The next walking expedition with Elizabeth and Seth Kennedy was to a very old Norman church down the river at Iffley. Their route took them through the streets of St. Ebbs, a virtually medieval part of Oxford that still had no electricity. It wasn’t a district that had been historically preserved, but a slum that the Attlee labor government hadn’t gotten around to clearing. Vic knew something about slums, but, except for evidences of poverty, there was hardly anything reminiscent of the meaner districts of Brooklyn. Instead of confronting and threatening strangers, the residents, slumped over with heads down, tended to make way for their presumed betters. Anyone could have walked through St. Ebbs alone at midnight in perfect safety.
No one seemed to think it odd that such a district still existed in the middle of the twentieth century. There was an English saying, ‘The poor will always be with us’, in which was implicit the attitude that a certain amount of poverty had to be accepted as inevitable and incurable. The poor themselves were generally not rebellious, and, so far as an outsider could see, they had learned to live fairly comfortably in their situation. Elizabeth, as a European, seemed to take this for granted. Kennedy, if asked, would probably have talked about improving the lot of the St. Ebbs residents. But he had been in England long enough not to speak unnecessarily of such things.
Not long after, they arrived at the bank of the River Thames. It was here an unobtrusive country stream, tiny compared to the tidal reaches that flowed back and forth through London. They crossed on a large flat-bottomed punt that was propelled by a man with a long pole pushing on the bottom. It seemed to be a shaky arrangement with little directional control, but they successfully fetched up on the opposite grassy bank. After Kennedy paid and tipped the punter enough to occasion a touch to his forelock, they scrambled out.
The sun had warmed the air enough so that, as they walked three abreast along the towpath, the atmosphere was of a holiday jaunt which couldn’t conceivably have been American. Before long, they rounded a bend to come upon a moored boat with washing spread out to dry.
Seth and Elizabeth, seemingly recognizing the boat, looked at one another meaningfully. It was clear that it was no ordinary boat, but there was no easy way to avoid it. Proceeding, they were there greeted by a solid-looking middle-aged man and a much younger, rather beautiful, woman. They seemed to be friends of Seth and Elizabeth.
Seth, with perfect aplomb, introduced Vic to Prince Aly Khan Todd and Princess Katarina Todd. Prince Todd had an American accent, while the princess was obviously English. They waved hospitably toward their boat, which the prince referred to in an undertone as his ‘ship of state’. Both he and the princess had good well-modulated speaking voices, and their gestures were well controlled. Neither would have seemed at all crazy if encountered in, say, a restaurant. Vic wondered if it was all a joke, but was afraid not.
Seth and Elizabeth declined the invitation to go aboard, indicating their destination of Iffley, and there was a discussion of some dark clouds in the offing. As Vic stood, mostly silent, with the two men, he heard, off to the side, a much more intense discussion between the women. The princess seemed to be commiserating with Elizabeth, who said something about ‘that damned nightclub in Vienna.’
Upon leaving, Elizabeth managed to contain her laughter until they had reached a safe distance. She then asked, “Vic, are we continuing to provide you with something new every ten minutes?’
“Very definitely. Are they crazy?”
“I’ve never been able to decide whether he believes what he says when, for example, he claims to own the seabed of all the oceans. What do you think, Seth?”
“Belief and disbelief merge gradually into one another. I think the prince is very close to the mid-point. Most of us cross that point in various ways, but he hovers consistently in its near-neighborhood.”
Elizabeth added, “Kate isn’t crazy. But she’s been a very wild girl, and he gives her some kind of stability. She once told me that, amazingly enough, it’s restful to be with him.”
“It’s that consistency. One knows exactly what to expect.”
Vic asked, “Doesn’t she get tired of being Princess Katarina of the Seven Seas Empire?”
“Oh, a little. But she’s in limbo like me, and we sometimes compare notes about clutching at straws.”
It obviously wasn’t appropriate to ask what those straws were. Vic nodded wisely as Kennedy pointed out the sights.
When Vic heard steps, he looked back and saw the Princess Katarina running toward them. She was running fast in her full-skirted dress and announced, “I’m coming with you!”
Then, laughing, she fell into an embrace with Elizabeth.
Since it was now a group of four, with Elizabeth closely attached by friendship with Kennedy, Vic looked at Katarina. She looked back. She then announced, “I occasionally need a change from old Prince Ali.”
Elizabeth replied, “You told me before that he spreads serenity.”
“Oh, he does. And I need serenity. Up to a point.”
Pretty as Katarina was, it was a little unsettling. She seemed rather flirtatious, and it might amount to an approach from a girl Elizabeth had categorized as being ‘very wild.’ That could be good in one way, but, in another, not so good. Moreover, Vic was mindful of the need to avoid serious mistakes in England. Katarina looked as if she might be such a mistake, but he nevertheless smiled at her.
The church at Iffley was a good eight hundred years old. Vic found it a reasonably handsome, but decidedly uncomfortable, old thing. He pretended to be impressed, but was secretly pleased when it was found to be locked. It was hard to imagine that the smell inside would have been good. To his surprise, Katarina put those very thoughts into words. Kennedy replied, “According to the antiquarians, only pleasing fragrances are produced by objects that have aged five hundred years or more.”
“Is that because the antiquarians are so obsessed with old objects that they don’t recognize bad smells?”
“Or perhaps because they realize that we’ll smell the same way in five hundred years.”
Katarina whispered to Vic, “I’m going to squirt perfume up my you-know-what in my dying moments.”
It was obvious, Vic thought, that she was not an ordinary girl.
