The second week of term continued to feel like a silky dream, which made Rhan fearful that it was all too good to be true. Morning lectures had become ridiculously enjoyable. It was a revelation for Rhan to find herself on easy terms with a best friend, who happened to be male. They whispered comments and complaints in the large maths lecture room, and amused each other in the engineering lectures with puerile written comments on each other’s notes. At technical drawing after lectures, their individual knowledge of the computer package leapt forward as they pooled their discoveries of new techniques and pointed out each other’s errors. Rhan was aware that their close collaboration usually involved more physical contact than was necessary. It was all so intoxicating.
At the end of the week, on the Friday following the almost-forgotten sustainability lecture, they started their engineering course practicals. Rhan stood attentively with a dozen first-year students on the concrete floor of a laboratory on one of the upper floors of the engineering tower, surrounded by a range of daunting apparatus. She read through the general instructions and could not hide the irregularity in her breathing as she noted that each experiment was carried out in pairs. Coch Wei and Chi Tang were already heading off to choose their experiment. She had always hated that aspect of school; no one ever wanted her as a partner. The idea of doing three years of practicals on her own loomed. George was bound to strike off with someone cool from another college, yet there he was standing alone watching her.
‘Sorry George,’ she apologised. ‘You seem to be stuck with me again.’
‘Just what I was going to say,’ was his smiling response, which made her feel at ease again. No wonder she found it a worry that life was so alarmingly good. She woke each morning in eager anticipation, yet the scars from the loneliness and sense of inadequacy were very recent and lay just beneath the surface. Rhan had filed the memories as useful references.
Most interaction with George appeared to revert into an amusing game, yet they both knew that there were dangerous undercurrents in their friendship. She had soon rescued her instruction book about humans from the back of her drawer and, to the amusement of both, they had even reviewed sections that were unclear as though it was part of their coursework. There were fascinating complications and delights with being so close, in all senses of the word, to someone who was neither an indifferent friend, nor an official lover.
Once they found the last unclaimed apparatus for their first practical, they were pushing each other in a childish manner, fighting over the easy task of sitting on a chair and taking the readings. Rhan, aware of other students in the room, suddenly became self-conscious, laughed, and gave in.
‘OK George, you need to sit down, so you can get a grip on those complicated creep readings while I will fetch the weights. I have already had a strenuous morning, so lugging a few more loads around will be nothing.’ She said this with a hint of sarcasm.
It bothered her slightly that she had told him nothing about her rowing, nor had she checked his assumption that she was spending her time running, yet he had not asked questions about her time away. On the one hand, she wanted to tell him about her successes on the water and describe the exhilaration of gliding through the early morning mists; on the other hand, it helped to have time completely removed from him. Around college, they were just friends who worked and went about together as part of a group, yet they rarely chatted or sat next to each other when others were near. Generally, though, they were only a glance apart.
After collecting a couple of weights, Rhan had nothing to do but wait while George took timed readings, which suited her fine. She could let her thoughts wander.
Life was too much fun to go to bed as early as she would have wished. Rhan found that she was surprisingly popular with many young men in the college, who seemed to regard her with some interest and almost as one of them, now that she was no longer too “odd” to communicate with them. She often had invitations to the college bar and calls to visit the pubs in the town with some of the rugby squad. It crossed her mind that they particularly enjoyed the incongruous scene of a headscarf-covered girl drinking the pints of beer that they insisted on buying her. She managed to resist Danny’s now semi-serious invitations that she try out the position of jumper for the rugby lineouts, but the boys still enjoyed speculating how high they could lift or throw a lightweight girl who almost had the height of a second-row forward.
Rhan found it much easier than she would have believed to come up with banter that seemed to amuse, but she preferred the more penetrating, cerebral discussions. She had many new acquaintances, yet she was surprised to admit that her best college friends were also George’s early friends. And they all appeared to have a genuine interest in her. Danny, when sober, was always keen to discover Rhan’s views and knowledge of a variety of topics, yet he was happy, in turn, to pass on his good knowledge of politics and economic theory. She had been able to indulge in quiet conversations with David, who had knowledge of Syria and Lebanon, and her eyes often swam with nostalgic tears. Tom expanded her limited knowledge of music, books and his brand of politics.
She broke off her reverie sufficiently to answer George’s call for another weight to be added to the loaded plastic wire. She watched for a few seconds as he frantically noted down the readings.
Within the college, Rhan could relax with Hattie and her circle, who were happy to include Rhan. Otherwise, her new closest college friends hardly included any girls. George had many female friends, but Rhan felt judged by and shy with them. Intimate conversations with Fiona had not gone brilliantly.
