She was immobile for minutes at a stretch, like a heron watching and waiting. Neat and clean in sweater and miniskirt, she sat upright on a low upholstered chair, alone amidst noisy groups of grungy students.
I’d missed half of this first term, still stiff and awkward after flying over handlebars and slamming against a white van whose driver failed to see me. The students were welcoming, but already engrossed in studies and friendships, and I felt separate.
In free periods Emily would read a book, but ten minutes or so before a lecture she would stop and sit calmly until the time to go. Her short fair hair framed small features, delicate nose and thin lips, while her bare legs were straight and slender.
At the start of my second week I sat down next to her and asked: ‘Do you mind if I join you?’
‘No,’ she replied, and I told her about my motorcycle accident and the struggle to catch up with course work. I think she listened, looking elsewhere, her expression not unfriendly, but difficult to read. I asked if she were studying economics too, and she said: ‘Yes,’ which was no surprise since she went to the lectures. She didn’t respond when I praised a lecturer, and when I asked how far through the course she was, she glanced down and said: ‘Chapter Five.’ I was trapped, unable to leave without being rude, and finding it difficult to continue a one-sided conversation.
Abandoning attempts to draw her out, I told of my arrival at Halls in the midst of a power cut, and if she didn’t smile, she didn’t run away either, and I relaxed and kept talking. Eventually she said: ‘It’s five to eleven,’ rose to her feet, and walked across the common room.
The following day I visited the canteen with tall Callum, an anthropologist whose canvas shoulder bag and leather jacket outsmelled the burgers and coffee. Afterwards we sauntered into the common room and there sat Emily in fresh sweater and miniskirt, the cheap green uphostery of neighbouring chairs unoccupied. Callum followed my eyes and commented: ‘She looks good.’
‘I think I should go and speak to her,’ I said.
He gave a wry smile. ‘Best of luck.’
Before long I was delivering another monologue, and wishing I knew whether she liked listening or wanted me to go away. ‘Would you rather I didn’t talk to you?’ I asked.
‘I don’t mind,’ she replied neutrally, and I was no wiser, and continued. Her facial expression was unchanging, but not blank. It was the warm look of a pretty girl, ready to smile as you approached and to chat when you arrived, though she did neither. I was ready to believe that she welcomed the companionship. I looked down at the grey cotton skirt and smooth legs and wondered if she were inhibited. Or maybe she tested her acquaintances’ commitment before opening up to those she trusted. Possibly, I thought, she was grateful for my attention, and at that point it dawned that I was thinking of myself, as we do in all relationships, and that I understood her not at all.
- 1 -
The next day I found her again in the common room, her Zara carrier bag of belongings propped against the chair. She didn’t answer my greeting, so: ‘What do you enjoy doing?’ I asked, which prompted a minuscule movement of her eyelids, a hint of discomfort.
‘Swimming,’ she said.
‘In a pool? In the sea?’ Answering took her some time. My gaze wandered across the common room to a group of laughing girls, but I was satisfied to be with Emily.
‘And rivers.’ The first time she’d volunteered information.
‘Wow! I can’t swim at all. Never even managed half a width. If I fell in you’d have to rescue me.’
I smiled. ‘Could you jump in wearing shoes and clothes and rescue someone?’
‘Yes,’ she replied softly.
‘And have you?’
‘In a lesson.’
I was fascinated by the subtle reshaping of her lips with each rare word. ‘In a pool?’ I asked.
She surprised me by making eye contact for an instant, ended before she spoke. ‘And tide.’
I felt pleased at having persisted. What she might feel was another matter. My every word might cause stress and torment. Or perhaps she was content in her silence, satisfied by listening with no desire to talk.
Today I was in the common room first, reserving her usual seat by planting my monetary theory notes on the coarse fabric. I watched battered doors swing open and creak closed as students progressed from one side to the other on their way out or to the canteen. A few broke from the flow and settled in the common room. Tall Callum and Danny from Hong Kong diverted to stand over me. ‘Waiting for the sound of silence?’ asked Callum, dumping his canvas bag. ‘Bet you know less about her than I do. She lives at Wapping in posh Docklands. Her parents must be worth a penny or two.’
I looked up at him in surprise. ‘Did she tell you that?’
‘Of course not. I chatted up dim Daisy in the office, then couldn’t stop her gossiping about students’ personal files. Come for a coffee.’
‘Or play chess with me,’ said Danny. ‘Better than talking to woman.’
I laughed. ‘Your chess is better than mine, but not better than talking to a woman. I’ll hang on for a few minutes, then come and find you if she doesn’t arrive.’