Walking around the church, it seemed that no one else was around until they spotted an old man gardening with a rake which missed some of its teeth. He was just below a stone wall of some six feet holding back the earth on which they stood. Katarina, without hesitation, walked to the edge and jumped off, landing on her feet near the old man. Her skirts had come way up, but Vic’s perspective prevented him from getting a good view. The old man almost fell over backwards, but was babbling and recovering himself as Vic and Kennedy jumped down. Elizabeth didn’t do that sort of thing, but walked quickly to some steps.
Leaving the old man, still muttering, they went to a little tea shop, the only one in the nearby village. Tea meant more than just tea, in this case, lunch. The sandwiches and pastries weren’t terribly good, but everyone was hungry and ate without complaint. Elizabeth mentioned that she missed her husband, and added, jokingly, “I hope Bob isn’t having tea with another lady in America at this moment.”
Kennedy said, “Since it’s about six in the morning in Boston, Bob would have to get up a lot earlier than he’s used to.”
“The excitement of a new affair might be sufficient motivation. Why are people so quick to embark on affairs?”
Kate replied, “It’s the first touch of a new person that’s so exciting. When I used to work as a masseuse, I could feel new patients, men or women, give a little jump when I first touched their bare backs. After the first few sessions, the reaction was gone.”
“In fact, the touch of a different person probably wouldn’t be so very different.”
“No. Once, when a patient I already knew was lying with his head turned away, I had my co-worker, a girl about my age, begin the massage. He didn’t react, and then, when I took it over, he still didn’t react.”
Elizabeth concluded, “So it’s all in the mind.”
Kennedy nodded and added, “There are men who want their wives or mistresses to dress up as French or Russian countesses so that they can pretend to be a different person.”
“That’s much the way with my little prince friend. He’s got masquerades and illusions going all the time. But, even acting in a play, I can’t manage to pretend that I’m someone else, or that someone else is someone different. I seem to be too based in reality. What about you, Vic?”
That question struck rather close to home, but Vic answered guardedly, “I’ve at times been forced to do some pretending, but it’s more like work than fun.”
“So that’s it! I knew there was something wrong with you.”
Kate laughed as she spoke, and touched him gently on the arm. Vic had to laugh himself.
Elizabeth tried to apologize for Kate, saying, “For Kate, it’s a very bad sign not to have something wrong with you.”
This also was said in a humorous way, and it was probably true. However, it only confirmed Vic in his opinion that something was missing in Kate. It reminded him of the time when a girl who had had a serious head injury said to him, “You’re cute, but you’ve got a big nose.”
Of course he had had, and still had, a big nose. By the same token, Kate, who might also have had a head injury, was probably right in saying that there was something wrong with him. He looked at Kennedy, who smiled in a way that could be variously interpreted as they started back.
When they were proceeding in single file on the narrow walkway over the fishing weir, Kate called back to Elizabeth, “My big sister’s coming to visit next week. She was a WREN during the war and wants to meet you. I told her that you were in the German equivalent.”
“More or less.”
“The WRENs seemed to be pretty serious hard workers. Was your bunch more glamorous?”
“We of the Helferinnen von Dienst were also called the Blitz Madchen , although we never got very near combat. There were recruiting posters all over the place of beautiful blonde girls in sky-blue tight-fitting Luftwaffe uniforms. I was a naïve kid, and was sucked in.”
“The WRENs advertized serving side-by-side with men, but my sister may have slept with only one or two.”
“There were lots of Luftwaffe orgies with the Blitz girls in participation. But they were optional, and I did have enough sense to stay away from drunk pilots.”
“So the one you were engaged to didn’t drink?”
“Yes, but he had lots of sober moments.”
Now on the other side of the weir, Kate continued, “The Prince doesn’t drink. It’s hard to imagine what fantasies he might produce if he did.”
Kennedy said, “I did see a poster of his advertizing a Lady Godiva Movement.”
“He wants to commemorate her famous ride with a procession of naked young ladies on horseback. I’m signed up for it, but he’ll never be able to get hold of the horses.”
“Someone who wants to watch the procession might lend him the horses.”
“Possibly. But, if it ever occurs, it’ll probably degenerate into a procession of whores in flesh-colored underwear without horses. That’s the way his things usually work out.”
Elizabeth asked, “Will they wear spike heels and pretend to hide behind political placards?”
“That’s it! If I ever defect from the boat, you could move right in and contribute ideas.”
When they did reach the boat, the Prince was standing on the bank, clad in a black jacket with curious insignia and a bush hat. He welcomed them back with great dignity.
After leaving the prince and princess, and crossing back over the river,
Elizabeth said to Vic, “You might reasonably have gotten the impression that Kate would be willing to have an affair with you.”
She spoke as if she thought Vic had had some sexual experience. Having had almost none, he was, in fact, a little uneasy about entering unknown territory. However, Katrina would obviously know just what to do. He was tempted. After a moment, he replied, “I have to be careful.”
Kennedy concluded, “Apart from being the path of wisdom, I think that she’s so thoroughly co-habited with the prince that there’d hardly be any opportunity.”
Elizabeth added, “That’s the real reason that she finds life with him serene. The serenity of a voluntary captive. That sounds like a contradiction in terms, but it isn’t quite.”
That thought amused Vic, particularly with respect to the Witness Protection Plan, and he replied, “There may be people who voluntarily go to jail because they feel safe there.”
Kennedy replied, “Oh yes. In economics they also recognize a class of people who like being in debt. When they’re tempted to spend frivolously, they remind themselves of their debts.”
Vic was conscious of being inhibited in many ways, but he wasn’t a captive, voluntary or otherwise, and he wasn’t in debt.