‘Rhan, if you start going out with George, then tutorials will be dreadfully awkward when you break up,’ Fiona had advised.
‘Good advice,’ Rhan had responded modestly. ‘I have very little experience in this area.’ Yet Rhan had then mischievously added, ‘But do you really think that George would like me in that way? I thought he was only interested in my engineering expertise.’
‘I don’t know,’ Fiona had responded cautiously, looking up at the tall, austere-looking Syrian. ‘I sometimes get the feeling that you are much closer to him than his girlfriend back home would like.’
The conversation had made Rhan pleased to hear that her intimacy with George was not entirely in her own head, but she could see the logic of a taboo against going out with a tutorial partner. In a three-year arts subject, where students had individual study and preparation of essays, it would be bad enough. It was so much more dangerous for students of four-year science degrees; rowing, rugby and bed were the only real periods that Rhan was apart from George. Fiona would be shocked if she knew how close they had become and how they had tried to hide that closeness.
The problem of coping with the maths was still a looming cloud each week, but like every aspect of her life, it was now shared – halving the pain and doubling any gain. They had only panicked a little about preparations for their first engineering tutorial, but it was much easier than maths. Working together, Rhan and George had been content to spend most of the previous weekend reading up about the theory of beams and answering questions about bending moment diagrams. It had almost been fun. Working out deflections and discovering forces in bridge members appeared so much more logical and useful than learning about mathematical transformations and vectors in that week’s maths tutorial. It had dawned on them that their time in Oxford was set into an alternating rhythm of maths and engineering tutorials, interspersed with laboratory practicals. It was all set as rigidly as the stone boundary walls to each college.
Gently lowering another weight onto the plastic wire, when instructed by George, Rhan considered the bikes they had bought. Rhan was pleased with her heavy second-hand bike with its three-speed gears, but could not restrain her laughter at the pink girl’s bike that George had purchased, which was ridiculously small for him. Annoyingly, though, he managed to beat her in most sprint races, despite the apparent handicap. Looking at maps, they were planning expeditions out from the city to explore surrounding woods, rivers, villages and pubs.
Rhan made her thoughts switch from the future to the crazy Gloucester girls, who were such fun to row with. She turned away to hide her smile. There were real advantages in having a new separate life as a rower.
After three days of rowing in the afternoons, they had settled into a pre-breakfast regime. It provided more time during the day, but it left her feeling sleepy later in the morning, like now.
Their coach Nick had tried out a different member of the Gloucester crew as stroke on each of the initial outings, in an effort to find a suitable rower to take the lead. She could appreciate why he wanted the Number 8 rower, whom the rest of the crew would follow, to be from Gloucester. It had therefore been with apparent reluctance that on Wednesday, Nick had placed Rhan as stroke in front of Shrimpy, the cox, at the back of the boat. She had found it very strange not being able to see other rowers and to have no one to follow; she had nothing to think about other than her own stroke. After a few minutes, she resolved not to try that lonely position again. After a few more minutes, she started to admire the way they were moving through the water.
‘Wow!’ Shrimpy had called out. ‘Keep it up!’
Rhan had to admit that there were advantages in controlling how much energy she expended, particularly at such a cold time of the day, and she enjoyed feeling the boat powering through the water. ‘That’s brilliant!’ called Nick from the bank. Sarah, who tended to keep up a constant dialogue from the forward end of the boat, was also saying something positive, but the words were indistinct.
‘What a difference – that was amazing!’ Elizabeth said as soon as they were unbuckling their shoes at the landing stage. ‘Well done, stroke. Job landed at the Bar.’
‘Bar made Nick a happy man, yet again,’ Jenny added frivolously.
‘Sure! Trying everyone out was just pretence. We all knew from the beginning he was after a stroke from Bar!’ Claire contributed.
‘Oh, are you and Nick an item?’ Elisha asked, while Anna looked round in interest and the others smirked.
‘Only in their minds!’ Rhan responded, pretending to be angry, but she had felt herself glow, both from the enthusiastic praise of her rowing, as well as the implications of their jokes.
‘Elizabeth was dead right, you know,’ Claire said more subtly, once the boat had been laid back on its shelf. ‘Rowing suddenly became so much easier following your lead. I’m not sure why, but stick with it.’ It was rare for Claire to be serious, and Rhan was struck by her praise. She had learnt to admire Claire as both a good friend and as the best rower in the crew. Nick had tried to get Claire to be stroke at Number 8, but Claire had hated swapping hands when she moved from one side of the boat to the other and she soon returned to Number 7 on the bow side of the boat. She was now positioned directly behind Rhan, where they were able to chat when there were dull moments.
