‘Try pulling the third stroke slightly further but get that blade out fast, Number 3…yes that’s good. Well done to everyone though, that is really coming together. We have some impressive acceleration.’
The college rugby boat was practising the first few strokes of a race. Rhan was teaching them a new technique that she had learnt just a few days before in Roger’s coaching with the junior Oxford crews. It involved the initial short strokes required to accelerate the boat from standstill to movement before the normal full strokes could be effective. The start of the race was particularly crucial, as Rhan had discovered in the previous term in the chaotic bump races at the lower divisions. She saw no reason to teach the traditional approach if Roger’s technique was better.
‘OK. Hold water. Let’s see three more starts. Take a stroke, bow. Fine. Ready. Steady. Go!’
It was pleasant in the boat. It was Rhan’s first day back at her college – and also her first day of ease after a week of strenuous rowing, both at the university junior squad camp, and in two days of trials with the National team. Before that, she’d started to make friends and had enjoyed training with the Sunderland club, where she jumped from boat to boat wherever there was a slot.
She smiled to herself at the recollection of her reception back at the Sunderland club. Two days after leaving George in Yorkshire, she had presented herself at a summer open day. She hadn’t seen any of the veterans she knew, but guessed the identity of the treasurer, Bob, to whom she handed her sponsorship letter. It had offered to pay club fees and expenses up to £500 for the next three months.
‘OK luv. Ah’ll just get me glasses, but talk to oor Becky at that table first, will yu?’
Rhan had duly approached a woman who was sorting through lists.
‘Rowed afore?’ Becky asked, glancing up at the unusually tall girl, who nodded. ‘How much?’ was Becky’s obvious response.
Rhan gave a convoluted answer about previous experience.
‘So yu’ve nay more ‘n six month of rowing!’ Becky announced triumphantly. ‘Fine. We’ll find a place for you in a novice boat if yu pass y’ fitness and the like.’
‘My coach…ergometer results…’ Rhan had quailed pathetically at the prospect of arguing with the officious Becky about her experience and the sets of fitness statistics she had logged. With a defeated sigh, she had turned away and sat down.
‘Fuckin ’ell!’ shouted the treasurer a few minutes later, waving Rhan’s letter and startling the five other young people who were either signing up or helping with the novices. ‘Excuse me French, but does this say what I think it says? Are you in the National squad? And yu ganna muck in wi’ us?’
‘No, I’m only in trials for the squad.’ Rhan had felt very aware that she was the centre of attention, but found it better than being ignored and dismissed. ‘And I suppose I actually joined your club last December, the day you broke your foot. I replaced you in the veteran’s four. Can you take what I owe from the sponsorship?’
‘Orr, watch out Becky!’ Bob had warned in good humour. ‘She’s trouble! I ’avn’t ’ad nowt but gobshite from mi old crew since she upped off back to college! They want ‘er back in my place!’
‘Hold water! Ready. Stroke, bow. Hold. Right – ready, steady, go!’ Rhan, huddled in her dark coat, spoke only quietly into the microphone.
Oxford on the first Saturday before term was warm, especially after Sunderland. It was fun to be lazily coxing and coaching the Rugby Eight again, although the river was ridiculously busy on this first weekend. Finding a quiet spot to practise the starts had been difficult with so many college crews training for the Summer Eights.
Rhan was beginning to take a measure of pride in the eight burly blokes in front of her. They would be in a relatively lowly division, but they had strength and were starting to gain enough skill to apply their energy effectively. With a new lightweight cox they should do very well.
‘Last try, then carry on with a slow and measured “power ten”. Ready. Steady. Go!’
A familiar voice, amplified, drifted only slowly into her consciousness before she sat bolt upright in alarm. There in front of them lay the college First Eight, close to the bank, receiving the same instructions from the towpath above that she had just passed on to her crew. The First Eight were being instructed by their new professional coach, and Rhan’s university trainer, Roger. He was standing just off the towpath, holding his bike in one hand, megaphone in the other, cap tilted back off his head as usual. Rhan pulled her headscarf forward, thanking her luck that he’d never seen her covered up, and adjusted the boat’s course to pass by at a distance.
Roger, however, had other ideas once he spotted the matching college blades. He laid his bike down. ‘Hold on a minute – you must be the Second Eight are you? I saw you practising starts back there – so let’s see how the two boats compare, shall we?’
‘Ease the oars!’ Rhan breathed quietly into the microphone, while Richard, the captain of the First, explained to Roger that they were just the Fourth – the recently assembled rugby crew – rather than the Second Eight. Nevertheless, Roger soon had them manoeuvring alongside the First Eight for a competitive racing start. Rhan found it easy to keep her back to Roger while the crew looked up with interest at the man who was being paid to work miracles over the next few weeks.
She kept a steely silence as Roger shouted, ‘Ready, steady, go!’
Kim, the First Eight cox, screamed encouragement at her crew. The Fourth Eight knew what was wanted and needed no encouragement to show off.
