The next morning, according to Swede’s instructions, Vic looked up Mr. Billy Penderby at his wood-working shop. A sandy haired man about forty with a slight build and large hands, Mr. Penderby spoke what seemed to be a mixture of dialects. Vic understood him without any difficulty when he said, “So you’re the other American.”
He pronounced the word in an odd way, making the ‘i’ drawn out and stressed. Vic had already heard it from other Britons, associating it with a general suspicion of Americans. Penderby next said, “Considerin who sent you, I expected somethin with hairy hands draggin along the ground.”
All this was said in obvious good humor, and Vic held up his hands to demonstrate their relative lack of hair.
There was, as always, the question of age. Vic, now a few months past his seventeenth birthday, generally assumed that he could pass for nineteen or so. Whatever he was passing for, it obviously wasn’t good enough for Billy Penderby. He said, “You’re so young, these old hags’ll take advantage of you somethin wicked.”
Vic didn’t understand, but Penderby explained, “Collectin rent from our bunch of tenants. That’ll be a learnin experience.”
According to Penderby, the tenants were spread all over the area. He said, “Hanson ain’t a proper landlord. His buildins are too scattered. He paid too much for em, and he don’t charge enough rent.”
“Maybe it’s kind of a hobby for him.”
That brought a satirical laugh and the reply, “Aye, a hobby right enough. Nothin with Hanson will be what it seems. And you’re in deep, my friend. He’s got plans for you.”
There followed a brief political discussion. Winston Churchill had been returned as the prime minister more than a year previously, implicitly on the promise to repeal, or at least dilute, the socialism that had taken root in England. However, the conservatives had only a very thin majority, and Billy’s sentiments were on the other side. “If I had work in a rich Englishman’s house, I’d fix his upstairs toilets so’s they’d dump shit on to the drawin room floor.”
Correctly assuming Swede to be a pure capitalist, Penderby allowed, “American rich men ain’t really the same. They ain’t tryin to take our pub money away from us.”
Since Swede was, in all probability, supporting Billy’s purchases at the pub without any of the, ‘Be careful where you spend this, my man’, sort of thing, Vic could understand. He replied,
“I was practically living on the streets when Swede picked me up.”
“I could tell that. He likes hirin people who’ve got nowhere else to go.”
In the way that Penderby looked at him, Vic had the feeling that he wouldn’t be trusted enough to be left alone in the shop amid a quantity of prized tools. Indeed, it hadn’t been so long ago that, in America at any rate, easily sold tools wouldn’t have been safe around Vic. Penderby, of course, had no way of knowing that Vic now had reason to obey every law everywhere.
These thoughts were interrupted when a quite pretty red-haired woman, rather elaborately dressed, wandered into the shop, moving swiftly and carefully to keep her shoes out of the various messes on the floor. Vic liked the way that her skirt swirled as she twisted sinuously and spoke disrespectfully to Penderby in a deep voice. Although she gave Vic a curious look, Penderby didn’t introduce them. The lady didn’t seem to be his wife, but could have been a girl friend, or other sort of friend. The two began a spirited, but good-humored argument over something Vic didn’t understand, and so he took the first opportunity to disengage. As was about to leave, Penderby said, “Come back tomorrow, and I’ll have your marchin orders. By the bye, how are you gettin around?”
When Vic replied that he was walking, Penderby had him wait, soon producing an old bicycle.
Vic’s most recent bicycling had been inside Jordan Marsh, and the Oxford traffic was a little daunting. However, he soon joined a group of other cyclists who, riding six abreast, had virtually taken over the road. It was much colder riding than walking, and, then, he got his trouser leg caught in the chain. Managing to stop without falling over, he was assisted by a middle-aged woman riding behind him. It seemed to be a common problem, and, once freed, she offered him a trouser clip with the words, “My husband sometimes rides this bike, and he has extra ones on the handle-bars.”
