Zen and the Art of Horseriding
Part 51Nikki lay face down on the bench, feeling Sarah's fingers digging into the muscles of her shoulders. She and Sarah were already at the second venue, having left immediately after her shooting round had ended.
"Ohhh, yeah ."
"Y'know, Nik, if Helen could hear you now, I'm not sure she'd believe that we were just good friends.
"If she had fingers like yours, she'd be absolutely perfect. Ahhh but then again, she does things with "
"No, that's enough! There are some things on this Earth that I don't need to know, and that's definitely one of them." She covered her hands with her ears, leaving Nikki laughing on the table.
"I've got no intention of telling you all our secrets. Get your magic hands back here."
"Not until you promise that you are going to keep your boudoir secrets to yourself."
"I promise. Get massaging woman."
"Not until you use the magic word."
"All right then." They laughed at their silliness, a familiar routine played out several times now. It comforted Nikki as her nerves made themselves known more and more.
As Sarah's fingers continued their work, Nikki tried to get her mind to relax as her body was doing. She could feel the tension in her neck and shoulders from the shooting. The strain of holding her body in optimum shooting position was not hard, but not conducive to a good swim. She needed her shoulders to be loose for that, her neck to be free.
"You did pretty good in the shooting. Keep it up, hey?"
"I feel pretty good, you know."
"Keep it loose, Nik, and don't get over-excited."
"I'll be fine."
"Cool. I'd better get back and keep your lady company. See you later."
Nikki grabbed Sarah's hand as she passed.
"No worries. See you later."
Nikki lay back, the towel keeping her muscles warm. She let her mind flow to the swimming; visualising, as the psychologist had taught her; feeling her body in the water.
Once her mindset was right, she got up, moving fluidly to her locker to put on her costume. The neoprene body suit was hanging from the peg, waiting for her. As always, the red, white and blue pattern made her grin self-consciously to herself. She'd had her moments when she was younger, but never in her dreams had she actually believed that she would be standing here now.
She slipped the legs on, pulling the suit up to her waist, smoothing down the thin material as it stuck like the second skin it looked like. There were no arms, and she slipped them through the holes quickly. There was no zip, and no need for one on this costume. She swung her arms experimentally, ensuring that the costume was fitting correctly.
She breathed deeply. In about three quarters of an hour, she would be racing again. Now she needed to stay loose and focused, concentrating on what was yet to come, but not looking beyond the swimming, and ignoring her shooting round.
She found a quiet corner, away from the other athletes. Their presence, welcome in the past, was now intrusive, oppressive. She needed her space now. She sat, feet beating a tattoo on the floor in her flip-flops, a loose T-shirt hiding the muscles she was trying to keep warm.
"Hello. How are you?"
Helen kept her face straight, trying not to let her surprise show. She had expected Trish to try and talk to her again at some point, presumably to get some sort of proper reaction to the stories that had been running in the British press, but Liz?
"I'm fine, you?" She replied shortly. Liz was sitting between her and the exit, and short of jumping over the row of seats in front, she didn't have much choice about staying where she was.
"Oh, you know, just watching the action, checking out the competition." She leaned languidly back in her seat, mirroring Helen's own movement, designed to show that she didn't think the ex-swimmer a threat.
"Competition?" Helen asked, confused.
"Yeah. Look, I know you think you may have found the Holy Grail, now you've discovered women, but you stick to your own, OK?"
"Don't play the innocent with me, toots. I know that you've had one of the pair, but you aren't going to get your hands on the other one. If you're bored with Wade, I'm sure that someone else will show you a good time, but it's not going to be Trish, get me?"
"I have no idea what you are talking about, Liz, but let's get one thing clear: I have, and never have had, any interest in Trish. Do you understand that? What on earth gave you that idea anyway?"
"I saw the way you smiled at her, and I have got no intention of losing her to you. You may have turned Nikki's head, with your money, first class all the way, and the rest of that crap, but Trish won't be bought. Get it?" She thrust her finger under Helen's nose for emphasis, and got up to leave.
Helen couldn't help herself, and started laughing. This had to be some sort of joke. She looked for the camera crew, but on failing to spot it, assumed that it must be some sort of hidden camera stunt.
"That was tad melodramatic."
"I'm serious. You lipstick lesbians might think that you're irresistible, but you are not. Leave Trish alone."
"Trish is out to crucify me. She's outed me to the world, because I'm, going out with the woman she dumped. She might have no interest in Nikki, but she's got some sort of a grudge against one of us. Keep her off me. I am very happy with Nikki."
"We'll see. If I catch you after Trish, you won't have to worry too much about what's been in the press this week, I promise you that."
She marched off, leaving Helen half-bemused and half-furious. How dare anyone make assumptions about her. Especially about how predatory she was; not that she had much of a leg to stand on. She was monogamous, but only because if someone new took her fancy, she dumped her previous inamorata and pursued the new fancy until she got her own way.
A little like the way she had behaved with Nikki, actually. Except she wasn't entirely certain that she had been doing all the chasing with Nikki. She somehow had the feeling that she might have been reeled in. It didn't matter though, not really. She didn't even care that she had been outed; she did care about Nikki's privacy, however. She should talk to Sarah, find out something about Nikki's background, her family, the rest of her life, like what she did for money. Her winnings to date were barely enough to live off, let alone keep horses on; and even the World Champion didn't win that much money. She doubted that Nikki often gave riding lessons, somehow. She might be a good teacher, but she didn't have the air of an habitual one. Maybe she was a bank robber on the side, or she mugged little old ladies in between competitions?
She made her way to the pool. She felt like Nikki was on fire today, and while she wanted her to win, more than anything else, she wanted Nikki back with her. They had so much to talk about, from every point of view; she needed Nikki's support right now, but wasn't sure how she would react to Trish's little bombshell. Then there was the future. Helen belonged to one of the most notoriously fickle professions in the world, and although she had some work, and some money, she had rather been showing off to Nikki recently, upgrading her every chance she got. They had to work out when they would see each other, if Nikki still wanted to after all this was over, and she knew what was going on.
