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Excerpt from The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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The Fair Fight

by Anna Freeman

The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman X
The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman
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  • First Published:
    Apr 2015, 480 pages
    Apr 2016, 480 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Kim Kovacs
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Chapter 1

Some folks call the prize-ring a nursery for vice. Boxing is talked against by all the magistrates and held up as unlawful and wild, even sometimes called unchristian. As I see it, those pious old smatchets are right, but what of it? Prize-fighting is all those things, but more, it's beautiful. The sight of two people—for it's not only men, you know, who take the ring— who've built their skills and their bodies, struggling together with nothing between them, no ball or stick, but only desperate force and the will to live—why, there's the root of all mankind, the stuff of our lives played out. Till you've seen one pug, bare chest steaming in the frosty air, half blinded by his own blood, drop the other to his knees on the frozen turf and turn to roar to the sky, well, if you ain't seen it, you can't know. It brings you to the base of yourself; just the sight brings a bellow to the throat. Prize-fighting is named "the noble sport" by the fancy crowding the ringside,and so it seems to me. Nothing much else in my life has been noble.

I'd like to say that my beginnings were humble, but they weren't beginnings, because I never really left them but for a short while. I was born in a narrow house we called the convent, and I came into the world as fighting and blood-soaked as I mean to leave it, upon a big oaken bed that had carried the weight of a regiment of cullies. Ma used to say I might've had twenty daddies. She meant, by the look of me: my jaw too large, my eyes too small, my nose thin and hooked as a gypsy's. I'd teeth to spare, crowding my chops and hiding one behind the other, too bashful to line up straight. I was a puzzle made of the plainest parts of those twenty daddies, the parts they left behind and went on to give handsome children to their lady wives.

Ma never would answer questions, but she couldn't stop the misses' talking. The story went that when she was young, a fine gent bought the house to set her up as his mistress. He grew tired of her, as cullies do, and had given the place over to her as a means of saying sorry. Dora always thought that the cully who flit was our daddy, but as we grew up and grew so different, it was plain that whichever man had a hand in making Dora, he wasn't likely the same cull who made me. It didn't much signify in a house like ours. In our house a girl's worth could be counted out in pounds, shillings, and pence, and that was all the worth that mattered.

A babe, of course, never can be much counted that way, and as infants Dora and I had always to make ourselves useful or else stay out of sight. It's the same choice children are given the world over: be of service or be gone. We were there to scrub the flags and empty the pots, we were there to fetch the callers to the misses or, if some sailor became more trouble than he'd paid to be, we were there to fetch the bullies to see the cully out. The misses all held the same view of keeping house, however they lived before they came there; they'd do what they must to keep their own fires lit and whatever Ma stirred herself to bid them in the way of housework, and never be fashed to lift a finger more. All the rest fell to Dora and me.

Every so often there'd come a new miss with a desperate look about her, lugging an infant that screamed and spat up into its blanket. Ma was fond of pink-cheeked wretched misses; she'd always take a ruined girl over a hard-faced strumper. Then Dora and I would have a babber to drag about like a doll, or carry up to the garret, if it wouldn't hush. We never could keep any of those infants long enough to love them—we'd come down one day and it'd be gone and none of us would ask where it'd been whipped off to. Sometimes the miss it'd belonged to took it hard and wept. Ma never minded weeping in the kitchen, but if a molly couldn't smile for the cullies she'd be turned out quick as blinking. She might sit at breakfast bawling as though she were the infant herself, if she could dry her eyes and flutter them when once she stepped foot outside the kitchen. I remember a miss who never could stop weeping, and was put out upon her arse for it. I recall standing in the hall, my hands twisting in my apron, as she was hustled from the door, the bully's big hand between her shoulder-blades. I was only five or six, I should think. Her thin back was aquiver with tears, in only the same poor dress she'd come in, for of course Ma kept back the silks. A miss could get along all right if she'd silks of her own, so it was spite as well as greed that drove Ma's hand. I went to the parlour window and watched her struggle down the road with her box, dragging it by one handle and rucking up a wake in the dirt of the street like a skiff at low tide. I pressed my face right up to the glass, to see her as long as I could. I couldn't say what it was about that particular miss that caught my fancy, but I'd think of her sometimes, after that; I liked to imagine that when she'd turned the corner she'd found her baby waiting there and would be mother to it again. Later, when I grew up a little and had a grasp of the trade, I wondered at Ma keeping Dora and me. She kept us and never did hire us out to the cullies whose tastes ran to kiddies, though she threatened to often enough. I suppose, in a woman like our ma, that passed for love.

Reprinted from The Fair Fight by Anna Freeman by arrangement with Riverhead Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) LLC, Copyright © 2015 by Anna Freeman.

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