Once again under way with the clip around his ankle, Vic got to the pub where he was to meet Elizabeth and Kennedy. Since they hadn’t yet arrived, he marched up to the bar in a show of confidence and ordered a half shandy. The word had to be pronounced as far as possible from such American words as ‘shanty’ and ‘sandy’. Indeed, Vic wasn’t understood at all until he had modified the ‘a’ in the right direction. The drink was half bitter and half lemonade, or even Seven Up. A half pint of it wasn’t very alcoholic, but such an order didn’t call attention to oneself in the way that an order of coke would have.
When the others arrived and ordered, Vic described the views of Mr. Billy Penderby. Kennedy replied, “There are class divisions here beyond anything you could imagine in America. On one hand, everyone accepts them in ordinary life. On the other, there’s great resentment on the part of the working class.”
Elizabeth explained, “Apart from the more or less hereditary upper class whose children go to what you would call private schools, there’s a limited intake from the working class. Kids take tests when they’re only thirteen or so, and the bright ones are admitted to grammar schools. These prepare them for the university and the establishment. But that, in itself, is controversial.”
It turned out that many working class parents didn’t want their children to go to grammar schools, even if they passed the test. Kennedy said, “The kids learn to speak in a different way in grammar school, and, since speech means everything here, that immediately alienates them from their parents.”
“Couldn’t a kid learn to speak one way in school and another way at home?”
“He probably could, but it would actually be harder than handling, say, English and French. Elizabeth just switches gears when she goes from one language to another. But this would involve a different way of saying almost every English word. Besides, it wouldn’t fool anyone. Everyone would know that he’s headed for a different world which wouldn’t welcome his parents.”
Elizabeth said, “A professional man in his thirties might not want his friends to meet his parents.”
Vic replied, “I know the feeling. If my mother were here, I’d hide her from everyone else.”
“You did well to escape.”
Elizabeth didn’t waste much time and energy on the past, of which she seemed to have had rather too much. She worried only about the next move.
Vic’s next move, the next morning, was back to Billy Penderby. Billy greeted him with, “I got a call about you from over the ocean.”
It was the first transatlantic phone call Billy had ever had. Indeed, it was the first one anyone he had ever known had had. He spoke of it as if there were a tube running under the ocean which just barely carried the sound from one side to another. It was, of course, Swede, who had called. The message was simple. Vic was to begin with rent collection in a place called Upper Heyford. Billy had a list of the properties, and explained,
“It’s a short train ride up the canals. A couple of collections are for people livin on boats. They’re due now.”
Vic took the list and headed for the train station.
It was a train that stopped at every tiny station, some of which, called ‘halts’, consisted of nothing but a platform. On both sides of the line there were, even in winter, meadows of a rich green color Vic hadn’t seen in America. They were almost empty of people, but nevertheless showed signs of having been inhabited for centuries. A little stone building here, a stone wall there, and always clear divisions between the fields. One coach window was slightly open, occasionally letting in some smoke from the engine, and Vic could hear the oddly irregular beat of the exhaust as they started up from each stop. A man opposite him, some sort of businessman, said, “On a line like this, a sudden acceleration and stop means that the engine driver has managed to run over and kill a hare for dinner.”
Vic had come to realize when Englishmen were joking, but it was the kind of joke that had a kind of truth.
The station at Lower Heyford, was so much a rural metropolis that there was a little bit of a station building in addition to the platform. Vic spilled out of the coach, not forgetting to slam the door shut as he exited. He was the only passenger to get off, and, at the exit, there there was a man waiting to take his ticket. Despite some difficulty in communication, he understood that he had only to walk a mile or so up the canal to reach Upper Heyford. Just then, there was a huge roar as a six-engined American B-47 bomber shot overhead. The elderly station man stuck fingers in his ears in a perpendicular and comical manner, as if he were warding off an invasion of Martians. Vic had already heard about the American air base, and, while surprised, he wasn’t shocked.
With its hand-operated locks and little arched bridges, the canal was something out of a tourist brochure. Keeping warm by walking fast, Vic wondered how long he would be able to wander in an idyllic setting without getting bored. It wasn’t nearly as interesting as Brownsville, and the few little grayish brown field workers would hardly be worth beating up. They, rather like mice, might squeak in unpleasant ways.
