"What sport do you do?"
"What sport do you do?" asked the lady in the corner shop.
I'd rushed there straight from fencing. We were almost out of milk, orange juice and mineral water and there was no way to get home and change before the shop closed. So I slung my swords over my shoulder, threw the kit bag in a trolley and selected my purchases. I suppose the white socks and breeches were a bit unusual, especially worn under my big, padded, winter jacket. At least they know me there.
The woman at the check-out was incredulous. "Fencing?" she asked ... "Fencing ...?"
I eased the pommel of one of the epees out of its case to show her. Her eyes widened. "Like this?" she asked, making a few slashing gestures with her arm. I'm not a sabreur but I didn't want to be dismissive. "Yes," I said, and took the epee out to show her. It wasn't the best lunge in the world, but it gave her an idea. And at least it was a proper epee move. Then I paid, packed my goods and headed home.
On the way back, I remembered the badge. I'd left it on the jacket after my last anti-war demo. Not a Quaker one, fortunately - that would have been hard to explain - but the ever-hopeful "only justice brings peace". At least no-one asked me to justify the incongruity between my fencing and my pacifism - I was a little too tired for that.
It was good tiredness, however. The packed hall didn't look promising and I wasn't sure I'd get onto a piste. There's a local tournament at the weekend so several fencers were determined to get as much practice and coaching as they could. University students arrived wanting to stab people and break the tedium of revision.
I wasn't even sure I should be fencing. My son was running a temperature. I'd dosed him with paracetemol and settled him in front of the TV but he was flushed and aching. Sometimes even 15-year-olds need looking after. But he told me to go several time and in the end I went. (I phoned him several times. I think this interrupted the TV.)
The first part of the warm-up was just finishing as I arrived. It looked very energetic - some sort of race with lots of bending to tthe ground. I was glad to miss it. The ordinary limbering up and co-ordination exercises, followed by footwork practice - changes of step- length, changes of speed (kept simple for the beginners) - was quite enough.
Kitted up, I thought it would be a session of converations with occasional bouts. But I was invited to fence almost immediately and had a succession of opponents. For the first time I managed hits to the knee with some consistency. I even achieved a few hits to the foot. In one I somehow slid my epee down my opponent's ankle, then inside his loosely-laced trainer - so I pushed it harder against the sock to attach the blade. "Ow," he said.
I had a coaching session too. I had tips on how to draw an opponent's attack (by leaving the body open, appearing to attack the foot) only to respond to the blade with a quick circular parry on an explosive lunge with a hit straight to body or fore-arm. I was getting the hang of it in practice though it didn't work so well against a tall, experienced opponent.
Mind you, I was tired in that last practice of the evening. Five minutes lasted at least an hour so that the twenty minutes of rapid practice left me drained and mis-hitting worse than usual. Towards the end of the time I couldn't lunge at all.
Then to the shop, and home.
I told my son about the discussion with the lady at the check-out and my neat demonstration of epee. "Oh Mum," he responded in ill and exhausted horror. "You didn't ..." But he knew I did. Sometimes parents can be so embarrassing.
the washing line
While fencers elsewhere are competing in tournaments, I am watching wind and rain attack my fencing kit.
Sometimes I wish I had a tumble drier. In summer I like hanging clothes on the line and letting them dry in the sun. The clothes feel fresh and the process at least is ecological - solar-powered drying. But drying takes a long time in winter. Hanging out washing seems to invite rain. As I attach the first garment a cloud appears, or a small patch of grey. Clipping the last peg usually coincides with the first droplet of rain. I can't get so thrilled by the natural freshness of rain water when it provides my clothes with five or six extra rinses over a couple of days. There's always something I wanted to wear dangling damply on the line.
After last week's gales I fastened the jackets, breeches and plastrons with lots of clothes pegs. Mind you, a wind that can take roofs off buildings could probably seize the whole washing line.
There's a few days yet for the kit to dry. And if it doesn't, jackets can drip over the bath before steaming on radiators. I plan to fence on Wednesday -so long as my kit doesn't blow away,
apprentice fencers and a new opponent
The salle, as I like to call our half of the big hall at the leisure centre, was crowded today. Beginners, big and tiny, arrived and viewers stopped on the bridge to watch Cries and shouts came from determined and aggressive badminton players in their part of the hall.
First there was a warm-up for all. (I'm less stretchy than before Christmas and my balance isn't quite as good as I'd like.) Then the beginners were initiated into the mystery of the plastron, mask and jacket while there was a rapid footwork practice.
I thought at first it would be another quiet night with keen competition to get onto a piste. But while the beginners were struggling into kit in a small corner, I quickly and forcefully suggested steam epee to the woman standing beside me. She's a young woman I could beat six months ago but now she's overtaking at epee me although foil remains her chief weapon. She wasn't sure about epee but I pointed to the crowds on the bridge. "Let's show them we're scary women," I suggested. Alas, the crowds melted away as we found a narrow piste. We can't have been that impressing. Still, we fenced for a while, trying to remember tips and techniques. I still find it hard to fence someone smaller than me.
As the beginners lined up nervously, backs against the wall, we stopped fencing and started to talk. Two epeeists had taken one of the electric pistes and another pair were waiting their turn. Sabreurs spread across the body of the hall while fencers occupied corners and even tried to share the sabreurs' pistes. A group of intermediate fencers huddled together for their lesson. The larger beginners looked nervously at the clashing sabre blades. We looked nervously at the smaller bgeinners. "Very cute, and tiny target area," was the verdict.
