‘Three cheers for that boat!’ Elizabeth, their boat captain called, not interested in its identity, while Shrimpy used their momentum along with the river current to turn away, towards their boathouse. Rhan hated Shrimpy for not allowing them to collapse or release their oars; she just wanted to flop. Yet with so many people watching, and anxious to get away, Rhan made do with wiping the sweat from her eyes as they left the defeated boat. Without having to turn her head, Rhan could now look back to see the utter exhaustion of her crushed college adversaries, many now crying and with no interest in her or anyone but themselves. The race had been far too personal and Rhan’s conflicting emotions quickly subsided, leaving no elation at crushing her own college. The rest of her boat were recovered sufficiently to congratulate themselves on their achievement. She only felt relief that she had not been recognised by Alice and her crew.
Rhan looked across at her own boathouse and wondered how long it would be before Alice and her crew discovered the dire implications of being bumped by the sandwich boat from the bottom of the division. In a wave of anguish, it occurred to Rhan that next year, she would probably make the women’s boat and be involved in the long, slow climb to recover from that drastic fall.
In just a few well-executed strokes, they glided towards their landing pontoon in front of an exuberant Gloucester Hall crowd. The hall’s Women’s First Eight had followed them up the river after their own bump, so both boats arrived together from opposite directions, amid much shouting and screaming at the exciting double victory.
As the crews climbed out of the boats, Rhan was forced to concentrate on the celebrations that she needed to enjoy. Nick arrived wearing bicycle clips and was almost thrown into the river, until he pleaded that he soon had a race to row himself. He gave all the girls a quick congratulatory hug, but the hug with Rhan was accompanied with a loud ‘Ooo!’ from her teasing crewmates, much to everyone’s amusement. George was standing slightly to the side of the boathouse with a group of tourists, unnoticed by all but Rhan. While the crews returned their oars, Rhan slipped off, slightly unsteady on her feet after the two consecutive races and grasped him gratefully around the chest.
‘Having you there each day has been great, partner. Thanks for coming,’ she said stiffly, but then added a more personal touch. ‘I am so glad that we are meeting up in the holidays,’ she confided and had the satisfaction of feeling him hugging her back, while he affectionately and repeatedly kissed her forehead.
‘Rhan! Where are you? Everyone’s waiting,’ a girl’s voice came from above.
‘Oh God, I’m hardly presentable.’ Rhan pulled away from George, suddenly self-conscious as she wiped beads of sweat off her head and adjusted her outfit.
Here, quick, use my handkerchief and you can borrow this top.’ Rhan knew that he would need his warm jersey as soon as he stopped moving, but it didn’t stop her accepting his offer.
‘That was Claire who was calling. She will be with me at rowing camp next weekend – she’s also coming to tea to meet you on Tuesday, so I will have to buy some extra mugs and stuff.’ She watched the expected disappointment spread across his face.
‘Well we can keep the single set for the maths tutorial day lunches, if you like – now go!’ she ordered.
He looked at her closely, laughed, and walked away smiling, but then called back, ‘Enjoy the celebrations! You deserve them.’
She raced up the stairs to join the last of the rowers. There were catcalls and the sound of clapping from above as the two crews entered the bar ahead of her. She was glad to be wearing George’s comforting jersey. It crossed her mind that she appeared to have remarkable control over his happiness.
The clapping had almost died down as Rhan entered, slightly late. To most in the room, she was one of the unknown strangers, borrowed from another college to make up the numbers, but the onlookers were soon asking about the identity of the tall, imposing girl who was so clearly attracting so much attention.
‘Where were you?’ exclaimed Claire as she gave Rhan a hug. ‘I can’t believe what you lot did! You completely leapt over us in the tables!’
‘Well you should have stayed with us, Claire,’ Rhan responded, smiling broadly. ‘We were taking the express lift to the top.’
‘Well you’ve really messed it up for Claire, if she’s captain of boats next year.’ Nick came over from the balcony to grab Rhan. ‘A Hall Second Eight, which is half a division above the Hall’s First Eight – it’s ridiculous for a college with so few girls! Anyway, that’s next year’s problem. Right now you have guests who’ve been waiting for you.’ He ushered her to the balcony position that Rhan had previously spotted from the river.
‘Whey hey! We have royalty here!’ Claire declared, spotting the guests for the first time and waving a half-empty bottle of lager around. ‘Two presidents and a university coach! We are honoured.’
Esther gave Claire a hug and congratulated her on the bump. Claire insisted on hugging Roger, but then she glanced around her friends to whip up enthusiasm as she presented herself for a hug from Dumas, to another chorus of ‘Ooo!’ from the thirty of forty watching spectators and crews. The rest of the party smiled indulgently, but then almost ignored her, so Claire theatrically bit her lip without actually looking at all abashed before heading back to her friends. Nick guided Rhan forward and spectator interest in the guests rapidly dropped.