There were occasional boats, very long and narrow like the ones on the Thames at Oxford, moored along the banks. They, too, seemed to be converted coal barges, and there was a little washing hung out on some of them. It was always hard to tell from the bras what the women who wore them might look like.
The first boat to be visited was, as advertized, right at the foot of High Street. Vic knocked on the side, and a pretty, obviously American, lady stuck her head out of the hatch and greeted him. He was surprised to see an American, and, when she found out his business, she was equally surprised that he, too, was American. She said, “I’m Janet Edwards, and my husband is a B-47 pilot. Won’t you come on board for tea?”
Once Vic was settled in the main cabin, she said, “It’s so awfully nice of your Mr. Hanson to rent us this boat, almost for nothing.”
“Knowing him, I’m not surprised. The whole thing seems more like a hobby than a business, and I’m being paid more to be a student at Oxford than to collect the occasional rent.”
“I don’t see so many friendly faces here, and most of those belong to the people at the base.”
“Aren’t you being received well by the townspeople?”
“There are different groups. The scattering of teen-aged girls love Americans, want to marry one, and want to be taken to America. They’d steal our husbands if they could, but, fortunately, our husbands don’t take them seriously.”
“Your husband must be an officer.”
“I can’t see one going off with any of the teen-aged girls I’ve seen here.”
“Even the enlisted men aren’t very tempted. But that doesn’t keep the boy friends, or would-be boy friends, of these girls from hating us. Some of the local townspeople also hate us. The slogan is that American servicemen are over-paid, over-sexed, and over here.”
“I’ve already heard that.”
“Then, there’s the women’s peace group. They hate the air base, and consider us to be war-mongers. They believe very deeply that our presence here will trigger a Soviet nuclear attack on Upper Heyford and vicinity. These are educated upper-class women, and they occasionally say really vicious things to us.”
“Are you isolated here on the boat?”
“Pretty much, but it’s better than going into the village to buy a loaf of bread.”
“That sounds really bad.”
“Howie and I came here because it’s beautiful. Life on the base is fairly squalid, but we’ll probably move back there.”
It was becoming clear that Mrs. Edwards, married to the Strategic Air Command, belonged to what amounted to an exotic warrior community. Almost everyone in America was in awe of it, but usually at a distance.
The Americans exploded the atomic bomb in 1945, and the Soviets followed in 1949. The Americans got the hydrogen bomb in 1951, but, this time, it took the Soviets only two years to catch up. They had exploded their fusion bomb only a few months previously.
It was much the same with bombers. The Soviets, at the end of the war, had had nothing like the American B-29, so they copied one that had made an emergency landing in Russia with the TU-4. Having followed instructions to make the copies exact, they had asked Stalin whether they should put the American insignia on it. That was a joke. It was sometimes dangerous to joke with Stalin, but this was okay.
Of course, when one copied someone else’s airplane, one was way behind by the time the copy was operational. SAC next had the huge B-36 with six pusher engines behind the wings. It had the range to attack anywhere in the Soviet Union, and then land in a friendly country. But the Soviets were countering with their very large TU-95, not yet fully operational. The gap was closing.
From SAC’s commander, General Curtis LeMay, down to every airman and his wife, it was assumed that the existence of western civilization depended on SAC’s keeping its lead. It was probably the most efficient, and certainly the most powerful, military organization that had ever existed. Among other things, it kept armed bombers continuously in the air so that they couldn’t be wiped out in a surprise attack.
Major Edwards had flown a B-36, but, with its piston engines, it was slow, a big target, and a sitting duck. Its chances of penetrating thousands of miles of enemy air space defended by swarms of MIGs was almost nil. He and his wife both considered it a suicide mission. However, his wife brightened as she said,
“Now we’ve got the jet B-47s that are fast enough to have a chance. But they don’t have the range to attack from America, so they have to be based here.”
It was life or death for her husband, and, based in Upper Heyford, he had a chance. The villagers would never understand. Vic understood.
After that, they traded humorous stories about the English. When Vic left, he had the impression that Mrs. Edwards looked forward to his next rent collecting visit.
