For years, I’ve wanted to put the experience of rowing onto paper. Having taken up the sport as a student, I continued for some time afterwards but gave it up when I became a teacher. I lived too far from a river and could no longer stomach those 5am starts, especially after a pile of marking. In truth, I miss it. Rowing took me up and down the country; I still have a fine collection of tankards to show for all those hours of training. My university town, with its dearth of hills, could be claustrophobic at times. By contrast, I found the experience of getting out on the river incredibly calming.
I’m not an especially sporty person. I was hardly the pick of the bunch for the school hockey team and – even to this day, shamefully – my swimming style troubles lifeguards into checking I’m okay and not, in fact, drowning. But here was something I was pretty good at. Sliding forwards and backwards, twisting and lifting the blade, keeping to the rhythm, not rocking the boat. Rowing in an eight doesn’t favour flashy individual efforts. Pull too hard and you’ll set the boat off balance. Go too slowly and you’ll ‘catch a crab’ – the oar slithering out of your hands and twisting away from you. I’ve seen boats capsized, rowers thrown into the water, novices hit on the head and hospitalised with concussion in extreme cases. It’s a dangerous business.
The closing scene of the story – which I won’t spoil here – is something I witnessed all those years ago. I felt compelled to record that scene I’d watched, aghast, on the river. But how to do it? I wanted my protagonist to be male, to get into the story a sense of the muscularity of the act of rowing, the strange proximity of the eight rowers and the – often tiny – cox who shouts orders from the stern. I put my protagonist Matty at number 7, just behind Stroke, where it was possible to catch the eye of the cox over the dipped shoulder of the rower in front. Once I had developed the central idea of unrequited obsession, the story came very quickly. A cliché, perhaps, but rowing was so embedded in me, I didn’t find it hard to put the physical act on the page. It was as if my muscles still held the memory of the movements. The staccato, rhythmic description of the rowing, the adrenalin rush of the race – the words seemed to have a momentum of their own.
When I shared an early draft of Feathering The Blade at my writing group (held at the Big Green Bookshop in Wood Green), there were gasps at the end. I knew, then, that this was a story worth working on. The tricky part was getting the balance right. The symbolism came from the Yeats poem, Leda and the Swan. I liked the connection with aggression, the hint at something dark yet ambiguous. At one point, after workshopping the story with Sean O’Reilly – if you ever get a chance to do a workshop with him, do – he’s incredible – I considered a radical rewrite. Could I tell the story with everything happening in the boat: one long take, as it were? Without the context of the night before, it would have made for a very different tale. Sexual tension is central to the story and I was keen, in particular, to show how women can be seen as prizes to be won (I clearly remember seeing the boys at college looking at the photograph of the new crop of female students and rating their looks). So, while the events leading up to the night before were given a reprieve, I wanted more ambiguity. To achieve this, I reworked parts of the story, ramping up the creepiness of Matty’s behaviour, exploring his difficulties understanding people and especially the object of his obsession, the elusive Melder.
Miscommunication is something I keep coming back to in my writing. I’m fascinated by it: the idea that two people can come away from an exchange with completely different – and often contradictory – interpretations of what was said. In this story, I kept in mind the idea that Melder’s would be a very different interpretation. I wonder what she would have to say.
Born in Derbyshire, Emily Devane now lives and writes in Yorkshire. She was a 2016 Word Factory Apprentice. Her stories can be found in The Bath Short Story Award Anthology (2015), Rattletales 4 and ‘A Box of Stars Under The Bed’ (The National Flash Fiction Day Anthology, 2016). The Nottingham Review recently nominated her story from its Winter edition, ‘Back When The Sky Was Different’, for The Best Small Fictions Anthology. She tweets @DevaneEmily.
You can read ‘Feathering the Blade’ in Issue Six of The Lonely Crowd, which may be purchased here.
© Emily Devane, 2017. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2017.