The silent, timber-floored hall of the large Victorian terraced house felt both familiar and strange. The girl who returned to her Sunderland home was acutely aware of an internal metamorphosis that had taken place since she had left. Outwardly, she was still garbed in the same black coat, skirt and headscarf, but within the formerly stooped chrysalis, she felt new energies that she had to fight to control.
She was bursting with fitness, vigour and confidence, especially now she was almost on top of her homework after major help from Roger with her fluid mechanics. She could almost brush off anxiety over the small matter of a maths exam awaiting her at the beginning of next term.
Yet she was finding it difficult to be mindful of the present after several days away from George. She felt as if part of her mind had been cut away – a feeling that was exacerbated now that the distractions of rowing camp were behind her. She was seeing everything anew, as though through George’s eyes. What would he think of the impressive but slightly faded nineteenth-century street? Would he like the massive stone steps up to the large front door? What would he say to the carpentry in the doors and windows? How dismissive would he be of the small garden and lower level yard at the rear? How would he get on with her family? Would there be emails from him, despite her warnings that she would be out of touch for the first week?
‘Anyone home?’ she called to the calm quiet of the house. She walked past the silent main rooms, the best room and the one cluttered with children’s toys. As she descended the stairs, the clock chimed a reminder that her aunt and young cousins would be at the school gates at that time, with the older boys not due to be let out for another half-hour. Rhan was uncertain when her sister would be back after work.
Keen to plug in her laptop, Rhan hurried back up to the hall, grabbed her cases and climbed two more storeys to the pair of rooms in the roof-space, where she was relieved to find that her old room was cluttered with only a few of her sister’s belongings. She took her laptop from her backpack and switched it on. There were three emails from George.
The first email had been very polite as if to a stranger, signed in an androgynous manner, “Georgie”, as agreed. The second was resentful over the lack of response. The third threatened to text or call her if she did not respond quickly. She deleted the last email and quickly typed a holding apology, promising better communications along with as much help as he wanted with questions on the flow of fluids through tubes, hydraulic jumps and tsunami waves. She was pretty certain that her sister would see the email at some point.
It pleased her to hear the hurt in his emails. They had been apart for a week, but it was going to be a long holiday. Her earlier vitality was only a shell; there was an inner need she could only banish for ridiculously short periods of time. She sat, vacantly wondering who held which cards in this relationship. It was exciting and felt so normal, yet surreal. But then, she had so little experience other than through her novels and other media – and none of those seemed to fit her plot.
Rhan could look back and acknowledge that from the beginning, she had enjoyed testing the young man she had been thrown together with, and whom she had found to be a fascinating and addictive study. She tried to determine what he liked about her and vice-versa. She had willingly become not only his workmate, but also his secret tag-along companion – and had even surprised and delighted him by taking the lead on many of their adventures and deceptions, which allowed them to spend so much of their time together. At the same time, she had wanted to discover the extent of his interest in her. It had been an interesting experiment; his declaration of love for her had ironically only been an attempt to scare her off, and even to prevent her from loving him. She knew that had it been the other way around and she had declared her love, then he would have been terrified. On the other hand, she knew she would be seriously worried if she had to commit to being his official girlfriend.
Through genuine affection, excitement and trust, her strange relationship with George seemed to work well without commitments. She felt little concern about losing his respect in the manner her aunt would preach. She felt happy with the way things were, but she wondered at the strange difference in circumstance between herself and her sister. She wondered whether her relationship with George was unusual or relatively typical for the Western culture. It felt special, but…
Rhan heard the kitchen door slam three floors below. She sprang up and rushed downstairs.
‘Oh good, you’re back!’ said her aunt. ‘Be an angel and hang up yer’ cousins’ coats would yer Rhan!’ The three children shyly made straight for the TV. As she embraced her aunt, Rhan noted just how small she was beneath the long, traditional robes. She also noticed the soft West Yorkshire accent and the lack of the Sunderland twang that the rest of the family had picked up at school.
While her aunt prepared vegetables and bustled around the kitchen, Rhan made toast for her cousins and called them to the large pine table. As they all sat down, Rhan, sipping a welcome cup of tea, felt the comfort of familiar surroundings and family. Half an hour later, voices in the hall warned them that the teenagers were back, and soon after that her sister returned.