‘This is such a surprise. What are you doing here? How are the university crews shaping up?’ Rhan unashamedly fell into the arms of Roger, then Dumas and then Esther. Rhan noticed Esther’s friendly smile, which contrasted to the almost aloof attitude at the cocktail party the previous week in front of other members of her crew. The change confirmed Rhan’s expectation that Esther still needed to dissociate herself from accusations that Rhan, or Bar, had helped her excessively at the seat trials.
‘Extremely well, thanks to you,’ Esther murmured meaningfully.
‘Yes, very well,’ echoed Dumas.
Roger started speaking for them as soon as the hugging abated. ‘We came to see you after the last race, but as sandwich boat, you failed to come in. Fortunately, and despite our schedule, we took notice of the text from Nick, which promised an exciting finish in the second race and hung around to witness that bump right in front of us. Ted, this is Bar. Bar, this is Ted Scott from the Sports Faculty.’ Rhan shook hands with the middle-aged man who had the build of a rower, and who carried a camcorder and a laptop bag.
‘Bar, did we really just see your crew bump the top boat in the third division, after starting from the bottom position as sandwich boat?’ asked Esther, laughing. ‘You had presumably just bumped the top boat in the fourth division in the previous race just half an hour ago?’ Rhan nodded a couple of times, smiling sheepishly, aware that Esther probably knew the score. ‘That is mad! No boat ever climbs like that. It must be a record,’ Esther suggested.
‘I’m not sure if I should mention this, Bar, but was that your own college First team that you just bumped?’ Dumas asked in a more pompous manner. Rhan sighed and nodded again while shrugging with her arms, indicating that it was true, but unfortunate.
‘OMG!’ Claire exclaimed dramatically from behind them, with her hand over her mouth. ‘That was your college First you just bumped!’ she dashed off to tell Elizabeth and the others.
‘That’s not meant to happen.’ Dumas seemed to be following Esther in an attempt to build up Rhan’s achievement. ‘Novices hardly leave the fifth division, never mind climb to the top of the third. Nick obviously deserves full credit for coaching and for recognising talent.’ Nick said nothing but nodded his appreciation. Rhan was pleased to note that the two presidents seemed to be acting in unity, but still wondered what they all wanted.
‘Actually, Ted,’ Roger chipped in. ‘Going back to that discussion over Bar’s very short experience, she has rowed in challenging conditions but I don’t think she’s had any experience at anything other than winning. That may be just luck, because outwardly she appears extremely uncompetitive. However, after just six months from picking up a blade, Bar and Esther put almost a whole crew of international rowers in their place, so I’m not sure it is luck. She has much to learn, but she certainly matches your specification as a rising star.’
The stranger finally addressed Rhan himself. ‘An impressive start to your career, young lady! I’ve heard that you specialise in rough-water rowing, which is hardly my thing, yet after the Rio sinking, the weather can clearly make fools of the most ardent favourites. However, I’ve just reviewed my footage…’ Ted paused to indicate his camera rather pompously. ‘It confirms that I have just seen you dragging an eight through calm water – almost single-handedly when you first came in sight. The others managed to pick up in time to help you with the bump in front of their friends. What are you doing at Oxford and for how long?’
‘Engineering Science – I am in the first of a four-year course,’ Rhan answered in a formal manner, aware that both presidents were allowing this stranger to dominate the conversation after their strange build-up of Rhan’s attributes. This was obviously not a social call and appeared to be a repeat of the previous term’s meeting with Roger.
‘On the recommendation of your friends here, and from what I have just witnessed, I would like to invite you to attend trials for the National rowing squad.’
Olympics! flashed into Rhan’s head. She wondered what her family would say, then realised that she should be paying attention as he had continued speaking.
‘…we pay expenses and a small living allowance. Your friend Esther here will also be joining us and has already given me your contact details. So, if you don’t mind, we must rush off. I hope to see you soon.’
Nick moved aside to help usher the guests out as they began discussing the next candidate.
‘Now, we are behind programme. Dumas, you wanted me to meet another up-and-coming rower from the men’s squad?’
Esther gave Rhan another quick and excited hug as she passed, but at the entrance to the bar she gave Claire a hug too, right in front of the whole Hall, cleverly compensating for being so rude earlier. Roger patted both his protégés on the shoulder with a few words before they disappeared down the stairs. The crowded room fell silent for a few seconds, and then there were hoots of excitement as the celebrations started up again once the door had closed on the interlopers.
On his return to the bar, Nick announced that he wanted to say a few words about the women’s events before anyone dispersed. He had obviously been preparing for some time and it all went down brilliantly with the exuberant crowd, who cheered and heckled nearly every sentence.
‘How am I meant to get in the mood to row in the men’s division after the excitement of those races? I can hardly talk! My boathouse has been invaded by the top dogs from the university and even the National squad. The women’s rowing is clearly in a complete mess! What are we going to do next year with a Second Eight, which is a division above the First Eight? It’s ludicrous!
