16 September 1777
Tonight unfolded like any other of the season. Sir John's party was gay enough to be sure. All the names were present but I was fearfully bored. Father has been waylaid in Plymouth this past week, so Edward escorted mother and I with his approval. I must note that father expects Edward to ask for my hand soon and I know he shall give his consent for it is a very fine match. I do not wish to dwell on it but I should think that this time next season, for better or for worse, I shall be Mrs Edward Walsh...though I know full well my heart yearns for another. Someone who is intelligent where Edward is slow-witted, interesting rather than dull and so very handsome when compared to Edward's rather homely features. Oh I know looks should count for naught but if you could just see W! Wonderful, precious W whom I have not seen for months. W whom I was delighted to reacquaint myself with tonight at Sir John's party. The moment our eyes met, it was clear that neither of us had forgotten the last, lingering kiss we shared in the Marlborough's stables that windswept spring day. I would have liked for nothing more in the world than to resume that kiss, for W to sweep me close and smother me with those lips. As we stared at one another, my bosom heaved as though the kiss were a reality and not mere fantasy. I found myself imaging W's hands roaming over my flesh. I was lost. It was a summons from Edward that broke me out of my reverie and I awoke from the dream in W's eyes. I barely had time to whisper a promise of a more intimate meeting before W too was summoned away by Abraham and I stood alone in the crowded room. The whole time we had laid not one finger on each other, nor even taken one step closer together, yet I could remember the touch of her hands on my flesh.
When I returned to Edward he questioned me as to what W and I conversed about, "The state of the roads and the weather," remarked I (for both have indeed been dreadful this season).
If Edward detected my lie he said nothing and continued in his boring voice, "W does look particularly well."
I almost choked for a moment, so ridiculously unsuitable were his words!
"No," I replied in a moment of utter abandon, "She looks beautiful."
Willow Rosenberg was in her element. She was perched behind a desk every bit as large as that belonging to Lara Croft. The fact that it had seen better days did not seem to worry her in the slightest. The desk's entire surface was stacked high with all manner of books and manuscripts with no apparent rhyme or reason to their organisation. Even the space directly in front of Willow was stacked with paper. Every so often she scribbled with mad energy on the topmost sheet, dipping her pen in an ink jar balanced atop a stack of books. She would them resume reading the text that lay in her lap until her next bout of scribbling.
A loud rap startled Willow. She jerked upright from where she was hunched over the text and one hand hit the lip of her desk. If the desk had been any less solid, there would have been a disaster involving puddles of ink and priceless manuscripts. As it was, Willow shook her hand up and down furiously as she turned to see Faith standing in her office doorway.
Faith glanced up at the single lightbulb that dangled overhead and squinted at its feeble light, "It's a wonder you do not go blind Will, how can you see anything in this gloom?'
Willow's brow furrowed and she studied her tiny office as though she had not noticed. A small amount of natural light filtered down from the slit of a window just below the ceiling. The overcast skies outside and heavy grill covering the glass combined to make it smaller still. In response to Faith's question Willow shrugged, she could see everything just fine. There were walls of books stacked to the ceiling and more stacked on the floor. In fact, besides the desk and a rag rug on the floor, books were the only real furnishings. There was little else in the room besides a few artefacts that Faith had brought back from her travels around the globe. A Native American dreamcatcher above her desk (as Willow tended to do most of her sleeping there), an assortment of rather wicked looking African war spears stacked in one corner, sever idols crammed into available nooks on the shelves and a cavalry sabre that had been in Willow's family for generations in pride of place above the doorway.
"I have excellent eyesight," Willow answered quickly, she appeared a little furtive and her gaze kept twitching back to the manuscript in front of her, "What do you want?"
Faith arched an eyebrow. She knew exactly what that tone in Willow's voice indicated. Whatever it was that she was working on had engrossed her to the point where she could not bear to be interrupted.
"A better question is what is so important that it could keep you from coming to see me off before I leave for the dark and mysterious depths of Eastern Europe from which I may never return?" Faith fired the question back at Willow.
Willow looked decidedly guilty in response, "I'm sorry...these texts..."
