The first day of the Torpids bumps arrived in the eighth and last week of the spring term and all worries over tutorials, practicals and climate change dispersed with the more immediate rowing nerves and anxiety. Rhan was relieved that she no longer had to pretend to be calm with George. He was aware where her thoughts lay through breakfast, through lectures, and through a practical. He tried to point out that compared with a rugby game, at least Rhan was unlikely to get badly hurt.
During their practical, George insisted on talking of his own newfound interest and enthusiasm for anything to do with rowing. Yet Rhan, feeling rather contrary, was in no mood for a casual chat about rowing and wanted George to concentrate on work, even if her own mind was elsewhere. Aware of how petty and pathetic she was being, she still could not refrain from taking out her worries on the resilient George. She could hardly wait to get herself down to the boathouse to be with her Gloucester crowd, but the practical dragged on, making her think that she was late, despite the evidence of watches and clocks.
Making do with just a Mars Bar for lunch, she jogged down to the Gloucester boathouse but was too early, so she had to wait with growing nerves until the rest of the crew all turned up together. Liz, the captain, came straight up to Rhan.
‘Sorry, we’re about to mess it up, Bar. I know that all we need to do is follow you, but we won’t.’ Rhan found it relaxing to be the one reassuring others, who were suffering anxieties mainly due to her rising status. The mood lightened considerably once Rhan pointed out that they were literally all in the same boat and would just have a good time.
While their cox, Shrimpy, looked very white-faced, Sarah was cool. She winked at Rhan. ‘All right Bar? After what you’ve been through with Claire at the university trials, this should be easy! We really aced the time trials last week, so no pressure this week.’
Rhan smiled and nodded, but a reminder from Sarah of previous exploits at the university trials removed none of the tension from the impending race, which the bump rules made so much more physical, even if a “bump” just meant the lightest of touches. She refrained from mentioning how much better she would have felt having Claire rowing behind her.
In a blur of rising tension, Rhan obeyed instructions from the cox and carried the boat, dropping it clumsily onto the water. Once afloat, the first strokes soon relaxed Rhan, and rhythm and concentration took over. She had raced before, but with so many boats of new starters in the fifth division chasing them, this felt so much more intense.
Without really noticing how, they arrived at the end of the course downriver and were soon backing into their starting position. They had the top spot at the head of the line-up, as the fastest in the time trials, so they had to row the length of the course without being caught and bumped by any of the pursuing twelve boats. They were instructed in the starting procedures by the reassuringly competent Gloucester college boatman. Rhan did not know his name, but it was good to see a friendly face. They turned around and waited, the stern of the boat being held in the side of the river by the boatman’s long boathook. They were at water level and could see nothing beyond the banks on either side of the river. It all seemed unnaturally quiet. She knew that just down the river, around the corner, there would be a succession of other boats also waiting but they could only occasionally hear or see the second boat tucked into the riverbank. Above their heads, there was a layer of mist, which trapped them in a subdued and water-scented world that consisted of nothing but the steady flow of the river past their craft, and the dragging flow of time towards the race.
Nick the Gloucester captain appeared over the top of the bank above them. Beside him, George slowly and uncertainly emerged from the mist.
‘Thanks for coming,’ Rhan uttered quietly to both of them, as she sat below them near the back of boat in front of Shrimpy, who was grasping both steering strings and the starting rope very tightly. Rhan was aware that Nick would be racing later, and was surprised that George had discovered where she was rowing. Soon everyone was calling their gratitude that Nick had turned up for them.
‘No problem, girls.’ Nick spoke enthusiastically once clear of his bike. ‘You’ll do fine. Just go carefully in the first three strokes and don’t overdo the effort in the next power-ten strokes. Things will be frantic, so play safe. Bar – don’t try and overdo it; remember that the rest have to keep up. Having you at Number 8 is brilliant, yet not without its problems, so good luck to the rest of you. Keep it simple. All you have to do is stay ahead, in the smooth water. It’s much worse for those behind.’
There were shouts and a whistle. Rhan’s heart started hammering. The boatman called for strokes from Number 2 and they were away from the bank, anchored only by the rope held by the cox. Twenty metres downstream, there was the next boat pointing directly at them. They were a target. This was terrifying.
At the “get ready” signal, they drew up for the first short stroke. The bang from the gun was enough to make Rhan jump out of her seat in fright, but she channelled her energy into pulling a short, hard half-stroke. Then an even shorter stroke. Then another half. Then she was sliding right up, bending her knees, dropping her blade into the water at full reach and throwing herself back, dragging the oar after her as she forced herself up the slide for the first of the power-ten full strokes. She wondered whether she was alone or whether the rest of the crew were following her lead. She could see no proper vortex puddles in the disturbed water. She hated being stroke. Rhan could only see the cox, who had previously sat like a frightened rabbit, but was now all action, her freckled white face rapidly gaining colour as she screamed encouragement. Rhan felt all alone in a world that consisted of chaos; noise in the air and turbulence in the water. It was all so messy. The water was churned white with badly rushed strokes that flung plumes of spray into the air, so that the distinction between air and water was no longer clear-cut. She dipped her oar into the disturbed water and pulled again.
Shrimpy, their shrinking cox, had turned into a maniac and was screaming into a microphone, yet nothing could be heard from the distorted sound from the speakers under their seats. Even from a metre away, Rhan could hardly hear what she was saying. It was unclear whether the enthusiastic crowd on the bank just above her head were shouting for or against their boat. It was chaos.
She lifted her oar clear and prepared for the next stroke. This was normality. The water started to remain in the river rather than the air, and the strokes improved as they settled into a rhythm of ten powerful strokes. Rhan looked up to see that the boat behind was creating similar spray and choppy water. She was relieved to see that it had not gained on them and her second glance, a few strokes later, convinced her that it had fallen back. By the tenth stroke, her knees felt weak, but she made herself slow and immediately started to enjoy it.
