Wednesday, August 10, 2011
The last battle (pt 3 - final)
‘You’re killing invention,’ Tracey said when she read the previous part of my Tommy Fittler saga.
‘Killing invention?’ I responded. My hearing has gone to pot.
‘I said, “You’re building the tension.”’ She had that look on her face, but she was laughing.
Half deaf people know that look.
I wasn’t aware I was doing that. The last two episodes have me looking slightly watery at the knees, I’ll admit, but at least you can see I’m telling the truth. Let’s push on and complete the tale.
We were now in high school. Tommy Fittler and I had practically nothing to do with each other, as he was in the Industrial Science class and I was doing Academic. We’d seen each other a few times and glowered, but that was it. He was always surrounded by his little group of three or four henchmen, all smaller than he, one of whom I particularly detested. He looked so much like an underfed rat, his mouth pulled down at the sides. He was nick-named Macca, long before the Golden Arches were invented and a new religion devoted to stuffing up your digestive tract was born.
This morning started like any other weekday in 1961, with us all casually milling around on the quadrangle just before Assembly. Macca and his mate had a weedy, inoffensive, scared kid flattened against the back wall of the Principal’s office, and were about to remind him in clear terms where he stood in the schoolyard pecking order.
Flattened up against the wall. I knew that feeling all too well, at the hands of Tommy Fittler. I glanced at my best pal, Jimmy Lawler, and he said just one word. ‘Yes!’ We ran over, each put an arm round the neck of one of the tormentors, and threw them down. The kid ran off.
I admired my work with some satisfaction, Macca lying on the ground and spitting curses at me roundly, but that proved to be a distraction. Before I knew it, I felt a severe blow to my back - the kidney area.
Tommy Fittler had come to rescue the enforcers. ‘Mongrel. You aren’t game to do that from the front,’ I said, conveniently forgetting that I had dragged Macca off the kid by ambush from behind.
The 9 AM Assembly bell rang, right then. Tommy’s eyes narrowed. ‘Third time lucky, Wrightey? Saved by the bell? Again?’
My kidney was bruised and I was fired up. I wanted revenge for all the previous insults, and the kidney punch. ‘No way, Fittler. Let’s settle this. Lunch time?’
‘Behind the Seniors’ room. It’s out of the way.’ He stalked off to the Industrial Class line on the Quad.
I spent an uneasy morning. I knew that fighting at school was almost certain to end in a caning, but the Calliope bus left straight after school and we couldn’t settle this out of school hours.
The fight itself was also going to be tough. As I said, we matched each other pretty near perfectly in physical terms and I had no doubt he was going to be as determined as I was to make the caning worthwhile. I had no idea of his fighting style, except that it would be boxing, nothing more. In those days, as I explained elsewhere, doing anything to anyone on the ground, like kicking them, was just not House Rules.
How times have changed.
The appointed time came, as appointed times inevitably do, for us all.
I was there first, but word had got around. Half the boys in the school knew that entertainment was going to be on offer, and where. There was a crowd gathered as Tommy and his henchmen came up. I knew I had most of the crowd on my side, especially the smaller kids who’d had a taste of the Tommy Fittler and Macca combo, though they had to be careful not to show it too openly. Such things, observed, are neither forgiven nor forgotten, especially with Macca and his mate cruising around.
Look, the fight itself isn’t worth much of a commentary, so I’ll keep it brief. It’s what followed after that’s of more interest, I think. We were so evenly matched that there were lots of bits of both our bodies that hurt. At least, from my point of view, lifting full ten-gallon milk-cans day in and day out turned out handy when muscle was needed in a bare-knuckle stoush. I doubt he was enjoying it, and I can think of plenty of other ways I like to have fun besides collecting bruises.
But one thing he did deflected a lot of jabs aimed at his face. He held the right arm high and could flick punches away at the last moment. That was wasted energy for me and there were no three-minute rounds or anything – it just went on till one or the other ‘cried enough,’ as Killer George would have said.
I didn’t mind that, as I had stamina, and I could see the ‘flicking’ arm was waning in speed. I decided to try a different tactic. There was a fraction of a second when his wrist bent and relaxed each time.
Instead of trying to go past the defending arm, I feinted with one punch and then directed a jab as hard as I could to the wrist itself as it relaxed. The whiplash effect of this single punch resulted in a faint but unmistakeable cracking sound. Something gave way. It was like the sound when you play that game with the wishbone of a Sunday dinner chook. Crack it the right way and you get your wish.
