The Moment After the Moment of the Splash

The boys jumped. I almost leapt too, but at the critical moment, I hesitated. I stood perched on the bridge, a skinny spectator stripped to my shorts, toes dangling over the edge of smooth stone. At least my cowardice allowed me the gift of voyeurism. I watched as their three bronzed bodies plunged out of the clear azure like dive-bombing cormorants hunting prey, sleek and single-minded. They slammed hard into the river with precision that from the punt must have felt like attack.

I stared at the dumbfounded man in the boat, his idyllic afternoon sullied in a split-second. The disturbed water exploded upwards, flying over his rolled-up salmon chinos and check shirt. He held the punting stick – called a quant, I knew – limply in his right hand, his left flailing upwards. It took his granite features a beat to turn from smug to scared, and another to switch to angry. The sky wasn’t falling; it was lads on a lark, and they were messing up his date.

The boys had landed just feet from the boat, their bodies dangerously close to colliding with solid wood. That was part of the thrill – the greater the risk the higher the prize. They timed their assault on the couple with the expert agility of professional athletes and the novice enthusiasm of horny teenagers. Any earlier and they would have crashed, piercing skin and fracturing bone. Any later and they would have impacted too far away to cause the alarm they craved. The execution was delicious; I felt the aftertaste of a well-judged plan on my tongue, even as I remained apart from the action. 

Ignoring the sole sitting figure, I moved my attention from the boys to the man and back again. The boys swam close to the boat; their hands groped for the sides of the punt while mine still clung to the bridge. All three boys were uninjured – the water wasn’t too deep, the current not terribly strong, but human nature nudged them to seek safety. I wondered how cold the river was – it was late May, the first truly hot day of the year, summer yet to fully penetrate the river’s depths. The afternoon swelter was burning off though; I felt goosebumps rising on my arms, from chill or fear, I couldn’t tell.

As the biggest boy’s fingers touched the boat, I allowed myself to focus on the woman for the first time. She sat cross-legged on a wooden bench inside the punt, unmoved by the chaos around her. The water had soaked through her yellow t-shirt and was dripping from her closely cropped blonde hair, but she hadn’t wiped her face. She had not turned around to check on the man either. I saw her glistening eyes turn from shock to curiosity as I realised they were meeting my own. My heartrate rose while I guessed hers dropped, perceiving no threat, and leaning into the chance for uncommon experience.  

The couple’s day unfurled in my mind. The car journey from a town too small for tourist attractions, the bus trip from the Park and Ride station, the sweaty traipse around chain stores when she wanted culture, and the arrival at the river when she wanted escape. The man’s determination that they hire the punt, his refusal to pay a guide and insistence on taking control. The woman’s begrudging acceptance of the proposal rather than an argument, and for the opportunity to face away from him. She was unhappy, I could sense it. She was searching for a way out, and looking in my direction.

We were kindred spirits; age difference be damned. I bet she had been a precocious kid too. I had been dragged around by the boys in the same way she had been corralled by her partner. This wasn’t how I wanted to spend my day either. There were books to be read, back inside away from the hateful sun. There were screens to gape at, of various sizes and resolutions. There were absent parents to call, to berate for leaving me here with these uncouth cousins while they gallivanted abroad on business. Boat-bombing, the cousins called it. They did it every summer, apparently. It was no big deal, just messing around – I’d love it, they assured me. I should stop being such a pussy.

The woman would understand. She would see I didn’t belong with such ruffians, harassing strangers with hijinks, whooping, hollering, doing, doing, doing. She would know I had better ways to spend my time than hurling myself off bridges. She would get that it was braver not to jump, to rise above peer pressure and decline to join the mayhem. She would respect my growing maturity and overlook my spindly naked torso. She would know I was never really going to do it, that I had too much self-respect. She would want to get to know the real me.

As I considered this, the smallest boy pulled at the man’s stick and the vessel rocked with the struggle. The woman remained seated, but barely, neck arched back towards the commotion, breaking our connection. The middle boy, who was the same age as me, got hold of the stick too, the pair quickly overpowering the man. As he released his grip, the boys snapped away from the boat, triumphantly holding their bounty as they bobbed.

Seizing his moment, the biggest boy hauled himself into the front of the boat. Droplets fell from his muscular arms as he penetrated the punt’s inner sanctum, a snaky grin smeared on his face. He spotted a tub of strawberries on the bench next to the woman and leaned forward to take one. She didn’t flinch at his gesture, and calmly offered him cream from an adjacent pot. He dipped the fruit and ate it gleefully. The man was glowing red as he made to move past the woman towards the biggest boy, but as he lunged forward the boy hopped sideways back into the water.

The woman laughed, a pure rising sound that hung in the atmosphere like steam. The boat remained unnervingly moored in the water below the bridge, drifting only a matter of feet. She was looking up at me again. I tried to laugh along with her, but no sound came out of my open mouth. Still she looked up. She recognised our bond, I felt certain of it. That was why she was uninterested in the boys, even as they boarded her ship, pirates of the Cam. It was why she was dismissive of the man even as he shouted impotently at the boys to give him his stick back. They were secondary in this, all of them.

And yet, the boys did possess a certain lifeforce I couldn’t detect in myself. I found its essence at a safe distance, in the words and images of others on paper or in pixels. Joy was to be discovered in detachment, not overflowing in activity. They were intent on causing chaos, imposing their will on others. I just wanted to mind my own business and get through the week.

The middle boy threw the stick back to the man, the escapade exhausted of its potential. They had forgotten all about me, stranded above them. The overwhelming sensation was relief. I wouldn’t have to do it after all. The boys would mock me later, but their taunts wouldn’t touch me. The woman would protect me. Not literally – I knew I’d never see her again. But she’d acknowledged our superiority, and that was enough. I hadn’t sunk to their level, and she appreciated it. She would float upstream with her silly little man, temporarily assuage his broken pride before dumping him at the earliest opportunity. I would see out the next few days with my cousins then forget all about them until the next term ended.

I gave her a small upwards nod of thanks. For an instant I thought she hadn’t noticed, but I was wrong. She beamed up at me. Jump, she said. I wasn’t sure I’d heard her properly. Jump, she said again, more loudly. The boys turned in the water to face me. Jump, they joined in. Jump, you big baby. Jump.

The moment after the moment of the splash, my body broke the surface. The bridge was higher than I estimated, the time between the leap and the landing longer. I hit the water further away from the boat than the boys, concerned less about my knees than a vague sense of shame. The river was deeper than I expected, colder too. She was looking directly at me as I went under, but when I came up for air her gaze had moved on.


Greg Rose is a writer whose work has appeared in The Times, The Guardian, National Geographic and NME. A former journalist and footballer, Greg directs content and communications for Virgin. He was born in England and lives in Brooklyn.