Chapter 18 – Social Debutant

‘Rhan is that you? What are you doing here? And without your headscarf! Your hair is shorter than I expected.’

Alice’s falsetto voice, exaggerated by alcohol, forced its way through the chorus of blackbirds competing around the spacious lawns of St John’s College. Her excitement pierced the relaxed early evening chat of six groups who were smoking or were hardy enough for the March climate. The unwelcome outburst certainly broke Rhan’s routine rhythm of filling glass after glass with clear, sparkling liquid.

Rhan, or Bar as she was known here, had previously been behind the drinks tables set up in the warm classical drawing room of this wealthy college. There she had occasionally been able to join Claire talking to the rowing president, Esther, but then Esther had been dragged off to meet a sponsor and Claire had stepped outside to find Nick from her college. Rhan had eventually escaped the bar work and had welcomed the chance to bring four bottles outside so she could check that her friends and other guests were not deprived of refreshment. She had not expected or realised that Alice would be here among the university sporting community.

‘Oh, hello Alice!’ Rhan swallowed the lie that it was good to see her, and felt herself redden at the recollection of their awkward encounter the previous week. She no longer noticed the exotic plants fringing the darkening lawn that had drawn her attention just a few seconds before. ‘What did you ask? Oh, what am I doing here, at the Pink Club drinks? Well I suppose I am a sort of…hostess.’

‘So, this is your other life!’ Alice declared. Rhan stood rooted, disappointed that it was going to be Alice that ruined her separate lives. ‘What fun!’ Alice continued. ‘Do you make good money?’

Rhan was at a loss for a second or so, but then realised the misunderstanding.

‘Oh, as hostess? Well – I would guess it is based on a percentage of how much you paid for your ticket,’ Rhan responded obliquely, having the advantage of sobriety, and knowing full well Alice had a free ticket. She hoped to confuse the multiple misunderstandings as much as possible, whether or not it was due to her poor English.

Rhan filled the glasses for Alice and the two blokes she was with and moved onto her two friends, who had turned away to suppress fits of laughter. Rhan perceived that both Nick, the Gloucester representative, and Claire, Rhan’s personal guest, were also both well-oiled by drink, yet it was clear that they had comprehended the confused discussion with Alice.

‘What are we – I mean, what am I doing here?’ she whispered to her friends while trying to ignore Alice, who was now talking loudly in the background about her.

‘…came for a trial in our college last week actually, but…so I had to turn her down unf-unfortunately.’

‘Well Bar, or should we call you Khan?’ Nick asked.

‘Rhan not Khan, if you really want to know Nick,’ Rhan corrected him crossly.

Claire took another swig and steadied herself on Nick. ‘Well I’m here having a lovely time because you had a spare ticket. I’m going to use it by meeting some very fit young men, if you don’t mind. Nick is here conscientiously drinking for Gloucester Hall.’ She raised her nearly empty glass to Nick and her college, before answering Rhan’s question. ‘You are here because…because you are now a bigwig and that’s presumably why you’re so busy waiting on everyone and being a skivvy hostess. Have you even drunk a single glass of the stuff you’re shoving round everyone else?’

Nick was disconcertingly more interested in Alice’s story than Claire’s conversation.

‘…practising starts. She started complaining that she had snapped her oar. Hahaha!’ Alice’s voice was hard to ignore.

‘No such luck,’ Rhan responded, trying to divert Nick’s attention. ‘Andrew, the club secretary, jumped on me as soon as I arrived, as you saw. He told me that I was a hostess and to stay off the drink. So I would be pleased to leave this stuck-up party, but I am stuck here to the end.’

‘Hey Bar, you can’t leave. You’re doing a great job as hostess!’ Nick showed that he could take in two conversations at once. ‘My protégé is really flying high and is now a member of the Pink Club – I’m celebrating your success. You appear not to know about it, but Claire and I know why you’re here,’ he said soberly and quietly. ‘You have been invited into the inner sanctum of a very exclusive sporting club and I am very proud of you.’ He raised his glass to her, sipped and continued with his long answer, but stopping every now and then to monitor Alice’s monologue.

‘You asked why. Well, it might be that everyone, from rowers to boatmen, seem to believe that you’re going to be the stroke for the Women’s Blues next year, give or take the arrival of a mega superstar.’ Claire and Rhan looked at each other in surprise at his insight. After a slight pause, he continued.