‘Hi Sis!’ Rhan received a brief embrace from Aisha. ‘How come you’re home so early? Sund’lund Uni students are still here, so ah thought yu must be wrong when yu said y’term was ending. How was it? Sorry about y’room, but yu should’ve seen it before ah sorted it out.’
It was great to enjoy and be annoyed by frivolous conversation with her sister, who expected so little from Rhan. Following her engagement, Aisha now thought herself so worldly-wise that Rhan wondered how much she should, or should not, pass on to her naïve older sister from the wealth of experience she now had after a few weeks’ socialising, working and almost cohabiting with the opposite sex.
It was relaxing to help her aunt with the younger two girls and the baby boy, who looked at her with large, brown, curious eyes. The girls were fascinated by this familiar stranger and, after their brief shyness, they followed her around, studying her and trying to work out whether she was their old friend or a new adult. They soon discovered that Rhan still enjoyed children’s games and was much more fun than her preoccupied sister, Aisha, who had disappeared upstairs to use her phone.
The boys, aged fifteen and thirteen, now stood head and shoulders taller than their mother but also greeted the lanky university student cautiously. Their horseplay in the kitchen, before beginning their evening Islamic Studies, became more and more physical despite the scolding from their mother. Rhan soon decided that their prolonged argument and wrestling was put on to show off their newfound physical dominance in the house.
She ignored the squabbling boys and played the part of a cool university student until the mounting shrieks, followed by threats from their mother, forced Rhan to intervene on her behalf.
‘Look, chaps,’ Rhan addressed the grappling pair in hearty language borrowed from George. ‘You are about to knock over the fridge and I am looking forward to an evening with your father, so would prefer him not to be troubled by bad reports about you. Why don’t you finish this fight in the yard?’
‘Not until I get m’ phone….Ow!’ Rhan was suddenly towering over them and was gripping an arm of each in an irresistible clamp. They were being physically forced apart and inexorably directed to the back door.
‘Come on you two princes! Let’s see how far you’ve got with the Spikes of Doom. I have been looking forward to being the escaping princess again.’
‘We’re way too big for that; we can both reach the ground!’ The younger cousin dismissed the obstacle course in the yard.
‘Well that just makes it harder,’ Rhan responded with enthusiasm. ‘If you even touch the ground, then you are contaminated by a dreadful disease that within ten seconds will cause you to fall, be impaled on the spikes and killed. I had that problem of being too tall ever since your father fixed the bars. It makes it much harder as you have to keep your legs up.’
‘But one of the monkey bars has snapped,’ the older brother reported.
‘Oh no! Will that stop us escaping?’ Rhan feigned fear. ‘Can we do a double-reach across the gap? I fear we will lose many lives in that chasm!’
‘You’re crazy, Monkeybar! I thought they’d lock yu up at Oxford.’
‘No way!’ she laughed. ‘I have not told them you two call me Monkeybar when I leave you standing, but I gave them part of your nickname for me, Bar, which I get called when I row. Look at my blistered hands! You two training me here has paid off – I’m one of the strongest women. And at Oxford, everyone lives in a fantasy world. The proof is that if I lean out of my bedroom window, guess what I can see? The Lamp Post!’
‘What d’yu mean?’
‘I can see a lamp-post that might be the one the witch planted in The Magician’s Nephew and which Lucy and the others see on the edge of Narnia. Come to Oxford in the summer and I will show you. My college is right in the middle of Narnia! But to get there we have to cross the spikes of doom with that gap. Who’s going to try to escape first?’
The tired boys were busy with their religious studies and the house was infused with appetising spices by the time her uncle returned. He was clearly delighted to see Rhan.
‘So tell us about college!’ he asked her after the meal as they all sat in the best room, which was rarely used by the family. ‘What are you learning and ‘ave you made any mates?’
‘Well, I have some friends, but most of the girls in my college think that I am rather strange…’
Rhan was interrupted by inevitable laughter and sarcastic comments from her family.
‘What d’yu know?’
‘No surprises there then!’
Rhan continued, smiling at the teasing, but noted her guardians’ concern for their awkward niece. ‘I still have lots of good college friends, as well as girls in other colleges. I spent most of last term studying structures, which is to do with bridges and buildings. We spent a bit of time on silicon chips and electronics practicals. I am now starting fluid mechanics, which covers streams, rivers and airflows. It explains how boats and aeroplanes behave. We study supersonic flow in the third year.’
