Wilom took the long way home. So, Peggy wanted in, huh? Part of him realised that if everything Vanda had said was true, then they probably needed all the help they could get. But he should talk to her before he said yes to Peggy.
“He seems preoccupied. I wonder if he’s worried for his job. Hard to tell. So many people these days …”
Wilom’s train of thought was entirely broken. He looked around, but there was nobody nearby who could have said it. Nobody was close enough that he could have overheard a private conversation so clearly.
He shook his head. He didn’t even know that they’d been referring to him, whoever they were. That was just a relic from his days before the ferryman – back when everyone had been … no, when he had assumed everyone had been watching him and talking about him.
He sighed, and stepped into a café, purchased a cup of plain tea and drank it quickly at a table by the window. It was getting towards late afternoon and the café was near to closing. A tram rattled by on the street outside, travellers clinging to it both inside and outside. It was overcast and might rain later. The woman walking past the window was holding an umbrella in green, matching her coat. Wilom wondered whether she had an umbrella to match all her coats, whether this was just the coat that happened to match her umbrella, or perhaps whether she only had the one coat and umbrella, so they always matched. The baker across the street was pulling wares in from the window and bagging them to sell at a discount at the end of the day. He wouldn’t have much luck selling any of the iced buns at this time of day, since anyone on the way home would have already bought treats for their children long since. Bread rolls might still sell – usually they were gone by the end of the day.
Wilom shook his head. He hadn’t thought he’d been paying that much attention to the bakeries as he passed, but for some reason the images of the breads and pastries had flashed through his mind like he was watching them being bagged and sold in front of his eyes. He was tired, and come to think of it, he hadn’t eaten in a while. He should get home.
He shook his head, put his teacup on the bench, thanked the waiter without even really registering that he had spoken at all, and left.
Jilli and Cathlin were already at Marc’s house, waiting for him. As soon as he walked through the door, Jilli abandoned the mixing bowl full of biscuit dough and ran at him.
“You got home too early!” she said. “We were supposed to have them done for you when you got back!”
“That’s alright,” Wilom said. “I’ll act surprised when you take them out of the oven. They smell amazing. Honey oat?”
Jilli nodded. “With raspberry jam!”
There was no mail for him, as usual. He wondered which ledger he’d reread today. But that was a very tedious prospect, so instead, Wilom sat down at the dining table to talk to Jilli and Cathlin.
“So, how was work?” Cathlin asked.
“Did you have to talk to anyone really rude?” Jilli asked.
“Nobody rude at all,” Wilom said. “Today, everybody was very nice.”
“That’s good. If someone is mean, can you tell Mama and I what you said to them?”
“Of course. Why do you want to know?”
“Because Mama said yesterday that she’ll make me deal with all the rude customers if I’m naughty,” Jilli said, “And because Mama’s stories of the rude customers at her old shop are always funny.”
“Come on, Jilli, don’t get distracted. Help me with the biscuits, or you’ll have to go to sleep before you have any.”
Jilli resumed spooning mixture out onto a floured baking tray.
“Have you two had fun today?” Wilom asked, directing the question more at Cathlin than at Jilli.
“Oh, I think we have,” Cathlin said. “It’s been good not to be able to worry for a day. But I still think I’d like things to go a little quicker.”
Wilom nodded. “If you don’t mind my asking, you said that your son had gone to the war. Did you ever hear back from him?” As soon as he said it, he realised he probably shouldn’t have asked around Jilli.
Cathlin smiled softly at the tray of biscuits.
“Yes, we finally got a letter today. Letters are hard to get through, they say, but he managed one, at least. He’s doing well, he says, and he was allowed a week’s leave. He’ll be back on the front lines again now, of course. But for a while, he said, he was on leave.” She chuckled. “Probably spending all his time with his friends around the villages, too busy to write us.”
“I know that’s what I’d be doing, were I his age.”
“How old are you?” Jilli asked.