The First Eight had obviously just made the transition to the new starting technique under Roger’s instruction, while most of Rhan’s rugby crew had learned it from scratch that morning and had become relatively proficient at the short, sharp, choppy pulling of the oars. She felt herself flush with both pride and embarrassment to see how quickly they kicked their boat into motion. It got worse – Rhan’s heart sank; this was not meant to happen!
‘OK, hold! Let’s try that again,’ Roger ordered, none too pleased with the result.
After three starts, it was apparent that it was no fluke, and that the First Eight were still the slower boat. On the third attempt, there was no order to hold, and Rhan quietly directed the first power-ten strokes. It was only after five or six strokes that the more proficient First boat started to close the gap.
‘OK, hold it, hold it!’ Roger called. He’d clearly meant to stop them much earlier, and he had to collect his bike and catch up the twenty or so metres while the two crews hugged the bank to let other boats pass. ‘What’s going on here?’ he asked, dismounting and letting his bike fall into the long grass again, his cap now pulled well down against the glare of the water.
‘We’re just getting used to your new technique,’ explained Richard, trying to justify the First Eight’s performance. ‘We just need a bit more practice at it. It doesn’t seem as good as the old method of starting.’
‘Mind you,’ Gareth goaded Richard in his sing-song Welsh accent, ‘it was only half an hour ago that we learnt how to start!’
‘Sorry Richard. I just think I’m missing something important here. You see, the Fourth are already using that new technique…which you suggest is not as fast. They’re beating me at my own brand-new game! So, either it’s not so new…or there’s something going on…this Rugby Eight with a heavier boat…and you’ve said only a few weeks on the water for most of them…with little coaching…yet, they’ve just mastered it.’
His rambling musings s subsided, while both crews listened in a silence only broken by the occasional lap of water against the two boats. All felt uneasy under the judgement and incoherent statements of this strange new coach.
Roger was now peering hard at Rhan below him – she could tell by his stance, even though from beneath her scarf she only cast the occasional sideways glance and looked up no higher than his feet. He usually kept his thoughts well hidden, but he evidently had other intentions today as he continued his outspoken review.
‘Yet this Fourth Eight…must have had superior training…and from my squad…Bar?’ Rhan could almost hear his mind working it out. ‘Claire said “this college had hidden depths”, didn’t she?’
Everyone was looking up at the coach, talking to himself, using names no one knew. It worked. Rhan gave in and also glanced back up into his face on the towpath behind; she could not suppress a slight smile.
‘Glory be! Thank you Lord!’ Roger exclaimed. He actually pulled off his cap at this point and hit it against his leg in excitement. He rotated on the spot, rubbing his forehead as he turned, so he was ready to address the college captain, his effective employer. He was back to his usual semi-secretive manner.
‘Right Richard! I’m beginning to see a way that your college can avoid humiliation. As you saw, the Fourth, after just a week or so on the water, can beat the First, with a heavier boat, heavier oars, and while dragging a rather overgrown cox as extra useless ballast.’ Rhan watched as several of her crew raised their heads at the abusive language, but the coach continued without much pause. ‘So Captain, if you want me to produce an eight that won’t get bumped down the river, it can be done, but it needs the cooperation of the whole boat club. I need the very best available crew. Is that agreed?’
There were one or two sad nods from Richard and others in the First Eight.
‘No, I’m sorry, but this needs to be agreed by all of you here!’ Roger demanded forcibly, no longer the bumbling academic. There were more nods and calls of agreement this time. The First Eight calls were reluctant, while members of the Rugby Eight suddenly fancied their chances.
‘I’ll try again. This time, please raise your arm if you agree with your captain that I can select the crew that I want. Sorry, we have a mountain to climb, so it’s all or nothing for me. Raise your arm if you agree!’ This time Rhan saw universal assent, including from Kim, the other cox. Rhan’s arms were down, grasping the sides of the boat, but no one noticed her.
All were now looking impatiently up at Roger, who was still waiting. Only Rhan knew why he waited. There was silence, which was getting very awkward again, but still they waited. There was a slight roaring in Rhan’s ears. What would happen if she agreed? Everything would change. She would lose control. Her two or three separate lives would clash, and she would be exposed. Yet, she could become someone of influence. She felt that she was on the edge of a long drop. Now was her chance. She looked up, feeling slightly sick, looking at the trees beyond Roger. Everyone’s eyes were fixed on the coach. She nodded just a fraction and glanced at the coach to see if that was enough.
‘Good. See you back at the boathouse,’ Roger proclaimed immediately.
Rhan mechanically gave the instructions that set them off behind the First team. The slight breeze started to clear her head. Feeling a bit emotional, she addressed the microphone.
‘Come on; let’s have some gentle but firm and steady rowing. This is the last time that you will row together, so let’s see what you have learnt.’
On the edge of tears, she recalled Roger’s comments about her being useless ballast and started laughing. Her laughter was perhaps not so silent, because George, most of the way down the boat, and despite the risk to the balance, peered round the rowers between them.
‘Don’t take it personally about the ballast, Rhan; that weird coach doesn’t know how much we owe you, it wasn’t personal.’
‘It certainly was personal!’ she muttered to herself, forgetting again that it would be picked up through the microphone.
