It’s strange how a half-forgotten name, or just a song, can trigger a set of old memories. Sometimes melancholy, other times humorous. This one is of the latter. I hope the women who are its subjects will not object to the re-telling.
I am never able to hear the name Ralph McTell, or the song ‘Streets of London’, without thinking of Mary O’Donnell. Or at least, Mary O’Donnell’s breasts. No, no, all of Mary O’Donnell! I’m getting ahead of the story.
I usually take a small recorder or music player on my walks, so that for those times when I don’t need silence, I can listen to music, or some of my favourite radio broadcasts. On my walk today, I found myself listening to an old Ralph McTell song, which I hadn’t heard for years. It brought back two memories that were strangely symmetrical. And straightaway, I was back four decades ago and fencing with Mary O’Donnell.
When I began fencing, the sport I came to love above all others, I was a callow youth, fresh-faced and new, in my teens, slim to behold and terrified of girls. (I am working to regain the former property ; the latter never went away.) I was taught to fence by the marvellous Christine Tolland, in Glasgow, who had been for many years Scottish Ladies Champion at foil. Of all the coaches I have had in fencing, she has been my favourite.
I loved the sportsmanship in fencing : you could fence with someone who would be aiming to cut you in half on the piste without quarter, yet in the coffee room later was as an old friend. When I’d begun to acquire some of the skills, I began fencing rounds with other, more experienced club members. I fenced with Brian, who’d spent time teaching me elementary ‘conversation with the blade’. I fenced with a beautiful French girl, Hélène, who tore me to pieces. Then I fenced with Mary.
Mary was one of those girls who exuded self-confidence. Not overly tall, but slim, curvy, with long waist-length frizzy black hair and flashing dark blue eyes. Feisty hardly describes her, for she’d left home after an argument with her father and learned to fend for herself. Mary’s favourite singer, she often told me, was Ralph McTell, and she adored the song ‘Streets of London’. Perhaps it had an echo of having had to fend for herself for a while until she got her own place. But whenever I hear ‘Streets of London’, it’s Mary O’Donnell.
One evening, not long after I’d arrived at the ‘salle’ and had been fencing with Brian, she strode over to me and asked me if I’d like to fence a few hits. (I was to learn that left-handed fencers, like me, are often popular with right-handers looking for experience against sinistrals : the higher up you go in competitive fencing, the greater the number of left-handers compared to the population average, so having the experience is useful.) Etiquette, of course, is that you always accept a fencing request, and as Mary was dark-haired and beautiful-eyed, accepting was never hard.
“There’s just one thing though,” she added on that particular night, “you can’t give me hits on the chest.”
Before I’d even time to look perplexed, she explained that she’d just opened her fencing kit bag and discovered she’d left her breast protectors at home. These are cup-shaped (well, what did you think they’d look like?) high-impact plastic inserts that fit into internal pockets on women’s fencing jackets. She must have been putting her whites through the wash and forgotten to put the protectors back. She continued to explain that she’d been reading an article which said that breast tumours could be caused by high-impact strikes or bruising, and as she didn’t want to risk that, I’d to avoid chest hits. Whilst I’d never heard of that before, her reasoning was perfectly understandable, and so of course I readily agreed.
We set to en garde, then began to fence. I was fairly good at keeping off-target, making the odd hit on the shoulder or flank. Just now and again, I’d forget and make a riposte to the chest, and she’d stop momentarily, cross her hands at the wrist and wave ‘no, no’ signs, and I’d remember and continue. Then I’d forget, and there’d be another ‘no, no’ signal followed by her fingers pointing to her chest, and I’d try my hardest to remember the Chest Directive.
Mary was always an attacking fencer, whereas I was usually defensive, trying to lure the attacker into making a mistake. But as I was now always fencing defensively with hardly any attacks at all, Mary became even more aggressive, pushing the attack and herself not realising that I was backing away because of the Chest Directive. It was a natural progression. As she pressed her attacks harder, and I had to step farther and farther back, with little option but repeated parries with no counters, I knew I was being pushed up to the wall. The fencing exchanges got faster and faster : straight attacks, attacks from disengage, beat attacks, beat disengage attacks, they were coming pell-mell, for Mary could press her attacks now with impunity.
