In the blue corner, wearing 4oz gloves, is the Ninja. Real name Klynton. The younger of my two grandsons. Also known as Ninge. Aged three. Weighed in at 35lbs. Blue eyes, blond hair. Not yet fluent in the language. Has only one word — juvvy. Nobody knows what juvvy is. Possibly a neologism. The word is now in common and versatile use within the family as a substitute for any noun. Example: ‘What’s on the juvvy tonight?’ Otherwise as mute as a fish. We’ve tried him in French and drawn a blank there also. Once a week his father takes him to Chatter Time, a pre-school group for three-year-olds.
The Ninja appears preoccupied by a private world that is even more interesting than this one. He is impervious to physical pain. He is only aware of mental pain. Easily irritated. Hair-trigger temper. Becomes enraged at the intransigence of inanimate objects. Cries pitifully if he loses sight of his father, even when his father is in the same room. Otherwise a radiant, slightly blank smile. Favourite pastime: opening and shutting things. His passion in life. Unless forcibly prevented, he will open and shut a door, or a drawer, or a kitchen cupboard door with unflagging interest for hours. Loves his grub. Eats anything. Loves his bed. Looks forward every night to going there. Settles down into it with an expression on his face of ineffable joy, just like his grandfather. His visiting care worker says there is nothing wrong with him. Says that some children begin to speak much later than others. Says it might be a confidence thing. Says that if it turns out that the Ninja is on the autism spectrum, she doesn’t know anything about children. We think he is, and that she doesn’t. But we don’t care. He’s a fine chap. His fighting stance is unorthodox. He is holding his gloves way out in front like a sleepwalker and he is rolling his head in ecstasy. The big money bets are on him to win in the first round. But that stance and attitude has his backers exchanging anxious looks.
In the red corner, also in the 4oz gloves for the first time — Mr Chops. Real name Oscar. The elder grandson. Aged four and a half. Weighed in at 37lbs. Blue eyes, blond hair. Fluent in the language. Too fluent, if you ask his father. A confident, non-stop speaker. Says words like finally, unfortunately and Madagascar. Writes his name with an ‘a’ for apple that looks too much like a ‘q’ for queen but thinks he has cracked the writing game. Knows where Madagascar is on an atlas. Knows everything already, in fact. Furiously angry if gainsaid. Vivid imagination. Less keen on being kissed and hugged than he was when he was young. Can pass his finger slowly through a candle flame and back again.
Punches himself in the head and falls down when bored. His laugh currently a work in progress. Throws back his head and laughs like a pantomime villain. It’s that or nothing. Alarming. Enjoys driving. Beats his grandfather at dominoes and memory card games. Cheats deplorably without guile or compunction. Hates losing. Absolutely refuses. Interested in colours. Can jump from the fifth stair. Likes to play football in the garden with his shirt off. Any excuse to take his shirt off. Kicks the ball like a pro with the outside of his foot. Can do headers. Favourite book at the moment: The Day Louis Got Eaten. Health generally good. Willy currently blackened by impetigo, but responding well to treatment. Attends pre-school class four days a week. Has two best friends, Tom and Jack, neither of whom will consent to play with him. It is the one great sadness of his life. Mr Chops favoured punch is the uncontrolled haymaker, delivered like a discus. His fighting stance is the double arm windmill action.
I am about to tinkle my little bell for the start of round one when their father appears. It has been a difficult year for their father. He is raising the boys singlehandedly and working 12-hour shifts in a nursing home. He is wan and permanently exhausted. Despairing looks are the only ones I get from him these days. He comes in looking crazy, his pale-blue carer’s smock under his jacket, and sinks down into a chair. The young amateur boxers dash over to their father — their favourite punchbag — climb up on to his chair, and administer a damn good leathering. Their father cowers weakly in his chair as the blows rain down. ‘Good day at the office?’ I ask him. He looks out at me between the blows and I get another one of those desperate looks.
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