Aware that they were likely to ask more about her friends, she launched into one of the subjects that she was most willing to discuss.
‘One of the most controversial subjects is climate change. I had not expected engineers and academics to be actively ignoring it.’
‘Well, there’s nowt gunner happen for thousands of years is there?’ her aunt responded, laughing. ‘Besides if it means a bit of sun here in Sunderland, well I’m all for it!’
Rhan smiled as she now noted the difference between her uncle’s occasional Sunderland twang and her aunt’s West Yorkshire accent. She wondered how her sister would get on with her new family.
‘Well,’ her uncle pondered, ‘I used to think that climate was part of a Western plot to disenfranchise the Arab countries of oil. Yet now, America has so much gas from frackin’, I’m not so sure anymore. Trump blamed China for inventin’ it, which I know is wrong. You think it’s important, Rhan?’
‘Well the graphs all indicate that countries like Britain will be affected least. Sorry aunt, but warmer is no guarantee of sunshine. Countries like Syria will be baked, and crops will fail so almost everyone will need to leave if they haven’t left already, I suppose.’
Turning back to her uncle, she continued. ‘There does seem to be a very real conspiracy. But it seems to be the other way around – both developed and developing nations have continued to produce and burn fossil fuels at ever-faster rates, and the shock is that everyone, including engineers, are conspiring with the general public to deny there is a problem. I have discovered that every tonne of carbon dioxide sent into the atmosphere stays up there for ages and adds to the problem. We have known for around a hundred and fifty years that carbon dioxide has these properties, but we are still pretending to be ignorant.’
‘But isn’t it true that most people believe the whole of society is based on fossil fuels, and that without it, society would collapse?’ Rhan’s uncle suggested.
‘That’s right, so we are doing almost nothing; we are not carrying out meaningful research for new materials, and we are not equipping the next generation with the skills to face the obvious major problems. We are just carrying on almost the same as before, as if the future has nothing to do with us.’
This new outspoken undergraduate was a completely different creature from the diffident girl who had left their home. Rhan’s aunt and uncle looked at each other to show their surprise.
‘But when would this happen, love?’ asked her aunt.
‘Timescale is difficult. I need to know more: it might be just years away or it may be decades before we find ourselves in real trouble. It will almost certainly affect our generation.’ She waved her hand to include her older cousins, who were partially listening by the door.
‘So how’s that gonna affect ma business?’ her uncle asked.
‘Well I suppose metal casting is a high-carbon industry,’ Rhan considered, but your contracts with the rail industry should really take off, if or when they start to prepare for low-carbon travel. I believe rail is the greenest form of transport so you should be busy in the medium and long term.’
‘Well you’d make a great sales rep, Rhan!’ said her uncle. ‘Hear that boys – keep studyin’ and the business will see y’re alreet.’
There was a short pause before her uncle turned to Rhan with a serious warning. ‘You ‘ave a care though, girl. I wonder if your views could get you into trouble. A’fore you know it, you’ll find you’re on police records and marked down with having “extremist views”. So ‘ave a care! Gan canny. People like us need to keep our heads down. You know what I mean – the way things are at the moment.’
Climate change, thought Rhan, is great at discouraging further enquiries. Her strange life at university was safe for the time being.
She was wrong in some respects. As soon as they reached their attic retreat, Aisha rounded on her.
‘Blimey Sis, I never thought of you as a radical. A’ve always had to nag yu to do ‘owt. What are they doing to you at that posh college? What would ower ma and pa have said?’
‘They would have said, “You must find out more. Dig deeper!”’ Rhan insisted. ‘As far as I can make out, the current pretence that there is no danger is only going to make everything so much worse. You and I were always told, “Flee, hide and only fight as a last resort.” It was our family mantra, and God knows it has kept us alive enough times in all the wars our family have seen over the last few generations. Yet we may have run as far as we can, you and me.’
Rhan sighed and glanced around the room. ‘I need to find out more. Britain might be one of the safest places in the world, but without preparations…well it could be hell, especially for immigrants like us. Things could get very nasty. We need to look at what is ahead, Sis.’
‘Look, a’ll ‘ave a man to look after me,’ Aisha responded, getting wound up. The new bride-to-be Aisha sounded so different from her former self. Before she had changed her name from Anna to Aisha, she had just been Rhan’s more lively big sister. ‘I can’t expect you to understand what having a bloke is like, but there’s no need for you to start stirring things up. It also gets me out of here. It’ll be great. It’s what I want!’
