We were already late and the 7.00pm start time had been and gone. Ridiculously, I couldn’t remember the way in to a place I’d been to many times before, so we parked outside the school on the road. I’ve got the natural female attribute to ask directions but found I had to ask no less than 4 people. 2 of them hadn’t a clue, one remarked “oh, them,” and the final more helpful soul waved a black bag of rubbish in the general direction of downhill, losing half the contents in the process.
Then I remembered being informed that it was in the gym and located the place at the bottom of the hill. I stuffed the fragile remnants of my fingernails between the gap in the closed gym doors and was met by a very tall and serious-looking man pushing the doors outwards.
“Beginners group?” He queried.
“Good evening – yes!” My husband Richard swiftly caught up and breathlessly confirmed.
Just as well, I was late, off balance and the power of speech had deserted me. The other beginners, inevitably on time and already assembled, were a mixed group. There were 4 adults (ish if you include Richard) and 4 juniors but I was the only female. That meant I had to behave myself as it was likely that I’d be expected to set a good example. No swearing – even under my breath – no flirting (tough, that one) – don’t giggle and try to keep my sense of humour on a lead for a change.
I spotted piles of stuff in a corner. I’d originally thought that archery was supposed to be a simple sport. My neighbour, Steve, who had been the treasurer of Stortford Archery Club years ago, told me you didn’t need much to start out with, and even then a full competition bow and supporting equipment wouldn’t cost over £1,000. But on that evening there were 2 people frantically working away, chatting and slotting loads of things together.
The tall, serious one appeared to be in charge; he gathered the group together then made a very awkward, forced smile. It was like watching Dracula being presented with a nut cutlet by his future mother-in-law.
“Good evening, everybody! I’m Phil, and I’d also like to introduce you to your other coaches tonight – that’s Liz and Steve in the corner over there.”
A collective ‘hello’ sounded. The red-haired lady gave us a cheery little wave which in turn knocked over a large box of bits. This didn’t appear to bother her. She leapt upon the various odd-shaped items that had rolled out onto the floor and lovingly picked up each one as if it were a long lost friend.
Steve, a sprightly-looking bearded gentleman, promptly leapt to his feet and executed a series of mock bows to his assembled audience.
“Ahem!” Continued Phil, “I’d like to start by welcoming you all and importantly to inform you that the Club complies with the rules covering children and vulnerable adults.” He paused just to see if we were all paying attention. We were – the gravity of his expression indicated that looking away would at the very least, be foolhardy – possibly punishable by death.
“Juniors,” he continued, “Are defined as under the age of 18 and must always be accompanied by a parent or guardian.”
Clearly trying to get over the gravity of this introduction, he attempted a brief smile to break the mood. Regrettably it didn’t work and he ruined the effect by shuffling from foot to foot, nearly stamping on one of the smaller group members.
“Over the next 6 weeks we’ll not only show you the basics of archery, but also how to be safe doing it. To re-assure you, archery can be a dangerous sport but we haven’t lost anyone yet!”
The group managed a very slight, diplomatic chuckle and Mr. Tall and Serious looked relieved.
“Now, while you are shooting, if at any time you hear someone bellow, at the top of his or her voice ‘Fast!’ it means stop what you’re doing, hold the arrow fast to your bow and lower.”
My brain’s off to Planet Recall. I thought it was the battle cry of a traffic policeman on spotting duty to the hidden clutch (or is it “Nick?”) of constables with a radar gun that someone’s doing over 30MPH. Perhaps it was the often uttered battle cry of my mother telling me to hurry up and get on with it? Clearly I mustn’t relapse into fallback behaviour or I’ll end up looking like a victim of Custer’s last stand.
“This is called a Recurve or Olympic Bow. This one’s a Club bow and you’ll be using these for the training sessions and for a short time after the course until you buy your own.” Tall and Serious explained further. “You’ve no doubt heard and maybe seen another type called a longbow?”
Richard got excited at this and did one of his sideways smiles then nudged me in the ribs. Anything relating to history does that to him. Perhaps I’ll generate the same level of excitement when I get my bus pass or for a real walk on the wild side, stick an English Heritage label on my forehead? Who knows what would happen if I went for National Trust preservation status?
