Ever since childhood, I have wanted to be trained in the sword. But I have always believed one had to be born a musketeer for this to happen, or have a death to avenge, plus access to castle steps. But here I am at the London Fencing Club in Old Street, which is easier.
Its a few weeks before omicron takes off, and the government is pooh-poohing any talk of tightening Covid restrictions. Im learning pe, the thin, pointy blade that most resembles a classic swashbuckling sword. My Russian-born coach, Anna Anstal, loves fencing pe. The opponents entire body is a target, and there are no right of way rules governing who can score at a given moment. You must think about the zombie apocalypse, she says. Rules are no use with a zombie. The ability to strike first is all that matters. Its unexpected advice, her heavy accent giving it even more edge. Im quite scared.
Have you held a pistol before? Anstal asks. I think we had different upbringings, I say. The pistol grip is the most common in fencing: blade gripped between thumb and forefinger, other fingers curled under, with surprising delicacy. The legs work far harder. We start with footwork drills, advancing up and down the 14-metre piste, front foot leading forwards, back foot for retreats. Fast, fast! shouts Anstal. Its hard to keep my heels in line, so I quite literally veer off piste. I learn straight thrusts, lunges, an explosive flche attack. I already feel like Arya Stark.
We move to a padded pillar, to practise thrusts. I learn to gauge distance, never moving closer than I need to be. Fencing is about intelligence, Anstal explains. Something close to chess, or a conversation. Im going to hit your leg! Not if I parry That was a joke Im actually hitting your mask! she illustrates. Her idea of a conversation is terrifying, but Im picking up technique faster than I thought possible. I loved swordfighting as a boy, I reminisce. All children do, she confirms. Then they come here, realise its all footwork drills, and say: Mummy, I want to go home.
Luckily, the school specialises in beginners courses for adults. The class around me is doing an intense warmup: shuttle runs, shuffle reps, squat running anything that murders the legs. Im sweating, too, having idiotically worn a polo neck for extra protection. Listen my favourite sound, remarks Anstal with a far-off look. Its the sound of exhaustion, a faint, fatigued wheezing that fills the room. Odd.
Theres an alien appeal to fencing: those insectoid masks, stinging spines, the scrape and clash of metal. Yet with its elegant, all-white jackets and breeches, its also a sport of high tradition. Scores were originally tallied via soot on the blades, which marked the white clothes. (Although I suppose, even more originally, scores were settled by killing your opponent.) Now facing a mirror, sword pointed at my own chest, I learn parrying positions. Anstal divides my torso into numbered sections, like a butcher. Quarte, sixte, septime, octave if I had known there was going to be so much French, Id have dusted off my GCSE Tricolore textbook.
Anstal masks up, and teaches me to disengage, ie feint around an opponents parry with a tiny circular motion. Im not striking hard enough, she says. Its hard enough to remember technicalities of arm line and footwork, and like most beginners, I lack killer instinct. Everyone starts out very nice, smiles Tim Gadaski, manager of the club. Then they get hit a few times, and things change.
I am in your country now, and I love democracy. So tell me what you want to do, jokes Anstal, after an hour. Maybe practice more parries? She looks bored. I think you should fight someone. Huh? Im not ready for that. But she is plugging a thin cable into my blades hand guard, threading it through an arm protector. At least I get to wear the natty white jacket. The class is setting up parallel pistes across the room. They face off with wires extending behind them, a marionette theatre of war. My opponent, confusingly also called Anna, salutes. My mask drops down. En garde! shouts Gadaski, stepping in to referee. Suddenly, Im fencing for real.
Anna and I test each other, nudging blades. Too defensive. Youre not doing anything, shouts Gadaski. Anna thrusts. I instinctively deflect, then again. I can defend myself! Its thrilling. Youre wasting your parries, coaches Gadaski. You need to counter. I try, though technique has disappeared. The winner is the first to 10 points and Anna is leading 6-4. Shes attacking at will, but Im scoring off her attacks, too, machines bleeping on both sides. Being hit doesnt hurt, but Im tiring fast. The entire room sounds like a video game. Anna overtakes me. 8-7! I hadnt realised I was in the lead before. How? We both score. I steel myself, and concentrate. Maybe Im Zatoichi, blind to my own abilities. I circle her blade, trying to stay on target. 9-9. We both lunge but I angle away, and have the reach. Ive won!
My inner child is jubilant. Fencing is a feeling like nothing else. Anna congratulates me, Anstal flashes a Slavic grin, acknowledging I have crushed my inner weakness. There must be something on those blades, because I feel the rush of adventure in my bloodstream, and leave on a swashbuckling high. I can legitimately declare myself trained in the sword. Zombies, you have been warned! Just let me consult my Tricolore first.
To be stabbed with swords, and worked to exhaustion? Arya Stark raving mad? Maybe, as I definitely would.
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Reviewed and Recommended by Erik Baquero