She watched the first three heats disinterestedly, her mind ticking over all the problems facing her. On days like today, even with all its excitement, they still seemed insurmountable. She was feeling very isolated; lonely almost. She was an adjunct to Nikki's group, and hanger-on, and she was being made to feel that position very keenly right now.
She smiled to herself. How many times had the same thing happened to someone she was dating? The endless 'luvvie' parties, where Sean had had to hang around. But he had got his own back, making her pay for a ticket to the Horse of the Year Show.
"'Ello, belle 'elen." Antoine joined her, kissing her, as was his way, on both cheeks.
He started to talk to her, as if he had realised how she was feeling. He related a story about Nikki to make her laugh and encouraged her to talk about herself, even drawing out of her her earlier thoughts, about the similarities between the sport and the stage.
"You theenk too much. You should feel more. Nikki will be good for you like that."
"I think she's been thinking too much the last few days," Helen said bitterly.
"Child, it is hard for her not to. In the past, her sport and her love have been bound. This is the first time it is not so. It is very hard for her. Trish know what she goes through. She too does the same. They did not talk before an event. They have nothing to say to each other. During, they no talk either. She like having you here, but she no know how to talk, or what to say. You help though. She is more relaxed with you."
Helen felt a small glow at that. She knew, none better, that Nikki was not as self-reliant as she had always seemed, but that her presence was appreciated made her feel better about herself. She knew everybody liked to feel needed hell, everybody needed to feel needed, and she was no different to the next woman.
They watched the penultimate swim, some of Nikki's strongest competition swimming. It looked so intense to Helen; the absolute concentration on the faces of the women as they kept their supple bodies warm; the way they barely acknowledged the crowd, let alone each other.
"Who do you think will win?" Helen finally got up the nerve to ask.
"That is in the lap of the Gods. If Nikki do good enough, she will win. If not " He shrugged graphically. There was a short silence, and Helen had the feeling that this funny little man was waiting for something. She had a brief moment of stage fright, as if she had forgotten her next line, then Antoine hunched down, bringing his face so close to hers, she could feel his breath caress her face.
"You know she will quit if does not do well here." It wasn't so much a question as a statement.
"I'm sorry?" She stammered, as the impact of the words hit her. Nikki hadn't once mentioned this to her.
"She wants to be proud of herself. She has not so many years left. If she can't do it now, she is unlikely to do it." Once more that expressive Gallic shrug that told Helen he didn't entirely agree with Nikki's decision.
He turned away with a tight little smile, leaving her to the maelstrom of her thoughts. Right at the front was the anger that Nikki hadn't confided in her they were supposed to be as intimate as two people could possibly be; that Nikki had kept a decision of such magnitude from her, was a terrible blow to Helen's self-confidence. It relegated her behind Nikki's coach and
"Does Sarah know this?" She asked, her own voice coming out all wrong, betraying her hurt.
Antoine nodded, his eyes full of something; compassion, maybe?
It put her to the bottom of the pile, basically. Nikki didn't consider her worthy of knowing something so fundamental about her; of even being given a chance to be supportive of a decision already made.
"What does doing well mean? Is it top five? Top ten?" Helen didn't even know what Nikki considered success or failure. The huge gaps in their knowledge widened between them, like cracks during an earthquake; seeming so small and insignificant at first, but rapidly expanding to the size of chasms.
Even as Antoine opened his mouth to reply, she knew. It would have to be a medal to satisfy Nikki. And if she didn't get gold, she would consider herself a failure. Anything else just wouldn't be good enough.
She was startled by her insight; she had never been so aware of what made anyone tick before. Except that she wasn't. She had no idea what made Nikki so driven.
"Isn't it enough to be the best? To know you are and to prove it?" His smile was more genuine now, as she heard Sarah's voice over her shoulder, answering the question she wasn't sure she had actually asked out loud. "Why else do sports people do the things they do? They might love the sport, but that is not reason enough to want to win so much. People like Nikki, they have no self value outside. They need this to prove they matter."
Helen swung around. Sarah's face, at once so like and so unlike Nikki's, carried the serious expression that Nikki only wore when she was absorbed in whatever she was doing at the time. She felt a pain in her chest. She wasn't sure she was going to be able to deal with this. She knew Nikki was scared, and attributed it to natural fear, like her own stage fright. She hadn't really looked any deeper than that, to see what else was lurking under Nikki's confidant, even arrogant, exterior. She always seemed so sure; it was hard to think of her existence needing this sort of validity.
Helen didn't reply. She was still feeling too raw at Nikki's perceived betrayal. It didn't matter how revealing the information would have been; she had just spent the last two days dealing with Nikki's insecurities; hell, the woman had spent hours crying all over her. For her not to have told Helen, however revealing it would be, it meant that she didn't trust Helen. And that was something that Helen wasn't prepared to forgive. She had given Nikki everything, and it obviously wasn't enough.
"Tread softly because you tread on my dreams," she quoted Yeats under her breath as the competitors for Nikki's heat made their way out to the poolside. It wasn't Nikki's dreams that were the problem here. It was what would replace them if they were smashed here.
She picked out the white cap hiding Nikki's dark hair, admiring the blue suit covering her body, except for those powerful shoulders. Her body shape seemed more triangular than ever when she was dressed for swimming. She held her goggles loosely in a hand that was too clenched.
Their eyes met as Nikki sauntered to her chair to get herself ready. Helen couldn't quite read what was behind those cool eyes, regarding her almost as if she were a stranger. She wondered if her antagonism could be read on her face. Her jaw was clenched, although whether from the intensity of her own emotions, or on Nikki's behalf, she wasn't sure.
"Good luck," she mouthed, just as Nikki pulled her t-shirt over her head. She wasn't sure if she had 'read' her face or not.
She watched the athletes warming up, shaking their long limbs loose, wetting their goggles and settling themselves on the starting blocks. She had never seen an Olympic-size swimming pool before, and the size of it amazed her. How the hell could anyone go up and down it without drowning amazed her.
Muscles tensed, and were held, as they prepared to spring into action, propelling their owners into the pool for the race of their lives.