That had been their last trip out in the heavy clinker training boat, where the timber planks lapped with each other. Nick had arranged for them to move onto a light shell, which appeared to consist of a single layer of thin, curved plywood. They found the less sturdy shell much more difficult to balance as it wobbled badly from side to side, spoiling their rowing for a while. Yet they were soon accustomed to balancing the lighter, more responsive shell.
‘Next weight please, if you don’t mind!’ George’s resentful voice cut through Rhan’s dreamy state, dragging her back to the present.
‘Yes sir!’ Rhan retorted. ‘May I just remind you that you wanted the role of recorder? I am happy to be the dozy labourer.’
‘Can I just point out then that we need lots more weights soon, once this gets to the work-hardening zone? Would it be a good idea to assemble them close-by?’
‘That is so ungentlemanly!’ Rhan complained ten minutes later, after assembling some of the required heavy loads from across the room. The low October sun radiated the glass wall of the centrally heated tower building. ‘Your turn for the physical stuff. Let me sit on that chair and cool off while taking the readings,’ she complained, slumping into his chair. ‘Which way is this gauge reading? What time step are we on?’
He leant over her, pointing out his methodology for taking the readings until she pushed him away.
‘Go and get the next weights! It’s your turn to do the manual stuff.’
He grunted assent, walked across the lab and opened a window, letting in a stiff breeze. Several of the other students looked up in surprise, smiling at the obvious solution to the overheated room.
‘You could have done that earlier!’ Rhan suggested as he stood leaning over her again.
‘Well you were brought up in the Middle East, so I thought you must be used to working in the heat! Besides, you have the advantage of being fragrant.’
‘Not this girl! I am not wasting my money on perfume just for you.’
‘You’re so much better than any bottled scent,’ he said quietly from above her head.
‘George, what would your girlfriend say?’ Rhan said firmly, but then inwardly, she cringed, wondering why on earth she had said that.
‘Next weight in ten seconds,’ she demanded, wanting the experiment to move the conversation on.
‘She’s coming to see me next weekend, which could be awkward,’ he said flatly as he threaded another two kilograms onto the cage.
‘Oh, why?’ she asked, wishing she could put the metaphorical cork back in the bottle.
‘Why is she coming to see me, or why awkward?’ When Rhan didn’t respond, George continued. ‘Because we should break up.’ There was a long pause while Rhan made notes and sucked her pencil. ‘Everyone in our college, both boys and girls, are in a similar position,’ he added.
‘OK, I got that,’ she said. ‘Next weight! Quick!’ She glanced at him, adding, ‘Why do you need to break up?’ She hated the idea that anything from the last week or so should change when everything was so exciting. Her heart felt like it kept missing beats, but was that even possible?
‘You know why,’ he said, but then deflected the answer. ‘I couldn’t go out with anyone who’s not an engineer, could I?’ He smiled, but without warmth.
‘Creep!’ She elbowed him in the ribs in a few spare seconds from the experiment. It was a brief return to their typical behaviour, but George soon reverted to the more serious conversation.
‘I don’t think I’m being fair to anyone,’ he admitted.
‘I don’t mind. The most important thing is to be friends,’ she said while looking at the dial and the clock. ‘You and I have to stay friends, somehow or other, for the next four years. Load it in five, four – OK, now!’
They stopped to let Rhan take more measurements before George continued on a different tack.
‘I’m not sure what “I don’t mind” means, but look, as far as I can make out, any romantically inclined couple have a mystery over who likes each other the most. There’s nothing worse than unrequited love.’
‘152.4, got it. Right, unload now. Take a weight off! 148.5. Sorry, George, I have no idea. What are you talking about?’ Rhan did not want to be having this conversation.
‘Well I don’t mind admitting that I have a real thing for you,’ George whispered. ‘So, I’m just hoping you can put up with that, and not mind too much if I…just carry on… Another weight off?’
‘No, wait, not yet,’ she said, trying to concentrate on the experiment while taking short, sharp, panicky breaths. She had to stay cool. Now was not a good time for the full truth. She managed to control her voice.
‘No I don’t mind. I suppose I am flattered. I never thought of anyone having a “thing” for me. I just thought that I am conveniently on hand for you. Hang on…time for a reading and take a load off – 143.8 millimetres. Go!’