There was growing chaos back at the boathouse. The Second Eight had been about to set off in their boat and the Schools’ Eight was waiting to take over the rugby team’s shell for the afternoon. The two crews leaving the water waited to hear their fate after stacking their oars and stowing all but the First Eight boat. Most of the crews were crowded around their captain, Richard. Roger was standing alone, talking on his mobile, which gave him a chance to wander past Rhan and speak to her without much attention.
‘Right, Bar. Sorry to mess up your secret, but can you slip upstairs and prepare your ideal crew? I’ll select the stroke.’
She gave him an ironic smile. ‘OK, but we need members of the Second Eight and Schools’ Eight too. The Schools’ Eight will need to be persuaded.’
‘Good, leave them to me,’ he said as she walked towards the boathouse, and he exchanged a few words with Pat, the boatman, before making an announcement.
‘Right! Schools’ Eight and Second Eight, upstairs if you don’t mind! I need a word with you.’
Rhan noted that George had been watching her from the other side of the large boathouse door. She gave him a short smile as she retreated inside, where she found a blunt pencil, an old envelope and a quiet corner in the empty bar above the boathouse to start working out her ideal crew. She couldn’t help listening to Roger through the lightweight timber partition as he addressed the other two Eights and their coxes, sitting on benches in the adjacent changing room. She presumed everyone else was hanging around downstairs or on the riverbank.
‘Thanks for letting me speak to you.’ Roger’s diffident yet persuasive voice sounded ideal, Rhan thought. ‘I don’t know any of you, and you may not have heard about me. I’m Roger Potts. I’ve been a senior assistant coach to the university, and over the next two months, I’ve been employed by your college to get your First Eight through the Eights Week bumps. A list of the best available crew is being prepared, and I believe that some of you will be selected.
There was scuffling and murmurs, while Roger presumably drew breath.
‘Well done to members of the Second, but I need to address the Schools’ Eight crew. I appreciate that your priority in your last year has been to get the best degree you can this summer. I have also seen why you haven’t thought it worthwhile to row in the First Eight! There was nothing to gain and, let’s face it, a strong chance that the First Eight would be bumped four times in a humiliating plummet out of the top division.’
Roger’s voice paused, but there was no dissent, so he continued.
‘The news is just about to break, and you are the first to hear it. The college has a secret superstar.’
Rhan could not help smiling and blushing at Roger’s statements.
‘I can assure you that anyone in our new First Eight will be rowing behind next year’s current first choice as stroke for a Blue, and the university’s most promising contender as an Olympic squad rower. So there! That’s going to be a surprise for your whole college. The new crew will look nothing like last term’s Torpids team – few will survive.’ Roger ceased talking to allow a babble of questions to be flung at him.
‘How come no one knows?’
‘Why’s he not already in the crew?’
After a few seconds of ignoring the questions, Roger’s voice cut through the clamour.
‘Well I’m afraid the terms “thoroughbred” and “farmer’s cart” come to mind. You may or may not know that international rowers have no great enthusiasm to row for their college. My arrival here has now sorted that. However, I need your experience too. I can promise you that the new Eight that goes on the water in ten minutes’ time will go down in history. This is a pivotal moment for…’
‘What are you doing up here?’ George’s voice from the open stairs cut through her eavesdropping.
‘Hi,’ she responded in little more than a whisper. As soon as George heard the subject being discussed, he also stopped to listen.
‘…a list of the college’s best rowers, and no one should judge who will or will not be on that list. If your name is included, I promise you will have something to brag about on your CV for the rest of your life. If you decline, you will be giving up being in the crew behind someone who is clearly destined to be a household name in the manner of Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent. However, I need to know now, this instant, whether there is anyone who wants to rule themselves out of that new First Eight. The press will be awaiting your decision this very afternoon.’
Rhan had raised her eyes at the way Roger missed out female celebrities such as Helen Glover or Heather Stanning, but then smiled as she perceived Roger’s cunning half-truth and the arguments for more details started again.
‘It’s chaos down in the boathouse below as well,’ George informed Rhan in a low voice, once he had also given up listening. ‘The two Eights are all hanging around squabbling, and the Women’s Eight have started to arrive and are delaying their session to see the action. Poor Richard is trying to get everyone to be patient. Are you all right? What’re you doing with that list?’ Rhan had drawn arrows on an envelope; she now ripped it in two, and started copying her scribbles into a second list while George returned to eavesdropping.
‘I can’t believe the college has a celebrity rower and no one knew!’ A strident voice could be heard in the background. ‘How come? Does even the college captain know?’ George and Rhan couldn’t help but wait for the reply from Roger. George’s brow was furrowed in confusion. Rhan held her breath.
‘Modesty is one answer, but I’m afraid that your college is the butt of much humour in rowing circles – to have an outstanding asset that you don’t even know about. I have a text here from Dumas, the university president. He says…’
Rhan drew breath as she heard Roger gain control again. She grabbed George by the tracksuit bottoms, which he was wearing with his rugby top over his rowing vest.
‘Come with me!’ she ordered him in an imperial yet mysterious whisper that she hardly recognised herself. He followed her obediently and curiously into the empty women’s changing room, where she closed and locked the door. ‘I need your vest and shorts!’ she demanded, without clarifying the issue to the perplexed young man.
