The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Spring 2014 Results

The Knockout

Copyright © David Day 2014

I arrive at the top of the stairs to be confronted by a pack of glaring, monster-sized men forged of muscle and ink. I’m tempted to retreat straight back down the stairs. But behind the reception desk around which they’re posturing stands a stunning woman who beckons me. She snatches a look at my membership card, scans it, then purrs “Come on in” with such a flirtatious countenance that I’d probably think she fancied me if I was stupid enough to think I was the only person she displays it to. She hands back my card and instantly returns her attention to the smartphone in her hand.

I proceed to timidly manoeuvre my way through the loafing posturers chatting about how much they’ve lifted, and into a large room wherein lie wall-to-wall mirrors and an elevated boxing ring. A large, L-shaped open space surrounds the ring, and a few punching bags dangle from the ceiling and into one half of this space. Another group of intimidating-looking men are in this room, but at least I know these particular blokes—they’re here every week. I always feel out of place amongst them (I refer to them as ‘the Intimidators’ my head), but even in their off-putting presence I’m not going to shy away from the mission I’m on this evening.

I notice Barbara’s here in the training room too, and Janet’s doing a few leg-stretches against the far wall.

And yes, she’s here as well.

The young woman at the heart of this evening’s mission is here too.

The young woman who seized control of my thoughts on the evening I first saw her, who attracts those sneaked glances I try so hard to resist, and whose presence rips the breath right out of me—she’s here as well.

Rhiannon started coming to boxing class about a month after I did. She was new to boxing but it wasn’t long before she’d mastered every combination of punches our Russian trainer, Alexey, could think up:

Straight left, straight right, left hook, right uppercut.

Double left jab, right cross, left hook, right uppercut, left hook.

Straight left, slip right, right cross, left hook, pivot, straight left, straight right.

She can punch them all determinedly into the focus mitts being held up by whomsoever her lucky partner happens to be at the time.

I was that lucky partner on the evening she first joined the class. She’d almost knocked me out without laying a glove on me, that night. A gorgeous, blue-eyed brunette with flawless, tanned skin and an athletic body, it was an almost-biblical struggle to focus solely on our boxing drills. But more than her looks it was that smile which captured me on sight, and still hasn’t released me. One corner of her mouth creeps up higher than the other, and her face radiates happiness. Her eyes widen and sparkle when she bestows it, like she’s truly absorbed by whatever or whoever she’s smiling at. Every time I see that smile, it makes me feel...I dunno...funny. It’s dizziness-inducing; a smile that causes reality to slip away.

She’s nice, too. She’s chatty and amiable, and usually stays back after class talking to people while she warms down.

After that first class she’d struck up a conversation with me.

“I hope you didn’t mind training with a girl,” she’d said to me, almost apologetically, but still with that illuminating smile.

“Of course not,” I’d spluttered.

I’d then made for the exit in a state of fluster—it hadn’t been a very long conversation.

In fact I’m yet to hold anything that even vaguely resembles a real conversation with her, because I can never think of anything to talk to her about. I get stuck for words.

It’s a problem I’ve always had. Unless I have exactly what I want to say to someone mapped out beforehand—and preferably rehearsed—I’m woeful at sustaining a conversation. I just don’t know what to say to most people. In any given situation that everyone else seems to manage small talk in just fine, I can never think of appropriate things to say, let alone talk in detail about. And I get worried that anything I do say will sound dumb, or make me look like an arse-clown.

This evening, however, things will be different. This evening I do have a script, and my mission is to act it out. I’ve been putting a battle plan together over the last few days and have determined that after the class is over I’ll ask Rhiannon:

  1. how she is; and
  2. if she’s around this weekend and interested in hanging out.

It’s not a particularly detailed script. It’s not particularly witty, charming or clever.

It’s a simple, 2-point plan.

But the important thing is I have that plan—I have something to focus on so I don’t panic and stumble over my words like I sometimes do when I have to say more than a sentence or two off-the-cuff.

“IS EVERYBODY READY FOR SOME PAIN?” The booming Russian accent announces our trainer’s arrival. There’s a general murmur of pseudo enthusiasm—something which could understandably confuse an outside observer, given the question. Alexey then proceeds to inflict 10 minutes of warm-ups that are a gruelling workout in their own right. The agglomeration of burpees, squats, push-ups and star jumps has even the Intimidators panting like overworked sheepdogs. Afterwards, he gives us less than 30 seconds to recover, before commanding “GET INTO PAIRS—ONE PERSON WITH GLOVES, ONE PERSON WITH PADS.”

By the time I’ve extracted my gloves from my sports bag Janet has partnered with Barbara, and the Intimidators have divided up neatly into 4 couplings.

Only Rhiannon and I are left unpartnered.

She slinks towards me, doing up the Velcro on her gloves, and I feel my face burning up.

“So do you want to be my partner then?” she asks politely.

“Ummm...” There isn’t any choice but for us to partner-up, but I act as though I’m considering this—weighing up my options. I don’t want to appear too eager.

“Sure,” I conclude, in a voice that almost breaks.

She smiles with such wattage that I have to look away instantly; I mask my nervousness at being around her by retrieving some focus mitts from the nearby plastic storage container that a heap of them are stored in.

I’m wrestling with these as Alexey demonstrates the convoluted combination he expects us to complete, and I’ve barely finished getting them on when he yells “GO!”

I hold the mitts up in readiness for Rhiannon to punch them, trying to think of something funny yet encouraging to say if she needs spurring-on.

