Judo teaches us to look for the best possible course of action, whatever the individual circumstances.
One cold, wet evening in late October, 1965, I was to be found sitting in the spectators’ gallery of the Sheffield University sports hall, situated a few hundred yards from the main campus. Having nothing else to do, I’d accompanied a classmate to his fencing practice. Little did I know that I had a meeting with fate that evening — that a casual glance down would change my life.
Talking about my life, it had been quite challenging over the previous few weeks — settling into my digs, finding my way around the Arts Tower and the Union, and trying to make new friends. It was proving harder than I had thought. A few days into the first term, I had watched the Rag Day floats, full of boisterous students, crawling down Western Bank at a snail’s pace, and felt very much like the new girl in town. Everywhere I looked there seemed to be groups of laughing friends, or, what was even worse, couples with their arms wrapped tightly around each other, gazing into each other’s eyes.
When my schoolfriend, Helen, had returned to her digs, I stood there amongst the broken spars of wood and scraps of painted canvas that were all that was left of the floats, and felt a sense of piercing loneliness. I had never felt lonely before — had never lived alone. At home in Blackpool, I had family and friends. Here there was nobody. Apart from Helen, I didn’t know a soul in Sheffield. There were faces and bodies all around me, but not a single one was familiar. All I wanted was a hand to hold or an arm about my shoulders. When none came, the world suddenly felt cold and empty.
But I was only eighteen, after all, and soon cheered up. I had my whole life in front of me. Sitting in the spectators’ gallery, my duffel coat wrapped around my shoulders for warmth, I squinted through the clouds of testosterone wafting up from the judo club members wrestling with each other below my line of sight, and tried to make out what was going on in the fencing class at the other end of the gym.
From time to time, however, I’d look down at the new judo recruits going through their paces on the tatamis spread out on the polished wood floor. Most of them were weedy first-year students, with long, thin legs and knobbly knees. Their exposed chests were hairless and painfully undeveloped, and their skin had the pale translucence of dead fish, occasionally marred with the flaring red of an acne outbreak. My eyes slid over them without interest, then stopped and widened in appreciation.
Their coach, or trainer, or whatever he was, was standing there with his hands on his hips, unsmiling, as he watched them performing shoulder rolls on the tatami. His eyes narrowed as he followed their movements. From time to time he would demonstrate the roll himself, throwing himself forward with practiced ease. His dark hair, wet with sweat, despite the chilly temperature in the gym, flopped over his forehead until, with an impatient gesture, he pushed it back. I gazed admiringly at his broad shoulders, and, although I couldn’t see the colour of his eyes, I was captured by the fringe of long lashes veiling them.
Oblivious to my stare burning a hole in his kimono, he didn’t glance up and continued with his training session. “Too bad,” I murmured to myself, reflecting sadly that I was always attracted to the dark, brooding — and ultimately unobtainable — type. He was most certainly out of my league, as he looked to be in his early twenties, older than the eighteen-year-olds he was coaching. Perhaps a junior lecturer or a postgraduate student? It was with some regret that I tore my eyes away and turned my attention back to the fencing.
I didn’t recognise T when he approached me in the Union a few days later — he looked different with his clothes on — and it took me a while to put two and two together. The good news was that he seemed just as interested in me as I was in him, but the bad news was that I had to share him with his judo schedule. He’d train for two or three hours every Tuesday and Thursday evening and take part in inter-university tournaments at weekends. It was fine if these tournaments were held in Sheffield, but he often had to travel to other venues with his fellow team members.
When we’d been together just over a month, and with the Christmas vacation due to start in a couple of days, he had to go to Swansea to try and obtain his next belt. Our relationship was brand new and I was apprehensive about the looming separation. I was still unsure of my feelings, but there was something about him that had me muddling my words and blushing uncontrollably whenever he was around. Looking at my miserable face, and with his friends waiting impatiently, he leaned against the wall in the Union building and pulled me to him for a long moment, before sauntering off with the rest of the team, sports bag slung over his shoulder.
But not everything about judo was romantic. Usually it meant a succession of bruised shins, broken ribs, sweaty jockstraps and kimonos -— I once dyed them pink by mistake at the launderette — and a strict ban on any kind of physical intimacy the night before a fight. Above all, there was the knot of fear in my stomach whenever I watched him step on to the tatami and bow to his opponent before a fight. I was somewhat reassured at the beginning when I saw him smiling during his fights — it couldn’t be so bad if he were smiling, surely? My confidence took a dive, however, when I learnt that he always smiled when things became really tricky.
He’d started judo soon after independence when he was at the University of Algiers. It wasn’t as well-known then, usually going under the name of ju-jitsu, and it was difficult finding anyone who actually practiced it. Ju-jitsu is the father of judo, but they are, in fact, two completely different types of martial art. T had been attracted to the whole package — the opportunity to let off steam through sport and the ceremonial precision of it all. He must be the only Algerian ever born never to have shown the slightest interest in football.
T became captain of the university team in his third year. Sometimes I would accompany him for the away tournaments, including one trip to Birmingham, where we had an Algerian friend, Bibi. He and I made our way up to the spectators’ gallery, and waited for T to appear. Members of each team were supposed to be evenly matched, but the problem was that the captain of the Birmingham team was a black belt. Not only that, he was over six feet tall, a huge bear of a man, with burly shoulders, a neck roped with muscle and hair sprouting everywhere, even on his back. I closed my eyes on seeing T and his opponent bow to each other and heard Bibi muttering, “Aïe! Aïe! Aïe!” to himself like an incantation.
I was praying fervently to the gods of judo when Bibi let out a loud whoop of triumph. “Il l’a fait tomber! Il l’a fait tomber!” (He threw him! He threw him!) he shouted, and flung his arms around me. I opened my eyes just in time to see the giant flat on his back with T straddling him, trying to put him in an armlock.
T didn’t win his fight, because the giant decided to park his considerable weight on his chest and he was forced to yield. But it was enough that he had been able to throw his opponent, a feat nobody had managed before. T told me later that, as he was waiting for his turn on the tatami, a member of the opposing team had been standing behind him, muttering, “Just you wait and see! He’s going to tear you limb from limb!” Luckily for me — and for T — it didn’t turn out that way.
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