The target dangled tantalisingly out of reach. Sam was only vaguely aware of a bead of sweat that rolled like a runaway marble down from her hairline and towards her eye. She brushed it aside and launched her best bahn dolrya chagi. The half-turning kick sent the kick-pad flying unexpectedly from her partner's hand, and it skittered away into a corner of the training room like a nervous beast. They both let out a harsh bark of laughter as the strain of the physical exercise was broken in a moment of absurdity. Alana was about the same height as Sam, but the similarities ended there: while Sam's hair was fairly long, Alana's black ponytail reached almost to the base of her spine; her skin was perfectly smooth and tanned as baked terracotta; and her eyes sparkled a rich, emerald green. White teeth flashed as she laughed, "Whoa, Sam!" her sharp American accent cutting through the sweaty, musty air of the room like a laser. The ends of the red belt which dangled from her hourglass waist whipped as she turned to watch Sam collect the target.
Sam jogged after the wayward kick-pad and picked it up with an exaggeratedly sheepish look on her face. Whenever Dan saw that face, he said it reminded him of Wallace and Gromit.
One of the black-belts, a short, lean, blond-haired PhD student called Dave, called over to her and said, "Great kick, Sam, but this isn't Mortal Kombat! Don't do yourself an injury!"
She laughed again, and handed the target back to Alana to hold out once more just as their instructor called out a new sequence of kicks.
Front snap-kick, full turning-kick, back-kick, axe-kick, reverse turning-kick; as Sam executed each move, she concentrated all her energy on technique. Her triumphant "Whoo!" rang out around the room as they finished her set. She took the pads from Alana, thanking her for holding them for her with a neat bow, and they repeated the sequence, Alana's manicured feet smacking satisfyingly against the pads with the regular rhythm of a soldier's snare drum.
As they panted back in, beating Dave and his partner to the start, the instructor, Mark, clapped his hands, calling the Korean for 'stop'. "Gomahn!" Like a well-trained pack of huskies, they all pricked up their ears, stopped immediately at the sound, bowed in thanks to their partners with eyes politely lowered, and turned to give him their attention, listening to their next task with mixed feelings.
Sam's shoulders hunched protectively as she brought her bare fists to her chin, her feet bouncing eagerly and lightly in fighting stance. She locked her eyes onto the glove-pads which Alana held up for her, and began one of her favourite elements of taekwondo. Boxing was not something they often concentrated on, and it felt like a real treat to be let loose on the targets. Taking aim, with light shadow-boxing movements to warm her shoulders up, she did a quick, testing 'jab-jab-cross' combination. As her muscles became more amenable to the idea, she increased her power and speed, ducking low after each punch to dodge the pad as Alana swung it horizontally across. Her white dobok top was beginning to get a little see-through with all the sweat, but she didn't really care. Each time her fist collided with the pad - each and every time - she remembered what it felt like to be on the receiving end of a blow like that. She used that as her fuel. He would never hurt her again. Jab-jab-cros, jab-jab-cross, left hook, right hook, left upper-cut, right upper-cut.
Fifteen minutes had passed without her even realising it, and they had crashed straight into one of the hardest sections of the class: conditioning. As Mark announced with a cheeky, mischievous and oh-so-knowing grin that they had reached that point, the class groaned. Even the black-belts. Especially the black-belts. They knew what kind of jellified, quivering, panting wreck it was possible to become after a conditioning session. The beginners looked wary.
Fifty press-ups in, Sam's arms quivered and burned. Ninety-eight sit-ups later, she thought she was going to be sick. As she did the 'mountain climber', shoulders and wrists locked in the walking plank manoeuvre, she thought she was going to pass out as her legs pumped like the worn out pistons of an old steam engine. The tuck jumps sent jarring shocks through her whole skeleton. Just as she was about to give up, she suddenly thought of Alex, walking along the side of the car, heaving his hips up over the gravel, the look of strain threatening to break through from the calm surface of his face. Whether it was the thought that she was doing something he never could, and that she should somehow be grateful for that burning acid building up in her limbs and lungs, or that the thought of Alex watching her do this made her want to up her game, whether it was just her body giving her a few endorphins to make her feel a bit better, she found her second wind, trying her best to relish the excruciating cardio workout.
