September 2006

The Nation Reviewed

The fencing lesson

By Kate Holden
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Kim closes the door of her room. It's only seven in the morning and the child of her housemate is squalling ferociously on the other side. Kim would say something to the mother, but she doesn't want to get kicked out of this place. She's a nice Hong Kong girl. It's time to leave for work at the convenience store; there's the bag with her runners and tracksuit for class tonight. She picks it up, opens the door and steps out with a silent word to Jesus and a soft warning to the child.

Vic lands heavily at the bottom of the stairs at school and rolls onto his back. There's young, careless laughter from above. He doesn't look; he glares at his feet and rubs his knee where it's stinging with pain. He can still feel where the hand shoved at his back. The voices go away, echoing further up the stairwell. Vic walks off, feeling his leg twinge, and thinks about later tonight, about attacking with a sword firm in his hand.

Wednesday night on a city university campus. A dozen young people in trackpants and T-shirts adopt strange crouches in a fluorescent-lit, mirrored room. Their backs are straight, their legs crooked, one arm held out, palm-upward, from the hip. Each one of them is trembling.

"Retreat! Retreat! Retreat!" cries an older man. Like awkward crabs, the students scuttle backwards three steps. Someone loses his balance; rights himself with a bashful smile. "Advance!" Every face is sweating. The air smells. "Lunge!" Everyone lurches forward. "Recover!" They snap back.

Fencing: a refined violence. What looks like hesitation is a plan. What appears easy is difficult. Two points of a foil: one to avoid, one with which to strike. Three intense minutes. Parry, riposte; thrust, block; lunge, recover. Sixte, quarte, octave.

"One step down!" the coach announces. Everyone shuffles sideways to face a new partner. Awkward boys; stocky boys; shy, smiling boys. They seem all to be IT or economics students. "You," says Kim to one boy when they face each other. "You're trouble!" She's a lightly built woman, with glasses and a sweaty fringe roughly pushed off her face by a headband; she grins with enjoyment.

Next to her, Vic is edging back and forth on his feet. Pale, fair-haired legs brace and rock under the hem of his grey shorts. His rear hand is stuck straight up, not dangling from the wrist as recommended; he's all ready to strike. He doesn't smile when his opponent fumbles the opening move and apologises with a laugh. When asked his name he says, resentfully, "Vic. V-I-C," and looks away. "Are you studying here?" He looks no more than 16. "No." His baby-face is whey-coloured and miserable. He grips his foil tightly and jabs in, and in, with surprising force. He batters his way through the fight, graceless, but sometimes winning.

The coach, Doug, a doughty man, bow-legged, white-bearded and wearing a violently scarlet sports suit, is leaning against the wall. "Good girl," he calls. Kim gives him a little smile, flushed with effort.

Next, she's partnered with a softly spoken girl. Lin asks Doug a question. "I can't hear you, you stupid fowl!" he snaps. Lin and Kim stand there and take this, because Doug's the coach and he's an ex-Olympian, too, and he knows what he's teaching, and his bluff manner will crinkle into approval if you get it right. And he yells at everyone. But none of us has been called a "stupid fowl" before. It makes us pink and determined, as he intends.

Doug takes the point of Kim's foil, jabs it into his own shoulder. "Here! Hit me here!" She stands back, makes the parry gesture, extends her arm to prick lightly at his shoulder in riposte. "Are you offering me a bloody cup of tea? Here!" he bellows. She hesitates to strike a man in his seventies with gammy knees and without a protective suit. Doug scowls and moves on to the next fool.

In Doug's day, when he practised bare-chested to test his reflexes, the long-term damage of lunging and swivelling wasn't understood. Now he has plastic knees, both of them. He's very keen on locking knees when straightening a leg for a lunge. "Bloody lock it!" he says, whacking at a vulnerable calf. "Or I'll break it for you."

"Doug, your fly's undone," Kim says, deadpan, in the middle of a loud castigation. He looks; there's a second's silence, then he roars with laughter. "Good girl," he says. "Good girl."

"Masks and suits," he shouts. We trail out to the lockers in the corridor and jostle to select equipment. The masks are all too big for women to wear; they swivel loosely around our faces when we turn our heads quickly. Wearing a mask is like wearing a burqa; the breath clots in the mesh and vision is dimmed; our hair, at the open back of the mask, wings out. The suits are complicated to get into: straps under the crotch, tight armholes, snug diagonal zippers down one side. They look sexy and serious. We few women insert round, concave plastic circles into the breast pockets inside our suits. We feel lean and deadly in white as we make a few practice jabs at the mirrored walls of the room.

"Form two lines. Fight for three minutes, then you move down. OK, salute your opponent." We stand, feet at right angles, and raise our foils to the ceiling with straight arms. To the right, to salute your opponent; to the left, to the referee; take the guard to your chin and bow; sweep the point to the ceiling again and across the "gallery". The movements are absurdly pleasing in their brisk formality. Masks are shoved on.

"En garde! Pret? Allez." Fighting is satisfying and tough. The severe, elegant techniques we've learned are forgotten, or approximated. Mostly it's just frantic jabbing and blocking; but every week there's more art and less chaos. Kim advances cautiously, frowning. Her foil is long and intent in her hand. Vic stands there, not moving but to shift his balance, waiting for his chance. The air gets even hotter. There's the sound of panting, metal sleekly meeting, and muttered curses and laughs.

At 8.30 Doug says, "OK, that's enough. We'll see you next week," and everyone totters over to the wall where the bags are. We've been on our feet, working, for two and a half hours. Our palms are pink from gripping pommels. Some people stay, eager to fight on; if they're lucky, Doug will spend ten minutes with them, a free lesson with the Maître before he heads to the pub. Kim and I kneel to change shoes and strip off our suits. Helmets and foils lie around on the grimy carpet. The advanced students take the floor and start clashing swords; we sit and watch, still cooling down.

Kim says, "My hand hurts," and she puts out her swollen knuckles to show. "That boy Vic hit me right there. I'll have to be fiercer next time! I'll get him." She's radiant with heat, smiling.

She's not a student at this university. "I did a degree. Four long years. Marine biology, pah. No use at all!" She's embarrassed by her job in the convenience store. "No one thinks it's a real job. It's so boring. But it's a job; I do it every day. I wanted to do something for myself: fencing, I want to fence all the time. The rest of the time, it's just me. Me and Jesus. Hah!"

She picks up her bag. "Doug," she calls. "Try to keep out of trouble!" He salutes from the other side of the room. "See you." We walk out with straight backs and unstrung legs. Vic has left without saying goodnight.

At the end of a bout, opponents salute; during the fight, no one says a word. One fights with as much elegance and refinement as possible, and never admits a touch unless it's noted by the referee. Point, judge, act; hips, hands, head. Attack and defence. Parry and riposte, riposte, riposte.

Kate Holden

Kate Holden is the author of the memoirs In My Skin and The Romantic: Italian Nights and Days.

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