I remember the sound. The slap of flesh against padded fabric. I looked down the shaft of my arm, seeing the mould of my fist still in the foam. Pulling away with one arm, I thrust the other from my waist, through my hips in rhythmic sequence. Exactly as I had practiced over and over for months, years even. I was preparing for my Karate grading (I think for my brown belt, second Dan) with my Dad, who I was also coaching through his blue belt kata techniques.
He stood upright, front knee bent, mirroring me on the other side of the padded shield, shoulder down like a Spartan, the full pad against his body, one tattooed arm resting over the top.
‘Good girl, great power,’ he said, ‘and again. Great. Have a drink, ‘ he said as he tucked the strand of hair that had come loose behind my ear. ‘Great that, sweetheart. Bit more through your hips and you’ll get even more power into it.’ I nodded into his smiling eyes.
He was whom I wanted to be like. I wanted his super powers. People who don’t know him are scared of him. People who do are stilled by his quiet care, even now. I hoped for the gene-swell of muscles, rounded and defined, to fill out my own body, my own biceps .I wanted to be strong enough that I might be free to be gentle enough for others to respect me, and my kindness.
On that afternoon, I walked away to the punch bag we had suspended next to the shed. The sky was warm; I was ready to call it a day for my combinations. But I started to jab without gloves at the bag like I’d seen my Dad do. The rattle of the chains sounded good but the force on my knuckles was immediate. I wanted to stop but I also wanted to show my Dad what I could do in this other discipline, this discipline where my biceps wouldn’t be hidden by the stiffness of a Gi.
I practised Shukokai Karate twice a week from the age of four. I joined with three of my cousins, all older and less disciplined than I. The eldest cousins dropped off the quickest and I wonder if they needed another martial art to harness their energy. Maybe Muay Thai, or maybe Brazilian Jui Jitsu might have suited them better. Maybe boxing. Boxing seemed to me the cure for errant and escaping vigour. But maybe that would just have lead to bloodier fights between them.
I didn’t feel it then but on reflection, through those deep pink shades through which childhood always looks like summer, that Skukokai Karate was my martial art – it combined high intensity sparring with disciplined technical movement not dissimilar to dance. Self-defence stirred up with structured and powerful performance and since it had been decided that my contribution to ballet was too heavy handed, it was my way of reconciling my strength with my grace.
‘Come on, let’s do five more minutes.’ Dad said, firm and fair, like usual.
‘Can we do some boxing?’ I was negotiating. Almost immediately, my mindset had shifted to a zero sum game – from Karate to boxing, or nothing.
‘No, love. Let’s just finish the last few combos with the kicks.’ He said.
‘No, Daaad. Teach me some boxing.’ I pointed at him with my wide eyes.
My Dad had been a boxing trainer. Or maybe he’d shown one kid once how to throw a proper punch. I don’t know. He hadn’t told me this, my Mum had. That’s generally how I hear about the history of Rob Crowley – through my Mum’s anecdotes, or through my grandparents’. And even though my Mum and Dad are divorced, my Dad is still a hero to both sides of my family. Needless to say, there are a few missing pieces of the Daddy jigsaw that I’m still to discover, let alone press in.
I thought of him then as a Gladiator (remember the Saturday night TV show with Ulrika Johnson and John Fashanu? If you don’t I feel sad for you, those were the days of the best reality TV stars – professional athletes who were strong and fit and got paid to run around obstacle courses for a living).
Kicking around a football during the Summer holidays, listening to the pop as the leather deflected off feet, scratching my eyes puffy as cut grass leaped about us, I told my friends Dad was going to try out to appear on the televised competition – which he was, he told me he was – but for some reason never did.
My cousins and I talked about it a lot. We’d already decided whom we’d take with us to Blackpool in the new car he would win in the season finale. I can still see those cars now – great big monster trucks they looked to me then – red for the female champions, blue for the males. I wanted the blue one. Good thing my pops is a boy.
My favourite Gladiators were Jet and Shadow; my Dad’s were Warrior, Hunter, and Lightening. We talked about their strengths and statistics over our Saturday night treats like Malteasers and Mars bars and Doritos and microwaveable popcorn. Dad being a rugby player loved the gauntlet event (which for contestants, Warrior was possibly the toughest to overcome even before they veered headlong into one after the other of the remaining bulls is the queue – one hundred and thirty two kilos of rounded dense tissue, which may as well have been carved out of bronze for all its impenitent impermeability). My dad is that for me – a one-man gauntlet. He stands about me, all directions, one great hunk of animal matter, a deflector of force, a protector against those trying to run at me.
If you’ve not got a full visual yet, he’s built like a heavyweight. He has fists like ham hocks or gammon steaks, which he’d always open to hold my hand across the road – even beyond the time a child finds it acceptable, especially one as independent and self-sufficient as me.
His voice interrupted my thoughts: ‘No. Come on. Finish this before the ice-cream man comes round.’ He looked at his watch. He knew when my concentration was seeping out through my ears and toes, when he needed to push me on. He picked up the Karate pad again and struck up his pose in the middle of the turf.
I focused on the punch bag. I lowered my stance, as I’d seen him do. I brought my guard in to my cheekbones and I literally dug my heels in, which in boxing makes you vulnerable.