They rowed on and the trailing boat receded, but the third boat behind them was rowing well and from a distance; Rhan saw that both boats eventually stopped. There must have been other bumps behind them, because although they slowed the pace right down to finish the long course with minimal effort, none of the other boats came within sight. The boathouses were still almost deserted as they passed them on the way to the finish. They received a few cheers from the Gloucester boathouse and knowing that Claire would be there, they extravagantly acknowledged the support by dangerously taking a hand off the oar and waving back. They repeated the wave on the way back down to the start after crossing the finish line.
They had confirmed their position at the top of the fifth division and were now the “sandwich” boat between divisions. They now needed to row again at the bottom of the fourth division.
‘That was a fine display, and you’ll note that I waited here at the start, knowing you would pull through.’ Nick gave them a second talk from his bike as they waited for the next race. ‘There’s optimism for you!’ he boasted. ‘Now I’m afraid that this fourth division will be much more crazy. The fifth division was sorted on merit from the time trial, and the upper divisions with the top College Eights tend to be relatively consistent from year to year. But the quality of second and third crews in divisions three and four varies from year to year, so watch out! Anything can happen. There’ll be plenty of bumps and it’s rare for anyone to row the whole course. Remember, you need to get a bump to secure your place in this division.’
As Nick finished, George appeared on his bike. He had obviously followed them up and down again for the next race, clearly enjoying observing them.
There was a peaceful wait for the next race and the mist was clearing. Out on a limb at the bottom of the division, it was very quiet, with only the occasional gurgle from the water wrapping around a tree on the riverbank. The rowers talked in quiet voices or just sat and waited in silence. Nick and the boatman chatted at the top of the bank, stamping their feet occasionally while George stood, an isolated yet reassuring sentinel. As minutes ticked away, it was only the temperature that was not perfect; the cold penetrated their sweatshirts. Then with a minute to go, they stripped back to their rowing singlets and passed their tops to a grateful Shrimpy, who laid them over her legs.
Nick had not exaggerated the chaos of the fourth division. The Gloucester crew were relatively relaxed as they had excised most of their nerves in the first race and had no one trying to hit them from behind. Such composure was clearly missing from the crews ahead of them.
They set off relatively smoothly but they were hardly out of their first power-ten strokes when Shrimpy went from shouting at them to row harder to peering anxiously ahead. She suddenly applied the brakes.
‘Ease the oars! Hold! Hold! Hold hard! There’s a pile-up and the river is blocked.’ There was jostling as the stroke-side Numbers 2 and 4 had their oars tangled with the boat ahead.
‘Wow, that was easy!’ Rhan suggested to Shrimpy, who shook her head in contradiction.
‘We hit a boat that had already bumped and were therefore out of the race,’ she explained hurriedly into the microphone. ‘All back down! Quick! Keep going! Harder, stroke side! Numbers 1 and 3 row on to take us round. Join in, 5. All join in – let’s get going!’
As they took a very wide detour across to the far bank, Rhan could see that the two boats in front had not gone far before a bump and were not making much effort to clear the river. As soon as they were round that pair, they came across the next two boats, resting after another short race of only sixty metres or so. It was rather dispiriting, as they had missed the opportunity to bump all four of the boats ahead of them.
They were just getting back into a good rhythm when Shrimpy called out yet again.
‘Slow your pace, there are more blockages ahead. Slow rowing!’
‘It’s a sitting duck, Gloucester!’ Nick was there on the path like a fairy godmother. ‘There are three boats in that mess, so just touch the last one that’s trying to back out. Don’t let it escape and you’ll have leapt up five places!’
It was as easy as that. They were nearly halfway up the fourth division.
The Gloucester crew felt like hardened experts by Day Two. They had achieved more equivalent bumps already than their wildest dreams. However, starting for the first time in the middle of the division, there were very different pressures. There were boats ahead to be chased down, along with boats behind who would be out to bump them. Their experience on the day before as top boat, then bottom boat, had been much more clear-cut.
The start went well enough, despite there being twice as much noise and chaos as before. They had just finished their initial power-ten strokes and had kept away from the boat behind when Shrimpy excitedly called out, ‘Another power ten! Let’s go for it.’
Rhan immediately sprang from the more languished stroke that she had established, back into maximum effort, wondering at the tactics. There was a jarring as though brakes had suddenly been applied.
‘Have we bumped?’ Rhan shouted, only to be met by Shrimpy’s worried shake of the head, in a repeat of the day before. Yet the day before, there had been no one chasing them.
‘Get it out! Clear it! Leave it!’ the cox was screaming. Rhan could not refrain from grimacing as she surmised that someone had caught a bad crab and had lost control of their oar. She tried to wait calmly, not taking the next stroke and trying to look over her shoulder at the problem. Motion was not useful if an oar had gone too deep, ripped out of the hands of a rower and left hanging in the gate at the end of the rigging. Rhan made herself breathe deeply, inhaling the stale odour from a disturbed river bottom. She glanced up at George, who was half-off his bike, watching the scene silently. The boat was almost stopped in the water. After an eternity lasting several seconds, she pulled forward and completed a slow, weakened stroke, as directed by the cox.
‘OK, now get me out of here!’ groaned Shrimpy in despair, looking back over her shoulder at the pointed bow of the boat behind coming straight at her.
‘Now row! It’s clear!’ Shrimpy called, before turning round again to look at what she could do to escape being skewered. Rhan and the rest of the oarsmen were facing backwards so could clearly see an eight with light-blue oars approaching rapidly from behind; it was forging onto them at full speed while they were sitting almost stationary. ‘Pull! Just leave it Jenny! Let the others row!’ the cox pleaded. ‘Concentrate on stroke, everyone!’
