My earliest memory is a fight. I must have been five or six. I’m always intrigued by people who describe having memories from a much younger age, jealous even, because that period is a mystery to me. I know it only through photographs and shared family stories, the kind you hear dozens of times until they solidify into a pseudo-memory, a recollection synthesised entirely from the repetition of the story rather than anything of the event itself. My sister once claimed she remembered being born but then she’s like that. She doesn’t like being outdone. My dad had a friend who claimed to remember being in the womb and looking out at the world through his mother’s navel. Biology lessons gave that story short shrift. But then it seems like the sort of thing one might dream as an infant and, at that age, how could you tell the difference?
So, the fight. I’ve only ever been in two fights. Proper ones, I mean. Boys have a habit of getting into fights almost recreationally, but I mean fights where at least one person really wants to hurt the other rather than just vent aggression or end an argument. Those are rarer, at least where I grew up. Maybe because of that, they teach you things.
Anyway, I’m avoiding telling the story. It happened at my child minder’s house. It was one of those typical semi-detached houses in suburban England in the 1990s: cream wallpaper stained yellow in places, furniture a sea of glossy wood veneers, ugly-but-comfortable sofas (a trend that now seems to be inverted), an actual cuckoo clock, a competitive loft conversion because someone else on the street had one, a chunky TV that seemed to take up half the living room, at least when you were a kid pressed up against it.
I don’t really remember the fight starting or what it was about. I know Charlie had no reason to punch me, but he did anyway. I have a vague recollection I may have refused to play a game with him. He was my child minder’s youngest son and almost exactly my age. We were on our own in their front room when he did it. I remember him swinging but I can’t recall the impact of the first hit. I remember us grappling on the floor, his fingers clawing at my face, a sharp nail against my skin. I remember my cheek burning, then stinging, then I realised I was bleeding. Charlie actually had the decency to look surprised, even before his mum came in and shouted and separated us.
To my confusion, I found myself being punished for the violent scene. Taking me upstairs she rounded on me viciously, telling me that she wished she could hit me but she couldn’t because I wasn’t her child. I was left alone upstairs in the house with the usual instruction to “think about what I’d done”. At that age the injustice was more painful than my wounded cheek. It was a stark way to learn that the world is not a fair place. I still have the scar on my cheek from that lesson, a reminder every time I look in the mirror, although now it’s partially obscured by beard growth, indistinct like a moss-covered memory.
The second fight was much later, at secondary school. I would have been twelve. I was smaller than most of my year, so I made a decent target for bullying. Defensively, I developed a fast enough wit that I could fire a few barbs back. It took me longer than it should have to realise this didn’t really help, even if it made me feel better. Alistair was popular with an easy charm and the sort of careless attitude that naturally rises to the top of the pecking order in a boys’ school, meaning others were happy to join in. I never involved adults, preferring to deal with it myself. It was not so much a schoolyard code of silence as that I thought it was building character or that it was a puzzle to be solved. Perhaps I was just stubborn. It was a misguided view I ought to have abandoned around the time I was thrown out of a first floor window.
The fight happened after this had been going on for a year or so. Staying behind after class, Alistair had me cornered near a set of battered grey lockers at the back of the room. A few of his mates had hung back to watch, blocking the doorway as he advanced on me. I suspect I had provoked the encounter by responding to his insults during the lesson and earning a laugh from the class, but things had been escalating over the previous few weeks. I couldn’t say quite how it arose – a look in his eye, a shift in his gait – but I felt a sense that this encounter needed to be decisive.
I waited for him to get closer then stumbled backward in feigned fear. Alistair grinned, savouring my expression. I slid sideways until he stood opposite me with a desk between us. I recall his smile being strangely jovial, rather than menacing, as he rounded the corner. It worried me more and strengthened my resolve. I moved suddenly, like a spring uncoiling, my right arm flying out past his ear. He looked bemused that I had missed him and this expression had no opportunity to change as I my hand snapped back, connecting with his head and using his own momentum to bring his face crashing forward against the desk. There was a loud crack followed by a stunned silence.
He raised his head, face blank with shock. His friends paused, uncertain how to respond. I can still recall the ugly sound of the impact, flesh and bone and wood, which left me as dazed as the others. I thought of Charlie and his expression of surprise, realising that, despite our inherent capacity for violence, humanity is a species ill-equipped to face the consequences of its violent acts. I had taken a step back, surveying my handiwork, face fixed and serious. Alistair slowly lifted a hand to his nose, quivering as his fingers came away bloody. I glared at him, summoning a fury I am not sure I truly felt. The pain must have washed through him then as he released a strained gurgle and stepped back unsteadily. His friends took the signal to step forward and surround him. They eyed me with a combination of curiosity and concern, before shepherding him out of the room in silence.
This violence brought no repercussion. Alistair had an easy choice: to report the incident, he would have to reveal that I had beaten him, irreparably harming his reputation. Instead, the incident was never mentioned. The bullying, however, ceased overnight and we stayed out of one another’s way, speaking civilly when required. His friends began to treat me with deferential respect but no warmth. The lessons of this fight are more nebulous. Violence is a tool, certainly, and one that can be used to end violence. Its use is still something of an intellectual defeat, having failed to resolve a situation by words alone. Yet, when applied carefully and effectively, there is an elegance in the solution. I remember years later, towards the end of the Sri Lankan civil war, that decades-long conflict between rebels in the north and the rest of the country, the Government forces were advancing on the northern strongholds and seemed likely to rout the rebels. Like any conflict on that scale, reports of military atrocities began to leak and the international community began to stir uncomfortably. I found myself hoping that any international response would be slow enough that the Goverment forces had time to overrun the north. This was not through true support but with a respect for the peace that could finally follow after a decisive resolution. After all, I had made that same choice.
Much of human evolution is focused on our ability to use tools. This includes conceptual tools as well as physical ones. Violence is such a tool, but we have adapted oddly as a result of it, producing a society that both deplores its use yet revels in it for entertainment. We enjoy the catharsis of violent release, but we cannot stomach the ugliness of the destruction wrought. Perhaps, then, elegance is an accurate form of adjudication: if the elegance of a violent solution outweighs the repulsiveness of the act, then it is justified; else it is not. I wonder whether Charlie and Alistair would agree with my theory. But perhaps we each intellectualise violence in a way that condones our own actions whilst condemning the scenarios in which we find (or fear we will find) ourselves victims. I wonder above all how they would recall those fights, because, elegant or repulsive, violence is ultimately personal.