Rule one is to run until you faint. Run until your breath sounds like a sigh, until the spit hits the road in puddles. Run until your feet kick the pavement and your eyes blur. Run until the exhaust chokes your lungs and you feel as if you are falling.
The contender wanted to win middleweight. He could see himself in the ring, the belt lofted high, every skip, skip, jump that took him closer to his goal.
His father once cut the shoelaces on the contender’s sneakers and then challenged the boy to a race. When the boy lost, his father said sometimes life isn’t fair.
The contender designed an optimal routine. 6-7: jump rope. 7-8: heavy bag. 9-10: sparring. 10-11 was running, and then back home. He would write “champion” over and over on a pad in his shed, the roof rattling in the wind like a crowd cheering him on.
He had his son’s name tattooed on his ankle and it stung, though not unbearably. The last time he had seen him was when the boy’s mother had bundled his son into a car and driven out of the contender’s life. He had watched the car getting smaller, his breath making steam in the morning air.
Rule two was to have and to hold, for better or worse, but the contender’s wife didn’t follow the rules as closely as her husband.
The contender had run in the hope of settling his stomach, but a woman named Kate knocked him down in front of the university. She rode into him, both turning onto the same track. Knocked down by Kate, he had fallen, winded, closed his eyes and waited for the count. Kate thought he was dead, then watched with relief as his chest rose and fell. She dropped her bike and knelt beside him, trying desperately to wake him. After ten seconds he opened his eyes, jumped to his feet, and ran on.
Kate called after him but he kept running. She watched him sprint into the distance, leaves falling off his back as he picked up speed. She noted without sadness that no students had stopped to see if she was okay. She returned to her bike and lifted it from the ground.
Kate walked the bike into uni. She thought of a boy (his name was Aaron, but she avoided saying it for the pain it triggered). It had always seemed like Aaron carried his emotions in a secret compartment: she imagined a satchel in his stomach stuffed with guilt, fear and sadness.
Kate wanted to forget him, as he’d clearly forgotten her, but her emotions didn’t care about that. Memories would come and go of their own accord. She studied a cut on her hand and noticed how the palm lines intersected like life’s lacerations.
No matter, thought Kate, breathing heavily as she parked her bike. As she turned, she saw a boy, and it wasn’t the memory, or the dream, but Aaron, with blood streaming down his cheek from a puffed-up eye socket.
Aaron jumped on to the number 19 tram just before it closed its doors. The driver hit the bell twice and Aaron raised his hand in his direction, half-thankful, half-apologetic.
He dropped down into the nearest spot and a Coke can rolled in front of him, paused mid-journey, then kept rolling further down as the tram gained speed. He watched the joggers run laps around Princess Park; he half-heard a Cantonese conversation and a Hindi phone call. He flipped to his study notes. They looked like characters from another language and he wondered when any of it would make sense.
He’d had a croissant and a lukewarm latte for breakfast, hoping it might ignite a greater grasp of post-World War II Europe, but it had failed miserably, leaving him with only the faint aftertaste of smoked ham.
Aaron stared at a man opposite. He was drinking VB from a longneck and swearing at nobody as the tram shook and clattered along the tracks. The man’s eyes were like oil stains. He stopped swearing when he saw Aaron staring, and together they noticed the distance between them.
While staring, Aaron thought about his brother Matt, nicotine-stained fingers, passed-out on the couch and Pearl Jam’s Alive on repeat. One night, while drunk in the holiday house, Matt had told Aaron a story about a punch. Not just any punch, a particular punch that happened during a basket-brawl in 1977 and left a guy unconscious and lying in a pool of blood.
The unconscious guy hadn’t even been in the fight. He had been running to join in, only to have it ended prematurely. When asked about the punch, the guy who’d been hit said he thought a scoreboard had landed on top of him.
Aaron watched the footage days later, saw the brown blood on the parquet, pudding-bowl haircuts and afros tangling with each other while the guy lay on the ground.
Matt was now a full-time drunk, his mail piled up on the front verandah. Aaron worried that he would arrive at work to open the store and Matt would be waiting for a three-pack of longnecks, as if life itself was so unbearable that he needed immediate sedation.
When he was drunk, Matt swayed like he was dancing. He grinned as if he had found his true love, and perhaps he had.
Aaron thought about his own love. She’d seemed so perfect, but one morning he’d woken up lonely and told her it was over.