Rhan put in another almost tentative stroke and they were moving again. She could see Nick, stopped on the bank behind them, holding his head in anguish, with George in the background still just looking on sorrowfully. The following boat was eating up the gap between them. It would ram them at high speed. Mangled boat and flesh sprang to mind. This would not be the slow-speed bump they had inflicted yesterday. Their boat would be prey to a high-momentum impact. They must start moving.
Another short stroke.
They were off, but it was bewildering, with splashing and shouting both to and from their boat, from the boat behind them, and possibly from boats in front. Amid the chaos, Rhan made herself concentrate on rowing, but it was difficult, knowing that her whole crew were also watching in horror as the prow of the following boat headed towards them. It would be hitting them soon.
Another stroke. That felt better. Rhan flicked a glance backward. An oar was moving a bit, but it was clear of the water. There were only seven rowers. ‘Get them out of there, Bar!’ Nick’s strained voice reached her from the riverbank.
‘Pull!’ the cox screamed, and Rhan obeyed. The timber shaft of the oar bowed as Rhan straightened her legs and pulled. It did not break.
‘For Jenny!’ Annie’s voice screamed out. Rhan guessed this meant that it was Jenny sitting there, unable to row.
In the next three mighty strokes, they took off. They had bought some time and speed, so the bump, when it came, would be gentler. The chasing boat appeared to loom over them now, while they were still accelerating with only seven rowers; it was just a matter of where they would touch to get the bump. The pursuer gained another half-metre and the projecting bow was ready to touch their trailing stern. ‘Steer to port! Now! Turn left!’ Rhan yelled as she lifted her blade from the water and shot up the slide. Shrimpy pulled the string that yanked over the rudder. The swerve gave them a few more seconds, but it also slowed them down. There was now an overlap of more than a metre between the two boats and their bow was aiming at Rhan’s oar. Rhan noticed that their prow was dancing and twisting erratically as their crew failed to balance their boat. They were rubbish; they didn’t deserve a bump. She did not want George to witness this.
‘Pull!’ screamed Shrimpy. She hardly had to turn around now to see the prow of the chasing eight; it was almost in front and to the side of her. It stayed there, moving backwards and forwards as the two boats made strokes.
‘Pull!’ The overlap reduced, but it would still be easy for the other boat to achieve its bump. All it had to do was make any contact anywhere.
‘Pull!’ It was impossible not to watch the dirty white plastic bobble on the end of the chasing boat. It was so close to Rhan’s oar that she watched in horror to see if she had the space to complete her stroke. This was like the dodgeball she played in the yard up in Sunderland. She would have to cut her stroke to avoid contact, but they would lose speed again and it would break the rhythm for the crew who were following her every movement. She pulled her blade out slightly earlier than normal, leaving it hovering before sweeping it back out of the contact area. It had not yet touched. She raced back up the slide, reaching forward to dip her oar into the water as far as she could, safe from their touch.
‘You shall not pass!’ Rhan shouted out dramatically for George’s entertainment as she straightened her back and pulled on the oar, noting that the rest of the crew had managed to keep up with her erratic stroking. Their eight was powered by only seven rowers, but they still managed to keep the balance that allowed them to make their strokes count. The boat leaped forward again to the extent that she could this time complete her stroke, clear of the chasing bow. They were getting away. The chasing white bobble was now dancing backwards as the Gloucester boat started to escape, but there was still an overlap.
‘Pull!’ came the repeated call, echoing in Rhan’s head. In another part of her brain, she vaguely noted frantic cries from the bank, with George’s shouts of, ‘You’ve almost done it!’ She refused to lose in front of him. The overlap of the two boats had reduced still further.
‘Pull!’ The chasing boat gave up trying to touch Rhan’s oar and started to swing over, trying again to make contact with the projecting stern. Shrimpy turned to watch, no longer shouting, but staring in silence.
‘Go, Gloucester!’ It was Nick’s voice again exhorting one last effort from the crew, who could then only watch, even as they completed their stroke and pulled their oars clear of the water. The plastic bobble on the prow of the chasing boat started to swing across and was within the arc of their stern; they would touch and the chasing boat would gain their bump. The Gloucester crew all came up their slides for the next stroke. Their backward momentum of the rowers moving up their seat slides made the rest of the boat suddenly leap forward, allowing the plastic prow of the chasing boat to miss the bump by a hand’s width. The Gloucester crew reached the end of the slide and the boats had an overlap again. The next stroke from the seven oarsmen, however, pulled them clear. They were definitely escaping.
Shrimpy immediately lost interest in the boat behind. She was now concentrating on what was ahead.
‘Keep going!’ she called in a strangled voice. Three strokes later, Rhan watched in disbelief as Shrimpy raised her arm uncertainly. ‘OK, ease the oars! Now hold both sides. Brake hard!’ Shrimpy ordered, and the whole crew brought their boat to a sudden stop in a manner they had never practised.
‘But they missed us!’ Rhan panted, totally bewildered. She had continued to row and had only eased off as she felt the rest of the crew no longer following her and holding, as they had been instructed. Rhan, utterly shattered from the brief but frantic efforts, slumped over her oar and continued to watch the drama developing behind the boat, while she regained her breath. They were now an easy target again with Rhan’s oar about to be touched.
Shrimpy ignored her. ‘Ship your oars stroke side, quick! Let this boat through.’
Gaining strength with each gasp of air, but still confused, Rhan started to pull her oar in, but too late. Two oars from the boat behind hit her blade, just as they’d been trying to do over the past few minutes. Yet their pursuer was now swerving to avoid contact, and the obstructed oars were trying to row again, not slowing down. Their cox didn’t look happy, but Shrimpy was now smiling with self-satisfaction. ‘Well done! That was bloody magnificent!’
A second boat behind them now came steaming past.
‘What happened?’ gasped Rhan to the cox, who was peering ahead again.
‘Well we bumped the boat in front of us of course. And now…our pursuers have been bumped. Fun eh?’