“Never pull on the bowstring unless it’s got an arrow attached as the arrow absorbs some of the energy generated by the bow. Without the arrow the bow takes the whole shock and is likely to get damaged. Never attach or fire an arrow unless you are on the shooting field and pointing at the target. See this line?” He pointed to a red line that normally played an insignificant role on the basketball court. “That’s the shooting line. Never cross this line without being told you can do so, normally by the Field Captain’s whistle. Never go to the shooting line without being told. Now see the blue line behind the shooting line? That’s the waiting line. After shooting you must retire behind this line, place your bow on the ground and stay out of the remaining shooters’ way!”
Planet Monopoly Board here! Don’t breathe unless I give you permission, do not pass go, do not collect £200, go to jail and you vill be shot at dawn! Shut up batty left hand side of brain, said Captain Sensible right, don’t get silly. This must be good stuff, common sense – Health and Safety Exec. would be thrilled and it has to be got over to us as quickly as possible. The one thing you won’t get is shot at dawn if you behave yourself and listen for a change!
Suppressing a giggle, I tried to look as if I wasn’t going to be any trouble, though in reality I’d got the two hopes in the form of Bob and No.
Steve and Liz joined us. Liz looked to be a kindly soul who peeked over her glasses and gave me a “never-mind-dear, I’ll look after you” look. Steve was a slightly-built guy who sported a very bushy beard and wore what appeared to be 2 active hamsters for eyebrows which performed random sorties across his forehead. The other issue was that all 3 coaches were wearing a bottle green which looked to be a uniform. Both the green jumpers and the club badge bore a strong and unfortunate resemblance to my junior school uniform in which, when worn, my Dad used to call me his “Little Gnome.” Thanks a lot, Dad! That song is coming straight into my head and won’t be budged – “Ha, ha, ha – hee, hee hee, I’m a laughing gnome and you can’t catch me!”
This was definitely the wrong time and the wrong place.
You must have had that feeling. It’s the one you get when you’re sitting at the posh side of your family’s dinner table. You are supposed to mind your Ps and Qs, then Auntie Flo dishes up the fruit flan and it plops, strawberry side down, on the clean white table cloth. Regardless of the looks and threats of retribution, you can’t stop it, you have to laugh. The more you tell yourself you can’t, the more it has to happen. In this case it was even worse as not even Richard (I’d kept those particular school photos hidden) would know what the hell I’m laughing at.
Now we’re onto a scientific fact. When no one else understands what you’re laughing at, the funnier your joke becomes. The feeling is inescapable and my face must be creased up with the effort of holding back my laughter. I lost the battle.
Richard didn’t appear to notice as he was used to my frequent outbursts, but the Tall and Serious Gnome was clearly unused to daft, hysterical women. I was subjected to one of those glances which are designed to kill at 10 paces.
My protection is that I own a glance that vaporises at 20, so I engaged shields, and then returned fire with phasers set on stun. At least it stopped me laughing. Tall and Serious Gnome realised he was not only dealing with an idiot, but a somewhat feisty idiot to boot. I’d made an enemy rather quickly. Tough, it mattered not as I didn’t see us developing a long and meaningful relationship; I was here simply to learn how to shoot.
In my mind Phil was instantly renamed ‘The Nasty Gnome’ – a name that stuck for a long time afterwards.
Nasty Gnome picked up an arrow, and clearly intent on the revenge of making me look even more stupid, stooped to my level and carefully handed it to me. It was just as if he expected it to explode at any sudden movement.
I waved it around a bit and he winced.
“Now, which end is dangerous?” He asked in that tone that indicated he just knew he was going to get a wrong answer.
“Eh, I think this end looks more, eh, pointy,” I said, touching the end which didn’t have bits that looked like feathers. It didn’t answer the question, but I had to confess he was a bit forbidding close up so I didn’t want to risk getting anything wrong.
That comment totally destroyed any remaining credibility.
