issue six

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(2525 words)
Islington Zen
Andy P. Jones
                you do if someone tries to punch you in the face is this: Step back with your right leg while deflecting the blow overhead with your left arm. The Japanese call it age-uke. You are now perfectly set for the counter-punch to your opponent's exposed ribs - gyaku-tsuk-chudan. Confidence and timing are essential. The way you master this is repetition.

       Block, counter, repeat. Ich, ni, san, shi, go.

       In the changing rooms afterwards, someone tells you about a tenth-degree black-belt from Okinawa. He was eating noodle soup in his log cabin when a hurricane whipped itself up out of thin air. This swirling mess of hundred mile-an-hour wind sucked up a yew tree and spat it out through the old man's roof. He looked up from his supper to see two tons of wood crashing towards his head. A moment of truth?

       Age-uke - rising block.

       Sometimes the sensei merely deflects the tree, other times he busts it in half - depending on who tells the story.

       Repetition, repetition, repetition.

       A black-belt is only black on the surface. The belt is several feet of inch-and-a-half-wide white cotton bound in black silk, it's wrapped twice around the waist and fastened in front with a square knot, or dobok. Over years of knotting and un-knotting, the black silk frays, revealing more and more of the white cotton beneath. Eventually the black belt becomes entirely white - symbolising the wearer's return to a state of unknowing. A state of doing, not thinking. Like the guy with the yew tree.

       It's all very zen.

       I had a blue towel wrapped around my waist when my moment of truth came calling.

       It's four snooze buttons past last-minute on a Someday morning two Augusts ago. I'm about to jump in the shower when someone rings the doorbell. Then someone bangs on the door really hard. BamBamBam. Another blast on the doorbell and another three knocks on the knocker. Normally I'd ignore this, but whoever just knocked three times really wants me.

       When I open the door there's a guy bent over in my garden, picking up small stones. The garden is at the bottom of half a dozen steps, so when he looks up over the top of his glasses and starts shouting about insurance, all I'm thinking is, Can this bloke see up my towel from down there?

       He starts up the steps pointing his finger and saying something about water, and flooding, and computers; there are spit-bungees between his lips, and the veins on his high forehead are standing out like cords of purple wool.

       "Sorry?" I say, sucking in my gut and holding the towel tighter around my thighs.

       "Your fucking plumbing is leaking on my fucking office."

       From where I'm standing I could hoof this bloke down the steps and half way across the street.

       "What are you on about?" I say. "Take a breath."

       "Water on my fucking PC. Your fucking water's coming throu -"

       "Whoa, steady on, mate, who are you? Where do you come from?"  I say the last five words extra slow.

       He stops and looks at me as if he doesn't know the answer to these questions. But this is okay, because I've woken up a bit by now and figured it out for myself.

       Back then, I lived in a North London Victorian terrace. These were stocky, three-storey houses, the ground floor of most of them occupied by various commercial concerns: two hair salons, a patisserie, a wine bar. The flat I was renting was sitting above a high-end fireplace shop.

       "Give me a minute," I say a little more reasonably. "I'll just -"

       "Yeah, well I haven't got a minute, we're treading fucking water down here..."

       I consider explaining that the taps are still running upstairs, and that my hundred-year-old plumbing is still dripping through his rafters - but he seems to be on a roll so I let him roll on until he runs out of breath. The people at the bus-stop across the street are tuning in now and looking at me standing there in my towel. I don't even have a tan.

       "Look," I say, "I can't do anything stood here -"

       He's still ranting about ducks and insurance and Welsh slate and Italian marble. It's clear that there's no reasoning with this guy, so I smile and shut the door in his face.

       There's stuff they don't teach on the average traditional karate syllabus - lessons you're more likely to learn outside nightclubs or on football terraces. Like how to manipulate your opponent's adrenaline. Switch it off by affecting fear or passivity, for instance, or dial it up too high with displays of aggression or indifferent confidence. Either method upsets his rhythm, undermines his resolve and gives you the edge.