To Helen, it felt like he held them there for an age; long enough for her to compare the different stances the different swimmers were using. Nikki favoured one leg at the front, one behind, whereas her neighbour was in the classic position, legs together at the front of the block.
The report of the starting pistol took Helen almost by surprise. The aeon that had existed between 'set' and 'go' seemed to slow some of the competitor's reflexes too, as the girl nearest Helen seemed to dive in seconds after everyone else.
She was gratified to see Nikki, in Lane 3, surface quickly and get into the familiar rhythm of her stroke that looked so easy and relaxed, and yet gobbled up the distance deceptively quickly.
She was up against three Eastern bloc competitors; a German; an American, a South African, who was supposed to be pretty hot competition; although right now she was battling a Brazilian for third place.
Helen found herself holding her breath each time they rolled under for the turns, only releasing it again as Nikki rose to the surface, gasping for air. Her fingers were aching where she was gripping her bag, as, in the fourth and final length, the water churned as Nikki started using her legs more. She heard Sarah muttered 'c'mon, Nik. Six beats, not four', and then it looked like Nikki had stepped up a whole new gear, as she smoothly passed into second place, her arms windmilling as she alternated her breathing to check out where the competition was placed around her.
Suddenly it was all over, the swimmers panting at the end of the pool, looking around, and, unlike on television, not hugging each other, celebrating, but climbing out and making their solitary ways back to the changing room as the crowd continued to applaud. As Nikki hung at the end of the pool, Helen saw her give a small smile when she saw the timings, then her face returned to impassiveness.
Nikki had come second, although this heat was slightly slower than the previous one, so she achieved fourth in the swimming. As she swung around the corner into the changing rooms, their eyes met once more, and this time she saw an unmistakeable glimpse of triumph in those brown eyes.
She let the water soothe her body as she basked for a short moment in her successes of the morning, before she locked them away in her heart to look at later. She couldn't afford to spend the next three events looking back, or forward. She had to spend her time in the present or the very immediate future, or the early success would become a might-have-been.
She raised her face to the shower jet, letting it wash off the chlorine and wipe away the first hours of her day as she turned her mind to the fencing. She had seen Helen with Antoine earlier, and knew that he had told Helen. She could see it from the way Helen held herself, or held herself back, to be more accurate. That smile, normally so welcoming, was not as broad, and there was a tenseness about the eyes that meant it wasn't real.
She sighed. She didn't need this, not today, even as she knew it was her fault for not telling Helen. Helen had seemed so vulnerable; it hadn't seemed fair to dump her own fears on her as well. And something wasn't quite right. There was a barrier between them. She knew what it was from her side the decision to quit wasn't just her throwing her toys out of the pram, but the result of a lot of thought. Her age was against her, and although she was the UK number one, that didn't mean much when the UK number two was thirtieth in the world.
But there was something from Helen's side too. Something she was keeping from Nikki. She wondered if Helen was drinking again, but it didn't quite seem to fit. She might be using, but she seemed to normal for that. Her moods were steady, and it seemed to be emotional. She had to shrug it off and concentrate on today.
She wanted to see Helen. There was no doubt that her presence, now she understood more what Nikki was going through and had consequently become less demanding, was soothing. Her sense of humour alone was enough to get Nikki to relax.
Even her presence in the same room helped. Maybe it hadn't been such a good idea to ban everyone except Sarah from behind the scenes. Although Sarah did her best, and she and Nikki were comfortable with each other, it wasn't the same. Even between Nikki and Sarah was a constraint that hadn't been there until recently.
Sarah, like Antoine, didn't agree with her decision not to continue to compete if she didn't do well here. Moreover, they didn't agree with her decision not to discuss it with Helen, let alone not tell her. It was pretty significant when your friends sided against you with your new girlfriend, she mused.
She shut the water off, unhappy that her thoughts had led her back to the same place, as if she felt guilty about it and had to keep justifying her decision to herself. She was dimly aware of the other competitors bustling around her as they changed and got ready to go to the fencing arena. Still dripping, she smoothed a hand over her epees. She had a good feeling about today, for some reason. It was a rarity, a day where everything felt right almost like this was another dream. She fervently hoped that it wouldn't become a nightmare.
As she opened her towel, one that Sarah had laid out for her, a note fluttered to the ground.
I don't care what happens today, you'll always have my gold.
She smiled as she found the gold chocolate coin wrapped in another fold. This was a surprise. Somehow she had never viewed Helen as being the type to reciprocate her presents at least, not in such a silly, yet endearing way. The woman was unexpectedly sympathetic for an actress. Empathy she could understand, because surely without it, an actor couldn't act; but sympathy? No, that had been an unexpected discovery.
She threw on her fencing breeches, covering them up with a ripped pair of jogging bottoms and chucked on the Scotland rugby shirt that Helen had given her, a present after Scotland had beaten England in the Hong Kong Sevens, smoothing down the dark blue cotton. As it went over her head, she caught a whiff of Helen's perfume, and saw her sprawled over the bed wearing just this the night before, smiling as she watched Nikki pack for the fifth time of many.
She clutched at the shirt, suddenly absurdly homesick for Essex, Barney, and the more simplistic days where she just taught Helen to ride. Even as she yearned for it, she knew that she would never have been able to give in to it. For her to not be here today would be to deny everything she had worked for, or stood for. It was her, as much as her heart was, and she couldn't imagine a life without the endless training and competing with everything she had.
She grabbed her bag, swinging it easily over her shoulder as she followed the others out to the bus. All that effort, for one rollercoaster, amazing day. It had bloody well better be worth it.
Antoine rushed off, leaving Helen and Sarah furiously scribbling and calculating on bits of paper. They had barely computed the points Nikki had won by the time the results came up on the board. After two disciplines, Nikki was lying comfortably third, with a cushion between her and fourth.
"Result!" Sarah punched the air in triumph before turning to hug an equally delighted Helen.
"Is that good?" Helen asked innocently.
"Of course," Sarah replied incredulously, before seeing that Helen was teasing her. "Seriously, Nikki's never been so far up in the standings before, certainly not in such distinguished competition as this."
