“Jolly boating weather, And a hay harvest breeze, Blade on the feather, Shade off the trees.” As Eton’s Boating Song rose into the balmy air, Herman Chang’s parents swelled with pride over their son’s role in the Procession of Boats at the elite Berkshire school’s Fourth of June.
Eton’s revered annual open day was a positive festival of social one-upmanship and parental pride. While the boys’ families idled showily on the riverbank, picnicking on Krug, smoked salmon and strawberries and cream, the school’s rowing teams provided the entertainment.
They descended the river in procession. As they passed the spectators, the oarsmen of each slender boat would stand up and lift their oars to the vertical – making the whole boat extremely unstable. Once they’d achieved verticality without calamity, they would go one further, removing their flower-festooned straw boaters and agitating them so that the flowers fell beautifully and poignantly onto the water.
In this, his final year – to the utter delight of Jun and Greta Chang – Herman was the Ninth Man in the Monarch: effectively, head boy for rowing and the star of the day. It hadn’t been easy. Ben Harris, who now captained the boat following, was Herman’s bitter rival. Scion of a three‑generation family of Old Etonians, Ben had made unpleasant intimations about how things might go for Herman now he had, as Ben saw it, pinched his place in the hallowed Monarch.
“You’re going to make a big splash, Chang,” he’d said, laughing oafishly. Herman had taken it seriously. Greta had taken it seriously too. As the Monarch carved through the river towards the bend where the spectators were waiting, a precaution was waiting. The Changs hadn’t made the family pile in reinsurance for nothing.
That precaution, lurking under the water, was called Dave. And Dave, an ex-special forces frogman who had spent most of his career defusing underwater mines, was keenly aware of the absurdity of his situation. Still, the money was good and the likelihood of being blown up exceedingly low. And as the keel of the Monarch drifted slowly into view through the clear water, he realised that money wasn’t being spent in vain. From the reeds on the other side there emerged another frogman – smart gear, a professional.
Dave was across in a moment. The other frogman reached for the base of the Monarch and Dave grabbed his arm by the wrist. The two divers were mask to mask. Dave’s antagonist wriggled; Dave held firm. The Monarch was, after agonising moments, gone. Dave was eyeballing his rival. He recognised those eyes in the mask. “Polly?” he’d have said of his old friend, had he not had a mouthful of breathing equipment.
On the riverbank, two pitches up from the Changs, the Harrises – whose picnic was being served by their butler from the boot of their Bentley – watched the Monarch wobble, inwardly rejoiced and then exhaled with a mixture of bewilderment and outrage as all around them cheers and clapping rose. Flowers drifted and turned on the river. The boat vanished round a bend and the boys returned to their seats flushed with success. What, the Harrises wondered, were they paying for?
Around the bend came the eight captained by their precious Ben. They watched as he and his crew stood up. There was pride to be had in this, at least. The boat wobbled, but Ben was perfectly balanced. More applause. His arm brought the boater off his head in a wide, showy arc. He agitated it gently. The flowers of his fellow crewmen descended to the water. His stayed on. He shook harder. Nothing. The flowers wouldn’t fall. He started – since all eyes were on him – to shake harder still.
The boat wobbled and, rattled, the boy behind him overcorrected. Ben Harris went to the water with an enormous splash. A huge, ironic cheer went up.
“Young Herman was a credit to the school,” the vice provost said to the Changs when he bumped into them later. “Super day,” he added.
“Superglue,” said Jun. But he coughed as he said it and the vice provost, not wanting to be impolite, didn’t ask him to repeat himself.