Black Belt

Clare Manley.
A 47-YEAR-OLD WOMAN WITH MILD LEARNING DISABILITIES. 

creative partner Emma Claire Sweeney

reader Polly Kemp

I won a medal. It’s gold. But my medal to me is my own bedroom in my own flat. Years it took. Years working in the hotel kitchen. Years reeling from my dismissal. As soon as my hip started playing up, I hid all medals.

The pain in my hip’s not so sharp today. I’ll be back on my feet in no time. Three flights of stairs there are to my own flat. And then, judo, the Sensei’s mantra.

‘Maximum efficiency with minimum effort.’

I might never get back on the mat, but I’m still a fighter. My hip’s titanium. Stronger than gold. The surgeon told me that it means you can’t pull it apart.  

I’ll never forget that match. We both have a learning disability, both lightweights but she’s taller. 

Sensei picked up on my nerves. ‘Get on the mat and beat her.’

Hai-ya!’ 

My shoulder under her armpit. I want to flip her over. Grappling, knee between knees, leg between legs. I clinch it with a koshi guruma her body over my hip. I pin her to the mat, we are eye to eye. She is scared of me. 

But she doesn’t buck beneath my grip. She is the girl I used to be.

I was tricked into judo. It was supposed to be an exercise class. For women. I expected a female instructor. Not a judo teacher.  Not a policeman. But when DCI Jones handed me the tunic and pants, something about the weight of the thick cotton made me want to feel it against my skin, something about its bright whiteness and freshly laundered scent.   

Hai-ya!’ Sensei taught us to shout. 

Hai-ya!’ My voice loud after years of keeping my mouth shut.

Back then, I didn’t know then about my hip. ‘Deformed’ the surgeon called it. 

No one at the dojo knew what to say when I told them about the operation. ‘I have to give up’. Even DCI Jones fell silent. ‘Whatever happens,’ Sensei whispered, ‘No one can take your medal away.’ I knew we were both thinking of what happened.

He’s a big guy, DCI Jones. Head shaved, blackbelt. He yelled at us. ‘Who thinks they can keep me down?’ Only I leapt to my feet, shouting ‘Hai-ya!’ 

We bowed to each other. No sooner had we both stood tall than I slipped my leg between his and flicked up my foot. He toppled. I straddled him, my hands on his neck in a choke. I wanted to squeeze all the breath from his body. Let him wheeze as I had, riding the bus alone from the station the day the police dismissed my story, the day they told me I’d not be considered credible in a court of law. In the dojo, when I had a man down on the mat, all I could feel was the kitchen chef’s burn-marked hands crawling all over me, his gold signet ring, cold against my neck. Now when I looked down at DCI Jones there was no ring pressing into my skin. The policeman slapped the mat. It was over. I had won. This was gold. Pure gold.

Clare Manley

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