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Natural Forces

by McAllerton 

Posted: 01 October 2011
Word Count: 2205

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Ryan won his first cage fight with a clean knockout in the second round. Standing over his sprawled opponent, he punched the air, drinking in the applause. There was booing too. It didn’t matter which, as long as the crowd reacted. He strutted around the ring, chin held high, sweat shining on his shaven head, sparks in his blue eyes, staring down the punters with a pantomime sneer. There was no actual cage but an octagonal boxing ring with a wire link fence around it, which was used as a weapon to trap the opponent on the ground, bunched up against the wire. He had seen one fighter use the wire like this then wrap his legs around the other’s neck. The blood supply to the man’s head was cut off and he blacked out.

He loved everything about this new kind of fighting. The booming music as each fighter made their entrance, the snarling crowd, the tattoos. Experienced fighters displayed a sleeve of tattoos down each arm. Half Maori warrior, half street thug.

He gave his wife Jess some of the prize money to put towards Christmas, then went straight to the tattoo studio. There was enough for half an arm ring around his left bicep.

“Win a few more fights and I’ll finish off the whole arm,” said the tattooist, as he wiped away the inky blood.

Ryan did win more fights. Soon he was lined up for his first big opponent. He got tighter inside, another notch each day. The night before the fight he sat at the kitchen table, turning pages of the evening paper. He was wearing his training kit; shorts, vest and lightweight shoes, his gloves lay on the table and his black hoody was over the back of the chair. His legs were twitching. Every now and then he ran a hand over the new growth of black hair on his bare head which crackled like iron filings under his hand.

He picked up a little wrestling figure from the table. His mum had brought it round for a laugh when she heard about his cage fighting. It was Jake the Snake, the pride of his WWF collection when he was a little boy. Some of the paint had chipped off the Jake’s drooping ‘80s moustache and mullet style hair but his chest stood proud and the flames on his black leggings still made it look like his boots were on fire. The snake wrapped around Jake’s wrist held its head erect. When the craze hit his school he must have been about eight years old. It was before his dad left. Ryan had held Jake tight and twisted the plastic snake between his fingers while his mum and dad fought behind closed doors.

He looked over at Jess, she was making Ben’s tea after a long shift at the hospital. She still wore her navy work top with NHS Critical Care stitched on the breast. He knew the job was hard but at least now there was a wage coming in. She had treated herself to a fake tan and hair extensions at the weekend.

Ryan noticed the soft swell at the front of her waist. There would soon be a little sister for Ben. She looked good pregnant, new curves for him to linger on. Walking over to the living room door with a tin of beans in her hand, she told Ben to turn off his X-Box.

“How long’s he been on that thing? I don’t like him being on those fighting games for too long.”

He turned a page of the newspaper. She opened a drawer, picked up the tin opener and tapped him on the shoulder with it.

“Ryan, did you hear me? I wish we’d never bought it for him. It’s all he talks about… when he does talk. It’s making him brain-dead.”

She went back to the counter and opened the tin of beans.

“One of the doctors said they want to ban cage fighting.”

He closed the newspaper. He knew she was looking at him.

“Yeah I heard that. Marlon says they tried that in the States and it just went underground. It’s safer here, the referees stop the fights early.”

He sniffed and half looked at Jess.

“Anyway there’s no danger for me, I never had much of a brain anyway did I?”

He stood up and looked out of the front window.

“Where is Marlon anyway? He said he’d be here at six.”

“Never mind about Marlon. What about me and Ben,” she put her hand on her belly, “and the baby? I’ve seen head injuries. Even the ones who recover, they’re like basket cases some of them, memories gone.” Jess’s eyes brimmed with tears. “They don’t recognise their own kids. Is that what you want?”

Ryan’s jaw tightened as he spoke.

“Leave it Jess. It’s my first big fight tomorrow.”

“I’m just really scared. Doesn’t it worry you, what could happen?”

“Marlon says I’m a natural. I’m fast, light on my feet.”

He looked out of the kitchen window again as a 4x4 pulled up outside.

“He’s here. I gotta go, the gym’s booked.”

He walked into the living room pulling on his hoody. Jess watched from the doorway as he opened the front door. Marlon stood squat and short on the step, car keys and gold ID bracelet jangling. His close cropped head sat low on his shoulders, compressing the rolls of mottled pink skin around his neck. He flashed a smile at Jess, showing a gold tooth at one side of his mouth.

“Come in mate,” Ryan said. “I’ve left my gloves on the table. Tell Jess how safe this fight’s gonna be will you?”

Marlon stepped inside.

“All right sweetheart,” his tongue ticked as he drew in a breath and shook his head. “It’s safe. As long as you’re fast like your man.”