"She's got a chance, then?" No matter that Helen was angry with Nikki for not telling her of her plans, she very much wanted Nikki to get what she wanted, if she could.
"More than that, I'd say. The way she's going, who knows what will happen. It's time we had a bit of silverware at home."
"We?" Was this another new development that Helen hadn't been informed of?
"The Royal we. A figure of speech. I live over here. Mum and Dad emigrated years ago. But if all goes right, I'll be over on your side of the world for the Olympics." She grinned engagingly, looking exactly like Nikki for a second. "I've never been back North since I left. Can't wait."
"Can we just back up a minute?" Helen was getting confused here. "Antoine told me that Nikki was thinking about retiring, and now you're talking about the Olympics. What the hell is going on?"
"Nikki always talks like this before a competition; this time, I think she's serious. She's seen what's happened to Trish. If she comes in the top ten, she'll have a crack at the Olympics. It'll be her last go, anyway. If she doesn't, well, let's just say she won't want to make up the numbers, even if she still is the best the Brits have got."
"I wish she'd " Helen cut herself off.
"Make up her mind?" Sarah finished for her, giving Helen a knowing look. "Or talk to you about it?"
Helen certainly thought the latter, but wasn't about to let the other woman see just how badly betrayed she was feeling. At the moment, she wasn't sure just how Nikki felt about her, or even how she felt about Nikki.
"Give her a chance, Helen. Trish decided to retire without telling Nikki, and when she found out about it, on 'Grandstand', she was gutted."
"Then she should know exactly how it feels!" Helen couldn't help herself.
"Her sport runs her life, but she doesn't think it has to run yours. To her, this is her decision, not yours. Let's face it, it would be easier if each of you weren't rushing off to different parts of the world all the time, wouldn't it? After all, you haven't exactly told her what's on your plate after all this, have you?"
"That's because I'm flexible. I can take parts that coincide with where Nikki's off too next."
"That's not what a little birdie told me. Word has it that you're being considered for a new role in an American mini-series." Sarah snapped her mouth shut and watched as Helen's gaped open in shock
"How do you know that? Even my agent hasn't confirmed that yet."
"I read it in a magazine last night. So did Nikki."
"Shit." She hadn't bargained that anyone would know. It was supposed to be top secret. And she had already decided that she wouldn't take it, even if it were offered to her. Not if it meant spending six months a year in the States without Nikki.
"I take it it's not a complete fabrication then?" Sarah pressed.
"Not entirely. I am up for a part, but nothing's been confirmed. And I haven't even decided yet." Her mind was racing for the source of the leak. It certainly wouldn't be her agent, and it surely couldn't be the studio, not unless they'd made some kind of decision? She reached for her mobile, but Sarah's hand stopped her.
"I think that you two should have a bit of a talk after today is over. It's time you stopped following each other around like lost puppies and started acting like grown-ups, don't you?"
Had it not been for the genuine look of concern on Sarah's face, Helen thought that she might have smacked her. She was used to people trying to run her love life; the tabloid papers thought they had a monopoly on it, or something. It was why she'd never dated anyone not already in the public eye. But this was very different. To her own surprise, she didn't snap back.
"I think you're right," she said grimly.
"A proper talk, not one of you getting on your high horse and storming off. She really, really likes you, Helen. And anyone can see you care for her. It's hard, but if you two want to make it work, you can." She stood up, patted Helen's shoulder awkwardly and left.
Helen stared as Sarah walked away before turning her attention to the telephone in her hand.
Nikki tightened the last buckle, grabbed the 'begging bowls' through her jacket to made sure that they were covering the appropriate part of her anatomy and picked up the bag of épées, careful not to dislodge the wires hanging out of the right arm of her jacket. These would be connected to the wires on her blade, used for recording a hit when they completed the circuit with her opponents wire jacket. She briefly contemplated rewiring the circuit, as had been done before, in the Olympics, to record a hit for her even if she missed, before ruefully deciding that she wanted to do this herself. Winning that way would never be enough.
She grabbed her own wire jacket, which she would put on when she got out into the arena. She had tested all of the connections several times already, her last preparation as she talked strategy with Antoine.
She tucked her mask under her arm, once more admiring the mask of the Hungarian number one, which had a Perspex face panel. She idly wondered what it would be like to wear, letting the speculation keep her mind occupied.
She and Antoine had worked hard on her fencing recently, as it was usually her weakest discipline. This would be the first real test of her newly honed skills, and of her nerve, as the waiting for this event seemed to be the worst of all. At least in the riding you could see how the horse behaved with other competitors, plus there was the twenty minutes as you got to know each other. Here, there was nothing, except to try and study each other's styles. Something which you should have done before the competition even started.
As she emerged into the indoor arena, she looked around. Her opposition were in varying stages of limbering up and keeping warm. Four were already on their separate pistes, faces hidden by their masks, wires trailing behind them, lunging and fighting imaginary battles, awaiting their opponents.
She found herself a small corner, tucked away between Emma, the sole Irish contender, an old friend of hers from the circuit, and a young Swede that she didn't know. The poor girl, barely eighteen by the look of her, looked scared to death. She spared her a sympathetic smile as she turned away to complete her own preparations. She was down to fight fourteenth, her first bout against the world number one. She wouldn't be likely to have to wait too long; some of the bouts lasted barely seconds, while others lasted for upwards of two minutes. Each was over when the first point was scored.
She moved her arms, stretching her muscles; shoulders, arms, legs, practicing her lunges, hearing Antoine's voice in her head: "you extend too far; you must be able to recover double queek."
As the first bouts got under way; one appearing over almost before it began, she put on her wire jacket, eyes scanning the crowd for Helen. There was no sign of her. By the time she was ready and wired up, there were only two bouts to go before she was due to step up to the piste.
As her number was called, she spotted Helen and saluted her with her sword, up against her face, as it would be in a moment as she faced the reigning World Champion, the woman whose crown she sought. She barely saw Helen nod graciously back as she turned away, already wondering how she would fight this woman who had beaten her in every bout they had ever fought together, except that first one, where Nikki had beaten her and come second in the Junior World Championships.
