At the breakfast table, next to Vic’s place, there was a letter from Vicki. Tearing open the envelope, he had no idea what sort of letter she might write, or even what her handwriting was like. It was a little unnerving when it turned out to be typed. Was it a long explanation of why she wouldn’t be seeing him again?
It began, simply, ‘Hi Vic, I may be arriving sooner than expected.’ It turned out that there was a problem.
Vic already knew that Vicki’s father had been a high school science teacher for many years. He also knew that, even though she hated him for having seduced her at thirteen, there must have been a strong mutual attraction of some sort to have made it possible. This complicated her reaction to the news that he had now been caught, at the worst possible time, with a fifteen year old girl, a student in his class. He had already been placed on unpaid leave, a preliminary to being fired.
Vicki’s mother was hysterical. She wanted Vicki to come home, to help support the family, and many other things. Vicki was besieged with calls, and, in defense, was staying with Yuri and his wife. They were very welcoming, but she didn’t know how long she could hide out. Anyhow, it was easy for Vic to respond. He wrote for her to come any time. He also mentioned that Swede and Joan were due in Oxford shortly, and suggested that she try to reach them.
The next morning, Vic took a train to London’s Paddington Station. At the first glimpse, he found himself fascinated. There was an undeniable squalor, but it was a particularly interesting kind of squalor. He wanted to experience it deeply.
The immense train shed, open to the west toward the country, was covered by a series of dirty glass roofs supported on arches. The tracks all ended in a large concrete area, called ‘the lawn’, which was unheated, but which had an indoors feel. Across the lawn was the blackened red brick façade of the Great Western Hotel, seemingly as old as the station. There was no hint of whatever luxuries might lie inside, and it looked like a place where an exhausted traveler could collapse with few questions asked.
When a train was formed, a switching engine pulled it into one of the many parallel platforms, and was then trapped at the end of the track until the main line engine backed down on the train and pulled it away. This process seemed to take some time, and there were a good many quaint little steam engines pouring smoke and steam into the air, not far from the ticket offices. There was dirt and soot everywhere, and, since people dropped trash that was seldom cleaned up, the resulting environment was, as the British would say, ‘shocking.’ Except that they weren’t shocked. Gentlemen in pin striped ‘city suits’ and handsomely dressed ladies strode purposefully along without any signs of distress. Vic imagined that, if questioned, they would say, “Whatever else would one expect in a railway station?”
On the other hand, the contrast with Vic’s recent experience with the New York, New Haven & Hartford was vivid. Paddington might be at least as dirty as Boston’s South Station, but it was furiously busy, exciting, and, as far as he could see, extremely efficient.
Since he was hungry, Vic stopped at a concession stand for something called a ‘railway pie.’ It seemed to be a cold sausage concoction, and, not sure whether it had been cooked, he hesitated. He had heard that raw pork was not to be eaten. On the other hand, people were obviously eating large quantities of the things without keeling over. Vic bit in, and found it fairly tasty.
According to Vic’s London A-Z pocket guide, the underground Circle Line would have taken him to South Kensington, but he preferred to walk. The zig-zag route from Paddington to Bayswater Road took him through a district of small, somewhat seedy, hotels, and gradually into a slightly more opulent area. There was a little more room between the houses and the street, and sometimes a free-standing house. It looked as if there would be flowers in spring, but, now, everything was sodden with rain. Snow on the ground would have covered up the mud, but they didn’t seem to have much snow in England.
Across Bayswater Road into Hyde Park, Vic came to a bridge over the Serpentine, the left over part of an ancient river. It now ended in a sort of garden, and flowed, if at all, into a sewer. There was evidence of summer gayety, including boathouses with rowboat rental signs and a placard showing a gentleman in Edwardian dress rowing his lady decorously along. The boats were now upside down on the docks, and looked unhappy.
South of the park, Vic passed by monuments and museums, none tempting him to linger. He eventually came to the twisted and busy little streets of South Kensington. Almost at the end of one street was the Daquise Café. The name didn’t sound Polish, but a glance at the menu posted near the door showed otherwise.