The next stop was a little house near the center of the very small town. The door was answered by a tall woman, about forty, who spoke in precise tones. When Vic explained that he was collecting rent, she called back to someone else before turning on him with, “Are you Americans taking over the town in addition to the airbase?”
There was contemptuous hostility in her voice, and Vic was fascinated. The way she stood, and spoke, and the way she moved in her perfectly fitted dress with pearls around her neck epitomized elegance. It wasn’t quite what there would have been in Warsaw in the thirties, but it was almost as good. He managed, after a slight pause, to reply, “I don’t think so. My boss owns and rents out a couple of dozen properties centered on Oxford.”
“You aren’t with the air force?”
“No. I’m mostly a student in mathematics at the university. I make a little money doing this.”
The woman’s attitude softened noticeably, and Vic was invited in while another woman rummaged in cupboards for the rent money. The first one explained, “We’re part of a group picketing the air base. We don’t live here, but took the house as a convenience. By the way, my name is Byers.”
Vic saw, from her ring, that she was married. But it seemed that she didn’t want to give her first name to a stranger. That also had a high-minded feel and a challenge. The man who discovered her first name would have entered one of her outer concentric circles.
Vic introduced himself as, ‘Vic Ross’, and Mrs. Byers nodded, not offering to shake hands. She seemed to accept it that he, being younger and junior in rank, would have a given name in addition to a surname.
The other lady, having found an old purse with rent money, introduced herself simply as ‘Paula.’ She was a little tubby, with somewhat thrown together clothes, and it was easy to assume that her class standing was lower. But Vic didn’t think so. Seth Kennedy said that speech meant everything, and the two sounded just alike. Moreover, the two women seemed to take one another to be equals and fellow picketers at the air base. Paula, maternal enough to correctly guess Vic’s age, exuded confidence as well as friendliness. This, Vic decided, was another variant of English upper class bearing. Elegance seemed to be optional.
A political discussion then took place. Mrs. Byers said, “It may well be that the Americans and Russians will conduct a nuclear war. Our group doesn’t take sides, but we see no reason that Europe should be destroyed as a by-product. However, if either side has bases here, it will be.”
That seemed reasonable to Vic, but Paula asked him, “As an American, you’re in even more danger. Doesn’t that worry you?”
“We think about it sometimes. The reasonable thing would be to go to New Zealand. It’s about the safest place in the world, and they have anything you might want there. But no one seems to get around to going.”
“Yes. It’s inertia, affecting even the young.”
“Besides, I have opportunities here, and in America. I don’t know anyone in New Zealand, and I wouldn’t know where to begin.”
“Meeting and talking with you, I’m quite sure that you’d find a life there. But I can see why you don’t want to risk it. Meanwhile, we may be able to improve the situation here.”
In an apparent immediate attempt to improve the situation, Paula produced some cookies.
Having consumed two cookies, Vic looked around the room with its worn furniture and asked Mrs. Byers, “You don’t live in a place like this do you?”
Paula broke in, “Alicia lives in a beautiful and charming house with a lovely garden.”
Delighted to have her first name pop out, Vic looked at her. She, in turn, looked at Paula with a deprecating gesture. It didn’t seem that she was angry to have her name revealed, and it was, if anything, a look and gesture of admiration. It seemed that Paula lived in a much grander house.
Vic couldn’t forbear asking her, “Do you sit drinking coffee out of glass cups?”
Both ladies burst out laughing, and Alicia replied, “I can’t imagine what ideas about us you may have in your head.”
Vic explained about the pre-war Poles, and Paula replied, “I’ve actually seen such people in a café in London. The Polish exiles congregate there, but they may be a little more down to earth than you imagine. The best seat near the window is always occupied by a large orange cat that no one dares to disturb.”
That was an image that pleased Vic, and he replied, “I’ll have to go there!”
“You certainly must.”
As Vic left, he was given directions.
The other visits weren’t very instructive, but it was nice to walk back to the station along the canal. Vic had hardly seen anything that looked so placid and peaceful in America, and it was easy to see why the ladies he had visited didn’t want an American intrusion, quite apart from the risk of being bombed.