‘You didn’t tell us we were about to bump! We had no idea,’ Elizabeth complained. ‘We thought we were being bumped!’
‘Well, you nearly bumped the boat in front straight away at the start. It was too exciting and you screwed up, nearly losing everything to the boat behind. In the meantime, the three boats ahead were caught in a pile-up, so this time I just let you row into the bump while they were trying to escape.’
Rhan twisted round on her seat to look at Anna and the girls behind her, who were smiling or shaking their heads in disbelief.
‘What happened to Jenny?’ Rhan asked.
‘Her seat jammed,’ Sarah explained from further up the boat. ‘And she then caught a massive crab that almost lifted her out of the boat. The seat stayed stuck on the slide, so she just moved to allow the rest of us to do all the work.’ There was shrieking as a water fight developed.
‘That was both awful and impressive!’ Nick complained, standing on the bank just above them in the quiet after the storm. ‘I could’ve done without it, before my own race. Now get yourselves free of the dog fight and get back to the boathouse. And Bar, I thought you were going to break yet another oar – you nearly bent it double!’
George, standing next to Nick again, laughed happily, enjoying Rhan’s praise. Even so, Rhan noted his puzzled stare, as if he were trying to make sense of all this information about the friend he thought he knew so well.
‘Who was that fit guy next to Nick?’ Elizabeth asked as they languidly rowed back up the river to the boathouses. Rhan made no response.
The third day, Friday, was almost fun. Their cox, Shrimpy, had confidence in their superiority and even avoided making an early bump, just so that they could chase the boats further up the league and gain a double bump.
To Rhan, there was little significance in how far they progressed, but she was starting to enjoy not only the races, but also the social life. This entailed drinking Pimms on the roof of the Gloucester boathouse, followed by further drinks at her own boathouse where she joined George and other college friends, who came down to watch the later races.
Annie had met them on the second afternoon and she and George continued to get on well. Annie reported quietly to Rhan that her college porters seem to report “Bar’s” every visit. A handful of the top women rowers from all years, who had never even glanced at Annie before, were now keen to sit next to her at breakfast to discuss their mutual friend. Annie was finding she was no longer a total outsider.
‘Well you can repay the favour,’ Rhan had suggested. ‘Come and meet my family next holidays, and tell them I am not a total recluse.’
With one more day to go, Rhan’s boat lay second in the fourth division. If they could bump the first boat, they had the prospect of moving into the next division, as sandwich boat again. The atmosphere at Gloucester Hall was, therefore, exuberant. Claire and the crew in the Gloucester Hall Women’s First Eight were gradually going up the third division, and Nick’s Men’s First Eight were doing remarkably well for a small hall.
Drinking at her own boathouse required a more fatalistic perspective. None of her college boats were doing well. There was understandably much less interest in the divisions and the position of the College Eights on a day-to-day basis.
Although it was not widely discussed, Alice’s boat had been bumped two or three times and they were rapidly descending the second division. The men’s second boat was having mixed results, but the men’s first boat was struggling to retain its position in the lower reaches of the first division.
Rhan hardly knew the men’s college captain, Richard, and was surprised when he came up to their group; they were standing around drinking when he addressed Rhan directly for the first time.
‘How are George and the rugby crew getting on? Do they listen to you?’
‘Rhan runs a very tight ship. Everyone’s terrified of her!’ George intervened on her behalf.
‘They are coming on fine,’ Rhan took over, with a look at George that told him not to fight her corner. ‘They moved into a shell last week and are now fully adjusted. Even after spending the winter running around a square of grass after a distorted ball, it can be seen that there is some really useful power in the boat, which you might want to inspect. I’m afraid there are still a few useless novices who need to be whipped into shape by the Summer Eights!’
There were yells of condemnation and appreciation from the group, especially from Danny and George. The noise spread across the roof as the conversation was relayed to other members of the rugby rowing squad. Richard smiled and then continued his conversation with Rhan more quietly so that fewer could hear.
‘It’s not right that the rugby crews had so little coaching over the past few weeks, other than from you. After Torpids, I’ll see if I can get some tuition from someone in the First Eight or perhaps the exam schools’ crew. The schools’ crew is where much of the experience lies, but they are very precious with their time in the run-up to exams. If they can’t help, perhaps someone from the Second Eight or the Women’s Eight could give some advice.’
‘Well I think I can manage,’ Rhan suggested. ‘There are other places where people can pick up rowing skills – other than through the college, you know.’ Rhan felt herself turn red at what she was saying.
‘Oh yes, I was sorry to hear that your trial to row for the college went poorly. You row for a Novice Eight in another college, don’t you? Good idea. We need to resurrect our own Women’s Second Eight.’
‘I am obviously not ideal as a cox, but I have had excellent coaching myself.’ Rhan was both amused at her situation and fuming at the same time. She wondered why she was arguing.
‘Yes, thank you for standing, or should I say, sitting in,’ Richard said. ‘I am at least aware that the Rugby Eight need to find a lightweight cox, as well as a coach. Actually, the college is ridiculously short of experienced coxes, which is one of the reasons I wanted to speak to you. Is there any chance you could help out next week with the Schools’ Eight on the Tuesday and the Second Eight on Thursday? I’m trying to get them out every day next week to prepare for the summer, and it only takes an awkward science practical or something, and we are in trouble.’
Rhan did not want to continue the conversation. At the same time, she was conscious that after Saturday and her last day of Torpids with Gloucester Hall, she had no further rowing commitments until university rowing camp at the end of term. She simply nodded to the extra coxing, allowing Richard to walk away, his mission accomplished.
After a few drinks, George reported with great authority the growing concerns that Richard had over the college Men’s First Eight. Richard had been known to drink with the rugby squad following their conversion to water sports.