- 2 -
They sauntered off, and sure enough Emily appeared through the swing doors, bare legs conspicuous amongst the jeans, leggings and combat trousers. She turned towards me, or at least towards her usual chair. Today’s miniskirt was navy, her knitted top a feminine pale blue. She looked great, and I was going to tell her. I moved my lecture notes from her seat, but she stopped, standing before me, the Zara bag at her side, the loveliness of her gentle expression causing a flutter in my chest. That expression was her usual; I had seen no other; but for the first time she was looking me full in the face. ‘Goodbye,’ she said.
I could find no words as she turned at ninety degrees and walked diagonally to the exit door. Did she want me to stop bothering her? Had she left college? Or was she simply going to a dental appointment?
I rose and followed, filled with doubt about what to say. I hung back, reluctant to catch up before thinking of a sentence. We were soon out on a busy main road, the pavement smudged with damp, as I fretted about her turning and seeing me. I must speak first, but not in the noisy street. Talking to her in the common room was difficult enough; here would be impossible. Yet each step made it more difficult, more like stalking. She crossed at traffic lights, and I felt forced to wait until they changed red, and back to green again. I lost sight of her, but headed to the London Overground station, held my card to the reader, and boarded a spartan train with hard upholstery amidst orange poles and grab rails.
I prepared my speech: apologise for following, tell her I like her very much, and want to be friends. Then I would smile, ask if I’d see her tomorrow at university, and leave her. We descended beneath the Thames and stopped under ground at Wapping station. I stepped hesitantly out of the train, not wanting to be seen yet, and glimpsed Emily walking from the narrow platform into the exit passage. Relieved, I followed at a distance, deciding to approach once we were in the open, so long as the street was quiet.
I lost her by having to take a different lift, rushed at the ticket barrier, and emerged in a cobbled street confined between old warehouses and modern flats. Anxiously scanning left and right, I spotted Emily gliding through scaffolding which straddled the pavement, the reticence of her modest walk inspiring a surge of affection. She disappeared, and I ran to the spot, finding a wrought iron gate which I feared was private, but a signpost to the Thames Path reassured me. I didn’t enter the roofed passageway until she left the other end, worried about frightening her with heavy footsteps. And I resolved: if the riverside path wasn’t ideal for overtaking her and speaking, I would abandon the attempt and go home.
- 3 -
I emerged from the dark alleyway into the light of a vast grey sky, and a view of the Thames, broad and brown beyond the retaining wall, the other bank distant. Used to seeing the river low and tame between gravel beaches, I was shocked at the height of the tide, barely an arm’s length below the wall, and by the power of the waves, more sea than stream. Emily was no more than ten metres away, absolutely still, staring out over the expanse of water.
I watched with disbelief as she parked her carrier bag on the paving, climbed onto the flat topped parapet and stood with legs pale against the dark background of the river. She reached out her arms and I wanted to shout ‘No!’ – but what was going on? Did this mysterious girl swim fully clothed each day as she neared home? She dived gracefully, making a splash-free entry into the agitated water. I leaned over the wall, staring at the point where she’d entered, my heart in my mouth.
Water surged against the stonework and flung spray head-high. The swelling surface was a writhing creature of weight and power. I was terrified to think of her swimming in this… but she didn’t reappear. How long would an expert swimmer stay submerged? ‘Emily!’ I shouted in desperation. Then I turned and ran painfully on my damaged legs, footsteps ringing in the concrete passageway, turning left into the narrow street. ‘Help!’ I yelled. ‘Someone’s in the water!’ A bestubbled labourer and a tracksuited runner ignored me, an office worker in immaculate coat stared dumbly, but a middle aged couple followed me to the river, struggling to keep up.
I prayed to be shown up as a fool, for a dripping Emily to be seen walking away on the riverside path; but her bag still rested against the parapet. The helpers stared at the struggle between outgoing river and incoming tide, and the alarmed woman placed a restraining hand on the man’s jacketed arm.
‘Without any sign…’ he said, ‘it would be hopeless. You could see nothing down there.’
I sank to my knees, sobbing, and the people must have remained with me and called the police, for I remember a blue and yellow motor launch repeatedly circling the surface. A bulky constable, radio clipped to his uniform and leather pouches around his belt, led me through the dark passageway to a car where I gave a statement. Then he lifted the Zara bag onto his knees, gold lettering on black paper, and removed items one by one: a pink notebook, the heavy textbook which Emily had read to chapter five, and a sealed white envelope which he stared at before handing to me. My name, and that of our college, was written in neat but child-like letters. Shaking, I tore it open, pulling out and unfolding the single sheet.
‘Thank you,’ she had written, ‘but it wouldn’t work.’
- 4 -
© Roger Woodward, 2020