When Paul found the boxing tent he couldn’t have been more surprised.
A large sign announced that the celebrity middleweight Fritz Holland, from America, would be the star performer and that a purse of ten pounds was offered to anyone who could last a full three rounds with the great man.
Paul had seen his boxing hero, Les Darcy, fight and beat this man at the West Melbourne Stadium five years earlier, after losing to him in Sydney the year before. It was a match Paul would never forget. What luck it would be for him to get into the ring with Fritz Holland.
Paul headed to the butcher’s stockyards on the edge of town where he and Jack and two other young workers from the Ocean Road gang were camped for the weekend. The hot sun was tempered by a south-westerly sea breeze and the silence of the bush was broken only by flocks of noisy lorikeets.
Paul pitched a fork-load of hay to the horses from the lean-to at the end of the bunkhouse, then he went in and rolled out his swag and lay down. It was cool inside and the sea breeze and the shade from the trees provided the perfect spot for an afternoon nap.
It was nearly time for Kate O’Malley to go back to work. She and Paul’s mate Jack sat on the bench overlooking the sea beside the path which led up to her family’s hotel. As they chatted, Kate’s older sister Anna walked down towards them on her way into town. She carried a small suitcase and a shopping bag.
“Hello Kate. Mum’s all sorted for the evening and Dad’s in a good mood. Well, sort of. He usually gets grumpy when I have a Saturday night at Edna’s but he didn’t seem so bad this afternoon. Hi, Jack. Tell me, what is your good-looking friend Paul, doing tonight?”
“Hello Anna. When I called for him early yesterday morning, I saw him slip his boxing gloves into his kit. I can’t think of any reason for him to bring them to town other than that the carnival down on the foreshore might have a boxing tent. If that is the case, he certainly would be there.”
Both Anna and Kate looked at Jack in disbelief. Anna spoke first.
“You’re kidding us aren’t you? Paul a boxer? He’s not the type, surely?”
Jack laughed. “If there is a boxing tent at the carnival, I’m sure that’s where you will find him. Oh, but don’t tell him I told you. He likes to keep it a secret. Paul thinks most people don’t understand boxing, so he firmly believes that it is best they don’t know about it.”
Jack stood and took Kate’s hand and pulled her up from the seat.
Anna looked at the couple and laughed.
“You two look more like an old married couple every day. Thanks, Jack. Maybe I’ll look out for him if I get to the carnival. Bye.”
Kate watched as her sister walked gracefully down the hill, looking elegant and stylish as always, even though she wore only a summer frock and sandals.
“When my beautiful sister dresses up in what she has hidden in that little overnight case and puts on her make-up, no man will be able to resist her. Paul doesn’t stand a chance if Anna decides she wants him,” Kate said with a knowing smile.
Jack looked at Kate and rolled his eyes and laughed.
Paul carried a small army shoulder bag containing his boxing gloves, a hand towel and a clean shirt. It would also be where he put his penknife and money and the other things from his pockets before he got into the ring. When he reached the town Paul went down to the beach and splashed his face, wetted and rubbed his hair; and washed his hands. He was ready.
Anna had just finished putting on her make-up after first sliding into a tight dress, stockings and heels when the girls knocked on Edna’s front door. Gladys and Alwyn came in like excited children squabbling on their way to a picnic.
“You do what you like but I’m going to see the film,” said Alwyn emphatically.
“We always do what you want to do. I want to go to the fair,” replied Gladys.
Anna listened to the two and smiled.
“What do you want to do, Anna?” asked Gladys.
“Well, I’ve got a bit of a headache and I won’t be much fun, so I’m going to have an early night. I won’t go to the pictures but I’m happy to take a walk around the fairground. Why don’t we do that now, then you two can still catch the late showing. What do you think?”
“All right, let’s do that. Happy now Gladys? You might get to see the American boxer you keep on about. You haven’t stopped talking about him since you read about him in the paper,” said Alwyn. “I hope you won’t be disappointed. He might not be the turn-on you expect.”