As we settled down for a lengthy conversation, a visiting fencer arrived, steam epee in hand, to suggest a bout. "How good are you?" I asked, looking at his well-won, old-style costume. His jacket seemed thin and faded. The elastic where his breeches met his calves had lost its power and turned into decorative frills. This worried me. He'd plainly been fencing for a long time and his self-deprecating response didn't convince me. "I'm crap," I said cheerfully (it's as well to warn people) "but I enjoy it."
I did enjoy fencing him. He had a huge range of epee moves, forcing me to respond quickly and watch for errors. He was fast too; I didn't try to match him for speed but watched for errors and openings. I fenced better than I had for some time and managed some hits, mostly to body and mask but one or two to the arm. By the time we stopped I was tired but exhilarated. My sword arm was aching a little, however - an ndication of problems with my stance.
Soon after that I was fencing again on an electric piste - I fought rather wildly but still achieved some hits: mostly doubles when my oppnent was attacking and I counter-attacked but a few hits from attacks that I initiated. This opponent, who I've fenced many times, has a strong wrist and finds it very easy to bind my blade. He circles his blade a coupel of times, taking mine with it, until my wrist aches. Then he hits hard to the arm or mask or chest. I haven't found any way to respond but just try to evade the attack. I evaded more than usual and, though I didn't land any wrist hits or manage any neat points, felt more confident than I had for a while.
Just as I was feeling good, my son challenged me to a bout at foil. I had some success at hitting his mask and arm but the target area eluded me. I was slow and couldn't establish right of way. Disconcertingly, my son is almost as tall as me now - I'm sure the target area has moved since I last fenced him. He won 15-2.
Packing away the swords I found a shuttlecock and thought I might keep it as a trophy. But as I left, I offered it to the nearest badminton player. "Put it on the chair," he grunted, nodding the direction. So I left it there. But I could have kept it as a trophy.
I've just completed my weight-training for the weekend - or all the weight-training I'm ever likely to do. I've been shopping.
I start with a few gentle lifting and stretching exercises - nothing too strenuous as I reach for items above my head and below my knees and place them gently in the shopping trolley. I practise mental agility too: staying within budget, working out the best offers, trying to remember if we're running low on washing powder or whether the teenagers still like beansprouts. (The attempt to feed teenagers a healthy diet is the advanced level.)
Then there's the regulat attempt to predict the latest moves of my opponent (the supermarket). Where's the marmalade? Has the bread flour been moved since Christmas? Are the special offers really worthwhile?
Selecting goods and placing them in the trolley is the warm-up, although it's also preparation for the real struggle. It's important not to buy more than I can carry home, so I have to assess the cumulative weight of goods and my ability to transport them. Meeting the cashier and loading the bags is where it all begins.
The cashier wants to pack my shopping for me. She assumes I will be travelling by car. I don't drive. Sometimes I wobble home on my bike, a tower of goods strapped before me in and on top of the basket - but that's a perilous sport in winter rain. Today the task is endurance shopping - I'm carrying everything home so I must take control at the packing stage.
After negotiation with the cashier, I organise everything into a comfortable five bags, doing my best to ensure that the weight is evenly spread and no sharp edges will scratch my legs on the journey home - shoppers get cuts and bruises too. Then I set out, into wind and rain, unwatched and uncheered. It's a gruelling twenty-minute struggle. At times I think I over-estimated my ability to carry but I'm on my way, switching bags from time to time as the handles dig into my palms.
I make it home. None of the bags has broken and I still have enough strength to put the shopping away. But where are the cheering crowds? All I get is a half-interested call of "What's for lunch?"
The original Olympics featured a race in heavy armour. The exercise trained male citizens for demands that might be made on them. So why isn't shopping an Olympic sport? Think of the complexity of demands: the athleticism, the stamina, the intelligence required. Think of the practice sportsmen and women would need - perhaps they could get it by volunteering to do other people's shopping. I'd let them help me.
I know - it doesn't have everything I like in a sport. Shoppers miss out on consensual stabbing. Perhaps the sport's oragnisers could work that in.
Certainly, I was out of practice and out of comdition. I wasn't alone. Quite a few fencers admitted a surfeit of mince pies and unusually tight breeches. It was good to be back.
In two weeks the new beginners arrive and the coaches will be busy. This week attendance was sparse so the coaches went round offering one-to-one training. I got about 15 minutes' advice and practice in epee. First, the coach made me lunge properly - something I've been hesitant about lately. I'll never have the good, deep, long lunge I would like but within a minute I knew I could do better than I had. Then I was taken through a series of hits, parries, ripostes and counter-ripostes - just right to get me back in practice. Finally I was shown the trick of keeping my arm still for a moment after my opponent's parry so that I was ready to sneak in a quick hit just as he started his riposte. It's not going to be easy in a bout but I'll look for a chance to give it a try. An added advantage was working with a left-handed coach; mostly I fence right-handers.
Apart from that, I did some incompetent foil. I've forgotten how to hit so small a target or to establish right of way. Then it was time for more epe. I ws relieved to find that my blade-wire had survived its encounter with tinsel in festive fencing. Apart from that there were conversations - mostly "How was Christmas?", "Did you go out for New Year?" My answers - "quiet" and "no" - were not exceptional. Many had enjoyed both quiet and staying in.
It was an ideal evening, in other words: not just talking to friends but getting the chance to stab some of them.