I’ve not been to a funfair since I was a ten-year-old in Sydney. Now here I am, twelve years later, in a Queensland country town reliving the excitement and near bewilderment of that occasion as Gary and I follow Frankie into the annual fair.
We are immediately assailed from all sides by throbbing diesel engines, rock ‘n’ roll music, screams from the Steamboat, the Ferris wheel, and the reckless dodgem cars. The smell of diesel competes with fried onions and frankfurters as we pass sideshow barkers offering unbelievable sights, and palmists who will reveal our fortunes for two shillings.
Frankie ignores the distractions, striding purposefully towards some unstated destination. We segue from Buddy Holly to Little Richard to Elvis to Jerry Lee Lewis as we follow his stocky figure weaving through the crowd.
“Where’s he off to?” I ask Gary. I can’t imagine what’s stopping us from taking advantage of all this good stuff.
“Same as last year.”
“I wasn’t here last year.”
We fetch up at the Hall of Mirrors at the far end of the fairground. Frankie pays the cashier and signals for us to follow him inside.
At first we fool around doing the usual stuff and laughing at each other’s reflections. Then Frankie removes his shirt.
Sotto voce, I say, “Now what’s he up to?”
“He’s entering his Charles Atlas phase.”
Frankie’s back is straight, shoulders pushed back, adding emphasis to his swelling chest. Now I know why at the timber yard they call him the Bantam behind his back.
Oblivious to our presence, he poses in front of a mirror that makes his chest look even bigger. He turns from one side to the other to find the most flattering reflection.
“Does he work out?”
“Two or three times a week at the gym.”
After what seems like ages, Frankie grabs his shirt and puts it on.
“Right, let’s go.”
We join the strolling crowds again … except we don’t stroll. Once again we follow Frankie, as he strides past the Ghost Train, the Amazing Rubber Man, the Try Your Strength meter, the Wall of Death with its riders revving their bikes outside.
“Now where the hell is he going?”
At that moment we stop at a marquee where a small crowd has gathered. A large banner proclaims “Gordie Graham’s Boxing Troupe”. The wording surrounds a stylised, younger image of Gordie Graham, who is now standing on a raised platform, dressed in a bright blue jacket and black Akubra hat, holding aloft two five pound notes. Behind him are lined five overweight fighters, Aboriginals, in silk dressing gowns and boxing boots, looking on indifferently.
“Ten quid if ya can last three rounds with any of me boys here, and –” He waves the bank notes provocatively at the young men near the front, before holding up another two fivers, “– twenty quid if ya can knock any of ’em out. Twenty smackeroos!”
There’s commotion in the crowd as a youth is shoved to the front, only for him to immediately push his way back again.
“Hey,” Gordie shouts into his mike, “where ya goin’, kid? Don’t be a chook, there’s more than a week’s wages on offer here.”
Though we are at the edge of the crowd, his sweeping gaze soon falls upon us.
“Now then, boys, you look like you can handle yourselves. Come on in, this could be your lucky day.”
Excepting Frankie, we smile, shake our heads, hoping he’ll direct his attention to some other mugs.
“C’mon,” Gordie shouts, “who’s willing to give it a go?”
Frankie starts to move.
“Don’t even think about it,” I say, leaning forward to speak into his ear. “It’s just a big con.”
Either Frankie doesn’t want to hear or he’s been hypnotised by the spruiker, because he’s squeezing through the crowd towards the platform.
Now, Frankie’s not the tallest tree in the forest. I’m six foot, but even with Cuban heels, he just about makes it to my shoulder.
I groan. “Oh, dear sweet Jesus. He must be crazy.”
“Too right,” Gary says. “A bit of amateur boxing and he’s Floyd Patterson.”
“Those blokes aren’t amateurs.”
Gordie, having hooked one fish, cajoles, challenges, insults the crowd until he has a few more contenders lined up. Finally, we join the throng, pay our money, and file into the tent.
“Did he do this last year?” I ask Gary.
“Almost. He’d started boxing at Arthur’s Gym and thought he could handle himself. We managed to talk him out of it, but he didn’t like it.”
“We should do the same this time. He’s not got a hope.”
“He’ll be all right. They won’t kill him.”
Though the sun has gone down, the heat in the tent is stifling, not aided by the crowd pressing in around the ring, a square of carpet emblazoned with “XXXX”, Queensland’s favourite tipple.
Frankie is first on. We take our place at one corner.
His opponent is the smallest of the troupe, but he seems huge in comparison. If Frankie is cowed, he’s not showing it.
As I help him with the gloves, I remind him he can still pull out and there’d be no shame if he did. He refuses to listen. It’s going to be a short contest.
Unsurprisingly, the referee turns out to be Gordie. Holding a handbell by his side, he addresses the crowd.
“Ladies and gentlemen, we have for your delight this evening a three-round contest between, on my right –”
He looks over to where we stand. “What’s your name, son?”
“– Frankie, a brave and worthy challenger. And on my left we have Bendigo Billy, unbeaten in 250 bouts.”
“You’ve got Buckley’s,” I say, though not loud enough for Frankie to hear.
“Nah, he’ll be all right,” says Gary.
