Emily didn’t register the presence of the white van parked in the shadows. She was waiting for a person, not a vehicle. But the light had begun to fade. People were drifting homeward: some wishing that the day could go on a little longer; others leaving happily, content with what the day had delivered. But Emily wasn’t content. She’d waited in anticipation as the appointed hour approached; and in mounting despondency as it faded into the past with the light. She had agonised over this rendezvous: what to wear; what first impression to create. Should she show her sophisticated persona? Would “effervescent” be a more appealing adjective to describe her? How about “fun-loving”? Demure? Relaxed? Confident? An ingénue, perhaps? The clothes of these illusions lay scattered around her bedroom still; a sad reminder of her folly awaiting her return. And still she didn’t notice the white van, standing in the shadows.
Emily had not told anyone else about this assignation; but it felt as though everyone around her knew. Every passing face seemed as if it were trying to conceal the pity it felt for her; but every child’s laugh betrayed their complicity in the pretence. She searched the faces, in this direction and that, still hoping the one she’d expected to see would finally appear: running towards her; profuse in apologies; sincere in the explanation that she would readily accept; and believe with such joy in her heart as would overflow and drown her foolish anxiety. But the only faces she saw were those of strangers, hurrying from one unknown to another, disguising their sympathy by appearing to be absorbed in their own lives. Her heart sank, dispossessed of its fantasy, and her gaze slowly fell to the ground.
The reversing lights blinked momentarily, then stayed lit as the white van cautiously edged its way back, out of the shadows. In this place, at this hour, most people were either looking forward in time, or backwards. Adults were feeling glad that the day had ended successfully, or wishing that they hadn’t come; thinking about what to have for dinner; or wishing they didn’t have to go to work tomorrow. Children were distracted: some tired, some excited, some cross, some exuberant in their reminiscences of what they had been doing, exaggerating them into a whole new realm of experience. Not many people here were living in the now, fully aware of what was going on around them; and the driver of the van seemed to understand this, manoeuvring the vehicle slowly and carefully towards them, determined not to end anyone’s day in tragedy.
The thought of going home, of giving up, of facing the future with the knowledge of this humiliation fresh in her mind filled Emily with dejection. The pointless preparation; the feeling of worthlessness; her increasing pessimism that it would always be like this, welled within her as she stood motionless in the tide of people, immobilised by the widening void into which she felt herself collapsing.
When it was far enough out of it’s parking spot, the reversing lights went out and slowly, but with a little more confidence now it seemed, the van crept forward to the left, then turned to the right and rolled to where the kerb of the pedestrian area dipped down towards the road. It paused, waiting for a break in the traffic, then lumbered like a pachyderm down off the pavement and eased itself into the flow of vehicles. The road ahead immediately swung right and the van took the curve then accelerated up the hill, growing smaller and smaller, growing less distinct, until it turned off to the left and disappeared.
Emily unzipped a compartment of the small shoulder bag she had judiciously looped around her neck and across her chest as a precaution against bag snatchers. It wasn’t the most elegant of looks, she had thought as she’d straightened the strap, checking herself in the mirror of her dressing table before leaving home; but it was better than suffering the ignominy and inconvenience of being robbed. From the compartment, she drew her multi-mode transport ticket and walked towards the turnstile leading to the pier. She slid the ticket into the closest slot on the top of the machine and waited, with hand poised, for it to appear from the slot at the far end. Then she pushed the barrier and it began to rotate, wrapping its steel arms around her in a cold embrace and pushing her forward out of the way. The incoming ferry had berthed and its passengers had already disembarked so she followed the crowd as it funnelled onto the fretted gangway; and once onboard, climbed the wooden stairs to reach the upper deck. It was beginning to fill up but she managed to find a seat on the starboard side, against the rail, and sat down with her bag placed carefully on her lap.
On the approaches to the bridge, the white van encountered traffic that slowed its progress to a crawl. Being higher than most of the other vehicles on the road, however, the driver was able to see what lay ahead and accepted the delay with resignation. On the radio, Miles Davis was playing Someday my prince will come. The driver took the photograph of Emily from the dashboard; looked at it for a moment, then crushed it in his hand and threw it out the window into the breeze. It would be dark soon.
Emily’s mind drifted as the crew rolled the gangway ashore and fastened the gate in place; then was startled back to reality by the horn warning the passengers of the ferry’s imminent departure. She watched the wharf attendant untying the guy ropes and throwing them aboard, then she felt the vessel ease itself away from the dock, picking up speed as it went. Soon, it was in the harbour, breaching the swell that flowed in from the ocean. A gentle Sirocco flirted with her hair as she gazed around at the city buildings clinging to the foreshore, and the domestic buildings that climbed up and over the hillsides of the harbour valley and away into the distance beyond. Lights had begun to appear in windows; but all they represented to her then were the tens of thousands of people who were together at that moment: with the ones they loved, the ones they cared for, and who cared about them. And at that point, she could look at them no longer and let her eyes sink to the murky blue waters below.
The photograph of Emily slowly unfolded as the waters of the harbour penetrated the fibres of the paper on which it was printed; and it floated, face down, gently rocked by the lilting wavelets until darkness fell and it disappeared.