Some might call me coward, but I’ve never felt the need to prove myself by swapping blows with somebody bigger than I am—or someone smaller, for that matter. I was fourteen when I first read Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mocking Bird and was captivated by Atticus Finch’s definition of courage: ‘It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin, but you begin anyway and see it through no matter what.’ It dawned on me then that to be brave you first have to be afraid.
A year went by before I had the opportunity to test out Atticus’s wisdom. The weekend had been spent jamming with my best mates, Billy, aka ‘The Kid’ and ‘Fat’ Harry. We’d started a band called ‘The Grasshoppers’—Billy belted out a rhythm on the drums, Harry was on bass, and I could strum a few chords on the guitar. We desperately needed the practice, although you wouldn’t think so to hear Billy tell it. The boys and I had been pounding out AC/DC in my dad’s garage when we should have been doing homework, and when I surfaced from bed that Monday morning I was looking forward to school even less than usual.
Saint Pat’s started the day half an hour earlier than the other schools in the district. They told us it was to avoid the morning rush, but we all knew it was really to keep our lot away from the Convent girls. The bus was crammed with hyper-active schoolboys, talking at the top of their voices about their weekend exploits, or playing rock-paper-scissors or noughts and crosses. Billy and Fat Harry squeezed onto the back bench, and I claimed the last empty seat in front of them. I pulled a notebook and biro from my case and struggled to lock out the clamour. I was in trouble. There was a double period of maths in the afternoon, and if I didn’t complete my homework by the lunch break I’d have to face up to old ‘Marble-head’—the terror of third grade.
I could see him hovering over my shoulder, a chill hiss escaping from clenched teeth as he surveyed my workbook. With his black gown and hunched back he was like a giant bat, his top lip curled in scorn and his beady eyes boring into the back of my head. ‘Pathetic effort, Johnson! Out the front!’ Reaching for his King James Bible, he would balance it across my wrists before unleashing six whacks from the leather strap he affectionately called ‘Big Bertha’. The headmaster had decreed this practice following a confrontation with an angry mother whose son returned home one day with a mass of welts on his wrists caused by the poor aim of one teacher. The good book only seemed to encourage Marble-head to hit harder. Perhaps he was inspired by Solomon’s proverb on educating children, ‘Thou shalt beat him with the rod, and deliver his soul from hell!’
‘Hey pal, that’s my place you’re sitting in.’ I was jolted back to the present by a not-so-biblical voice. I blinked several times, but the ugly face of Rob Jenkins persisted.
Let me tell you about Rob Jenkins. At fifteen, he was the youngest in a family of six boys, squashed into a three bedroom house at the end of our street. His parents were Irish and on the dole more often than not. He usually came to school without any lunch and his shoes had holes in them. In his family, fighting was a daily pastime and being the youngest Rob was usually on the receiving end of a belting. He made up for this at school. Apparently, the fact that some of us studied maths and languages rather than mechanics and woodwork classified us as easy marks.
‘Get stuffed, Jenkins.’ I turned back to my algebraic equations.
‘Well, well! We’ve got a tough one here, boys!’ He turned in delight towards his cohorts, then thrust his broken nose close to mine. ‘I told you. Get off my seat or I’ll batter your head in!’ When he became over-excited, Jenkins had a tendency to drool, and he was close enough for me to feel the spittle on my face. I’d seen him employ this tactic before with other kids, most of whom have done the sensible thing and backed off. But I needed the seat to finish my homework and I was more scared of Marble Head than I was of Rob.
‘It’s not your seat. This is a public bus.’
Rob’s eyes gleamed and he grinned at me. ‘Right, then. You and me, after school behind the gasworks.’
Perhaps it was bluster, perhaps I could feel Billy and Harry’s gaze, or perhaps it was Atticus Finch. Whatever the reason, I didn’t feel I had a choice. ‘Alright, you’re on,’ I said.
Rob didn’t bother me for the rest of the trip—he stood at the front of the bus and joked with his pals. He had what he wanted, after all—a fight with one of the senior school softies that would add to his reputation as a hard man.
The day passed slowly. I couldn’t concentrate on finishing my maths during the lunch break because every time I looked up from my textbook, Jenkins or one of his pals was watching me.
The bell rang and I headed to my maths class, resigned to my fate. As providence would have it, Marble-head was sick and the relief teacher didn’t bother to collect our homework. I began to feel that my luck was changing – maybe Jenkins wouldn’t show up. I should have known better. Rob was waiting for me outside the gates when school finished. He and his pals led the way to the waste ground lying in the shadow of the smelly gasometer. I followed, flanked by Billy and Harry.
By now I was regretting my bravado on the bus but what could I do? I couldn’t pull out without being branded as chicken. I glanced at Billy and Harry. Easy to see they had little confidence that I could win. Not that this stopped them offering their expert advice.
‘Keep your fists up. Feint with the left and hit him with the right. Keep moving—tire him out,’ said The Kid, shadow boxing enthusiastically.
‘Float like a bee, sting like a butterfly,’ added Fat Harry mysteriously, adopting a Kung Fu stance.
I reflected on how they might have acquired such wisdom, considering neither had ever been in a fight.
Harry agreed to act as my second, which amounted to holding my jacket whilst Rob and I went on with the business. Most likely the fight was a flop for the dozen or so looking on, but afterwards I received plaudits from some who hadn’t been there at all. ‘Billy told me Jenkins had a brick in his hand and you said, “Come on then—I’ll fight you anyway!”’
That isn’t exactly how I remember it. The two of us had walked around each other warily with our fists held high until finally Rob had rushed me and wrestled me to the ground. We rolled around in the dirt for a few minutes with both of us getting in a couple of half-hearted punches. I tell you honestly, I was too scared to hit him. If I made him angry, he might have gotten serious. Rob held me down and scratched at my cheek with a small piece of glass.
‘Do you give in yet?’ he asked, panting.’
‘Okay, you win then,’ I said, relieved that it was over.
I walked home, plastered in mud with my shirt-tail hanging out, yet feeling strangely at peace. I had lost my first fight, but I had survived. Atticus would be proud. Billy and Harry were still full of spirit.
‘One good punch and you would have had him,’ said Billy, feigning an uppercut. Harry refused to let me carry my jacket, saying he was honoured to have been my second and his job wasn’t done with until we reached home.
Read Sting Like a Butterfly (Pt 2) to see what happens next to Davie, Billy the Kid and Fat Harry.