In the summer shortly after my seventeenth birthday, I was fortunate to be skilled enough to fight at the world Taekwondo championships in Seoul, South Korea. My father said it was his crowning moment, and though I finished only tenth he said he couldn’t have been more proud of me his only son. “What?” he said when I came off the dojang almost in tears. “You expect to beat the Koreans at their own game on their own turf? You did good son!” and he ruffled my hair. This was high praise indeed from my father who was what you would term ‘mafioso’.
My father had brought the family business to England from Sicily when he had been twenty-two. He told me often; “You’re not a man till you’re twenty-one,” He didn’t get to see my twenty-first birthday. There was a hit placed on him and he was shot and killed by a sniper outside of our family home almost a year to the day later. I was suddenly elevated to the head of the family. My father’s ‘born fighter’ became just that. With no father to guide or direct me, I went off the rails.
But first I need to backtrack a little to the June day when we landed in Seoul.
“The bloody heat, I think I’m going to melt! How am I supposed to train and fight in this?!” I had complained as we exited Seoul Incheon airport.
“Because. numbnuts, the arena and gyms are all air-conditioned.” A voice at the side of me said as this tiny little girl with nearly pure white skin and short spiked white blonde hair said as she walked past.
“Meiyou jieJIN!” A voice at the side of her snapped; she nodded and carried on walking, a black car pulled up as her and the Asian man who had yelled at her reached the pavement and they got in.
“He called you numbnuts!” My dad said at my side, ''Are you just going to let him get away with it?''
“As that ‘, he’ was a ‘she’; then yeah I am,” I said and he laughed.
“Really?” He asked.
“Ahhhh, Papa you’re getting old!” and we laughed.
That was the first time I saw Laura Riley. An ordinary name for an extraordinary girl. Standing at no more than five feet. The toughest woman I ever met.
I next saw Laura the following day at the preliminaries. I was surprised she was fighting on behalf of China; as I’d never seen a least looking Chinese person in my life, and when she spoke I could have sworn she was British; Canadian maybe but not Chinese; but there it was she clearly wore a Chinese flag on her dobok.
She had huge blue eyes and incredibly long black eyelashes. I hadn’t seen her eyes the day before as she’d been wearing sunglasses. She was, I supposed, boyish. Her fighting style was laudable. She seemed to be well known, and well-liked and during the afternoon sparring sessions, I finally managed to get to talk to her. I guess I was expecting her to come out with the numbnuts crack of the day before but she didn’t, she just pointed at the ceiling, said, “Air conditioned,” and nodded before shaking my hand with the vice-like grip of a man.
It happened that she was staying at the hotel, I was in a favourite amongst visiting fighters as it was more or less next door to the arena. Diet was strict at times like this and the hotel catered for the dietary needs of the competitors so it was the chosen venue for dinner. I was mightily relieved she was without her ‘sa bum’ who I felt was a bit of a killjoy. Laura explained that his brother was here so they were spending time together. As a group we enjoyed the evening, the following day we became competitors in the dojang. I was beaten in the semi-finals. Papa was immensely proud I’d got that far. I asked him if we could stay to watch the rest of the competition. I was interested in how that little English/Chinese girl was going to do.