At the top of the stairs, Wilom stopped to rub his burning thighs.
“Been sitting in the boat too long?” the lighthouse keeper asked, grinning over his shoulder.
“I seem to recall that being your idea,” Wilom said.
The lighthouse keeper just chuckled, and pressed a bag into his hands. “Some food, some new clothes, and a few essentials.”
“Thanks,” Wilom said, putting the backpack on and adjusting the straps.
“It’s late,” the lighthouse keeper said. “Sure you won’t stay the night? Set off in the morning?”
Wilom shook his head. “I’m not tired, so there’s really no point.”
“As you wish. Excited to get back, eh?”
As Wilom left, the lighthouse keeper gave him a friendly pat on the shoulder. “Good luck. Don’t be a stranger.”
As the lighthouse keeper’s door closed behind him, Wilom took a deep breath of the fresh, chilly air. Everything was so wide. The sky was the deep, deep blue of late evening. Not the pale, insidious blue of the sky above the River – real blue, studded with the first, brightest stars. It seemed to go on forever.
The grass was slightly damp, and the low light gave it a silver glint. He felt perfectly, utterly alone, and everything was beautiful.
In the distance, he could see the outline of Jali and Tanim’s old town. No longer a tiny village sprawling in front of the river, it was now full of two- and even three-storey buildings. They loomed over the surrounding farmland, dark and blocky.
Wilom shifted his backpack straps and turned away from the village. He had already decided he wasn’t going down that road. But perhaps it couldn’t hurt, just for a moment, to have a look.
He stood for a few minutes taking in the town, until his legs started to complain, and he had to keep moving. He stretched out his strides as far as he could, to try and loosen his stiff muscles.
So. He had a whole life, and no idea what to do with it. He could travel, perhaps. Meet people. Do things.
Back on the River, he’d only rarely thought about eating, or about any of the other things he used to do. Now he was back, he wished he had a notebook to write down all the things that came to mind. He’d learn to make his own relish! He’d make chicken and leek soup, just like Jali used to make it! He’d go to the Capital, and maybe even to the Border! He’d finally learn how to sew! Once upon a time, it had seemed daunting to have so many options. Now it seemed hopeful.
Come to think of it, where was Vanda? She hadn’t been back down to the river, so she might be up here somewhere. She must be doing something to keep occupied but he couldn’t imagine it was making a modest living in a town somewhere.
Speaking of a modest living.
He paused and crouched down, swinging the backpack off. The lighthouse keeper had said something about packing him food …
Ah-hah! Two sandwiches, wrapped in paper. Wilom peeked under the bread.
Corned beef, lettuce, tomato. A brownish relish. Onion? Wilom put the sandwiches aside for a moment, to go through the rest of the bag. Matches, a small coin purse, and …
Wilom pulled the vest out of the bag. It was knitted. It was vivid green. It had a pattern on it.
Wilom had seen people in similar vests on the River, so he knew the lighthouse keeper wasn’t entirely taking him for a fool. Nevertheless, he could imagine the lighthouse keeper having a little chuckle over his cup of tea after packing Wilom’s bag. Vividly.
He put everything back into the bag, except the sandwiches, and lifted it back onto his shoulder.
He was about at the crossroads. Hyston was closest; he should reach it by morning, provided he kept walking.
Hyston hadn’t been an agricultural town even when Wilom left to join the ferryman, but the absence of home and market gardens in the yards was startling. The houses were packed too tight for gardens. What little growing space there was was taken with flowers and ornamental plants for the most part.
Still, one flourishing little tomato patch had him wishing he’d saved one of his sandwiches. Eighty years since he’d tasted relish! It was odd – as a kid, he’d always begged for just a bit more corned beef in his sandwiches. Now just the thought of the relish was making his mouth water.
Ah, a hotel! He should see if they had a room for the night, and at least put the backpack down before he went any further.
Wilom had never been in a hotel before, but his sister had described them. This did not look like any hotel she’d mentioned in her letters. She had described amiable, bustling places lit by fires and serving food. This place was neither bustling nor amicable, at least not in any way Wilom understood the words. He’d always assumed that there was only really one room in a hotel except for the bedrooms – likely a product of the newspaper sensations he’d read to his friends. Instead he was greeted with pale blue walls with no pictures, an electric light making the soft, cushioned sofas cast sharp shadows against the walls. A man in a suit read a newspaper on one of the chairs. Except for him, and the man behind the desk, behind the nameplate reading ‘Concierge’, the room was empty. A radio played a tinny song, too quietly for Wilom to make out the words.