When he got back with the money to Billy Penderby, the latter practically exploded, “Mr. Hanson seems to think nothin of spendin huge amounts on calls. He wants you to call him right off. With the charges reversed. Mind that!”
The connection turned out to be quite clear, and Swede sounded as if he were in the next room. He wanted a complete account of Vic’s doings, and, at the end, he said,
“You’ve done very well. But this is getting complicated. I’ll be over there shortly.”
Vic could hardly imagine what was going on, but it seemed that he would soon find out.
The next morning at breakfast, Elizabeth was curious about his mission of the previous day, “Did they pay up or pretend not to understand American English?”
“The first one I met couldn’t have done that. She was herself an American air force wife. She also thought the rent ridiculously cheap.”
“That’s because of the exchange rate. An ordinary American is rich over here.”
“So I’m finding out. Is there some resentment?”
“A lot of resentment.”
Vic then told Elizabeth about the other ladies he had met, and their attitudes.”
“A number of things are going on there. One is that most Americans seem naïve and stupid to such people. They may never have met people like Seth Kennedy or my husband.”
“They were nice once they found out that I’m a student, and not with the air force.”
“Well, Vic, not many women will get it together to hate you.”
“Contempt for the young?”
“Not really. You don’t have any of the three off-putting characteristics so common in clever young men in Europe.”
“I guess I’ll ask what they are.”
“You don’t boast, you look happy most of the time, and you don’t go around predicting doom. The result is that people tend to feel better rather than worse when they’re with you.”
“One of the women I met, Paula, is a bit like me, I guess. The elegant one doesn’t seem at all cheerful or optimistic.”
“That’s part of elegance. Nothing is good enough for you, and you’re always pissed at what you find around you.”
“I’ll have to inquire further into the matter.”
“Anyhow, these sorts of women have no inkling of what the Soviets are really like. They think that they’re quite nice chaps who have healthy progressive political ideas, rather like their own.”
“If they were Russian, they couldn’t go ten minutes without saying things that would get them thrown into the Lubianka. Moreover, any Eastern European woman knows that any contact with the Red Army will get her grabbed, stripped, thrown on her back, and gang raped.”
“It seems that the ladies I met don’t want to challenge the Soviets.”
“They think it’s needless and dangerous. Of course, it is dangerous. But there’s no alternative.”
“They won’t be easy to convince of that.”
“They’re university educated socialists, utterly convinced that they’re in the right.”
“I guess they and Billy Penderby are all socialists, but it’s hard to imagine them hanging out together.”
“They’re bound together politically, but they harbor deep suspicions.”
It seemed to Vic that, whatever Swede wanted to do, he would have to take that fact into account. He didn’t want to reveal Swede’s existence to Elizabeth, but he remarked,
“I wonder how someone who wanted to put forward some sort of program would approach that problem. By saying different things to the two groups, or with a compromise?”
“Given England, or Europe for that matter, it might be more a matter of saying the same thing to the two groups, but saying it in different ways. Not just different accents, but different associated images.”
“You’d be good at advertizing, Elizabeth.”
“That is a possible career for me, if I ever have one.”
She spoke wistfully, almost as if she might cry, and Vic didn’t have to say much to elicit more.
The problem turned out to be that Elizabeth, right after the war, had worked as a hostess in a night club in Vienna which was run by unreconstructed Nazis. They hated Americans, had comedy routines ridiculing American generals, and were associated with an illegal far-right group. The club had eventually been closed down by the mutual agreement of the Soviet and Allied occupiers of Austria, one of few things on which they could all agree. Elizabeth was pretty sure that her involvement with the club was the main reason for her difficulty in getting to America.
Vic had no solution to such a problem, and the conversation returned to his rent collecting and associated activities. Elizabeth eventually asked, “Why is a mathematician like you so interested in these things?”
“My patron for mathematics is interested, and has me collecting information.”
“By talking with people as you collect rents?”
“So he must not be a mathematician himself.”
“More like a real estate investor.”
“With a particular interest in a little hamlet north of here.”
“So it seems.”
Vic hadn’t meant to reveal nearly so much. He had all but named Swede. But, at least, he had made no mention of Joan, whom he suspected of being the driving force.