Wednesday, 18 July 2012

The Fight by Jamie Guiney


He was by the sink rubbing his hands with a flowery tea towel when his wife came through the back door wearing a face full of upset.  Not again, he said to her, and she responded that those degenerates had gone too far this time.  He said nothing else about it and moved into the living room where his hand reached into the walnut cabinet that had been in his family for three generations, and came out clutching a three-quarter-full, bottle of Black Bush Whiskey.  He poured an inch and took his glass to the sink where he doubled it up with water.  She was upstairs, banging about then, and a record came on.  Ruby Murray, always Ruby Murray.  He sipped from the crystal rim and ran a hand through his ivory hair.  He knew she was up there crying behind the music.  His face burned red as he drained the tumbler and set it down into the metal sink.
                  Before he knew for sure what he would say, he was in the pub and standing in front of McDonagh's table, telling him that he had had enough, that the village had had enough.  When McDonagh stood up with his dead eyes and suggested they settle it with a fight on Calpenny's bridge, man on man, he found himself agreeing to be there Friday, at half past seven.  He shook McDonagh's thick hand and tried to make it home before he might vomit.
                  When he told her about it, his eye sockets had already blackened to coal and the skin on his face sagged into a colourless plop.  He had never had a fight in his life, he added, in a voice filled with dread, and although she tried to reassure him, to suggest that surely there must have been some scuffling in his youth, it was then that he broke down entirely and had to be put to bed.
                  On the Wednesday, he was afraid to leave the house, and by Thursday morning she was scolding him like a dog that refuses to leave its bed.  He shuffled from room to room, unable to settle himself and around midday she made vegetable broth that seemed to restore some of the life back into him.  He opened up then, as he tore apart some bread and dipped it into the broth.  He couldn't understand why he had agreed to such a thing, a fight, and called himself stupid.  She was proud that he had shown the courage to stand up to McDonagh and she told him as much.
                  The village had suffered long enough.
                  Her words seemed to be sinking in, as he stood up and mooched around the fridge, pouring himself a mug of milk, examining the worn fridge magnet of a smiling banana that had been there for years.  Then he was exasperated again, where to even begin, how to even form thoughts about how to fight someone at his age.
                 