‘No way!’ he protested. ‘I might be selected.’ He looked at her unenthusiastic face and added, ‘OK, it’s only an outside chance, but why not?’
‘Look, you are better than some of the current First Eight already.’ Rhan made the effort to be positive. ‘But I am afraid you will not be in the new First Eight this year. Trust me.’ She began undressing, leaving her headscarf in place. He watched in confusion and surprise, but slowly started to copy.
‘I don’t understand’ he gasped distractedly. ‘What is going on Rhan? You know the coach…what’s his name, Robert?’
‘Roger. Yes, he’s been my coach at the holiday training camps since before Christmas. Look, I’m sorry that I have not let you know how I got on – it seemed like bragging and you never asked about my progress.’
‘Fucking hell! Is this all about you?’ George asked, and then answered his own questions without feedback from Rhan. ‘They were talking about you! Roger thinks you’re going to be a famous rower and in the Men’s Eight! My God, is that possible? I suppose…well yes, you will be instantly famous.
‘So that paper and the list – is that the crew? And that’s how Roger knows who to pick without Richard – you’ve been coxing them all. This is amazing – and I had no idea. You’re bloody amazing! I hope you, or Roger, can carry this off.’
‘Oh, Roger always manages to pull off the impossible,’ Rhan replied as she wrapped her long coat over singlet and shorts while George pulled his tracksuit back on. ‘He enjoys starting with a losing hand.’ She slipped out of the changing room, followed at a discreet distance by George, but they could not completely escape back down to the boathouse. Roger was talking to Richard at the top of the stairs and, without looking at her or exchanging a word, Roger held out his hand towards Rhan, who placed the tattered half envelope in it. At the same time, she relieved him of his tweed cap. He looked down at the list, ignoring the loss of hat.
‘Richard Dix! Thank God, you’re on the list,’ the coach affirmed. ‘You clearly merit a place. Well done! Here, what do you think of the rest? I’m hoping you’ll endorse it.’
Richard looked at Rhan in surprise and embarrassment. Roger was not even pretending to have selected the crew. Richard read quickly through it. He looked at Rhan again and went through the list a second time, shaking or nodding his head.
‘Great, but will James and DT cross from the Schools’ crew? Are you sure of these chaps? DT’s in his fourth year and was in France last year, so I’ve never even seen him row. James is by far the best rower in the college and was my predecessor as captain last year with two years’ experience in the First Eight, but he refused a place this year.’
‘Everyone in the Schools’ Eight has just agreed,’ Roger confirmed.
‘God, well done!’
‘So, you’ve taken Danny and Gareth Wright from the rugby crew, allowing me to move to Number 3. It may give us extra strength, but these are new, untested rowers; Danny has only been in a shell a few times, although Gareth rowed last year and perhaps even the year before.’ The coach raised an eyebrow, which managed to suggest that he had no desire to mention the surprises from the practice starts of half an hour ago. Richard clearly received the message because he continued on a different tack, in a slightly aggrieved tone.
‘It’s clear that Rhan here has done a great job coaching the Rugby Eight, and she has coxed all these boats, but she’s only coxed us once, so this is a hell of a leap in the dark.’ The coach again made no reply, so with a sigh, Richard continued with the list. ‘She has brought in one person from the Second Eight, and has left just two of the current First Eight, plus Kim as cox. I presume Jeff Carpenter stays as stroke? His name is missing and the stroke slot is empty. You’ve worked with us for a week now…I don’t understand.’
Roger rubbed the side of his nose and in an apologetic tone finally took some responsibility.
‘I’ve seen your crew on the water three times, and I’m afraid we need this radical shake-up, and you know it too. I asked Rhan here to select the ideal college crew, but the choice of stroke is mine alone.’ Roger grabbed the list and added a name. He looked up saying, ‘Bar, or Rhan as you call her, will stroke.’
‘You’re joking? I didn’t even know she was a rower. No! No way! This is crazy. Sorry Rhan, you….we will be a laughing stock and we’ll be disqualified.’
Roger chose his moment to become serious.
‘Sorry Richard, I’ve just been telling the Schools’ Eight that I can’t start coaching a whole crew in such a short time, but I may be able to teach seven of you to follow the stroke. Now I’ve coached Bar here for six months already. I also told the Schools’ Eight that you’re already a laughing stock for not making use of one of the university’s best rowers.’
Rhan at last plucked up the courage to look back at George, who was smiling and soaking up the conversation. He used the slight pause to help Richard with the news.
‘Richard, she’s bloody good – I saw her race last term. I’m afraid Roger may be right about you being the last university college captain to know about her. I was told to keep it quiet.’ While the bemused captain blinked slowly, trying to comprehend the news, Roger, ignoring George’s contribution, continued on a more aggressive tack.