There was, as promised, the large orange cat in the chair by the front window. Moving past the animal at a safe distance, Vic took a seat on the long padded bench along the wall at a table for two. As he consulted the menu, in mixed English and Polish, it seemed to him, by the sound of the word, that ‘kielbasa’ would be the thing to have.
At the next table, only inches away from his, there was a woman, likely in her thirties, SIPPING COFFEE FROM A GLASS CUP. Vic hadn’t much noticed her at first, but, fascinated, he saw that she had clear strong features. Indeed, she was a handsome woman, trim with good posture even while seated in a relaxed way. She seemed to have noticed his fixed attention on her cup, and, laughing, she asked him, in an unusually deep voice, “Would you like some of my coffee?”
Embarrassed, Vic tried to explain that he wasn’t used to seeing glass cups used for coffee. She nodded, as if that were a perfectly reasonable explanation, and said, “I’m Toni, and you are..?”
“Is that Viktor with a ‘k’?”
“I don’t think so. My mother had trouble with more than one syllable.”
That occasioned more laughter, and the reply,
“Are you perhaps an American of Eastern European Jewish descent?”
“I think I must be. But no one seemed to know exactly where our bunch came from.”
“Do you still see your family?”
“I thought not. But, you see, you’re quite welcome here. Vlada, the cat, didn’t hiss at you when you came in.”
“I’m happy about that. Are you all from Poland?”
“We escaped in thirty nine when the Nazis and Soviets attacked from opposite sides. I was a young doctor at the time, but came here and worked in the hospitals.”
“Are you practicing as a doctor now?”
“I’m an otolaryngologist, that is, an ear, nose, and throat woman. Among other things, I straighten the septum inside the nose, but leave the outside untouched.”
“Can you tell at a glance who needs to be straightened?”
“It’s a bad sign if one goes about the streets snuffling with a handkerchief held to one’s nose.”
“In my home town, people who lost street fights sometimes did that.”
Toni then craned her neck to stare at Vic and said,
“I see no abnormalities in your nasal configuration.”
“I didn’t lose fights.”
“I see. A victorious street child, with an appropriate name, who ran away from home. How did you ever get over here?”
It was beginning to seem to Vic that every sophisticated woman he met got far too much information out of him. However, he at least did protect his real name, the Mafia problem, and the connection with Swede. Toni then told him about the other people in the café. Two men with large moustaches on the other side were former Battle of Britain fighter pilots, and they were talking with a retired Polish general. There was another woman doctor, a male lawyer, and some academics. Toni concluded, “There are some accomplished people here, but we’re too shabby for the English.”
“Everyone looks fine to me.”
“None of the men have neatly pressed pin-striped suits and carefully rolled umbrellas. We women look like middle-class housewives.”
“What do I look like?”
“A young American itinerant student, temporarily without his rucksack. A good honest way of looking.”
By this time, Vic had finished his kielbasa, and, on Toni’s recommendation, ordered some dessert. She lingered with her second cup of coffee, explaining that it was her day off. She then asked,
“Have you had time to find a girl friend in England?”
“I have one in America who may come over soon.”
“How nice! Is she also a student?”
“Yes. She’s also a computer programmer who can get a good job anytime almost anywhere.”
“Even better! I’ve only recently been hearing about computer programming.”
“She taught herself to program for fun. It’s still an exotic art, but there’s a big demand for it, and she wound up at Harvard. She can come and go as she wishes.”
Toni reacted, “You may be a refugee, but it doesn’t sound as if she is.”
“Not economically, but she also has a bad family.”
“Older people can have bad families and just shun them. People your age have to be rebels, and hence refugees, in order to escape them. Almost everyone you see here is a refugee, and most have lost their families back in Poland. After fourteen years, we’ve settled in to London, but the fact that we congregate here in this way tells one something. Still, we do have a society running to hundreds, and there seem to be only the two of you.”
