Few people ventured down the slippery steps to stumble along the exposed strip of muddy rocks and centuries of detritus next to the murky river.
Tonight, low tide coincided with an argument between Kathy’s mother and stepfather, so she left with Billy, her spaniel. He bounded ahead of her, fanned tail wagging. She scanned the uneven stones and rubble for any fresh treasures deposited by the receding water. Looking across the wide, brown expanse of river, she could see lights on the skyscrapers of the financial district, a dense cluster of global banking behemoths.
She stopped and examined some fragments of pottery and the the dark-brown bones of long-dead animals, far too old to interest Billy. He was investigating what appeared to be a dead fish, to the consternation of several gulls which squawked indignantly. The light was starting to fade and she almost tripped on a rustling microwave which was slowly filling with mud and stones. A boat roared past in the middle of the river and its wake sent strong waves to the shore, disturbing the gulls. Billy gave up on the fish and ran along the edge of the water. Suddenly he began to bark at an object on top of one of the wooden piles which were all that remained of the old docks.
“What is it, boy?” she asked, walking over to join him. He continued the barking frenzy so she switched her smartphone flashlight on and followed the direction of his gaze. The object of his excitement looked like a plastic crate, left atop a pile by the outgoing tide and surrounded by swirling water. As the sound of the waves died down, she could hear a baby crying. She looked around but then realised with a jolt of horror that it was coming from the box in the water. She picked up the plank of driftwood and tried to test the depth of the water but the current almost ripped it from her hands.
Shaking, she dialled the emergency services number and explained the situation to the calm operator. He told her to wait there for the lifeboat and under no circumstances to enter the water. The crying seemed to be getting quieter and she was terrified that the baby was weakening. Tears fell as images filled her head of who might have dumped a baby in the river. A scared teenage mother? A frustrated, angry father?
She saw a bright light coming closer across the water.
“Over here!” she shouted, while Billy barked.
A man leant out of the inflatable lifeboat and grabbed the box. She saw him examine the contents and then speak to a colleague, his shoulders shaking.
“I’m so sorry, I didn’t find it in time”, she cried.
One of the men turned to her and called: “ It’s all right, darling, no need to cry – it’s only a doll. The water must have short-circuited it.”