‘I hope you are right, but from what I’ve seen and read, men are not always as superior and all-powerful as you think.’
‘Well listen to you, Miss-Know-It-All! What would you do? Where would you be safe?’
‘Well if we were seriously going to hide up here…’ Rhan began smiling to subdue the argument and hesitated, unsure what to say, until she spotted her way out. She then continued in a mocking manner. ‘I think you should marry Gary from your old class. You could settle down with him and help look after his father’s greyhounds. You would soon be a mainstay of Sunderland and one of you could become a City Councillor, like Gary’s dad!’
‘So what are yu trying to say?’ Aisha asked in an accusatory manner, but then also started to laugh.
‘Well I know how close you and Gary were when you first arrived.’
‘Ha bloody ha! What about you? What would you do?’
‘Well, I suppose I could become a management consultant, buy a London home and sell it for a few million and become the Lady of the Manor in some village somewhere,’ Rhan replied loftily. ‘Perhaps I should marry a red-faced middle-class pillar of the rural community!’ The girls giggled, but Rhan then continued in a more serious tone.
‘The trouble is, I would live to regret my inaction whoever I married, and my children would pay the price.’ Aisha’s head shot up, not at concern for the next generation, but at this astounding new confidence of her lanky sister. It had always been assumed that Rhan was unlikely to marry.
‘I always thought yu far too autistic for men. So yu got a boy then?’ There was both suspicion and curiosity in her sister’s question.
‘No. But my friends point out that I have some interesting and interested admirers!’ Rhan was not certain herself whether she was lying to her sister. Was George hers or not? Was half of what Claire and the others said about her rowing admirers true?
‘You’ve really got mates then?’ her sister persisted, quizzing her.
‘Yes. We have some good laughs.’ Rhan could not help smiling at the thought of her nutty Gloucester rowing friends, her philosophising college friends and her rugby drinking mates. Thinking of them diluted the ache for George for a while.
‘What’s it like being all on yu’ own? How do you know what to do? Don’t you miss us? What happens if yu get ill, without anyone to look after yu?’
‘I suppose our tutors tell us what to do when it comes to work. The college seems to run itself by tradition, but there are people pulling the strings of course. My worst times were when I was homesick in the first week, and when I was ill after a birthday party halfway through the term. I ate something that kept me up all night. It was agony and I actually thought I was going to die!’ She gave up not thinking of George.
‘So were there men at that party?’ Aisha asked. ‘And alcohol? Was that what made you bad?’
‘Yes, yes and no,’ Rhan responded, smiling at her sister. ‘A large group of us went out for a meal and there were blokes and alcohol, but I hardly had any, as I felt sick really early on, soon after a fish starter.’
Rhan felt slightly ill even at the recollection. She had managed to last through most of the meal, with just one hasty trip to the ladies’ to be sick. She had then quietly slipped away to her room, texting George to say she was having an early night. “Fine but are you OK?” had been his response.
Half an hour or so later, Rhan had been wishing she was with her family in Sunderland, or even better, back as a little girl in Aleppo with her parents to care for her.
‘Just as you say, being ill away from home is not good,’ Rhan told Aisha grimly, recalling just how frightened she had felt.
“Help!!!” she had texted George, as her need overcame her humiliation.
‘I was sick so many times, and my skin was all blotchy.’ Rhan gave a summary report to her sister, who for once was listening intently. ‘And every few minutes, I had to keep running to the loo upstairs. Friends had to lend me clean pyjamas and sheets. It was dreadful; you need friends to get by.’
There was no way Rhan was going to admit to her sister that the “friends” that night was just George. She had been so grateful to see him when he’d walked through the door, sooner than expected – breathless, but clearly still sober.
He had looked after her for hours on end, right through the night, sleeping occasionally on the floor beside the bed, but had jumped attentively to her side whenever she needed him. He had fetched bedding so he could take hers to the washing machines, cleaned her up, massaged her back, and had discussed whether and when to call an ambulance. She had felt so relieved having him look after her.
She looked at Aisha before changing tack. ‘My point is that you and I, we are free to make new friends.’
Aisha watched her sister intently, wondering what she would say next.
‘Most of our old friends are stuck in pitiful conditions as refugees, probably in Lebanon unless they have reached Germany. Some might never have left the warzone, dead or alive. We are so lucky, but we must make sure that we make the best of the chances mother and father gave us.’