“Not old enough to know better.”
She gave him an exasperated look, and he chuckled, falling back on an old lie he’d told on the River. “Sorry. I’ll be twenty-five in a few months.”
Jilli frowned at him. “Only twenty-five?”
“Mm-hmm. Nearly twenty-five. Does that sound odd to you?”
“No …” Jilli said. “It’s just that Mama’s thirty-five, and you act like her. And sometimes …” she hesitated, before ploughing on, “Sometimes, you act like Grandpa.”
“Jilli!” Cathlin cautioned.
Wilom laughed. “Do I really? Well, is your grandpa smart or funny?”
“I suppose. But he’s really silly sometimes.”
“That must be it, then. We’re just both smart, funny, and really silly.”
Jilli giggled and jumped off her stool to watch Cathlin put the biscuits in the oven. Cathlin stood up and wiped her brow.
“Now, we’ve got to watch those closely,” she said to Jilli, “Because otherwise, they might burn.” She set the egg timer. “And you’re in charge of listening for this. When it goes off, you have to let us know, so we can get them out of the oven.”
Jilli nodded, and went to get her toy soldier box.
Wilom rubbed his forehead. He had an odd feeling in his head – not a headache, just an odd pressure, or a sensation he couldn’t quite place.
“You seem out of sorts,” Cathlin said.
Wilom didn’t see a point in lying. “I’m alright,” he said. “Work is stressful.”
“Anything I can help with?”
“No. It’s just been a long day,” Wilom said.
Cathlin nodded. “Could you take Jilli on your day off tomorrow, then? It’d be a load off my mind, and maybe if you had something to occupy yours…”
“Turns out I’m working tomorrow. Sorry.” It came out shorter than he meant.
Cathlin hesitated, then shrugged. “I’ll send her to a friend’s, then.”
What the hell was he doing? He could feel Cathlin’s stress from here, and he’d snapped at her. He could practically hear the ferryman chiding him.
They fell silent for a minute, as Jilli terrorised her tin men with a plush tiger, making thematically-appropriate ‘raarr’ noises.
“Marc will be home soon,” Cathlin said. “Should we get a start on dinner?”
“Yes,” Wilom said. “An early night might do me good, I think.”
Several hours later, Wilom was still lying awake, staring at the ceiling. He’d thought he was so tired earlier – where had that gone?
Jilli’s surprise that he was only twenty-five had rankled a little, if he was being honest. It wasn’t that he was worried about getting old – that, if Vanda was right, wasn’t a concern anymore. Nobody on the River had ever questioned his age when he’d told them, and nor had anyone back in the living world, except her. He’d always thought the age twenty-five rather suited him.
Or did it? The more he thought about it, the more the thought of being twenty-five left an odd taste in his mouth. Not a sour taste, but not a pleasant one, either. Twenty-five all of a sudden seemed awfully young. Perhaps he should start telling people that he was older, but honestly, looking in the mirror, he didn’t think he could pass for any older than twenty-five.
When he was young, he’d always believed that Gloves could have passed for forty in the right light. Nowadays that was seeming less and less likely.
Gloves. Well, it wasn’t like he was sleeping anyway. He got out of bed and pulled the address out of his bedside drawer. He ran a hand over the address on the paper, and then put it back.
On one hand, he desperately wanted to see Gloves. He wanted to sit down and talk, just like old times, wanted to share memories with the one bloody person he could still share them with.
On the other hand …
Wilom, for all appearances, would still be only twenty-five. Would Gloves even want to share a beer with him, and talk about old times? Would Gloves even believe he was who he said he was?
Wilom wasn’t sure which would be more painful: if Gloves thought he was lying and shouted him out of the house, or if he believed him, and was hurt that Wilom had never visited.
The address was right there. He had everything he needed.
“I’ll think about it later,” Wilom said aloud, trying to drown out the echo of the ferryman’s voice in his head.