By Charles Etheridge-Nunn
“I,” I announced, “am looking for a fight.”
“What, here?” Mark asked, looking around the dingy pub.
“Well… not here, besides, you’ve just got the round in.”
It wasn’t the right place. Our local pub, people from our work were here all the time. I explained it. I didn’t want a fight with someone I knew somewhere I knew, I just wanted a fight and that was it.
After a long silence, “Why?” Asked my best friend, not very outspoken and not used to questioning people.
“I’ve had a shit day, a shit week. A shit…” I drank and thought about it, “well, a shit time since about 2002. I’ve had enough.”
“So you want a fight?”
“Just to clear the air. To make a change in my life. To do… something rather than take all this crap each day.”
The grey torpor of my working life was a surrender. My relationships I’d failed through apathy rather than fighting for them. I wanted something to fight for, but had given up years ago. Now I just wanted a fight. I didn’t tell him all of this. Mark seemed content with the nothing we currently had. It’s why he listened to me rant and then go about my business every day. We wouldn’t have been friends if not for the struggle at work, like a war effort, pulling together to avoid a quiet death behind a desk. Now I would do something, and he could bear witness.
We wandered the streets. It was a Saturday night so there were a lot of potential targets.
“What about him?” Mark pointed at a guy in a tracksuit and hoodie.
“I’d rather he didn’t look like he could pull a knife on me, and it’s crowded.”
“You’re just being picky now.”
We’d had a few more drinks by then while we worked out who I should fight.
“What about her?”
I stopped, looked quizzically into Mark’s eyes and said, “I’m not fighting a girl.”
“She looks mannish.”
“It’s man-ly, and that’s not the point. It’s not on.”
Mark kicked a crisp wrapper along the pavement, “You are planning on fighting someone, right?”
I nodded, having resolved to do this hours ago.
“Well, you’re not leaving many options open, are you?”
“Just no one I know, no one female, no one really tough-looking and nowhere crowded.”
“Can we have another drink at least while you find someone?”
I sighed, “Only if it’s a pub I’d find objectionable.”
The resulting quest took us for a quick drink in half a dozen pubs. All dives, full of people I didn’t like. Chavs, karaoke singers, people like people I worked with. None of it felt right. Maybe I wasn’t drunk enough, but I was damned if I was going home without a fight.
“What if…” Mark started, then stopped again, bleary, “What if you reneged on one of your conditions?”
I was surprised he could string words together, especially ‘reneged’. I was a better drinker than him and already the background of the pub had become a brown and green smear of movement and music, like we were staring through beer bottles.
“I’m not fighting the barmaid.”
Mark looked at the barmaid, then turned back, almost going too far, “No, the crowd thing.”
“What?” I asked, hoping he wouldn’t ask me to fight, just because I hadn’t had one yet.
“We could go to a club. There’re always fights there.”
“I’ll get kicked out.”
“So? Go to one you don’t like.”
I thought for a moment. This could be a good idea. A place teeming with people, I might not even get caught. I imagined a punch up in the bathroom, wooden stalls with broken doors which shattered as I struck a stranger. I still wasn’t sure who yet.
“What if you lose?” Mark asked, as we found ourselves on the sea front half-way to the club before I’d even noticed.
“I’m not worried about that, I just hope I get past the bouncer.” I knew I was swaying. If I tried to control it, I’d get worse. Instead I just took in the sea air, hoping all the cold and the salt would wake me up.
It must have worked, the bouncer let me in. A fat woman squeezed into an impossibly small booth stamped our hands and we walked upstairs. I was more coordinated. Maybe I’d sobered up.
Then I realised I’d missed a trick. If I was more drunk, I could have fought with the bouncer. They wouldn’t remember as it happens all the time, so he’d be okay with it. I’d have lost anyway, but I’d save money on the overpriced, watered-down drinks in the club.
Flashing lights and indie music assaulted my senses almost immediately. A modern crappy indie club, none of the music I’d heard in my youth, nothing I liked. All tight jeans and greasy hair bands, MySpace pages and sounding like the last successful guy. I’d beat up any of the Strokes given half a chance.
We pushed through the crowds with shoulders and elbows, not quite a precursor to fight, but contact with these people nonetheless. Maybe one of them would get offended and swing at me. They didn’t. I lost Mark for a moment as he put our coats away. The balcony transfixed me, what if my fight was over the other side? What if I had to go far or wait ages for my fight? I’m not sure I was ready for that. I was there on business, not a quest. Those people on the other side of the balcony looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure where from.
“What are you doing?” Mark shouted over the music.
“Looking at the other balcony,” I replied. I pointed at my own reflection in the wall-size mirror, opposite our balcony. I lowered my head in shame, having realised what I’d just said.
“I’ll get them in.” Mark patted me on the shoulder and left.
I danced awkwardly amongst the other people, looking for a target. The bald guy pestering the DJ, would I be a hero for punching him? Would anyone care? Countless black-wearing emo kids, pimply teens badly emulating Robert Smith. Rob wouldn’t mind if I lamped one of them. Just one, but maybe they’d swarm at me like ugly, spotty crows.
“Hey!” A wide-headed man waved, heading in my direction with a small nerdy entourage.
“Do I know you?” I asked, trying to focus my eyes properly. Between the light and the drink I couldn’t quite make him out.
“It’s James!” He shouted, smiling. “From school!”
Oh god. There he was. My target.