       I stand under the shower just long enough to rinse off my neighbour's spit, and then just a little longer for spite. I put on my second-best suit, fasten my tie, and - half a mug of coffee later - I step over the threshold of N8 Fireplaces.

       The showroom is all slabs of marble and shag pile carpet, like a cross between a graveyard and your favourite auntie's house. The carpet must be to help you picture the various fireplaces as if they were in your own home. Or your auntie's. There's a fabulously ornate job with a real fire blazing away at the back of the store. It's the middle of summer, and as you enter the shop the heat hits you the way it does stepping off a Christmas flight to Australia.

       It must be past nine o'clock by now because they've got customers. An old couple in tweed and fur are checking out a black marble number that stands out on the white carpet like a yardie at a garden party. Some guy, he must be the owner, is enthusing over the hand-crafted detail on the mantle, and Mr and Mrs Middle England 1939 are hanging on every word as if he's sharing the secret of eternal life.

       I'm looking about the place for evidence of this flood, when I spot the guy who, twenty minutes ago, was trying to knock my door off its hinges. He's sitting on a folding chair with a laptop across his knees; his face is still red but he seems several increments less irate.

       "Hi," I say walking towards him, "I'm from next door. Upstairs."

       And he's on his feet - Yeah, well you're not from here are you?  Your place isn't flooded it?  You haven't got water running into your computer … etc.

       "Fine," I say turning to leave. "Fuck you," I add over my shoulder.

       Tweed and Fur love that one, but I'm late for work and at least there I get paid to take abuse.

       I'm halfway to the door when a calm, firm voice says, "Wait."

       I look back expecting to see the owner, but it's the guy. He's walking towards me and polishing his glasses on the front of his checked shirt. It's as if he's taken the world's fastest acting Xanax.

       "I want to show you something," he says, indicating the back of the showroom with a tilt of his head.

       I follow obediently, muttering my approval at his change of attitude, as he leads me between a maze of fireplaces, through a workshop that smells like a glue-sniffer's paradise, and into a cobbled yard at the rear of the shop.

       The guy steps in front of me, gets right in my personal space, "See that roof?" he says, and his breath is toothpaste and cigarettes.

       I crane my neck to look over his shoulder. He looks bigger up close, and I'm wondering what we're doing in this alley. I frown, "What?"

       He points to the sky with two fingers, like he's aiming a gun. "See that fucking roof?"

       Here we go again.

       I take a quarter-step backwards, "What? That fucking roof?"

       He pokes me high on the forehead with his finger-pistol.

       This ain't right. Fireplace shops. Plumbing. Ducks. This bloke just poked me in the fucken head.

       So I do the only sensible thing, I reach up and take the guy's glasses off for him.

       And he punches me square in the face. He's got big fists, this fucker; he's hit me in the nose and the teeth with one shot, and it looks like I'm having blood for breakfast.

       I'm still holding the guy's specs as I stagger three full steps backwards. With each successive step backwards my legs buckle a little further at the knees; by the time I stop retreating I'm in a semi-crouch, as if I'm making a fighting stance.

       Ippon is a perfect point in semi-contact karate. Blows are stopped just short of the skin, demonstrating precision and control. An ippon is knockout punch or kick; a technique that, in a street situation, would incapacitate your opponent. There are no weight classes in semi-contact competition because technique should transcend size. Excessive contact earns a warning or a disqualification. Not to say that the odd lip isn't thickened - happens all the time.

       Competitors kneel in rows on opposite sides of the mat, and wait for their names to be called. You affect an air of nonchalance as you survey the faces and play Spot the Psycho.

       What about the snarling skinhead? Maybe he shaves his head because his hair is receding. Maybe he snarls because he's nervous. Or then again..?  How about this wide-eyed choirboy with the basin-cut and the neatly ironed gi? Is he wide-eyed with fear or barely-restrained aggression? Is he a nerd or a nutter? Will the referee be helping him to his feet, or dragging him off by the scruff off the neck? Place your bets…

       There's no referee coming to my rescue here, it's just me and my downstairs neighbour. He's standing square-on, fists clenched, arms hanging loosely by his sides. He looks different without his glasses; I remember that I'm holding them, and drop them to the concrete.

