Next to me on the plane is a Buddha-shaped man with an enormous head, thick neck and a full, soft belly that won’t fit under his meal tray. He tells me he’s from the Midlands and has a thick, clayey Brummie accent that makes him sound kind. He’s an Indian born in Kenya, who’s been living in England since 1961. He’s flying out for “a bit of business, bit of personal.” I tell him I’m from London.
“What do you do in London by way of work?” he asks.
I tell him.
“And you?” I ask.
“I have me own business. And sport – do you do anything in the way of sport?”
I tell him. He looks me up and down out of the corner of his eye.
“And you?” I ask.
“You’re never gonna guess what I do.”
“No! I don’t do that,” he giggles.
“C’mon. Swimming. Long distance running.”
“I do judo,” he says with a glow of pleasure.
“I do judo,” he repeats delightedly. “You know the dans? The levels you can get that are above a black belt?”
“Yeah, of course I do. How do you spell that?”
I’ve begun taking notes. I ask him if he minds and he pats me on the knee with his big warm hands.
“I’ve got my third dan above a black belt.”
“How many dans are there?”
“There are ten.”
My new friend has been doing judo since the 60s.
“I went to visit my cousin – village people – in Bradford. And he had a judo trophy on his mantelpiece. I thought, I can kick the ...out of ‘im. I did it. I was the first Asian to get a black belt in judo, in 1969. Lots have done it since then.” He pauses. “I was on my way to the 1976 Montreal Olympics and I got in a car accident. I was paralysed all down the left side of my body. I have a metal plate in me head.”
He takes off his cap. Carved into the side of his head is a long, deep curve and two side-sickles, like prone brackets, of hairless skin. There’s a big, long, oval bulge just above the scars.
“I didn’t do judo for 10 years after that. I made me comeback in 1992. It was the Barcelona Olympics. I was invited to compete in the qualifiers in Malta the year before, and I got a silver. But in the ten years before,” he says sadly, “I’d been 86 kilos, that’s 13 stone six –”
“That’s very lean for your height. You must have been in good shape.”
“And I went up to 137 kilos. My metabolic rate slowed right down, so everything I was eating was going to fat.”
“I have to ask – does the plate in your head set off metal detectors?”
“No. It’s pretty deep. Look. Give me your finger.”
He takes my finger and runs it firmly over the edge of the plate. It’s huge, more than half a centimetre thick, sitting on his skull like a sunk-in helmet. The skin is tight and unmoving over it.
“It’s big,” I say.
“In those days you were lucky to be alive. I were in intensive care and all the people, my parents, brothers, sisters, they were standing round me bed crying. I were semi-conscious, wondering why they were crying and struggling to tell them I was okay.”
“If you don’t compete at judo yourself now, do you teach it?”
He nods and gives a proud, childlike smile.
“I got a degree: education. I qualified as an instructor. But it’s just stubbornness with me. I left school at 14. I don’t even have a CSE. Sport gives you so much enjoyment and once you’ve had the enjoyment for yourself, you should give it back and teach someone else how to enjoy it. That’s what I call ‘grassroots’. And I had a bus crash. Me and the missus, head on.”
“Stay away from transport.”
“Six years ago this month. So that was another one. In a wheelchair for 6 months. But I recovered. I’m stubborn, you see, that’s what it is with me. After the accident my brother had to pick me up, carry me up the stairs and put me into bed. I began climbing the stairs meself, on me elbows. I said to ‘im, my legs may not be working but my arms’re getting stronger. But it’s still hard for me.” He extends his arms and does some tentative stretches, flexing and rotating his hands. His arms don’t straighten all the way. “I’m okay, still a bit slow. I can get by in my life, but... ordinarily, for a flight like this, I’d go in a wheelchair. My physio tells me I’m one of his success stories. I tell him, I’m one of your stubborn stories.”
“Was it hard to recover? It must have been traumatic.”
“Well... that’s life, isn’t it? That’s life.”
“You don’t wear a cap to hide the scar do you? Because it’s really nothing.”
“Nah.” He takes off his cap and rubs his head. “Just ‘cos it’s winter you see. I used to have long, curly hair – I have really curly hair – and I shaved it off for charity.”
“How much did you raise?”
“Between a thousand and eleven hundred quid. And me grand-daughter – one of me grand-daughters – she had a dry scalp.”
“A dry scalp condition, oh how horrible.”
“So I got the clippers and she let me shave her head back to bald so we could cream it properly.”
“Did she mind being bald?”
His face goes soft.
“Naw, she don’t mind anything I do.”
“I’m going to take your story and write it and sell it for a million pounds.”
“Don’t forget to wave to me.”
“From my gold plane, on the way to Hollywood.”
“Or Bollywood,” he says.
He’s thirsty and I give him my bottle of water. He points out some words on the label.
“Brecon. That’s in Wales. Do you know Wales at all? I used to go camping all over Wales all the time when I was a kid. Beautiful country. I know it like the back of my hand.”
Later, we’re given little tubs of water.
“Wales,” he says again, pointing to the label. “This water’s from Wales too.”
“Maybe all the water in the world’s from Wales.”
“No, Scotland too. A lot of the mineral water comes from the lochs up there. That’s my business you see. Convenience. And I do something else. I’m involved in dresses. Ladies’ dresses. Not Indian style. English.”
“What, you make them, or you sell them, or...”
“I sell them. What’s that on your wrist? Your tattoo.”
“Hm. Don’t do anything when you’re 20.”
“I ‘aven’t got any tattoos.”
“You’ve had enough done to your body, you’ve got a metal plate in your head for God’s sake.”
We’re flying through the night and the lights go down. I can’t sleep. When the lights go up again, after a few hours, the man asks me gently,
He lets my put my rubbish in his seat pocket so I have more room.
“What shall I call you, in my article?” I ask him.
“Call me Stupid.”
“I’m not going to do that. I’ll call you Mr Stubborn.”
He approves of this.
“My one daughter,” he tells me, “she lives over the rood. Other daughter lives down the road. Two brothers, they’re both married with kids... ever since the kids were born, they’ve been coming over to our place. And those that live away, when they visit they come on the Friday night and they stay ‘til the Sunday night. And there’s one sister, she lives as far as half an hour away. But she’s a prison governor, at Wakefield. She was a recruitment consultant, then she did her exams to qualify for governor, and one of the prisons selected her. Our family have four houses, two on one side of the street, two on the other, next to each other. That’s the way families should be. Your parents do so much for you and you should give just as much back to them.”
The flight lands and we say goodbye and how nice the conversation was.
“It passes the time, don’t it? I’ll give you my text number and you can send me the article. Just for that, mind,” he adds hastily. “And here’s a tip for you. You see your watch? It’s on English time. If you want to know the time where you’re going, just turn it upside down. That way, you don’t have to change it.”
I try this trick and it works, give or take an hour.