His eyes looked past Jess to where Ben was kneeling in the glow of the TV, X-Box between his knees.

“Hey champ. You learning how to fight like your dad?”

“Don’t sweetheart me,” Jess’s voice was choked but she looked straight at Marlon. “Just make sure he doesn’t get hurt. Ben, turn that off now.”

“But I’m winning,” Ben said. “I’m winning.”

He paused the game and looked up at Marlon with his dad’s blue chip eyes.

“Will dad be the greatest winner?”

Ryan came back with his gloves in one hand, holding up the plastic figure in the other.

“Course I will. Here you go Ben, look what gran brought round, Jake the Snake.”

Ben’s eyes opened wide as he took the little man and turned him around in his hands, twisting his head and torso. Ryan pulled the gloves on and knelt down in front of him.

“Come on. Show Marlon what you can do.”

Ben threw himself, fists whirling, at his dad, who grabbed him in a bear hug, stifling his blows. Ben stopped struggling and buried his face into Ryan’s neck.

“Hey what’s up? What’s with the tears?”

He stroked Ben’s head but he pulled away and ran to Jess, hiding behind her legs. Ryan stood up and grabbed his sport bag.

“Look Jess. I’ll be all right. Marlon’s a top coach, he’s taught me how to ride out a head punch. Come and watch tomorrow, you’ll see for yourself.”

“Come and watch? No way. I see enough blood and guts at work.”

Marlon was already shuffling down the path to his car. Ryan zipped up his hoody and reached round Jess’s legs to Ben but he couldn’t reach. He turned and saw Marlon waiting on the path and then he was gone, pulling the front door closed behind him.

The house was dark when he got home. Jess stirred as he got into bed. He was hot and he threw back the covers. Then her hand was on his chest. His heart was hammering and his breathing was quick.

“Hey, you’re home,” she whispered. Her hand stroked his stomach and he got hard. Then he was on top of her. Fast.

“Slow down,” Jess cried out. “You’re hurting me.”

The next night in the changing room, Marlon grabbed the back of Ryan’s head and pulled it towards him. Sweat and antiseptic curdled the air.

“All right, this is it, get in there,” he barked and they broke apart.

Ryan couldn’t keep still. He wanted to piss. Then he was bouncing on the spot, throwing shadow punches, snorting through his nose. Someone hammered on the door.

“Main fight, on now, move.”

He pulled the black hood of his top down over his head, letting it half cover his eyes. It had an x-ray of a skull on the front. As they followed the bare concrete corridor towards the arena, he heard shouts echoing around him.

“Go Ryan. Come on. Do it.”

Time for the entrance. Head bowed so no one could see his face, gloved hands out-stretched to the side at shoulder height.

It was dark outside the ring of white light from the spotlight. He could smell burgers and beer. The carpet was soft and sticky under his bare feet, a white line marked each step down. Two girls in black bikinis and high heels catwalked down in front of him, he could see the backs of their tanning parlour legs. Marlon and the fight officials in black T-shirts followed like security guards. He looked up as the procession neared the cage. The girls’ arms were raised, hands clapping in time to Ryan’s song.

He climbed the steps into the ring behind the girls and held his head up as the mouth-guard was jammed in. Someone unzipped and pulled off his top. One of the girls shimmied around the ring holding the number one above her head. Now he was face to face with his wiry opponent, who scowled while they both bounced on their toes. He had close-cropped red hair and tattoos down both white arms. They took a step nearer and pressed foreheads together. He could smell the man’s breath. Keep eye contact, Marlon’s words rang in his ears. The referee parted them with his arms. Gloves touched gloves, the crowd bayed.

They danced around each other. Both made tentative kicks, jabs and feints to take out the other’s legs. Ryan moved in for a quick close jab to the head but he missed and his legs were whisked away by a dive. Then they were grappling on the floor. He was on his back, jerking his body this way and that, anything to keep himself away from the wire where he knew he would get trapped. This fighter was good and he smelled his own fear for the first time. He flicked himself upright enough to shift his weight on top and broke free.

The dance began again. He registered nothing outside the space occupied by their bodies, his eyes took in every flicker of movement.

At the end of the first round the referee’s dry hands prised their slick bodies apart and they withdrew. Marlon’s voice barked through the wire over the noise of the crowd.

“You’re on top but don’t let him get your legs again. You’ll only get him if you jab to the head cos his feet are too quick for you. Be quick. Be sharp. Leave it too long and he’ll have you.”