       "You want some more?" he asks.

       "Yes," I say, and I'm driving forward. No spinning kicks, no knife-hand strikes, no gyaku-tsuki. I'm just swinging and flailing.

       He hits me maybe three more times. Crisp, clean shots, hitting hard with both hands. A series of violent reorientations. I don't register where the blows land, don't feel anything on the surface at all. It hurts inside, there's a widening haze of pain behind my skull and between my eyes. My legs are soft and everything is painted in watercolours.

       "Had enough?" this six-foot blob in a check shirt asks.

       I shake my head, rush forwards, and then jam on the brakes just outside of his range. Rush. Stop. A pink blur curves from left to right across my vision, a punch that connects with nothing but thin air. I close the distance landing one of my own, bang on the button. I wrap my arms around his waist and heave him off the floor. He's heavier than he looks, and we hit the cobbles hard - him on his back, me on him.

       "Stop this, get off him." I don't know who shouts this, because my head is buried in a chequered armpit.

       I'm blindly groping for something to get hold off, some way to prise this arm from around my head. All I can feel is muscle. I find a thick finger and try to force it backwards. White spots are popping and crackling behind my eyelids, and my ears are filled with a high, thin whine. Jesus, even this fucker's fingers are solid. My mouth and bust nose are full of blood and snot and they're smothered against this guy's body. I can't get enough air. The white spots are fat spreading blobs, like a projectionist's light spilling through burning celluloid. The high-pitched whine is bouncing off the inside of my skull. What if he kills me by accident?

       What if he kills me on purpose?

       I give up on the fingers, and go for dirty glory. I find the guy's crotch and close my fist around his bunched testicles. I squeeze until the tips of my fingers push against the base of my palm though the guy's chinos, then I yank the whole job left and right and anyway I can. The fucker's thrashing around underneath me like a whale out of water.

       "For god's sake stop this. Brian, stop this." It's got to be the owner, and I guess the guy trying to kill me must be Brian. Hi, Brian, pleased to meet you.

       If anything, Brian's grip tightens. I stop squeezing and wrenching and pound my fist repeatedly into his testicles. I miss once or twice and connect with the concrete between his legs. My fist is numb and almost certainly broken, but I'm on a mission to sterilise Brian, and I hammer away relentlessly.

       His legs stop paddling the air, and his upper body goes into convulsions. The force of it lifts us briefly off the floor. His chest heaves; thick, warm liquid splashes down the back of my neck, and Brian's grip goes limp.

       I gather myself up and have to try really, really hard not to kick Brian in the head, where he lies puking in a big foetal ball. It takes a moment to orientate myself, and the owner practically jumps aside as I lurch towards the workshop. The solvent fumes sting the broken membranes inside my nose, and Jesus Christ my head hurts.

       "Maybe next time you'll take care of your plumbing," the owner says behind me. He's followed me through to the showroom, but as I turn to stare at him, he backs up into the workshop. I hock up a mouthful of blood and spit it onto the white shag pile. The owner looks from the mess on his carpet to me and back again. His jaw opens and closes by degrees as if it has a life of its own, and a couple of times he comes really close to getting an actual word out.

       Back in the flat I take a long shower, but no one rings the doorbell.

       I miss the place - decent rented accommodation is hard to come by in London. The flat was a quiet end-of-terrace and, other than the shops below, my only neighbours were a young married couple saving to buy a place of their own. Their one extravagance was a week's skiing every Christmas.

       I guess it was lucky for them that N8 fireplaces burnt down on Boxing Day. I wish I could have seen it, but I was staying with my brother in Surrey. Apparently, some idiot left a cigarette burning in that workshop full of paint, and glue and solvents. Me? I don't even smoke. But I'll bet it was a Marlborough Light - just like the ones Brian used to stub out on my doorstep.

       When they interviewed me, the police asked me what I found so damn funny. Come on, I said, a fire in a fireplace shop? Anyway - do I look like an arsonist?


M  C  R

This work is copyrighted by the author, Andy P. Jones. All rights reserved.
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