"Yes I know, 'these texts were so fascinating that I could not draw myself away to say farewell to my dearest friend,'" Faith imitated Willow's scholarly tone, "You should be ashamed of yourself, Rosenberg, now come and assist with my preparations to atone for your crime!"
Faith reached down and grabbed Willow's wrist in order to haul her up and out of her seat. Willow protested only at the movement of her crooked and stiffened limbs. She was made to move much too fast, too soon but Faith did not seem to notice or care.
Willow's office may have been in the basement of the British Museum but there were other levels deeper down and far more private than her little den. This was where Faith now led her, into the warrens where the majority of their department was based far away from the museum's day-to-day staff. A solitary black-coated man let them through a rather rickety looking elevator at the end of a dark corridor. To an outsider, it looked like the repository for the Museum's garbage. Their department's staff had perpetuated that appearance by never cleaning the rusty wrought iron cage and there was one spot in the elevator's wooden floor that was completely rotten where all knew not to put their foot.
If anyone asked Willow or Faith what their department was actually called they would simply reply 'The Department of Oddities' and not offer any further explanation. However Faith once went as far to reply to one dismissive curator that it was the department of 'phenomena that everyone else ignores.' Both Willow and Faith liked that particular explanation as it summed up the truth of their world quite nicely. No one else wanted to believe that creatures such as vampires, demons and ghouls walked the shadows of the world. Faith had saved countless people from a hideous death and they had been none the wiser for it and not in the least bit grateful. Once Willow's research and Faith's brawn had saved the world from the hell god, Ataxerxes, preventing his resurrection and subsequent storms of fire and brimstone...again, the rest of the world had not paused to notice save for a page two reference in The Times to the wanton vandalism of an ancient Persian tomb. Faith had destroyed the tomb in order to prevent a repeat performance seven hundred and fifty years later.
The corridors two stories below ground were much the same as those above, although of course lacking windows. An abundant smattering of paintings covered the walls attempted to compensate for lack of a view. While picturesque landscapes could have served the purpose, most of the paintings were of old men in stiff, formal poses. There was one particular painting of the formidable 'Abraham Van Helsing,' that Willow hated to look at. Old 'Abe' as Faith called him, unnerved Willow every time she passed. Faith also teased her mercilessly about her resemblance to the old man, Willow could see very little of this other than that they both had bright green eyes.
Willow passed old 'Abe' now, and he appeared to be staring down his nose at her just as he always did. She turned up her own nose in defiance as she passed and gratefully followed Faith through a door bearing a heavy brass plaque stating, 'Implements and Inventions.' Someone had affixed a ratty piece of paper above the plaque bearing a single name, Dr Rupert Giles.
"Faith, Willow, come in ladies, come in!" the very man himself greeted them warmly as soon as they entered, even though they could not see him in the gloom.
The room was in complete darkness. Willow shivered as the shadows pressed in on her from all sides, she hated the dark. Subconsciously she began edging backwards towards the door and the lit corridor outside. Icy fingers gripped her arm and she yelped audibly. Spinning around she found the outline of Myles' face staring back at her, his white teeth flashing in a smile.
A beam a light suddenly cut through the darkness, and then a second. Willow shielded her eyes with her fingers as it shone directly into her eyes.
"Giles, what is that?" Faith asked with some excitement, Willow saw her move forward to the source of the light.
"Master Myles, the lights if you please," Giles waved the beam in Myles' face.
Willow sighed with relief as the room was once again light up completely to reveal Giles perched on his stool behind his work desk. He held in his hands two metal tubes with bulbs at one end. A small switch on the side was flicked and the bulbs went out.
"I call it a beamlight, some chap was designing a decorative device for potted plants, would never make any money of course...but I saw its potential for this!" Giles waved one of his tube devices excitedly, "A simple tube containing batteries connected to a bulb. The original zinc-carbon batteries ran down too quickly but I simply switched them to ones of my own creation with an alkaline/manganese core and voila, portable electric light for all those dark places."
"Great idea...stupid name," Faith commented as she accepted the pair that Giles handed her.
"Here's one for you too, Willow," Giles passed another of his little tubes across the table.
Willow nodded her thanks and looked down at the portable light, for someone who was afraid of the dark, it was a great gift.
Willow shared a close relationship with the inventor, she thought of him as a father figure, although would never actually admit it to him. Although in truth she had spent more time with him than her own father and known him almost as long. Giles had been her very first tutor, or rather, her brother's tutor. At first she had hid in the closet during Alex's lessons until an inadvertent sneeze had given her away. Rather than banish her from the schoolroom, Giles had allowed her to stay. He even stood up to her mother's protestations that little girls did not need to receive the same education as boys. As a result, Willow had started early on Greek, Latin and the Classics up until Giles had been dismissed shortly after her brother's death. Giles remained a figure throughout her childhood and on into adolescence although their communication was almost solely through the mail. He would send her books on archaeology, puzzles and ciphers for her to work out, and translation lessons to complete and post back for marking. While Willow continued to have a succession of tutors appointed by her mother, her real learning took place by mail.
She did not see Giles again until she was seventeen, at which time she had learnt of his approach to her parents with the suggestion that she attend Girton College, the first residential college for women in England. Willow remained uncertain exactly why her father had taken up Giles' suggestion and allowed her to enrol in the College despite the fact that public opinion would deny women access to higher education at all. Giles himself remained close-mouthed on the conversation that had taken place between him and her father. For someone who enjoyed unravelling mysteries as much as Willow, it was a source of constant irritation.
The College taught women on the same level as men although they were not allowed to take degrees. Willow had however excelled in every subject and examination. Her path from Girton to the British Museum had also been surprisingly easy, especially as Willow had prepared herself to face the realities of her sex upon leaving the college at the age of twenty. She did not expect to find gainful employment of any kind, let alone an occupation as stimulating and with as much scope as the one in which she found herself. Giles had once again stepped in with an invitation to work in the Department of Oddities at the British Museum. While Willow had found her initial induction into the Department's weird and dangerous doings hard to stomach, she soon found that it was still just research...although infinitely more fascinating.
"Willow doesn't need a bloody light!" Faith protested as she saw Giles pass one to Willow, "She doesn't leave London let alone travel to the dark places I do!"
"Faith," Giles growled, "Stop being ungrateful, "Besides, I've several other items here that might also interest you..."
As Faith allowed herself to be distracted by a self-loading crossbow that fired silver bolts, Willow and Myles found an immense amount of enjoyment in trying out the beamlight. The two acted like children as they crawled beneath the benches in Giles' office and discovered all manner of discarded bits and bobs on the floor with the light. Giles did not even notice their antics until he had finished loading Faith's bag full of weird instruments almost half an hour later. He glanced up to see Myles and Willow poking and prodding at a glass jar containing a large, pink, gelatinous object swimming a clear liquid.
"You two, put that down!" he squeaked, practically leaping across the distance that separated him from the two troublemakers.
"What is it?" Myles asked in fascination, allowing Giles to take the jar out of his hands.
"The heart of a Cretan Minotaur," Giles replied, "He now stalks the halls of the British Museum as a ghost, slicing the hands off little boys who touch things that they ought not to!"
Willow giggled at the horrified look on Myles' face and turned her attention back to Faith, who was strapping up the hefty bag Giles had given her. She put on her best apologetic expression as Faith noticed she was looking and glanced across at her.
"Faith," Willow began in a small voice, "I'm awfully sorry about how rude I was earlier but I was wondering if you would be able..."
"Yes Willow, I will bring you back as many books as I can carry," Faith did not even need to hear the rest of the researcher's question to know exactly what it was she would ask for, "Satisfied?"
"Yes, very...safe travels, Faith," Willow said sincerely, "I guess we'll see you when you get back...with an armload of books."
"Don't get up to any mischief while I'm gone...either of you!" Faith warned, pointing her finger at Willow and Myles in turn.
Faith took a few last minute instructions from Giles before she hefted the bag onto her shoulder. Willow did not doubt that she would soon see the brunette strolling through the exact same door with a plethora of new tales to tell...and hopefully a few new books from a forgotten library. As Faith left, she spied a thin volume on Giles' desk with a promising title and began flipping through it.
Myles glanced up at Willow as Faith shut the door behind her. He poked her in the arm to get her to look up from the book she was browsing.
"Don't you want to ride off with her?" asked Myles with clear longing in his voice, "Just once?"
"Absolutely not," Willow replied promptly, "There's more than enough adventure for me in here."
"Well, it seems awfully exciting to me," Myles sighed wistfully, "But then the most exciting thing I usually get to do is polish the swords."
Myles picked up a wickedly sharp looking dagger with a carved handle inset with rubies and absently picked at the wooden desk beneath it.
"And that's all you'll be doing for the rest of your very short young life if you do not stop gouging holes in my table!" Giles snapped yet again, he then saw Willow trying to hide one of his books behind her back in order to sneak it out with her, "Out with the both of you...out!"
On Saturday afternoon of that week, Willow found herself standing on the top step of a quaint, well-proportioned terraced house owned by Ira and Sheila Rosenberg. She reached up to knock on the pale blue door but paused before she brought knuckles down as though contemplating turning around. However she knew that would only delay the inevitable. In order to play the part of dutiful daughter, she had to actually spend time with her parents once in a while no matter how unpleasant the task was. Besides, she had donned a skirt and shirt for the occasion so she thought she may as well torture herself further.
Willow knocked on the door twice and barely had to wait two seconds before a stiff backed butler swung it open to allow her entrance. She had barely placed a foot over the threshold when she was engulfed by a tiny storm in mauve taffeta and white lace. Willow drew in a huge gulp of air before arms went around her neck and threatened to strangle her. It seemed like an eternity as the taffeta clad strangler danced around her much too enthusiastically. On the verge of passing out, Willow was forced to push the miniature storm away and hold it at arms length.
"Mother, please!" Willow cried in desperation.
Shelia Rosenberg finally accepted that her daughter did not appreciate the over-enthusiastic greeting and allowed her a minimal amount of breathing space. She did however maintain a strong grip on Willow's elbow as though fearing she might run away again.
Shelia carried the same shade of red hair as her daughter but while Willow's hair sat straight and plain down to her shoulders; hers was piled atop her head in an elaborate mass of curls in an attempt to add height. Where Willow had hardly any meat on her bones, Sheila was in danger of having too much. Her bosom strained against the taffeta trying to keep it at bay. She carried with her the faint but sickly aroma of chocolate and candied fruit as well as far too much apple blossom fragrance in an effort to disguise the former.
"You'll forgive your mother won't you Wilhelmina, we don't see you very often!" Shelia beamed, rosy cheeks sparkling as she sized her daughter up.
Willow sighed heartily at the sound of her given name, "I prefer Willow...everyone else I know is more than happy to use it."
"Well your father and I are not 'everyone!'" Shelia replied shortly, for some reason she was pinching the flesh on Willow's upper arm, "No parent in their right mind would call their child Willow."
Willow had to physically fight her own body to stop herself from stomping her foot in angry exclamation as she had done so many times as child. The urge was fixed by turning her left foot inwards and standing on her own right foot.
"Well I feel like a Willow," Willow replied resolutely.
She suddenly noticed just how hard her mother was squeezing and she yanked her arm away. Shelia looked slightly take aback by the vehemence of Willow's reaction but she brushed it off with a small chuckle as though Willow was just being silly.
"You're awfully skinny darling, are you not eating? Well, it's a good thing cook has prepared the most sumptuous meal because you are in danger of fading into nothing!"
Willow nodded as though she were looking forward to the meal although in truth eating with her mother always ruined her appetite. Sheila was in the habit of talking constantly throughout the meal, barely giving Willow a chance to take a bite of anything before demanding conversation. Having grown up in such company, it was why Willow now preferred to eat alone.
Sheila led Willow through the house, all the while talking in an animated voice. Willow paid scant attention but all she was really required to do was nod at appropriate moments and largely agree with her mother's every word.
"Colonel!" Shelia bellowed suddenly as they entered the formal dining room, "Colonel!"
Despite Sheila's bellows, Ira Rosenberg did not see fit to join his wife and daughter until they were halfway through the first course. He did not appear to be the sort of man who would be ordered about by his wife. He too was of small stature but rather than compensate with his hair, of which he had none, Ira made up for it with his bearing. He carried himself with the military precision possessed only by someone who had spent the greater part of his life in the army which indeed Ira had. For nearly thirty years he had served in Her Majesty's Army, making a name for himself in the colonies and eventually being given a staff post in India. It was in India that he met Shelia who was a High Commissioner's daughter and where his two children were born. It was only with great reluctance that he retired and returned to England for his son's education. His military background persisted into civilian life and he was always referred to as 'Colonel,' even by his own wife.
He now paused to deposit the barest graze of a kiss on Willow's cheek with a murmured, "Daughter."
Willow caught a whiff of brandy as he leaned in close, it had always been present but now smelt stronger than ever.
"Good evening, Father," she replied, never being able to bring herself to call her own father 'Colonel.'
Ira quickly moved to his seat at the head of the table without a further glance in his daughter's direction. Willow sighed discreetly and ate another spoonful of the rich and creamy chicken soup; it was tasteless in her mouth.
The courses then flew by in a whirl of one-sided conversation. Shelia was exceptionally gifted at getting her point across with her mouth full and another forkful on the way. Willow just shifted her food around on her plate with her fork and felt what little she had eaten start to congeal in her stomach.
Willow desperately wanted to escape after dinner but before she knew what was happening her mother had ushered her into the sitting room and left her with no choice but to sit down. She deliberately chose the most uncomfortable chair in the room so as not to fall asleep when Shelia began plying her with suggestions of potential husbands, describing the merits of each in great detail. Her mother poured a large glass of red wine for herself and took a hefty gulp before starting on an all too familiar rant.
"Now that young Swainson lad, a year younger than you but I don't think he can afford to be picky with skin like his, now he would make a fine match. His family are involved in wool in Wiltshire and have a fine estate just outside of Westbury, it is Westbury isn't it Colonel?" Sheila craned her neck in her husband's direction but was nonplussed by his resulting bored shrug, "Well, I'm sure it's Westbury...wouldn't be too far for the Colonel and I to come and visit often."
Willow nodded in response, she was sure the 'Swainson lad' was nice enough whether he had skin problems or not, she was just not in the least bit excited by the prospect of marriage. The thought of her parents 'visiting often' almost brought on a small fit.
"Oooh!" Sheila exclaimed with delight and clapped her hands together as though she had just won at bridge, "Sir Joseph Pharazyn's wife died last month in childbirth, the poor thing was always a bit frail...it's a bit too soon to make a move now but perhaps next month we can invite ourselves to Banbury for tea. I've heard his children are very well-behaved, not that you have to worry about the children...that's what nannies are for."
Willow was sure that she had heard her mother state on several occasions that the seven Pharazyn children were horrid little devils. Although Willow had nothing against children, she did not think she could handle seven children...spawn of the devil or not.
Sheila pursed her lips together thoughtfully as she considered further options, "There's always Sir Joseph's brother, Robert, you've met him haven't you?"
"He stole my copy of Thucydides when we were ten," Willow growled as though it were the worst crime anyone could commit, "I haven't spoken to him since."
"That's wonderful dear, so you two will have something in common...I've heard he will be at the Barton's party next week where they're announcing Beth's engagement. Honestly, I don't know how a trollop like that could have landed a nice young man like Matthew Phelps. She is awfully homely...still, I suppose her dowry was 10,000 pounds and the Phelp's have never recovered from the old man's gambling debts," Sheila paused as though she had lost her train of thought, "Where was I? Oh, Robert...yes, you will have to attend the Barton's party. We should go to Crozier's this week to size you up for a new gown, I'm sure those ones I had made for you last season will hang on your body like sacks, you've lost so much weight."
Willow glanced downwards, quite sure that she was exactly the same size as she had been the previous year. In fact, she did not think she had gone up or down a size in the past ten years. Once she'd hit fifteen, she had stopped growing in any direction.
"I'm not much for parties," Willow managed to squeeze a word in as her mother took another gulp of wine, "I think..."
"Nonsense, where else are you supposed to get noticed!" Sheila cried.
"Well..." Willow wanted to say that she would prefer it if no one ever noticed her but Sheila had other ideas.
"You're actually quite pretty Wilhelmina...red hair is definitely not in fashion of course but that never prevented me from being snapped up by your father..."
Ira did not even look up from his copy of The Times, he merely grunted.
"...if you did something with your wretchedly awful hair and applied some more colour to your face...you would have no trouble in attracting scores of men. You're twenty-six..."
"Twenty-five," Willow corrected quietly.
Sheila did not miss a beat, "...and sooner or later people will start calling you a spinster to your face...they already do behind you back and how it vexes me so! It's a reflection on me as much as you."
Willow quite liked the idea of being labelled a spinster. Women in her mother's circle said the term in the same tone of voice as they might say 'leper' and she liked the prospect of being untouchable. Perhaps then her mother would leave all this talk of marriage and move onto more sensible topics of conversation like politics and war. Willow glanced across to her father, longing to discuss with him the major military build up in the Cape Colony and the likely prospect of another war. Instead he remained immersed in his paper. She turned her attention back to Sheila as she poured another glass of wine.
"Mother, I think I should..." Willow had had more than enough of her mother for one day.
"Or what about Foster's son, you know him," Sheila gestured at her husband with her wine glass, "Foster served in the 107th with you didn't he Colonel?"
"No backbone whatsoever," Ira grumbled over the top of the fourth page of The Times, his only addition to the conversation, "Won't have my daughter marrying the son of a coward!"
Sheila shrugged and took another long gulp from her glass before continuing with a list of further names.
On the whole Ira Rosenberg said very little, he remained seated on the very edge of his chair as he read his paper as though he were about to get up and leave at any time. He looked for all the world as though he wanted this torment to be over as soon as possible. It would not have bothered Willow so much if she did not remember sitting on his lap while he spoke of his adventures in the East, of foreign sights and spices. She could not remember exactly what he said, but always she would plead, "Tell us more Daddy!" The 'us' was referring to herself and her brother. Alexander was three years her elder and the apple of her father's eye. He often sat straight-backed on his stool in a manner imitating his father but always had patience for his sister. When Willow was five years old, the serious but kind-hearted boy was suddenly struck with a wasting illness. In just three days Alex was dead and both Ira and Shelia Rosenberg were forever changed. Ira retreated into the glory days of his past now that he was unable to live the life he had imagined through his son. Seemingly removing herself from all responsibilities as a mother, Shelia became self-centred and intent on allowing herself enough food and drink to satisfy an entire household.
Willow had then grown up under the care of a succession of nannies and tutors, most being driven away by her mother fairly quickly. It had been a lonely childhood until Willow had discovered that she had all the friends she could ever want between the pages of books. She devoured every written word that her eyes fell upon, beginning with the simple children's stories that adults saw fit for her to read. However, being an incredibly sharp young girl spurred on by interesting mail from Giles, Willow soon became dissatisfied with fairy tales. She discovered that behind the door of her father's study lay an entire world waiting to be discovered. There the young girl had wandered Ancient Greece with Odysseus, fled the fall of Troy with Aeneas, journeyed to the centre of the Earth with Verne and by the age of ten was grappling with Tolstoy. She suspected that her father had sent her to Girton not out of any progressive sentiments, but simply because he could see that she would not make a good wife for any man...she was wed to knowledge. Sheila however, had never come to this realisation and persisted in her match-making efforts much to Willow's disgust. She had even invited potential suitors to dine with them until Willow had refused to come to dinner unless the practice was discontinued.
Willow was saved from further humiliation on this occasion by the Rosenberg's butler entering with a tray of assorted chocolates. Shelia rubbed her hands together gleefully at the sight of the sweets and as she shovelled several in her mouth at once there was finally a pause in the conversation long enough for Willow to finally announce that she was leaving. It drew a most predictable response from her mother.
"But Wilhelmina darling, stay and have a drink with us!" Shelia pleaded even as she continued to chomp on the sweets crammed in her mouth.
Sheila rose from her couch and stumbled a little on her plump legs as she reached out to Willow. As the wine glass in her hand swayed dangerously, the antique Persian at her feet was saved only by the fact that the wine remaining in the glass was barely a stain at the bottom. Quite disgusted at her mother's lack of restraint, Willow took a noticeable step backwards in the direction of the door. She watched as her mother implored her with chocolate stained fingers. Her father remained seated, back stiff as a ramrod, on his perch. Willow knew, without him saying a word, that he did not care if she left. As soon as she was gone he would banish his wife to her own parlour and retire to his library to relive his life in India by drowning himself in brandy and smoking several thick cigars.
"I don't think so mother, you've had quite enough for the both of us," Willow replied bravely, further digging the grave marked for an ungrateful child.
Not normally driven to outright disrespect, Willow's nerves were completely frayed by the extended audience with her parents. For someone who relished solitude, being in the company of Shelia Rosenberg was like being in a crowd with everyone trying to talk at once.
Only the sound of such disrespectful words could have moved Ira Rosenberg to join in a conversation in which he had wanted no part. Talk of marriage was best left to his wife; his only part would be to bestow the blessing on a future son in law.
"You will apologise to your mother, Wilhemina," Ira rumbled quietly, stabbing his finger in Willow's direction.
Willow knew for a fact that her father expected his answer post haste. However, though the words were already on her lips, she found they would not come. Instead, she stared at the squat little man with his chin thrust forward, waiting for her to utter the apology and felt rebellion creep into her body. She knew full well that she should fight such thoughts down, keep them under control, but she was so tired of playing the dutiful daughter when her parents gave her absolutely nothing in return...nothing except an awful headache.
"I'm sorry Mother..." as Willow began she saw her father nod approvingly, "but I was just speaking the truth, you do drink too much and I for one would wish you to stop."
"Wilhemina!" Ira gasped angrily.
Willow turned on her father, "You would wish her to stop too...if only you actually cared."
As she turned to leave, Willow could hear Ira's teeth grinding and her mother making little strangled noises as she struggled to draw a proper breath. She half expected her father to physically stop her from leaving and demand a second, sincere apology but there was no move made. As soon as she was out of that stifling room, Willow ran the rest of the way to the front door and out of the house. Once outside she slowed to a fast walk but did not turn and look back.
Without realising it Willow's feet did not take her back to her little flat as she had originally intended. Instead she found herself tracing a path that she rarely used, past the brightly lit windows of London's finest stores. She dodged strolling couples uncomfortably, feeling as though their eyes were always on her. Men in tipped their bowler hats to her and most often she barely managed a shy smile in return as she scurried past. Willow thought of her homey flat and wondered again why on earth she was walking the streets of London, alone and nearing dark, when she could be tucked up with the Thomas Hardy novel that she had been trying to find the time to read.
Her internal question was answered several minutes later when she found herself standing in exactly the same spot in which she had stood the previous afternoon. She surveyed the park, no longer lit up with bright sunshine but descending into the long shadows of night. One thing was the same however, sitting on the park bench exactly where she had left it in such a hurry, was her tin lunch box. She crossed to the bench and picked her favourite lunch box up with some relief. Her fingers traced its familiar lines as though there was something about it that was different. The feeling was so intense that she half expected to find something odd concealed inside. All she found were a few sandwich crumbs.
Willow rapped her knuckles on the lid of the box, a hollow sound in the almost empty park. When a few passers by scurried past her as though she were quite mad, Willow realised that she had been staring at the spot where she had seen the mysterious blonde woman. Her lips parted slightly as she drew in a breath, trying to work out a rational explanation for her actions. Rather than accept the possibility that she'd walked several blocks to stare at a spot where a stranger had once stood, Willow concluded that she had come to find her lunchbox.
You've got your lunchbox Willow, she thought, tucking the ordinary tin box under her arm, There's absolutely no other reason for you to be standing in the park...alone...and it's getting dark...
As Willow made her second hasty exit from the park in as many days, she too began to believe she was quite mad. She glanced up ahead and saw the one place where she knew she could restore her sanity and put what had been an awful day behind her. At 5.30pm on a Saturday evening, Willow Rosenberg ducked through the employee's entrance to the British Museum. Security guards and cleaners greeted her warmly as she passed by on her way down to her basement. While Willow managed a smile for each, she did not stop until she reached her office. Only when the door was closed firmly behind her did she feel like her old self. The papers on her desk beckoned like old friends and she eagerly sat down to bury herself in something she could actually understand.
Myles found her still at her desk in the morning when he started work...sprawled fast asleep across her papers with an ink-stained thumb.