‘The men’s first boat might keep their place or drop a position or two in this week’s Torpids,’ George explained. ‘Yet they could drop like a stone in the Summer Eights. You see, other first-division crews will be strengthened in the summer by extra rowers from the university squad after the Boat Race. Our college has no first-class rowers to add strength in either the men’s or the women’s.’
‘Ah, so that’s why he wants to train us up!’ Simon from the rugby boat suggested, to laughs all round.
‘We hold a high position in the men’s top division,’ George continued. ‘But we’ve not won Head of the River for around a century. Richard’s scared he’s going to get bumped right down to the second division in his year as captain.’
‘I’ve ‘eard Richard’s got funds to employ a high-flying professional coach who’ll help all boats, but especially Richard’s boat,’ Danny reported. Rhan knew Danny had joined a college committee that controlled college budgets.
‘They need help. They could do as badly as the ladies have done this week. And God help the Women’s Eight next term if they’re in trouble this week,’ Simon suggested quietly.
‘The women’s crew obviously needed your help after all, Rhan!’ George suggested. After three days of watching her, Rhan knew he was probing the ground. However, with the condescending looks around the group, Rhan saw the opportunity to wrap truth in obscurity and irony in sarcasm.
‘Well, I thought of insisting that they accept my extraordinary talent. There would be difficulties to be overcome to balance the force from my stroke and that would entail reconfiguring the rigging for most of the boat, and the college would go bust with the cost of all the snapped oars on each outing. I am also afraid that rowing with the first team may affect my style and might jeopardise my chances of stroking the Blue boat against Cambridge next year.’
Everyone laughed politely. But George looked on with a puzzled expression, no longer knowing what to make of his partner.
‘Besides,’ Rhan concluded to laughter that was now much more raucous, ‘Why would any real sportswoman want any position other than cox to the Rugby Eight?’ This initiated more opportunity for the full-time oarsmen to rant against muscle-bound rugby players who thought that they could row, and vice-versa.
‘I don’t understand,’ George murmured to Rhan a bit later. ‘Why didn’t you want me to tell them how good you are?’
‘It’s complicated,’ Rhan replied. ‘Every new opportunity looks worse than where I am now, if that makes sense.’
‘I can see your point,’ he conceded.
The arrival of David provided a welcome respite from all the expert rowers and spectators. However, his first question was, ‘George tells me you’re rowing for another college, as well as coaching those fine specimens from the rugger buggers. How’s that?’
Rhan was still feeling far from charitable towards her college. ‘Well, after assessing my talents, Alice readily agreed to my free transfer to a new Gloucester second crew for Torpids. The trouble is, I don’t think that option will be possible for Summer Eights.’
‘So I hope it’s going well with your alien team?’ David asked politely. ‘I don’t really understand how these races work, but I get the feeling that our own college is not doing too well, especially with the women. Is that right?’
‘I am afraid so,’ Rhan confirmed. ‘Alice’s crew started high and I think they may have dropped almost a division. Whereas my alien college novice crew, as you call it, had to qualify with time trials and started in the bottom-fifth division, and I think we are now close to the top of the fourth division. It is all very petty really, but it can be very intense when you are down there on the water,’ Rhan explained.
‘So we need to look out for you and cheer you on tomorrow – if no one else is leaping up divisions.’
‘That would be kind, but don’t hold your breath. Most boats in the lower divisions bump or are bumped very quickly, so don’t row up as far as the boathouses. Besides, if you start drinking with the early races, you will be too cross-eyed to see the major action later.’
‘Sounds good to me,’ David joked as he headed off to the bar.
There was no chance of doing useful coursework on Saturday, the last day of Torpids. There was a party atmosphere in college after an exciting final men’s race on the previous evening when Richard’s boat just managed to escape over the finishing line, hotly pursued by the boat behind.
Rhan was relaxed about the last day. Her crew had nothing more to prove. She sat at her computer and yet again searched for the paper on climate change, written by the rector of the college and presented to some Royal Academy. The rector was an eminent economic journalist who had generally argued for tackling global warming, so Rhan was keen to see what she had actually said, if that was now the basis of her college’s justification to ignore the issue. This time, Rhan found the paper.
As she read, Rhan became hot and bothered. Her rector had effectively told leading scientists and engineers that the laws of economics needed to take precedence over taking drastic measures to prevent climate change. The economist had asserted that there would be time later to come up with fixes to the planet and that science would find a way somehow. She suggested that the most important consideration was to keep the economy in good health.
Rhan looked back at the date – it must have been just a few months before the 2008 financial collapse and the years of reduced carbon emissions. So no logic there! It appeared that the economic argument for doing nothing had gone down well with the majority of scientists and engineers. Yet how many people would die because of that policy? The college was clearly proud of the output, as it had reproduced the paper in its alumni magazine. The rector, on the other hand, had gone on to write a book on the need to tackle global warming. Rhan had only seen one paper and just snippets of other papers, and she had not read the book, so she was in the dark and confused. Nevertheless, no matter what else was stated subsequently, it was clear that it was the “do nothing” advice that had been taken to heart.
Rhan was still seething a couple of hours later as she was getting changed into her Gloucester strip for the last time. She went through the motions in a complete daze, but as she left the college, she noticed Alice and her crew gathering on the hall steps.
‘Good luck!’ she called to them, but they paid her little attention.
After a few seconds, however, Tom’s friend Fiona called back, ‘Thanks Rhan!’
As Rhan jogged down to the river, she barely registered the warmth in the spring sunshine. After so many months of running through a stark wasteland, the meadows were showing green buds on the hawthorn, and furry catkins on the willows. She was thinking much more about how spring would change as the earth was roasted alive by apathy, instead of concentrating on the race to come. Her musings were interrupted when she came across a large contingent from her own college ambling down and carrying last-minute additions for an afternoon of partying.
‘Hi Anthony,’ she breathed, stopping beside one of the rugby crew.