The bell rang. Again the same pattern of staccato movement, the false jabs, the decoy moves. Ryan tried a quick head jab then crashed to the floor as his legs were taken out. On his back again, but this time jammed into the wire, bucking and heaving, his spine and legs thrashing, trying to get onto his side and his legs up and around the man’s neck. But he was too slow. Fists were slamming fast into his head; one, two, three, four. Then more. Blood seeped into his eyes and then nothing.

Jess and Ben were still up when he got home and stumbled through the front door, helped by Marlon. Ben ran out in his pyjamas then stopped and stared at his dad.

Ryan didn’t speak and lurched into the living room with Ben by his side. Jess was sitting on the sofa in her dressing gown, magazine open beside her. She gasped and stood up.

One hand went to her mouth, the other reached out to his broken face. She looked at Marlon where he lurked in the hall. He turned and left the house.

She touched his cheek lightly with her fingertips. He moved his head away. She put her arms around him. He drew back. But she didn’t let go. Her hand brushed his head, warm on his clammy scalp. His breathing was quick and shallow. She pressed his broken face into the crook of her neck. He winced. He smelled her hair, felt her skin warm on his face. He remembered Ben’s heady newborn smell, how he would let it smother the back of his nostrils, every cell soaking up its sweetness. Her breasts press against him and the soft swell of her baby belly pillowed on his stomach.

Ben pulled on his dad’s hoody, “Did you win Dad?”

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Comments by other Members

McAllerton at 23:08 on 13 October 2011  Report this post
Anyone there?

euclid at 11:55 on 18 October 2011  Report this post
Hi Mark, I just got to read this story today.

It's very well written with some interesting touches, and there's a lot of strong material in there. The only thing that concerns me is the story's theme.

There's a strong subtext in there - the child's attitude to and interest in his father's fights - but I'm not sure what the story is saying. "Fighting is dangerous" maybe, but is that enough?

As I said above this is a fine piece of writing and could be made into a strong story. You just need to add something to make it fly.

Hoping these comments are some help, and apologies for taking so long to read your story.


BifferSpice at 13:20 on 18 October 2011  Report this post
Hi there, this is absolutely excellent. One of the best things I've read on this site. I was gripped throughout, and i think it said everything a story of this length should say. The atmosphere of the big fight was full-on, but the best thing for me was that i felt the pull of all the different characters, and it was brilliantly understated. stories like this are often too biased, that you can tell whose side the writer is on. here, i couldn't, not fully. and that made it better. a very strong visual story, and, pun intended, it packs a punch. i was very relieved you didn't make the character die or braindead or whatever, i was worried you would overegg the pudding, as it were. this was spot on, and i very much enjoyed reading it. thanks very much

Crimsondelilah at 14:23 on 18 October 2011  Report this post
Hi Mark. This story has so many fine elements. I think it’s all there but there’s some work to be done yet in terms of pacing and tightening the story to bring out the thematic elements.

Firstly I wondered, how would you describe this story using a one line synopsis? A man’s decision to take up cage fighting creates a rift with his wife? A man is a hero in his son’s eyes after he takes up cage fighting? A cagefighter starts to believe he is invincible, until he isn’t? You’d be telling the same story essentially, but the premise you choose determines which aspects of the story need to be lingered on, which bits of dialogue need to be amplified.

There are some sections in the story that I wasn’t sure were fully utilized e.g the very brief sex scene. Did you intend for it to show Ryan’s tension before his first big fight? Or a bigger rift than the reader might have realised with his wife? Another example is the paragraph showing us Ryan as a boy, playing with Jake the snake while his parents argued? Is this why he chooses to become a fighter himself? What purpose does this piece of backstory serve? What part of the narrative is it meant to illuminate. It seems to me that you’ve placed these little snippets of information in the story but have not helped the reader to connect the dots.

Marlon I think is underused. I might have liked a little more information about him, how he came to meet Ryan but most importantly why Ryan believes and trusts him even though his wife doesn’t. At the end Marlon lurks in the hall? Perhaps a confrontation between him and Jess? Not necessarily even verbal, perhaps a gesture, caring or dismissive, that lets us know whether or not he feels any guilt about his protege.

The strength of your writing is evident in the action. The fight scenes, especially at the end and the description of the crowd are very vivid. Your style is spare but when you do imagery, you do it well .eg. ‘the new growth of black hair on his bare head which crackled like iron filings under his hand’. Just my preference of course, but I would have liked a little more of that. But really, I think the main issue is one of thematic focus. This is a solid story and I think just a little tweaking, and that final question from Ben, would carry much more punch.

euclid at 14:58 on 18 October 2011  Report this post
There is a strong subtext in the role of Marlon in this story, as well, where Marlon is a sinister self-serving character while the main character seems unaware of this.

Maybe that is where the theme might spring from.


