The Fight Club: My New Zealand immigration experience in ten punches

An essay by Welsh writer Rhydian Thomas on getting the bash, again and again, since moving to New Zealand. The moral of the story: fuck Hamilton.

The truck pulls over at the end of the Tauranga harbour bridge and the driver’s out before any of us can say a word, engine still running. He makes straight for me on the grass bank beside the road, some vague menace hiding behind the sunglasses on his face (it is night-time). I am holding a white wooden picket sign that says PICK RICK in big black letters on it, and K and D are standing beside me, dumbstruck and silent as the trucker strides on over. I don’t know who Rick is or what he’s keen to get picked for, but the signs are all around the Mount at the moment so we’ve been grabbing them as we ride about town on our BMXs. The trucker punches me in the ear and snatches the sign from my hand – I’LL TAKE THIS, he says – and then he immediately turns around and heads back to his truck. It’s a soft punch, thrown with an open palm and folded fingers, and it’s meant to leave a lesson rather than a lump. He chucks the sign into the cab, grunts the gas and merges back onto the highway towards the Mount without another word. My ear is hot and K and D are laughing about how that was probably Rick, how I’m a pussy, how we could totally have wasted the trucker if we needed to; all that teenage noise. By the time we make it back to D’s parents’ place we have two more PICK RICK signs, and we use them to smash the fat lemons that droop from the suburban fences along Oceanview Road.

MMA fight night in Porirua, 2013

The second punch is six punches. It’s 2013 and I’m at the MMA fights in Porirua, trying to find the right words to describe the six punches that have left the man in front of me on his back, almost unconscious but saved by the referee’s bell. I would just call it a flurry of strikes from the mount position, but I used similar phrasing for the last fight. Certainly he was wobbled or dizzied or staggered, but I’m trying to be less flowery with the fight language lately – no one cares what I think I saw and then creatively interpreted; they just need to know who won the bout, that’s it. And then I will get my $30 paycheque and I can go home to my bed and my latest crumbling relationship. The grounded man is writhing on the canvas a little as the between-rounds dubstep kicks in to fill the arena with bass, and his corner crew have to help him over to his stool. The punches are hard and wide and full of hatred – someone later tells me that this is a sanctioned gang fight; hence the hi-vis vests of the downed fighter’s corner crew that say only NZ LABOUR HIRE LTD on them – and you can hear the raging human pain of the locals in their drunken demands for blood, for more leg kicks, for a quick finish. I settle on heavy ground-and-pound to close out the round, and say something about the puncher’s base strength in the mount position. No one will read these words, I think. A young woman in a bikini is holding a sign with the number two on it, and the dubstep drops. The second round is beginning.

*

In the next punch I am standing on a zebra crossing in Mt Maunganui throwing three-day old raisin cookies at a boy racer named Cherry Cheeks who has been giving us BMX bois a bit of grief recently. My friends have convinced me that I must be the one to start this fight, so N – whose parents own the local Subway – has given me a handful of these stale cookies to chuck at Cherry Cheeks’ Nissan Skyline next time he laps around the block onto Main Road. I see the blue-lights of his dash ahead and can hear the blow-off valve approaching, so I know the next car is his. I step out onto the zebra crossing in front of him and biff the first cookie, which misses. My friends groan from the pavement. I wave my arms around a bit, act tough, say something about a fight. The second cookie hits the side of his car with a DONK and he drives on a little, pulling over ten meters or so further down the main road and idling there, his black-tinted driver’s window slowly rolling down. But I am frozen. I don’t approach, I just stand there on the crossing with the rest of the cookies in my hand, still saying something or other about fighting. A minute passes but it feels like ten. Eventually he drives off. My friends think the cookie was good but aren’t impressed by the follow-up. A few months later Matt sees Cherry Cheeks at a party in Waihi and punches him in the face during a conversation. He’s happy about it but says Cherry Cheeks didn’t know who he was or why he had a problem so the punch lacked a certain relevance.

Smashed face, Hamilton, 2004

The fourth punch hits me in the back of the head: Bridge Street, Hamilton, 2004. I fall down to the pavement and suddenly there are boots stomping all over me and K; eight men and 16 feet. My cheek is cold against the concrete and all I can see are expensive shoes and scuffed flashes of grey and white, like burnt film-strip flickering on an old projector. I don’t feel the definitive heel that shatters my left orbital ridge and will leave me with two metal plates screwed to my skull and a piece of mesh holding the contours of my eye-socket together for the next 13 years. It is the era of popped-collar hetero pink polo shirts and amply-heeled dress boots, which do their damage doubly in stomps. Looking back, I could say it’s like we were some particularly tricky cockroaches being squashed, but I didn’t think about it like that at the time, because I was only thinking about black. Somehow I want to laugh in that moment – even remembering it – but my mouth is full of spit and incredulity and I can’t. I am pulling them off of K now, and I take another punch for my troubles – COME ON, I say, YOU’VE WON. A pair of them pick me up after the next punch and try to toss me over the guardrail into the black void down by the rotunda, but I cling on to them, to the rail, to whatever keeps you clinging on in these situations. Finally they lose interest and cross the road to their jeep and K looks down at me, my stupid fucking face all lumpy, left eye sealed shut. He’s been turtled up and kicked in the belly and back but is otherwise fine. We walk up the road to A&E but they say I’ve been fighting so I should come back in the morning; the doctor insists. I vomit some brown spicy stuff onto the forecourt outside so they take me to hospital, where I vomit all night and wait for my parents to arrive from Tauranga. Dad is angry, D’s crying, K has this weird whiteness about him. We joke about S, who, wrapped in a Batman-print blanket, had followed us to Bridge Street earlier on but turned back home at the first corner – I’m not feeling it, he’d said. I can’t see properly for the next month but after the surgery I heal up and there’s no cosmetic damage though the metal still gets a bit cold on winter days and I can’t get punched in the eye again or I might go blind. For a few years I’m angry when I shower and wish I could get my own back but these days I’m mainly all g and the screws around my eye-socket make for a good party trick when I’ve run out of shit to talk about, which is happening a lot lately. I know we all like to say it, but I mean it more than most: fuck Hamilton.