‘Rhan, good to see you!’ Anthony whirled round in surprise at being addressed by Rhan for the first time out of her role as cox. ‘So you row as well?’ he added, noticing her tracksuit.
‘Yes, this will be my last row with a Novice Eight in another college. It will be sad, as they are a good bunch. Can I ask you a question, Anthony? I believe you are a physics post-grad?’
He was a few years older, and looked it. His broad shoulders, however, were more impressive in the scrum than in a rowing Eight. As Number 4, he provided a good share of the power, but his movements tended to upset the balance of the whole boat.
‘Yes, I’m testing wiring for spacecraft and especially for the Martian landings. You’re an engineer, is that right? Much of what I do could be considered engineering, if it was crashing onto the earth rather than Mars.’
Rhan smiled and nodded. ‘Can I ask you about global warming? How much have you looked into it?’ There was a brief pause before he replied.
‘My family doesn’t believe in anthropological climate change. I’m sure it’s not mankind’s responsibility.’
‘But as a physicist you must have looked at the effect of greenhouse gases and the net solar gain we currently have? Don’t you believe in the greenhouse effect at all?’
‘Look, I don’t see such things as being our concern. If the world does happen to be doomed, then it’s God’s will and it would be wrong to interfere. So I stay well clear of politics, both at departmental and national level. However, I think it’s disgusting that some departments here get so much money, just by going along with the pretence of fighting nature. There are whole departments wasting money that could be spent on useful research rather than chasing icebergs.’
‘Oh!’ Rhan stuttered. ‘That is a really interesting perspective,’ she forced the words out. ‘I…I have to run. Thanks for that. Bye!’
Even as her crew once again lowered the boat into the water, her mind was still fixed on denial, passive acceptance and active avoidance of climate obligations. The reality of the race only partially returned as the boat was manoeuvred against the bank into the starting position with the help of the boatman. Nick was giving them last-minute instructions, yet George was missing.
‘Take it easy again this time. One more bump and you’ll have a chance to row in the next division. I’ve watched the boat ahead and they are very vulnerable, so don’t mess around, Shrimpy, but don’t rush the bump. And…’
The explosion of the starting gun came as a shock once more, and Rhan was jerking backwards before she realised that the race had really begun. She belatedly started to concentrate on rowing.
Think. Stroke. My legs feel like jelly. Take it easy. Blade out, clear of the choppy surface. Ignore the shouting and screaming. Listen out for anything unusual from the cox. Slide, catch, pull. Take it easy. Everyone is following me, so be calm. Alice will not give me permission next term, so this could be my last row with this Gloucester crew. So relax and enjoy.
‘Three! Four! Five!’ yelled the cox. They were halfway through ten firm, hard strokes and were doing well. Rhan lifted her head and looked over the cox’s head to confirm that the boat behind was still not catching them. She caught sight of George, running along the bank behind, shouting support that she could not hear.
‘Six!’ All they had to do was catch the boat in front and they would be in the third division. George was there; she only had to row.
‘Seven!’ Shrimpy shouted.
We will be into the normal strokes soon, Rhan planned in her head. Keep them calm and deliberate – give the crew an easy lead, so the slides don’t jamb again.
Pull up, slide, straighten the legs, pull. The muscles started to hurt, but that was ridiculous – they had only just started. Rhan had great pride in her strength; now stamina and fitness were needed. She was not going to mess it up in front of George on the towpath above.
‘Nine! Come on, pull, last one!’ promised the cox. ‘Then it’ll be easier. We’re already ahead and are leaving the trailing boat well behind.’
A few moments later, Shrimpy changed her mind and yelled, ‘Ten! We only need five more good strokes and you are there! Don’t ease off. One!’
Could she be right? Rhan pondered, while doing as she was told on the effort but reducing the rate of strokes. She knew that they had put effort into the first ten strokes, and asking for more was dangerous. She couldn’t believe that the boat ahead was within reach so soon.
‘Two! Three! Keep going! Three more!’
Rhan could hear screaming from behind and from the bank ahead. She noticed that they were now rowing through very choppy and disturbed water, so the boat was close ahead.
‘Four!’ Shrimpy’s hand shot up. ‘Hold hard!’
Rhan was digging her oar into the water and was pushing instead of pulling to apply the brakes. She felt slightly cheated, sitting in the rear of the boat facing down the river; she had missed the excitement of catching the boat ahead. Now it was all over – they had made a bump. The bow pair took a couple of strokes, which tucked the boat against the bank so that the race could continue around them. It was marvellous sitting and watching as the other boats raced past.
‘Well done Gloucester Hall!’ Nick’s familiar voice came down from the embankment above. You did what you came for. You’ll have to hang around for ten minutes and race again. You’re in the same division as the Gloucester First so I won’t see you at the start, but good luck.’ He was gone and would not be coming back.
They hung around waiting and chatting awkwardly over their shoulders about the ease of their success and the surprise at leaping up a whole division. George stood some way off. Rhan wondered whether he and Nick had exchanged a word.
Before they turned around and headed back to the start at the bottom of the next division, some of the new competition rowed past them. Elizabeth led a big cheer for the Gloucester main boat, who had clearly not expected to see them, but were delighted once they realised the significance of the second boat still being on the river.
‘Go Claire!’ Rhan called out.
‘Well done! See! You didn’t need me!’ Claire called back.
Glancing at the next boat, Rhan dropped her head as the gaudy colours of her own college flashed on the ends of the dipping blades, wielded by her college contemporaries with Alice in the bow. She braced herself, expecting Alice’s annoying and patronising remarks. But with other things on their minds, none of the crew noticed her. Rhan had taken no great interest in the divisions and had not realised that this league was so interesting – things were getting awkward.
Instructions from the cox soon saw the boat gently spin around, and it was their turn to glide past all the other boats to the bottom position in the starting grid. The first boat they passed was from Rhan’s own college, but the crew were busy reversing into their position at the head of the division so no one even glanced at Rhan. Their position as top boat, however, indicated that they must have dropped out of the second division the day before.
