‘I have Muay Thai fight tonight.’ Her fingers freeze, entangled in the long hair for a second as she reexamines my face armed with new information.
‘You? Fight?’ Here we go… I can’t help laughing when the lady asks me to flex my arm muscles. The result of the strength test of the same seems to be satisfactory, but my interlocutor is still doubtful.
‘You fight before?’ she presses on.
‘No. First time.’ And once again, her hands stop moving. Her expression is this of genuine concern while, in a lowered voice, she tells me that with a face like that – ‘it is very kind; too kind’ – one cannot fight and certainly cannot win.
‘Mai bpen rai, I cover the face when fight,’ I reply, ‘no problem!’
When her job on my hair is done and before I slide open the door into the bazaar, the salon owner wishes me good luck for the fight. ‘You very brave,’ says she.
Stepping back into the sticky afternoon heat of the rainy season, I check my watch: it’s just after 2 pm. The fights at the Kalare Stadium will not start until nine in the evening, and I am already drained by the very real anxiety of pretending to be ‘very brave’. I woke up in the morning with my stomach, neck and that proverbial face covered in the ugliest stress rash that no amount of makeup would conceal. Fortunately, there is no pain, fever, itching or other symptoms to go with the red spots, so my physical strength will not be compromised. However, my confidence certainly will be – and I don’t have any confidence to spare. As the day drags on, and more and more unwelcome, unkind thoughts make an appearance in spite of my attempts to keep them at bay, I feel both my body and mind stiffen up and grow heavy. When I open my eyes after a long meditation session, the first thing I realize is that it is impossible to fight for somebody you hate, and that means I’m loosing tonight.
At 5 pm I have my last pre-fight meal with a friend who’s just arrived from the town where we train to cheer on me. She notices immediately that I am not the same person she said good-bye to the day before. In vain she tries to help me turn back into my usual strong and stubborn self: no magic happens, but it is time to get going. On our way to the stadium we spot a car with the fight poster on the side, Muay Thai music blasting from the loudspeakers.
‘That’s you there,’ she points at my photo, ‘this is really happening!
‘It is – and it doesn’t seem real,’ I mumble back.
Mine is the last fight of the night. In a feverish, scattered mental state I get ready for it a few meters away from the brightly lit ring: my hands are wrapped; my arms and legs are massaged with vaseline and boxing oil; I stretch, shadowbox, revise the Wai Khru Ram Muay, try to watch my friend’s fights and cheer but cannot bear to be in the audience; people talk to me, touch me, take photos; my opponent comes over to shake hands: she is smaller, very pretty, and flinches at my handshake – she’s not nearly as strong as I. Soon, the 4th fight of the night is over as my gym mate from Canada delivers a low kick KO to his heavier Thai opponent. And then, my corner team come for me.
‘Are you ready?’ my boxing trainer asks.
‘Are you ready?’ he reconfirms.
I crawl into the ring and look around me. The red corner has solid support: the owner of my gym and my boxing trainer are there to advise me, three of our young Thai fighters will help between the rounds, at the foot of the ring are my two lovely Swedish friends, who believe in me so much it hurts, and in the audience – quite a few of my gym mates. To the sound of their happy and encouraging cheers I perform the wai khru boxing ‘dance’, and, returning to the red corner, have my mongkol removed by the owner of the gym. Him and my boxing trainer quickly wish me good luck, and the bell rings.