The harsh strip lighting now became screamingly and painfully intense, stinging her eyes, making them fill with acidic salty water. The voice that scraped violently from her throat was unfamiliar and harsh, and the tear stained rasp of the voices of the people that she couldn’t quite remember howled back at her. She felt frightened like a little girl lost in a strange place and her reaction was to fight – her reaction was always to fight. The strange room with the nasty yellow strip lights and glaring white walls and floors and the terrifying machines was filled with rage and shouting and fear and the strained sinews of unconditional love. Everyone was angry and afraid and she had never seen herself so ugly with fear before, and ugly fear mirrored by the people in her room.. She had spent her entire life fighting against things that she thought were unwinnable; a stubbornness that had given her a life that she was proud of, a life she would place against any other, and now she was exhausted and had nothing left to fight with. The exhaustion took over and her strength flowed out of her, easily, steadily and completely. Her eyes narrowed and the people and the room she was lying in with the cold metal machines that blinked and beeped and pumped at her and kept her alive and the yellowed tubes in her paper-like skin with the purple bruising all slowed and blurred away into a mute and dim sideshow.
Her head fell onto the pillow and her eyes fell on a man standing in the white doorway. He was a large man with heavy shoulders and skin the colour of the polished wooden bureaus her parents kept when she was a child. His kind face seemed blemished, but she couldn’t place why; she wasn’t sure about much of him, his white orderly clothes, his strange lopsided smile. She was immediately comforted by his presence, but was afraid for him. As soon as she saw him she thought of the smells of her childhood escapes and adventures in the city – aftershave that never quite masked the tang of sweat, the cheap looking hotdogs with oily onions. She couldn’t put him in a place or a time, but she was pleased to have him there, even if it was only because he wasn’t shouting and didn’t look afraid. Everyone she saw since she had got to the room a few weeks ago was afraid and looked at her with pity. She had prided herself on never having any pity in her life, and now there was nothing in her life but pity. She had become something to be pitied. But this man just smiled at her like she was his first date. He looked at the slowly moving people with their tears and hoarse throaty shouts and turned back to her.
“How are you ma’am?”
“Tired. Today, I’m tired. I feel like I’ve never been so tired, like nobody’s ever been so tired”, she said, the bloody pain in her throat, now seemingly evaporated, her spite with it. “Thank you for asking, sir. How are you?”
“I’m just the same as ever, ma’am, but I worry about you. You don’t seem like yourself today.”
“I don’t believe we’ve met before, sir. How could you know whether I seem like myself? Do you know me?”
“I guess I’m just guessing, ma’am. You seemed awfully short short with those folk all around you. You don’t look like someone who’d be unkind to these people. They look like they care about you.”
“I do recognise them, now sir. Now that I can at last hear myself think without all that endless noise. I believe that they’re my family.”
“Then why are you screaming at them, ma’am?”
“Tiredness will do that, sir. I’m so very tired and I forget things so easily now. Like you, I think I know you, but I can’t place you. How embarrassing, I do apologise.”
“You’ll know me well enough, ma’am, soon enough anyways. Don’t worry about me right now, worry about them.”
“Them? Can’t I worry about me for a bit, sir?”
“Can’t see how that’d help right now, ma’am.”
“I just want to close my eyes, sir, just drift off to sleep. Just for a while.”
“You’re all slept out ma’am, sleeping ain’t a choice no more.”
“Just fighting? Or What?”
“Just fighting for now, ma’am.”
They could see the red eyed fear of the men and women in the room as they inched through the room.
T”hey are all begging for me to stay, to fight, but I’m all out of fight today. Will they not allow me a day without fighting, sir?”