But as it turns out, she doesn’t.

Rhiannon is on a mission of her own tonight. She certainly appears to be, anyway, as she proceeds to thwack her gloved fists into the mitts with such frenetic fury that I’m nearly knocked off balance. And the flurry of punches she rapid-fires at me is so ferocious that I continue to struggle for balance—I have to make a concerted effort to hold my ground. Her normally-captivating face is twisted up into a savage primevality. As the vicious assault continues unabated, I begin to wonder why she is punching so venomously this evening. It’s almost like she’s not attacking the mitts, but is

What’s this about? I wonder.

The unwarranted and disconcerting attack has me feeling first defensive, and then almost angry. Is she trying to show me up in front of the Intimidators? Is she trying to make me look like a pussy who can’t even function as an effective punching bag for a girl? Does she think I’m some worthless weakling she can just walk over? I may be timid but that doesn’t mean I won’t stand up for myself.

Soon enough I get that chance: it’s my turn to wear the gloves.

I make it clear from the outset just what I can do: pummelling the mitts with demented aggro. I tear into the drill with such a flailing of arms that I must resemble an out-of-control propeller come loose from a plane. I smack and bash and hit and punch. I do so with a fury of concentration on the mitts in front of me.

As I continue to attack the mitts frenetically, however, I begin to feel my energy petering out. I can’t sustain this for much Alexey going to call ‘time’ or what??

Finally, he does.

I look up into the eyes of my opponent. She’s smiling.

“Well done—that was an awesome effort,” she beams.

This catches me off-guard.

Is she trying to patronise me?

No, I decide—her smile is sincere as ever.

I pause, and consider. I thought she was trying to top-dog me but maybe her aggression wasn’t an attack on me after all.

Maybe the anger I saw in her tonight has nothing to do with me.

Maybe my two-point plan isn’t dead in the water then, and maybe I can still put it into action after all...

I decide that I will, and this causes butterflies to attack my guts, but I hang around as people begin to leave.

“So...tough class eh?”

She’s doing up her laces, and looks up as I approach.

“Sure was,” she smiles. And that smile has such potency that it nearly floors me, and nearly thwarts my plans there and then.

“I think Alexey was trying to kill us tonight!” she says.

I spot an opportunity for a joke, but wonder if it’s one of those things that will just sound dumb and whether I should just stick to the script.

The blood goes to my head.

“Yeah,” I agree, “but at least if he keeps this up he’ll have trained us well enough that we can knock him out for it.”

I wait momentarily for the laughter...

I knew I should have stuck to the plan.

My mind grasps desperately about for the words I’m supposed to say next. “ have you been?” I stammer.

“Good thanks,” she chirps.

There’s a pause.

Having hoped she’d say more than this, I suddenly panic that if I try to conjure ad-lib material to fill the pause I’ll stumble. I decide to instead get straight to business.

“Um...are you around this weekend?”

“Around where?”

Panic seizes me at this unexpected query, and I can’t respond.

“Around here you mean—the gym?”

“Um...y-yes. Yes. That’s what I meant.”

“Yeah I am actually, I’m gonna jump on the treadmill for a while on Saturday morning.”

A curious look creeps over her features. “Why?” she asks. “Did you want to have a spa with me?”

I almost faint.

Of course I hadn’t been expecting things to move that fast, but hey, if she’s open to the possibility...I picture her, glistening wet, naked but for a cape of foam, legs wrapped around mine as the jet shoots its stream at us. I can actually feel the blood pounding in my head.

“Because,” she continues, “that would be cool—I’ve just bought some new gloves I want to try out.”

‘Gloves?’ I think. ‘Now she’s getting a little bit kinky, but...Oh. Spar.’

“Yeah, that’s what I was hoping for—a few rounds to test out what we’ve learned,” I confirm.

“Cool,” she says, “I’m in.”

This causes the blood within me to pulsate so violently that I worry people will actually be able to see me throb. But I recognise this is where I need to conclude things, and I try to think of a memorable farewell remark. However something of an uncomfortable silence follows instead, in which every passing second seems like an hour.

“So...I’ll see you on Saturday?” is the gripping anecdote I eventually regale her with in such a voice that I’m sure resembles a frightened small puppy’s yelp.

“Sure—see you at, say...8 in the morning?”

She smiles at the conclusion of this last enquiry, dazzling me to such an extent that all I can do is nod in response.

My thoughts are swirling: I’m not really sure what just happened. But I think the girl of my dreams has just agreed to hang out with me on Saturday.


Determined to get the hell out of here before she changes her mind, I spin around and...smack straight into a punching bag. This knocks me off-balance and backwards into Rhiannon who, in turn, is knocked down. Everything is in slow motion as she falls but I can see what’s going to happen the whole time. There’s a dull thud as her head hits a stray dumb-bell lying on the floor.

It’s only one of those small ones made largely of rubber, but that’s all it needs to be.

I stand there horror-struck. But it’s for less than an instant that I do, and I snap out of my stricken reverie directly, let out a bellow for help, and rush to the side of her motionless figure. I try and think what I need to do in a situation like this, but I can’t even remember what I’ve seen them do in the movies. I hold her wrist to my ear to listen for a pulse. A tattooed personal trainer charges in and shoulders me out of the way, and commences actual first-aid checks.

What have I done?

It can’t be possible for a rubber dumb-bell to kill someone, surely?

She stirs. Her eyes open. She speaks.


I think she’s going to be okay.

Maybe I will be too.

At least we’ll have something to talk about if there’s a next time.