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Anna Freeman is a lecturer in Creative Writing at Bath Spa University as well as a multiple slam-winning performance poet who has appeared at festivals across Britain including Latitude and Glastonbury. She lives in Bristol. The Fair Fight is her first novel.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Some folks call the prize-ring a nursery for vice. Boxing is talked against by all the magistrates and held up as unlawful and wild, even sometimes called unchristian. As I see it, those pious old smatchets are right, but what of it? Prize-fighting is all those things, but more, it’s beautiful. The sight of two people—for it’s not only men, you know, who take the ring—who’ve built their skills and their bodies, struggling together with nothing between them, no ball or stick, but only desperate force and the will to live—why, there’s the root of all mankind, the stuff of our lives played out. Till you’ve seen one pug, bare chest steaming in the frosty air, half blinded by his own blood, drop the other to his knees on the frozen turf and turn to roar to the sky, well, if you ain’t seen it, you can’t know. It brings you to the base of yourself; just the sight brings a bellow to the throat. Prizefighting is named “the noble sport” by the fancy crowding the ringside, and so it seems to me. Nothing much else in my life has been noble.
I’d like to say that my beginnings were humble, but they weren’t beginnings, because I never really left them but for a short while. I was born in a narrow house we called the convent, and I came into the world as fighting and blood-soaked as I mean to leave it, upon a big oaken bed that had carried the weight of a regiment of cullies. Ma used to say I might’ve had twenty daddies. She meant, by the look of me: my jaw too large, my eyes too small, my nose thin and hooked as a gypsy’s. I’d teeth to spare, crowd-ing my chops and hiding one behind the other, too bashful to line up straight. I was a puzzle made of the plainest parts of those twenty daddies, the parts they left behind and went on to give handsome children to their lady wives.
Ma never would answer questions, but she couldn’t stop the misses’ talking. The story went that when she was young, a fine gent bought the house to set her up as his mistress. He grew tired of her, as cullies do, and had given the place over to her as a means of saying sorry. Dora always thought that the cully who flit was our daddy, but as we grew up and grew so different, it was plain that whichever man had a hand in making Dora, he wasn’t likely the same cull who made me. It didn’t much signify in a house like ours. In our house a girl’s worth could be counted out in pounds, shillings, and pence, and that was all the worth that mattered.
A babe, of course, never can be much counted that way, and as infants Dora and I had always to make ourselves useful or else stay out of sight. It’s the same choice children are given the world over: be of service or be gone. We were there to scrub the flags and empty the pots, we were there to fetch the callers to the misses or, if some sailor became more trouble than he’d paid to be, we were there to fetch the bullies to see the cully out. The misses all held the same view of keeping house, however they lived before they came there; they’d do what they must to keep their own fires lit and whatever Ma stirred herself to bid them in the way of housework, and never be fashed to lift a finger more. All the rest fell to Dora and me.
Every so often there’d come a new miss with a desperate look about her, lugging an infant that screamed and spat up into its blanket. Ma was fond of pink-cheeked wretched misses; she’d always take a ruined girl over a hard-faced strumper. Then Dora and I would have a babber to drag about like a doll, or carry up to the garret, if it wouldn’t hush. We never could keep any of those infants long enough to love them—we’d come down one day and it’d be gone and none of us would ask where it’d been whipped off to. Sometimes the miss it’d belonged to took it hard and wept. Ma never minded weeping in the kitchen, but if a molly couldn’t smile for the cullies she’d be turned out quick as blinking. She might sit at breakfast bawling as though she were the infant herself, if she could dry her eyes and flutter them when once she stepped foot outside the kitchen. I remember a miss who never could stop weeping, and was put out upon her arse for it. I recall standing in the hall, my hands twisting in my apron, as she was hustled from the door, the bully’s big hand between her shoulder blades. I was only five or six, I should think. Her thin back was aquiver with tears, in only the same poor dress she’d come in, for of course Ma kept back the silks. A miss could get along all right if she’d silks of her own, so it was spite as well as greed that drove Ma’s hand. I went to the parlour window and watched her struggle down the road with her box, dragging it by one handle and rucking up a wake in the dirt of the street like a skiff at low tide. I pressed my face right up to the glass, to see her as long as I could. I couldn’t say what it was about that particular miss that caught my fancy, but I’d think of her sometimes, after that; I liked to imagine that when she’d turned the corner she’d found her baby waiting there and would be mother to it again. Later, when I grew up a little and had a grasp of the trade, I wondered at Ma keeping Dora and me. She kept us and never did hire us out to the cullies whose tastes ran to kiddies, though she threatened to often enough. I suppose, in a woman like our ma, that passed for love.
