The Boxer by Juliet Plant
Each footfall jars back up through his skinny calves to the knock-knees, his arms flailing for balance.
But this ugly jagged jog feels better than that other pain, the twisting visceral animal pain of loss.
“Hey, Tom lad, tha’ lace 'as come undone, stop by a while…”
He catches sight of Old Micky on the corner, can hear the heaviness in his voice. Seems like every street in this city knows your name, Tom muses; sometimes he’d take comfort in the old man’s company but today he just wants to hide away.
“'Ere, l'aal’un where you gannin’?”
He swerves off the road into Firth Park. Early autumn. A thick mist hugging the hedgerows all day is rising steamily to reveal the pale lemon sky at sunset, setting into sharp relief the sicklier yellow of the turning hawthorns and brash ruddy red of the beech.
His box-fresh Converse trainers scuff through the mud, black clag on white canvas, heels slipping on the verge, churning early fallen leaves and sending crushed cans and glassy conkers skipping down the path, legs leading him on.
New trainers Mam had bought on their last shopping trip together after the hospital visit. Tom had gone with her, waited for the appointment to be over, hovering awkwardly at the entrance to the manicured lawns of Weston Park. Students slumped amid piles of books and bicycles on the leaf-strewn grass, two goths shared a tab beside the bandstand and a terrier was worrying the fallen horse-chestnuts, pawing the prickle-spined shells and springing back with a yelp.
At last Mam had appeared at the gate pale as a ghost, and so thin, her skin almost translucent, the hollows deep around her cheekbones accentuating the piercing emerald-green eyes, fogged now with fatigue and morphine. Breaching the doctors’ pleas to rest and conserve energy, she’d gripped his hand with a vice-like determination. They must’ve stopped every twenty paces on the way home, Mam stealing shallow breaths from the muggy air, ‘one-two-breathe,’ they’d channelled the steel veins of the tram lines to keep a steady course.
The tears well, threatening to blind him, a raw swirl of emotion rising in his gut. So he thinks of school, of skiving double maths and being caught with a tab behind the science block by the Caretaker,
“Tha'll nivver amount to anything, lad…”
On, tearing his trailing jacket and the skin of his arm on the thick-thorned brambles, their black beards of berries already turning to mouldy slush, staining his trousers with bloodied purple.
“Don't bring them berries home! It's after Michaelmas, the devil's spit’ll be on them.”
Mam again, all of her superstitions and what good had that done, eh?
He scrambles up the hill, over a rutted field seeing shadow-ghosts: himself, Tony and Rob, kicking their football over the hedge and into the allotments. Tom's breath catches in short sharp pangs now; he stops to grasp the stitch in his side, wiping his brow and staring down past the toy town greenhouses, the neat rows of runner beans, plots of cabbages and weedy, sprawling remnants of summer flowers. Gazing down from the ridge he surveys this, his Sheffield, this East Side of town, his kingdom.
Dull brown and grey wasteland beyond the sprawling playing fields where the remnants of old industry meet the machinations of new construction. Two miles below, the bright beguiling turrets of Meadowhall twinkle like some plastic castle model he'd had as a kid.
Down by the river cranes and bulldozers rake over the history of the Steel City, factories where Mam's mam worked and, probably, her mam too, silenced.
Tom squints into the rows of narrow streets where Tony and Rob will be hanging out tonight. Looking out for Kelly and Lisa no doubt; Tony with his sharp new crew cut and that cocky grin, “That'll get me reet in with those lasses, oh yeah!"
He sees his friend's furrowed brow this morning, fifteen years old, eyes darkened with concern, “Mate, y'alreet? Come out t'night eh? We'll go to't dogs, me dad'll tek us?”
But not tonight.
Tonight there's only one place left to go.
He's back on the street, running faster down Newman Road between the red bricked terraces. The low glare of a streetlight stretches the lanky shadow of the boy back over the potholed tarmac, preternaturally long limbs wheeling down the middle of the street.
He raps urgently at the tall door of the old church hall but he hasn't come to pray. The heavy oak door to the gym creaks open and he is home.
No pews in here, just rows of bags suspended from the ceiling, the high altar of the roped-in ring.
The coach takes his hand, steadying the shaking fist, and unreeling the wraps, “Alright son, just you and me tonight,”
There's no hiding here and no more inquisition. One, two, three firm twists of the wrap around the wrist. Criss-cross over the knuckles and loop around the thumb and repeat three times, in a reassuring ritual.
Too violent, so he's told, but to him it's the only discipline he can respect, the only place he can be safe, be himself.
One-two, on the pads, one-two, the familiar rhythm flooding through him.
Feet aligned on the canvas, up on his toes, feeling light in his boots, chin tucked. Shadow-boxing, the demons flee the ring.
“Breathe, just breathe; hands up, keep those elbows down, relax!”
“Stay safe young'un,' Mam again, but now the boxer's eyes are clear and focused, “it's up to you now.”
He's running. Careering down the rain slicked road as darkness falls. Running away from the concrete council blocks and the cloud burdened skyline blurring into the greyness behind him.
Tom's not quite sure when the crying stopped and the running started, when his brain stopped registering the ragged sighs tearing through his chest that threatened to rend his soul in two, replacing them with the rhythm of each deep-drawn breath numbing his racing thoughts.