The Boxer

The glare of the lights.

Don’t look up!

The roar of the crowd.

Don’t lie! You can’t even hear it, it’s so loud.

Two men in the ring.

And the light glints off of them.

“Welcome gentles all! Welcome to the home of our mangled monsters, our silvery saints, our clanking killers, our most terrifying warriors!”

With all due respect to the boys in Her Majesty’s Navy.

“Ladies and gentlemen! Welcome to the Oil Pits!”

And pause…

A wall of shrieking sound.

“Iiiin the right corner, standing at six feet five and weighing in at 303, the champion of Chaplecross, that monster of madness…. Terror Tenamen!”

Harvey Tenamen, father of five. Mother too, since she took off.

“He’s raring for a fight tonight, folks! They could hardly get the blood from Ol’ Pomphry washed off his hands and here he is, back in the ring! Look at those spikes, ladies and gents! Look at those teeth!”

Harvey worked in the coal mines when he was young. There’s a union down there, and they save every man they can. Harvey got out with a replacement back and a new lower jaw and neck. All metal. Metal and debts.

“Aaaand, in the left corner! Standing at five feet eleven and weighing in at 274, our paragon of justice, the king of the ring…. Siiiiir Decapolis!”

Sir Thomas Hawkwell, only we call him Tom. Actually a knight. Or so they say. You ask him about it, he’ll just shake his head.

“Straight from the crusades in the cities he takes his name from!”

Tommy’s never been to Jerusalem. Nowhere near there, either. But he has been to India. Sometimes, he dreams about it.

“His righteous fists of steel are here to seal the The Terror away!”

His fists are iron. Both of them. So are his arms, up to the shoulder. No wonder he dreams about it, yeah?

“Ladies! Gentlemen! Can we have a warm welcome for our contestants this evening?”

Cover your ears, ladies and gents! Cover your ears and scream!

“Aaaand there’s the bell! The Terror is right out of his corner, got those fists up! Polished his gauntlets this afternoon, see how they shine!”

  They’ve got spikes on them, little bumps of ripping metal.

“Isn’t that lovely! Throws a left, throws a right!”

Harvey is always in a hurry. Big flaw there. If he gets you down in the first couple of seconds, you’re down. But he gets tired, fast.

“And Sir Decapolis is under and to the side! Decapolis under again as the Terror throws another! Sharp jab under, under, but Sir is backwards!”

He just steps out of the way, easy as that.

“And his first punch of the evening! Left, right, right, throwing right! Flashing like lightning, folks!”

No. Lightning doesn’t glow so brightly. Ever seen a kingfisher swoop? Flashing like that. “Terror takes them!”

  Harvey doesn’t have time to dodge. Wouldn’t anyway.

“Hear that screeching! Metal on metal folks, and aren’t you glad they’re made of steel!”

They are not made of steel.

“Terror striking out! Full flying left, and Sir Decapolis takes it to the side! He’s tumbled up against the ropes!”

Do not forget. They are not made of steel.

“Terror is a full six inches and thirty pounds over him folks, should’a seen that coming! Sir is getting up, here comes Terror, throwing another one! Sir is under it! He’s under! And another jab from Sir to the jaw! They break from the ropes! Circling now! Sir Decapolis is really enjoying those jaw hits today! Having trouble breaking the habit, maybe.”

Maybe. Just watch.

“Of course they don’t do anything against The Terror, folks!”

A pause.

Hallelujah, a pause!

The two men of flesh circle each other. Harvey’s already breathing heavy, deep and controlled, but heavy. Tom’s bleeding from the side, but he tumbled, and the damage… well, it won’t put him down. His eyes are brittle, and the light is caught in them. Like twin stars, dying.

“And Terror ducks in and swings! Sir is under again, taking advantage of that height difference! Jabs him in the stomach! Ohho! Did not see that coming, folks! The Terror didn’t either, he’s going backwards now! Sir gives it to him again, and the Terror ducks! Sir jabs out, left, right, right!…”

They’ll be at this for a while. Two minutes and fifty three seconds, all counted. Been fifty so far. Shall we skip ahead a bit?

“Swings again! And Terror is down! Shouldn’t have blocked his chin again, folks! Solid blow to the forehead there with Sir Decapolis’ fists of steel! And the ref has counted three! And the ref has counted four! I don’t think he’s getting up, folks, he went over backward like a log! Ref has counted six! Seven! Eight!…”

You get the point. But this is the bit you need to know:

“He’s knocked out folks, The Terror has been defeated! Sir Decapolis is the winner!”

Wanna know what they don’t say?

