“What are you waving that around in the air for? You’ve finished shooting. Put it down on this nice, new stand we’ve got out especially for you!” Phil advised crisply.
I glared at Phil, who simply ignored me and sloped off in the other direction to needle someone else, still laughing at his own joke. My, he was in good form tonight.
“Ignore him – everyone else does!” Paul laughed, but not unkindly. “Don’t take him so seriously, you’re doing fine! Phil’s bark is a lot worse than his bite.”
“Thank God for that. If he bit you, you’d be finished. I believe that Terminal Unpleasantness continues to baffle medical science.”
A conspiratory chuckle came from underneath The Coat.
“Give us a break.” I continued under my breath. “I was talking to Steve about how to set my sight, and I don’t know why you” this was directed at The Coat, “think it’s so funny!”
Nevertheless, I put my bow down on a newly arrived communal stand as I did appreciate that I had to keep to the rules if I was to continue shooting.
I then walked over to The Coat and prodded where I thought Jonathon’s ribs would be.
“Don’t you ever shoot?” I probed verbally.
The Coat produced one rolling eyeball.
“Ouch,” came the delayed response. “Not if you’re here, I’d be laughing too much. You’d put me off.”
The Coat was right, I was there, without Richard, at the last of the beginners’ lessons and was feeling distinctly put on. Richard was out with his latest group of sales trainees, and sitting down to a really posh meal at the Goose Fat and Garlic. I was in a freezing cold hall, playing bows and arrows, starving hungry and on the defensive. It was my last chance to prove that I’m not the silly, fluffy blond that gets dragged along to keep the gifted husband company. The previous week I’d realized that the person I wanted to copy in shooting style was none other than that Nasty Gnome, Bad-tempered Buzzard Phil. He appeared to be doing his very best to put me off, probably in the hope that I will call it a day, leave archery to the blokes and return to the safe haven of home and knitting.
No chance of that, Sunbeam. I’m going to stick around like an annoying rash.
There was an additional factor that night. Due to the normal autumn gales and power cuts, one of the weeks in the middle (3 or 4) we were unable to shoot. The Club’s calendar couldn’t take this into account, so just for an hour from 7.00 to 8.00 the beginners had to mix in with the experienced shooters who needed the full time to warm up for a competition at the weekend. Richard and one of the juniors weren’t there, so the number of learners had also dropped to 6, thus we didn’t take up that much space. O.K., I later found out that it was a great compliment that we were allowed to mingle, but it didn’t seem that way at the time. The coaches must have been happy that we would not mutilate any of their valuable club members – but it didn’t alter the fact I was on my own and afraid of making a fool of myself.
I’d mentioned to Richard that I was nervous about tonight as we usually did everything together. His ‘helpful’ response was that if people half – nay – one third of my age were shooting, what was my problem? I wasn’t what he’d describe as a shy wallflower. He tactfully reminded me that taking up archery had originally been my idea. Moving on and still wearing his training manager’s head (he was in the middle of a 2-week course and found it difficult to switch off) told me I had 2 choices; go or give up.
I can fail spectacularly (but never willingly), I don’t do reasonable and I don’t give up. It’s just that in my old age I get very nervous; just add a dash of paranoia and you’ve got my state of mind.
I had a cunning plan. I’d remembered to bring the blue rulebook with me, just in case I wasn’t allowed to join and had to return it. That way I could demonstrate that I could remember things, even if Richard wasn’t around to remind me to be sensible. I admit to the fact that there was just a touch of jealousy in my action as he’d already been told he was good enough; thus, if I couldn’t join, he wasn’t going to have a rule book. Nah-na-na–nah-nah! I’d also devised a cunning plan whereby I’d made out 1 cheque for both Richard’s and my own membership. That way I felt they might not notice, and when I turned up some weeks later I could say indignantly ‘but I’ve paid!’ So, work this one out – I didn’t want to be there, and yet I wanted to go back? I’d normally write this type of logic off as male.
“Can you all squash up this end around me?” Phil called us together. “And please try not to upset anyone who’s shooting.”
I’d already managed to walk into the gorgeous Michael, whose voice and lovely blue eyes had rendered my knees dysfunctional.
