Boys who dance

James stares at Max and Max stares at James.

Each wears a white singlet tucked into sun-starched football shorts. The drawstrings of the shorts are pulled tight and the singlets cling to the protruding rib cages of their slender frames.

“Now remember,” says James, “don’t tuck your thumb in, alright? You’ll jar it if you do.”

James makes a fist and rotates it so that Max can see where his thumb should go.

Max nods. He is slightly younger than James. His light brown hair, cut flat at the ends so it fits like a bowl on top of his head, doesn’t move.

The evening tide rises and falls against the moss-laden pylons of the jetty on which their bare feet rest.

“Alright, me first,” says James.

He closes his eyes, rolls his lips inside his mouth and starts to breathe with force through his nose. His straightened elbows lock and his shoulders pull away from his neck. His hands drop by his sides and turn to fists.

James moves his weight nervously from one foot to the other.

“C’mon, do it,” he says.

Max’s right hand forms a fist that he holds so tight his knuckles swirl white and pink. He watches as water builds in the creases around James’s shut eyes.

“Do it, Maxy. C’mon, do it…”

James hears only the waves.

He opens one eye and then, after a moment, the other. Half expectant. Impatient. Relieved.

“What ya doing?” he says to the boy opposite him.

Max stares at his own feet with his fist still gripped.

“Max, we gotta be quick, the game starts soon, c’mon.”

The other boy glances up at his friend and then back to his feet. He crosses his middle and index fingers, and raises his hand so the lines of his palm face James.

James exhales, crosses his fingers like Max and raises his hand to mirror the gesture.

“We have to do it. Okay, Maxy?”

Fingers untwine. Both sets of hands drop.

James closes his eyes again and tenses his body.

Max clenches his fist, cocks his arm and shoots it towards James’s left eye. The punch causes James to step back. He moans and covers his face with his open hands, one on top of the other. Wiping water from his eye, he returns to his position and stands up straight.

“That was a good one,” he says.

Max doesn’t smile. He can still feel the warmth of James’s face on the knuckles of his hand.

“Right, now you.”

The younger boy shuts his eyes. His nose and forehead wrinkle. His teeth clench.

James’s fist forms and rests in the space between the boys’ bodies. He holds the fist so tight that it trembles. His knuckles whiten. The water steadies. A bird cries. Stillness sweeps over them. He strikes.

Max’s mouth opens but he does not make a sound. He sniffs three times before meeting James’s gaze once more.

James stares at Max and Max stares at James. Each has a red mark under his left eye that will be dark blue by the time they get home. The boys step towards each other. Max raises his left hand, James his right, and their fingers twine together. They each place their empty hand in the small of the other’s back and begin to move their feet in counts of three. Max then James. James then Max. They tighten their grip, knowing this is the only time they have, and take turns facing the water as the sun begins to set.

“Ha, gimme a spell, Tommy! Look at the arches you got going up there, don’t worry about me mate, just look after yourself, ha!

“Hey, hold on a second would ya – James, James… Oi! James, get over ’ere and show the fellas that little shiner of yours… Come on lift ya chin up… There we go… Yeah, yeah fair whack isn’t it, hey. Him and that scrawny bugger Max down the road gave each other a hiding playing footy on Friday night. James put up a high ball and what’dya do, son… Come on don’t be shy, tell ’em… Yeah, exactly, didn’t take your eyes off it. Safe as houses.

“What was that… Ha, get off it Coops, I’ve never had a look in me life! You’re the one with the turtle neck! I wouldn’t trust you to catch a cold in the bloody South Pole mate, let alone stand under one on the wing when the heat’s on, baby! Anyway, must’ve been a hell of a head knock because the little fella’s got one twice as bad as James. Saw him and his mum at the shops and his eye’s swollen shut. Bit of colour on the face adds character, don’t it? Shame nothing could fix your mug, Tommy!

“Ha… Yeah, he’s actually not a bad little dummy half that kid. Needs to put on a few kay gees but I reckon he will, his old man was big bastard.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on November 27, 2021 as "Boys who dance".

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