It was a crisp yet sunny afternoon as Joanie wandered along the bank of the river. The sun glimmered off the water as it lapped onto the docks.
Joanie’s heart raced at the sight of so many strangers. She passed market stalls, where pedestrians paused to browse at the wares: jewellery and leather, soaps and candles, linen clothing and coffee. The vendors smiled at passers-by, glancing with equal parts desperation and politeness behind their gaze. The restaurants were crowded with families and couples, sipping white wine or beers, grazing on share platters. Laughter and conversations echoed in her ears with a buzz.
She heard her name, but assumed it wasn’t for her. Nobody was waiting for her. There must be another Joanie nearby. She continued to amble along the river bed. There was a lush green patch coming up with a number of spare seats. Joanie quickened her pace.
‘Joanie! Joanie Roberts!’
Joanie stopped still. That was definitely her name. She turned. A hand rested on her shoulder.
‘It is you! I was beginning to think I’d made a mistake.’ The voice belonged to a pretty, perfectly symmetrical face, with bright blue eyes and full lips. ‘Do you remember me?’
Joanie was transfixed by her lips. Surely they weren’t natural? She shook her head to answer the question.
The woman laughed, a light tinkle that, if Joanie felt relaxed, might’ve been contagious. ‘Well, I’ve had a bit of work done, so it’s understandable. And it’s been…what…fifteen years since we were at school?’
Joanie’s head exploded at the same time as her gut hit the floor. She felt dizzy; looking out to the river she saw a tidal wave coming her. A tsunami of buried memories coming straight for her. She ducked, raised her hands to protect her head.
‘Are you alright?’ The woman was talking to her. Staring as if she were a monster. ‘You’ve gone white.’ She guided Joanie to a seat. ‘Put your head between your legs.’ She rubbed Joanie’s back while she babbled. All Joanie could hear was water rushing in her ears.
Ten minutes later, Joanie raised her head. The world had stopped spinning and the river no longer threatened to drown her.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I missed your name.’
‘Becky Sanderson,’ she said. ‘We were in Mr Burke’s class together in Year 11.’
‘Right.’ Joanie had spent years burying her school years, then eighteen months working with a psychologist in cognitive behavioural therapy to address that same era. ‘School wasn’t the best time in my life.’ As the words flew from her mouth, she wondered when she would experience the best years of her life. So far, life had been a huge disappointment.
‘Nor mine,’ Becky responded.
Joanie flinched. Becky noticed. ‘I’m not sure anyone enjoyed school.’ She continued to chat about school and the students. Who she’d kept in contact with, her affair with Mr Burke during Year 12. Joanie wanted to put her hands over her ears. Becky’s verbose nature now coming back to Joanie.
‘Nice of you to say hello,’ Joanie interrupted, standing up. She wobbled on her feet, but corrected herself, her stance. ‘And thanks for looking after me just now. I don’t know what came over me.’ She cleared her throat. ‘Never happened before.’
Becky stared, her big eyes like a swimming pool.
‘I need to get going,’ Joanie said. She threw her handbag over her shoulder and strode away, leaving Becky standing and watching.
Joanie had never felt so in control of herself, nor so proud. It was a small step, but she’d made it.