hits and misses
For two weeks the snow and ice meant I couldn't fence. After my fall on black ice last January, I've been more hesitant than ever about venturing on frozen surfaces and the compacted snow topped with a fine layer of frozen heavy frost made walking – or staggering – difficult. I certainly didn't plan a precarious bike-ride over icy roads and cycle paths. Briefly I thought of calling a taxi, which might have been fine, but I had visions of serious skids. Every so often, advice would be issued on TV and radio. It was along the lines of the World War II posters that inquired, “Is your journey really necessary?” I had to concede that my journey to fencing was not really necessary. Besides, I had a cold.
The one-hit epée contest approached. So did the club competition but, as soon as I saw the date, I knew I couldn't take part. For once I had a prior engagement. I hesitated about the one-hit epée too.
I've never done well at one-hit contests. Sometimes I get an unexpected victory. More often the best consolation I get is a run of “double defeats” when simultaneous scores count as losses rather than, as in normal epée, points for both fencers. I had never tried one-hit epée when quite so tired and out of practice.
Part of the tiredness was the chef's fault – but perhaps it would be fairer to blame the chaos on the railways. The chef and I planned to attend a poetry reading and she kindly invited me to a pre-poetry meal. There was no way I would refuse the opportunity to sample the products of the chef's culinary genius so I accepted, even though it meant I would have to leave work after a mere eight hours, instead of my usual ten or eleven. Of course, it didn't work out. Chaos on the railways – combined with lack of information – meant I had to phone the chef who kindly postponed the meal until after the poetry. So the words of the poets – including the excellent Alexander Hutchison – were followed rather than preceded by a meal which included chestnut roast, braised fennel, a creamy mash, cheese, biscuits, cake and mince pies. There was wine too – and conversation. I didn't get to bed till some time after midnight which was less than ideal when I planned to get up shortly after 5.
I think I overslept. I had to rush for the train – at least the ice had briefly melted so that it was once more safe to run – and bought a hot breakfast to eat at my desk, using plastic cutlery. It wasn't an ideal start to the day. I suppose the day itself went better than I had expected but, when I got home, I had to tell myself determinedly that I would do the one-hit epée, even if I never fenced again after that. I got ready in a state of grim resignation, slung my sword-bag over my shoulder and trudged to the leisure centre.
Usually a couple of beginners take part in the one-hit epée. This year all the competitors were reasonably experienced fencers, including a few sabreurs and a foilist. There were twelve of us – just enough to set up a poule unique. “Eleven bouts,” I thought. “If I can just win one – or even two – I'll be content.” But looking at the opposition it didn't seem likely.
No-one bothered to set up an order for fencing. We had two pistes and, when someone suggested we just fence one another, in any order, and hand our results in, we agreed that would be sensible. I watched for a while and then someone suggested I fence the boy. Once upon a time I could beat the boy but he's been training almost non-stop, competing and taking advantage of any opportunities that offer. My advantage of height and reach (and longer sword) is usually cancelled by his speedy reactions, cunning deceptions and accurate attacks.
We faced each other on the piste and moved up and down. Neither of us launched an attack. I could see that the boy's wrist was showing, just slightly, below his guard. His blade pointed toward me but, in theory, if I could hit that little patch of wrist from below, I could score a hit. It had to be a trick. We moved backwards and forwards some more. The boy's wrist was still showing. I felt as though I was moving in slow motion when I began my attack. It wasn't a deep lunge - I don't do deep lunges – but it was just sufficient to take me below the level of his blade with my point aiming to his wrist. The boy didn't seem to move. He looked startled as my hit landed and I scored the point. He couldn't have been as startled as I was. “One point,” I thought. “If I can get one more I'll be satisfied.”
My next bout was against a coach – the only competitor older than me but someone I could never dream of beating in competition. I tried to put up some resistance as our blades clashed but somehow he got past me and hit me on the back. I was sure it was a good hit but it didn't register. We continued fencing. I went for his foot, missed, and then – convinced my opponent had trouble with his blade – took the opportunity to hit the floor. This allowed him to check his blade, which definitely wasn't registering hits, and to borrow a replacement.
The uncertainty over the blade must have had an effect on the coach. I told him I reckoned it had been a good hit but of course a hit can't be allowed just because a fencer thinks it has registered. We had to start again. The coach came toward me and, as he began a lunge, my blade, almost of its own accord, went for his knee and scored a hit. I had the two hits I wanted – and now, I decided, I would quite like to score a few more.
It didn't happen quite as I would have wanted. I lost the next two bouts, both against sabreurs. One fleched me and I was cross with myself that I didn't react faster though, given his height, it probably wouldn't have helped. And while for a moment I thought I might catch the sabreuse with a quick counter-attack, her quick reactions and experience led her to victory. “That's it,” I thought. “Two hits. Not too bad.” But I caught the next sabreur on the mask, just as he launched a sabre-style attack.
That was three hits – as many as I'd ever scored in one-hit epée. Perhaps the tiredness was helping me – forcing me to rely on instinct and memory. Or perhaps the other fencers were tired too. In the end I won three more bouts, all against fencers who are much better than me and who have helped me with my fencing. I lost against the foilist, against a young epéeist and a fencer of foil and epée who I really should have beaten.
That's when the Spaniard turned up. She looked so disappointed at missing the one-hit epée that someone at once suggested that, if she wanted, she could occupy a piste and fence everyone in turn while the final bouts on the score-sheet took place on the other piste. It was her last chance to fence us – she's going back to Spain next week – and she was delighted to take up the offer.
I fenced her first. She beat me. She fenced the coach. She beat him. It was the beginning of a run in her favour. The boy, at the head of the poule sheet, determined to fence her last. He watched her overtake his total. I think she had achieved nine wins out of eleven when she fenced the boy. She picked up a small sword so that she would fence him with a weapon of the same length. It was a difficult and protracted bout, both fencing energetically and each trying to trick the other as the rest of us watched. The final hits seemed simultaneous but the light gave victory to the Spaniard, who instantly hugged the boy. He's still young enough to find hugs from a beautiful young woman embarrassing and squirmed away.
Then there were photos of the Spaniard with her trophy (the traditional chocolate Santa) and the rest of is clustered around her. Coming home, I wondered if I would ever fence again. Gloomy reflections seem appropriate to my age, the cold and the year's end. If that was the last time, it wouldn't be too bad. Six wins out of twelve is more than respectable and, given the double defeats others experienced, probably places me, for the first time ever, in the top half of the score-sheet.