A few boats further down, there was a great cheer from their fellow Gloucester boat who were all set up and ready. Claire’s voice could be heard again.
‘See you at the finishing line Gloucester Two! Don’t bump us!’
At last, they reached bottom position and turned into their slot against the bank at the downstream end of the division. It felt relatively stress-free having no boat behind them at the start; as bottom boat they were no one’s target.
As they waited, it was pleasant not to be frightened. They all felt relaxed after their victory. There were no cheering fans, there was no Nick giving them last-minute instructions. They chatted about how much they had achieved already that week, climbing from fifth to third division. The celebratory bumps dinner that the college owed them was the major topic of conversation. There were also quiet whispers about their “fit” guardian angel, who yet again hovered in the background, watching them silently.
Without the advice and pep talk from Nick, the start felt like a rather sluggish affair compared with their previous frantic thrashes and without someone steaming up behind them. There was no great impetus in the first ten strokes. For the crew looking down the river as they rowed, it was rather a surreal experience. There was little real indication that they were in a race apart from isolated boatmen spaced along the bank with their long poles, looking upriver after their racing boats in the manner of pigeon fanciers. After a hundred metres or so, they had still not reached any competing boats. It was several minutes of steady rowing before they swung wide into the river to try and pass a couple of eights with tangled oars, and either sobbing or exuberant girls.
‘Gangway!’ shouted Shrimpy angrily as none of them had felt at all inclined to tidy up the waterway for the tail-end boat. ‘Slow rowing, Gloucester!’ she ordered. They ended up having to almost stop and it seemed to take ages before they were underway, relieved yet again that there was no boat behind to bump them as they waited.
They passed two more pairs, who were slowly heading back to base, but it was clear that in this higher division, boats had to work much harder for their bumps. There were cheers ahead and the shouts were for Gloucester.
‘Well done!’ Rhan heard both Jenny and Elizabeth shout back breathlessly. Rhan was the last one in her boat to be able to see the Gloucester First boat, well entrenched into the tail of another boat.
‘Enjoy your last row together!’ Claire’s voice rang out yet again. ‘That looks great!’
Elizabeth caught up the theme and called out, ‘Yes, this is our last row together. Come on, let’s show them! We’ve been the best. Let’s show how we can race the whole course in style.’
The balance was true, the strokes were smooth; it was delightful – a real controlled effort. Rhan could switch into semi-trance and let half her mind wander to other subjects, leaving the cox to take charge and mark the timing.
It was so strange that anyone could suggest that global warming was not urgent, if it meant almost certain conflict and misery to come.
The Establishment was effectively going to ridiculous and illogical lengths to ensure that there was no safe path to a low-carbon future. Why did leaders feel empowered to be so reckless?
‘Pull! Right up!’
The stupid, brash and dangerous assumptions would utterly shock the next generation.
‘Pull! Balance up and continue with the stroke!’
Yet it would soon be too late. The future was looking pretty fixed already.
She took her anger out on the water, forcing it away. Those with an interest in the future would have absolutely no chance to recapture all the carbon dioxide that was being released now, never mind from the last year, the last decade or the last century.
George knew all this. He was prepared to see nothing done. He had, however, made the effort to come down each day to support her. He was following them on his bike somewhere.
She smiled, slightly annoyed that she had eased up on the last stroke.
That was better. The others seemed to be coping. She checked the stroke side, glancing over her shoulder.
Not all strokes were the same length, but still.
She checked the bow side, throwing just a slight glance for fear of perturbing the precious balance.
There is no way that she could ignore climate change. That was obviously the reason why God had chosen her to escape the vast number of continuous snares that could have befallen a girl from Aleppo.
It explained how she had passed the entrance into Oxford when so many better students had failed.
It is up to me.
They passed more pairs of boats who had rowed almost half the course before getting their bump. Some crews just lay there, clearly exhausted, but others were slowly returning to the boathouses. A familiar voice in a strangely subdued tone cut through the afternoon’s exercise.
‘Gloucester Hall Two, I have some news for you!’
There on the steep bank on the inside of a sharp bend was Nick on his bike – popping up when they least expected him, yet again. He was talking to their crew in the water and they could tell by his manner that there was something exciting about his behaviour.
‘There’s another eight just around the corner. They don’t know you’re on their tail, so no shouting Shrimpy! They’re a long way ahead, but they were forced to sprint up here and are shattered, while you are rowing beautifully.’ He was pedalling slowly to keep up with their progress up the river.
‘The other news is that there are VIPs waiting to watch you row from our clubhouse. Give them something worth watching – a bump right in front of the boathouse!’
Rhan knew straight away that the remaining eight must be her own college. They had done well to escape being bumped. Nevertheless, they were doomed. The hunt was on.
‘Power ten?’ the cox asked Rhan quietly.
‘No! Check our strength first. We must have a kilometre or so to go.’
‘Plenty of time Gloucester – just pick it up slightly!’ Nick endorsed the policy without having heard what Rhan had just said.
‘Anyone struggling? Just shake your head if you don’t want to up the pace yet!’ The cox asked.
‘Go for it!’ Suzie called.
‘Yeah!’ several voices responded.
Rhan actually slowed the pace slightly, and exaggerated the care in each stroke, while she extended the reach and pulled up with extra leg power. In that manner, each rower could contribute what she could. The boat felt as though it was shooting forward. Rhan now thought of little else but her technique, the strokes, the capacity of the crew, how fast Alice and her crew could manage once the chase started and where they would bump. A bit of her mind was, however, wondering whether the college rector might be watching this last day. It also crossed her mind to show George what they could do, although he would hardly be happy about her bumping her own college.
‘Let’s go for it!’ Rhan told the cox. ‘Don’t worry any more about them seeing us…just go for the best course.’
