. . . Vee followed directions to a hallway, down which snaked an impossibly long line of people. Please Lord, she prayed wearily, don’t let that be the pharmacy. It was the pharmacy. Clearly, most people wanted to fill their prescriptions on-site. The line was moving fast, but not fast enough. After three years in Cape Town, the policy of lines was still beyond Vee. Queues, as they were otherwise affectionately known. Everyone always stood patiently awaiting their turn, smiling completely inane and unnecessary smiles at each other in agreement at absurdly long waits, admired the ceiling, took obedient half-steps forward when someone was served and left. With the exception of a passport office, this would cause a bust-up in West Africa. The hustle and flow of her people was as rushed and organised as a bloodstream; everyone got what they were after, with no mental gymnastics. She juggled Jeremy from one hip to the other and sighed in frustration. This was asking too much, even for a Monday. In retrospect, she wondered what had made her move away from the line and what would have happened if she’d stayed put. There were only five people in front of her, and service speed was picking up. With hindsight, she searched her memory for some sudden gut feeling or overwhelming force that had propelled her towards the wall-mounted bulletin board, but all she was ever able to come up with was boredom and impatience. To kill a few minutes, Vee idly scanned the brightly coloured bulletin board. There was a farewell announcement (a well-loved specialist moving to greener pastures), two postings for research nurses and an apology from the unit at large for any inconvenience caused by parking restrictions during the construction period. On the left side of the board, a section was dedicated to photographs of happy moments between patients and staff. Turning away, she caught one picture out of the corner of her eye and stopped cold where she stood. Blinking several times in disbelief, she reached out to make sure it was tangible. So little of what she saw these days was. The image was of a birthday celebration in a hospital room. A bunch of children and two nurses, one middle-aged and one very young, happily crowded around a cake proudly held on the lap of a bald prepubescent boy. A few of the other children were bald too, but unlike the main child they wore bandanas or caps. One girl stood near the boy’s elbow, at the edge of the photo but somehow
in the middle of it, as central as the boy himself. Her smile was unsure in comparison to the others, but still bright, and as she leaned over to fit into the frame her hand rested on the boy’s arm. Even without the red woollen hat and the benefit of age to carve away the baby cheeks, the face was unmistakable. A strangled animal sound surprised Vee before she realised it emanated from her own throat. A couple nearby squinted in her direction. “Teelinlingling. Teeleeeelingling,” sang Jeremy, tugging on her jeans. As if in a trance, Vee looked down as if she’d never seen him before in her life. It took a moment to realise the child was trying to mimic a ringing cellphone. With a shaking hand she retrieved the device. “Miss Va . . . um, Viona . . . Voiaja . . . uh, Miss Johnson,” spoke a hesitant voice, wisely deciding to go with the pronounceable surname. “Tamsin here, the receptionist from upstairs. Dr Kingsley’s almost done with the last patient, so he’ll see you in ten minutes. That okay?” “Yes, thank you,” Vee croaked. “Be there just now.” Her face had to be at melting point the way the plastic of the phone felt so cool against it. This Air Girl, this Smiling Everywhere Girl – she was here, in this picture, in this very hospital. There was no mistaking it, no question about that smile. She was the one from the parking lot, from the jogging day, the one hovering over her bed, disturbing her dreams. When her heart was thudding, and her throat and eyes were furnace hot, and those cold bumps like painful anthills rose all over her skin, that face was the one that sometimes taunted her. Vee wiped cold sweat from her forehead and tried to press back the wave of another anxiety attack. Not here. Not now. Sweet Mother of God.