‘You and your four men’s boats have all agreed to my demand for a new crew. If you don’t agree to my choice, just because I select a girl, my job is at an end. Bar is far too strong to ever row with your Women’s Eight. Rejecting her will mark you as a misogynist, and you can wave goodbye to a normal career in any industry once the press waiting outside get the story. Rhan has a very influential following at both university and national levels. She is without doubt the best person to take control of the boat while it’s on the water, and…’
Roger stopped mid-sentence as they heard footsteps on the stairs. Jeff, the lanky ex-stroke, stuck his head around the corner.
‘Richard. Alice says there are a load of men and women rowing Blues outside the boathouse, including both presidents! What’s going on?’ Jeff looked with puzzlement at Rhan and George standing beyond. Roger nodded, acknowledging that he expected the news.
‘Good. Thanks for letting me know Jeff,’ Richard responded without surprise or encouragement.
The former stroke headed off, obviously disappointed that he was not to be involved with helping Richard select the crew.
‘I sent a few texts,’ Roger confessed. ‘Some of Rhan’s friends among the university rowers are dropping by to see her stroke the Men’s First Eight. That should prevent any committee from throwing the rulebook at you. Your only real choice now is to take the credit and become a hero. Even if my ploy fails in seven weeks’ time, you will still get the credit, with little blame. Otherwise, you can sack me and start again. I think you have only one easy option – just see what happens.’
Richard shook his head and exhaled. ‘As you say, I have no choice, so I heartily agree. I can’t really take this in, but it’s going to be interesting! Shall I go and make the announcements?’
‘Yes, good idea,’ Roger agreed. ‘I suggest that the new First Eight should have a quick half-hour on the water immediately to see how things pan out, if that’s OK. I’ll wait just outside. You can direct the selected members to join me, but give me ten minutes, if you can.’
Richard walked slowly down the stairs into the boathouse holding the list, and everyone fell silent. Rhan, her hair now just tucked into Roger’s cap, sat down in her buttoned-up coat beside George on one of the top stairs to listen to Richard. They were sitting at the rear end of the crowded boathouse. She sent a text while Richard spoke.
‘I’d like to start by thanking the First Eight for their hard work over the previous two terms and I apologise in advance for the disappointment that many of you will feel at this revised crew. We didn’t do well at Torpids and we need fresh blood to challenge at Summer Eights. Without exception, all of our competitors in the top division boats will field stronger crews than last term’s Torpids, with the addition of their university rowers for Summer Eights. So, as I think many of you have already guessed, we are going to take drastic steps and trust our new coach.
‘As I call your name, please collect your oar from the boatman, Pat, and wait at the door. We’ll have a thirty-minute trial for the new First Eight crew.
‘Number 1, in the bow is David Turner, commonly known as DT.’ There was stunned silence. Furrowed eyebrows and slight shakes of the head indicated that they had never heard of him.
‘Blimey!’ gasped DT himself, who in some surprise climbed to his feet from the steps below Rhan and George and rushed through the ranks of the much taller rowers to be handed the Number 1 oar.
‘Good choice!’ one of the Schools’ Eight called out.
‘Yes, well spotted!’ another voice echoed, which made Rhan nudge George with pride in her unlikely selection. DT collected his oar from the boatman and stood by the large doors, watching to see who would join him.
‘A light bowman to match a light stroke. Seems clever,’ was George’s response. ‘Who are you texting at such a time?’
‘My friend Claire from Gloucester Hall, and Esther,’ Rhan replied in a whisper as the captain prepared to make the next announcement. ‘Claire sort of predicted that Roger would find a use for me, so I had to let her know.’ Rhan decided not to namedrop about Esther, the lady president.
‘Number 2 is Danny the mad Cornishman, who strides in from the Rugby Eight,’ Richard continued.
‘Whoor!’ yelled a voice from below that could only have been Danny in surprise and delight, matched by an enormous hearty roar of approval from his former team mates, and a deafening ‘Yeah!’ from George beside her. There were a few negative murmurs.
‘But he’s only been in a boat for a few weeks. How can that be right?’ was the loudest complaint from someone in the Second Eight. Comments fell away when the captain began to give more details.
‘I am very pleased to say that I’ve been selected to be at Number 3. Kim McMahon, you are retained as cox, so please collect my oar for me.’
During the polite clapping, Rhan showed George her phone with a questioning expression over a reply text from Esther, which read, “I know x6!”
‘I guess it means you are the sixth person to tell her,’ whispered George. ‘The news has spread! Is she from Gloucester Hall too?’
Rhan just shook her head slightly.
‘Number 4 is Iain Baker, who will transfer from his position as stroke in the Second Eight,’ Roger continued. The lanky, self-conscious Iain was also surprised at his call-up as he edged his way through the politely clapping throng.
‘Oh bugger, they’ve nicked our stroke!’ a Second Eight crew member below them moaned.
‘Well done Iain!’ some of his more generous former crew called out.
‘Number 5 is another who has kept his First Eight place – Lucas Bamber, who moves forward from his old place at 7.’
There were several exhalations and exclamations at the implications of this major shift in the boat positions for one of the strongest in the old crew. Polite clapping mainly came from his former First Eight colleagues, who now realised how few places were left for them.
‘Number 6, in the engine room, we have a second oarsman from the Rugby Eight, Gareth Wright!’ Richard was beginning to enjoy his role. Several of the girls, alongside the rugby players, gave the inevitable cries of approval.
