by Joe Banfield
Jack Benoke was the first guy I was ever scared of fighting. We were both meant to be fighting at 147 but he must have been closer on 160 by the time we got in the ring. He was a square-jawed lumbering bear, huge at the weight, and he came on shoulders dipped and head low, launching into his punches like he was fetching them out of the earth, rising off the canvas, his head a bobbing pumpjack. He knocked me out power-cut clean, early in the second round. Zap! The first punch he landed sent something cold and electrical down the length of my spine, rattling my teeth and gums. I felt my bones curl and the ends of my guts turn to water. When I tried to get out the way of the next one everything below my waist seemed miles away. The electrochemical waves that usually sent fluid signals up and down the length of my spine were picking up frequency issues somewhere vague around the midriff.
When I woke up I was in the Royal Sussex, which was odd because the fight had taken place in Norris Green, Liverpool. I tried to spit my gum-shield out but it wasn’t in my mouth anymore. The doctor said, you’ve been unconscious for three days. I read a bit. Some people came to see me. Then I passed out again and this time I was away for six whole days. A different doctor said to me, you are very lucky. You’ve been in an induced coma. Your brain trauma caused a secondary injury; we had to drill into the skull to remove the haematomas. You will feel sick for a time because all the fluid in your brain is now in your stomach. Everything in my head felt loose and there was a kind of disconnected droning in my ears. I asked him if this was normal and he shook his head and told me to rest.
While I was in the coma I saw myself walking through a vast mountain range. A voice spoke to me. It was a woman’s voice and it was crying, but the words were in a foreign language and I couldn’t understand a thing. Then I saw the Benoke fight again. The ring was in the centre of a cavernous ballroom and was surrounded by many more rings in which all my other amateur fights were happening at the same time. As Benoke geared up to land his knockout all the other fights came to a halt, heads turning. The part of me that knew I was dreaming began to interpret what this meant and decided I was dead, or that I was soon to be dead – as soon as Benoke hit with that punch. The part of me that thought the dream was real was more interested in the crying woman and being in the mountains, and that was the last dream I ever had.
I had a meeting with the Medical Advisory Board and they moved me onto a neurology ward where I slept for a week. After that they sent me to one of the Brain Trauma Foundation communes in the country where other people with similar injuries were being treated. It was okay. I watched old boxing videos my trainer brought me. Some of the other patients asked me to tell them about the fights. We watched old footage of the Campbell-Baer fight and I took them through it round-by-round. People think Baer was crazy, I said. That he knocked Campbell’s brain loose from his skull for the fun of it. The thing about that was Baer’s trainer, Tillie Herman, switched corners overnight, and Baer was enraged by his taunts and jeers. The Paret-Griffith fight was different. Paret had been knocked unconscious a few months earlier by Gene Fullmer and should never have been cleared to fight. A round with Fullmer was probably good for a month of your life. Paret was half a dead man when he entered the ring. It’s like going to sleep and not waking up, someone said. I said, if that’s what going to sleep felt like we’d all be insomniacs.
There was a nurse there called Rosie who smelled of buttermilk and soap. I bought her flowers on her birthday and we used to walk in the gardens. Under the pergola they had a bunch of bruise-coloured rampions. These are called the Pride of Sussex, Rosie said. Aren’t they pretty? To me they looked more like tumours. No, I said, and we went in.
In the evenings I had seizures and then after a year or so I stopped having them and I came off the medication. I was there for another eighteen months and then they let me go. By that time the British Boxing Board of Control had settled with me and I had more money than I knew what to do with. I gave some to the BTF and then I travelled. I developed an insatiable appetite for walking. I couldn’t get enough. All those months lying in the hospital and the commune had stored up an immense backlog of miles in my legs. I walked in the mountains of the Swiss Alps and the Pyrenees; I walked in the Virgin Komi Forests of the Northern Urals; I walked through the Western Caucasus to the Black Sea and watched seiners and trawlers emerge from the Bosporus with their casting nets; I walked the Prime Meridian down from Gavarnie, over the Pyrenees, and into Spain; I walked the Carpathians through six countries and sat on the crown of the Moldoveanu peak, watching the Danube Delta catch the sun like a plated army as it marched eastwards; I walked among the vast reservoirs at the mouth of the Volga and in her drainage basins I saw bears and wolves and strange talking birds; I walked the old Iron Curtain and took the Elbe up to the North Sea and I walked the islands like stepping stones, hopping over into the Arctic Circle where I stayed in a place called Rovaniemi and ate the heart of an elk.
I came to the Sintra Mountains with the sun at my back, fanning my shadow out before me as I passed through the cols and the valleys. I met a herder and we sat with his goats, sharing food and eating in silence. In the morning I left him and went down into a sleepy town called Cabo da Roca where the headland met the Atlantic Ocean and where I could go no further. This, a sign proclaimed, was the westernmost point of mainland Europe. A lighthouse sat on the promontory and the coastline was rugged with sea-cliffs and vast granite boulders. Waves crashed into the shoreline and indented themselves into the coastland like colossal teeth-marks.
