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Our new home was finished and ready for occupation at the beginning of July, 1989. I was so ready for the move, to leave the house that held the unhappy memory of our moving-in day being also the day my brother died.
We closed the door for the last time and my husband went off in his car to deliver the keys to the estate agent and I set off in mine to collect our new keys from the sales office and to await the arrival of the removal van.
Half an hour later I was opening our new front door and stepping into the empty, echoing hallway.
I tried to feel excited, but knew that the butterflies fluttering inside me were really due to the feeling I had had when standing on the foundation slab just a few months ago. If the premonition, if that’s what it had been, was correct, I would not long be resident in this house.
In my heart I knew the why it could prove to be true, but I just didn’t want to focus on that, or contemplate the possibility that there would be a when.
The house was one of five built in a horseshoe shape in a snug little close on the edge of the small housing estate, and we were the last to move in. It turned out we were all like-minded people, so soon we were visiting each other’s new homes, having drinks in our yet-to-be-landscaped gardens, and getting to know each other. I loved the house and the area: beautiful countryside for rambles and picnics, lovely neighbours, useful shops and a pretty pub nearby — but the nagging sensation, the ‘knowing’ I couldn’t talk about or explain, the overwhelming feeling that I was in the wrong place in so many ways was getting stronger day by day.
My stomach was in a constant state of ‘churn’, my turmoil not helped by the awful, gut-wrenching knowledge that I was keeping inside. I was rapidly losing weight.
The bitter truth that I was trying so hard to fight – that I no longer loved my husband – could not be denied, but facing up to the consequences of leaving, the appalling upheaval and misery that decision would cause, was too much. I knew I didn’t want to be married any more, but the alternative, so soon after moving into our beautiful new home, was just too much to handle. I continued to keep silent, hoping my feelings would change.
I needed a distraction and, thankfully, karate fit the bill perfectly. I continued to go to the club twice a week and the discipline and focus needed throughout each two hour session silenced my thoughts. There were comments about my weight, though, and my karate trousers had to be tightened and tightened so they didn’t fall from my waist and puddle round my ankles!
Two months after moving, the day dawned to draw on all my courage and take the brown belt grading. I had completed the other grades with relative ease, but I was warned by those who had already achieved it that the brown belt was going to be much, much harder. By now I was a mess emotionally with everything I was keeping inside, so I entered the Dojo (training hall) with trepidation.
This is what I had to do to pass the elite brown belt test: five hours of gruelling exercise, non-stop punch bags, running, star jumps, sit ups and examinations — when you weren’t in front of the examining Sensei you had to keep moving – so it was seriously hard going. I performed all my katas (set-pattern movements) successfully, and every one I completed correctly moved me on and up to the big moment: sparring with two men at the same time who wore the coveted black belts. I was already exhausted by the time I stepped up and bowed to my opponents, but I would simply have to overcome it because these two huge black belts were still fit and raring to go! I weighed less than 8 stone, they were enormous, barrel-chested and, if not for the sparkle of humour and goodwill in their eyes, very intimidating.
But karate is not about hurting people, it’s about discipline in defence, so even though you get bruises on shins and forearms, the movements should flow like a dance so that any potentially harmful blows can be blocked. I thought I was doing pretty well, fending off the other two and getting some good moves in. But suddenly I was caught off guard and an unseen kick jabbed me in the stomach and completely knocked the wind out of me.
Down I went, like the proverbial sack of potatoes.
I could hear the black belt who had kicked me whispering ‘sorry,’ but that wasn’t helping. I was in a heap on the floor, in pain and gasping for breath, and my Sensei was counting me down. If I didn’t stand up and complete the grading, I was OUT!
Could I do it?
The two black belts were quietly imploring, their lips barely moving, “Come on, Jane, come on. Don’t give up! Just another minute to go! Get up and finish it! GET UP!”
My Sensei announced, “Five seconds…four…three…” His voice was measured and calm, but I could feel his eyes boring into me, willing me to find the strength to get up before my time ran out.
I could sense the energy in the Dojo, I could feel the other students willing me to move, to stand up and carry on, and for the first and only time in my life I literally saw red. I had not come this far, trained so hard, to fail in the last few seconds of the grading. I convinced myself I didn’t really need breath to haul myself up, so I got to my feet using the ‘red in my head’ to fuel my determination and I launched a roundhouse kick at the black belt to my left. He parried and blocked, but with low voices, both men encouraged me and guided me through the remaining time until at last we were called to a halt.
Exhausted, every muscle trembling and my face flaming with exertion, I stood between the black belts, a skinny, five foot nothing 32-year-old between two giants. The man who had kicked me held me steady with a firm grip on my belt at my back as we made our bows.
All that was left was the Award Ceremony. Had I made it? We all sat cross-legged on the wooden floor and, demanding the torture of patience, the awards started with the lower grades and worked upwards. As each name was called, the person stood and bowed while the decision was given and I cheered with everyone else as every pass was announced.
I could hardly breathe waiting for my own name, and when at last it came I struggled to my feet again.
I felt rather sick from the winding, my ribs aching, but I bowed low, keeping my back straight. When I came upright again and looked at Sensei he was grinning as he announced that I had done it!
The brown belt was mine and I think the cheers that greeted my achievement was the loudest of the day, because everyone had witnessed just how hard I had fought for it!
But the euphoria could only carry me so far, and as I drove home in high elation my heart was telling me what I really needed to do.
And I needed to do it soon.
J Merrill Forrest is the author of two novels, Flight of the Kingfisher and The Waiting Gate and a collection of poetry, Natural Alchemy. All are available from the usual sources, including Amazon, in paperback or e-book formats.