The boat rocked and I stepped in. The young man from the hire place held it as steady as he could with his Oxfordshire-cultured foot. Madeline was already sat on the cross bench eager to get hold of the oars. It might have been cloudy but it was still so hot and sticky even sat at river level, no breeze at all. He pushed our boat out with a kick and asked, “Have you rowed before?”
“Not for a long time.” I said trying to reassure him we would definitely bring the hired boat back.
I juggled the oars with each hand.
“Push them into the rubber.” he said loudly as we drifted away.
“I got it.”, I shouted as I locked the oars in place and struggled to get us out into the river busy with professional rowers, motor boats and large river cruisers.
“Keep to the right.” he shouted before making his way back to the rest of the numerous and considerably young hire team of boys-nearly men that sat for most of the day chatting on the waters edge with a rental book and a tin box for change.
Madeline is my best friend, and ex-girl friend, from several years ago. We only ended it because of circumstance. That circumstance being Madeline needing a man and me not wanting to be one. We had waited as long as we could but I couldn’t make a decision based on a dead line and being nine years into a relationship made it ever so much more difficult. We tried again a couple of times but I couldn’t give that one thing she wanted and so she moved on, she married, she divorced and, well, I didn’t. We still remain best friends with a connection which makes times like these so special. Every few months we might meet up and find something fun to do and take away the depression of every day life that even anti-depression medication can’t resolve.
Madeline wanted to row the river in this classical Oxford setting for a few years but either the weather had beaten us or getting a date we both had free had failed. Today though was the Saturday we could do. The isobars had aligned as had our bank accounts and so we fumbled with the oars down the river making a spectacle of ourselves and Madeline wanting to sing that Bridget Jones scene of “There once was a woman from ealing.” which raised a few eye-browse from some of the millionaires sat in chairs in their private grounds that decorate the riverbank.
The fresh water river glistened and twinkled on the little waves whenever the sun broke through the haze drenched clouds enhanced by the wake of small motor boats passing by. Our progress was slow but calm and peaceful, if a little frantic at times of panic when we drifted, until got the hang of it. We coasted gently under the stone bridge that joins traffic for the two halves of the town torn in two by the river. We shouted loudly creating reverberating echoes in the arches of the bridge for the fun of it.
“Let me row. I want to give it a go, I know I’ll be crap.”
“Got it?” I said as I passed the oars over to Maddie. She fumbled with the oars in the water awkwardly much as I had.
“Which way do I push?”
“Well it’s not that way is it.” I said. Maddie now confused, “We’re going backwards.”
She laughed and concentrated hard to co-ordinated both oars in the right direction and once again we were off.
We were overtaken by nearly everything that was buoyant from yachts to river cruise boats and possibly even a goose at one point. A little motor boat with three young men approached alongside us, the small outboard motor on the back buzzing to high heaven making only a little more progress than us. Madeline shouted over in defence, “Don’t worry about us. We’re rubbish at this.” They glistened back at us with large smiles of brilliant white teeth and replied to Madeline. I, on the other hand, had missed the conversation because I’d taken the oars from Maddie to stop us crashing into a pontoon jettie. They motored on under taking us much like a snail passing a slug.
“I think those lads thought you were a girl.” she said to me as Maddie turned her attention to the oars again.
“Really? I don’t think so.” I said, thinking about how much stubble must have grown by that time of the afternoon.
“It was the way they were looking at us. I’m pretty sure.”
There was a glimmer of a smile from me as I felt that rare feeling of acceptance and happiness inside that seems to happen more when I’m not made-up or obviously dressed to pass with something that is unmistakably female like a skirt or something. I worry at these times that Maddie might feel a bit uncomfortable about it but today she didn’t. When it’s someone else thinking I’m a woman she seems to be fine, it’s only when she sees it that I think it makes her feel a little sad inside, I see it in her eyes. Today it didn’t though and it kinda made my day on top of what was already a good day.
When our blisters were suitably matched and the afternoon of rowing ended we parked ourselves on a wall in a small square by the river to eat an ice cream. People of different cultures, italians, spanish and indians had parked themselves on the nearby benches to do much the same as us soaking up the laziness of a humid Saturday afternoon. Blurry droplets of light danced on the grass when a new breeze caught the high branches of the trees providing the shade.
I came to the end of my ice cream; Maddie was just clutching the soggy remains of a, now flattened, empty Cornetto wrapper with little fibrous edges where she’d inadvertently bitten through some of the packaging.
“You’re the one who’s slow.” she said smiling, “Hurry up!”
“Shall we take a walk down the river bank before we go back.”
“Help me down off the wall.”
I jumped off the wall where we’d sat and put my arms up. Still sat down she pushed herself off the wall but as I grabbed her she flung her legs around me and giggled at my unexpected shock. I’d felt something that I’d not felt in the years since we’d broken up. A simple hug but filled with warmth, attraction and love. It was brief and before long we were walking down the riverbank. My mind revisited the hug several times. I had to let it go. It was a pandora’s box that couldn’t be opened to spare both our feelings. Did she feel it too? I don’t know, I doubt it and there have been occasions in the past where I’d not felt that. That was the concern for me. It would be a drama with a sad foreseeable ending and so I had to put the thought away and forget about it and enjoy the rest of the day for what it was.
Early evening we headed back home in the car. Large rain drops exploded on the wind screen as we left the county signalling the perfect time that we could leave the party of this wonderful day with lovely memories and a reflection of feelings from the past.
Until next time.