The convent was so narrow that it looked to have been built in an alley, crushed up against the houses on either side like a drunken crone held up by two fat fellows. Ours was the oldest house on the lane, the houses that had once stood on either side having been burned down, or torn down to make room for the new ones. Because the house couldn’t spread out, it reached up; there were five floors, if you counted the cellar, and all the rooms were full, though the bodies in them changed about. My whole life, we never had a spare room for more than a day.
In our house we went to bed when the whole world was rising. I’d lie there and listen to the milkmaid shouting in the lane, and the women calling to those below to look out, as they emptied their pots. I’d fall asleep with the sun pinking the dark behind my eyes. I always thought it the best way to live; in daylight the world was merry and safe. At night it was always better to be up and ready. I’d no choice in it, so it was well that I thought it so fine—Ma would never have stomached me creeping about the house in the daylight, while all the house was abed.
Sleeping all day as we did, we took our breakfast when other folks had dinner, at three or four o’clock. The kitchen table had been built just where it was and took up near the whole room; you’d have had to chop it to firewood to get it out of the door. We sat around it, pressed together on the benches, the misses in their silks, all bare arms and bosoms, and Dora and I always pushed to the ends of the bench, with half our arses hanging off. The bullies would put heavy bars across the front door and come to sit with us, though sometimes they stood, the room being so full. There were chairs at the head and the foot, and the bullies never did sit in them, as the men might expect to in any usual house. Ma sat always at the head of the table. The other chair was for whichever girl she saw fit to reward, whether it be a miss who’d taken good earnings the night before or a newcomer who was proving difficult to turn and so needed softening.
When Dora and I weren’t making ourselves useful we’d be huddled in the garret in the bed we shared, or else out upon the street, teasing the pigs; there were always pigs upon our street, let out and brought back in at night. Sometimes we’d be sent to the tavern around the corner, on Frog Lane, which hired out rooms to misses, to fetch home one of the girls. Our mollies were put two to a room at the convent, so one or other of them was always using the rooms at The Hatchet Inn. I preferred that errand over any other. I liked the smells: ale, straw, and smoke. The folks there knew my name and called out, “How d’you fare, little Ruth?” and best of all was the yard, with its roped stage, upon which there had been so many bouts between pugs, or cocks, or dogs, that the boards were patched black with old blood. I always lingered as long as I dared when Ma sent me there.
If you were a caller at the convent on a usual day, you’d think it as fine as any swell’s place, with velvet hangings and sconces for candles upon the walls. The front stairs were always lit and the parlour, where the cullies sat, had a brocaded settee and a table with curved legs that looked ready to drop a curtsey. The parlour always had about it an air of waiting: all those breaths of restless old goats, waiting for a miss to have done with his crony and come to fetch him for his turn. None of the family ever would sit in that room, though it was done out so nice. If no sailor was waiting there, and if I thought no one would miss me, I sometimes went in to look at the pictures upon the walls. One was a small painting of a little girl, all done up in mourning dress, her face very serious and drear. The other was a fine picture of trees upon an autumn lane, made all from feathers. Ma had taken them from some likely lad by way of payment. I had a special fancy for the painting of the girl. I’d pose before the glass and with my hands clasped under my chin, as she did. I never could make my eyes like hers, no matter how I turned my head. Her eyes were sweet and mournful; mine were a pig’s, too small for my face. Sometimes, I used to imagine the little girl stepping from her frame and strolling off down the autumn lane, perhaps to some place where she needn’t look so sad.
The mollies’ rooms were hung with as much finery as Ma could arrange, all feathers and cushions and draperies. All of this was for the sake of the cullies—the minute you went up past the first landing or into the kitchen, why, the walls were bare lime-wash and the furnishings as plain as my mug. Ma charged a good rate, three or four shillings a time, so we were never short of misses willing to work. The cullies paid it, because Ma never would stand to see a cull robbed at the convent. There were houses like ours where a fellow had to keep an eye on his coat and boots, never mind his pocket-watch, but Ma wouldn’t stomach it and all the neighbourhood knew it.