When you have been drilling fencing exercises for some time, they eventually turn from exercises to instinct. You begin to ‘read’ the play, and to anticipate instinctively. And in your mind, at high speed, you’re ever rehearsing what’s about to happen and how you will respond. At that moment I just knew what Mary was about to do. She’d strong legs, and a powerful lunge, and she was going to launch a beat attack on my blade from her ‘sixte’ side, knocking it out of the way, then propel herself from her back left foot with an attack on my ‘quarte’ flank. With nowhere to go, it had to be parry of seconde downwards and a riposte to her own ‘quarte’ side. All within less than a second.
It happened in a heartbeat : beat .. lunge .. attack .. parry .. attack-disengage-and-HIT!
I hadn’t meant it, but I knew I’d done it. Sheer instinct. Straight to the chest. Her left side. Perfect hit. My blade flexed beautifully.
She stood up, slowly pushed her mask up over her face, feet apart ‘at ease’, backs of the hands on her waist, arms akimbo, and said,
“Alec, will you PLEASE stop prodding my tits!”
At just those very seconds when she spoke, there had fallen one of those occasional and entirely accidental lulls in the general hubbub of the fencing salle, so that her voice now carried over the ensuing silence. I froze with embarrassment, feeling the surge of crimson blush rush up from my neck and all over my face. A few heads turned quizzically in our direction, and I could see Christine, who’d been giving lessons to some novices, turn her face slowly towards us with a look that said clearly, ‘What IS that boy doing now?’
I looked again at Mary, only to see the broad grin of laughter cover her face. It was pure mischief. I couldn’t help my sense of mortification, but she only teased me more in the coffee room afterwards, and she knew it had been an innocent mistake in the heat of the bout. “Oh, Alec! If you could only have seen your face!”
On leaving Glasgow, with the change of career and start to married life, I’d to leave this lovely club at Bellahouston, and Mary O’Donnell.
When we came to Surrey, many years later, I found a fencing club to join. By this time, I’d been fencing more at épée than foil, having been a fencer now for about twenty years. One of my regular fencing opponents had been Geoff, a tall, slightly older man, built like a fencer, whom I loved fencing as he had a perfect classical French style, which was how I’d been taught by Christine. Geoff’s wife, Margaret, was also a fencer, a foilist. I was to fence her often. She was an American (she still is!), from Philadelphia, and I loved her east coast accent and the way she pronounced my name, which she sounded as “Ell-lix”. During those early evenings, I think I’d fenced her about three times. It would have been around the fourth occasion, when we were exchanging a few hits, circular disengages, cutovers to her shoulder, the customary testing things. Suddenly, she stopped, pushed up her mask, and said,
“Ehl-lix, I know what yore doing.”
I must have looked puzzled.
She stepped forward a little. “Yore avoiding my boobs, aren’tcha?”
I had to nod, because I was. It wasn’t a conscious thing, but I’d been making hits to her right and left flanks, cutovers to her shoulders, a few low-line hits to her waist and stomach.
By now she was grinning from ear to ear. She stepped forward again.
“You don’t haffta. Look, you can hit me here on the boobs!” and she pushed her chest forwards ostentatiously, then struck herself on each side with the knuckles of her fingers, making the plastic protectors ping with the noise. “It doesn’t hurt! I’m protected! I actuallly prefer it if you hit me here because I don’t feel a thing! When you hit my sides, it hurts, but it doesn’t hurt here!” And she gave herself another couple of demonstrative blows with her knuckles.
“Tell ya what, Ehl-lix, I’m coming in next week, and I’m gonna have bulls-eyes painted on my boobs so you know where to hit ‘em!”
I could only laugh at her, and myself, and agree. After all, when a lady tells you to pay attention to her boobs, it’s only polite to comply.
In the bar that evening, I told Margaret and Geoff the story of Mary O’Donnell. I was “too sensitive now”, she said, but for all that, we shared a chuckle over the two tales.
I’ve often wondered what became of Mary O’Donnell, she of the long black hair and the flashing blue eyes and mischievous smile. I hope she found her Mr Right, and got to meet Ralph McTell. Looking back on my fencing life, what I am sure of, however, is that my fencing boobs were bigger than hers.