When he broke up with Kate, he had believed he was doing the right thing, right up until she left his house in tears and he found a knot in his stomach that no drink, distraction or denial would chase away.
Aaron got off the tram. He felt that the only time he ever felt something was when he was saying goodbye.
The leaves shuffled in Aaron’s path as he walked towards the university. Aaron turned the corner and had just enough time to see a man, eyes to the ground and running at full pace.
After he fell, the contender ran faster.
He licked his knuckle where a scab had reopened, tasted blood, and kept running. The green of the hedges blurred as he ran, and he veered onto a side path into the university.
The contender was keen to study one day. He had grown up with an empty fridge, week after week, and vowed never to live that way as a grown-up. Running on the paths helped him believe that one day, with blood on his lip and a belt around his waist, he would pay off his debts and enrol. Until then, he had a fight to win, and another, and another.
His father had never come close to hitting or holding the contender. His dad was empty bottles by the back door and the sound of the old Holden, coughing and spluttering before getting gone at around 6 a.m. When his father left for the last time he hit the gatepost, and since then it has remained on a permanent lean.
The contender threw shadow jabs as he ran, the sting lingering from a scrape on his elbow. He counted a hundred jabs in quick succession and his father was gone, his wife, gone – the fall, wind kicked out of his lungs – all gone. He figured, not unreasonably, that he could keep punching indefinitely until his thoughts were just energy, jabs, hooks and uppercuts to knock out anyone who stood in his way.
He was nearly at the end of the path when he saw a shadow. He lifted his head in time to see a man, too pretty and his hair too neat – and instead of stopping, barrelled on. Their heads cracked together and both recoiled, and for a moment it was like they were dancing, drunken, and then they fell to the ground.
The contender looked at the other man, barely twenty. He saw fear and he wanted to apologise, but instead, he scrambled to his feet. He ran on, not looking back.
Aaron bet his brother that by twenty-one he would be engaged with a house, a car, and a big screen TV, while Matt would still be jobless and living at home.
Sitting on the warm brick path, he wiped blood onto his hand and licked it clean. He thought of Matt, half-comatose. A hole in the arse of his jeans from where he’d sat on the heater while drunk, red marks burned into his cream-coloured skin.
Aaron never brought up the bet but had been tracking his brother’s progress, which for now sat just below the point at which it could be charted.
Aaron felt the collision a second time, his head pulsing, his vision blurred. The impact had felt like a stone cracked hard on his skull. Aaron had wanted to stop the man who had hit him, to tell him he was fine, thank him for the pain he now finally felt.
Two students came to his side and offered to take him to the hospital. At first their voices where just noise, but eventually he heard their words above the ringing in his ears.
He said he was okay, but on standing, fell back to the ground. He said he was okay again, got help standing up, felt the cut on his eye and wiped the blood on his jeans.
They kept talking, both walking in front of him, saying it was okay to need help: he had been hit really hard. Aaron teetered for a moment, paused and closed his eyes, and when he opened them, the students were still in his face, though in truth he could hardly hear them.
Kate wished her life was a song to be listened to, felt, and then forgotten at the fade.
She thought about songs that mattered. Most were about loss. She wondered what a song that wasn’t about loss would actually sound like, and all she could come up with was ‘Jeepers Creepers’.
Aaron made her a mix CD. She still had it, in a drawer beneath a pile of old letters, two watches and a videotape of Chrissie singing ‘You’re the Voice’ on Red Faces.
She thought about tossing everything in the drawer, just emptying out her past until it no longer rattled. When she had listened to Aaron’s CD, it had always made her bawl because it meant he’d really cared about her, whatever else she liked to think.
The video of her sister made her cry too, and it occurred to her that these things that were supposed to protect her – to soften harsh edges – these things, these photos and memories, were really just lies on celluloid, someone else’s dream from a long time ago.
They had played ‘Please Don’t Ask Me’ at Chrissie’s funeral and everyone had cried, though the song wasn’t right, or maybe it was – who could tell. Kate figured Chrissie wouldn’t have minded, but it wasn’t as if she got to ask her.
Aaron told Kate he still believed in her the day they broke up, and she’d wished for a camera at that moment, because for once, it seemed like he had surfaced. By the time she replied, his words had already dissolved like so much sugar.
The contender sat waiting for a tram to take him anywhere else.
He stared at the old hospital from behind its cyclone fence. For a moment he saw faces in the windows. He imagined punching ghosts but they dodged and darted, his fists meeting nothing but air.