As her mind floated back down those fourteen long years, she had an idea, and felt a slight smile lift the corners of her mouth. It certainly wouldn't be expected of her, notoriously a defensive fencer, given to the counterattack or riposte, so it might just work here, even if it didn't against anyone else, as the surprise factor would be gone.
She donned her helmet and stepped up onto the piste, plugging herself into the electronic scoring circuit, anonymous in her 'costume'. Sometimes, rarely, but just now and again, she felt this; an powerful feeling that she was invincible. It was always the way when she had a plan of how she would fight someone.
She saluted her opponent and they took their guard, swords crossed. She could hear her heartbeat in her ears, her eyes on the blades before them as she tensed her muscles in anticipation of her first move. It was time to attack.
"Fence!" The command rang through her head as she moved her blade quickly to one side, her body following to avoid the expected lunge from her opponent, and then she brought the blade across, in seeming slow motion to tap the other epee out of the way smartly, lunging forward awkwardly to pierce her opponents guard while she was off balance.
She saw the light on the panel behind her opponent light up and jumped in the air. She had scored a hit, and had won the bout. She had the presence of mind to salute before she had unplugged herself and whipped off her mask. That had gone better than she could ever have hoped for.
Her eyes sought Antoine, the grin plastered smugly across her face. The 'beat' move, although common at the lower levels, and often during an attack, as it gave good access to the scoring zone, wasn't a move she was particularly good at, and she'd never expected or even hoped for such a perfect execution. She saw Antoine clapping her, mouthing something that looked like 'well done', although it could have been anything. Helen, next to him, was also clapping wildly. She had watched several of her training sessions and knew just how hard the fencing was for her. It didn't matter if she lost all of her remaining bouts; she had finally claimed the most important scalp present, and laid to rest a fourteen-year-old ghost.
"Magnifique!" Antoine shouted, as the three of them applauded Nikki's victory. "Excellente." They settled down quickly as two more fencers stepped up. "What you theenk?" He asked Helen.
"I've never seen her score a point so fast." It was true; Nikki normally had to really fight for her points, no pun intended. She was a steady fencer, with little flair, and she'd never seen her perform such a manoeuvre before. "Is that legal, then?"
"Legal? But of course." He frowned at her. "Why ever not?"
"Well, it doesn't seem very sporting to knock someone else's foil out of the way like that," she said, proudly displaying her knowledge. Sarah's snort of laughter and Antoine's withering look told her that she wasn't quite as clever as she thought she was being.
"It is an épée, much more skilful than a foil," he said huffily.
"Sor-ree." She stretched out the syllables, embarrassed at her elementary mistake.
"It's all right Helen. I called it the 'pointy thing' for about a year before Nikki stopped laughing long enough to tell me." Sarah chipped in, much to Helen's gratitude.
"See, it's not easy for us outsiders." The two women laughed together, united against the fencing teacher.
"Huh. You have no soul, either of you. Fencing is an art; beauty and grace in motion," he sniffed.
"It might be an art, but it has a language all it's own. Me and Helen, we're just dumb actors and Colonials who don't know any better. That's why we need a big strong man around to teach us," Sarah teased Antoine in a way that Helen would never have dared to. For a moment, she felt a complete outsider in their circle, until Antoine gave a loud guffaw and encircled them both in his arms.
"You are ver' cheeky, Mees Sarah. I theenk Mees Helen ees the woman for me. She appreciate me more. Come Helen, you must sit by me and ignore this, what you say, ignorant Colonial."
They settled down, watching the various bouts. At forty competitors, that meant 39 separate bouts for Nikki. They watched anxiously as she battled her way through, winning some, and losing others. She was on fire today, Helen thought; much more aggressive and attacking than usual.
In between bouts it was like watching a machine. There was no expression on Nikki's face, just a workmanlike blank expression. There was a job to do, and she intended to do it with a minimum of fuss. Fleetingly, each time that she removed her mask, Helen caught a glimpse of the tension in her jaw, once or twice a smile, and now and again, a trace of a grimace.
That there was much more at stake for Nikki than just winning a competition was obvious to her now. This competition represented her future in the sport, and that one final chance for an Olympic medal. It went a long way towards explaining Nikki's tension over the last few days.
As they went into the last few rounds of bouts, Nikki was respectably standing on a success rate of better than half, unusually for her, and was due to fight some of the weaker fencers. Antoine had been making frantic calculations on the back of an envelope.
"I intend to bring everything, then I get a call from Nikki to talk fencing, and I forget," he explained when he saw Helen staring at his laboured maths.
"I have a pocket calculator," Sarah offered, but he refused her offer, saying it gave him something to do when Nikki wasn't fencing.
"I have no idea," he confessed, giving a very Gallic shrug, when he had finished. Helen and Sarah hunched over the envelope together, looking at the figures, seeing that he had used every available inch of space on the envelope to produce convoluted calculations that Helen thought wouldn't look out of place on an Open University blackboard.
"I'll wait for the official scores, I think," Helen looked up to watch Nikki's third from last fight.
"I don't blame you. The scoring for these is more complicated and obscure than filling in my tax return." Sarah said absently, her attention on Nikki. She was in a much more drawn-out match this time, both fighting at a similar standard and so far they had been going back and forth, like film fighting, for almost a minute quite a long time in fencing.
They fell apart, and then Nikki stepped slowly back, on her toes, the point of her blade circling gently in the air in front of her. The figure facing her was shorter and stockier, with blonde hair cascading down her back. Lured by Nikki's relaxed posture, she advanced rapidly as Nikki retreated equally quickly, their épées clashing as they went. There was a brief moment of confusion as Helen thought Nikki stepped off the end of the piste, an automatic loss, but then Nikki was pressing forward rapidly, almost towering over her shorter opponent, pressuring her back so she was unbalanced, and then lunged, bending her blade in a perfect semicircle, the point buried in the middle of her opponents body.