For good measure I then walked into a young, dark guy whose reaction to my ineptitude was one of amused acceptance – somehow, although I thought we hadn’t met before, he’d obviously been forewarned. His mannerisms were strangely familiar, but I just couldn’t place him and put it down to seeing someone out of situation and context.
“We trust you’ve all read the relevant sections of the club rule book, and brought it back tonight?” asked Steve, hamster eyebrows merrily roaming the exercise wheels of his brow, his legs crossing and uncrossing and feet performing totally random steps across the gym’s floor.
I looked suitably smug.
“And we trust you’ve all completed the multiple-choice question exam paper on page 86, and have it ready for me to mark?” Phil announced, face totally deadpan and holding a hand out for any that were ready.
Smug look went, and was replaced by look of bewilderment that was echoed by the entire group. The coat gave off a cackle that would have befitted one of Macbeth’s witches.
“I was only joking!” Phil forced a laugh after having spotted some panic in the group and a possible mass-evacuation. “Get your bows set up, find your arrows then start on my whistle.”
I couldn’t find mine in the boxes. Infamy! I suspected a further stage in the plan for my disposal then spotted it propped up against the wall and realized that it was in use by someone else. By the time I’d checked what else I could have and got Liz to perform the magic with the stringer, all the doubled-up positions with 2 on a boss were gone.
So I wasn’t too much of a pest and walked into everyone again, Phil stuck me on the far end target, which I’d come to regard over the past 2 weeks as Heron-by-the-fishpond Neil’s. I’m with my former Doctor and his son and I’d at long last worked out what complaint caused me to visit his surgery; it came to me in a flash as he flicked the end of one of his arrows whilst stuck in the boss. He was the one who’d stuck needles in my back when the muscles had gone into spasm – yes, he does acupuncture! The doctor and his son shot first; I’m to follow on. However, the doctor took his time so I’m arriving at the line late and self-consciously hurrying my shots to avoid standing on my own.
In a former existence I showed dogs. This entailed making a complete tart of myself by running around a ring with a lump of fur (one end of which bit and the other did unspeakable things) attached to the end of a piece of nylon. Needless to say, it required self-confidence plus a degree of showmanship. I’d coped with a TV interview at Crufts for “Nationwide” and even politely talked with a noisy bunch of animal rights protesters at the Essex County Show, once again with the cameras running. So, what’s gone wrong? Has this person who used to thrive under pressure lost the ability to do anything on her own? In which case, where’s my knight in shining armor? Right, it’s his night off, and he’s currently eating himself to a standstill without me.
Inspiration or knights, however, can come in the most unlikely armor. In Phil’s case it was more on the scale of a rusty old baked bean tin with the lid peeled back.
“It’s lonely standing out there on your own, isn’t it?” Phil’s cultured voice drawled from somewhere behind me.
Oh dear. If there’s one thing I can’t abide, it’s having someone standing and talking behind me. I can’t reply easily, and they are viewing me from my worst angle.
“But don’t you worry about getting it wrong and keeping us all waiting. Take your time but remember, we’ll be watching.”
Options of run or turn and fight had effectively been thrown out with the baby and the bathwater. Pick on a poor, defenseless lady beginner, would you? What happened to the club’s beloved etiquette and chivalry? Houston , we have a problem.
Had I’d been a computer program, I’d have flagged ‘fatal error, please power down. Now withdraw quickly from the danger area. Do not attempt to re-log on until expert help/first aid has been obtained.’
Stung into action, I took a deep breath, brought my bow down and pulled myself up to my full height. I turned slightly so I could address the line as my comments would have got lost talking at the bosses. I couldn’t see the awful Phil, so he must have been directly behind me, seemingly ready to pick off any wrong move I made.
“I appreciate your concern, and I’d appreciate it even more if I thought it was genuine.” I said coldly, “But I would more appreciate some constructive criticism, maybe even a little encouragement?” How I got that out with such control – no swearing – I’ll never know. Maybe archery had taught me a little restraint, or was it that my mother had always insisted I should show some mercy to dumb animals?
“Could you possibly manage that, or didn’t they teach you that bit at your Charm School ? Oh, and don’t worry, I’ll take as much time as I need, I’ll copy you doing your poseur act.”