*

The flanker punches me in the face. I punch him back. I am wearing red and he is wearing blue, after all. Nothing happens; the referee has missed it. The ball moves elsewhere, and we chase after it.

First day of school in NZ, 1999

The sixth punch hit the wrong thing. The boxing bag she made for me – wrapped in red silk and embroidered with roses, rubble, vague initials – is too beautiful to break, and too flimsy not to. She says it’s the point: I break it with punches, and she’ll sew it back up so I can break it again, so she can–

The bag is stuffed with shavings of offcut rubber and cushioned by industrial foam, bound inside four tightened belt-straps that knot at the top, and I’m supposed to hang it from–

Something about the bag being about love here and about her understanding the pointless violence of men and about all that meaning and significance but it became a heavy metaphor to lug around from flat to flat with us–

And then a few months pass and I’m looking at a hole in the bedroom door, and the idiot fist I’ve just buried there, and I’m looking over at the bag, which we now stack our fresh laundry on, and I’m looking at her, lying in bed, and she’s looking back at me, shaking her head.

*

I don’t really care about the seventh punch. D is saying something about Kanye West outside the Wine Cellar in 2015 and I respond with too much smug indifference so she punches me in the face. The twenty-odd people standing around smoking in St Kevin’s Arcade all turn their heads – they see a small woman punching some guy in the face, so they are worried for her. I’m furious! I didn’t even say anything bad about Kanye!, I tell her, I just said I don’t care! She laughs, tells me to shut up, strokes my face. Drink your drink, she says. Everyone is looking at me, all beautiful and concerned.

*

This next punch is a lie: it didn’t happen in New Zealand, and it could be any one of the many I imported with me from Wales in 1999: maybe it’s the one from the day G lingered on the driveway too long, waving that bit of pipe at me til I gave in and hit him, or maybe it’s my brother fighting in winter gloves on the schoolbus, his punches soft and useless against J’s scratchy fingers: I didn’t protect him. But most likely they’re the punches from the day one of the kids brought a leather jacket to school and they all tried it on one-by-one while they hit me, passing it to the next when they were done with their turn at punching the posh boy. The headmaster says something about bullying afterwards but I don’t budge; it’s just a game, they were trying on the jacket and then punching me, you know, the game? He doesn’t know the game but he knows the punches so he calls their parents in, then mine. There was no lesson there and I learned nothing though I rarely wear a leather jacket and when I do I think it must be my turn to hit someone.

Me and my brother Hywel growing up in Wales, 90s

I am trying to get inside this building to throw the ninth punch but some guy is blocking me. It’s been going on five minutes: him telling us to fuck off back to the Christian party behind us in Glover Park, me trying to explain that we aren’t with them and just need to get inside the building, him holding onto the door handle, me trying to pull it down so we can enter. He presses his face against the glass door and grins, clutching a champagne bottle by the neck and tapping it on the glass. I see his other hand slacken so I yank the handle down hard and barge against the door with my shoulder, opening it for a second. I slip inside through the crack and hit him in the face before I’ve decided to. He falls down and then stands back up, still waving the champagne bottle at me, saying he’s going to kill me, saying I’m fucked. There’s a blue lump growing on his cheekbone already, and he’s shaking, I’m shaking, both near tears. I’m sorry, I say, but we had to get inside, we’re going upstairs, we’re not with the Christian lot outside, and so on. I think about the metal plates in my face and hope he won’t swing the bottle (I don’t believe he will; you just know, you know?). Fifteen minutes of negotiations later we’re all inside and on the same page and he offers me a beer, a joint, whatever. I want to fetch him some ice for the lump but it’s all floating in our drinks.

*

This is just a story that used to go around school about a man from Tauranga who went out drinking at Harrington’s bar one night and when he left someone who was angry about something else altogether punched him in the back of the head while he was walking by and he fell down and hit his head on the concrete and he died. We used to talk about that a lot.

Rhydian Thomas is the author of Milk Island (Lawrence & Gibson, $23). His debut novel fixates on some of the more violent parts of New Zealand’s culture, and is available at Unity Books.

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