The sign just behind the desk, at head height, caught Wilom’s eye.
PLEASE HAVE DOCUMENTS READY. YOU MAY BE ASKED FOR IDENTIFICATION.
Documents? What documents? He tried to search through the bag from the lighthouse keeper without looking too suspicious. It held no papers at all, just food and matches and the knife.
He’d just have to hope he wasn’t asked.
“Good morning,” the concierge said as Wilom approached the desk, and hesitated for only the briefest of moments, looking Wilom and his dirty, eighty-years-out-of-fashion clothes. “Can I help you?”
“I’d like to stay a few nights,” Wilom said, as his mind worked. “My name is Wilom Tris.”
“Three nights? Four?”
“Three, I suppose.”
“Can I see your identification?”
Shit. “Uh … what sort of identification?”
“Anything with a photograph, your name and an address.”
“I don’t think I have anything like that on me.”
The concierge looked up at him. His expression was neutral, but his face was hard, and Wilom just knew that he had said something the concierge found deeply suspicious. “Did you come to town by train? What did you show the stationmaster when you bought your ticket?”
“I walked. I didn’t take the train.”
There was awkward silence.
The concierge wrote some things in a book, then turned and took a key from a pinboard behind him.
“Room 563, sir,” he said. “Take the elevator down the hall there.”
Wilom nodded. “Thank you,” he said, letting the concierge drop the keys into his palm.
He walked down the hall to the elevator, slowly enough to hear a mechanical whirring noise, a pause, and then half a hushed conversation.
Wilom felt a creeping sensation on the back of his neck.
His room contained a bed, a chair, a table and a sink with a grubby mirror above it. Wilom put his bag down, and looked in the mirror.
Walking all night hadn’t done him any good, really. He ran a finger over the purple-black marks around his eyes. He looked like he’d been punched in the nose.
There were other things, too, less important right now, but his tired mind kept running to them. An angle about his cheekbones, a breadth in the shoulders, a darkness about his chin. It was like seeing a long-absent relative. He could probably pass for any age between twenty and thirty, or even a bit older. His father’s side of the family showing through, he supposed.
He stopped, and picked up his bag again. If he sat down on the bed now, soon he’d lie down on it and then he’d be asleep, and there were several reasons why that wouldn’t be wise. He changed into the new clothes, even the vest – better ridiculous than cold – and washed his face.
He turned on one of the taps (why were there two?) and, and after a moment collecting his tired thoughts, yelped as he splashed water on his face. Hot! Hot water! He hurried to turn the tap off.
Ah, yes. Now he saw it. The little H and C markers on the handles. Hot and Cold.
He shook his head and wiped off his face. Well, he was certainly awake now. He supposed that was just as well.
At the bottom of the elevator, there were three men in grey-green uniforms talking to the concierge. Wilom’s immediate reaction was to step back into the elevator, but the concierge pointed to him, and the uniformed men turned around, and then there was nothing else to do but stay put and smile.
“Good afternoon,” he said, as they approached. “I’m sorry, it seems I’ve caused some trouble.” Visions of Gloves went through his head, though, for some reason, he couldn’t help giving Gloves the ferryman’s voice in his memory.
“Mr Greave here says you haven’t got any papers,” the policeman said, in an unmistakeable Northern accent.
“I don’t,” Wilom said. “But my name is Wilom Tris, and I live on the coast not far from here. Near the old Moorscliff lighthouse?”
“I know it. Tris, you say?”
“May I ask if you can list some of your relatives?”
Hoo boy. “My … I’m related to Ysmina Tris,” he said. Perhaps his sister wasn’t quite out of memory yet…
“My, uh, grandfather’s sister,” he said. “I’m named for my grandfather. He was Wilom, too.”
“What’s your father’s name? Any brothers or sisters?”
“One sister. Can I ask why all this fuss?” He was starting to wish he hadn’t given his real name.
“Under orders, sir. Since the war started, we keep track of travellers. Only a precaution, sir, you understand. Your father’s name? Your sister’s name?”
“Am I being arrested? Have I done something wrong?”
The policeman gave him a smile that wasn’t quite comforting. “Of course not, sir. Your father’s name?”
“Ja…nim,” Wilom said. “Janim Tris.”
“Ever been to Marclorn?”
“No, never. I’ve lived on the coast all my life.”
The policeman made a note. “Well, I’m afraid you’re going to have to come with us, sir,” he said, “Until we can verify your identity. Then we’ll help you get some new documents signed off so you can continue your travels. I’m sure this won’t take long to clear up.”