Here: “Don’t worry about the Terror folks, that  man there is the medical staff! Yes, we’ve got a medical staff here in The Pits, and he’ll do fine! The Terror hasn’t opened his eyes yet and you know what that means! They’re rolled back in his head like marbles made of high quality beef. That’s his eldest son there, in the front row, slipping under the ropes. He’s a good boy. Got a taste for trouble coming. Hasn’t been wrong yet. The Terror’s still not waking up folks, and his breathing has gone wonky. The doctor is taking his pulse, and they’re taking the Terror into the back, no one wants to do resuscitation on the floor, and now the crowd is coming on to the ring, because we never have enough security in this rat-hole.”

One, two, three. Breathe. One, two, three. Breathe.

“It ain’t working, folks! Hear that crack, that’s the Doc breaking one of The Terror’s ribs. That little girl, next to The Terror’s oldest son? That’s his little daughter, and what the hell is she doing here? She’s got his hand pinned, but it isn’t moving. The Terror’s heart has stopped, folks. There’s the Doc, shaking his head.”

You said you wanted to know.

We didn’t.

They told us later.


I was watching Tom. We’d just won. More than won. And Tom was up there, hands in the air. I could tell his shoulder had been damaged, badly. But that was okay, because we’d won and we could afford to get it fixed, and maybe to get his feet looked at too, and that back injury. And to buy a little tea, and I’d add some to the stash we were saving up for me so we could move in to somewhere that wasn’t infested by my parents and opium addicts. And then it was time to clear the ring, and by then I’d gone into the back to talk to Rufus and get the prize money.

That was when they told me.

I found Rufus in the halls, pale like he’d just had surgery and talking low and close to the Doc. Doc wasn’t pale. Doc’s never pale, and he works the Oil Pits.

Don’t get me wrong. It wasn’t that Doc didn’t care. But Rufus was only pale because sometimes he remembered I was thirteen, and sometimes he remembered I was a girl, and now was one of those times. And now he had to tell me.

I didn’t know. I should have. I mean, how obvious could it be? But I walked right up, not even thinking it.

Rufus turned, big beefy well-fed shoulders rolling back. “Tessa.” he said, and his voice told me something was wrong, wronger even then his face had said.

So I replied, “Yeah? You got our money, right?” And yeah, I wish I hadn’t now.

He closed his eyes. “Of course. We’ll go to the safe.”

And my eyes twitched to Doc. He didn’t smile at me. “Tommy okay?” he asked.

I nodded. “Walked himself off the ring, anyway. Harvey?” I liked Harvey, okay? He was a sweet guy, and he never hit me nor cussed at me.

But only Doc shook his head.

I looked to Rufus. He was looking away, at the ground, where grimy plywood wall met grimy plywood floor.

“He gonna be okay in a few weeks?” I asked. But my stomach was crawling up my intestines and trying to strangle my heart.

“He’s gone, Tessa.” It was Doc who said it. Not soft, no gentling. But he didn’t say it harsh, either. I met his eyes. Brown and firm. Maybe there was sadness there, buried deep.

I ran. I shouldn’t have. I should have gone to Tom, or gone to Harvey’s kids, or something. Anything at all…

I ain’t a proper woman. I ain’t hardly got a mother, and I don’t play the piano. I ain’t even hardly got a father, you understand me?

But the pits, they’re my life. It started when I was young, really little. Momma used to go, when I was a jit, just walking. I walked myself out of her arms and out of the crowd and deep into the winding bowels of the place.

Never came back out, in a way.

Met Tommy way back. Don’t even really know how far back. He’s a face, I’m a face. But I became his manager the day I turned eleven. Tom’s in debt to the army, always has been, because two metal arms don’t come cheap. He’d won the Brittleworn championship, two hundred pounds, and that ain’t no joke. And his manager at the time, Charley ‘Football’ Blaine, had jumped ship. With the money. All the money.

I heard. It’s a bad place to be, no money, no manager. So I wound my way to where he was sitting, head hanging, with Doc.

“Hey Tommy,” I said, because I never stood on formality, even then.

“Morning Tessa,” he said to me, and he looked up and gave me a smile, even though things was dark as pitch down there. “How are you today?”

“Mighty fine, Tommy. I hear you’re in need of a manager?” I just up and said it. No point in beating around.

“Sure am. You got someone you’re pulling for?” He didn’t perk up much, because a new manager in the face of two hundred missing pounds ain’t much. But he was interested anyway.

“Yeah. Me.” I gave him my bright smile.

Doc, tools stuck in Tom’s arm like so many spikes, pulled his hands away and raised his head and laughed and laughed.

Tom smiled too, but he looked at my eyes and he knew I was dead serious.

“C’mon Tom,” I said. “I been here longer than you. I know a thing or two.”

“How much do you charge?” The Doc asked, still laughing.

“Ten percent.” I said.

Tom shrugged, and his disabled arms whined in protest.