Rhan felt guilty for not trying to tell her sister explicitly that global heating would ruin their plans anyway. Instead, she said she was ready for bed.
Aisha waited a few seconds, surprised at the end to the conversation, but knew her sister well enough to realise that Rhan was unlikely to divulge any more of this strange university world that she now inhabited. The moment was gone and they retreated to their separate rooms.
Rhan stood at the attic window, peering into the dark. She knew that tomorrow, if the tide was right, she might be able to glimpse the sea between neighbouring rooftops.
Rhan’s promise to her coach, Roger, to keep fit seemed to Rhan something worth fighting for, but she avoided any dispute at home by furtively setting off for runs in the early afternoon, when her aunt was not usually at home and the others were at school. To avoid drawing attention to herself, she again resorted to slipping off her headscarf once clear of the streets where she could be recognised.
On her second day, she was following the south bank of a choppy River Wear upstream from the city when she spotted the boathouse of Sunderland Rowing Club. Drawn to inspect the facilities that she had never noticed before, she jogged slowly down to the launching steps where there was a group of four men. Two were crouched by a boat in the water that tried to lurch against the steps with every wave. The other two were looking down from the top step. One of these, whose hair was less grey than the others’, was tucking his mobile phone into his jacket while he reported his news.
‘Bob’s not fuckin’ cumin’. He’s at the ‘ospital. He’s broke his foot or summat, the soft bastard. He could’ve bloody well let us know earlier.’ He noticed Rhan, who had walked quietly past him as he swore. ‘Oh, sorry pet!’
‘How we gonna git the tub out of the watter with just you three?’ complained a slight man in a cagoule, who was obviously the cox. ‘That’s what worries me, na? It was bad enough throwing it in!’
‘Can I lend a hand to lift the four out?’ Rhan suggested, in an accent that was clearly not Made in Sunderland. Her offer elicited a range of conflicting responses.
‘No, you’re OK, luv.’
‘Oh, that would be grand, ta pet.’
‘Yu don’t want to row with us do yu, luv? Can yu manage bow side?’
‘How do yu know she rows?’
They set off onto the river in a most exhilarating outing. The weather conditions were ludicrous. However, the men were clearly experienced and all appeared to know what they were doing, although the timing went slightly out when they hit a patch of alarming waves. Rhan had introduced herself and found out that the rower in front of her was called John.
It was Rhan’s first time in a four, and it was thrilling to feel the shorter boat responding more directly to her movements. It was also the first time she had been out in rough water, even if it was several kilometres from the sea.
They first went upstream, where they chased the waves that had built up on a long, straight stretch of river. The waves appeared to be slow and lounged lazily against the shell, adding a whole vertical dimension to rowing that was new to Rhan. She was amazed by the majesty of the A19 road bridge, whose slender, concrete columns sprang up from the river to the steel-and-concrete decks far above their heads. The towering banks and the winding of the river gradually stilled the waves and they were rowing through calmer water.
The conversation in the boat turned rather awkward as the crew debated her rowing skills. Comments along the lines of ‘near enough’, ‘alreet’, ‘sound’ or ‘canny’ apparently resulted in an early turn and a trip back down-river. She wondered vaguely whether that meant her rowing had passed their requirements or not.
As they rowed past the rowing club again, the waves were fast-moving and with a high frequency that slapped against the prow just behind Rhan. It gave her a real feeling of speed. She noticed that the three rowers before her glanced over their shoulder before planting their blades into the choppy surface. Smiling at the lack of complaint from Nick or Roger, Rhan followed the example of the older rowers.
The next item of interest was soon providing a new distraction as they rowed through a forest of cranes and barges constructing a new bridge. Seeing Rhan’s interest in the site, the cox kindly held their strokes. The rower before her, John, half-turned and pointed out the new steel mast for the cable-stay bridge, which had been towed across the North Sea on its barge and was being prepared for winching into its vertical position on the concrete pier. Someone laughed about the previous design that had cost millions and had tried to copy a sketch by an artist.
‘I am doing engineering at college,’ Rhan told the men. ‘I read that the design was unbuildable, yet still won sustainability awards!’
John laughed. ‘That figures about the design.’
For the first time, Rhan felt slightly proud of her chosen profession.
