and then it’s gone—not stealing your socks and not taking up space in the world because it itself is gone. It’s not missing, it’s disappeared as if it never was. Like a death, yeah, I suppose. What? Who? Libby. Oh yeah, I was going to say something but I thought forget it, you know, she’s dealing with her own shit—and those kids. They’re out of control, mate, just out of control. But the bird thing is interesting, like, so, listen, like the bird thing. If you throw it up, the reason I don’t think it is that, is that if you throw up the fucking bird then that’s not your bird escaping out an open window one day like a like a frightened ghost then. Know what I mean? That’s you doing, it’s you in control, your hands releasing it into the fucking goddamn air, am I right? So that’s wrong, and so I think finally I’m on to something, and I try to explain this to her, right, to get her to see that maybe her way of looking at it when she tells me is maybe not quite right. And so this is why I’m calling you and telling you now, this thing, it’s clear to me and to her in different ways, yes, but it is clear that it has left like it never was and it’s unlikely to come back and so she maybe tried to squeeze it out. Did it herself somehow. And she screamed. When I said it. Screamed a scream like the air had been fucking torn open you know? Screamed into me so that I felt it in my marrow, and it’s fucking me up because, you know, there’s that but then I’ve got my thing going on and so. It’s tough. You know? But you wonder, and you ask yourself, so is she mad? Is that what this is, is this it, you ask, you ask is she mad?”
When he ends the call the phone is hot in his hand. He slips it into his pocket and he can feel it, like an animal, against his thigh. He leans against the fence in the streetlight’s glow, hands in trackpant pockets. The night is quiet. He thinks about the things he said, weighing them for truth, thinks about this idea of somebody reaching into the window of their home and taking her voice like the things him and his friends took when they were young, and decides that, yes, the things he said were true.
Ted “The Taipan” Barrie.
Ted acts like nobody is there. Like his opponent hasn’t come out of the dressing room yet and he is still waiting, rolling his shoulders, gazing into the darkness beyond the lights as if something there has his attention. Hopping from one foot to the other while Mick sprays water at him and at the cartoon snake tattooed down his back, so that the light shines off his fighter and so he is hard to grip. Ted acts like he is the only man in the ring. Not even when they are stood in front of each other nose to nose and told the rules by the referee will he look at his opponent.
“He’s scared, Teddy,” Mick says, and squirts him with water like he is caring for a delicate plant. “He’s fucking scared. Shaking like a virgin.”
Ted stretches his neck. He’s had enough fights to know that he is the only man in the ring, that this is only about him. That everything anybody ever does is only about them.
“He’s like a quivering pussy waiting to be fucked, mate. OK? You hear me?”
He does hear him; Ted smiles into the distance. He can tell Mick has been working on that one, saving it up for this. He shakes off the comment by shrugging his shoulders, by stepping away.
The referee orders for the corners to be cleared. When the three men are alone in the ring, the referee turns to each of the boxers. The bell sounds and he motions to them to begin.
The two boxers bump gloves and spend the first round poking with tentative jabs and stepping around each other as if in a primitive dance. The second round is spent close in. Ted comes to know the contours of his opponent’s hard face, his bullish nose, the yellow in his eyes. Still, the only scoring punches are thrown in the final ten seconds. When the third round starts, he comes out hard, but he is fended off, repelled backwards, into a corner. He clutches in tight, refusing to let go even when the referee has moved in and tried to separate them. He manoeuvres his opponent around, escaping the corner, and lets go. Ted is already breathing heavily and losing patience. He jabs, throws a straight. He jabs, hooks, lands it. It opens his opponent up; this is it, what he has been waiting for—an entrance, a home for his right. He pivots his entire body into it.
Lights. Lights in his head, behind his eyes. Light in the darkness, burning overhead. Is this death? Or is it birth? Before one idea can overcome the other, a face appears. A face in the light, fingers. Get up. The command is and isn’t external to him. Get up. He understands that he is on his back and that he must get up and so he gets up in spite of everything, in spite of being dead or newly alive, and at least looks steady on his feet. The face stares into him, into his eyes like he is weighing his soul, searching, holding his hands as if they are in the middle of a religious rite.
“OK? You OK?” the face says.