Liz let out a belly laugh which started everyone else off laughing. Something resembling a cheer came up from under The Coat, hastily stifled by a ‘shush’ from Paul.
Now I had to deliver as I’d put the pressure on myself. It’s not as if it were that important in the great scale of things. If I’d shut up, no-one would be looking, but no, I just had to go and be clever. Worst of all, the hall had gone silent – instant confirmation that everyone was, indeed, watching.
Defining moment number 2. As much as I might have denied it, I loved being the centre of attention and to have everyone watching me take a pressure shot would, in the future, take my shooting to another level.
But this was now, and I had still to hit a wide range of barn doors.
I summoned up everything I’d been taught over the past 5 weeks, called on my old showmanship and added that little bit of me that really wanted to be a class archer. It wasn’t really that important, but my heart rate went through the ceiling, and somehow that made time run more slowly, giving time to think. A line on the ground ran helpfully through to the rear leg of the stand so I shuffled about until my toes were aligned with this and stood up straight. I looked directly at the gold and blocked out everything else. The gold mysteriously seemed to come closer – it was as if I had a view from just above and that the arrow could simply fall into it. I then leveled the bow, dropped my left shoulder and drew; actually grazing my nose as my hand went by. I found a new gap under my jawbone, previously occupied by fat, and anchored there. Line up the sight – just keep pulling and it will happen. . .
Oh, yes, that was good.
Dare I say it’s the most fun I’ve had with my clothes on for years.
I didn’t need to look where it went because it felt right. I walked confidently back, ignored the bow stand and deliberately to make my point, went to rest my bow against the wall alongside the awful Phil.
The treacherous bow slid unceremoniously down the wall onto the floor.
“Wot?” I queried from the floor, as I bent and picked the offending article up.
“Nothing, I wouldn’t dare.” Phil smiled properly for the first time and started laughing. “Good shot, popped right in the centre of the gold.”
“Thank you.” I muttered, and came perilously close to smiling back. I suppose he’s not that horrible really – and he’s got half-decent legs as well.
“You are supposed to do it with the other 2 arrows as well.”
Cancel those last thoughts.
“Go boil your head.” I responded. I fixed him with what I hoped was a steely look. It wasn’t easy as I was starting to laugh.
I wagged a warning finger. “One day, I’ll get my own back – it will all be recorded in print and everyone’s going to know the truth about you.”
Phil looked at me and had the grace to blush.
“Everyone knows how horrible he is already!” Paul joined in. “But if you really want to get at him, beat his score one day – he’ll sulk for a week!”
“Never!” Phil said, shaking his head. But that smile was still there. “Not in a million years. You won’t even get close.”
Alas, the challenge had been issued.
“It might take a few years, but I’ll get you – you just watch me!”
“You haven’t taken into account that I’ll improve as well”, said Phil indignantly.
The last whistle was sounded, scores taken – and carefully creased up in my back pocket so no-one else could read mine – bows taken down, arrows put back in the tall box and bracers returned to one of the black cases. We were ushered to the side of the hall by the doors for our final report/talk.
“Now as you’ve completed your six weeks, we’d like to invite you to join the club.” Steve smiled happily at us all, tugged at the beard and performed his usual random tango steps across the floor while he talked. “As it’s your club, you’ll be expected as you’ve already done with your club bows and equipment, to lend a hand with setting up and putting away. In return you’ll be able to shoot 3 times a week – that’s Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sunday afternoons, and later on compete in tournaments.”
“We will require the membership fee from you, which includes your GNAS (Grand National Archery Society) membership and insurance.” added Steve. “The good news is that for you juniors, it’s half the senior’s fee so we’ll want £40 from you. Its £80 for you” He looks towards Bob and the doctor, “And £160 for you.” That was in my direction.
For a change I didn’t feel put on. This was a case of being part of, rather than the actual joke. I’ve always prided myself that my lifestyle, like Stella Artois , is of the quality that’s reassuringly expensive.
“So glad you understand my true value! I take it that’s for Richard and me?” I removed the ready-made out cheque from my pocket and waved it in the air.
“Thank you so much, I’ll have that!”
So that’s what the strike of the Great White is like. If that cheque was in the air for more than an 10 th of a second I’d be very surprised.