The contender thought about the man he had hit, charted the trajectory, the two of them down on the ground but unable to get up, and remembered reading on the gym wall: “You keep getting up until they fall down.”
He stood up from the bench and tasted blood between his teeth. He realised he could run and run but still their faces would come. His wife would be screaming, the child would be screaming and they’d drive away, again and again, and he could run and run but he would never catch up.
“Are you alright?”
A thin wiry girl with dark hair and glasses was looking at him from a metre away.
“Mm,” he said.
“You don’t talk? Are you mute?”
“So, are you okay?” said the girl.
“No… not really.”
“I’ll be okay.”
“But you’re not at the moment,” she said.
“Are you okay?” said the contender.
The contender laughed. “Mm,” he said.
The tram pulled up and the girl smiled at him.
“Saved by the bell,” she said, and together they boarded the tram.
Kate watched the blood trickling down Aaron’s cheek as he walked towards her. The students who had been following eventually left him alone. Behind Aaron, the library was opening and a bunch of Japanese students had lined up. Kate thought it strange that they would rush in like that, as if learning had its own opening hours.
No matter, she thought, and turned her attention back to Aaron.
She considered approaching him, and would have had he looked genuinely upset, but Aaron looked prouder than usual, entitled. Secretly she wanted to see blood covering his shirt, his jaw misshapen so she could make him better.
Aaron saw her and stopped walking. She took a step towards him, but stopped as he shook his head. He mouthed “I’m fine” and she wanted to turn and walk away, but something stopped her.
She thought of the man she’d hit on her bike, how he had closed his eyes so quickly when hit. She saw Chrissie slumped against the steering wheel and covered in glass, and she thought of Aaron’s face retracting from a punch, his body reeling as he fell to the ground.
He turned to her, head down.
She walked closer and when she reached him, wiped the blood away from the side of his lip with her index finger. “Are you okay?”
The girl waved to the contender as the tram crossed Latrobe Street.
The contender waved back. He had enjoyed the simplicity of her words, the easy conversation they had shared.
He thought about his wife and the nights when they had stayed up talking, past ten, eleven, twelve, and the traffic noise had died down, their eyes adjusting to the darkness.
He shifted in his seat, not keen to be noticed, knowing that despite the rattle of the tram he would still be heard if thoughts came to tears. Dad says no tears, and it’s not an agreement, but a line his father’s drawn, as if cleaving his son’s parts in favour of the whole.
The contender looked around the tram and it seemed like everyone was in a bubble, white headphones, vacant stares, and the guy who won’t get off the phone because they’re not listening, and he needs that money, he needs it now.
The cold air from an open window slapped the contender in the face. He pulled with both hands and finally slid the window shut, but the exertion numbed his fingers.
The contender continued to think about his wife. He rubbed his wrist as if wiping away her fingerprints. He thought about another run and rationed that if he ran five kilometres when he got off the tram, he could still make it to work in time to shower, get changed and be on the shop floor by one.
He would miss push-ups and jump rope but he could do that after work. He could jog to the supermarket and come back via the park – a few laps, couple of sprints and home in time for the late news.
He wouldn’t pick up the phone because rule three is you don’t pick up the phone, don’t even think about picking it up, because you only know one number. The person on the end will sound sympathetic but you’ll know what they’re thinking and no explanation will change that. You have broken one of their rules, which is one of your rules too, but you didn’t know you were breaking the rule until afterwards. They will say they want to help, then land a punch that sends you back until the sun has risen and you click, click the kettle until the button glows red.
The contender thought about Tyson. He realised that he never got to tell his son the rules, and that it never bothered him one bit, because his son seemed better without them – unburdened and forgetful.
The contender did not want to leave the tram. He had formed a decision of sorts, to create a different reality, where he called his wife and she listened. He would explain that all he’d ever known was boxing and he knew that didn’t make it okay but Christ, he loved her and he loved Tyson, and no one tries to fuck their life up. But memories are a tick, ticking clock and sometimes you feel a knot deep down. You can’t get rid of it, not for running or punching or trying to change the way your mind plays the same memory over and over. And you’d stop. But you can’t. So you keep running and punching. And it’s only when she hits the ground that you realise you just threw the punch that ended your day, your week, your life.
'The Punch' appeared in The Sleepers Alamanac No. 6, The Sleepers Almanac is available both in print and as a part of The Sleepers App, available here. An extract of the story appeared in The Age on January 10th, 2011.