‘Martial art, sans art’

I am taking tae kwon do lessons. There is only one other person in the class, a woman. The instructor is a little old Korean or Chinese lady. We are in an L-shaped room. When the lesson starts the woman and the little old lady appear to be slapping each other around and practising their ‘kicks’. The woman has not had a lesson before, just like me. When she goes to kick the instructor the little old lady says, “No—not like that. We don’t kick like that here—you must kick to the side and outside the legs.” The woman and I think this is ridiculous. If we wanted to protect ourselves we’d kick the person who was attacking us in the balls. “No, no—you must do it like this. It’s safer.” The instructor gives us thin blue sticks about six feet long with which to practice hitting her, and each other. The sticks are very flexible, as though made of plastic, and hollow, and no one could hurt a fly with them. We whip the old lady with these flexible, blue sticks—and she whips us. It’s ridiculous. Someone has just made up the rules of this stupid system and there is no art or reality to it at all. The little old lady brings in another instructor—a big, old lady that looks as though she’s been in charge of the tuck shop for thirty years, and keeping the ‘tuck’ for herself. Her dirty, worn dress has little printed flowers on it. When she approaches me I give her a push and she falls back onto some sofas that line the walls of the L-shaped room. The other student and I whip the tuck-shop lady with our flexible blue sticks. The tuck shop lady is laughing, but pretends to be outraged by our impudence. Both the instructors have had enough of us—their new students—and they decide to call in the ‘big guns’ to bring us into line. The third instructor, a tall and thickset old man in a tired-looking, light brown suit, has masses of wavy, yellowing, ash-blonde hair, and cigarette-stained hands with fingers thick as English sausages. He enters the room with a third and new student trailing behind him. This old man looks like one of the actors in an early episode of ‘Homicide’—an ageing cop who is supposed to be crusty and benign. But he has forgotten the benign bit… He holds out his hands in front of him like pincers—thumbs hovering over finger tips—and walks towards me menacingly. It is hard not to laugh. When his pincers catch me, though, it is no laughing matter: they cause a sharp pain. I return the compliment, but I don’t believe my fingers are strong enough to produce the required effect. The first lesson is over, in any case, and when we return for the second, the venue has changed. It is now a much larger room with floors that appear to be spring-loaded. We spend a lot of time jumping on the spot, higher and higher, until we can touch the ceilings. This doesn’t seem to be a preparation for anything, and I’m not sure we are really supposed to be doing it, but it’s fun and we don’t stop. There are now dozens of students, and the hall in which we have gathered is quite large and seems to have been outfitted professionally. The bouncing students are going up and down in neat rows. The ‘Homicide’ guy has turned up again, and while sitting on a low chair at the front of the room, he looks up at me and says, “I’m gonna strip you and make you wear this sock.” Yeah, sure, I think. The guy’s crazy. “No, you’re not.” He gets up and starts coming at me with those pincers, and pushing me around. When I put out my hand to push him away I notice he is wearing a nipple-ring underneath his shirt! I grab it… and pull it off, and the whole, old nipple with it. The attack on me is over when the white shirt begins to fill with blood, a dark red stain growing quickly underneath the ‘Homicide’ guy’s jacket.


Published as ‘Four events while sleeping’, incorporating ‘Poetry is a small house’, ‘Religion is the art of belief’, ‘Martial art, sans art’ and ‘The program’, FIVE:2:ONE print edition, August 2017.
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