“What he does in the ring will be the turn-on,” said a smiling, older and wiser Gladys. “You two can keep your pretty boys. I know what matters.”
They all laughed.
A short fat man with a deep gravelly voice and a megaphone yelled out “Fritz Holland!” and turned to welcome the American as he climbed through the ropes. People booed and cheered and yelled out as the man in the bright red dressing gown stood grinning in the middle of the ring.
Holding his arm up to ask for quiet, the tubby spruiker paused, then spoke.
“Today we have the privilege of witnessing the talents of one of America’s foremost middleweight boxers. Fritz Holland so liked Australia that he decided to come back and see more of the country.”
He turned and nodded towards the boxer.
“Thank you, Fritz. Is there anything you would like to say to the audience?”
The boxer smiled back, then turned and scanned the people watching.
“We are here to see boxing at its best. Mr Lester Hammer here, my promoter, has made this possible. I cannot box without a partner so all we need now is for one of you Aussie lads to step up and show us what you’re made of.”
With that, he stood back and rotated slowly, waving majestically to the crowd.
“All right, ladies and gentlemen. You know the rules. They are pretty simple. If a challenger lasts three rounds with our man or counts out, he collects ten pounds. So who do we have? Who is here tonight who dares challenge our American friend? Come forward and make yourself known now. You could walk away with ten pounds or at least the honour of knowing that you had the courage to get into the ring with the famous Fritz Holland. Come on lads. How about it?”
The crowd yelled and laughed and men slapped each other on the back and urged one another to step up.
Paul put up his hand and moved forward. Within moments he was in the ring. An attendant took his details, then stepped quickly over to Lester Hammer and whispered in his ear. Paul removed his shirt, then took his gloves out of the bag and handed them to a man named Rod who was to act as his second.
“Put your hands together and welcome our challenger, local boy Mr Paul Stoner.”
Rod adjusted and laced Paul’s gloves, then smiled pleasantly and said, “Best of luck, mate!”
Paul waved to the crowd. Then, from the corner of the ring, he watched and waited for the referee’s instructions, running slowly on the spot to loosen up.
Paul watched Fritz Holland remove his robe and limber up. He reminded himself that they were not fighting in a proper boxing match. If Fritz Holland were to fight in a proper tournament, he would have studied his opponent to plan his strategy. This situation was very different.
Fritz only had to beat up hard on the opponent, knowing that they were unlikely to survive his attack. And he knew that he had to go easy to start with, to let his opponent get to the end of the second round or, ideally, just into the third round so that the audience felt they had got their money’s worth.
Paul wondered what Fritz was doing here anyway. No one comes back to see the countryside and work for next to nothing when they have been used to earning more than a year’s pay for just one fight. Paul figured that something must have gone terribly wrong for the legendary Fritz Holland, back in America.
It was then that Paul noticed that, although Fritz was looking around and grimacing menacingly and shouting at the crowd, his eyes seemed unfocused. No doubt he could still see a man shaping up to him in the ring, but how clearly, Paul could not tell.
If Paul was right, Fritz only had to keep attacking whatever was in front of him long enough to keep that person on the run or until he cornered him and dropped him to the floor. And it was only three rounds of three-minutes.
Paul had always thought that Fritz Holland must have tricked Les Darcy into committing the foul that lost Les the fight in Sydney in 1914, although he failed to work out how Fritz would have done this. Avenging his now dead hero, if he succeeded, would be a hollow victory against a handicapped man. Paul would need to work things out as he fought.
The referee called the two men into the centre of the ring, muttered the usual words about understanding the rules of the contest and got the pair to shake hands and return to their corners. As Paul continued to limber up, Rod leant over the ropes and whispered to Paul.
“He’ll come out like a bull.”
When the bell rang, Fritz did just that. Hardly had Paul moved than Fritz was at him with rapid punches, driving him back towards the ropes. Paul had wanted to give the impression that he was a rookie with foolhardy courage and no boxing acumen, but he was forced to react defensively and professionally, very quickly.
