Our new dojo is actually a scout hut and at the far end is a union jack on a flagpole. We’ve been told not to touch it. We get changed into our karate suits around the outside of the small hall like we always did in the old place. It’s nice to be somewhere new, the windows here aren’t cracked, the roof isn’t falling in, the windows actually open, there are no rats in the roof or heroin addicts hanging around outside. We’re in a much nicer part of town, it feels a bit tame. We line up, all ten of us, in two rows, the black haired sensei at the front and we begin to warm up. I’m standing behind my two children, Jess and Jay. They are the reason I am here.
Jay is twelve and already powerful; he’s tall and gangly with a blonde quiff that he messes with often and has a mouth full of metal braces. Jess is ten and a bit tubby, she has messy hair and stands with her feet pigeon toed and her karate suit tight and half way up her calves. She give the karate very little effort unless we are sparring. Jay is much better at karate than Jess or I. I am 43, tall and thin, I wear thick rimmed glasses and I am fit from the amount of running I do, but I’m not strong and I’m not a very good fighter. We have been coming here a year and are still white belts – beginners. Our suits are crumpled, even though I ironed them before we came, I’m starting to become aware of how important ceremony is here, in karate, there’s a right way to stand and move and bow. Maybe that’s true in all things.
We do kihon, punches and blocks all together, up and down the smooth wooden floor of the dojo, we line up facing each other in pairs and my partner is Jess. We practise kicks and she can’t get her foot above her waist. I try not to catch her eyes or I will start laughing and the sensei will make us do press-ups. She tries a high kick and lets out a fart that everyone hears – we are made to do 20 press ups. Later, Jay is asked if he likes ‘alignment’ (your feet should be aligned), he says no, and we do 20 press ups. We get 20 sit ups because I have used the wrong arm to punch, 20 squats when little Ben does not answer a question fast enough. It’s all good fun.
We spar. Jay is my partner, he attacks with punches and kicks and we end up grappling, I get behind him and wrap my arms around his back to try and pin his arms and stop him thrashing out. He looks over his shoulder I can see his teeth, covered in braces, barred in effort. My strong, fighting boy, laughs as he wrestles. I fight a string of others next, a thin lad of about 14, the sensei himself – very painful, Jay again – more grappling and then I take on Jess. She attacks with eyes wide, drags me by me karate suit and punches the fat bit of my arm, then kicks with fury. It’s a beautiful thing. It’s the best part of the week