They now had quite a few followers running along the towpath. Nick had been joined by the ever-present George and then by others from Gloucester, who had previously been supporting their First Eight. Viewed across the flood plain, supporters of the boat ahead would now be informing their crew. Down in the river Alice and crew would see nothing beyond the twists of the river bank, so news that they were being pursued and had yet another race to run would be a harsh blow. Meanwhile, Nick was growing hoarse with excitement.
‘OK. This is it, the big moment. Just follow the stroke. Keep to that rate, gradually picking it up. They’ll panic when they see us flying along. If so, we’ll have them. If they don’t panic then we’ll catch them right in front of the boathouse. Now start picking up the power! Pull! – Pull! – Pull!’
Rhan did not change the pace, but Nick’s encouragement improved the power for a short while. Ahead of them, they could now hear a speaker, presumably announcing the arrival of the first boat, now in sight of the boathouses. A few minutes later there was more noise, which she guessed meant that the Gloucester boat was also now visible to the nearer boathouses as they came clear of the meandering “gut” section of the river. The spectators would not appreciate the relative speeds of the boats, but Rhan could imagine the horror in the leading boat to find that they were being pursued, with still several hundred metres to go. They could also hear, from closer to hand over the water, the sounds of a screaming cox, driving her crew to power strokes. The noise of support grew. It was the Saturday of Torpids and this was the first race to reach the boathouses for the well-oiled tongues to give vent.
She could now make out the sound from the loudspeakers. It was indistinct, but was clearly trying to build up excitement as the commentator realised there was going to be a real race to the finish. On the other hand, words of encouragement and advice could no longer be heard from Nick and other supporters on the towpath, which was now some distance away on the wider, almost straight reach of the river past the boathouses to the finishing line.
Rhan was suffering, and ruefully wishing that she had selected an easier sport. She was exhausted and it was getting harder to row, as the balance of the boat was becoming erratic. Her breath was tight and her wrists were suffering from the constant pulling and twisting. Sometimes she had to fight to get her oar clear of the water as the boat lurched over. She looked at the whirlpool puddles left by the blades of the rowers. There were only two or three of any size: hers on the stroke side and Suzie with Elisha on the bow side. Suzie had proved a great replacement for Claire at Number 7, although she was as shy and self-effacing as Claire was ebullient.
‘Stay with me, Suzie,’ Rhan yelled. ‘That…is…brilliant…rowing!’
‘Thanks.’ The words came back from behind her and Rhan had the satisfaction of seeing the size of Suzie’s pool increase significantly for a while.
The boat continued to rock, and Rhan knew that even her own rowing was becoming scraggy. ‘Concentrate!’ Rhan instructed the cox. ‘Don’t mess up now!’
Shrimpy could see the problem and relayed the message. They had set too high a target. Rhan could not even hear the boat ahead; they must still have a good lead.
‘Slowing! It’s too much!’ Rhan called out to the cox, who nodded and took action.
‘Keep control and slow the pace. They are now just thirty metres ahead, so no hurry. Just take your time; we’ve got two hundred metres past the boathouses to the finish line, so we’ll get them at some point. They’re wrecked. Just keep going, we’ll get them…I think we’re still gaining, even after we slowed. They’re completely done in.’
‘Shorten the strokes…but pull through…balance the boat at all costs,’ Rhan gasped at Shrimpy, who willingly passed on the message.
The boat became stable again, but it had also slowed down. Yet Rhan could now see rough water to their port side; they were still gaining on their prey.
The gap stopped closing as they passed Rhan’s college boathouse. Rhan did not look over, but she could imagine her friends going mad to encourage the girls to their first victory of the week. They were so near the finish line. Just a few more good strokes and they would be safe.
A short distance later, the dynamics reverted to Gloucester’s favour, as they could now distinctly hear the Gloucester Hall boathouse on the other side of the river, closer to the course that Shrimpy was steering. The sound provided the boost that the tired crew needed. The whirlpools increased in size again and the boat took off. Rhan shook her head, amused that Nick had understood the race so correctly.
‘Come on Bar!’ Rhan heard a familiar and commanding voice boom across the water from the Gloucester boathouse. She sprang erect in surprise, instantly recognising the voice of Dumas. She straightened her shoulders, sat up and used her legs to spring down the slide on the next stroke, full of energy. She had no idea that the male university president had such a loud voice. It was very compelling. Now listening, a few strokes later, Rhan could hear the even more familiar voice of Roger, who had exhorted Rhan so many times before from the riverbank. Despite her dire need for concentration, she could not resist looking towards the home boathouse, close at hand. There was a mass of people shouting and waving on the crowded balcony of the Gloucester Hall roof, yet there was a group of figures who had been given their own space. She spotted the tall, recognisable figure of Roger wearing his usual flat cap, and the broad shoulders of Dumas, beside him. In front of them leaning over the rail was Esther, and others she could not recognise.
Why were they there? Rhan wondered.
Her eyes welled with tears of gratitude; three people she so respected were in the boathouse, shouting for her. She shook her head again, the only part of her body not rigidly locked into powering the boat. She had been told all she needed to know by Nick – all she needed to do was concentrate on clean, strong strokes. With all their friends watching, the rest of the boat followed her crisp movements.
Rowing was easy again. Rhan could feel real force being applied to the water from the rest of the crew. Rhan concentrated on improving the strokes rather than increasing the rate; they were almost back to exhibition rowing. Shrimpy, however, did not look altogether satisfied with their improved performance; she was peering ahead anxiously. Rhan watched her, wondering what it meant. After just a few more strokes, she found out.
‘OK, half pace!’ the cox announced in a cool voice. ‘Slow rowing for the bump please! Steady – they’ve conceded. We’re finished here. Just hold the oars clear of the water! Sit up straight and balance. Sit up, 3! Let’s finish with style.’