“Tell you what,” I said, “how about we try it out? See how we work together?” You think I was making this stuff up? I’d seen this done a hundred times. Managers recruiting talent.

He was still looking at me. I dunno what convinced him. Maybe because I ain’t no crook. I’ve never stolen nothing, me. Well, nothing that’d be missed anyway.

“Alright, Tess. Sounds good. Ten percent?” he said, and he was dead serious too.

I smiled and stuck out my hand. “Shake?”

“Sure.” And he grinned rueful. “Soon as I get my hands back.”

There’s a poetry to it. In the rhythm of the blows. Everyone sees it, everyone knows it. That’s why they’re here, leaning in and holding their breath, screaming. Watching it, hearing it, it makes you wanna get up and dance.

I’d been watching all my life. Girls, they don’t box. Not even girls with metal arms (although, how often you seen that?). And plenty of people who don’t know me, they give me grief for managing. But Tom don’t mind, and he won’t take it either.

Besides, I’m the best manager south of Sterling, and he knows it.

The morning after I felt peace enough. I hadn’t slept. Just sat in that tiny room with people breathing on every side and the cockroaches scratching and the mice chittering. After a few hours of that I got myself up and walked. I’m little, and I’m fast. Turmoil ain’t the safest place to be, but I made it through. And there ain’t nothing like staying up with your trouble until the sun rises to give you peace.

So I was feeling alright. Exhausted, maybe. And my eyes felt like they’d been washed with vinegar and rung dry. But I was feeling alright. The sun was shining, the clouds were keeping it warm, and the rain was starting nice and light. ‘Course, it had rained the day before, so all the puddles already had a head start.

I drifted back toward The Pits, scrounged some bread on the way. My feet were tired and all that mud made my toes damn cold. Went in the back way, of course, smelling those stables and walking on the planks someone had placed over that huge lake of a puddle back there.

Ace was on the door, smoking with Ben Alager, a fellow manager. Ace was a bookie back then. Me and Tom had put a bet with him on the match. Seeing him wasn’t so bad. But he handed me my money as I passed, and that was a right hook to the gut.

“That’s Tom’s share too,” Ace said. “Couldn’t find him this morning.”

I stopped at that. “He didn’t stay over?” Tommy had a place to stay. Rufus always griped about it. “I don’t run a boarding house!” he’d grouse. But Tommy slept in his dressing room nights he’d been injured, nights he ached. Other nights too.

Ace shrugged. “No one answered when I knocked.” Sneaky was camped on his face. Not mean sneaky, but the kind of sneaky you use when you know something bad has happened, and you ain’t sure what anyone wants you to say about it, so you’re keeping your trap clapped.

I nodded my thanks. Ace don’t often keep his trap clapped.

Inside it was empty. Hollow. No one was up yet, no one was there. No life to fill the place, no fear and sweat. Even my little feet echoed on that mangy plywood. People got lost in the back of the Pits sometimes, new people. I never did. It’s two rights, a left, another right, two lefts and then hug the right wall. Number 23. I could do it in my sleep. I don’t though. The one I do in my sleep is the walk from 23 to the ring. But I wasn’t doing that now.

I tried the door. They didn’t lock, but something had been shoved up under the handle.

I knocked, and it rolled around that empty hallway just like my footsteps had.

I stood there. The silence came back. Nothing. I knocked again.

“Tom?” I asked. “You in there?”

For a moment I thought he wasn’t, that the room was really empty. Fear started to crawl out of my stomach. And then, shifting cloth. I breathed out, slow and quiet, as the fear began to melt away.

“C’mon Tommy. Let me in.”

“Tessa?” he said. Sounded hollow, like he was standing out there with me.

I snapped, “No! It’s the other little girl!” I shouldn’t have, maybe. Sometimes the boys give me grief about my attitude.

There was the scrape of the chair being unwedged from the door, and then the rattle of the handle. The door opened.

Tom stood there, looking more lonely then I’d ever seen him. Looking pretty beat up too. His left shoulder was swelling where metal met bone, and the cut across his chest looked like it had been scabbing, breaking and bleeding all night.

“Doc look at that?” I pointed to his shoulder.

Tom shook his head.

“You didn’t let him in either?” I’d never seen him looking so uncertain, so scared. His eyes were swollen, like his shoulder.

“Didn’t want to see anyone.” Tom said, after a minute. His voice sounded rough, lost. Sounded like my thoughts did.

I looked up at him. He looked away from me. Something broke inside, and I couldn’t deal anymore. I could feel tears building up around the edges of my eyes at the state he was in, and the trouble and turmoil were flooding back in.

I planted my face in his belly and wrapped my arms around him, tight. He was still in his trunks, and he smelled like oil, blood and sweat. But I didn’t care.