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Aubergine

Harry Lowther


The boxing club isn’t in one of those dusty old gymnasiums with the square circle in the centre like you’d expect. There’s no dignity like that. Instead, it’s in a crumbling church hall, a chipped wooden Christ hanging over the outer entrance splattered with bird shit. There’s no ring at all, no mat to land on, just an unforgiving hard floor that nobody wants to fight. Nor is there much organisation involved. Just a few guys who like fighting each other the old-fashioned way, standing up. A couple of them slowly jog around the hall, circling the handful of other men who have bothered to turn up. Nobody turns to greet me. Along the far wall some dumb-faced triangular men are leaning, the kind that you can keep punching and their nearly identical faces keep popping back up for more. Above them hang the happy faces of the local girls’ dance group, who use the hall on Mondays and Wednesdays, beaming out in sparkly dresses. The footsteps of the two joggers on the wooden floor beat away the seconds.


I go over to the cracked blue plastic box to take out some gloves. My hands slip inside the freshest looking pair. They still smell rotten. I struggle with the Velcro at the wrist, the strap done and undone so many times that, no matter how tightly I stick it, part of it still hangs out loose like a tongue.


Ten minutes later and I’m changed and sparring with a new face. They’re all new in a rough sense. Nobody bothers to come every week, and I’ve only been a few times. Never the same lineup. I recognise the big, shaven headed guy exchanging slow punches with my recent acquaintance Jake, the one who talked me into coming in the first place. He’s a friend of a girl I’ve been seeing recently, Natasha. Usually I avoid the male friends, who can get a bit funny with me sometimes, but he seems sound enough, just so long as I don’t get him running jealous on his own girlfriend. As I watch him, I can see he’s having a bad time with the bigger guy, a full fist bigger than the next biggest, and a full fist uglier too with about six teeth and one eyebrow slapped on a lump of clay. Apparently he was kicked out of the proper boxing gyms for starting fights. I’ve never talked to him in case he asks me to spar, so I only know him from hitting other people, and he seems to be good at it. Authentic. He doesn’t socialise. He slowly and methodically aims punch after punch into the centre of Jake’s face. Jake may as well be trying to fend off a landslip.


The guy I’m sparring with seems nice enough, apparently a Canadian, middle class and middle weight. Blonde and well spoken, probably a student of some sort. I’m tall and thin, hardly built to take a hit but with good range, at least in theory. He’s got the technique I’m missing though, and making me suffer for it. I’m still worrying about keeping my feet in the right positions and not leaving my face open, and he punishes my naivety with hit after hit into my unprotected left kidney. We break apart, circle for a few seconds, then he jabs at my face again. I block it easily, but turn my body to do so, leaving the area in question as an open invitation which receives a punctual RSVP. By the fifteenth time it happens I’m wondering how much one kidney can take and running through a list of family members, and whether they might be willing to spare one.


People here seem to get known by a single defining feature that marks them out. Their nationality, a haircut, or a particular t-shirt they wore one time. Jake doesn’t have one yet, but I’m not sure how long he’s been coming. I’m waiting for mine, too.


Whenever I get the chance I look over to Glenn, the guy who’s supposed to run the thing, a big guy covered in hair, Celtic tattoos and a Skrewdriver T-shirt. I guess he must be a skinhead underneath all that. He doesn’t have a nickname, but I have a few private ideas. I can’t figure out the racial politics of the place, but nobody ever seems to be made more or less welcome than anyone else, at least while the gloves are on. Glenn himself certainly isn’t going to be getting off his arse to fight anyone, let alone demonstrate any kind of racial supremacy. I’ve never seen him do anything except sit around watching YouTube videos and developing his gut, and if you want any kind of advice, say on your straight right, you’re better off asking the immobile Christ. Fuck, keeping myself on my toes is getting exhausting.


Afterwards a few of us go out for a drink at the bar next door. I go because Jake goes. It’s 9.30 on a Wednesday and to get in I have to step over some teeth at the door, slowly floating towards the gutter on a thin stream of reddish saliva. I follow Jake in stepping over it. I’m thirsty as hell. The inside of the pub is dark and dusty, with detailed illustrations of old guns framed on the walls. I think of Andy Warhol getting shot. How ill he looked in those boxing photographs, just a year or two from death. Heading towards a lager, my Canadian sparring partner joins me.


‘You need a bit of work,’ he says, ‘but good effort.’


‘Thanks.’


‘Buy you a drink?’


‘That’s generous of you.’


As we sit down with the others, he’s talking at me about some girl he laid, building up to a coup-de-grace where he manages to extricate himself from her bed without waking her up, only to meet her more attractive flatmate in the hallway, and of course he leaves with her number too. ‘Are you going to message her?’ asks Jake, listening in. ‘Way ahead of you,’ he replies, and slides the phone across the table, revealing a back and forth which includes some choice pictures, all sent by her. I look over, then feel a punch in my stomach as I recognise her as someone I went to school with. She’s making eye contact with the camera above her, and completely naked except for some small pyjama bottoms. ‘You alright there my man?’ asks the Canadian. I look again. Really, the small picture could be anyone. ‘Huh? Yeah? Shooting pain in my neck,’ I reply. ‘Nice girl.’


