Rhan felt strangely lonely after lunch as she prepared for another boring run. Everyone seemed to be occupied by sport, practicals or tutorial work. She shook her head angrily. After years of being alone, how could she be lonely for just an afternoon? It was ridiculous.
She had decided to trust George with so many aspects of this strange, new, dreamlike world, but she could not lean on him for every aspect of her life. Her auntie had warned her that popular men had a girl in every town and although she suspected her aunt of having little direct knowledge, she considered it a useful premise.
She felt no inclination to join in any college activity, but halfway out the door, she turned back and looked up a deleted email. It had been sent to first-year girls at all colleges inviting them to make up numbers for Gloucester Hall’s women’s rowing novices. It had been useless junk earlier in the week when she thought she had no future. Although she had failed to respond by the requested deadline, candidates were asked to meet at two-thirty that afternoon at Gloucester’s boathouse.
Half an hour later, she was inspecting the boathouses while trotting along the opposite bank to her own college boathouse. The third nameplate she came across was Gloucester Hall, which appeared to be sharing with another, larger college. With her heart beating from nerves rather than from the running, she stopped and looked around, aware that she was a quarter of an hour early. She felt so exposed without her headscarf, yet she hated standing out as different.
The building was like a very long garage, with a double door at the top of concrete steps leading down to the river and a steel-and-timber pontoon floating on the water. It was empty so she crept inside. There were racks for boats on both sides, most of which were empty. One boat was designed for eight oars, which had four steel brackets protruding on each side. On a higher rack was a shorter boat with two brackets on the near side, which was clearly designed for four rowers, and beyond that, a short pencil-shaped boat, obviously built for just one rower. All boats looked delicate and ridiculously thin. On one side of the garage, there were racks of oars, which looked enormous. It was almost silent in the boathouse. She stood still, gripped by indecision. She went outside again, relieved to no longer be poking around, and reassured that no one had seen her.
She walked up the river and returned on time, just as a crew was lifting a boat from the water. She approached a tall girl who stood watching, painfully aware that she had never spoken to a stranger without the protection of head cover.
‘Are you still looking for rowers – well, novices I mean?’
‘Oh great, you want to row with us? Wow. Perfect. You’re almost a tall as me! My name is Claire. Those girls are Suzie, Elizabeth, Sarah, Jenny and Shrimpy – they’re all Gloucester. I’m hoping that the girl talking to Nick over there is another recruit from outside college. What’s your name and what college are you from?’
Rhan felt reluctant to divulge too much – the idea of adopting a parallel life suddenly seemed quite liberating. She turned away, needing time to think. That was rude – she had to say something. She turned back to Claire. ‘It is very good of you to let me try rowing for you. It is all very exciting. I have never done anything like this before.’
‘You’re not British are you? Are you from Israel?’
‘No, I am from Sunderland,’ Rhan answered with a mischievous smile on her face, which Claire returned. Rhan looked across at Nick hoping for a distraction while she floundered with questions she was not ready to answer. He looked up, saw her, and smiled back. Rhan automatically lifted her hand to her head, but her headscarf was not there. She flushed as he came straight across to her.
‘Do I gather you want to row with us?’ he said, and then continued conversationally when he detected a slight nod from Claire on behalf of the awkward stranger. ‘Delighted you came! I’m Nick and I will be coaching you today and for the first week at least. What’s your name?’
‘Bar,’ muttered Rhan. It was the least offensive nickname she had from the options of Stick, Lanky, or Monkey Bars.
‘Well Bar, as I was just saying to Elisha over there, first we’ll look at safety, then some theory, a quick session on the bank tub and we have the clinker booked from three. It’s all very easy compared with elsewhere. I can get a couple of extra rowers from the men’s novice boat to make up numbers for this outing, which is great as I know of others who couldn’t make it today.’
There was much to take in from the technical talk. Once they found that she was ambidextrous, “Bar” was given a place as Number 5, which was on the “bow side”, although she had no idea what it meant. First, she was made to sit for a few strokes in a “bank tub”, where she felt stupid pulling an oar with a hole in it through water while moored to the bank. Nick crouched down, giving instructions. She was surprised when he leaned over and physically moved her hand round on the shaft. She looked up at the crowd of girls watching from above, but they appeared to think nothing of his hand on hers.
Slightly later than planned, they swapped places with a returning crew. A young man was press-ganged by Nick from the returning crew and they were on the river. Nick sat in the back, or “stern”, as “cox” – the only one facing forwards – to steer and coach the rowers. Elizabeth came next at Number 8 looking backwards, with the rest sitting one behind the other up to Number 1 in the “bow” at the front end. They all had to follow the movements and speed of Elizabeth, who was “stroke”.