When he ducked down and landed a straight left to Fritz’s solar plexus, his opponent immediately understood that Paul was a boxer. Fritz slowed, looking more intently at Paul while constantly edging forward, keeping up the pressure on his young opponent.
Paul could see that Fritz was slightly taller than himself, and estimated he was carrying more weight. It meant that Fritz was not as fast on his feet and that would be to Paul’s advantage. Agility and lightning reflexes were essential for a successful defence when under extreme pressure.
Occasionally, Fritz would lunge forward in an effort to get in close. His constant left hooks and jabbing were easy to avoid. His close-quarter punches–delivered in rapid succession and in a variety of combinations–never found their mark.
Paul twice repeated his ducking and straight right to the solar plexus, but although his punches were powerful, on their own they would not achieve much. For the moment though, Fritz had no idea what Paul might be capable of.
Then Paul made a mistake. From his basic stance position, Fritz suddenly waved his left elbow up and down five or six times, like a chook flapping a wing. If it had been only once or twice, Paul would have dismissed it as simply a flexing to adjust a muscle position. In the moment it took to run Fritz’s action through his catalogue of known moves it was too late. The straight right to Paul’s chin knocked him backward with such force that he hit the ropes.
Paul immediately bounced forward back towards his opponent. Fritz was waiting for him with another punch to the side of the head. Paul reeled back to the ropes again. Bringing all his senses to bear, he ducked to the left of the oncoming boxer who bounced back from the ropes, turning to face him as he did so.
Paul was there waiting for him. Bent low and coiled, he came to life with a left and a right and another straight left before Fritz Holland could steady himself to fight back. Fritz fell to his knees; then he was back up and looking for Paul. The crowd was becoming excited.
The bell sounded and the two fighters went to their corners. Paul appreciated the water Rod poured on his head. It was hot outside and doubly so in the tent.
“You’re good, so he’ll try to finish you in the next round. He won’t want a third. Best of luck.”
Rod swabbed Paul’s forehead and neck with the cold wet towel as the bell sounded for the second round.
Paul had decided to take the initiative and lead the fight. It seemed Fritz had the same idea, coming out determined to put Paul away for good.
Paul had underestimated his own strength. At the end of that first round, he realised he could deliver punishment equal to anything that Fritz Holland could manage.
While Paul knew that leading the fight was fraught with dangers, it made sense that he should step up to the challenge. He wanted to look back on this encounter with pride. Simply surviving it would never be enough.
They came together immediately. Fritz threw his most powerful straight left which, if it had connected, would have dropped Paul to the floor. Paul blocked Fritz’s left with his right glove and returned his own straight left to Fritz’s chin. It was Fritz’s second visit to the floor on his knees.
The referee couldn’t help but show his surprise. He was slow to order Paul to a neutral corner and slow to begin his count.
“One! Two! Three! Four!”
Fritz staggered up. He fell backwards onto the ropes, which propelled him forward and upright. The fight continued.
Paul moved around the ring and round and round his opponent. Fritz was a bit groggy and tiring fast. Paul wondered how much Fritz’s age was affecting him.
Now the crowd wanted the real action: the finale. They didn’t need to wait for the full three rounds. They wanted the Aussie challenger to fix this Yank right up and the sooner the better.
Paul knew that he could win. He only had to avoid getting in close. Clinches are the domain of tired boxers, when arms and legs get tangled up so that nobody can deliver a punch. Clinches were a time waster and only measured when judges were awarding points. He wanted to end this fight in this second round, and with a knockout.
Paul knew that Fritz’s reach was longer than his. To get a good arm’s-length punch in, it would have to get past his opponent’s defences and ideally he would want to land two or more for them to be effective. Left and right hooks, or an uppercut, would all be useful but nothing could compare with a full weight of the body-backed arm’s-length direct hit to the jaw.