Frankie remains silent, his gaze fixed on the other fighter. He wipes the sweat from his forehead with the back of a gloved hand. I can’t imagine how he thinks he’s going to survive even one round, let alone three.
“This is your last chance to pull out,” I say.
Too late. Gordie rings his handbell for the start of the first round.
Frankie moves quickly to the middle of the ring, jabbing and dancing around Bendigo Billy, who looks about as concerned as if his opponent were a yapping dog. Billy holds his ground and makes no real attempt to strike his opponent. Just as it seems Frankie’s incapable of landing a glove on Billy, he feints with his left and hits Billy with a right cross to the side of the head. He dances away quickly.
I’m impressed with this display of boxing skill. Billy doesn’t look much bothered though, and I can’t see how Frankie is going to overcome the difference in size and experience. Besides, Billy’s undefeated record speaks for itself.
Twice more, Frankie penetrates Billy’s defences with sharp jabs to the head. I realised I’ve underestimated Frankie’s abilities. Then Billy hits him full in the face with a blow that no-one saw coming. Frankie stumbles back but somehow manages to stay upright.
Gary shouts, “Go get him, Bantam!”
Frankie flicks a quick glance in our direction before starting to dance again, this time keeping clear of Billy’s long reach and managing to stay on his feet until the bell goes.
He comes back to our corner and wipes himself down with a towel that someone throws to him.
Gary says, “They need it to go to three rounds so people think they’re getting their money’s worth. Hang in there and try not to provoke him.”
Frankie says, “Was it you called me Bantam?”
“Nah, not me.”
“Some bugger did.”
He looks at me. “Don’t ever call me Bantam, right?”
“No worries, mate.”
Gary adds, “You’ve got him bamboozled, Frankie. Just keep out of reach and you’ll run rings around him.”
The bell goes for the second round.
Heeding our advice, Frankie dances, jabs, feints and back-pedals, all the while circling Billy, who seems content to stay in one position and let Frankie come to him. There’s an occasional tussle when Billy outmanoeuvres Frankie and steps inside his defence. Even then, it seems half-hearted. Gordie lets the two men wrestle for a while before separating them.
The crowd had been shouting encouragement to Frankie, but his lack of aggression now leads to cries of “Get on with it!” and “Hit the bastard!”
Towards the end of the round, Billy moves in and uppercuts Frankie with a right. For a moment, clearly dazed, he lets his guard drop. I close my eyes, fearing the worst, but the bell rings and Frankie returns unsteadily to our corner, sweat dripping off him.
“You sure you want to go on?”
He gives me an incredulous look. “Course I fucken do. I’ve got him all sussed out now.”
Gary says, “He’ll have you this round unless you stay well away from that right hand.”
“I know what I’m doing.”
“Well, just remember. He’s not unbeaten for no reason.”
The bell goes and Frankie is again straight out there, dancing around, circling to the left to avoid Billy’s right hand.
“That’s my boy!” Gary shouts.
Half way through the round and I’m thinking Frankie is going to stay out of trouble. My confidence is suddenly dissipated when Billy unleashes a scorching left hook that lifts Frankie clear off his feet. He crashes to the floor and lies there like a stunned mullet.
“Come on, Bantam, get up!” we yell.
The crowd picks up the call. “C’mon Bantam! Get up, Bantam!”
Gordie stands over Frankie, his arm chopping out the count. “One-er, two-er, three-er –”
“Hey, hey! Not so fast!” I shout. I run into the ring, only to be shooed away by Gordie.
The count is up to six before Frankie stirs. By the time it reaches nine, he’s on his feet, still groggy, but with a ferocious look on his face. Gordie steps back leaving the two men to face each other.
The crowd is still calling “Bantam!” and it’s irking Frankie.
He circles the big Aboriginal without trying to hit him. The other man waits, watchful as a snake, any pretence at ponderousness now abandoned. Round and round they go until, when we least expect it, Frankie rushes Billy in a flurry of blows.
Billy, caught off guard and hindered by Frankie stamping hard on his foot, stumbles backwards and falls at the feet of the spectators. He’s quickly helped up.
Then it’s all over for Frankie. A blistering right hand catches his jaw and he drops to the carpet like a sack of wheat.
We carry him outside and a St John’s Ambulance officer gives him a whiff of something to bring him round.
Frankie has done well to end up with only a few bruises. He says a tooth has come loose and his head aches, but otherwise he’s felt worse.
“I dropped him. I coulda won. I should never have let meself get riled up by you bastards.”
“You did well, mate. Far better than we expected,” I say.
But Frankie is in no mood to be consoled. He gets to his feet.
“You blokes stick around. I’m fucked. I’ll see yous on Monday.”
He makes his way out of the fairground. We stay close behind him. He’s our mate after all – we can’t just abandon him. When we reach the street, ready to walk him home, he swings around and glares at us.
“What ya think ya doin’? Go back and fucken enjoy yourselves.”
We watch him walk dejectedly down the road. Gary and I look at each other. The unspoken question: should we go with him anyway?
Then I look again at Frankie’s retreating figure. His back has begun to straighten, the swagger is returning, those gunslinger hands are swinging more freely by his side.
“Aw, come on,” I say, “Let’s give the dodgems a go.”
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