It was fun from the start. The unsteady rhythm that they had to follow, combined with trying to take in and apply the shouted instructions from Nick, soon removed all other worries and Rhan was staggered to find herself loving every moment. There was a moment, however, when Jenny sent a spray of river water over the girls in front, including Rhan, to shrieks of annoyance. The boat rocked alarmingly, and with water running down her neck, Rhan almost stopped pulling on her oar. The oar suddenly took on a life of its own and she lost control. She felt helpless as the blade-end dived down, while the end of the oar she was holding shot upwards, almost pulling her off the seat. Nick shouted for all to “hold water” and they came to a sudden halt.
‘That’s called “catching a crab”,’ Nick called out. ‘Pull right up to your chest, Number 5! That’ll keep you in control of your oar.’
‘Up to where?’ Sarah called out mischievously, making the embarrassment worse.
Moreover, the tourists meandering along the river had all stopped and were laughing at them. Rhan decided that from then on, she was going to pull hard on each stroke as a safety measure. That proved fun but difficult, as every few strokes there were other incidents, and the other newcomer, Elisha, had particular trouble. As far as Rhan was concerned, however, it was going to be the first and last time that she “caught a crab”.
It was while they retrieved the boat from the water that things nearly went wrong. The boat that the novices used was called the “clinker” and it was notorious for being heavy and difficult to lift from the water. Even with Nick helping to lift, and an extra man from the boathouse, it was a strain to lean over and lift it clear from the water. Once clear, Nick – who was helping from the bow end – instructed the stroke-side rowers to change sides. Every second person was then supposed to let go and cross beneath the boat so that it could be carried between them with equal numbers on each side. Unfortunately, it went very wrong and Rhan was left at one end, with Nick and Claire at the other, holding the weight of the whole boat between them while everyone else let go and scrambled beneath the boat. Rhan felt her face go purple with the strain, and she ignored the shouting around her as she concentrated on not letting the stern touch the ground.
‘That was an impressive display of strength, Bar,’ said Nick, once the boat was safely laid on its rack. ‘I’m sorry for the incompetence. I do more rowing than coxing, so that’s my excuse. Your rowing was good towards the end. Combine that with your height and strength and you could be perfect. Will you join us again tomorrow at the same time?’
‘Thank you, Nick. Yes please – it was a marvellous experience. Is it OK for me to row with you? I would like to keep my college out of it if possible. You see, I am from the Middle East and should not be seen doing sport in this western dress.’
‘No problem,’ responded Nick, not even bothering to ask which college. ‘No one’s going to mind you rowing for us at novice-level. We’ve a chance to build up a good Women’s Second Eight this year. Send me your email and I’ll confirm other sessions. We will have to go for pre-breakfast sessions next week if that’s OK?’
Rhan was distracted by Sarah winking at her behind Nick’s back.
‘Great!’ responded Rhan, who was not sure what it meant.
Rhan jogged back to her college, replacing her headscarf as she ran. Some of the rugby players were hobbling around the quad in their steel-studded boots while shouting out arrangements for their first round of drinks.
‘Ah, the loneliness of the long-distance runner! Did you have a pleasant afternoon Rhan?’ George’s voice echoed around the quad but was answered by Danny’s booming Cornish voice.
‘Cos if not, you wanna join the rugby club? We need someone who can jump’n catch at the same time. George has problems with multi-tasking.’
So far so good with the double life, thought Rhan.
Brimming with surreal self-confidence, Rhan set out that evening in the hall to make a new friend and to ease her conscience.
‘Gerry isn’t it?’ she asked of the boy she’d sat next to on her first night in college. She had observed that, although he no longer looked so homesick, he was still usually alone. He looked up, surprised and pleased to be addressed by the striking girl, who was now rapidly becoming one of the college personalities.
‘You read Maths and come from Bradford – is that right?’ Rhan had prepared her ground. The boy nodded, and Rhan continued confidently. ‘My future brother-in-law comes from there. How are you finding your subject? I thought I was good at maths before I started Engineering, but I am barely coping.’ That was sufficient for Gerry to take over the subject on the delights and difficulties of maths.
Later that evening in her room, Rhan confided in George. ‘Talking to Gerry was easy and quite fun. I was a chatterbox back in Syria but since coming here, I hardly spoke at school, or in my first week here. So it was good to put my new sociable personality to beneficial effect. At least he can count me as one of his acquaintances or friends now, and he has offered to help with my maths. So you may not be so indispensable from now on!’
George pretended to look alarmed, but Rhan could tell he was proud of her.