‘It may be that Esther is also subtly starting to campaign for you to be president, even though at least three existing Blues and several from the second boat are likely to come back for another year.

‘It may also be that the university coaches and all the top rowing hierarchy see you as Britain’s amateur answer to the arrogant and professional gobshites who think they own the sport here.’

Rhan smiled, acknowledging both her reputation for humbling the mighty, while having an exceedingly amateur status compared with most.

‘There are probably more than a few,’ Nick continued, looking round to check that no one else was listening, ‘who also think it about time that an Arab girl joined the club.’

‘Unfortunately, the main reason is probably that half the blokes with Blues, including the president, apparently have a crush on you. Little chance for me then!’ He smiled crookedly. Claire sent a “told you so!” glance at Rhan while Nick continued. ‘I gather some of the women do too! So, is that reason enough for you?’

‘Wow!’ Claire enthused. ‘It’s true! Well, most of it.’

‘Wow.’ Rhan mimicked Claire, smiling and shaking her head at the heap of compliments. ‘Nick, you are very charming, and I would usually have accused you of talking utter rubbish. However, I have just escaped from a growing confusion of complications inside, so I can hardly refute any of your points. If you want a chance you could help me check the garden and lock up, if you don’t mind helping a bit,’ Rhan suggested rather sheepishly, holding out a key. Claire smiled knowingly.

‘Any more wine Rhan?’ Alice called over, and Rhan smiled and dutifully started to obey.

‘Fine. But Bar, before you go.’ Nick gently held her arm. ‘I have some bad news for you. I’m afraid you’re losing Claire for Torpids. She’s just too powerful and we need her in the First. Your boat is ridiculously strong anyway, even without Claire’.

‘Oh no!’ Rhan felt all Nick’s compliments washed away by the bad news. ‘I suppose nothing remains the same, but still…’

‘Now putting one and one together, Bar – am I correct?’ He glanced across at Alice. ‘Your own college has yet to appreciate your usefulness with an oar?’

‘Correct. I had a trial for next term’s Eights bumps and…well, I was rejected.’ Both Nick and Claire gasped and laughed dramatically.

‘So that is you?’ Nick wanted confirmation. ‘You’re the incompetent rower who wrecked the balance with your rowing and then pretended to break an oar?’ Nick had obviously heard much of Alice’s story. ‘Did you really break an oar? How?’

‘It was a cold day,’ Rhan confessed with resignation. ‘I was rowing in the bow so any effort I put into a stroke yanked the whole boat over. It was very frustrating. When we were practising starts, I thought the balance would be less critical. I pulled too hard. The composite oar just went bang!’

Claire gave a shriek of surprise. Rhan laughed and finished the story.

‘It gave me such a shock; I nearly fell off my seat. It was really loud, but no one else appeared to notice it. After that, it was like rowing with a stick of old rhubarb. I tried to report it, but no one believed me and I don’t think anyone else has even noticed since then. I was just marked down as a complainer.’

‘Wine please, Rhan!’ The second call from Alice could not be denied.

Nick headed off laughing but called back to Rhan, ‘I’ll enjoy helping you!’

Claire raised her eyebrows without saying anything for a few seconds.

‘We’ll still row together for the juniors,’ Claire said, returning to the previous conversation. ‘You could always be sociable and invite me to your room for tea. And you could introduce me to Alice and your other nice college friends.’ Claire dissolved into a fit of laughter at her own joke.

‘Actually, I would like to introduce you to George, my tutorial partner.’

‘Ahhhh.’ Claire managed to pour several long, complicated conversations into one prolonged exclamation.

Rhan headed off to attend to her duty and the needs of those in the garden. On the way back to the cooled wine bins, she saw a large group of men spilling out of the building onto the lawn. Nick was leading Dumas out and explaining to the others who could have been cricketers and rugby players.

‘…an amazing story about how one of your “hostesses”, or should I say, “Bar staff…” He pointed at the retreating Rhan, who ignored him, before continuing. ‘…failed to get into her college First Eight despite being stroke for the university junior squad. I hear from one of the coaches that she gave Lucy Bishop, the stroke, a run for her Blue after just a few weeks of rowing.’

From the door Rhan looked back and beheld two of her separate lives touching a third. She had to laugh at Alice’s expense and at the bizarre nature of the scene.