BifferSpice at 15:46 on 18 October 2011  Report this post
i'm only adding this in the interests of giving mcallerton a contrasting voice, not at all to devalue the thoughts of others, as obviously everyone can only say how the story affects them, and not anyone else, but i disagree with a lot of the suggestions made by other posters here. i don't want marlon's backstory, i don't want help connecting the dots, and i like the way the story suggests many things, without cementing any of them. it's that that i found most interesting, and real, and i just wanted to provide that as a contrast to the thoughts of others - no disrespect intended.

euclid at 16:39 on 18 October 2011  Report this post
Hi David. I was not suggesting introducing any backstory, or help connecting the dots. But a story needs to be rounded. There needs to be an underlying theme, a point to why the story was written. A story needs to be more than just a list: this happened and then something else happened.

Subtext is an ingredient that can strengthen a story from within, something deeper (submerged) that is hinted at, and this story has at least two strong elements of subtext. I believe these would lose their value if they were to break the surface, but the author needs to make some point, don't you agree?

Of course it's entirely possible that you have found something in this story that I missed.


Crimsondelilah at 17:30 on 18 October 2011  Report this post
I seemed to have unwittingly started something here. Of course anyone who posts is free to take as much or as little as they want from the feedback offered. Perhaps my phrase 'connecting the dots' sounds like I want to be spoon fed, which as a reader I don't. I think euclid puts it well in that a story needs to be rounded. For me everything that happens in a story - narrative, plot, imagery, description,dialogue - should be serving the purpose of answering the main dramatic question. That's why I asked McCallerton what he intended for the story to be about. Once you know that, then it becomes easier to prune or expand where the story requires. It's not that I want more backstory, about Ryan or even Marlon. I just thought Marlon came across as slightly sinister and a slightly deeper exploration of him, might actually go some way to illumnating Ryan's character by his reactions to him. I do hope that my central message - that this is a strong and enjoyable story - has not been lost in this debate.

BifferSpice at 11:51 on 19 October 2011  Report this post
i just found it well rounded as it was. i saw the conflict not necessarily in the character - ryan seems very driven and focused - but in the family unit. there's no doubt he loves his wife and kid, and they love him, but he also loves something that the wife hates. that the kid is torn, both loving the idea of fighting, but hating the reality (as shown even before he gets injured) adds an extra layer, rather than just the hero worship that you might expect. the marlon character represents the predatory side of the business, and i feel does all that is needed for him to do. finding out where they met would not further the story for me. the story is the conflict in a battle that cannot be easily won. were he to stop fighting would be to deny him his (perhaps main) love, and yet to carry on will surely divide the family, whether or not he gets injured or worse. they are all locked into a dangerous ride with no easy exit, and the beauty of the writing is that all sides are represented. some people will read it and be on his side, and some on the side of his wife, and some will be torn like the son. a short story does not have to have completion. a good story can be a snapshot of an interesting situation, and i feel this does that. it ends where we don't know if he will want to go on. maybe that defeat crushed his resolve, maybe it made him more determined. we don't know, but we can conjecture. that, to me, has done its job. it got me involved in someone else's life, gave me a conflict that gave me food for thought, and has made me think since. that it did so in such an easy, visual and well-told way makes me think he did a good job. i don't feel it isn't rounded, i don't feel there isn't enough back story. i know enough about every character to know their motivations and to make me feel connected to the story.

i've just read it again, because i wanted to. that's quite a compliment for a short story.

McAllerton at 13:18 on 19 October 2011  Report this post
Thanks to all for comments. Particularly Bifferspice, I don't suppose you are a publisher are you? Hee hee.

The business of critiquing is infinite and that's why we do it. I like this site for the comments I get about my craft. Sometimes taste will affect the craft comments and maybe that's what has happened here, I don't know. Me, I like stories that make the reader work, fill in gaps and end ambiguously etc but writers have to accept critique and decide whether to take notice. I will definitely look at the 'roundedness' of the story, by which I mean there should be an MC with a strong emotional conflict (whether he is aware of it or not) and the action, dialogue and description contribute to our insight into that conflict. As for the minor characters, they are tricky in a short story as they have to come to life with the flick of a pen. I don't want to write Marlon in any more detail than this.

As an example of apparently disconnected plotting, Stuart Dybek's Paper Lantern (on the New Yorker podcast) has scenes that jump in time, place and content. But their very disconnectedness makes the reader seek out how to join the lines. I love it.



By the way, I'm not totally convinced about the title. Any thoughts?

BifferSpice at 12:20 on 24 October 2011  Report this post
re: title. when i'm stuck, i look through the text looking for phrases that could be taken to have more than one meaning:

blood supply
fighting games
changing room

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