“I don’t think you’ve met our Treasurer, Peter Sweetman?” Liz introduced us. “Where there’s club money, Peter’s bound to follow.”
“Splendid, splendid! I’m so glad to meet a new member, especially a new lady member, and so keen.” Peter flicked his fair hair out of his eyes absently-mindedly. His charming manner spelt out that he was likely to be sweet by name and nature.
“Is that a record for the fastest payment ever, Phil?” said Peter, just glancing over his shoulder when he made the comment.
“I’d rank it as the fastest collection,” replied Phil, dryly.
“I’m so pleased you have decided to join us, ahem,” Peter glanced at the name on the cheque, “Barbara. I do hope you and your husband?”
“Richard.” I prompted.
“Ah, yes, Richard and your good self enjoy your time with us.” Peter shook my hand.
“If you need help – any help at all – I’ll be glad to help you. It’s a friendly club; you’ve probably found that out already. Listening to your earlier, eh – how shall I put this, comments – yes, I think you’re going to fit in rather well! We’re looking for new blood for the committee next year should you have any interest in that direction. None of it would be very demanding.”
God, they must either be very kind, or very desperate to ask me!
“Please! I’m still trying to shuffle my diary to fit in one evening a week. My total lack of archery knowledge wouldn’t help you at all.” I laughed. Actually, the last thing Stortford needed was my attendance at meetings. I’d start gas-bagging, nothing would get decided and the others would fall asleep. I’m not an ideal committee member.
“Maybe I’ll think about it another year, when I’ve mastered sending my arrows roughly in the right direction?”
“Good-oh, I’ll remember that.” Peter grinned happily back at me. He removed a wallet from his pocket and went to put my cheque into one of the sections. Unfortunately, as soon as he opened it, what looked like several reams of paper fell out of it onto the floor.
“Botheration!” He good-naturedly exclaimed as he retrieved the bits of paper off the floor, and then made another couple of attempts to stuff the bits of paper back into the wallet.
“Ho hum, when I can find the receipt book, I’ll make one out for you. Afraid we’re out of club badges at the moment as well, aren’t we Steve?”
“Barbara and Richard will be first on the list as soon as they come through.” Steve re-assured Peter.
Thus, as a fully fletched club member, I took down my bow for the last time as a beginner, and then settled down to watch the experienced archers for the remaining hour, help/hinder the in clearing up operation and reflect over what I’d learned.
This is where artistic license comes into play, when I first wrote this it was 10 months after I learned how to propel an arrow approximately in the direction of the boss.
Importantly, I’d learnt what to do to keep it safe. It is, after all, the way our ancestors hunted, and the modern sport of archery using hugely powerful bows is only kept safe by maintaining high levels of discipline. You have to do as you are told. I’ve now had a couple of rare breakages while shooting and although a little surprised, thankfully I’ve not been hurt. The required disciplines and distances we have to keep between shooters and viewers meant that no-one else was hurt or even put at the slightest risk.
I’d learned how to accept help graciously and not insist that I can do everything on my own. This didn’t stop my pitching in with setting up the field for shooting, as should everyone. If, however, a guy arrived and said ‘let me do that for you’ my former withering look was replaced by a more gracious ‘thank you’. It eventually came down to a choice between my pride and the simple fact that I was unable to pull the trolley up the hill on my own.
My keeping fit took on more importance than simply reducing my size. Archery gave me – pardon the pun – a target so I didn’t get bored. I’m now 2½ stone lighter, move more easily, and can now run without bits of me going out of synch. You only need to take a look at SAC’s senior residents Ted and Cath Pears and see what archery has done for them, flexibility wise. I still find it hard to believe that they are over 80! In fairness no-one has to go to the lengths that I have to take up the sport, but it works for me.
Archery is a superb way to un-wind. Had a hard day at work? When you have to focus your mind and body so intensely, it’s impossible to think about anything else.
Sue Townsend, a wonderful author and person who, amongst other things, wrote the Adrian Mole diaries, said that in order to be happy you should never have friends all the same age as you. With archery, your friends can range from 8 to 80. Go to a shoot on your own, simply say hallo, and you won’t be without cheerful, humorous and intelligent company for long.
As there are so many other people around, you can avoid Phil.