It seems I got mine. His face blanched, but he refused to acknowledge he was hurting, far more than any normal punch would do. The arm was lagging. He could barely raise it. It was a time I could have done some real damage.
Not so. Two teachers, 'Pedro' Noonan and Charlie Rice, appeared from round the corner of the Senior Class’s building. Pedro ordered a stop and the crowd melted away.
The choice of venue wasn’t really that smart, as part of the area was in plain view of the staff room in the main building. A crowd like that, all boys, would leave in little doubt what was happening just out of view if any teacher saw it. Obviously someone did, eventually.
‘To the Office,’ Charlie Rice ordered. ‘You know you can’t fight in the school grounds.’
The Office to which he referred was of course the Principal’s office.
The Principal was Mr Bourke. Mick Bourke. My first experience of him was in Grade 7 when we came in from the Calliope Primary School each week to get training in the Manual Arts.
I heard him before I saw him. What I heard was what seemed to be a vast roll of continuous thunder, and then I saw him herding three large boys off to the Office. He was waving a cane that looked to me nearly his entire height, of about 5’4” (1.6 m.) Short and barrel-shaped, he had those boys scared witless, and that voice, the loudest I had ever heard emanating from the larynx of a human being, surely terrorised me too. It was quite an intro.
And that was where Tommy Fittler and I were heading.
We were ushered into his office. All the adrenalin seemed to have disappeared from my body. He sat there and surveyed us grimly.
‘Yes sir,’ we said simultaneously.
‘Right. What were you fighting about?’
How do you tell the rigmarole of years of antipathy... his little thugs scaring hell out of a little kid... etc., leading up to this affair of honour?
You don’t. The adrenalin returned and made me uncharacteristically brave.
‘It’s been coming for a long time, Sir.’
‘Right.’ He looked at Tommy Fittler, who just stood there hunched over slightly and holding his right arm.
‘You fight, you get caned.’
‘Four cuts. Two on each hand.’
I was expecting six.
‘You first, Wright. Put out your left hand.’
I didn’t care. I felt strangely elated.
Wh-i-i-p! Wh-i-i-p! Anyone who’s been within coo-ee of a cane knows that sound.
It didn’t feel like much.
‘Now the right.’
Wh-i-i-p! x 2.
‘Now you, Fittler. Left hand.’
Wh-i-i-p! x 2.
Tommy was white as a sheet.
‘I can’t take them on my right hand. My wrist hurts.’
‘I think I broke his arm when I hit it, Sir,’ I said. ‘It went... crack.’
This was a dilemma for Bourkey. He’d caned me; he figured he couldn’t not cane Tommy the same number of strokes.
‘Put out your left again.’
Wh-i-i-p! x 2.
Four on one hand you never get, but I could see Bourkey put little power into those last two. Tommy winced from the last of those but it was clear that his real problem was with the right arm.
Another teacher, Errol Mattingly, had a Zephyr 6. He was despatched to the hospital with Tommy Fittler to get the arm checked. It was a greenstick fracture, and he arrived back at school with it in plaster. This was kudos to me. Everyone who saw the fight knew he didn’t do it by punching me, and he was the one sent to hospital.
Mick Bourke knew how much Tommy Fittler and the snivelling rats had terrorised smaller boys, but had never caught them at it.
Tommy was gone from Bourkey’s office but I was still there.
‘You better get off to your class, Wright.’
I couldn’t believe my ears when, as he dismissed me, he came close, half whispered and smiled conspiratorially.
‘So tell me – who won?’
I was shocked by the question. This was the Principal talking, not a pal, but it was an acknowledgment to me that he knew who the troublemaker really was.
I was totally flummoxed. It was the last thing I expected him to say as he always seemed so severe to me, and I said the first thing that came into my head.
‘It was about even, Sir.’
‘Right,’ he said with a grin. ‘Off you go then.’
That was it. Tommy Fittler never bothered me again. I doubt if the bullying of little kids stopped. But you see, he knew. He knew that I knew he had a weakness. That right arm. He’d never again face me with that in his mind.
It was my first and only fight and caning at high school. There was another time when by the standards of the day I should have been caned, but by sheer good fortune I didn’t deserve, I escaped it.
Maybe another time....