‘There are a few things that we need to sort out. To celebrate gaining bumps on each day of the racing, Elizabeth’s team of heroes are entitled to the traditional bump dinner in college tomorrow night. They will need a massive wall to chalk up their achievements.
‘Bar-the-oar-breaker, you are expelled from Gloucester Hall. Four bumps would have been adequate – you were not meant to be aiming for four divisions! You can push off to your own college, even if they don’t know they need you – there would be a justified objection to you rowing for us beyond this point. You’ve gained much from us, and you have repaid our faith in you. However, did I hear you’re Olympics-bound now? The only proviso is that when you become president of the Blues, you take Claire and the rest of these Gloucester heroes with you.
‘In the meantime, and to help the Hall build on our successes today, Gloucester Hall will be appointing Claire as the first female captain of boats next year. She will be helping out as my vice-captain with immediate effect.’
Even when showered and changed, Rhan did not leave, but hung around to watch and cheer as Nick’s eight rowed-over without being bumped. On the way to return George’s jersey, a voice over the speaker system announced that Richard and her college Men’s First team had been bumped in the last race of the day. Keeping a low profile, she hung around and caught George as he was heading away from the river.
The end of term was much more fun, knowing of her long-awaited trip to George’s family home after rowing camp. With the countryside now alive to spring, George and Rhan cycled out to explore country pubs, canals, woods and walks. They enjoyed hunting down The Trout Inn, the adjacent Godstone Priory and the upper reaches of Port Meadow as featured in Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust. They also planned weekend trips for the summer term where they could camp in woods, removed from their normal college life.
Rhan enjoyed having no boat to row over the last few days of term, but she was kept surprisingly busy as a cox. She found it interesting to see and judge the quality and strengths of the various crew members, especially as she was press-ganged into coxing Richard’s First Eight the day after their cox, Kim, went home. As the college emptied, Rhan hung around the eerily quiet buildings with Claire, reading their choice of papers in the common room, waiting for the minibus to transfer them to rowing camp.
The days with the junior squad flew past. Rhan and Claire worked with other coaches and saw relatively little of Roger who was helping Peter with Esther’s First and Second crews in the last days before the big boat race. The whole junior squad travelled down to London and celebrated the success of Esther’s crew in the Blues’ race the first weekend after the end of term. This was marred somewhat by Cambridge’s victories with the Women’s Second boat and later in both of the men’s races.
Rhan had hardly seen the capital before, and had no problems being patronised by her crews who enjoyed spending hours showing her round before heading back to their riverside dormitories. They wandered around streets with names familiar to Rhan from so many Monopoly games with her cousins. They took her to the National Gallery, where Rhan was happy to be dragged off by each of the squad to see their favourite room or painting. By far the best fun was to be had from jumping on and off buses where the gang were relieved to rest their aching feet from sight-seeing fatigue.
Once the annual boat race was over, Rhan and the junior squad suddenly had the facilities and their coach, Roger, to themselves. It was relaxing and enjoyable. Claire gave much credit to Bar for the continuing ultra-friendly atmosphere, reporting that everyone was very much in awe of the good-natured and quiet first-choice stroke. The competitive rowers quickly learnt to cloak their ambitions with generosity and kindness. Even after Roger’s return, Rhan continued to be tasked with selecting the crews and she patently placed the team above individuals, who risked spending a day on the fitness machines or sculling alone.
Rhan herself missed two days of training with the junior squad to join the first National trials. She enjoyed the second day when she was joined by Esther, now carefree and relaxed. Rhan immediately noticed the difference in Esther’s mood now that seven months of physical and psychological pressure as president had been lifted after the successful completion of the boat race.
On the return journey to Oxford from the camp, Roger mentioned a bit of news that Rhan and Claire, who were sitting next to him at the front of the team minibus, found extremely interesting.
‘I’m afraid that training over the summer term will be rather ad-hoc. Not only will we have to fit around all your various college training events, but also my college coaching. I’ve been offered a job by a college. I think Bar destroyed their Women’s First Eight in front of the boathouses at Torpids. I have the unenviable task of trying to stop their college men’s eight plummeting from the first division at the summer bumps. I couldn’t turn down the money, but it may wreck my credibility as a coach. The men didn’t do too well at Torpids, so I have just a few weeks to turn them around somehow.’
‘Oh that’ll stop you getting bored, Roger!’ Claire declared, suddenly wide awake and interested, over-emphasising her words. ‘Rhan, isn’t that your friend Alice’s college?’ she asked mischievously. ‘I reckon it might not be the impossible task it appears, Roger. That college has hidden depths!’
‘Really?’ Roger replied, now distracted and concentrating on driving the minibus and long-boat trailer behind them. ‘Claire, can you just check the boats as we drive around this roundabout? See if anything has moved, will you?’