                  Friday arrived like a snail traversing a garden and as he drove towards Calpenny's bridge, it began to rain.  The only thing he could think about as both wipers slid across the glass, was his curled fist bouncing off McDonagh's broad chest - he might as well punch an oak tree.  His knee was also full of arthritis and he knew the more he moved around, that it could give way too.
                  His hands rattled against the steering wheel and he gripped it harder.  He drove through the village and as the rain came heavier, he clicked the wipers into a faster speed and watched people rush into huddles underneath the striped awnings of the butchers and bakers.  Towards the lone traffic lights, he shifted down through his gears expecting red, but the green was steady.  As he left the village, his window began to steam and he turned the heat to medium and the blower to number two, then he caught a misted glimpse of the church hall, that had four days ago stood as a wonderful place of joy, but now hunched into a mess of charred timbers.  He passed through the forest and when he rounded the corner and saw McDonagh with his squad already waiting, his body went into shudders that he couldn't control.  His car pulled to a stop just before the old stone bridge and he felt like he was going to vomit.  He wanted his wife then, and didn't know what he had been thinking, forbidding her to come.
                  When he turned off the engine, his windscreen filled up with a dripped dream of McDonagh standing on the bridge, arms folded and a smile across his lips.  He circled the gold wedding ring around his finger a couple of times, before taking it off and placing it on the dashboard.
                  As he stepped out of the car, a small grunt came up from his chest and lodged in his throat.  He locked the car and tried to act confident, stand tall.  He walked towards McDonagh and put on a show of rubbing his hands together, like he'd been waiting for it all day.  Then the thoughts came to him once more, as they had on many nights in bed, of McDonagh terrorising the village and never getting caught, never getting confronted.
                  It rained hard.
                  A switch he did not even know existed, clicked somewhere in his brain, as gently as a bird shifting a wing-feather.  He unbuttoned his shirt and hoped the uncontrollable nerve in his right leg, wouldn't be visible through his trousers.  McDonagh suggested they go over the rules, but he spat back that he didn't fight by any rules, then took off his shirt and flung it to the ground.  He began to throw some light punches against the rain, even though he didn't know how to, just to warm up, or make it look like he knew how to warm up.  Just as he saw McDonagh was about to speak, he interrupted and did his own talking.  He told McDonagh that he had once killed a man with a single blow, a method that he'd been taught in the army, and that he knew where to strike a man just right and just hard enough, to drop him like a stone; so he was giving out the warning now, for all of those present to hear, that he had clearly warned McDonagh he could kill him, and McDonagh hadn't listened.  They would be witnesses, they would be obliged to tell the police what happened.  As long as he gave the warning it was alright, trained killers must give the warning, it's part of their oath.
                  McDonagh took off his own shirt and gave his own warning, that it wouldn't be allowed, that there were rules to a fight.  He couldn't just come in, armed with knowing how to kill a man with one blow.  Sure what kind of a fair fight was that…
                  He told them again, they better tell the police the truth, what really happened.  He didn't fight by rules, and he only fought to the death.  If he ever had to use his knowledge, to kill a man with a single strike, that he would declare it first out of courtesy and give the man a chance to pull out.  It was then that a pain came into his knee and he fought to stop a grimace catching his face.  One of McDonagh's men, the one with the flat nose, said then, that he wouldn't be telling the police anything.  McDonagh lifted up his hands and curled them into pummelling fists that dripped with evening rain.
                  The shake in his leg had stopped.  He curled his own fists and held one out in front and the other down by his belly, for no reason other than he'd seen them do it in films.  Then he started into a stare that bore right through McDonagh's very eyes and into whatever lay beyond.
                  As he waited for McDonagh to make a move, he had already decided to put all of his energy into a single fist-throw and hope that it would do some damage…any damage.
                  The river grew stronger, its roar becoming a gale pushing through a forest of trees.
                  McDonagh averted his gaze then, off to the side, and suddenly dropped both fists.  Raindrops bounced off the bridge all around a large, brown rat, that sat there staring at McDonagh with its thick tail curled across the wet stone.
                  The rat flinched and McDonagh pulled back.
                  Before anything else could occur, he swung his entire life and breath into his wet fist and struck McDonagh on the forehead and McDonagh angled backwards, before falling into a sit, then slumping back onto the soaked ground.  The one with the flat nose said then, that by almighty God, he had killed him.
                  The rat slinked down off the wall and scuttled across the rain-popping ground and up onto McDonagh's bare chest, then just sat there like it had found a warm, familiar nest.
                  As he stood over McDonagh, an ache settled across his knuckles and pushed its way up through the bones of his arm and into his elbow, but he did not show it.  It was then that he picked up his shirt and warned the men what would happen if they didn't tell the police the truth, if they didn’t leave the village alone, that he would come after them one by one and do the same to them.  He turned and walked back to the car, rain dripping from his nose, his chin, the tips of his fingers; and heard the men behind him begin to shout at the rat.
                  He opened the car and got in, and as soon as the door clunked shut, he began to shiver.  He placed the heavy shirt onto the passenger seat and put his wedding ring back on and started the engine.  The wipers cleared away the dream of McDonagh and there were his men, one kicking the air around the rat and the other swinging his jacket like he was putting out a small fire.
                  As he drove home the puddles lay wide on the roads and he turned the heater up full.  His white chest hair sat matted against his skin and ten thousand white pips appeared all over his body.
                  When he pulled into the driveway, she was at the window and before he even killed the engine she was at the front door with a forehead full of lines and a face that had aged since he last saw it.  He carried the shirt with him and walked bare-chested into his house, her grabbing the shirt expecting blood and asking him was he alright and breaking into tears.
                  He told her he was alright except for a sore knee that had been there before he started and as she hugged him and draped a towel around his shoulders, she asked about McDonagh, and he said all he wanted was a tumbler of whiskey and that it was over for good, that whatever happened, there would be no more of McDonagh.

About the author: Jamie Guiney is a literary fiction writer from County Armagh, Northern Ireland. His short stories have been published in literary journals, newspapers and digitally on iPhones and iPads. In 2011, his short story 'A Quarter Yellow Sun' was nominated for 'The Pushcart Prize.'
Jamie is also a graduate of the Faber & Faber Writing Academy and a member of the Newman Writers Group. His work has been backed by the Northern Ireland Arts Council through several Individual Artist Awards.
He is currently working on a short story collection, a novel, and when time permits, a screenplay set during the Belfast Blitz.
Find Jamie on twitter @jamesgwriter on the web www.jamieguiney.com or on Facebook facebook.com/jamieguineywriter
Photo: (c) Mark 'King of the wild frontier' via Flickr Creative Commons