Karate I knew. It had been moulded into my muscle memory, my brain function; it was like a rod that reinforced my spine defining how I carried myself.
I practised Karate three times a week from the age of nine. That’s when I started taking it more seriously – I competed against boys and girls up to the age of twelve at a tournament and I was starting to prepare seriously for my black belt. The other nights of the week I thrashed through a swimming pool, flicked and whooshed through a shuttlecock and splayed myself out in Goal Defence position at netball. I was OK at those other hobbies but I didn’t get half the respect from the other players as I did when on the mats. Respect was good – I liked that. And I liked being able to apply my body as leverage.
I got hurt a few times. And the time it hurt the most stung double because of the great gaping rip in my pride. It was the naughty kid. The one with ADHD. His Mum dropped him off, with his money and his juice drink, for an hour and half of peace. He had lots of energy and aggression and not very much focus or technique. He was just wilding out.
He cracked me with a haymaker, right in the nose. I knew as soon as I was paired with him that he was going to hurt me. He was all coordinated unorthodoxy. I was all tentative poise. My hands, my feet, my legs were in the right place; my nose, regrettably wasn’t and before I knew it I was catching red droplets in my cupped palm and shuffling through misty eyes to the bathroom.
When I got there I let the tears fall out.
‘Is there anyone in there, love? Make sure you look around,’ Dad said.
‘Just me.’ I said.
‘OK, I’m coming in.’
‘No, don’t.’ But he did and I couldn’t stop the crying. As he held both sides of my face up to the fluorescent light and inspected the inside and bridge of my nose up close, I winced – partly though shame and partly through pain. Mostly shame.
‘It isn’t broken, love. You’re OK,’ he said and kissed me on my crown, getting up.
I wanted it to be broken. I wanted there to be a valid reason why (a) I was crying, and (b) I didn’t have to go straight back in and carry on sparring with the little fuckwit who had just embarrassed me in front of everyone. He was only a green built and I was on my way to black.
But, as Dad had just confirmed, there wasn’t a valid reason and I had to go back in. I stormed out of the toilet past my pops who stood with one foot outside the Ladies toilet and the other holding the door open whilst he cleaned the globules of blood that had collected on the rim of the wash basin.
‘Make sure you get him back.’ My Dad said in my direction.
I played it cool. I had straightened my hair and dried my face; I looked almost the same, except that my feet were twitching. He sensed the difference. Fuckwit Richard, I mean. Green belt, fuckwit Richard. It was as if he could smell the adrenaline overflowing from my torso and bleeding out to my extremities. And so he began goading me. It was like we were in the playground and I was trying to kiss him. A little ball of childish fury, I charged at him. I managed to grab his Gi at the shoulder and fix him to the spot for long enough to punch him in the gut. I felt him crumple and the wind get fixed in his throat. There were a few moments when I felt sorry because I knew I’d hurt him. But then he laughed. He looked straight into my eyes and laughed.
My teeth are clenched as I write this even now, twenty something years later.
Dad’s voice brought me back to the task at hand – karate not boxing. ‘No, stick to Karate.’
‘Yeah but I can box too,’ I said.
‘No! You can stick to Karate.’
‘Why won’t you teach me to box?’
‘Because you’re a beautiful little girl and boxing is not nice. Your face will get beaten up. Remember little Richard – when he punched you and almost broke your nose?’ Dad knew he was slapping me in the face with that little shit’s name, I’m convinced of it and it hit me twice as hard because for some reason I was already thinking of him. Greenbelt fuckwit Richard.
Dad knows me at a molecular level, so when he said it, he knew what he was doing. The mention of Richard and his cheap shot that left me crying made me want to tear-up with rage all over again. ‘In boxing, when you’re competing, that will happen all the time. And you won’t be able to be a model then, will ya?
Model. That’s what he said. As if that was the ideal career path for me.
Firstly, I had never wanted to be a model, though my Dad clearly did. Well, before I start my remonstrance, I’ll acknowledge that, he, like most parents, wanted me to take the path of least resistance to success. Secondly, my Dad was very biased. Bless him. To him I was – and still am – the most beautiful girl in the world. But. Well, don’t get me wrong, I’m very happy with how I look, and this is making me feel incredibly awkward as I write. I think I just cringed. I’m far from model blessed. I’m something of a you look all right when you’ve got make-up on kind of blessed. You understand, I need not go on.
Thirdly, and most important of all, until that point I hadn’t actually realised I was a girl. I mean, I knew I was a girl. Obviously. All the parts of my girl machine were all inventoried and correct. But until then, I had seen myself as a masculine feminine, an unlimited girl. That day I felt limits. Not my Dad’s limits. Society’s limits. He thought he was doing the right thing by not encouraging me to box because he thought I was awesome enough to become great at anything I put my mind to – even boxing – and that that was a problem for my future opportunities beyond becoming a boxer. He wanted me to use my brain and my leadership skills and even with that in mind, he thought he’d be doing me a disservice if he didn’t point out that society is more accepting of girls when they look pretty.
My Dad’s a feminist and to hear from him that the world is skewed against me and this the reason he wasn’t going to teach me to box, even though he made me the stubborn, independent, don’t tell me I can’t woman I am, made me furious.
I became a black belt. I beat James, Josh and Jack in the Maths triathlon. I played football
Twenty something years later I’m boxing with my husband in the back garden.