The boat trip then became an extraordinary mixture of bizarre rowing and sightseeing as the river took them beneath bridges and alongside giant industries that were no more, yet which were re-summoned from the past by the various members of the crew for Rhan’s benefit.
Once they had left the frenzied bridge construction behind, Rhan learnt that the clean steel industrial units on the north bank had been a black swath of coal from shafts and heaps along its bank. On a bend in the river, she was told to imagine massive concrete slipways and huge steel dock gates where ships had been built and launched or floated out onto the river. She felt foolish trying to reconstruct the massive facilities in her mind, as instructed, while looking at the car parks and modern building on the slope where absolutely nothing remained from the recent past.
‘I did me apprenticeship there! It was a busy place,’ John informed her, much to Rhan’s surprise.
Passing the towering piers of the Queen Alexandra Bridge, which once carried a double-decker railway deck immediately above a road bridge, required much less imagination. The perspective was so very different from what she usually viewed from the back seat of her uncle’s car, but the towering stone viaducts adjacent to the bridge clearly indicated how the steam trains had managed to climb so high.
‘It’s some sight, na?’ called the cox.
‘Aye, but it must’ve been bleedin’ gobsmacking when it were first opened,’ the stroke added.
‘It’s amazing!’ Rhan called out into the wind to show appreciation, knowing her words would carry back down the boat – even to the cox in the stern.
‘There’s a few tens of thousands of rivets in that structure, but it’ll outlive even you pet, never mind us oldies.’ The guide before her continued with the tour. ‘We’re back into shipyards again here on this turn in the river. There’s nowt there but grass now. Yu’ll recognise the stadium where they try to play football.’ His words set off several more comments one way or the other from different members of the crew.
On the south bank, Rhan’s guide managed to point out hills of ballast, brought up from East Anglia in the sailing collier boats, and dumped before they filled with coal. John also invited her to look for railway tunnels in the rock that lowered coal wagons from the top of the bank, down to the flat riverside below at the base of vertical cliffs that towered over their flimsy rowing boat.
‘That’s where ah worked as a lad!’ the cox shouted, not bothering with the microphone. He was pointing at some trees on the north bank.
‘It’s the site of the former Wearmouth Colliery,’ John explained over his shoulder. ‘It ’ad its shaft right by the river, but the roadways extended miles out to sea.’
Rhan once again felt very small as they rowed under both the Wearmouth road bridge and the adjacent rail bridge, far above their heads, leaping from bank to bank. ‘There was a cast iron arch ‘ere for the road – it was designed by Robert Stephenson if you know him,’ the shipyard worker continued to inform her between strokes. ‘It was too small, so they built this around the original. You’ll see it’s got three pins, so it could move with the colliery undermining one side.’
Rhan looked up and started using her new skills at analysis on the massive arching bridge, working out the advantage of the pins. However, the river dictated otherwise. The choppy waves they had rowed through near the rowing club had been just local waves. As they cleared the last bridges, their boat gradually felt the larger waves that had sneaked in past the two protective breakwaters on each side of the river. Rhan leaned out slightly to look back down the boat at the three rowers and the cox. Surely they were going to turn around soon, thought Rhan.
‘There were yet more shipyards along both banks,’ John continued to explain, apparently oblivious to the swell. ‘All that remains is a steel tree and other sculptures. They’re by a local artist, Colin Wilbourn and his mates…Look, it’s like one of the massive hammerhead cranes that were here all along this quay.’
The closer they rowed to the river-mouth, the more Rhan, in the bow of the boat, felt the wind on her back stiffen. There were ever-increasing waves surging up the river from the open sea.
Beside the boat, the waves steepened, which made rowing difficult, as the surface of the water varied from a trough to a peak, while the bow rose or sank and rocked from side to side, regardless of the crew’s attempts to stabilise the craft. It was all so different to the flat surfaces of the Oxford Thames. She would start to pull on her oar, only to find that the water had gone and she was just pulling air, or she would be returning up the slide with the oar in the air when the blade was suddenly grabbed by a passing wave. Rhan lost interest in the guided tour, but fortunately her guide was also thinking more about boatmanship and the conditions.
‘It’s got up a bit, with the tide,’ John calmly informed her. ‘Don’t yu worry about details pet, or yu’ timing, just watch yu’ blade. That way, you won’t have us all tit over ass. An’ just keep an eye on me back, so yu don’t ram that oar into me just as I’m shifting backward, alreet?’