When Fritz at last moved towards Paul, the voices of the crowd rose. Paul swiftly moved forward, bringing his first big punch with him before Fritz could counter. Fritz reeled back but steadied himself and came forward punching the air in front of him.
Paul dropped down to the left and got home another full straight right to the chin. Fritz slumped but did not fall. Then Fritz went into a classic defensive pose, covering his face while moving forward.
Paul moved around him, making him follow. Paul could not get a third punch to the chin because of his opponent’s defensive pose. Then Paul moved in. Getting in close for the first time, he placed an uppercut on Fritz’s chin and between his defending gloves. It was so quick hardly anyone saw it. Fritz dropped his hands momentarily and as he did so Paul placed the third straight right to his chin.
Fritz went down for the third time.
“Kill him! Kill him!” chanted the crowd.
The referee was quicker this time. Lester Hammond knew he must act. He had noted the crowd’s reaction. The fight had been a big success, although it looked as if he would have to pay out.
“One! Two! Three! … ”
Fritz Holland rolled onto his side and attempted to get onto his knees, then fell forward again and was unable to move.
“Eight! Nine! Ten! Out!”
The crowd was beside itself. Hands were thrust into the ring where Paul stood, with everyone wanting to touch him. Paul looked around and raised his hand and nodded and mouthed a “thank you”.
The referee held Paul Stoner’s arm in the air as he announced him the winner. In the other hand, he waved the ten-pound note to advertise the fact that people did win money at his tent.
He handed Paul the note and turned and looked at him and said, “If you would like to make a lot of money lad, call by in the morning and talk to me. I need a good man like you. I’m getting tired of has-beens.”
Paul thought for a moment, then smiled and answered, “One day, maybe.”
He saluted his second who stood smiling in the far corner, waved good-bye to the audience and left the tent.
When Paul stepped out from the fight marquee into the fresh air and the silver moonlight, he heard a woman’s voice call to him from the shadows of the big cypress tree twenty yards from the tent.
He stopped and looked into the darkness.
The woman walked towards him. She came close and stood in front of him and looked into his face. She looked like someone from an advertisement in a catalogue or newspaper. Or a model, or someone you saw in the movies. Her face was so alive and intense, made even more so by her bright lipstick and the glow of the coloured carnival lights.
“Hello Paul, it’s me, Anna.”
Was this really Anna O’Malley, from the pub? Kate’s sister?
“I’m amazed at what I just saw you do in there, Paul. I’m confused. I don’t know who you are.”
She put a hand on his arm.
“No one told me you were a boxer. In fact, no one seems to know much about you at all. I’m not even sure why I’m standing here wanting to find out. Suddenly you seem scary. Tell me you are not scary, Paul. I need to know that much about you.”
Paul tried to collect his thoughts. His impulse was to laugh, but he saw that Anna was needing real assurances and he reasoned that if she had witnessed him in the ring–and it was the first boxing match she had seen–she was entitled to feel confused and uncertain.
“Hello Anna. No, I’m not scary. I’m just the same bloke you see having a quiet drink with Jack. I’ve boxed since I was thirteen, and I enjoy it. There! Does that set your mind at rest?”
He gave her a big friendly smile and took her hand from his arm and held it.
Anna moved to stand beside him, then put her arm through his.
“No, Paul, I want to know more. I think you had better come with me. I’ll make you a drink, and then you must tell me everything. Please do that for me.”
Paul tried to concentrate on the situation but had difficulty. Images of the recent events in the ring were demanding his attention and Anna’s arrival had interrupted his thoughts. Her presence confronted him with new challenges. Her voice, her perfume, her need for his attention became intertwined with the afterglow of the fight.
While unbundling his corralled emotions and thoughts, and the scenes in his head resulting from the fight, perhaps he could answer her questions at the same time. Naively, that’s what Paul thought.
“If you’d like to, Anna. Where will we go? I should clean up a bit. Gets sweaty in the ring.”