‘So this waitress,’ Alice paused her story to point vaguely in Rhan’s direction. ‘She was in her first ever college trial – she’s mad about climate change by the way and believes we’re all doomed! She claimed she couldn’t row properly, because she had pulled so hard, that she’d broken a brand-new, ultra-light timber and carbon-fibre epoxy oar!’

Alice, in an inebriated heaven, was surrounded by the university’s best sportsmen and a growing band of women, all anxious to hear her story. Andrew, the club secretary, had clearly not taken his own advice about holding back, and was one of those who could hardly stand for laughter.

Rhan wondered whether it was kind or cruel. Alice was enjoying herself as the centre of attention, unaware just why everyone wanted her story again and again, or why they all found Alice’s story so extraordinarily funny. Either way, Rhan was glad to start clearing up.

 

She was gratefully handing in the key to the party room at the now dimly lit porters’ lodge when she realised she was being watched. Her first thought was regret at finishing the clearing up and rejecting Nick’s offer to accompany her back to her college at the more reasonable hour of half-past ten. That made her think of her headscarf, buried in one of her bags. However, glancing at the young lady with long, blonde hair standing by the exit, Rhan decided that she appeared to be the more nervous one.

‘Hello! Are you waiting for me?’ Rhan started the conversation.

‘Yu Bar, from Sunderland?’ the stranger asked in an accent that was instantly familiar to Rhan.

‘Yes I am.’ Rhan responded in a rather stilted manner, aware of how she must sound to the northern girl. She wanted to adjust the missing headscarf.

‘Oh!’ the girl bit her lip, obviously disappointed. ‘A’m from Easington Lane, a village just to the west. Ah’ve heard of yu and just wanted to hear ‘ow a Sunderland girl could manage ‘ere at Oxford and get to the top. But yu’re posh! Yu don’t sound like you’re from Sund’lund.’

Rhan started to laugh, then just spent several seconds just breathing. It was all such a surprise to see herself through this girl’s eyes. She was obviously a first-year, like herself, but things had clearly gone differently.

‘Is everything alright Miss Bar?’ the young, clean-shaven night porter called out.

‘Yes, fine thank you!’ Rhan called back, surprised how everyone suddenly seem to know who she was. She was puzzled that the porter was not asking the same of the young lady, who was obviously from the college, judging by the closed gate. Though she was shattered, Rhan decided she could not leave without talking to this fellow northerner.

‘Do you fancy a coffee, um…?’

‘Annie,’ the modest young lady completed the question, but then after a pause she added, ‘Yu’re welcome to my room, but ah’ve only instant coffee, sorry.’

Rhan smiled, thinking of her first conversation with George. She wondered whether he would know she was still out.

‘That would be great!’ she responded. ‘I’ll follow you!’

 

George was enjoying Rhan’s indignation after his initial surprise at her appearance so late at night on a weeknight. He was in his bed with his hands clasped behind his head watching her pacing around the middle of the room.

‘It was her very first tutorial,’ Rhan raged. ‘The smug stuck-up tutor told her straight out, “With an accent like that, you’re clearly in the wrong place.” Can you imagine it?’

‘You’re joking!’ George sat up, no longer relaxed and amused. ‘He refused to teach her, just because she had a northern accent? Not in this millennium, surely? He could lose his job, assuming it was a he and not a she? He should lose his job! That’s crazy! So what happened?’

‘Nothing!’ Rhan replied. ‘Annie was forced out. Impossible to imagine, isn’t it?’

Rhan was still aghast at the story. ‘So she had to change tutors, and has had a miserable time ever since – an effective outcast from the college. I think I was a disappointment to her as I was not raised in Sunderland, but we got on well enough. My family originally came from a village near her home.’

She smiled inwardly at how Annie had been delighted to hear the full facts about herself. The high-flying rower, Bar from Sunderland who Annie had heard about, was actually only a fictitious character. Rhan confessed about the awkward engineer who had failed to even make her women’s college team. They laughed at how her only role was temporary cox for the Rugby Eight as they messed around on the water.

‘But how and why did you meet? And you still haven’t said why you were in that college and why you’re wearing your best gear.’

‘I was there partying with Gloucester rowers.’ Rhan felt guilty at telling George this half-truth. ‘And I have no idea how she knew who I was.

‘Anyway,’ she continued, ‘tomorrow you and I are dropping in on Annie on the way back from lectures. But do me a favour and please avoid asking how she knew of me.’