Oxford, July 8 1940
It hurt him, this journey, it pained him, yet day after day he came back for more punishment. Every morning, whether the skies were dark with rain or, like today, lit by searing sunshine, James Zennor would be here on the water shortly after dawn, sculling alone on the Isis stretch of the Thames.
James loved these early mornings. The air smelled fresh, the sky was empty, everything was quiet. A family of moorhens puttered by the water’s edge, but even they made no sound as if, like him, they preferred to keep their counsel.
The boat was gliding now, James’s wrists flat and straight, the feathering motion — twisting the oars so that they entered the water vertically before slicing horizontally through the air — all but automatic. He gazed at the river ahead, sparkling as if jewelled by the sunlight. At moments like this, when the true exertion had only just begun, when the sky was blue and the breeze was as cool as a caress, he could almost forget what had happened to his ruined body. He could almost feel like the man he used to be.
Barring that one, fateful, year abroad, he had come to this same spot for a decade, ever since he had been an undergraduate, grateful for a place in his college team. He had even become the stroke for Oxford against Cambridge in a famously close boat race. But that was a long time ago. These days he was fighting only against himself.
He checked left and right but there was still no one else around. In term-time he might see some of the more ambitious crews on the water at this hour, readying for Torpids or Eights — younger men who reminded him of his younger self. James Zennor was not yet thirty. But he had been through enough that he felt twice that age.
He squinted upwards, enjoying the sensation of being dazzled, then returned his gaze to the job in hand. As his eyes adjusted, he could see the trees on the right-hand bank, shielding the path where he and Florence had so often walked, both before Harry was born and since. James liked bringing his son down here, fondly imagining he would fall in love with the river the way he had as a boy, just by being near to it. But in recent months Harry had become nervous, anxiously clinging to his mother’s hand if they inched too close to the water’s edge. But that would pass. James was sure of it. On a day like this, he felt that anything was possible.
He imagined how his son would look at this very moment. Still two months short of his third birthday, Harry would be fast asleep, one hand clutching Snowy, the little white polar bear who accompanied him to bed every night. Just the way James had seen him this morning before creeping out for his rowing practice. Whatever else he and Florence had been through, they had made a beautiful child together.
Now, as James reached Iffley Lock again and turned around, the inevitable happened. His left shoulder began to scream for attention. The pain was no less sharp for being familiar, both burning and piercing, as if he were being stabbed by several thick, white-hot needles. Each day would begin with the hope that this time it would be different, that the pain would come later, that it might not come at all. Today, with the weather so perfect, that hope had shone brighter than usual. But as he rowed towards Folly Bridge he knew nothing had changed.
James tried to focus on those brief, blissful half-seconds of relief, when the blades were up and out of the heavy water: the recovery before the drive. He tried to imagine the river’s coolness, the balmy, soothing effect it would have on his burning skin.
Each pull squeezed his lungs, his breaths coming as if they were the gasps of someone faraway; but his heart was as loud as the engine of a motor car revving too fast.
The boat scythed through the water, parting it silently, its bow lean and narrow. He knew that, viewed from the bank, the motion would look effortless. Team rowing, done well, always looked like that; human beings turned into a single, mighty machine, all their energies harnessed towards a single objective. If you had selected the right men, the strongest and best, the water seemed powerless to resist.
Single-sculls rarely looked so pleasing; a man on his own could not generate the same momentum or sense of order. James was certain his own rowing looked especially inelegant. His ruined left shoulder made sure of that. Fated now to be forever weaker than his right, his left arm could not keep up; perfect symmetry was out of reach. He pictured his boat zigzagging its way down the river, even though he had been told a dozen times that it did no such thing.
He gulped for oxygen, looking up as he did so. Folly Bridge was just visible in the distance. Once there, he would have rowed himself along the Isis stretch, to Iffley Lock and back, three times, a distance of four and a half miles. His body was demanding to stop; he had already done his usual morning circuit. But he could not help thinking about the men — his own age or younger — in combat on the continent, or the pilots preparing to defend the skies over England, giving their all for what the new prime minister had warned would be a ‘Battle of Britain’. With each stroke, he contemplated how feeble were his exertions compared to theirs, how if they could carry on doing their part, the least he could do…
But now the perennial shoulder pain suddenly sharpened as if something had splintered. He wondered if perhaps a shard of bone had cracked out of place. The agony was unspeakable.
James firmed his jaw against the pain. In a bid to distract himself, he forced his mind to recall what he had heard on the wireless last night. The main news remained Britain’s sinking of the French fleet in Algeria. Typical Churchill, that. Bold and brazen with it. Unlike that damned fool Chamberlain, Churchill understood there was no room for messing around, no time for niceties. Now that Paris had been conquered, France’s ships would fall into German hands. Better they were destroyed altogether. Not that the French saw it that way: they were furious, the recriminations still rumbling on.
His shoulder was sending shockwaves of hurt through him now. He refused to listen. What had come next? The BBC generally tried to begin the broadcast with something positive to offset the bad news that was to follow. What pill was the discussion of the sinking of the French fleet meant to sweeten last night? The agony tugged at his nerves, but he refused to succumb. That was it. The Channel Islands. Sark had surrendered to the Nazis, two days after Alderney: the Channel Islands were now entirely under German rule. The idea was shocking. He had never been there, but he had grown up on the English south coast knowing that Jersey was just a ferry ride away. The people there spoke English. In just the last few weeks the swastika had been raised over Norway, France, Belgium, Holland; and now a little corner of Britain. Hitler was getting closer.
James shipped the oars to let the boat drift on the unruffled water and let out what he thought was a gasp of relief. It was only when a flock of coots scattered wildly that he realized the sound he had made was a scream. A man on the towpath opposite turned suddenly and then, alarmed, walked briskly away.
James took himself to the bank, as close to the boathouse as he could manage, then hauled himself out onto dry land and braced for the most demanding moment in his morning routine. Bending low, he tugged at the loop of cord on the bow of the boat, to bring the scull out of the water and onto his good shoulder. One, two, three and, with a strain that made him want to howl, it was out and up. He staggered the few yards to the boathouse and dropped the scull into its rack.
Then he stood for a few seconds, catching his breath, gazing up at the sky. The glorious cornflower blue of it struck him as a kind of lie. The skies over Britain were becoming a battlefield, the air-raid sirens sounding in cities night after night. German planes had bombed Cardiff just a few nights ago. What right did they have now to look so peaceful?
James walked quickly past the college boathouses, one each for St John’s, Balliol, New and the others, all now locked up and empty. And though that owed more to the Long Vacation than to the war, he silently cursed his fate once again.
Reaching the post where he had left his bicycle, he threw one long leg over the saddle and began to pedal hard, savouring the kinetic change for his body after the relentless back-and-forth of the river. He pushed himself over the little bridge, as steeply arched as a rainbow, then across Christ Church meadow, noting both the grazing cows — who, since the onset of rationing, looked useful rather than merely decorative — and the patches that had