Nasty Gnome straightened up from my lower level and registered one of those ‘got a bright one here’ looks to the rest of the group. He handed the arrow, but this time not so carefully, onto Richard. The Light of my Life furthered the Williams’ family reputation for intelligence, but with a little more assertiveness, and pointed at the same end as I had. He didn’t get one of those looks, but the arrow removal was accompanied by a loud tut.
Steve looked up from the corner, his eyebrow hamsters went hyperactive and he started laughing. I got the feeling that the two of us were providing some sort of entertainment and I started grinning, which didn’t go down well with Phil who hadn’t got the joke in the first place.
The arrow proceeded down the line, getting the same answer all the way until it halted at a gentleman starter who looked vaguely familiar.
“Both ends are dangerous.” He announced firmly.
“Yes,” said the Nasty Gnome, dancing a sort of John Cleese shuffle. “Both ends are ‘pointy’!” The word pointy got a special girlie accent in the statement. “Standing too close behind someone when they are pulling their arrow out of the target or shooting could result in a very serious injury.”
We were then lined up to assess what bow we should be kitted out with. Nice gnome Steve was unfazed by my complete inability to state if I was right or left handed, and assessed whatever height, stature or draw length (what? – isn’t that something Rolf Harris does?) I was. For some reason the volunteered information of 5’9”, 36C and a natural blond didn’t hold water for archery, neither did inside leg 34 from Richard.
“Raise your dominant arm and point at me,” asked Steve, who somehow couldn’t stop laughing at us.
Crunch, Richard’s a lefty and we did this simultaneously. I raised my left as I could never really make up my mind having suffered a broken shoulder as a child which was never properly re-set and caused some puzzled looks. I waited for some comments about women drivers and signals, fixing Steve with a beady look. He took a deep breath, opened and closed his mouth goldfish style as if he’s thought about saying it, then thought about shutting up in the same second.
“Now close the eye you’d shut if you were shooting. Eh, it is possible that you are right-handed, left eyed, and unusual?” asked Steve.
“Unique.” I replied. “Ask my friends and they’ll all agree ‘cos they’re just like me.”
Lady Gnome Liz had a rummage in a black case, something she clearly loved to do as every so often she stopped, lifted out some worn out object, smiled and sighed.
“A walk down Memory Lane ?” Asked Richard.
“More like Watling Street from the age of this stuff!” Replied Liz.
“This,” she said as she emerged from her rummage, triumphant with a black piece of plastic with elastic loops attached. “Is what we call a bracer. Put this on the arm that grips the bow to prevent your sleeve getting in the way of shots.” She explained helpfully when I adopted one of my where-should-I-stick-this-but-politely expressions.
“I thought it would be to protect your arm from the string?” I asked what I felt was my first intelligent comment of the evening. “I can still remember a bruise I got 10 years ago at a fete, and Richard thought from the size of the bruise that I’d been to a kick-boxing match.”
“I was more worried about what the other guy looked like, and how much he was going to sue for after you’d beaten him to a pulp.” Said Richard, who was ear-wigging the conversation.
Steve gave me a sweet smile, his hamsters twitched around a bit and he pulled thoughtfully on his beard. “I think you’ll find if you do things properly, you won’t get hurt,” He laughed. “You are right, if your arm is too straight, the string will strike the inside of your arm. But we’ll show you to avoid this over the next 6 weeks. And I’m sure Barbara wouldn’t hurt anyone intentionally – would you?”
Don’t be so certain, mate. That tall one’s rapidly moving up my list.
Somehow or other we were all kited up with bows and arrows, with my sweetheart Richard causing the usual consternation because he’s left-handed and 6’3”. It’s nice being married to someone taller than yourself as he’ll never see your double chins, but you try sitting next to them on a long haul flight in economy. By the time I reach customs I’m walking with a limp, a hunched back, a nervous tick, and become the founder member of the opposite to the Mile High Club; it’s called the Divorce at 35,000 Feet Association. In future I’ll opt to travel on a different aisle with a small child – however fractious they may be! As a southpaw he can complain endlessly that they don’t make gadgets for him – especially key items like potato peelers. In reality he loves to be different and get others to provide a special service for him, thus massages his ego. There we go, as usual, it’s worked again. A left-handed bow and extra-large arrows were magically produced and Richard’s the centre of attention.