The town had a bakery, a butchers, some farms, a small but well-stocked library, two schools, a church, a bank, a hotel, and hospital. I paid for a room at the hotel and decided to stay for a while. In the hospital I found Jack Benoke, the man who nearly killed me in a boxing match all those years ago. He was a shell of his former self; wasting away in a wheelchair while an attendant nurse fed him from a bowl of caldo verde soup. Jack opened and closed his mouth like a carp and stared at me with sad intelligent eyes.
The nurse looked up from where they were sat and said, ‘Quem é você?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Você fala Inglês?’
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘Yes, a little.’
I smiled. Jack hung his head and moaned. A trail of spittle ran from his mouth. His legs were covered in a sheepskin rug that bore the depiction of some saint or holy being. The nurse dabbed his mouth with a napkin. He put an elbow on the armrest of his wheelchair and tried to hoist himself up. Then he stopped and fell asleep.
The nurse and I took Jack out into the village. Her name was Laurinda. I told her how I knew him and I said that I’d been walking around the continent and what a strange coincidence to have found him here of all places. She said that there were no coincidences and I had been brought here for a reason. She told me that Jack had come to Cabo da Roca after fighting a Spaniard in Lisbon. He had suffered a bad concussion and never fully recovered.
‘Why here?’ I asked.
‘Is good for you here.’
She said that an Englishman had brought him, stayed for a few days, and then disappeared. The Englishman believed he was never going to get well again and so he ran. But Laurinda knew he was going to get better because she was going to make it happen.
‘He is amor da minha vida,’ she said, ‘and the angels have brought him to me so we can marry.’
The wind coming in off the sea was warm and the air was dusted with tiny drops of seawater. Jack clawed at the air in his nightmares. I asked Laurinda what made her so sure Jack was going to get better and she said that when he fractured his skull all the world’s bad thoughts poured in through the crack and that they were simply bouncing around the inside of his head like a pinball — pino bola — until they found their way out again.
She really was beautiful. Her dark eyes were freckled gold and her hair fell to her hips. She smelled clean, anti-bacterial, and there was a purple flower pinned to the lapels of her nurse’s dress. She cradled Jack’s broken head while he slept. The Church bells tolled and she said she had to be taking him back inside. The Sintra Mountains leered up in the distance like thoughts, some black as cinder-cones, some veiled in dazzling sunlight.
I stayed, even though I knew if I did I was going to fall in love with her. I got to know the locals and I helped out at the church every Sunday. They called me homem bom Inglês. The Good Englishman. I sat with Jack in the afternoons and we spoke to one another with our eyes. He told me how scared he was and about how he was sorry for making me unwell and never coming to see how I was. He said he had been scared then, just as he was now. I said that there was nothing to be scared about and that, in many ways, he was the luckiest man I knew.
In the evenings I stayed up with some of the locals and drank Moscatel until I was drunk enough to go to sleep. Sometimes I sat with Jack and read to him from library books I’d found translated into English. Laurinda and a friend drove down to Lisbon to shop for a wedding dress. She told me the whole town would come out for it and that there’d be music and dancing in the main square. She was happy.
After a few weeks I began to get headaches again and I knew I had to move on. I had dreams of Jack’s bad thoughts billowing out the top of his head like chimney smoke and pouring down into the holes in my own skull. Maybe this continent is its own brain, I wondered, and maybe I have just been bouncing across it aimlessly like these bad thoughts of Jack’s. Or maybe I am still back in the Royal Sussex and this is what not waking up feels like.
I didn’t see him or Laurinda before I left, but I did go to the bank to leave some money – a lot of money – to pay for the wedding and beyond. Homem bom Inglês. I stole out in the night like the bad Englishman but they would remember me fondly in Cabo de Roca. Maybe Jack would have a rug pulled over his knees with my holy face woven across it.
Another thing about Baer: After Frankie Campbell died in the ring Baer was charged with manslaughter but later acquitted. When he visited Campbell’s bedside, Baer offered Campbell’s wife his hand – the hand that had killed her husband – and she took it.
‘It was unfortunate,’ Baer said. ‘I’m awfully sorry.’
‘It even might have been you,’ she replied, ‘mightn’t it?
Joe Banfield is a graduate of UEA’s Creative Writing MA. He is currently studying for a PhD in Critical and Creative Writing and is working on a novel set during the English Civil War. He is 29 and from Brighton. His work has been published in Meniscus and Elbow Room.
The photograph, ‘Sculpture,’ by kind permission of Graciela Ainsworth. Learn more about her work at www.graciela-ainsworth.com