At school, he was with the smart kids. I wasn’t, but I was proud of that, they were arseholes. As their ringleader, whenever the others weren’t there he would insult them, and some of them were my friends. As I wasn’t part of their clique, they didn’t notice me. This gap-toothed, wide-headed shit was the head of the monster. He stole my Red Dwarf videos and fifty pence from me before I moved schools. In all of history, there was never a better target.
As I smile and resolve myself to punch him in the head, I remember the entourage. The smallest one moved up to me, inches from my face and shouted, “Remember me?” he rolls his fingers up and looks through them at me “With the glasses!”
His shout practically spits in my face and I can see his beady eyes through his fingers. Of course, the one with glasses, because you were the only one like that, I say sarcastically to myself. I do remember him though, James’ head minion. Fifteen years ago.
Too many choices. The third minion says nothing. I think for a moment, realising I may need manpower to assist me with this gaggle of bastards. Then they’ve moved on.
They’re here somewhere, I thought to myself, but first I would need Mark’s help, even if he’s not a good fighter.
I wonder for a moment, lost in thought. Am I a good fighter? I hadn’t thought about that when I’d made the promise to myself this evening. Time’s evidently passed. The light shines blue on my face and a girl asks if I’m okay. I refocus and nod, I’m on a mission. She asks if I’m using the seat I’m stood in front of and I move on.
Mark returns from the bar, two vodka and Red Bulls in hand. I drink too quickly and miss my face with the first attempt, but manage to down the rest.
“I’ve found them.”
“Found who?” he asks. He’s forgotten.
“I have found the man I want to hit. I may need your help.”
“Oh.” Mark thinks, “Okay, I’ve got your back, man.”
We head back to the dance floor. The trio are nowhere to be seen. I fix eyes with no one now, I move up and downstairs, searching for the man I want to beat up. Mark and I split up, even though all he has to recognise them by is my hand gestures of ‘big wide head’ and ‘glasses’. I refrain from spitting at him like the short one did with me.
Much later, we’ve given up. I sit on a chair, head in hands. They must have been on their way out when I saw them earlier. Damn them all.
“We could leave,” Mark says, but it’s more like he’s asking. He’s tired. I’m tired. We’ve had no success. The flashing lights and bouncy music makes the failure feel much worse. With no money, there’s no more alcohol to drown our sorrows with.
The walk back is quiet. Mark missed his last train and needed to sleep on my sofa unaware of the hour or so to walk back from town.
The town streets slowly taper off to suburbs, the wave of drunks disperse amongst wide roads and near-misses with traffic. A man up in front sings to himself and stumbles into a bin bag. The man walks the same way as us, so we follow, trying to keep behind him by a few paces. He turns, away from our way home, near a bit of park.
“Him,” Mark says. He’s awake again, excited.
“What?” I’d all but forgotten now. My only thoughts were of toast and sleep.
“Him!” Mark’s whisper was accentuated by pointing and wide eyes, “you wanted a fight. Fight him!”
Mark stops, a step later, so do I, “Look,” he whispered hoarsely, “you set out to do this, to fight someone tonight. This night,”
“Yesterday night,” I interrupt with, “It’s two in the morning.”
“It still counts. He’s as drunk as you, if not worse. Just run up there, scuffle, and it’ll be done.”
“We are alone here.”
“Yeah, and where better than a park. It’ll look dramatic.”
Mark smiles. I look at the guy, he could be a bum, he might not even remember. I charge, loose-legged and ham-fisted up the street.
I wasn’t stealthy enough and the man turned around to face me. I used the momentum to hit him in the stomach. The impact hurt him, but he didn’t fall, instead he screamed loudly and hit back. His thin hands struck my chest and stomach as I tried to go for the face. I missed twice, then pushed him down and went for a kick. He flailed and knocked me down. While this happened, I had no idea where Mark had gone. He was probably watching and taking photos with his phone.
The man was, older than me, stubbly and stinking of booze. Despite his obvious problems, he shoved me into a bench. I tried to knee him in the crotch and hit his hip instead. I pushed his face back and there was a shout.
“He’s got a knife!” Mark shouted.
He had, the bastard. His eyes filled with drunken anger, he’d pulled a knife out of a pocket. It glinted from the orange street light. I let go of his face in panic and bolted out from the side of our clinch.
I ran, but there were footsteps both ahead and behind me. Mark dropped his phone and I ran past it. I knew he’d take photos, and he must have been ahead of me somewhere. He didn’t know this place and would only get himself lost. I couldn’t warn him with a shout, the old man would know where we’re going.
The chase continued down the road and deep into the suburbs. I’d lived here for five years and still got lost way too easily. Mark’s footsteps quietened, so did mine. We’d gained ground on the old, mad bastard. We ran through a patch of trees and grass. I slipped on my arse and slid a few feet down the hill. I picked myself back up again and could see Mark. He waved me on and we went down a few more streets, under a tunnel and around a few corners. We’d lost him. Probably by a long way.
“Are you hurt?” Mark asked.
I checked myself over. I was a little bruised, but not bleeding. Not stabbed.
“That guy was mad.”
“Well, you wanted a fight.”
Yes, I did. Yes it was dumb, yes I lost the fight and fled in a blind panic, but I’d still won. I had a fight. We walked the rest of the way to my place, looking over our shoulders, scared anyone in the distance might have been the old weird man. The shadows of people just out of sight. The drunks by the petrol station buying bread. The chavs throwing up by the pavement. All of them could be my enemy. An epic battle turned out to be semi-violent flailing. And I’d picked the wrong guy, after all of that. My stupid plan could have gotten us both knifed to death. For all I know it still could.
Eventually, we walked the final stretch home, tired, half-sober and relieved to have walked away with our lives, we began to laugh.