‘Well, wouldn’t it be a disaster if you fell for me!’ George replied, looking at her with growing confidence. ‘It would be stupid for us to…’ He stopped to take off another ring of steel and started again once he had at least some of Rhan’s attention. ‘It’s just painful ecstasy. It could ruin our time here. It’s been the most electrifying time of my life, but…we have to kill it. You have the upper hand. You need to be indifferent about me.’
‘I am not sure if this is a particularly fair proposal,’ Rhan sighed with a grim smile and a shake of her head. ‘I am no expert, but I don’t think that many classic romances have ever covered the subject in that way. So, you want me to…138.1. Remove another weight! You want me to feel sorry for you, and just put up with you having a crush on me? I am then meant to take on policing our relationship. I thought that things might be more equal.’
George’s face twisted while he considered this, but he had no answer. She shook her head while she continued. ‘I appreciate that girls are supposed to do that anyway, especially those with my upbringing…but I had hoped to escape such a role here. Why should I take responsibility for us both?’
She stopped herself. Rhan certainly had no experience of this. She had been just about to admit that she had chemicals rushing around in her system, which already made her feel empty when they were apart for more than a few hours – never mind the idea of being estranged permanently. She was well aware that their time together had been so precious. Everything was better when he was there: every joke funnier, each building they admired more beautiful, and every evening walk more exciting. Each crisis had even been fun when faced together.
‘Oh, blast, you made me miss a reading,’ she exclaimed out loud. ‘Last reading…119.5. OK, last weight off. All finished.’
‘Great. Do you want to tidy these up?’ he suggested. ‘I’ll take that pile of weights back and shut that window before we go.’
‘Look George, we are better than good colleagues,’ Rhan called out. They were cycling slowly together back to college past the Lamb and Flag pub and St John’s College; neither of them were able to enjoy the clear low light of autumn. She pulled up alongside him. ‘I really want to be trusting friends. Surely, if we are friends, then we can do, or not do, anything. Isn’t that better than being a couple?’ Rhan had returned to the subject after a few minutes of silence between them, terrified at the black pit she could see ahead if they fell apart. ‘If we were really good friends, we could probably talk through these problems,’ she persisted. ‘Look how far I…we have come since we met just a few days ago.’
‘Maybe. We could be friends in theory, but it never happens that way.’ She caught a glimpse of her own despair in him. It frightened her.
They broke off where traffic forced them to separate and she had to brake hard to avoid a car pulling out. Recalling George’s grim voice outside the hall during their first conversation, she accelerated with new determination and caught him up in the quieter road beside Balliol College, adjacent to the memorial to the burning of the Oxford Martyrs, which Rhan tried not to think about each time she went past.
‘You should keep your girlfriend!’ she pleaded, hoping no one could hear as they cycled slowly, as close as they dared in the cold shadow of a building. ‘Even if you really wanted me, I would actually prefer not to be coupled with you in everyone’s mind, right from the beginning of our time here. Thank goodness we have been subtle so far. That means we can continue to spend time with each other. Come on, we are together almost every waking hour, so I can hardly be jealous as things stand. I don’t mind.’
He was listening without speaking so Rhan continued, trying to cycle as slowly as she could. ‘I can afford to spare you and her the odd weekend. You were saying that being with me was too good, yet agony or whatever, so…well, having a girlfriend will help a bit, right? And you might not find me so painful, with time.’ She smiled at him encouragingly.
‘Maybe,’ George replied again doubtfully, as they emerged into the sunshine of the spacious Broad Street. ‘Are you saying that we should, and could, just carry on…as before?’
‘Well that would certainly suit me best,’ she responded with relief. ‘Just carry on, just as before.’ They broke off as they swept into the college through the open back gate, clattering over the cobbles and paving setts under the tower and into the back quad. They stopped at adjacent bike stands at the rear of the chapel.
Chris, whom Rhan had got to know from Sundays at the Catholic chaplaincy, was on his way to lunch. He walked towards them as they each locked up their bikes, apparently not noticing him. Rhan squatted down next to George to fiddle with his bike combination lock while she muttered something. Chris assumed it was to do with his lock, as George suddenly looked pleasantly surprised and uttered under his breath in a hoarse whisper that Chris overheard. ‘Rhan, you’re fantastic!’
‘Oh, hi Chris!’ Rhan said enthusiastically as she appeared to notice him for the first time. ‘George is taking these practical notes up to his room, so he can write them up before his girlfriend arrives this weekend. If you are on your way to lunch, may I join you?’
Apart from a slight nod, there was an uncharacteristic silence from George.