There, in the circle of boys, I was alone with him. His eyes stared intently at me, waiting for my reaction to the fist that had just smashed into my nose. A slight grin betrayed his excitement. Some six inches shorter than me, he was enjoying this fight. Taking down the lanky boy. Blooding himself.
I lunged back at him but missed my target. His smiling face dodged my fist. He was almost dancing now. The other boys cheered, jeered. There were only two ways out of this circle: tearful humiliation or a bloody, sweating fight to exhaustion.
I’d seen enough of both. Our prep school boarding house routinely hosted fights like these, on hot Sunday afternoons when masters were somewhere else and boys were bored. The best fights were those where both combatants were well matched, their faces red with exertion, splattered with blood from their noses and lips, slowly slugging it out to a grudging stalemate.
I’d been humiliated often enough. Tallest in my year but not yet strong, I was an easy target. Too often I’d had to retire to the solitude of my bed, one in a dormitory of twenty, sobbing into my pillow. But not today.
Knowing my fists alone were of little use, I launched myself at him. We locked arms, knocked heads. My ear was suddenly hot as it rubbed against his scalp. With one arm, I grappled for a good grip, some way to keep him close enough and underneath me. With the other, I tried to jab punches at anything vulnerable: the side of his head, his groin, his stomach. He was doing to the same, though beneath me. His fist made contact, his shoulder pushed up at me, his fingers gripped at soft flesh somewhere. We were hardly standing, our legs locked in an effort to floor each other. Then we were on our bare knees, still in each other’s arms as we fought for an advantage. Somehow we struggled back to our feet.
And then I found myself with a leg free and his body bent in front of me, held there by my free arm. Without a thought, I drove my knee into his face. Once, then again and again. He stopped fighting. I felt his arms loosen. I’d hurt him badly.
He was crying, his face a mess of blood and snot as we disengaged. I helped him to his feet. The smiles around us had gone. I can’t remember what replaced them. All I remember is the relief, the sense of triumph; not over this boy who, on another day would have played games with me, but with my real enemy, the inner voice that told me that I was too weak ever to win.
That was forty years ago, in a different age, when boarding schools overlooked savagery. The lasting feeling I have is, perhaps strangely, one of joy. To have experienced the fear and pain of a fight and found respect, from my peers, for the boy beside me and for myself. There were a lot of things that I’d like to forget; this isn’t one of them.