Punching Bag

by James Geddis

Read more about the author HERE.

I think it was by the fourth incident that I stopped caring. Compassion is all well and good, but there comes a point where it does nothing but make you hurt. It’s like what you hear about mountain climbers. If one falls, he becomes a burden to the rest of his group, and to save themselves from being dragged down with him, the climbing party has no choice but to cut him loose. That’s what I did. I cut the rope, so to speak. I stopped caring.

We were held up in the lobby, Father waving his badminton racket like a battleaxe at the mortified receptionist. As platinum members of the sports club, we were entitled to complementary face flannels and bottled water upon arrival, but they dispensed with all that once they saw our cargo.

We hadn’t even removed it from its original packaging, and yet they had the nerve to threaten with calling security! Hilarious I know, but you must understand that back then being an Owner was an oddity. Sure owning one of these things is all the rage now, but in those days they were as rare as rumour. For a start the stores labelled them as “luxury items”, and they were monstrously expensive ones at that. You could probably buy them second-hand if you were wealthy enough, but never unopened, and always damaged in one way or another. To have one as we did, to be a true mint-condition Owner, was a thing reserved for… well, the sort of people who could afford platinum club memberships. So when they saw us carting a delivery trolley with a large, deceivingly heavy duffle bag slung over it, you can bet they were suspicious.

I was only ten at the time, but I at least pretended to help Mother wheel the bag to the front desk. The receptionist told Father that the club should’ve been notified about the strange package at least one day before our arrival. But the paperwork was in order and our family had been with the club since its founding. So they let us through, though this didn’t stop Father from taking the receptionist’s name.

“I know your boss.”

“Oh Robert, please! The boy’s just doing his job.”

“Then he should know not to ask stupid questions.”

I couldn’t tell you if it was the bag, or Father kicking his way through the turnstile when it failed to detect his card, but we were starting to get looks from the other club members. I felt Mother’s false nails rake my hair.

“Now, you can keep score while daddy and I play,” she said. “It’ll only be an hour, I promise”

“Typical of the nanny to catch a tummy bug on Badminton day, she’s made a mess of everything!”

“Robert, enough!”

My parents were always fighting about something. You’d think they had trained their whole lives for it — as if preparing themselves for the Roman arena. I don’t think they would have stayed together for as long as they had if they didn’t get some kind of kick out of driving one another up the wall. After all, who among us doesn’t enjoy a sporting row every now and then?

They brought their anger to the court when Father regaled the whole business with reception to Mr and Mrs Harrow.

“Rise above it, old chap!” said Mr Harrow. “He was probably just worried about the mess it might leave.” He circled around the bag, leaning in to inspect its cereal number. “It’s not like these creatures have a long life expectancy outside their wrapping, not least when they’re around you, eh old chap? I remember Marrakesh, you butchered that thing in seconds!”

 “Hopefully this time it won’t come to that, even if we are made of money,” Mother said, half-joking, but I could tell she took pride in the other half that wasn’t.

After stretching they took their positions on the court. I watched them from the sidelines, ready to count the points. They played the first round in relative silence — the shuttlecock spearing back and forth in a booming white blur — until the deciding point of the match when it grazed the upper trim of the net. It fell anticlimactically on the Harrows’ side of the court, and I noticed Father’s grip on his racket tighten.

“Lucky shot,” he murmured, and no sooner than he finished had Mother bit back with: “They can’t all be lucky shots, Robert.”

“Settle down you two, it’s too early to draw blood yet,” said Mr Harrow playfully. I never liked him. Plastic surgeon. With tight wrinkles around the eyes and a grin that could’ve been pulled back and stapled in place, he looked more like a patient than a practitioner. But it was his influence on my parents that I hated most — how he’d encourage them.

“Gotta be quicker than that, old chap.”

“I was!” Father barked. “It’s the racket. I was holding it the wrong way around!”

“Honey,” said Mother, “it’s symmetrical. There is no wrong way around.”

“I have a technique!”

“Woah! Is this badminton or boxing?”

“Perhaps we should change teams,” Mrs Harrow intruded. “Guys against gals! Joyce, how’s the firm?”

“That depends, which one?” said Mother, her voice cooled. “Father’s moving his operations up North where they’ve passed the new bill.” She sighed. “I hear in Glasgow they’ll buy any body part we grow them, but down here it’s just skin and bones, literally!” She’d made the exact same joke at a party the week before. “I suppose it makes sense to move things North, the Scots have tougher stomachs than any—”

“Shall I serve,” said Father, “or are you ladies going to chat all game?”