Nikki knew that there would be no mistaking her triumph. She had fought consistently well, for once attacking rather than defending and making her claim known. It was surprisingly liberating, fencing in this way, and she was a little disappointed that no one had ever really pushed her to fight like this before.
Her previous coaches had concentrated on her technical weaknesses, rather than encouraging her to use her size and strength to intimidate the other weak fencers, enabling her to dominate them.
She took off her mask, trying not to let her Cheshire Cat grin show too much, and after saluting her opponent, the young Swede who had claimed the space next to her in the hall, turned to salute Antoine.
As she caught sight of Helen's face, looking slightly disapproving, her grin slipped a little. Was there some sort of problem? She searched the faces of her three supporters for clues, but only Helen seemed to be frowning. She hoped it wasn't her behaviour so far, but Helen had seemed fine right until the moment they had separated that morning, so it could only be that she was displeased with hearing Nikki's news second-hand. Then again, Nikki hadn't been exactly thrilled about Helen's job in America.
She threw off the shadows that were plaguing her. There would be time enough for that later. First she had another two bouts to contest. As her number was called, she stepped up, bouncy and full of confidence.
The bout was incredibly quick, a hit coming after just fifteen seconds. Chastened, she left the piste, her salute half-hearted.
"That serves you right for being arrogant, you idiot. You could have beaten her, and have, many times. Fool!" She clenched her fist as she berated herself for the slip. She knew exactly how the woman fought; they had once trained together, but she had let her concentration slip for that vital few moments, because she had been too cocky, and had lost points as a result. There could be no let-up at this level.
She didn't even look at Antoine, knowing exactly what she would see a shaking fist. Sarah and Helen would look disappointed in her, and right now, she couldn't bear to see that. She had one more bout to get it right, maximise her points, and she needed to do this.
She did some breathing exercises, trying to concentrate her mind and visualise her first move in the next bout, rolling her shoulders to loosen them, and not start looking forward to the next event, hearing Trish's voice in her head; 'if you're not thinking about this event, you're not thinking, and you'll lose. Stay in the moment, Nik.'
"Wade, number 15." The public address tinnily requested her presence, and she stood, looking forward. She attached her wires and donned her mask, hearing the sound of her heartbeat in her ears as she felt the unmistakable rush of adrenalin in her guts. Fight or flight. Now was the time to fight.
She stepped up and they saluted, then crossed blades, the judges seeming to take forever to call 'fight'. She thrust, then parried as she tried to get a feel for the style she was facing, moving her feet quickly as she was driven back, then lunging forward, recovering and advancing, her leading foot and arm moving faster than she could think.
The arm attacking her moved quicker, forcing her into some stylistically-challenged manoeuvres that she knew would have Antoine cursing, but somehow she managed to avoid being hit as they cut savagely at each other, each trying to find the chink in the other's armour.
She saw the opportunity almost before it arose. A flaw in the defence as fatal as her own an overextended lunge that took a second too long to recover from. Even as she saw it, her body moved to take advantage before her brain kicked in. She retreated a step, parried, and then, as the expected lunge came in performed the same move as she had that morning; a beat, and a thrust, and it was all over. Thirty-eight seconds that had lasted half a lifetime, but ending with her victorious.
The last to fight, she knew that she wouldn't be the first to ride, the draw for that having already taken place, she had a few moments to watch the scoreboard. There it was, a 68% record, according to the scoreboard, a record for her. This time she didn't try to hide the grin as her name came up second on the overall leader board.
With two strong events to go, there might be a chance of something very good coming out of this. She gathered her belongings, passing the bag of épées, her mask and jackets to Sarah, who had come down to the sidelines to see her.
"That was quite impressive." Sarah said dryly.
"Mmm, I impressed myself actually."
"I think Helen should be here more often."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Nikki stopped following Helen's progress towards them and stared at her cousin.
"You never show off like that to me, or anyone else, come to think of it." She satisfied herself with glaring at Sarah, smothering her reply as Helen came to a stop beside them.
"Well done, Nikki, that was great." She leaned forward and Nikki was frustrated that she only offered her cheek for a kiss, not her mouth.
"I aim to please," she said, thumping Sarah, who seemed to be suffering an attack of the giggles. "Don't you have somewhere to be?" She asked rudely.
"No. I just need to stick these in the car, then I'm off to see the hosses."
"Sarah," Nikki whined.
"All right, all right, I can tell where I'm not wanted, so I'll leave you two lovebirds alone. Don't do anything I wouldn't do. I'll see you in a few minutes, Helen." She walked off jauntily, still giggling away. Nikki watched her go, meeting Antoine on her way. He didn't come any closer, just giving Nikki a grin and a thumbs up, and she turned back to her lover.
"Hey yourself. How are you feeling?"
"Pretty good right now."
"So you should be, you're doing really well."
There was a long pause. Each of them wanted to say so much to the other, but knew that now was not the right time.
"Thanks for coming." Nikki finally said.
"Wild horses couldn't keep me away; if you'll excuse the pun. And speaking of which, haven't you got to be somewhere?"
"I guess." Nikki stepped away, but Helen caught her arm and pulled her in for a hug. "What was that for?"
"Luck. Now go on with you." She pushed Nikki gently, and stood and watched her as she retreated to the changing rooms.
"What a touching scene." Trish's sarcasm cut through Helen's good mood like a knife.
"Really? I thought it was just one friend wishing another luck." Helen replied, pushing her hair back. She'd had just about enough of this. "Shouldn't you be commentating on the jumping?"
"I was hoping to catch a few words with our potential world champion here, but it looks like you beat me to it."
"A bit early for that, isn't it?"
"None of us have ever been as close as Nikki at this stage. With a following wind, I don't see why she wouldn't w "
"Don't tempt fate," Helen cut in. "There's still a long way to go."
"Do you think this will be her swansong? Is that why she fought like that? She knows that this is her last chance, and she doesn't want to be a 'might have been'?" Trish's change of tack took Helen by surprise.
"Like you, you mean?" Her answer, given before she had put her brain in gear, was obviously a shock to Trish, as much as it was to her. She was briefly appalled at her rudeness, then smugly satisfied as Trish looked like she had been smacked in the face.
