My days are quite busy doing the washing and cleaning and shopping and cooking and email and watching The Killing and Dexter and Prison Break and other great shows, while my partner goes out to work every day.
So it was with some concern that I found myself in a situation that intruded on my busy schedule.
I saw an ad for self-defence classes. Why not? I thought. I’m no martial artist but we’re in Ireland. Do something new. It’s daring! It’ll be fun! And it’ll give me something to talk about when I’m back in Australia. Also, it’s important to do constructive things when you’re in other countries.
The ad had a mysterious air, which was attractive to me. Also, it mentioned a special price when you sign up for a block of classes over so many weeks. Ergo, I phoned up and a few days later found myself going down this laneway in the centre of town:
The laneway had a mysterious underground passageway:
which led to Sensei Cato’s School of Celtic Self-Defence (or the SCSCSD). Photography was forbidden, so I have nothing to show you; but I feel I can relate some facts with impunity.
The first is that my classmates turned out to be rather eccentric fellows, very dour and even lugubrious. I firmly believe in introducing oneself and opening up dialogue. I did this on my first night (classes were always held at nighttime), dutifully asking each student about himself. Very few would answer me at all.
I stuck largely to myself from then on. Sensei Cato himself cultivated an air of mystery and eccentricity. The dojo was dimly lit, sometimes I could hardly see my fellow students, and Sensei would dress entirely in a close-fitting black outfit. In the first class, he exhorted us:
“One punch could kill you! Just one punch! You could have your testicles crushed! Then they could come after your family and kill them, one by one. It could all come down to one moment, one punch. You have to be ready for that moment. Go!”
Then everyone ran about like mad-fellows doing the self-defence techniques. I threw myself in vigorously too, until Sensei stopped me:
“You!” he roared at me. “Don’t fall down like an old woman!”
So for the next hour I threw myself down as energetically as possible — throwing oneself to the ground being the first principle in Sensei’s martial arts ‘fusion’ system. This was how each class would generally go. But there was another element that added to the stress of the class.
Sensei Cato’s particular strength was the surprise attack, which he would execute whenever an opening presented itself. You had to be on your guard not only on the mats, but as soon as you entered the dojo and indeed in the laneway outside the dojo.
He would jab, poke, kick, goose anyone who showed lack of awareness. I saw him drop on an advanced student from a height in the laneway. Sometimes he would just use his verbal chi; that is, he would jump out at students from doorways yelling a war cry.
This went on for two months. I was subject to these ambushes too, and it got to the point where I was flinching and falling all over the place whenever anyone touched me or raised their voice, no matter where I was.
One time I was standing in Hodges Figgis (a renowned Dublin bookshop, mentioned by James Joyce in Ulysses), lost in a really intriguing volume called The Diary of a Nobody by the brothers Grossmith, when suddenly I felt my legs give way and I fell backwards to the floor. I looked up in time to see a smallish man in tight-fitting black clothes darting through an exit.
As to venting with the other students about these ambushes, there was only one student in the class who spoke to me regularly — and I wished he did not. I would refer to this fellow as ‘the Joker’. It soon became clear that this Joker saw himself as being quite above Sensei Cato, or at least his fusion system (which he would derisively call kung-foosion, or con-fusion), and he boasted that he, the Joker, was only ‘slumming it’ here on sabbatical from his pursuit of more ‘authentic’ martial arts.
In the change room he would put on a bad Chinese accent. “You want to eat?” he would say, as if serving in a restaurant, “Well, far-queue! Far-queue!”
I pointed out that Sensei Cato was in fact not Chinese, but the Joker in response would go into his kung-fu mode, whipping me on the backside with his damp towel and saying, “Ho! Celtic Tiger, Hidden Wagon!”
“What wagon?” I said in annoyance.
“You know, wagon!”
“Fecking wagon!” The flat Dublinese was back. “The country, as in she’s an aul’ wagon.”
“Ah, fuck ya!”
I confess I was ready to leave the SCSCSD. The problem was that I had paid in advance for so many classes (thereby gaining the discount rate as mentioned), so naturally I couldn’t leave any of those classes unused.
But fate intervened and took the matter out of my hands.
My partner announced that Ryanair were offering incredibly cheap flights to Italy. She really wanted to go there for a holiday, a break from her rigorous work here.
