William Through Time by Harmke Buursma

1

The Waddling Duck

A stiff October breeze blew across the London streets; digging its icy teeth into my skin. I pulled up the collar of my jacket as I crossed the street, my face hardly recognizable in the dark. But I remained vigilant.

Last night, I had one of my nightmares. It felt so real it left me reeling; its after effects haunting me my entire day. So much so, that I needed to be in the company of others. The place I was headed—The Waddling Duck— was a bit of a refuge. A place you could go to be around like-minded people, to be yourself even if polite society wouldn’t accept those parts of yourself.

I was flirting with danger every time I visited this place. There was no doubt about it. But the same went for the other patrons. We all risked getting caught whenever we visited. Only last week, the London constabulary raided a different “disorderly” house.

It seemed only a matter of time before they came knocking down the doors of Mary Duck’s safe haven for anyone who was different. Being caught meant I risked exposing myself, my truth, to everyone in England. I could be thrown in jail or strapped to a pillory for the masses to mock, eschewed by my peers.

Mary did have a few fail safes; runners—young street urchins who kept an eye out on the streets— that would alert Mary and the rest of the clientèle that constables were on their way. This could provide everyone inside precious minutes to flee the scene. Thankfully, that had never happened the entire time I frequented the establishment.

My hand skimmed the slight bump beneath my coat. James’ ring. We’d exchanged our family rings in private one night while the other men in our battalion were fast asleep. His bore his family’s crest while mine had been an embossed C for my surname. That’s when we had made the promise to each other—to live together, to love together. They were tokens of a future for the both of us. Ever since, I carried it in my breast pocket. However, instead of a symbol of what was to come, it was now a reminder of what I’d lost.

Reaching the unassuming house, I raised my hand automatically and knocked five times; three fast and two slow. A plump woman dressed in menswear opened the door and ushered me in.

I felt guilty sometimes for even going. I’d promised my friend John that I’d be careful, that I’d be safe. I kept part of that promise; I no longer lost myself in gambling. But this was one part of myself that I couldn’t give up or deny. I craved connection, not necessarily of the flesh, more like a sense of belonging. And that was what The Waddling Duck provided. That’s why I kept coming. But perhaps it was also the sense of danger that permeated every moment, the thrill of doing something deemed forbidden.

Shrugging out of my jacket, I surveyed the room for a spot to sit. Two cross dressers, regular visitors at The Waddling Duck, lifted their glasses to me as I entered the main room before returning to their animated conversation. Grabbing a glass of whiskey from a tray, I slumped down into one of the tufted chairs, then raised my glass as well. A barely dressed young man sang in a high-pitched voice while another accompanied him on a piano.

This room was used for socializing, but for men and women looking to go somewhere more private, there were rooms available. In the case that you arrived alone, you could also find someone that suited your tastes. Mary Duck, the proprietress, would make sure of that. I rarely took her up on her offer to find someone to warm my bed, though she couldn't complain; I paid handsomely to simply sit in a chair and savor a glass of whiskey.

She'd asked me before why, if all I wanted to do was to sit and drink, I wouldn't just go to any regular gentlemen's club. I suppose she had a point. Mary had said it bluntly in her broad accent that revealed humbler origins than the satin dresses she wore would have you believe. This ability to create a place where you could be seen how you wanted to be seen was exactly what made me admire the proprietress. I joked that it was her friendly service that kept me coming back. She raised her eyebrows, let out a loud boisterous laugh, and left to order one of her “boys” to service a client.

I lazily swirled the glass of amber liquid in my right hand, raised it to my mouth, and threw it back. Luxurious velvet furniture, colorful drapes, and men and women of all ages filled the room. A slender man, dressed in a too short silk gown, with feathery scarfs draped across his neck, approached me.

"Anything you are looking for, handsome?" he said, using the tail end of one of his scarfs to brush my cheek. The soft plumes tickling the short stubble on my face. "I can keep you company tonight." I flinched a little, which he noticed. "Or we can just talk. I’ve been told I'm a great listener."

"Some company sounds enjoyable," I said. He had expressive brown eyes and a gentle demeanor. Perhaps spending some time in the company of another man wouldn't hurt.

“Follow me,” he said, winking, as he held out his hand. I slid my hand into his. “Let’s go somewhere a little more private.”

I followed him up the stairs and into one of the small rooms. Then I plopped down on a bed covered in a lilac bedspread. The space was empty besides the bed and a single wooden chair. But I supposed the private rooms didn’t really need much more than that. The Waddling Duck had other rooms for different types of entertainment— rooms filled with wardrobes of all styles and lounges to host private parties. Choice was key.

"Now," the slender man said, as he perched himself beside me and trailed a finger along my bicep. "What would you like to talk about?"

I let myself fall back in to the mattress, which was slightly springy, and stretched my arms behind my head. “I’m not sure.” And I wasn’t. The sole reason I was here this evening was because I didn’t want to be alone.

"You must be full of stories," the man said, leaning back and sliding his palm up from my arm to my chest. "What are you doing here?"

"The same as the other patrons, I assume."

The slender man draped in scarfs didn’t know how to reply to my brusque answer. I felt a bit sorry; it wasn’t his fault that I wasn’t feeling very social. I already regretted following him up the stairs. From the start, I had been in a sour mood, since my nightmares had woken me up. As they frequently did.

I was at war with myself. I wanted to make a connection with someone, anyone. Just so I knew I could. I needed to know that that part of me hadn’t died with James. But when it came to it, I wasn’t able to. I’d push everyone away. I was tired of feeling numb, of walking through life in a haze.

The man rolled onto his stomach, supporting his chin with his palms. “Why don’t you tell me a little bit about yourself?” he continued, changing his tactic. “How come a gentleman such as yourself is spending his night alone at The Waddling Duck? Surely, there are many other social opportunities for such a man to go to.”

“Surely, such a gentleman isn't alone since he is in fact currently spending his time with you."

"Touché, Monsieur," he said in a put-on French accent. "Well, then such a gentleman might be in a mood to entertain his companion with a tale?" The man raised himself to his knees and lifted the plumes of his scarfs, letting them fall around me. With the back of his hand, he brushed the feathers along my skin. "What happened here?" he said, as he reached the scar that marred the side of my face.

"It's nothing," I said. He brushed my temple again. I pulled my cheek away.

"Scars give a man character," he said with a wink. "I'd love to learn more."

"I don't want to talk about it." He reached out his hand again, but I grabbed a hold of his wrist before he could touch my cheek. "I said no."

"I'm only trying to make light conversation," the man sputtered. I pushed him aside and got off the bed.

"I don't think I'm feeling up to light conversation," I said, crossing the space between the bed and the door.

"Wait, what about my fee? I did lead you to a private room." I bit my lip and fished a coin out of my pocket. Throwing it to the man now sitting on the edge of the bed, I turned and strode out of the room.

What had I been thinking, following a stranger into a private room? I was in no mood to swap stories. And even if I had wanted to be entertained for a while, as soon as he touched my scar, I got pulled out of the moment. I didn't blame the man, even if he couldn't take a hint. Shaking off the incident, I found myself more liquor, then returned to the chair in the main room.

A while later, the man dressed in feather scarfs returned. His eyes flashed to me before turning to other men sitting by themselves. He quickly found another potential customer which he led back to another private room. I emptied my glass and set it down on a table.

"Another drink?" one of Mary's “boys” offered. Usually, I would stay longer, enjoying the sense of belonging, but today the noise of people laughing and singing together didn't feel like freedom. It grated my nerves. The heat from the fireplace and the swig of cheap whiskey mingled and made me lightheaded.

“I've had enough," I said to him.

"Something else perhaps?" He jutted out his hip and let his eyes glide over me.

I shook my head. "Not tonight." Then, I stood and retrieved my jacket. My hand lingering on the round metal object I kept in my breast pocket.

The brisk air felt refreshing against my heated cheeks when I exited Mary's establishment. I tightened my jacket around myself and pressed my hands into its pockets. Only a few blocks to go before I could order a carriage to take me back to my apartments.

I was being unusually melancholy this evening. I knew the reason. However, knowing why I was feeling a certain way didn't stop the feelings from happening. Weeks could pass where I hardly thought of James except for a random memory here and there. Then there were days when everything reminded me of him, where I felt his loss so acutely, it felt like a punch to my gut—my grief so overwhelming that I couldn't breathe. The aftermath would leave me feeling empty and alone. But I hated the idea of finding someone else to fill that space, to distract me from James.

Once, I wanted nothing more than to share my entire life with James. We had planned to live together in London as two bachelors. That plan now echoed across the empty rooms in my apartments, ridiculing the naïve ideas of two officers in the midst of war. James' death felt like a punishment. How dare we be happy when all across Belgium and France, men were laying on battlefields—hurt and dying.

A few prostitutes whistled and cajoled as I passed them by. I buried my chin deeper into my jacket and picked up my pace. I needed to stop lingering on James. He might be gone, but I wasn’t. I still relived what happened to him in my nightmares, but perhaps, when I was awake, I could choose to forget. Start over. Perhaps, someday, I’d find someone else.

It hurt every time I thought of James, but I hoped John was right; that with time, James’ memory would hurt less and less, until I could think of him with fondness. Appreciating what we had for such a brief time. Though, I doubted it would ever happen.

Winding my way back into more populated and illuminated streets, I pushed aside my thoughts of James. I signaled a carriage that was making its way down the road. The driver stopped so I could get seated.

"To Albany, please," I told the man.

"Right away, sir."

Once we arrived outside my apartments, I paid the driver and walked up the steps to my home. Inside, I threw my jacket across the banister and made my way to the sitting room, where I stretched out in my reading chair.

My butler scraped his throat as he entered the sitting room.

"What is it, Parsons?" I asked.

"Sir, a footman delivered a letter for you this evening while you were out."

"Did it say who from?"

"Mr. Easton, sir."

Parsons handed me the cream-colored letter and a small letter opener on a tray.

"Is there anything else I can do for you, sir?"

"No, that will be all for tonight," I said, then I remembered the late hour and softened my voice. "Thank you for staying up and handing me the letter. It is late and anything else can wait until tomorrow."

"My pleasure, sir," the butler said with a nod of his head. Then he left me by myself to read John's letter.

I wondered what my friend's letter was about. It had only been a couple of months since I visited him and his wife Rose. I slid the sharp point of the letter opener into the edge of the envelope and with a swift move, cut the paper to reveal the folded letter inside. Dropping the letter opener on the side table, I slid the paper out and unfolded it.Dear William,

We have missed you these past months. Beth has been begging us to make the trip to London, and I must confess I would have liked to, if it wasn't for a small matter that has arisen. I'm afraid I won't be able to divulge much about the small matter, in fear of this letter falling into the wrong hands.

Wrong hands? I didn't think John could be more cryptic if he tried. Riddles had never been my strong suit. I didn't know what the “small matter” was, but it seemed he was reaching out for help. I straightened out the paper and continued reading.Whose hands, I don't know. I am more than likely being silly and paranoid, but nonetheless, it behooves me to be apprehensive. Once you know the nature behind this letter, I am sure you will agree with me. Let me get to the point before I either bore you to death or before you assume I am part of some criminal underground scandal. The small matter has to do with my wife. I hope you understand the delicacy of my letter which leads me to invite you to stay at Hawthorne while I sort the matter. Your help might come in handy.

Yours faithfully, John Easton.

P.S. Rose urged me to tell you she misses you too, and that she is looking forward to seeing you. We all hope to see you soon.

I racked my brain for any inkling on what the problem could be. Rose was from the future—a mind bogglingly strange idea that I still hadn't fully processed. To be frank, I generally chose to forget that bit of information. However, the only people that knew of Rose were John, Beth, and I. It didn't seem like the thing to share with others, and I wouldn't know how someone else could find out about it unless they stumbled upon a conversation where Rose and John were discussing the matter. No, someone finding out about Rose was unlikely. Which made me wonder what it was that John needed me for and how it did involve Rose. I didn't detect any sadness in his letter, and surely, she wouldn't return to her own time? Not after marrying John, I wouldn't think.

I sighed and stood from my chair. Grabbing the envelope from the side table, I dropped both the letter and the envelope into my hearth. Using the fire poker, I made sure that John's letter disappeared into ashes. Returning the fire poke to its stand, I made sure to leave the room tidy and left a note for my butler on the hallway table. It had been a long day and I needed to sleep. I would have Parsons pack my things in the morning and leave for Hawthorne as soon as I was awake and dressed.