‘So does that mean Jeff Carpenter or the Schools’ chap is stroke?’ someone asked at the bottom of the stairs. Rhan glanced down at Jeff, who was leaning confidently against a pillar. Had no one told him of Roger’s promise of a new stroke?
‘Number 7, returning to the First Eight for the third year running and the second person from the Schools’ Eight, is James Nicholson.’
James nodded and moved forward, evidently expecting his recall. No one could argue against his strength and experience.
There was general relaxation as the remaining rowers realised that the selection was all over for them.
‘Where’s Roger? He’s not back!’ a surprised and slightly worried George informed Rhan. ‘He didn’t even stay to watch his new crew being picked.’
‘He will be manipulating other people into managing the next scenes,’ Rhan explained calmly, before half-murmuring to herself, ‘I suppose that means I need to give him more time.’
‘Then we come to Number 8, stroke, the key position!’ the captain continued, building up the tempo and volume of his voice against fading interest. ‘Here we have the biggest surprise yet!’
Jeff Carpenter stopped still, just as he was moving clear of the column. Rhan noted that a shadow seemed to pass over his face as he leant heavily against the steel stanchion again. Perhaps he did know, she thought. There was a long pause. Everyone was looking round trying to think who had been overlooked.
‘So who’s the Blue international?’ one of the exasperated Schools’ Eight asked. ‘Who is it?’
Rhan retained her position on the step beside George, who murmured, ‘Oh my God, Rhan!’
‘The name I have from the coach for stroke is Rhan Arken.’ There was stunned silence. The exclamations began slowly.
‘And a fresher!’
‘Does she even row?’
‘It won’t be allowed! We’ll be thrown off the river!’
All were now looking round for her. Rhan was still sitting at the top of the stairs, but now stood up slowly, her coat still wrapped around her. There were comments, but no clapping or cheers as she descended. She walked, barefoot, down the boathouse towards Pat, the boatman, who stood open-mouthed listening to the mumblings.
‘Rhan? She’s just the Rugby cox isn’t she?’
‘A woman in the men’s team!’
‘What does she know about stroke?’
‘She’s that one who’s always banging on about climate change!’
Halfway down the boathouse stood Alice. The lady captain’s unmistakably shrill voice cut through the noise, aimed at Richard, her fellow captain, who made no attempt to reply. ‘This is impossible! She can’t row; she wrecked the balance of our boat and used the excuse of a broken oar for pathetic effort.’
James, the former captain, deliberately placed his oar against the wall in protest. ‘That’s not what we were promised! We were misled,’ he complained.
‘She’s only started to row in the last few months,’ Alice continued, arms now crossed. ‘She wasn’t good enough for our college, so I let her row for another college in Torpids last term. And now, someone’s suggested she should row in the Men’s Eight instead of Jeff. This is madness!’
There was an awkward silence as Rhan came to a stop in front of Alice.
‘And yet, Alice,’ George’s voice boomed, ‘even I didn’t know about the training she’s been getting. She bumped your boat from top of the division clear to the bottom!’ No one was surprised to hear George standing up for his workmate, but his news shocked Alice.
‘You were in that boat that bumped us on the last day?’ Alice demanded of Rhan, outraged. ‘You were meant to be in the novice division.’
‘Sorry Alice, we climbed quickly.’ Rhan spoke for the first time, smiling slightly. She appeared totally composed and unaffected by Alice’s hostility. She nonchalantly slipped off her long black coat, and hung it on a boat rack. Most of her college had never seen her without a coat before, never mind with her hair tucked up into a tweed cap instead of the usual headscarf. Alice’s brow furrowed and she fell silent, taking a step backward to look up at Rhan. The “pathetic” rower now stood tall and continued to walk slowly up to the boatman in just her borrowed cap, rowing vest and shorts.
‘Just look at those shoulders!’ someone blurted.
‘You wouldn’t want to argue with her!’ came another voice.
The stocky boatman, holding the final oar close to his chest, stood gawping up at Rhan. She held out a single arm at a right angle to her body and took the heavy blade in her outstretched hand. There was a flash from a camera, followed by several more from outsiders looking in through the semi-closed sets of bifold doors. Rhan stood, weighing up the beautifully shiny carbon-fibre shaft of the blade. ‘Are you sure I won’t snap this one as well, Pat?’ Rhan asked wryly.
He looked up at her foolishly as she stood still, her arm muscles tense with the weight of the blade.
‘Blimey, so you did fracture that ladies’ shaft! I only gave it a quick look. Number 1 wasn’t it? Well, you won’t break this one…I don’t think so,’ he added less certainly, glancing at Rhan and then resentfully at Alice, before immediately scuttling across the boathouse to look for the broken oar.
Alice’s distinctive voice interrupted again with a different accusation.
‘God! Are you Bar? They’re out there waiting for you! You sometimes stroke for the Women’s Blue boat. No wonder you bumped us! We didn’t stand a chance. You must’ve been stroking for that boat which set a ridiculous record for jumping three divisions in one Torpids week!’