Ted says Yes back not because he is, and not because he isn’t, but because he is driven to. He is supposed to say Yes, can only say Yes. The face nods and releases his hands, untethering him.
His opponent appears, eager to end this. He remembers now, completely. He raises his gloves to his cheeks.
Parry, parry. Jab. Jab, jab, straight. Parry. Straight. Clench. Hold on. He holds on. He can’t feel his legs. He can feel that he can’t feel his legs. He is standing, moving—he is fighting—but he can’t feel his legs. He clenches tight, holds on like they are confused lovers, a fear out there, somewhere, sitting in the crowd, that if he lets his opponent go he will collapse. No, he will dance when he remembers, to show he is still loose, still light and free even though he was knocked down. Still in the match. But he can’t feel them. The referee peels Ted off his opponent.
Blank. Parry, parry, jab, blank. He ducks away.
The table is hammered. His opponent rushes, bull-nosed, his dark face glistening, fearless. Jab, straight, jab, uppercut. His opponent’s head snaps back—he caught him. He smothers Ted’s arms, pushing him, and they hold. Ted feels the ropes across his back. The referee pulls them apart.
The bell rings, the round ends. He can rest his arms, sit and rest his legs. Drink. More faces. Mick yells at him. Swears in his ear. Mick won’t go away. Every fucking day in his face, yelling and swearing and ordering. He wants to tell Mick that he’s getting on his nerves.
He can’t hear, he can’t listen. Mick points to the canvas. He is aware of cold steel on his face, pressing in above his eye, but can’t feel it. He can’t feel anything, can’t hear anything. He nods at Mick’s words because he knows he should. They’ve trained for this and he has trained to say Yes and to nod and to hold his gloves up, to keep ’em up.
“You’re not fucking listening, you’re not watching for it, you’re fucking too slow, remember what I said, get him on the ropes, get him on the ropes and you’ve fucking got him. Watch the jab. He’s slow, mate. Watch the jab because if you miss the jab you’ve got to deal with the right, alright? Get him on the ropes for Christ’s sake. Are you listening? He’s slow. Keep ’em up. Fucking keep ’em the fuck up for fuck’s sake. We trained for this. We trained for this.”
More water. Somebody guides his mouthguard back into his mouth, slaps him on the cheek.
He stands, back on his feet, Mick still yelling, either behind him or in the back of his mind. The only thing he is able to make out is keep ’em up. He does. He would anyway. The bell rings.
His opponent comes close. Too close. Jab. Parry. Blank. Blank, blank. The crowd breaks through. He sees lights. Still on his feet, he pulls his head in, covers it, keeps ’em up. The light clears. He sees his opponent’s face through the gap between his gloves, tinged with red now. Parry, parry. Jab. Everything is traced with red. His eyes are stinging. He backs off, rubs his eye with his forearm and doesn’t need to look to know he is bleeding.
He keeps ’em up. Parry, jab, clench. Ted pulls his opponent in tight, hard, grappling; his opponent thrashes, eager to finish this. Ted uses his head, uses it to push in, feels the scrape of close-cropped hair against his cheek. The referee unlocks them. He keeps ’em up.
He becomes conscious of his legs again, of them failing. Of them wanting to collapse. That’s all he is conscious of, the only thing he, in this moment, knows. That and keeping ’em up. Breathe.
His left eye is filled with blood. All he can see is red—red blood and red gloves. Parry. Somewhere in the distance, but quickly gaining ground, is pain. Not physical pain, but rather the pain of losing. Not of losing the fight, or not only that, but of loss. He can only fight his way out. Jab, jab. Straight, missed. Jab. Hook, missed. Blank. Jab, jab, straight, missed, uppercut, missed, hook. Caught the opponent’s jaw, rocked him. Jab, straight, missed. Straight, missed.
Light and dark only. A memory rises in his mind, the memory of one of the first gyms he trained in. He remembers its stale sweat smell, the fissures in the roof where light entered and where it leaked when it rained. The cracked leather bags hung like relics or things, stalactites, that had formed naturally over time. His first punch rattled the overhead beams and sent brown moths fluttering to the windows.
About the Author:
Tristan Foster is a writer from Sydney and an editor at 3:AM Magazine.