Bugger, that’s my position.
We all filed to stand just behind the waiting line.
“My lovely assistant, Steve, will show you what a shot looks like,” said the Nasty Gnome.
All of a sudden I was lost and I was struck by just what an elegant sport archery was. Steve executed what looked like the perfect shot and movement – it looked so relaxed and easy. 2 more shots and I was still lost in admiration. When it was over I had to remember to close my jaw to avoid catching any passing flies.
Ushered to the shooting line, I tried it. Arrows have to go in the ground quivers. Now take one arrow and place it on the string by putting the forked bit by the feathers (fletchings) – called the nock – on the point marked by 2 metal bits (nocking point). The arrow should have the cock feather (a different colour to the other 2 feathers) facing you. Rest the arrow against the little black thing on the bow handle – technically called the arrow rest – I could remember that. Put your fingers around the string and get it in the crease, not on the fingertips. Extend your bow arm and pull back the string arm until the top of your index finger is resting under your chin.
All the time, Steve was at my side, helping, gently nagging when I put the arrow on the wrong way around then re-assuring me that everything was in position for a successful take-off.
Thus I was there; I’d made it – ready to release. Off it went and like everyone else’s first shot it hit the boss! I was thrilled, I was beside myself, I’d found something I could do! In my eagerness to prove that Robin Hood is reborn but wasn’t going to give the money back this time, I rushed to get the next arrow on the nock. Up until now I hadn’t realised just how many lumps and bumps of me had materialised over the last 5 years. There are bits of me that get in the way that I never even knew I had until today.
Well, hello Spare Tyre II – the Sequel! Didn’t know they’d made a follow up until Spare I had to vacate the area currently occupied by my elbow. Can’t say it’s nice to know you so you’re going to have to go. Then I got in a muddle in the middle – I’d got lipstick on the string and as I had the bow the wrong way up I’d probably got lipstick on my nose when I’d righted the situation. I couldn’t remember which eye I was supposed to shut so I shut them both! Luckily we were so close to the bosses that it didn’t matter, but when I’d finished and walked away from the line I saw the Nasty Gnome looking at me and shaking his head.
I walked back to the waiting line and put my bow down on the ground. Nasty Gnome as Field Captain sounded the whistle to say that it was safe for us to go forward and collect our arrows. There was even a proper way for me to pull them out of the boss, but I was too carried away and too excited to take much notice. Just stay safe and keep your body out of the way when you and others are pulling the arrows seems the gist of it. Oh yes, and don’t stand behind anyone or you’ll go blind – was that right? Now walk back and put your arrows in the ground quivers. We did this another 4 times. I was exhausted. Take me home, Richard – don’t spare the turbo; I’m tired and my lower back was starting to ache.
Fat chance. Richard had found his second wind and chatted avidly to anyone he could find.
“Did you enjoy yourself?” Liz asked Richard, “You’ve done really well!”
Richard glowed with the encouragement and did his small boy act of attempting to look modest by gazing at his feet and shuffling.
Don’t be taken in anyone – I know this look – I have attempted to share a TV remote control with this man and lost. It actually says, ‘yes, I’m pretty good, aren’t I?’
“You asked me earlier what a modern bow looked like.” Nasty Gnome produced something big, red, and sinister with bits sticking out of it in all directions. Then, much to my disgust, Richard and the Nasty Gnome merged into a “boys and toys” discussion, totally ignoring me and leaving me to stand around like a hairy gooseberry.
A rather dashing and distinguished looking gentleman smiled in my direction. “Is everything all right?” He asked in an amazingly soft yet cultured voice. “I’ve no wish to be rude, but you do look a bit shattered!”
“Oh, I’m fine, thanks!” I replied gamely. Wow, Sean Connery lives in Bishop’s Stortford!
“But you’re certainly right about shattered – it’s more like shell-shock. It’s my first time and I never realised just how hard I was going to have to concentrate.”