When I was perhaps ten and Dora twelve or thirteen, one of the misses—a smooth-skinned negress who’d shared a room with Gypsy Jane—was turned out for smiling her slow smile at one of the bullies once too often. Ma never could tolerate anyone else’s pleasure if it didn’t pay.
Dora and I were in the scullery. I was scraping the porridge pot and Dora was at the sink, trying to stretch half a bucket of water to clean all the dishes so that she needn’t go back to the pump. All we heard was a squawk of raised voices, a scuffle, a cry, the slam of the door and then Ma, calling Dora’s name. We looked at each other and I felt hot relief that it was my sister’s name Ma called, not mine—I didn’t know, when Dora swallowed hard and put down the bowl she was wiping, that it would be the last one she’d clean for a good while. I was left there amongst the dirty dishes to finish on my own. From then on, she’d help about as much as any of the girls, which was to say, as little as she could. Dora was to earn and I was left to be young by myself and so must be all the more helpful or all the more invisible.
You’d never have guessed, to see Dora at table that first breakfast after, how she’d turned her back on me when at last she came to bed, so that she might snivel. She was quiet, but Dora and I were always quiet at table. Her nose was tipped as pink as a mouse’s but her eyes were dry. She held herself carefully, as though she’d just discovered she was made like a teacup: breakable and worth good money. When Ma put the first piece of the bacon—a better piece than Dora had ever eaten, I’d suppose—onto the plate in front of her, she looked up in surprise.
Ma nodded and smiled, which was queer to see, her smiles being so stiff from underuse. Ma’s smile was not a cheery sight, nor a comfort; it made my belly clench. Dora looked only confused and put to the blush. Her hands darted toward her plate and held the rim as though someone might wrest it from her.
I was so green over that bacon I was near sick. I’d been given plenty of reason to envy Dora; my whole life long, people had been forever stroking her cheek and telling her she was a beauty. I expected to feel ugly, but I wasn’t ready to see the best bacon on my sister’s plate. It was as thick as my finger and pink as a baby’s tongue, spreading out a puddle of juice for Dora to wipe her bread in. The fat looked crisp enough to melt at the edge and inside, thick enough to chew. My own piece was scarcely enough to flavor the bread. Dora and I were used to comparing our portions mutely, sliding our eyes at each other’s plates; now she looked at me only once, to be sure that I’d marked how far she was risen. I tried to keep my face still, but she’d seen what she looked for and was smug as a house cat. She didn’t look at me again for the rest of the meal. She needn’t now, for just as she wasn’t to be kept hungry, nor was she to be left to herself. The misses were all fluttering over her and Ma was watching it all like a poultryman over a flock of geese.
“The captain knows how to put a girl through her paces—reckon you’re raw this morning, ain’t you?” Polly, a thin girl who’d not been in the house more than a month, shot a sly glance at Dora.
Dora nodded, her mouth being as full as she could stuff it. In any case, she wasn’t used to being spoken to at table.
“If you thought it sore yesterday, you wait till tonight,” Gypsy Jane told her. She sounded glad about it.
Dora’s eyes grew wide, and she looked as though she struggled to swallow.
“Ah, don’t heed her.” Irish Anne patted her hand. “You’re born to it. You’ll not have trouble.”
“I didn’t say trouble, I said she’ll be tender.”
“That’ll wear off soon enough. You’ll have a cunny like a leather purse before you know it,” Maggie said.
Polly, who’d wept every day for a week when first she came, let out a laugh like a dog barking.
“You’ll use Jane’s room.” Ma’s voice could lay all the talk to silence.
Gypsy Jane only nodded. She’d not expected anything else.
“And we’ll find you a gown. I have something in pink silk just right for a virgin girl,” Ma said. “I think we can call you unspoiled awhile longer.”
All the misses made a face. Jane leaned over and said, “You’ll have to bleed.”
“Hush,” Ma said, “don’t make more of it than it is. It’ll scarce be a scratch.”
My sister gripped the edge of the table as though she could barely keep her seat. I thought I knew what a stirred-about mixture she felt; she was always a coward about blood, but she was head-over-tail for silk.
I wasn’t called upstairs to help dress her, and nor was I called to admire her. I knew she was made fine from the cooing of the girls, but I’d not go to look. I didn’t lay eyes on her till I passed her sitting with...
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