At Marc’s house, Cathlin was sorting through a pile of mail. Jilli was playing with her bear and a doll at the other end of the table, and Marc was chopping carrots.
“There’s one here for you,” Cathlin said, and pushed it across the table to Wilom.
We have assessed your salary, and found it to be below the average for your age. We would like to remind you that the military currently has many work positions available, at very attractive salaries. It’s not just the front line! Everyone can do their part! Feel free to ask us what position might be right for you.
Capital Unemployment Office
Well, that was a supremely unattractive prospect. He put the letter back into its envelope.
Just as he was getting up to throw it away, he was stopped by the sudden change in atmosphere in the room. He looked up. Cathlin was reading a letter, expressions flitting across her face.
He and Marc exchanged a glance, then Wilom said, “Jilli?”
“Would you like to come for a walk with me?” he asked.
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve had a long day, so I thought we could go and buy a treat for dessert.”
Jilli jumped up instantly. “Yes!” she said. “Can I choose?”
“That’s why I wan you to come. I don’t know much about desserts, and I need you to choose for me.”
Cathlin and Marc watched them until Wilom shut the door behind him.
As they walked, Jilli babbled happily, sometimes to Wilom, sometimes to the doll in her hand, sometimes possibly to both. As soon as they got to the store, she ran to the ice box section.
Wilom had been somewhat fascinated with the tubs of ice cream since he’d arrived in the city. After all … what, actually, was it?
Jilli stood on her tiptoes to look into the top of the ice boxes.
Jilli grabbed the glass pane over the ice cream tubs and tried to pull it aside, but she didn’t have enough grip or leverage in her small arms, and Wilom had to help her slide it across. She pulled out two different sizes.
“That one,” Wilom said, pointing to the smaller one.
“Really? Marc eats a lot of ice cream,” Jilli said, very seriously.
Wilom chuckled. “Nice try. But I’m sure he’ll survive. Go on, put the other one back.”
Jilli sighed. She nearly tipped into the ice box herself, trying to put the bigger tub back in.
“Wilom, we should get some fruit, too.”
“Alright,” Wilom agreed. “Pears or peaches?”
“Peaches,” Jilli said firmly. “Peaches are Mama’s favourite.”
Wilom pulled a large tin of peaches off a high shelf, and handed over the money at the counter. He probably shouldn’t have spent that money, he thought as he handed the ice cream and peaches to Jilli, admonishing her not to drop them. She tucked them both into her arms, beside the doll, walking deliberately slowly. Wilom let her, even though the ice-cream would definitely be melted by the time they got back. Best to leave Cathlin for as long as possible.
Cathlin and Marc had returned to what they were doing when Wilom and Jilli returned. In front of Cathlin was a pile of torn paper and a crumpled envelope, letter shoved back into it.
“We have ice cream and peaches, for after dinner!” Jilli announced. She handed the containers to Marc. “But Wilom said we had to get the small one, Marc, so you won’t have much …”
Marc laughed. “It’s OK. I’ll eat a lot of dinner and I’ll be too full for a lot of ice cream. Can you put the ice cream in the ice box, so it doesn’t melt?”
“What about the peaches?”
“They can go on the bench. Thanks for going to get those,” Marc said, directing the last part at Wilom.
“No problem,” Wilom said.
“I’m going to my room,” Jilli said. “Dolly needs to be put to bed, and she’s not a very good sleeper.”
“Go on, then,” Marc said. “She has to be asleep before it’s time for you to have dinner, so you’d better go now.”
Wilom sat down at the table. “Something go wrong?” he asked, once Jilli was gone and no longer paying attention to any conversation she might hear from them.
Cathlin slid the letter over to him, smoothing out the wrinkles a little.
It wasn’t about her son. Wilom put a hand near the letter, a silent request to read it.
She waved at him dismissively. “Go ahead.”
Wilom scanned the letter quickly.
We hope this letter finds you well. It has come to our attention that your registered business has not yet begun to earn a viable profit. In light of this and the new compulsory service requirements, we would like to offer you an alternative. Our supply chains are always looking for more hands! In the Army, in addition to being paid for your work, you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are helping your neighbour, and your country!
Please report to the Capital Government Supply Offices (formerly the Capital Unemployment Offices) with your answer within 72 hours.
And then some signatures at the bottom, from people Wilom was sure were too busy to be personally sending letters to unemployed store owners, but who might have the thirty seconds to sign a page shoved in front of them.
Wilom put his hand on Cathlin’s arm. The Ferryman’s Knowledge was supplying comforting phrases.
Maybe just this once …
He felt a little sick to be giving in, but this was important. “I know you don’t want to hear this,” he said quietly, “But at least this way you’ll be able to stay with Jilli.”
“And the best I’m likely to get, I know,” Cathlin said, pushing her hair away from her face. “Better than a lot of people get.”
Wilom nodded. “Still … it’s not easy.”
“It’s worse than that!” Cathlin burst out. “It’s worse than hard! It’s impossible and inevitable and … and unfair! I just … feel so stupid that I didn’t see this coming.” She buried her hands in the torn pieces of envelopes and letters. “I’m being selfish,” she said.
“Sometimes that’s necessary,” Wilom said. “For a little while.”
“No,” Cathlin said. “But it’s nice of you to say so.”
“You don’t agree?” Wilom asked.
Cathlin gave him the sad smile that he’d seen a few times when she talked about work, or her son. “I have a daughter. Being selfish isn’t really a luxury I get much of anymore,” she said. “It’s only putting off what needs to be done in order to make myself feel better.”
Cathlin wanted to talk to Jilli. She was worried Jilli had heard her shouting, and wanted to make sure she was alright.
“Do you want me to set the table?” Wilom asked.
“I can serve whenever you’re ready,” Marc told her.
Cathlin scooped the scraps of paper from the table into her hand. “I’ll be back in just a minute … if that’s alright.”
“Just fine,” Marc assured her.
Cathlin stood up from dumping the scraps of paper in the bin, and gave them both a wry smile. “Well. I suppose my son and I will both have army stories to tell when he gets back.”