The sun shone. Dragonflies busked and hummed in the willows over the Cherwell. The bottle of champagne in the bottom of the punt clanked gently against the glasses. And Roger Harvey, brows furrowed in concentration and with water running freely down the inside of his sleeve towards his armpit, laboured on the till of the vessel with the punt pole as they zigzagged from one side of the river to the other.
Why in God’s name had he thought a day trip to Oxford would be just the thing to close the deal with Davinia? Contrary to what he’d told her during his campaign of after-work drinks, he did not have a double first in Greats from Christ Church. In fact, he’d only been to Oxford once – to pick up a wardrobe he’d bought on eBay. But it had struck him in a moment of drunken inspiration that this pretty northern girl, with her blonde hair and senior position in the marketing department, would be less impressed by a suitor with a geography degree from Newcastle. So the fiction had taken wing. And, goodness, she’d seemed impressed.
He’d been nervous about suggesting the trip – after all, a day out together was a bit more of a proposition than a casual Pinot Grigio at the Rose & Crown. But she’d said yes with enthusiasm.
He’d been doing his homework for weeks – and up until now it had gone well. He’d walked her down what he was careful to call “The High”. He had shown her the Bodleian Library and alluded knowingly to “dreaming spires”, May Morning and Inspector Morse. He’d shown her what he gathered from Google was called Tom Tower and invented a Rag Week prank involving a traffic cone. “Oooh,” she had said. “Aaah,” she had said.
And then, suddenly, when they’d been passing over a bridge, she’d seen some little twerp in a boater cruising past in a punt. She’d grabbed him by the hand and given a little squeak. “Oh, please let’s.” Mesmerised by the fact that – progress! – she was holding his hand, he had allowed himself to be led to the little hire place by the water’s edge. “Now, I should warn you that I may be a bit rusty.” Still, he’d thought, how hard could it be?
Pretty bloody hard, it turned out. Davinia seemed to be enjoying herself, though. She’d drunk most of the champagne and was giggling and calling encouragement. She was even taking photographs of him on her phone. But was she giggling with him? Or, was – Uurgh! – she – Mud! – actually – Weeds! – giggling – Damn this current! – at him?
It was just as he was contemplating this disagreeable possibility that the pole – which had been a fickle ally all along – turned on him entirely. It found some sort of crack in the riverbed and wedged itself firmly in, just as Roger gave a heave. The punt sailed out from under his feet and for a dread moment he found himself hanging off the pole, in midstream, before his weight caused it gradually to topple over and dump him in the drink.
Splashing, spluttering and thoroughly humiliated, Roger waded over through the chest-high water, dragging the pole with him, to where the punt had come to rest in some reeds. He clambered back in.
“Oh. My. God,” said a laughing Davinia, returning her phone to her handbag and moving it well clear of her dripping companion. “This is going to go viral on YouTube.” YouTube. For a man already coming to terms, internally, with the phrases “Weil’s disease” and “fat chance of any nookie now”, this was an added blow of unusual cruelty.
“Can I have a go?” Davinia asked brightly, grabbing the pole from him. Defeated, Roger sat down soggily. Davinia kicked off her high heels and trotted to the back of the punt, sure-footed as a mountain goat. With a sharp flick of her well-toned arms, she threw the pole upwards, then bore down on it with both hands. The punt left the shallows in a straight line and at some speed.
“It’s in Cambridge that they punt from the till,” she said sweetly. “Makes it harder to steer, if you ask me. But you didn’t half have a good go, I must say.” The punt purred through the water.
Roger gaped. “You’re very…” He watched as her arms flew up and down without effort. Drops of water arced brightly from the pole as it leapt from the water. He tried again. “I mean, you…”
“I did my MBA round the corner at St Hilda’s,” she said coyly. “I just fancied spending the day with you.”