Dashing Gentleman’s lovely blue eyes flashed as he laughed again. “Oh, it gets easier, I can assure you!” He purred. “I’m Michael, and I’m so very pleased to meet you. We need more lady archers in the Club. It gives us a better mix and decent conversation. I do hope you’ll get over your shell-shock and come and join us.”
My resolution not to flirt went out the window. I suddenly became very attentive and woke up.
He produced a longbow from out of a huge canvas bag. Richard promptly abandoned the Nasty Gnome, and raced over with an ecstatic expression on his face at the sight of a longbow. That’s it – we were in for the night to discuss the battle tactics of Henry V at Agincourt – one of Richard’s favourite topics. I think since we’ve been married we must have seen the play 6 times, and every time Richard was moved to tears by the St Crispin’s Day speech. In fairness, I was usually snuffling by the siege of Harfleur.
Three-quarters of an hour later I hauled Richard through the door while he was still talking.
“Wasn’t that great?” Bubbled Richard later when we’re in the car on the way home “What nice people!”
“Yes, the group seems like a really nice bunch and the coaches aren’t bad either. Steve was very patient and Liz really looked after me. I have got to say that I’m not so certain about Phil. He reminded me of a rather forbidding maths teacher I had at Staple’s Road – you know, that old Victorian shambles of a school in Loughton, the one that Alan Davies is always telling jokes about. The kids were all scared of him and used to say that he looked as if he’d been hanging around himself since Victorian times – upside down like a bat in one of the cupboards! He would never miss the opportunity to tell me I was hopeless and used to wait until I was really concentrating, then would creep up, all fluttering black gown and glasses and tell me I’d got it wrong.”
“Come on, you’ve got to admit that when it comes to numbers, you are pretty hopeless! The fact that you still can’t add up shouldn’t influence you, especially where people are concerned. Phil seems like an all-round good bloke. He obviously knows his subject, he seems to be a good coach and considering the vastly different age groups he has to cover he does a good job.”
“Perhaps, but when you get to my age, it’s a bit galling to be talked down to.” I was miffed; I had expected a bit more sympathy than this.
“He didn’t talk down to either of us – perhaps it’s your perception again? Anyway, your fit of teenage-style giggles in the middle of the evening didn’t exactly command respect.”
I was suitably chastened as I didn’t think Richard had noticed.
“No you’re doing it! Alright, I know you’re right, but you know me – I just get a bit nervous at anything that’s new.” I squirmed around in the car seat for effect.
“You didn’t appear to be in the slightest bit nervous about Michael! I saw you!” Richard laughed.
“Look who’s talking! Bare in mind I’m married to ‘if it’s got a pulse, chat it up Williams!’” I remonstrated, “You’re a trainer and I’m probably the best-trained sales and management techniques person in world. You must realise that your personality and processes rub off, so it would be rude not to field trial it.”
Even in the darkness of the car I could see Richard grinning broadly, I’d got him on that one.
“I’ll give you that, and there is something rather romantic about the Longbow. So much of our history has been created around it. God, without it, we might have been French!”
“To be honest, I think there’s something romantic about archery – full stop. Don’t really know why as, after all, it was an effective way of killing things. There is something so elegant about it – the bow almost becomes part of the archer. It’s also so incredibly powerful; did you feel the force of when the arrow takes off? Maybe, just maybe I’m starting to understand a little about the power and speed of your silly cars!”
“They are not silly, it’s just you don’t understand a boy thing.” Said Richard, rather self importantly.
“Right, the difference between men and boys is the price of their toys?” I laughed.
“What’s for dinner?” Richard diverted to his favourite subject.
My terrified status left me at about midnight. I realised I wasn’t injured, more importantly I didn’t injure anyone else and nobody actually told me directly that I was an idiot. Richard was right, I did tend to put my own spin on things and see problems where there weren’t any. Let’s look at this properly; the coaches didn’t take me aside and politely explain that the world would be a safer place without my becoming a one-woman weapon of mass-destruction. I was not told that I was hopeless. One day I might actually be quite good at it – yes, I will be.
I’ll be back!