“I guess that the fight you got to fight got to be fought.” The man smiled, realising the odd nature of his words. “I’ve done a bit of fighting in my day. I was a boxing man. In some of those fights, I would be able to have a little rest for a round or two and the other man would let me, because he needed a little rest too. So we’d have a little break, and get back to punching away at each other in a later round. Nobody would mind, unless there was money involved, and no money ever came to any of my fights. So we would take a little breath or two for ourselves. But then some fights there was no rest; no respite. You would have to keep fighting the whole way because the other guy would just keep on swinging. Like they never needed a rest, and could keep throwing them nasty punches all night. So you gotta keep throwing right along with them. Sometimes, it’d work, and you’d surprise them and they’d take a punch they weren’t ‘expecting, and they’d go down. Sometimes, you’d take it to the distance, and someone else’d tell you who’d won. Sometimes, you’d just wear each other out, and you’d both fall over. But sometime, ma’am, sometimes …”
“Do go on sir, I remember the prizefights. I went as a little girl. We’d sneak in, and watch these brutes – no offense – hit each other from pillar to post. It was all very exciting for a little tomboy girl with a taste for the improper. One day, we’d snuck in and there was this one man I just adored. He looked like he was carved from wood and I just cheered for him until I was hoarse. He was in against this rather vicious little man, who didn’t stop hitting my man. I hated that little man. My man kept getting knocked down but he wouldn’t stay down. He was just dripping blood. I just kept on cheering him on whenever he got back up, I guess I didn’t think that anyone ever really got hurt back then, like a good old fashioned punch-up in a Western film – and he just wouldn’t stop. This younger man kept on hitting him like the devil, but this man stayed on his feet or at least in the fight until the last round. It was rather inspiring and I cheered for him and cheered for him. The ticket man saw us and chased us all round the back seats. He got my friends, but I got away. I hid under a rather fat man’s coat and he just ran past me. I just had to see that last round, you understand. So, I got to watch the last round and … the last round happened, and, and something happened … you know, I can’t remember. What happened? I can remember how those smelly hotdogs tasted and the smell of the cheap cologne and how it didn’t cover up the smell of those sweaty men, and how rough the wood was on those tatty chairs, but I can’t remember what happened in the last round. I guess age eventually takes everything from us. Such a long time ago. I just don’t remember… Oh, I’m sorry, sir, you were saying something?”
“Well ma’am that’s the thing. Like your man in that fight, sometimes, you just know that it don’t matter what you do, you’re going to go down. None of your punches will get through, and all of his are getting through. You know you’re going to lose, so what do you do? Jus’ give up and go down? Or stay as long as you can and see jus’ how tough you really are; see how many rounds you can get to. Sometimes you’re not fighting’ the man next to you in the ring, you’re fighting’ yourself. But you know you’re goin’ down. I guess everybody going to go down eventually.”
They looked at the blurred people screaming. So much fear and pain as their faces contorted and their arms shook and they cried and shouted.
“What happened? What round did you get to?”
“The last one, ma’am. All the way. I tired the devil out punching me.”
“Seems a shame to use a nice face that way.”
“I’m still around it seems, and just for now, you are too. For them.” he nodded at the blurred people, still etched with pain and grief. She nodded. She understood.
“If you’re who I think you are, how many rounds do I have left?”
“I reckon you got one more left in you.”
“Why carry on when you know you can’t win?”
“Whatever happens after, you have to live –pardon the expression- with whatever you did. I didn’t have much in the world, so I had to have the best of me, if you understand? If you just give up when there ain’t nothing left to fight on for, who are you?”
“Someone who gets to leave the ring standing?”
“Not one of us leave the ring standing in the end. Besides, sometimes there’s people watching who need to know that not giving up is worth something. Maybe there’s someone in the cheap seats that needs to see someone stand up to something he can’t win against. ”
The screams of the people in the room started getting louder and more real.
“Those people do seem to want you to fight one last round.”
“I’m so damn tired. Can’t they let me rest?”
“Ain’t no rest left, ma’am.”
“So when do I see you again?”
“Real soon, all the time in the world, depends on what you do with it.”
She turned to her screaming family and readied herself. She looked back at this mysterious man..
“What happened to that nasty little man, who did this to you??”
“If you don’t know, I can’t tell you, but I figure you’ll find out soon enough.”
She ran her hand down the face of her strange new friend. He seemed to wince at the contact, but smiled through it.. She turned back to the shouting and re-entered the room with a huge screaming breath that almost broke her lungs. She had a chance to change that fear and anger into something useful that could last not moments, but lifetimes.
Midlogue – Local Civil Rights champion Emily Treat died last week surrounded by family after a long illness. She was known for her tireless work for the civil rights movement and was well known by local government officials for her refusal to back down from any situation. Often in trouble with the law for her regular civil disobedience, she was however, well loved by the communities she championed. Her family have asked for privacy at this time, but appreciate all the kind messages they have received. Funeral arrangements are being made as of press time.
A few hours later, she saw her heavy shouldered friend again. He passed her a neatly packed bag.
“You ready, ma’am?”
“Does it make a difference if I’m not, sir?”
“Not one bit, ma’am.”