Eventually she and Alana flopped down in a heap onto the mats at the call of "Gomahn!" which finally released them from their Navy Seals style drill. Mark, infuriatingly, didn't even seem to have broken into a light sweat. His greying blond hair was as dry as a field of dusty summer barley, his eyes untroubled and laughing. Sam derived a little pleasure at least from seeing the sweat just beginning to dapple Alana's brows, even if her dobok wasn't soaked and see-through or her ponytail plastered unattractively to the back of her neck like Sam's were. Now that the rush of exercise had faded, she was very glad that Alex wasn't there to see her. She was fairly sure that the pungent aroma that was mildly stinging her nostrils, and being politely ignored by Alana, was also coming from her armpits.
Calling above the noise of fifteen small steam engines, Mark said, "Right, you unfit lot of slackers, poomsae."
The newest beginner, for whom this was only her second session, and who had taken a bit of a shine to Sam, looked up at her with uncertain eyes. "Patterns," Sam mouthed, nodding her head at Mark, "Watch and see. You'll be fine."
The girl turned her watery, tired eyes on Mark and listened as he explained the philosophy of the choreographed sets of movements called poomsae, or patterns. "They are designed to showcase your best technique," he said, doing a lower block with crisp, exaggerated movements. "That," he emphasised, "Was how it should be done in this formal line work, and this," he did a speedy, sloppy one, "Is how I'd expect to see you use it in a sparring match. See the difference?" The beginner nodded, eyes widening further. Sam gazed at the wide-eyed beginner, remembering how she had suffered too from that same condition which she called sensei-fever. Sensei was a Japanese word, but she'd not known the Korean at that point, and even when she had learned it, Sa Bum Nim didn't scan as nicely. "By the time you get to your black belt exam, you should know nine patterns - Koryo being the one for black belt. We'll start today with Taeguk Il Jang, the first one, and," he collected all the class with his intense blue gaze, "When we go past your highest pattern, just drop out and repeat all the ones you've learned up to that point."
They lined up, which always made Sam feel like she was at the start of an old Bruce Lee film, and he gave the command. "Taeguk Il Jang... Seijak!" Pattern One... Begin.
As Sam repeated Pal Jang, her highest pattern, she watched the black belts moving on to the really silly ones which included the funny stances and moves like 'cat-stance' and 'mountain block'.
When Mark was satisfied, he called the class to a halt again, and went round to talk to each of them, quietly giving improvements and suggestions, showing how to tighten their techniques like a mechanic tightening the nuts and bolts of a machine. "I think that's quite enough for one day," he said when he'd reached the last student. "Let's do some stretching and finish there."
As Sam rolled forwards in a kind of reverential bow, seated on the floor with her legs splayed, leaning first over her right leg and then to her left, grabbing her toes, she felt like she was thanking her body for not falling to pieces during the session. This was its reward. Her hamstrings hummed in thanks as she dipped a little lower, bringing her chest to her quad. No matter how many or how few dolray chagi's she'd done in a class, it always felt amazing to sit like that and ease her body into a more relaxed state. Her heart-rate slowed again. The skin in her cheeks no longer felt like it would ignite anything it came into contact with, and she had, finally, stopped sweating.
Bowing politely at the door of the dojo, she caught up with Alana and Tim as they headed down the stairs towards the locker rooms. Before the girls disappeared into their changing rooms, Tim called, "Alana, Sam, a few of us are going to the pub after this - it's been ages since we've all got together for a drink. Are you coming?" He looked at Alana hopefully as she stood there looking for all intents and purposes like Jasmine from Aladdin. She said she'd come, and he grinned goofily, waiting for Sam to give her answer too.
