advancing the arm
I was being coached by a fencer whose chief interest lies in sabre - epee is definitely his third weapon. For all that, I was doing badly: failing to land easy hits, failing to attach the blade, hitting wide, moving clumsily. I was holding my weapon too tight and my arm ached. There was no point in crying so I laughed.
But the coach, who joined me in laughter, took his job seriously. After a little practice, first stationary, then moving backwards and forwards, in which my hitting was erratic, the coach pointed out something new. "You need to straighten your arm as you move backwards. Your sword should be the last thing to follow. It's not like foil or sabre. You have to keep defending from an attack."
It made immediate sense. I'd been retreating from failed attacks or withdrawing down the piste with a bent arm, opening myself up to rapid arm and wrist hits. I was startled that I hadn't realised this before.
The coach went on to explain that he'd been at a coaches' day for foil and sabre but had watched the epee session. He'd wondered why the footwork practice for all three weapons had been feet only - and then learnt that in epee the arm must move differently - not just outstretched in advancing but also stretching out defensively when moving backwards. I tried it out: step backwards letting the arm follow the front foot. I practised down the length of the small hall: step back, pull in the arm; step back, pull in the arm. It felt right but also tricky.
I continued practising with the coach. Everything I did fell apart: I was trying to do too much and thinking rather than acting. My sword arm was out of sync with my body and my failure to land hits became hilarious. Yet I knew I'd learned something important. We free-fenced for a while, then rested. I rang home to enquire after Joe the cat, who had made a determined attempt to accompany me to fencing by running beside my bike. Eventually he decided to take interest in a different kind of fencing and headed home by a new route, throuigh a neighbour's garden. He wasn't yet home safely.
There were only four of us at fencing: two coaches, me and a small, intermediate foilist marked by a keen determination to learn.
She was practising foil and I was drinking water when the lawyer entered, wearing a pair of her favourite stripey socks. I was delighted. The lawyer is a sabreuse but, being busy with a new job, she hadn't been fencing for a while. I'd suggested on Facebook that she might come along on Saturday but never expected she would. She looked at the new colour-scheme for the corridors: "Hmm: baby-poo and the Exorcist" was her mild comment on the two tones of paint. It seemed as accurate a summary as any, and reassured me that the bright shades in the main hall are cheerful, if extremely bright, by comparison.
I assumed the lawyer had arrived to practise sabre but, as I'd suggested she turn up, she started by fencing epee with me. I had to adjust to fencing a smaller woman - I was out of practice since the chef set off on her Parisien adventure. At the same time, I was beginning to remember to straighten my arm while moving backwards. It was starting to feel right.
The lawyer suggested we fence to 5 and I agreed, wondering, as usual, how badly I would lose. Then I scored the first hit, followed by a double. I began to think that, just possibly, I could win and my mood changed. The lawyer brought the score to 2-2. I pulled ahead to 3-2, then 4-2 - and she caught up. 4-4. The next hit would be the decider, we thought, then hit simultaneously. 5-5. We continued. With a burst of energy, I advanced and somehow, in a scramble of blades, managed the final hit. 6-5.
I should point out that I had numerous advantages. The lawyer was out of practice and generously fencing in her third weapon. She had also rushed from home without inserting her contact lenses. When her glasses steamed up, she removed them, so she was probably fencing a white blur. But something had changed for me: I was ready to take advantage and fence for victory. It felt good.
There was a pause. My son rang to announce that Joe had returned home. The small foilist continued to practise with increased determination when her mobile phone rang. It stopped as she reached it. She looked at it - "My ex-husband," she said, with a groan. "Excuse me."
"Tell him you're fighting," the lawyer suggested. We gathered round to listen.
"I was fighting," she said. "With a man." ... "I just stabbed him." .... "In the chest." (We were trying to stifle our laughter by then.) "With a FOIL." She listened some more as we laughed and then, as the call ended, turned to us. "He thought I'd really stabbed someone in a fight." We roared.
I began to fence the other coach as the lawyer practised sabre. There were problems with my grip and my stance and I was opening myself up to attacks. Every so often I was getting through but not often enough and my hits were clumsy. After a while, the coach suggested we fence to 5. He took the first point easily. Once I would have folded at that point but I didn't. Instead I took the next point with a clumsy but effective aggressive hit. He stayed ahead till 3-2. I began to hope. We reached 4-3. He countered my attack easily. 4-4. He'd mentioned that he found it hardest to fence me when I rushed him. I rushed him. There was a clash of blades, he went for me and missed. My hit landed. 5-4. I was the weaker fencer but I'd won ... again.
I didn't win great or important fights and I wasn't against the best epeeists in the club. However I've suddenly found that I have the will to win - something I lacked in the past - and it feels good.
At the end of the morning I fenced the small foilist, marvelling at the lightness of the weapon and trying to remember rules about right of way. She has developed an excellent circular parry - apparently she'd spent much of the morning getting it right.
And so I cycled home to see my son and Joe the cat. Joe had brought a dead bird with him - possibly a supplement to breakfast or a small, unappreciated gift.