It started to dawn on Rhan that almost everything she had learnt on the quiet River Thames needed to be dropped in such conditions of extreme rowing. Errors could be a matter of life or death rather than lost efficiency. Precise following of the stroke was much less important than catching or avoiding the water that rose and fell beside her. It was so very different. She should be terrified, but no else was. It therefore had to be fun.
Rhan felt rather uneasy, however, as the height of the swell increased still further as they rowed along battered stone walls on either side of the river. There were large panels of the massive stones missing from the walls, and these had apparently been hastily replaced with poorly formed concrete. Beyond these inner walls was a large basin of turmoil within the vast encircling piers. These stretched right out to sea on either side and allowed Rhan her first exposure to open water, while still within the basin protected by the sea piers.
It was clear that Roker Pier, on the north side, was taking the brunt of the storm. Concentrating on each swell passing the boat, she hardly dared look up when plumes of spray shot skyward as waves crashed against the outer face of the pier midway along its length, cutting off the lighthouse at its tip from the land. Rhan’s uncle had often assured his family on their walks along the pier that a secret tunnel ran from the lighthouse back to the land, but none of the family believed him.
The occasional waves, which managed to throw themselves over the high wall, sometimes with a frightening boom, created a mist of spray which smelt of the sea. This was only a distraction compared with the succession of peaks and troughs that diffused through the gap in the outer piers and sneaked around the corner along the sheltered side of the wall to fill the basin, giving the dainty rowing craft no calm water – only a series of peaks and troughs.
At last, almost out at sea, with waves easily capable of swamping their boat, they slowed as the cox prepared for the turn. They were close to the elegant lighthouse at the end of the pier, majestically defying the brunt of the North Sea. Rhan calculated that each stone in the pier must weigh a tonne, with the top ones weighing twice as much.
‘It must have been built by giants,’ Rhan suggested to John. ‘No one could build that nowadays.’
He nodded but did not respond. His silence and the lack of enthusiastic commentary disconcerted Rhan. She glanced around for ladders or stairs up the pier, with an uneasy feeling that they might need to swim for it. Up until then, her battle had been either to have the oar in the water or lifted well clear of it. Now the crew were instructing her to keep her oar on the water, as they rowed slowly, clearly tense while they waited for the cox to yell out the turn order. A last wave passed down the length of the boat beneath them.
‘Let’s go for it! Pull bow side. Back stroke side!’
They swung around, quicker than in an eight, but for a few heartbeats they were positioned precariously at right angles to the approaching waves. Rhan noticed that they all swept their blades back on the surface of the water like novice rowers to ensure that the shell remained upright and she followed their lead. As the boat rotated, she glanced seaward, and was horrified to see the next wave steaming towards them. They had to achieve most of the turn before that wave hit them. This was not a good place to be swamped.
‘Pull ’ard lass! Git the bow round!’ yelled the cox in an even higher-pitched voice than usual, but Rhan had already seen the need. She was almost lifting herself off the slide seat as she pushed her legs straight, forcing her oar to lever the bow of the boat round before that next wave.
‘Don’t mess up,’ she muttered to herself through clenched teeth as she concentrated on not losing her seat, not letting her blade get caught in the rising swell of the next wave, and not rushing back up her slide for the next stroke once she had completed her stroke. ‘Now all row!’ yelled the cox. ‘Follow bow side! Pull ‘ard!’
Rhan waited a few seconds, despite the rush, for John in front to give her room to move up her slide. They all took a hard stroke and were moving again. Rhan felt the bow dip alarmingly behind her and saw the next wave lifting the far end of the boat in the stern beyond the cox. Could a boat like this nose-dive? She looked behind and saw with relief that the covered bow part of the boat was emerging from beneath the surface as it surged forward, even as they came up their slides, blades still flat on the water for balance. With their next stroke they shot forward, the bow lifted even higher and they were surfing.
Hardly believing what they were doing, they were soon racing the waves back towards safety. Now they were selectively dropping their blades to hit the dipping and rising water, which now had a frequency so very different from the outward trip. It was tremendous! They shot through the narrow river opening, surfing on wave after wave at a speed that gave Rhan little opportunity to re-examine the sites on their way back. It dawned on Rhan, as they pulled gingerly into the boathouse, that these veterans were seeking thrills that differed somewhat from those expected at larger rowing clubs.