Anna looked at him and gave a faint smile. Then she squeezed his arm reassuringly against the side of her body for just a moment and said, “My friend Edna and her sister have a house in Duke Street, just up off the main street. I’m looking after it this weekend while they visit their mother in Colac. We’ll go there.”
As Anna retrieved the house key from her bag at the front door of the small weatherboard cottage, Paul again attempted to cross-reference his thoughts and establish a footing in a reality in which he was comfortable, but without success. It didn’t bother him that he had not yet fully analysed Fritz Holland’s motives for the flapping left elbow movement near the end of the first round.
Was it possible that a similar flapping distraction had happened in the notorious Les Darcy fight which resulted in the foul against Darcy?
Nor did Paul try to understand his compliant attitude to Anna’s request for him to come with her. Perhaps the blow to the head at the time of the arm flapping had concussed him slightly.
Paul did have some understanding of the situation, though his theory was unproved. He knew from past experience that success in a fight in the ring released something into his system that changed his perceptions of things ever so slightly. Whatever it was, it elevated and then overrode the day-to-day rational thinking of his normal thought processes.
“Make yourself comfortable, Paul, while I put the kettle on.
If you would like to clean up, the bathroom is through there to the right. There is still hot water in the tank if you want to take a shower. Please yourself. Oh, and the toilet is the door next to it.”
Anna dropped her bag on the lounge room table and walked into the kitchen.
“Thanks,” said Paul as he wandered off to the bathroom.
Hr took a shower and thought how wonderful hot water and soap could make you feel.
When he came back into the lounge, Anna was sitting on the settee holding a cup of tea. She had switched off the main light and put on the reading lamp next to the fireplace.
Paul looked at her as if for the very first time. She looked fantastic. He noticed her tight-fitting dress. Her shapeliness was accentuated by her dress and his gaze could not avoid the stockinged legs and the heeled shoes. Demure, desirable and dangerous, he thought. Or was that the voice of Rod, his boxing ring second, warning him of danger? He smiled sheepishly.
“Feel good?” she asked.
“Really good,” he replied.
“Come and sit beside me, Paul. You don’t have to talk. I won’t put you through all that stuff I spoke about earlier. I’ve settled down a bit.”
“It’s not a mystery, Anna. Boxing seems violent to people who don’t understand it. Boxers respect their opponents and appreciate each other’s technique. Boxing is not a lot different from football.”
Paul added a sugar lump to his cup and sat down beside her.
“I think I was a bit taken aback by how the crowd reacted. They were near hysterical towards the end shouting, ‘Kill him!’ and stuff like that. For a while there, watching you in those last few moments, I really believed that was what you were going to do.”
Anna looked at him, intense and questioning.
Paul managed not to laugh or smile.
“Boxing does attract some rough followers and many of them do see it as fighting. But most boxers see it differently. It’s a sport they can do well at. They don’t walk around picking fights, whereas some of the people who watch them might.”
“When I talk to you as we are talking now, I cannot for the life of me believe that it was you I saw fighting tonight. You seem to be a different person.”
Anna moved closer to Paul and took his hand in hers, threading their fingers together.
“Despite everything, or maybe it’s because of everything, I want to know you better, Paul.”
Anna reached across and turned his head to face her, then kissed him firmly on the lips. He kissed her back and caressed her cheek with his free hand. Paul stopped thinking about the fight.
“Let’s relax and just enjoy the evening. I’m going to have a lemon cordial. You must be really thirsty. Would you like one too?”
Paul watched Anna get up from the settee. She was slender, and her body moved so easily.
“Yes, I’d love one thanks,” he replied.
“Good, I’ll make a jug,” Anna called back over her shoulder.
While Anna moved around in the kitchen making the drinks, Paul had a moment to reflect. He made a mental note that Anna might be an analytical person like himself. He sensed that she weighed up every word that was said to her, or that she spoke.
