Champion? Champion of What?
Updated: Jan 5
The summer after leaving Morland Road Primary School our class was getting ready to go on to Northgate Grammar, Landseer Road, Nacton Road, or whatever the case may be.
That night two or three of us were on the fringes of the Lairs, on the heights as it were, close to the road leading to Pond Hall Farm, and looking down the wide, wooded slope at the river. Beyond the water the orange sun was rolling towards the horizon and purple shadows were absorbing the darkness. Time was marching. We were no longer the happy band who laughed at Mr Bateman’s jokes and listened with attention to his stories improvised out of the Bible or a history book.
Chickie, Ronny, and I were tired out after a day of climbing trees and playing trail scouts and ramrods. As the day wound down we were talking about the girls out of our class that we were still going to keep tabs on after they had started wearing the navy and rust-coloured scarves of Nacton Road.
Carl Tilson was nearby, another one newly cut free from our class at Morland Road Primary. He was playing football with a crowd of older Landseer boys whose ranks he had no fear of entering. Carl was liked and he assured himself that when they were pulling newcomers through the prickle bush in the school’s well known initiation ritual, in his case it would be a kid glove affair.
Suddenly the posh boy appeared, from along the grassy trail. He had been down on the shore and was on his way home, we presumed. A boy of our own age, tall, thin, and with hair so blond it was almost grey in that light.
He was overheard talking to one of the gang playing football with Carl Tilson. This friend of Carl’s, a Landseer boy, was in the school swimming team that had competed all over, including some private schools.
Overhearing the blond boy’s talk, someone shouted out, ‘Snob!’
The tall lad, who should have lowered his head and kept his mouth shut, smiled and said, ‘If you say so.’
I was the nearest to him and the next thing I knew, this stranger, whose name I heard was Stephen Tallis, was facing me with a casual look on his face that Chickie and Carl took as defiance of our whole Morland Road code of ethics, so they looked to me expectantly. Here I was, some sort of champion of the cause.
Before I knew it we were facing each other, the centre of attention amongst more than a score of lads.
Ronny and I had to our eternal shame (because we didn’t want flat snouts) had once got our mothers to write notes to get us out of Mr Riley’s boxing class on Friday ‘activity’ afternoons (we both preferred to stay in the Chess group). However, the Head Master informed us that our names were down for boxing and to those lessons in the noble art of self defence we had to go. Well, they were lessons I was now glad of.
Tallis went into the boxing stance, which was disconcerting.
I remembered the phrase, ‘If they come to box, fight. If they come to fight, box.’ The trouble was, despite Mr Riley’s tuition and a dozen or so bouts with the gloves on, I hardly knew the difference.
My opponent tried a couple of feints to the midriff, but I kept my right hand up and saved my chin.
He fended off two left crosses and I collected a sharp crack on the cheekbone. I briefly saw a star and the roar of the crowd was in my ears.
‘We don’t have to keep this up just to entertain the mob,’ said Tallis confidentially after a few more swings at each other. I glanced towards Carl Tilson, who was nodding and laughing, demonstrating the correct technique for an uppercut.
My left eye was almost closed.
‘I’m doing this for my own amusement,’ I assured Tallis. He laughed, raising his head and showing two rows of small, fox-like teeth.
I let loose a flurry of blows, many of which he parried, but I got in a gut punch and an uppercut which sent him flailing.
‘This is not just boxing, Keith, throw him!’ shouted Carl, who was a fan of the wrestling on Saturday afternoon TV.
Maybe Tallis was too, because as I went to grab him he ducked and turned the tables. We fell, and I was lying there like a disorientated crab, with my opponent’s wiry arms around me. His forearm was under my chin and tightening.
The crowd was close upon us and I couldn’t get up. I relaxed, and so did Tallis, but just as I suddenly tensed up to escape, his grip tightened and I was in a worse hold than before.
‘Drive down with your chin.’ said someone. I couldn’t. I attempted to swing my head back to hit him in the face, but he adjusted his position.
We lay there for quite a time.
‘I’m willing to call it quits,’ said Tallis. He probably needed to get home, where they had some fine dining waiting for him and getting cold.
‘Don’t let him off that easy,’ said Carl.
I was more interested in how easy I could get off myself.
The crowd of spectators thinned out, as nothing much was happening.
In the end I said, ‘This is tedious, we might as well call it a draw.’
‘I’ll let you up and we’ll shake on it?’ said Tallis.
‘When he lets go, you’ll hammer him, Keith, yeah?’ said Carl.
‘I don’t think he’s that sort of a chap,’ said Tallis. ‘With a decent fellow, his word is his bond.’
We got to our feet and shook hands.
Tallis, tall and not tough-looking by any means, walked away with dignity.
‘I suppose he had some guts,’ said Carl. ‘He got no encouragement. We were all agin ’im except a couple of Culford boys, and they weren’t saying much.’
‘He was pretty tough, look at my eye.’
One afternoon almost a year later I saw Tallis, along with other Culford rugby players, on a red and cream-coloured coach which was taking them home from the playing fields of Northgate.
He was at the back of the coach, leafing through a magazine. When he saw me he came towards the window and as the bus pulled away, gave a brisk military salute. I replied in kind.
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