"I beg your pardon?" Liz, Trisha's ever-faithful shadow, managed to gasp.
"You heard me. Leave Nikki alone." She turned to Trish. "You know what it's like. You loved Nikki once; do you hate her that much that you'd really want to fuck it up for her?"
There was no answer. She looked from face to face, challenging them to argue. Satisfied that they were suitably chastened, she nodded and left them to find Sarah.
"What kept you?" Sarah was stashing Nikki's fencing gear in the rented car.
"I just had to deal with Madam, determined to ruin Nikki's big day."
"Again? That woman never learns. I'd of thought she was too into her new pet these days."
"Obviously not; she wants me to be her big break, by the look of it."
"Cheeky mare. If Nikki wins, she'll have her moment; a British champion at anything is front page news."
"Enough to knock 'Lesbian actress shocker' off the front pages?" Helen asked ironically, knowing that the tabloids wouldn't let that off the front page for weeks.
"OK, well, maybe you'd share the front page," Sarah conceded.
"If Trish gets her way, we will." Helen shrugged. "I just need some more time. I haven't been in the UK for months, so I haven't been able to talk to anyone."
"Have you actually told anyone?"
"My agent; but then she's also a close friend. She's dying to meet the woman who 'tamed' me."
"Is that what our Nikki's done then?"
"Well, she's got me to settle down, which can't be bad, can it?"
"See what happens when this circus is over, if I were you. There's no point making plans, is there? Not until you know what's going on."
"Look, I've told you that nothing's been decided yet; certainly not by me, anyway. I was never going to take the job without talking to Nikki, which is more of a courtesy than she offered me."
"OK, OK, touché," Sarah put her hands up in mock surrender. "You two need to talk, not you and me."
"OK. I'm not mad at you. Trish must bring out the worst in me." Helen grinned, and they re-established their truce.
"How do you think she'll do?" Helen broke the silence as they drove along.
"Depends on the horse. If she handles it well, and it can jump, she should do OK. If it's a pain, then if she can stay about tenth, she should podium."
"Pretty good then?"
"The best position she's ever been in, in any competition, except the juniors. And she got silver there, so she's in with a chance."
"Where's Antoine?" Helen suddenly realised that they were alone.
"He's gone on ahead to get decent seats. I've never quite worked out why I'm the one who totes all Nikki's crap around, and he's the bloke and does nothing."
"He's probably afraid he'll break a fingernail," Helen giggled.
"Or ruin the line of his suit. He's such a fusspot about his clothes. He hates the travelling."
"So do I. All that ironing. It bores me rigid."
"I thought that people like you had lackeys who do that sort of thing for you? Or that you just chucked it and bought a new one?"
"Sometimes, yes, I do bin stuff. But mostly I get housekeeping to do it all. It's just the whole process bores me. I hated cleaning, washing and ironing, and that was the first thing to go when I got a job."
"Nik and I are lucky. We just wear jeans and t-shirts most of the time, so we don't have to worry about any of this stuff. Keeps life simple. And there are always laundrettes."
"What? I didn't always have money, you know. Waiting tables and telesales kept me alive sometimes."
"You rather give the impression of being to the manner born."
"I'm an actress!"
"Point taken. Sorry," Sarah said meekly and brought the car to a stop. "Right. Are your fingernails nice and long?"
"Well, mine are a bit short," she showed her hands, the nails bitten down to the quick. "The tension always gets to me in the riding, and I reckon you'll find the same. If you've got long ones, maybe I can borrow yours." She laughed as Helen snatched her hand away.
Nikki was also biting her nails. She hated this bit. There were twenty horses, so each horse had to jump twice. She'd been drawn to jump on her horse second, and she wasn't quite sure if that was good or bad. She would have the advantage of seeing if the horse could jump well, but it would be bored jumping the same course a second time.
The first three competitors had all come back saying that the course was a bitch; that the water was three and a half strides from the double, and that some horses might try and put in four short, or three long. There had already been one fall, and at least one refusal, although the second girl to ride the course was still sobbing to much to make much sense, her dreams shattered by a horse that had bucked her off twice, from what Nikki could make out.
She walked out towards the stable block, although she wouldn't be allowed to get that far. Riders had just twenty minutes in which to meet, practice jump, and get used to their mounts, and also find out if there were any particularly nasty quirks that they should know about.
She wouldn't be meeting her mount for an hour, at least. More, if people kept destroying the course the way they were doing. The wall sounded like it had been caught several times now, and it needed laborious rebuilding every time it was knocked down.
By ride number fifteen, no one had jumped clear, and the tension was mounting in the holding area and the competitor's stand. Even the crowd was looking dour. It was certainly making for an interesting competition, as even the good riders were struggling, much to the chagrin of the remaining women.
Nikki had finally succumbed to watching after yet another rider had come back in tears, convinced that they were all making a mountain out of a molehill. Now, she wasn't so cocky. It was an incredibly technical course that wouldn't look out of place in a show-jumping Nation's Cup, ridden by professional show jumpers.
It was a catalogue of errors, both by the riders and the horses that didn't bode well. The girl sharing Nikki's horse didn't do too badly, catching the water and not holding it together over the triple or the combination, and bringing a pole down from each, but enough to give Nikki some hope. The horse could certainly jump, and looked like it was enjoying itself. Her heart lightened.
Then the defending champion went clear. Everyone was so shocked, she was nearly out of the arena before the cheering began. So far, after twenty-five rounds, there was one clear, and one round with only one fence down, giving thirty penalties.
Positions had shifted dramatically. The girl who had been last, the young Swede that Nikki had sat next to in the fencing, was now eighth. The early leader had been relegated to twenty-fifth.
It was finally time to go and shake hooves. She left her seat in the stand, helmet in hand, her whip stuck in her boot. She had debated on whether or not to wear gloves, and had decided on not. She always felt that she lost a sense of the sensitivity of the horse's mouth with gloves on.
She was held up as the course was once again rebuilt, holding up everything. She watched as the horse was led out. He was quite an ugly grey; and tall; almost seventeen hands, she guessed. He was almost smoky in colour, with dark dapples on his quarters, and a steel-coloured mane and tail. She smiled as she recalled Helen describing dapples as 'splodges'.