If Paul had been less preoccupied with the night’s events, he might also have seen that her every gesture, her every smile, and her facial expressions and her words were all calculated to achieve the outcome Anna desired. Anna’s beauty along with her years of working in her parents’ hotels–where men of every type showed great interest in her–had expanded her catalogue of mannerisms beyond anything that most young women would ever attain.
With clearer observation, Paul might have seen that there wasn’t a situation involving men that Anna could not turn to her advantage. Anna could have whatever she wanted.
It was for only a moment, but not long after Paul downed his third long glass of lemon cordial he experienced a floating sensation quite unlike any he’d experienced before. He sank back into the softness of the settee, laughing at Anna’s joke about the question–“What does a whore want most for Christmas?”–and he was halfway through his fourth glass when Anna stood and took his arm, pulled him from the settee and led him into the bedroom.
When Paul woke in the early hours of the morning and saw Anna naked and beautiful on the bed in the fading light of the full moon, he experienced a sensation of satisfaction not unlike the one he’d had when he won the fight. And it was similar to the feeling he had when he successfully completed other things he did, be they breaking in a horse, dynamiting a cliff face on the roadworks, or playing a game of cricket.
He understood that everything he did had a beginning and an end. Only life itself was ongoing. Everything that happened along the way was simply a single passing experience. He saw no connection between what he did each day and how life unfolded over time. The emotional glue that could connect related experiences to create something bigger, something that could influence the future, had failed to develop in him.
A child who grew up alone–with no one to share intimate moments–had no use for such an emotion.
Paul knew that it was time to move on. He leant over and kissed Anna lightly on the cheek. He collected his clothes and went to the lounge room and dressed. Then, shouldering his bag, he left the house and headed for the butcher’s paddock.
Anna stretched and turned when she heard the front door close. Pulling the blankets over her, she smiled and reminded herself that she must not forget to replace Edna’s now empty vodka bottle before she left.
There was one other tiny thing vying for Anna’s attention: the time of the month. But Anna chose to ignore that little voice.
When the lad found the boxing tent he couldn’t have been more surprised. A large sign announced that boxing classes for teenage boys were held each afternoon during the school holidays. He entered the tent. Classes were in progress and he got in line.
It was a warm spring afternoon in the New South Wales coastal town of Nowra and Paul Stoner was helping his young assistant demonstrate techniques to a group of teenage boys.
Paul let his young friend Jimmy lead the proceedings, just acting as a sparring partner and demonstrating moves and body positions, as Jimmy directed.
Paul rarely intervened in the teaching unless asked, being happy to just be the fall guy or dummy.
After a general introduction to basic moves and stance, Jimmy took each lad and sparred with him individually for a few minutes while Paul stood back and watched. Paul didn’t pay much attention to the boys’ faces, just the body movements as each was instructed.
He was thinking about something else when he became aware that Jimmy was standing staring at him and not working with the boys.
Pulling himself back to the present, Paul smiled at Jimmy and said, “Sorry Jim, what would you like me to do?”
There was silence. Jim did not reply but kept looking at his boss. Paul sensed that something was not right and looked at each of the lads standing around Jimmy.
Everything seemed perfectly normal, but then his gaze fell on the lad standing beside Jimmy. Immediately Paul felt the hairs on the back of his neck begin to rise and he stopped breathing.
A feeling akin to fear gripped him momentarily. The boy was a mirror image of himself, albeit younger, probably around fourteen. His face, his eyes and hair colour and curl, and his figure were those of a young Paul; even his faint far-away-look smile.
Jimmy could see that his boss had recognised what he had seen. So had the lad, who continued to stare at Paul. The other boys now noticed the similarity and were trying to understand the situation, one shuffling his feet uncomfortably.
Paul slowly moved towards the boy, not wanting to frighten him yet mesmerised by what he was seeing. Then he spoke.
“Lad, would you please tell me your name?”
Again there was silence, then the boy gave a friendly open smile.
“I’m Paul, sir. Paul O’Malley.”
Taken from Australian Short Stories by Richard Lee. Available from Amazon.