“I don’t know how long the ticket offer will last,” she said, conscious of how sudden all this was.
“No, we should go, definitely,” I said.
“What about your self-defence classes?” she asked.
“That’s OK,” I said, shaking my head. “It’s important to seize the day. Those classes will have expired by the time we return but I’m happy to sacrifice them so long as we can have a good time. That’s why we’re here, remember. Carpe diem!”
So it was agreed: Italy it was. Before we left for our holiday I wrote a polite two-page letter to Sensei Cato, explaining in detail that while his classes were of immense value for the whole person (I expatiated on this) I regrettably could not continue with them due to imminent travel and likely further travel upon our return. I included a thank-you card with a nice generic Asian theme.
The challenge then was to drop it off at the dojo without actually having to explain it all to Sensei in person. I knew that often an advanced student would open the dojo ahead of Sensei’s arrival, and thus I would have a window of about fifteen minutes in which to enter the building and place my letter and card on Sensei’s table and depart without being seen.
So it was that on the night before we flew out I made my way into town and down the lane and through the underground passageway that led to the dojo. The way was clear! I deposited my letter and card, and after a quick word with an advanced student in which I briefly expressed how unfortunate it was that I had to discontinue training, I ducked out.
There’s an area of about twenty feet between the opening of the underground passageway and the laneway that is virtually in complete darkness all the time. It was here as I was leaving the place for the last time that I ran into something.
It was a raised leg deliberately blocking my way. I couldn’t make out the features of the small man whose leg this was and who was propped against the dank wall, but it had to be him.
“Ah, Sensei! Yes!” I said and at once was all in a doodah about whether to mention the card and letter and the Ryanair flights and everything. I’ve learned that keeping a dignified silence is the best answer in such situations; in this case I had to force my lips shut to achieve it.
But no motion or speech was forthcoming from him either. I really could hardly see a thing. His silence was maddening. I had to fight the desire to reach over and grab him. Strangely I had no fear of an attack — unless, I realised, this was the attack.
Then a voice emerged from that dark man-form, a low, gurgling voice. It said, “You think you are very smart.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, genuinely thrown, for this was not Sensei’s voice at all. Or was this part of his trap?
A sudden hissing laughter issued from him, and he continued: “But you are not. You’re quitting, aren’t you?”
I felt suddenly exposed. Had I missed something? How could he know about this? “Sorry, not following,” I said.
Then, disturbingly, he growled at me and through it expressed such impatience, anger and contempt that I was taken aback. And now the man-form leaned towards me and I felt a hard stubby finger poking my chest and then the finger flicked my jacket open with two jerky movements as if to reveal something underneath.
“The coward’s way out,” said he.
I had no words at that moment. I felt I understood nothing. I kept looking into the dark form that was his face, and I was convinced that the form I could see was not Sensei’s at all. This person was shorter but broader; the head much bigger. Then who — ?
The figure suddenly growled again, in a mocking way.
“Now look here,” I began, but then he dropped both his hand and the leg that barred my way.
I made to step past him, but his gurgling, hissing voice came again. “You can run,” he said, “but you can’t hide.”
With that he emitted a phlegm-filled chuckle which followed me as I hastened out the passageway and up into the laneway.
I kept moving, fast. Head down I made my way past Trinity College and into Grafton Street. I was not looking at all when I collided with someone coming out of Marks & Spencer, arms full of groceries.
“Ah Mr Risky!”
It was Sensei Cato!
It was the happiest, most normal I’d ever seen him. And he was wearing a shirt and tie. “You coming to class?” he asked. I said something like “Not sure”, to which he smiled and waved a bread stick at me. “OK! No worries!” he said and walked off, presumably to the dojo.
There was surely no way Sensei could have been here like this in the space of a few minutes. Not that I truly believed it was he who was in the darkness back there.
One thought I had was that it could have been the Joker, playing a stupid joke. But I knew the Joker, I knew his array of ‘foreign’ accents, and I knew in my gut that it wasn’t him. As I walked further up Grafton Street, amidst the throngs of late-night shoppers and tourists, I also wondered how the person, whoever it was, knew that I was ‘quitting’… I could still feel on my chest where his insistent finger had prodded me. Suddenly I stopped, realising who it was, and I shuddered: