When he got to a place where the river opened out a bit, with grass on either side of the bank and buildings rising in the near distance like wedding cakes, he slowed down and lingered until Cynthia appeared. He held out a hand and helped her on to the boat, though she made it rock and wobble as she got in.
‘He’s going to be angry when he sees a boat missing!’ she said.
‘We’ll have it back before he even notices.’ He launched them away from the bank with a strong push.
‘Watch out!’ Another punt, full of what looked like students with their jackets of tweed, lay directly in their path. Robbie knew their type: the idle rich who bought the boats Robbie made and owned the boats Robbie sailed and who paid him to ferry them back and forth in his dinghy and to haul their boats out of the water every winter and sand and repair and varnish and paint. Sometimes they paid him to give them sailing lessons, though Robbie tried to avoid that when he could – unless they had a pretty daughter.
The man on the back of the other boat held up his punting pole as if he were going to fend Robbie’s boat off. The action made his boat wobble, and the passengers held on to the sides, even though there was little chance of such a wide-bottomed boat capsizing in totally calm waters.
Robbie put some strength into his steering and they veered safely to the side, missing the other boat by inches.
‘Tosser!’ yelled one of the tweed jackets and Robbie laughed. They were soon far ahead, gliding easily along the smooth, green river between smooth, green banks.
Cynthia had settled back into the boat, facing him so she was riding backward. ‘Do you like my nails?’ She waved her fingers at him. The nails were painted pink.
‘I got lipstick the same colour but you can’t really tell unless you hold them together.’ She put her fingers on her lips, pouting as if she were kissing them, and waited for him to appreciate her.
‘Perfect,’ said Robbie.
‘It’s the same one was in Vogue last week.’
She lowered her hand and looked around. ‘This is quite boring, though, isn’t it? Just sitting in a boat.’
‘It’s good practice for when I go to Venice.’ And he liked it: the green, almost ripe, scent of the water, the stately pace of the punt, the liquid dip of the pole and the ripple the drops made when he lifted it out of the water. It had a nice rhythm to it.
‘This doesn’t even go fast,’ Cynthia said.
‘Oh, I can make it go faster.’ He put more arms into it, pushed harder, enjoying the burn in his muscles.
Cynthia yawned. She trailed her fingers in the water, then evidently remembered her manicure and took them out again, wiping them on her dress.
They passed under another willow that caressed Robbie’s face with soft narrow leaves. He was just going to suggest they stopped the punt somewhere secluded for a little while so he could possibly show her something that wasn’t so boring, when he heard a female yelp of alarm.
Ahead of them, a punter had got her pole stuck in the mud and she’d held on while the boat went on without her. She clung to the pole in the centre of the river, her feet dabbling in the water.
The shriek hadn’t come from her; it was a young girl in the boat she’d left, kneeling in the bottom with her arms outstretched towards her suspended pilot. ‘Emily!’ she cried, drifting in slow motion with momentum and the current.
Robbie didn’t stop to think. ‘Try to catch the boat with the girl,’ he said to Cynthia, laying the pole down in the punt and immediately jumping off the back and into the river.
The water wasn’t cold, nor was it deep; he’d guess three and a half feet at the most, but it was quicker to swim. He reached the stranded girl on the pole in seconds and stood up, laughing, his arms outstretched and dripping. ‘Jump,’ he said, and she looked at him.
It was the girl from the station. The one with the blue eyes.
She stared at him as if she was trying to figure out if he were a figure of her imagination.
‘Jump,’ he told her again, ‘or you’ll get wet.’
She let go of the pole and slid into his arms. She was light; the fabric of her blouse was soft in his hand. Her body was warm and slender.
‘It’s you,’ she said.
‘What are you doing here?’
‘Rescuing you.’ He began wading towards the bank. The bottom of the river was very muddy; it crawled into his shoes and made walking difficult. He couldn’t have cared less.
‘The pole got stuck,’ she said.
‘I’m glad it did.’ Her eyes were deeper blue than he’d thought, or maybe it was the sunshine that made them seem so. The same colour the ocean had been the first time he’d ever seen it, aged sixteen, and never having been anywhere but Ohio in his life: a few shades darker than the bluest of cloudless skies. She had fair skin, freckles on her nose, a white parting, straight, light brown hair tucked behind one ear and escaping the other.
‘Put your arm around my neck,’ he told her, and she did. It brought her face closer to his. She smelled of daffodils and sunshine. He could feel her heart beating against his chest.
He reached the bank far too soon and set her down gently on the grass. She scrambled to her feet as he climbed up beside her.
‘You’re sopping wet.’
‘But you’re almost dry, so it’s worth it.’ He stared at her again. She had a waist like a willow branch. She wore a white blouse, tucked into a blue skirt. And those eyes, like every freedom he’d ever tasted. ‘What’s your name?’
‘I’m Robert.’ He held out his hand to her, a silly formality, but he wanted to touch her again. Touch her bare skin.
She put her hand in his and he curved his fingers round it.
The world didn’t stop. Not exactly. He still felt his soaked clothes clinging to his body, still felt the sunshine on his shoulders and the top of his head; he still breathed and dripped water on to the grass but all of that had become more, somehow. Bigger and brighter. Louder and wetter and warmer. And the feeling of her little hand in his, like it belonged there.
‘Wow,’ he said, and she took a step closer to him, just one, enough so he could smell her hair.
They turned at the same time, hands still joined, to look at the river. The young girl in Emily’s boat was holding on to the punt that Robbie had abandoned, which had obviously been carried by momentum. Cynthia sat in the back, her arms folded against her chest, the punt pole lying on the bottom of the boat, untouched.
‘Useless,’ muttered Robbie, but he couldn’t wipe the smile off his face. ‘Who is that? Your sister?’
‘Help!’ cried Polly. ‘We’re going to drift into the sea!’
‘My melodramatic little sister Polly,’ confirmed Emily. She hadn’t removed her hand from his. ‘Who’s that in your boat?’
‘Oh.’ She tried to withdraw her hand, then, but Robbie kept it.
‘What are you doing later tonight?’ he asked her.
‘I’m entertaining my little sister. And you’ve got a date.’ She managed to pull her hand away from his.
‘I don’t have to have a date.’
She screwed up her eyes. ‘Really? You did this very nice thing by rescuing me and now you have to ruin it by being an utter bounder?’