I wrote this last July at an iaido seminar, just scribbled it down on the hotel stationery before the Sunday training, and haven’t got around to typing it up until now. I didn’t know what to do with it, so I thought I may as well put it here.
By the time they get to the Blaue Grotte the air is so humid that it seems to have beaded like wet wool. You’d think that when you walked through it you’d leave a trail, a tunnel through the air where you’d picked up the droplets on your skin. The place is empty and they descend on a table under the overhanging roof, where the shade offers a pretence of coolness. The village is implausibly the site of an iaido seminar, so after a few settling pleasantries the conversation becomes gossip and business in equal measure; the things that only martial arts fanatics would ever care about. They compare the angles of the high-graded participants’ cuts, the unique skills and problems each teacher instills in their students. One dojo is all heart and no technique. Another has a student try out for grading when he can barely cut. Judgements fly over the table like swallows.
Martin says, “And sensei looked him up and down and said, ‘Mudan? Shodan?’ Fourth dan. No one knew where to look.”
No names are named, but everyone nods at the description, except the little Engländerin who doesn’t speak but only listens, and sometimes laughs in the right places.
“And Jannik will take his fourth dan,” says Anja. “Oder?”
Tomas laughs heartily. “He won’t take it. Trust me.”
“But he’s going for it on Sunday?”
“He won’t get it.” Tomas shakes his head fondly at his joke, big arms crossed.
Anja gives up. “You never see him at seminars,” she says, “except when he wants something.”
The iaido community is a village; everyone knows what everyone else is doing.
The drinks come, and someone glances down at their phone and says something the little Engländerin doesn’t quite catch, except for “Munich” and Tomas’s spat “Scheiße”. Stefan explains in English that there is an attack in Munich, in a shopping centre, someone shooting. It’s happening actually, he says.
“Currently,” the little Engländerin corrects automatically. “‘Actually’ means it’s happening really. ‘Currently’ means it’s happening now.”
Stefan gestures. “Yes, currently.”
Bubbles rise in straight lines in the beer glasses. Tomas raises his, and the lines shiver apart. “Prost,” he says.
They raise their glasses, somewhat dampened, and put them down again as if contemplating the taste of their drinks. A ginger and white cat stalks across a rooftop in oddly uncatlike movements, eyes up a tree whose branches reach almost to the eaves, and climbs down, each branch a step in a spiral staircase.
Every time a car passes, the mouth of the courtyard amplifies the sound so that it almost drowns out the talk of a person sitting opposite you. Stegaurach is a village with the traffic of a big city. It’s pretty and green in the lazy heat, but it won’t let you forget that there are other people in the world doing their jobs while you sit over your glass of wine.
The conversation filters back in, about surnames, how Schmidt is Smith and Schaefer is Shepherd and Pfalzgraf is Count Palatine. They plan how training will go in the dojo from now on, who will train the beginners and who will work towards the Deutsche Meisterschaft. Paul and the twins have the potential, but they’ll have to commit to training more often.
“So we should tell them,” says Anja. “Give them an ultimatum. You can be in the Deutsche Meisterschaft, but only if you train regularly.”
“I think Paul’s losing motivation,” says Tomas.
“So this will give him some.”
Dojo talk ceases with the arrival of Karl, staying in the hotel attached to the Grotte. He’s the friendly seventh dan of a neighbouring dojo, and the little Engländerin wonders if the others are wary of sharing politics. Karl pulls up a chair and orders his beer as the rain begins to fall in round dots on the paving stones, slow at first and then filling in the light and dry with dark and wet, and then loud enough to drum on the roof. Karl’s long bald head still gleams with sweat as the rain pushes cold air around their legs.
“Six dead in Munich,” says Stefan, eyes down.
Again that turning away in disgust and helplessness, lips curled.
“They’re in the city,” says Anja. “Panic’s broken out.”
The little Engländerin wonders if she knows anyone in Munich, but she thinks not. Is there a Munich dojo? It’s a big city. They had considered going into Bamberg centre tonight, and if this seminar had been near Munich they might have gone there. Still a few ifs between her and it, but not as many as might have been.
“The cat’s caught a mouse,” says Tomas, nodding out at the courtyard where the rain has already faded away. The cat is crouched over on the stones, licking or eating something between its paws. Whether it’s a mouse or a piece of fish from a friendly hand, cannot be seen.
They sip their drinks and outside the cars go by, sometimes in long lines of noise, streaks of it. Motorbikes travel in cavalcades. Stefan and Anja wrestle with the ashtray, which refuses to swallow the stubs of their cigarettes.
Karl tells a story about a seminar he went to, a number of years ago.
There was a man, he says, from Belgium or Poland, somewhere, and he did his kesagiri, the kata where the sword cuts up and turns to cut down along the same diagonal line of a kimono collar.
So this man forgot to turn his sword – he cut with the blunt side, and it was okay – well, says Karl, not okay, and everyone was sniggering as he failed to notice his mistake, saying good thing it’s not a sharp sword, good thing sharp swords are forbidden at the seminar. The man stepped back into hassou stance and the sword was still the wrong way. He stepped back into chiburi and the sword was still the wrong way. Then he drew the sword across to sheathe it – Karl makes elegant movements to illustrate his story, but however carelessly he moves his hands they always end up in exactly the right place – and everywhere was red!
He gives everyone a moment to understand. It was a sharp sword after all.
After that they kicked him out, because all over the walls it was written that sharp swords were forbidden.
“Eight dead in Munich,” says Anja.
Karl says, “Scheiße,” meaning ‘poor things’, and adds in disgust, “It’s the same everywhere. Sweden, Belgium, France. Everywhere the same.”
The cars roar across the mouth of the courtyard, reminding everyone that elsewhere there are people going about their lives, doing their jobs, while you lounge in the cooling dusk under the roof and the bats, nursing your wine and your thoughts.