Rhan turned, placing the shaft handle of the oar to the ground so she could look back to the ladies’ captain. She was still wearing a wry smile, which gave Alice the confidence to move on quickly, without waiting for confirmation.
‘Oh my God Rhan! You are Bar!’ Alice screamed excitedly. ‘And in our college!’ Once again, she had an audience hanging on to her every word as she tried to make sense of the baffling revelation.
‘They say you passed up a Blue this year, just to help Esther, the president, with a mutiny. Yet you’d already proved that you were the best stroke! And you’re training with the National squad! You’re going to be a nomination for the university lady president next year – and you’re in our college. This is amazing!’
‘I am not sure all of that is completely true,’ Rhan responded in a bizarre conversational tone. She noted that James had surreptitiously picked up his oar again.
There were several phones out now, taking photos and videos. Alice, however, was still thinking out loud and showing off her knowledge of who’s who.
‘You’re a member of Pinks, the top university sports club, so…oh God, I’m sorry, how embarrassing!’ Alice blushed, obviously recalling incidents from the garden party, but she struggled on. ‘Hey, this is history. You, stroking a men’s crew. Well done Richard – good move. I was chatting to several Blues out there. Esther and Dumas, the presidents, were working on something; it could only have been press releases. This is amazing!’
Rhan lifted her eyebrows and nodded her thanks to Alice for the news. On turning again, she saw a relaxed Roger now waiting by the door.
‘Right, crew!’ Roger took charge. ‘As you may know, there is quite a crowd out there. They include the press, and a TV van is just arriving, so I’m afraid that it’s going to be a very public first trial. I told you that you’d be famous.’ He aimed the last comment at James, who nodded his acceptance.
‘Don’t stop for interviews now, but Richard and Rhan, you’ll need to say a few words on your return.’
Roger then added a few rowing instructions. Rhan recognised his clever means to boost confidence among the nervous new crew members for their first outing in the frighteningly superior First shell. He also made it clear to all that while they were on the water, Rhan rather than Richard had the lead.
‘OK stroke, I want off in twenty-five to the turn, back at thirty-five for a row-past, and I’ll see you down the river. Your sharp, snappy, simple style, OK? Everyone else simply has to follow stroke and pull hard, crisp, slow strokes. You must all be good strong rowers – or you wouldn’t have been on that list. So be confident and pull through hard! We can sort style out later.
‘Now to get to the boat…Richard, I presume that you’ll want the cox leading the crew down in ascending order, but I suggest you bring up the rear with Number 8. So, lead on cox, slowly!’
When Rhan stepped outside, there were two well-ordered lines of around a dozen men and women forming a corridor from the boathouse down the sloping concrete apron to the steps and the floating pontoon. On either side were puzzled students, along with a large party of Asian tourists who were all milling around, looking for entertainment.
The cox and DT were already waiting by the boat when Rhan and Richard, carrying their oars vertically, started down the human tunnel. Rhan was shocked to realise that the lines were made up entirely from the four sets of crews and reserves of the male and female university crew members. There was a photographer with a huge camera, and she spotted the same reporter who had been down in London on the stormy banks of the Thames for the trials.
Despite Alice’s warning about the reception, Rhan was slightly overcome at seeing Dumas close by. She could say nothing – but then neither could he. She simply kissed him on the cheek as he stood at the head of one line. Dumas patted Richard’s shoulder, giving himself time to recover sufficiently to say in a hoarse voice, ‘Nice try Richard, but even with Bar, there’s no way you’re going to bump us. We’ll leave you standing!’
‘Come on Bar, if Dumas gets a kiss, I want one too!’ complained Joe, the university stroke at the end of the other line, whom Rhan had started to walk past. ‘Sorry Richard, but Pip and I will be in the boat behind you, so if you can’t catch Dumas’ college – well I’m afraid we’ll ruin your historic day by bumping you down!’
Rhan and Richard had to progress down both lines, respectively receiving congratulations and bombastic threats. Richard soon enjoyed rebuffing the threats, once he overcame the surprise that his name was already well known.
Rhan heard one of the male student onlookers ask, ‘What’s the fuss?’
Another voice answered. ‘See that girl, that’s Bar. She’s going to be stroking a men’s eight in the top division at the end of this term.’
‘So what? It’s hardly a big deal is it?’
‘Oh yes it is!’ a female voice contradicted him.
The crowd had thickened and Rhan could see that members of her own college had now reinforced the sides of the corridor. With her shrill voice, Alice – now Rhan’s biggest fan – was very recognisable. Friends and rivals from neighbouring boathouses wanted to see the transformation of the boat, and the growing weekend crowd distracted crews out on the river and attracted tourists from along the riverside in ever-swelling numbers.
Rhan and Richard had almost reached the floating pontoon when an explosion of noise reached them from the other side of the river. A well-orchestrated group on the far bank were shouting and screaming. Other students were converging on that side as well to see what they were missing. The sound evolved to a chanting of, ‘Bar, Bar, go! Bar, Bar, go!’ Rhan waved back, not really knowing how many of her old Gloucester crew were over there, but recognising the outline of some her tallest friends.