‘She was alreet, na? Bye, when we were wallowing out there in the North Sea, I were reet glad to see that she can pull better than Bob.’
‘Ay, yu near enough, pet.’
‘Can you make Thursdie, lass? Same time?’
‘Yes, brilliant,’ Rhan said, smiling. ‘But will I need to join your club or something?’
‘Well, I’m Ray, the president,’ the man who had been stroke declared. ‘And yu can pay the treasurer when he asks. I’ll take him round a bottle toneet, but it sounds like yu might not see Bob on the river for a bit, so yu can keep yu money for a while!’
With such diversions, the Christmas holiday was more fun than expected. Rhan’s previous anxieties about being a burden to her aunt and uncle also abated. She saw that her aunt had missed her and valued her help with the children. Even the boys found a use for their cousin as a companion-cum-protector. With rowing camp eating into the holiday a week at both ends, the vacation was also much shorter than expected.
The trips out on the Wear became regular, and although the swell varied between nothing and too extreme for even the intrepid veterans to venture out, she learned much. She was somewhat concerned that she was picking up bad habits, but was pleased to have won the respect of the senior oarsmen at the Wear club.
There was a steady stream of relatively formal emails from “Georgie”, which relayed technical input on the practicals and preparations for their first tutorials. Despite his exciting festive parties, regular family get-togethers and meetings in the pub with old friends, she read between the lines that he was missing her, at least as much as she missed him. He seemed desperate to show her everything and introduce her to everyone at his home.
Conversely, her emails to him nearly always included a climate change question to clarify something she had read, such as, ‘What is so special about 2°C of warming?’
His written answers might not be immediate, but they were much more diligent than any verbal response she would have prised from him during term-time, when he had her there in person. So, two days later she might get a response like, ‘Experts such as James Hansen point out that 2°C is a symptom and not the problem, as it is the concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere that everyone should be looking at, not the temperature. Nothing is significant about 2° except it is a relatively arbitrary target for a Danger Level. Some countries point out that it will be a genocide temperature, although others suggest 1.5°C should be enough for mass deaths. Strife will really start to kick in long before 2°C. Pa says engineers think that 10 percent of the World Population will have to move at that temperature, so God help the Greeks, the Spanish, the Italians – oh and of course the poor old Syrians. We have been close to 1.2°C already by NOOA and NASA, so we may reach the danger level in around 2025!’
Christmas on 25th December meant little to an Eastern Orthodox Christian living in a Muslim household, especially as Aisha was turning sharply away from such Christian feasts. There were, however, no rowing outings on the River Wear over the holiday, so Rhan was forced to go running, both to keep fit and to maintain her regular exercise slot, now acknowledged by the rest of the family.
Shattering the family’s hope that she would also convert, she started attending the church at the end of her street, which happened to be Methodist. She found that, unlike her trips to the Catholic chaplaincy with George, Chris and others, the Methodists actually prayed for action against climate change.
At the end of the service, she found herself talking to the minister, Mike, who had been on several climate rallies and protests. As others from the congregation joined them, Rhan found herself surrounded by well-wishers, especially when they discovered not only her concerns over the environment, but that she was more or less a Syrian refugee and her parents were war casualties. All this kindness caused tears to flow down Rhan’s cheeks. Embarrassed, she put down her coffee cup and rushed out of the room, head bowed, so that she could sob alone in the empty pews. The hugs she received on her return just made matters worse. It took some time before she managed to get angry enough with herself to stand aloof from the overwhelming empathy and explain that she had no reason to be pitied. She had the perfect life that no other refugee orphan could even begin to dream about.
Rhan gave herself the Christmas present she most wanted, succumbing to the invitation to visit George’s home the following Easter. The rational explanation was that she wanted to talk to his father about global warming. The response to her news was as enthusiastic as she could have wanted.
‘Brilliant, I am dying to show you the moors and our latest archaeological findings, and to introduce you to my sister Grace, and my Mum. Dad will love having someone to talk to/at!!’
There were more storms after Christmas and the veteran crew on the Wear started to tease Rhan about her continuing enthusiasm, no matter what the conditions.
‘Why, that college girl’s more of a storm junkie than the rest of yu combined!’ complained the cox.
Just as the Orthodox Christmas began to loom in early January, Rhan was saying her farewells to a surprisingly wide selection of family and friends. This ‘storm junkie’ was heading south to quieter waters, or so she thought.