It was roughly then that I lost focus on their bickering and noticed something twitch in the corner of my eye. I followed its source. It was the duffle bag. It was moving.

I’d seen them stir while they were still in the bag before. The first time we brought this poor devil home, it writhed like something choked by a nightmare. They take time to settle in as you know — getting acquainted with the scent of their Owners — but I guess this was something my doughy little mind was too young to process. I thought it was in pain. But the package being brand new, my parents were more concerned about me damaging it, and forbid me from even touching the thing. They were right to, of course; to this day I continue to remind my own children: “They are not pets”. But at age ten I wasn’t so sensible.

That night, I snuck down to the wine cellar and gave it a teddy from my shelf — the one I always grabbed when the nightlight wasn’t enough. Feels silly to admit, but you know children. I would have opened the bag to give some air to the stranger trapped inside, but reaching for its zip made it struggle tenfold, causing the racks of merlot to rattle like thunder. It almost woke my parents. Relenting, I placed the bear on top of the bag, rocking gently in thanks for the gift. In retrospect, it was probably just recoiling from the sound of my footsteps. I mean why should it think I was there to comfort it?

On the sidelines of the badminton court, the bag shuffled again. It might have sensed my presence — perhaps even remembered my voice as I hushed it back to sleep. I knew what awaited the thing if we removed it from its packaging; Mother and Father told me its purpose when we bought it. They warned against attachment. It’s not a question I often ask myself anymore, but back then I always wondered whether they can sense how close they are, you know, to what “awaits” them. I never did find out.

“Clarice, the score!”

“Sorry. 4-3, I think.”

Mother threw me one of her disapproving looks. As she returned to her playing stance, the shuttlecock hit her square in the shoulder, spinning like a propeller seed to the ground. “How was I supposed to return that?” she cried, clutching her arm.

Father gave one of his loud and rare chuckles. “You weren’t, Joyce. That’s the point.” But like always his humour was short-lived — dashed away in a barrage of service shots he had no hope of returning. Pretty soon Mother was counting Father’s losses on both hands. Even Mr Harrow was getting impatient.

“Come on, old boy. She’s practically giving them to you.”

“I hate playing on this side of the court,” Father muttered. “The lights in here always get in my eyes.”

“Save the excuses for after I’ve beaten you, Robert.”

Mr Harrow picked up the shuttlecock, and was about to pass it back when Father snatched it from his hand. It wasn’t even his serve, but it didn’t matter; he needed to hit the shuttlecock, he had to hit something. I could tell he was putting all his rage into the swing; there was nowhere else to put it. One last ditch effort to give meaning to all the pouting and fuming and complaining. But he swung too early, and with a twang the shuttlecock grazed the metallic rim of his racket, ricocheting at an unnatural angle into his own service box. And then Father (bless his patience) erupted.

“That’s it! That fucking does it!” He shot at me with a pointed finger. “Clarice, the bag.”

“Oh now really Robert!” cried Mother. “This will be the third one this month!”

“Sweetheart, I won’t argue. I need this. Clarice!”

I knelt over the bag and gently began peeling down the zip. I hoped if I unzipped the bag slowly enough that Father’s temper might cool before I had to open it.

Mother began to plead. “Robert, these things aren’t cheap.”

“Those are your father’s words.”

“And he’s right. Okay, you’re upset, but it’s only a—”

“Don’t even think of telling me it’s only a game. Why do people keep saying that?”

“Robert!” But it was no use. His rage had reached boiling point, and it burned to be near him. “I’m so sorry about this,” said Mother, slowly backing away. “He’d been doing so well up to now, not one outburst all week.”

“Joyce, you have absolutely no need to apologise. No offence taken.” Mr Harrow was leaning against the net, using it as a hammock for his folded arms. “The man’s made up his mind. Best we just enjoy the show.”

I was shoved aside as Father leaned over the bag; his impatient huffing had devolved into wild grunts, but he could see I had already opened it, revealing what looked the shaven head of a man. I was ashamed that I hadn’t done more to protect it, but what could I have done? Better it than me.

Father raised a hand over its face and snapped his fingers. At the third click, its eyes shot open, and like a vampire waking from its coffin, the man climbed cautiously out into the court’s stale air.

It didn’t seem to bother the man that he was naked. Moreover, he seemed completely unaware of our presence — our morbid curiosity sliding off his vacant bald head without a blip of self-consciousness in the mind nestled within. You couldn’t help feeling awestruck at the stupidity of the creature. It looked so real; I wonder if Alex the Great felt similarly when he first chanced upon the Elephants.