‘God, Claire’s got a noisy mob!’ Esther complained with a smile at the river end of the line. ‘Good luck Rhan, keep it simple. I don’t want to make matters worse for you, but they’ve set up at least one TV camera and I’m due to be interviewed – “The emergence of women in the historic universities”. It could make the news, here and abroad.’
‘Excuse me madam president.’ The sports reporter was still wearing the same long raincoat, which had been so essential last time Rhan had seen him. ‘Can I have just a few words with the new star?’
‘Fine Ben,’ Esther yielded as she stepped back so that the reporter could get closer to Rhan, who was sitting low in the water fixing her oar into its gate.
‘I’ve done a bit of research since Esther and everyone else managed to keep you and your role hidden at the mutinous January storms. I’m beginning to appreciate now why none of the experienced international rowers was inclined to mention the contribution of an upstart novice at stroke, even if you did have expertise in rough water. My first question is, are you to be called Bar or Rhan? Please tell me something about yourself.’
Rhan, now fixing her feet into the oversized shoes, glanced up at the man standing over her. A chain of college and university rowers were keeping others back, so only the reporter had been allowed to step down off the concrete steps and onto the timber pontoon while the boat was prepared. There were occasional slaps as waves on the river washed against the floating mooring. She knew that several rowers in the crew would be finding this superior shell an intimidating experience, but she told herself that she had messed around in an even more superior craft during the university seat trials. She could relax. She made herself breathe. This was her show.
‘Bar is a nickname,’ Rhan responded, noting that several devices were pointing in her direction. She looked around, but returned to the matters in hand once she had spotted George standing nearby. He appeared proud, but mesmerised by the spectacle. ‘I was born and live in Sunderland, but was brought up in Aleppo. I am now a student of engineering here in Oxford. I gather that I have the honour of being the first woman to row in a college first eight.’
‘Will that be allowed, if it’s a men’s boat?’ the reporter asked, pointing his device towards himself to catch the question, then back at Rhan.
‘For the good of the college, I am happy to accept the position. I hope that any rule against women will be quickly set aside. I am keen on the publicity to highlight the impact that global warming will have on my generation. The …’
‘Can I ask about your inclusion in the trials for the National starter team after only a few months of rowing?’ the reporter interrupted.
‘I can hardly fill the shoes of my predecessor here for the college,’ she declared, pointing at her feet and smiling as she thought of an answer. ‘Let’s say my concern over global warming is driving me as far as I can go, just so I can have interviews such as this. The main issue is that I row against four by forty.’
The journalist looked gratifyingly baffled at this new technical term, but his interest allowed Rhan to continue.
‘I want to publicise the dreadful risks that my generation face if the older generation do not take real measures to avoid 4° of warming by 2040. I suggest you look at what that would mean to your pension, your family, your mortgage, your retirement and your children and grandchildren.’
She saw his eyes widen.
‘This is going to be fun,’ she suggested, smiling.
He smiled back uncertainly and muttered, ‘Fascinating!’ as he retreated up the steps.
Rhan was ready, but others were still making adjustments. There was still much sorting out behind her as James was having trouble with adjustments after swapping shoes; he was being helped by Pat, the boatman, and supervised by Roger, who was obviously anxious to be off.
Rhan looked up and spotted the curly head of her friend Tom above the crowd of onlookers and rowers behind George. It was the first time she had seen Tom this term and the first time she had ever seen him down at the river. She flicked her head upwards and smiled. Several on the riverbank turned to see who had the attention of the new star. This gave an opportunity for a striking young lady wearing wire-framed glasses to push forward from beside Tom to the edge of the pontoon near George.
‘Hello Miss Rhan,’ she said. ‘Congratulations! I am Temi from Somerville College.’ Her impressive and enthusiastic voice was heard easily across the pontoon, despite the background noise. ‘My friend Tom says you might give me an interview. I freelance for several outlets.’
‘Definitely!’ Rhan called back. ‘Just talk to Tom and George to arrange it.’ Then, glancing at the reporter and onlookers who were videoing the scene, she called out, ‘I would be pleased to give any interviews, so long as climate change gets a mention.’
Temi nodded her thanks, but then added a question that appeared more personal.
‘Is it true that Eritrea will be in real trouble?’ she asked. ‘That is where I am from.’
‘Yes! Most likely,’ Rhan responded almost straight away. ‘Sorry, every country needs to face the fact that we are facing major irreversible heating, and I would think Eritrea will be particularly bad…although some parts of East Africa are due to get heavy monsoons for a while, I believe.’
‘So Greta the Scandinavian schoolgirl is right to warn us then?’ Temi called back.
‘I have not yet heard of any Greta,’ Rhan admitted, even as she saw her coach stand clear at last. ‘But any warning sounds right.’ She nodded to Temi and smiled at Tom before turning her attention to the cox.
The cox, seeing signals from Roger, sat up and took control. Rhan was soon out on the river, removed from reporters, the crowd, and civilisation – connected only by a refreshing, light breeze. She now focused on how fast and far others in the unfamiliar boat should be reaching forward to replicate her movements as they dropped their blades into the calm, cool water.