When they finally came face to face, Nikki took her time, that precious commodity which she had so little of, to try and get to know the horse, breathing gently up it's nostrils, caressing the head and shoulder, giving the gelding time to get to know her.
She had lost six minutes of her allotted time before she even tightened the girth, preparatory to mounting. All the time she was talking, murmuring words at him, letting him get used to her voice. The words themselves were unimportant; that he was listening to her was obvious from his ears swivelling around as they followed the sound of her voice.
As she mounted, she felt the frisson that usually accompanied a ride on a new horse; the not knowing each other, and wondering if they could work well together. She shortened her stirrups and gathered the reins loosely, gently squeezing with her legs to make him walk forward.
"What's his name?" She asked the accompanying groom.
"The boss's wife is a bit of a religious nut."
"Fair enough. Has he any little quirks I should know about?"
"He's not too bad, but you'll need to boot him across the water. He's not too shabby, though."
"Cheers." Nikki was already eager to try him out, as he moved off smoothly. They walked around the first curve, Nikki seeing how responsive he was. The transition to trot was smooth, as was the canter. She did two circuits at the canter, then did a figure of eight, checking the speed and sure-footedness of the horse.
Finally they were ready to try the jumps. Three more riders to go. She put Seraphim at a low pole, which he cleared with ease, his movements clean. He was a beautiful jumper, smooth and collected, with good balance. They tried a wall, and again, he took it well. They cantered round and she deliberately put him at the pole again, awkwardly this time, not quite giving him enough room on the turn, anxious to see if he would put in an extra stride, or try to jump from too far out.
He put in a half stride and stuttered a little, and Nikki had to snatch a little at the reins to collect him together, but he took it very well. She was satisfied that they should perform reasonably well. She walked him back to the entrance and closed her eyes, mentally riding the course.
She heard the bell go, and the rider before her was off. She stirred herself to canter one more circuit, keeping both herself and Seraphim warm, then she was moved out into the holding area, and the next rider was in the practice arena.
She heard the cheering as the previous rider finished, with predictable time faults over half of the riders so far had been over the time, receiving extra penalties. Then the attendants were beckoning forward and she was passing the outgoing pair. The time of reckoning had arrived.
Helen bit her lip. Nikki looked so graceful in her pale breeches, the blackness of her jacket contrasting brilliantly with the little flag and the lion's head above the breast pocket. As she bowed her head to the judges, she thought she saw Nikki's lips move and realised that she was talking to her horse, an ugly brute.
"Is it just me, or are those jumps huge?" She leaned over and whispered to Sarah.
"They're not that bad. Surely you've seen bigger?"
"Not really. I always watched Padraig on the closed circuit telly from the bar. It seemed to be the best way to watch."
"You really like to get involved in the action, I can tell."
"I knew nothing about it; I didn't really care, to be honest."
The bell rang, and Nikki pushed the horse into a canter, circling carefully towards the first fence, an upright. They soared over it easily, Nikki already looking forward for the next one.
Once more, Helen watched in awe as they seemed to fly over, Nikki crouching low, bringing her centre of gravity forward and seeming to float back down into the saddle, her lower legs barely seeming to move at all.
At the third jump, the wall, they seemed to have a slight tussle of wills, but they cleared it comfortably. The only problem seemed to be the speed at which Nikki was riding. Like most of the others before her, she was opting to take longer routes where possible, rather than the shorter, more technically demanding route. Helen supposed that you would have to have a lot of confidence in your ability to take such a route, and was surprised Nikki wasn't taking the risk. Then again, you probably also had to have a lot of confidence in your horse, and if you had only just met the horse, well, it wasn't all that surprising.
The next five jumps passed in a blur, only the sound of hooves on turf breaking the silence. Nikki had done well up to now, although it looked like she might get some time penalties.
The tempo increased as the pair rushed up to the water jump, and then suddenly, in the blink of an eye, it all started to go wrong. The horse seemed to stutter, coming up to the flat water, and hesitated, before giving a bounce that Nikki obviously wasn't expecting. They landed in the water, Nikki clinging onto the horse's neck, one stirrup flapping loose.
It obviously annoyed the horse, as he started rearing, his head just missing connecting with Nikki's face as she tried to get back in the saddle and calm him down. She managed to quiet him, the precious seconds ticking away, cantering him in a circle once, as she regained her stirrup. Helen watched, awed at Nikki's almost superhuman patience. A patience she had never displayed before.
Finally, she set off towards the next jump, a gate. Just as they got there, the horse swerved and jumped the wing, the much higher side part of the fence, this time completely unseating Nikki, and ungainly depositing her right through the wood. There was a sound of wood breaking, and Nikki was left on the ground, still clinging onto the reins, the horse dragging her around the arena.
Helen heard a collective gasp rise from the crowd, her own lost in the sheer volume as Nikki struggled to her feet and tried to remount. Arena attendants were rushing towards her, but she brushed them off.
"Why doesn't she get some help?" Helen asked Sarah.
"She can't; it would be automatic disqualification and she'll never be in the running." Sarah's eyes never moved from the drama playing out in front of her.
"But she's not going to finish at this rate." Helen almost wailed, as Nikki's dreams ticked by, measured by the seconds on the clock.
"She'll give it a go, though."
Sure enough, Nikki managed to somehow clamber up to the saddle as the upset horse wheeled around. She see-sawed the reins, trying to stop him dipping his head so he couldn't buck her off.
Once fence left to go. There was a time limit on the course, after which time penalties mounted like seconds on a stopwatch; one that Nikki had easily exceeded already, but she put the horse at the triple and booted him hard. He sprang from a virtual standstill into a canter and raced over the last three jumps, bouncing happily over them as if it had been a walk in the park all along.
Helen wasn't going to hang around. Nikki had barely cleared the last jump before she had left the stand and made her way to the exit of the arena, trying to just get close to Nikki, to see how she was. She was aware that Sarah and Antoine were both following her.
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