As I said, this was an early model, and unlike the ones they make these days, there wasn’t much to work with. The man had hardly any muscle on him, and what little he did have was suffocated under a patchy layer of orange pseudo-flesh: cheap by today’s standards. Any expert Owner could tell you this was an early model; the scars are the biggest giveaway. The seams from where it had been stitched together had not been covered up — perhaps to reassure the faint-hearted beginners who were deterred by its humanoid appearance that the thing was unequivocally manufactured. Alive nonetheless, but I’m not going to argue semantics. Besides, any scars would have been overshadowed by its far more evocative features:  narrow shoulders, a hanging gut, clownishly large feet, skin like the goosedbumped rubber of a basketball, and just about the most punchable face you had ever seen.

“Ghastly thing isn’t it?” Mother said.

Mr Harrow chuckled. “All the more reason to flog it.” He cheered on as Father was lining up his swing with the licence number tattooed on the creature’s forehead. “Go on Berty! We’re waiting.”

“Are you sure we should be standing here?” Mrs Harrow murmured. “I mean it’s not dangerous, is it? Won’t it show resistance if we…”

“Nonsense! It’s what they’re bred for! Berty and I used one when we were golfing in Marrakesh.” He flashed a stainless smile at Mother. “Your husband couldn’t putt to save his life; he needed a good punching bag.”

“What do you think Joyce?” Mrs Hallow turned in search of my Mother’s opinion. “Do you approve?”

“I’m still not won over by the idea,” she mused, “but I’ll say this much. Since we started buying these things for Robert’s anger the house has never been quieter. He’s so thoughtful now, cleaning up after himself and helping in the kitchen. Did you know Robert even remembered to take out the rubbish last night? Honestly, it’s changed him.”

“Sounds like it’s saving your marriage!”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far, but in the bedroom… well! Clarice darling, stand well back.”

Mother pulled me to her side as Father motioned towards the living mannequin. I prayed that it would run. Could you believe it? I actually prayed. Father wound up his swing, bearing the teeth of a wolf savouring the sweet moment before the kill. But the man’s only replied with a dazed expression. Still sleepy from it time in the bag, it was not even remotely phased by Father’s attempts at intimidation.

Still, it was hardly what you’d call a declaration of defiance; I wanted it to push back with more than just complacency. A glare, a grimace, anything — some act of independence that hinted whatever happened next, it would at least put up a fight. It just stood there, grazing on its own breath, too stupid to live.

I prayed right up to the last second, when the racket came thundering down on its unsuspecting face and clipped an eyeball from its socket. The eye never hit the ground, obliterated in a thousand bloody pellets that stippled the court’s back wall. Father’s sweatband was soaked in blood. 

That’s when the creature started shrieking.

Not in pain of course; it sounded no different from that annoying whining that the new models make. You know, like a hyena made of polystyrene – the kind of insufferable, shrill, gear-grinding noise that would make any sane person want to bash the fucking thing a hundred times harder. Father certainly paid no mind, proceeding to thrash his meat anvil. It sang again, this time as if in mockery, calling Father to the challenge of hammering it into submission.

I should say that by this point I was already used to the sight of blood; seeing our first model bludgeoned to death helped me cross that hurdle. By the second model, I could just about hold my lunch whenever I saw organs. Eyes I still have a problem with to this day, but I think that’s only natural — and not a problem if you avoid hitting them in the face. My father loved hitting their faces; an expensive preference, because you risk damaging their brains too soon and then you’ve got nothing left to play with. Rarely was he satisfied until he had hacked the creature’s face clean off.

  The swings grew quicker and more ferocious — the same downward slice, over and over. Was he beating it, or mining for its brains? Still his anger would not let up, coaxed on by the creature’s ringing and child-like spasms as its nerves misfired. There was enough carnage that the beatings had kicked up a blanket of red dust, and soon both my father and the creature were lost in a cloud of motion and noise. Violence literally in the air! We listened as the crunch of bone slowly muffled into a wet squelching. A metallic musk itched in my nose. Mrs Harrow covered her mouth, struggling to hold back her tears; Mother and Mr Harrow were lost in meaningless chatter, and I… just watched. 

What did I expect? That this time would be different? It was when I asked myself this that I finally stopped caring. Call it “the loss of childhood innocence” if you want. Call it abandonment. Call it cutting the rope.

As the storm cleared we could make out Father’s face. Blood had mixed with his sweat, and the red streaks that had stained his brow and chin now trickled away. He looked, dare I say it, clean. It was as though he were a new man, rejuvenated by the pride of not missing a single swing. Anger quenched, he stepped back from his work.

I still remember what he said when Mother pointed out the broken strings of his racket.

“It’s quite alright, I can always buy another.”