He loved the fight. Not just those exciting cues which you stole away; the lights, the ring, the smell of sweat on leather and the baying crowd. The substance which eluded the camera’s eye. What Jack loved most of all was the significance of the bouts. That which was inferred from those stills and vignettes he curated for the sports pages. Two burly titans fastened in struggle. That each figure would have fought long and laboured hard with himself before either met. The perfection of an art whose blinking moments were sliced by a flashbulb and frozen as behind glass. Brief shots as disposable as the pulp which they were printed on but held fast forever. A monochrome cut to the jaw, the brutal ending overhand. These iconic profiles made men’s careers.
Jack adjusts himself on the damp straw and wipes stray flecks of spittle from the lens. Insensible to the massed chanting behind him, he stows the grubby rag and bends forward to the action. The fighter in the far corner relaces a glove and stares down his nemesis pacing the side opposite. Both await the coming round. This is poetry given physical form.
A lone moth swims from the tin light beam. Away from the brilliance and dancing hordes of dust, it flies through the ranks. At the back the blustering promotor swats it with a lit cigarette. Electing not to join the din, he ruminates. This was a mediocre event, poor crowd and poor investment. He rides the highs and lows of the sport. Combat is all or nothing and so is he. There’s safety without risk but no fun in the work. Spying the young photographer, nose pressed to the ropes, he thinks on how he can manoeuvre those perfect publicity shots and negotiate a low but fair price for printing them on scrappy posters for the next fight night.
The bell sounds and the dance begins anew. Echoes of a dull thud rise above the jeers as a punch connects. Drool mixed with blood spurts through the damp air. Jack’s flashbulb bursts and seals this perfect moment of action. A single tooth rattles across the canvas and is lost in the straw. As the victor nods; he knows he’s won, the referee hunches over the crumpled form of the loser. The man in black and white counts down and the match is decided. The stands rumble fit to split as the eager crowd leap to their feet in adulation.
The fight is over. Jack moves through the throng. Stowing his equipment, he pushes against the current and feels the cool air on his face. Crisp, his breath fogs as he strolls away with hands in dusty jeans pockets. The night is late, though morning isn’t for a while. Those pictures will buy a few drinks, so why not stand himself a beer or two until the packet comes? Jack’s feet skip over puddles and dirty drainwater. He slips and splashes through one, its torrid neon image is cast into a jagged mess. The muck seeps through the leather shoes. The photographer stops outside a bar where the men are notoriously light in their loafers.
Smokey fumes coast over the bar and low lights. Despite the loud jukebox by the entrance, the all-male clientele is subdued. Jack props himself over a stool and is greeted with a beer. With his bag slung over the seat, he glances around the room and does his best to look inviting. No eyes meet his. He smooths his shirt and sinks the beer, and then two more. Leaning more heavily against the varnished panels, Jack again waits a stranger’s approach. But the fish aren’t biting tonight. Instead, his attention is caught by the flecks of rain spotting the broad window which looks out into the street. Jack orders a fourth beer, his last, and squints past the empty bottles to the framed photographs on the walls.
Though veiled by smoke, the newspaper clippings are easy to make out. None of them his of course, not yet. Behind the glass, records of bleached ink typeface detail the sporting history of football teams, motor racing and even hockey. The stool rocks over the slippery floor as Jack peers to translate the writing. Beside him, a man wearing a duster jacket clinks a glass with his neighbour and relights a cigarette. Not bringing it to his mouth, his hand lingers by the glass tray as the ash lazily falls into it. Jack sees this and thinks of levelling his camera to it; the pose is perfect. He unzips his bag and changes his mind halfway. Film is expensive and nobody is paying for pictures of two aging flits spitting game after hours.
Instead, Jack slinks from his perch and pays the bill. In another bar at another time, this mightn’t have been it. He is tailed to the door by a portly man with naval tattoos. In the red light and the rain a lighter clicks. There is an exchange of words and the promise of a warmer bed underneath them.
“Where are you goin’ stranger?”
“I don’t want trouble.”
“I know what you want.”
Mingling thoughts and anxieties dance around each other. The sailor whistles a familiar tune, his stride is casual. Jack leads the way to his brownstone, his fingers planted firmly into his pockets once more. The stranger’s arm swing loosely by his sides. The impulse to grab one bolts free from the stable, but not here – that would be obscene.
In the stairwell, he is less restrained. The door slams behind them and echoes ring through the corridor. It is damp and silent and they are alone. Jacks hand weeps the stranger’s hat from his head. He runs this trembling fingers through the hair he finds there. The sailor grabs Jack’s waist and pins him against the concrete with his bulk. Lips meet. Then tongues. Both men sigh at intervals. The exchange is quick, but enough to seal the deal. They gallop up the stairs to the fifth floor.
Jack’s quarters are bare; newspapers stacked on top of newspapers. His window is ajar to the fire escape. He seals it and pulls down the blinds. Society gets no look in, not for what he has in mind. The photographer prepares some coffee which they both forget about in an instant. The sailor grunts and takes a seat on the battered leather couch. He thumbs through the magazines while Jack boils water on the stove and sets his work bag aside behind the dark room curtain.
The rooms are cold. As the untouched coffee steams on the kitchen counter, the two men approach the bedroom. Jack loosens his tie and unbuttons his shirt. Upon turning around, the stranger has disrobed and his down to underwear. The photographer crosses the room and strips them off. They kiss and the ancient bedsprings creak under their combined weight. Under the covers, with no eyes to watch, they take each other arm in arm.
Much later, the sun has not quite peeked over the tips of the skyscrapers on the horizon. The bedsheets are stained with sweat. Jack is behind the curtain. Bathed in red light, he clips the developed film to dry as the sailor rest his chin on Jack’s shoulder and his hands at his hips. Jack props his skinny frame against the warm flesh. On each slip of paper wafting an acrid chemical scent, an image forms. Stills of the fight, some bad and some good enough to sell, dissolve in reverse. Both men admire the frozen champions, now locked away in action poses forever. The sailor’s calloused hand runs over Jack’s chest and dips towards his crotch. They return to the bedroom.
Dawn announces itself by seeping in through the blinds. Jack is roused by the early light stroking his cheek. He turns in the bed and watches his partner laid on his back, snoring softly. The image is too perfect; a classic still life. Jack steals across his room to collect his Model 95. The swift camera click cuts through the silent morning. The Polaroid’s internal mechanism whirs and prints an instant of a sleepy sailor, half hidden by the blanket. This one will be spared from the press.
Jack whips the photograph back and forth to dry the ink and inspects it. Holding it up, he compares the photo to the real. The model shifts in the bed and scratches his nose. Then he turns over and mumbles something, still dreaming. Jack thinks about a camera which can visit those far of places in the land of Nod. Something which he could document the inner substance of the slumbering world. The image he holds now is merely an appearance. It is second best. Jack can’t know where that stranger’s mind goes; when he’s asleep or awake. He can only infer and hope.
William Harrison ‘Jack’ Dempsey, champion heavyweight in the ring.
George Aitch is a writer from Blackheath. His essays and short fiction have appeared with Crazy Oik, STORGY and Confluence among others.