"Maybe for a bit," she said, her ego feeling bruised just by standing next to this girl. "I'm staying with Dan and his parents til graduation, and they're doing dinner tonight, so I can't stay too long, but yeah, it'd be fun, I'm sure." She sounded a bit like she was trying to convince herself of that fact, but Tim didn't seem to notice.
"Great!" he said, and shuffled on his blistered feet into the men's changing rooms.
Sam shrugged inside, knowing it was stupid to feel like she had to compete with Alana, affectionately dubbed 'the club's princess'. Sam was one of the guys, and always had been. All the boys adored Alana, and all the girls envied her, and it was only made worse by the fact that she was really, really nice. About a year ago, when Sam had imagined she had a crush on Dave, she'd been envious of Alana's easy grace and sensuous body, but now that she had Alex, none of that really seemed to matter. She scolded herself and headed for the showers. The thought that it would be more fun if Alex were coming reminded her of just how perfectly she had 'clicked' with him, and that gave her a shot of confidence that boosted her well past Alana's jet black locks and endless green eyes.
As she reached inside her enormous kit bag for a scruffy old towel, she dislodged her phone and saw with delight that Alex had messaged her. Her fingers scrambled to unlock it, her eyes ravenously impatient to devour his words. "Beautiful day - I hope you've been able to get outside and enjoy it. Didn't spend the whole day packing the car I hope. Got anything planned as a reward? xxx"
The little keys rattled as she typed, "Just finished taekwondo. Not outdoors, but a good way to spend a couple of hours. How about you? Good day? xxx"
Slipping the ancient phone back into her bag, she peeled her damp dobok off and made her way over to the shower, wrapped in her threadbare towel, the cold tiles under her feet stinging her blisters.
In the noisy, busy pub, surrounded by laughing friends all sharing their news, Sam almost forgot that she'd thought it'd be more fun with Alex there too. She kept quiet about him as Edward told them all about his new girlfriend; Alex was hers, and she was not ready to share him with the rest of them quite yet. Dave was full of his PhD research, Alana was heading home to Dubai over the summer, and Tim had just done a half marathon for charity; it seemed everything was going right for her and her friends.
Her phone buzzed in her pocket, vibrating against her leg, and she used a lull in the conversation as a chance to check it. Alex's answering text was waiting for her. "Wrote a bit more code and then went to the gym. Fairly nondescript day for me really. Would it be too corny to say it'd have been much better with you? Taekwondo sounds like fun - how long have you been doing it? Xxx"
"Probably too corny, but we'll let it slide this time as it's cute," she replied. "I've been doing it a few years now. Hoping to get my red belt over the summer... lots of work needed... xxx"
"Red belt - that's pretty high up, right?"
"One before black..."
"Wow, remind me never to piss you off!"
":P you have been warned... I'm currently at the pub. Heading home shortly - got the awkward 'well-done-on-graduating' dinner with Dan's family... Xxx"
"You'll have to come over and have one with me some time." A nano-second later a second message came through which read: "Obviously not an awkward one though!"
She laughed aloud, and replied that she'd love a non-awkward dinner with him, and Alana caught her eye. "Who's that then?" she asked in a dramatic stage whisper that mercifully only Sam heard. "C'mon, spill!"
"Just a friend..." Sam said evasively.
Alana made a face. "Well, I expect to hear all about him at the next training session..." she laughed. "I know that look..."
Sam grinned and mimed zipping her lips. Her attention was drawn back to the phone as it buzzed urgently in her hand with his reply.
"Phew, that was close...! How does Wednesday look? Xxx"
"Perfect. What time? Xxx"
"6pm ok? We could grab a beer at The Eagle if you like? It's only round the corner. Xxx"
"As long as you don't expect me to help you discover the next 'secret of life' or anything... Xxx" she replied, knowing he'd get the Chick and Watson DNA reference.
"Biology isn't my thing, so you're safe. See you then. Xxx"
Wednesday had never felt further from Sunday before; like the white sails of a ship on the distant horizon.