Then it’s Glenn pulling people in to watch some fight he’s found online. Everyone with their fucking phones out. I message Natasha to let her know I’m heading over soon. She gave me her spare key the week before so it’s probably not necessary, but I want her to know anyway, for whatever reason. ‘Here, watch this,’ jabs Glenn, his sweaty fingers casting a blur over the screen, his warm breath getting too close. His leg is pressed in against mine as we crowd round the table. ‘This lad was selling heroin to the fucking kiddies, so they corner him and – hah! Look at that!’ ‘Yeah, great Glenn.’ ‘Got to stay on your feet, lad.’ ‘You’re right there, Glenn.’


I drain my pint and join Jake outside for a cigarette and some space. ‘What’s Glenn’s deal?’ I ask him, now we’re away from everyone else.

‘How do you mean?’


‘His deal. He’s kind of strange.’


Jake ponders for a moment. ‘Ahh, nah he’s sound, man. He’s harmless. Kind of strange like you say, but nah, he’s sound enough.’


‘Right.’


He rubs his jaw, wincing slightly. ‘How are you getting on with Nat?’


‘Yeah, not bad, pretty good actually. You talked to her recently?’


‘No, she’s been dead quiet since you two have been together. You must be keeping her busy.’


‘I guess so.’


When we go back in the Canadian has his phone out, flashing the same pictures as before. This guy’s a dick. I can’t believe I let him repeatedly punch me in the kidneys. I manage to catch Jake before he sits back down. ‘Hey,’ I say, ‘I’m going to head actually, I’m knackered.’


Seconds later and I’m back outside, taking deep breaths of the cool evening air, sweat dried on my hairline and my headphones in. The Clash. People are coming and going, out of work, into bars, picking up food or booze, and I feel re-energised. I pick up some cans from the corner shop, and on my way down the road I press every crossing button I pass, full of the sheer joy of being alive and outside on a night like this.


When I arrive at Nat’s I find the buzzer (flat 2, somehow, even though it’s on the third floor) with my finger, before remembering the key in my front pocket, weighted with a new old pendant inside which Nat has written my name in blue pen. I slide the key into the lock and panic for a moment as it doesn’t turn, before it turns easily in the other direction and clicks open. My footsteps hit the dusty wooden stairs and I give the door a knock before once again using the new keys and coming in. Nat’s head appears in the hallway.


‘Good boxing?’


‘Boxed them up good.’ I put the keys back in my pocket, where they sit, resting warmly against my thigh.


‘That’s my man. There’s noodles if you want some.’


‘I’ve got cans.’ I lift up the carrier bag to prove it. The spoils of war.


Three sharp thuds come from the wall. ‘What was that?’


‘Bloody neighbour, it’s been going on all evening.’ I screw my face up. ‘Stick the cans in the fridge.’


‘Alright. Christ. We’re only talking.’


‘She’s a cunt. But she’s lonely. This is all the action she gets. Don’t mind it.’


I go into the kitchen and shove some things around in the fridge. ‘She shouldn’t be banging on the wall like that. It’s not fair for her to get away with it, she’s going bareknuckle through there. Do you want one?’ I call out. I can’t hear a reply, so bring her one anyway as it doesn’t fit in the fridge. The cans are dented and slightly warm. They remind me of being a teenager.


She puts her arms round me when I join her in her room. ‘You stink,’ she says.


‘You should smell the other guy. Can I shower?’


‘Please do.’


‘It’s not fair she’s banging like that all the time,’ I repeat. ‘Have you talked to the landlord about it?’


She narrows her eyes. ‘It’s not worth the hassle.’


I undress and inspect myself in the bathroom mirror. An aubergine bruise is already forming on my side. It’s tender to touch, dark and slightly swollen. I shower amongst the various, near-empty bottles that she and her flatmate keep in the bottom of the tub, use a lavender scented soap I find, and then rejoin Nat, her purple dye-stained towel around my waist. Together we devour noodles and watch random videos on her laptop. The wall bangs again and I scream at it to shut the fuck up.


‘By the way,’ she says, I need your help with something tomorrow. ‘I need to let the landlord in to fix the big light.’


‘It’s a two-man job, is it?’


‘Well, you wouldn’t get it. He’s creepy, I don’t want to be here alone with him.’


‘That’s fine.’ I thought about it for a minute, then dismissed it. ‘How was class?’


‘Not bad, but the medical science part is difficult.’


‘You can tell me something about it if you like.’


I can feel her warmth under the covers. I’m still naked from the shower. Everything smells like lavender. My side still hurts but it’s starting to feel better. I wonder if Nat would give me her kidney if I asked. I wonder if they would be compatible. I like the idea of our kidneys together, side by side, cleaning up. She could have mine. We could swap. It’s a good thing to think about while my eyes close.


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