“I’m meeting people, but I came to the café because I’ve read about Eastern Europe in the thirties, and wanted to see a little of it.”
“I see. Of course, this is a tiny remnant of what was, and the people here are much older than yourself.”
“What were the young people in Warsaw like some fifteen years ago?”
“Most of the people of Poland were peasants in the fields, but you wouldn’t have met them in Warsaw. You would have met university students, of which I was one. We sat in cafes like this, but we were much louder. There was a lot of talk of science, music, and the arts.”
“I would like to have been there, but I might have been considered crude and ill-behaved.”
“No. Apart from some American peculiarities, you speak well.”
“I’ve had to learn to eradicate the awful dialect that I grew up with. It helped to be in California for a while.”
“Anyhow, I notice that you don’t eat with your hands. Besides, we were more interested in ideas than in the niceties of etiquette. We were, and are, much rougher than the English.”
“One novel I read made it sound very elegant. Countesses having admirers and lovers all over the place.”
Toni laughed, “That was the aristocracy! Those weren’t the people who sat in cafes like this with the glass cups you love so well.”
“Then, I would have preferred the cafes to the aristocrats. For me, romance, has to have a few mathematical or philosophical concepts swirling around in it.”
“We would have been perfect for you in the late thirties. Along with the ideas, there was, in fact, a certain amount of free love. It was conducted in civilized ways, but not with the trappings of luxury.”
“I come from a rough background in which there was a lot of sex, but not in a good way.”
On impulse, Vic told the story of his friend, Lou. A rather intellectual teen-ager, Lou’s alcoholic father decided that it was time for him to have sex. He then hired a prostitute of the lowest class in a bar and sent Lou out into the alley with her. She casually lifted her skirt, put one foot up on a window sill and told Lou to go to it. He instead ran away.
Toni, with a wry expression, clapped one hand to her head. Vic explained, “That didn’t happen to me, but that was the general tone.”
“That is not the Warsaw that I remember! As far as sex is concerned, you might do well to go back to the beginning and start over.”
“Yes. Vicki thinks the same. So far, we haven’t done anything.”
“I hope you will bring her here when she arrives.”
“I’m sure I will. You can tell us how we ought to behave.”
“You must be more experienced.”
“Well, there was a lot of casual sex in the war when men were always going off to be killed. It made no sense to stand on ceremony. But, it was hard to readjust afterwards. In fact, I’ve never married.”
“There seem to me to be good reasons not to. Vicki and I know that we can manage very well on our own, but it seems that things can go very badly in marriage. So there’s much more to lose than gain.”
“I suppose I agree. But you’re very young to think in such a way. It’s almost against nature.”
Vic replied, “I do like girls, and femininity in general. But I can’t afford mistakes.”
“If you like femininity, you might accompany me to my next stop. It’s a place where women often trade clothes they own for others they think better. Sometimes they change in full view.”
As they walked through some little streets, Vic did wonder that a woman some years older than himself, a doctor no less, would be willing to spend time with him. However, there was something natural and comfortable about the way she walked along with her head just above his shoulder. She wasn’t as pretty as the Princess Katarina, but no one would question her sanity. In the resulting rather expansive mood, he told Toni about his experiences with his cousin, Yvonne. She replied, “Ah, then, this will indeed be a chance for you to go back to the very beginning.”
“It happens that I went with Vicki when she bought a dress. But it was in a more expensive store, and there wasn’t any sort of display.”
“But you still enjoyed it?”
“You’re not the only man who likes to flit, I almost said flirt, with femininity. Good feelings, but minimal involvement, and no commitments.”
Before they had gone much further, Toni asked, “Why are you limping?”
Vic explained about the intense football games he had recently played, and, when she probed further, he admitted that he had never been to a doctor. She, almost shocked, replied,
“I didn’t think it was possible for an American child to grow up without seeing a doctor.”
“The schools were always on my parents about that, but they never got around to doing anything.”
“Healthy young people usually don’t need doctors very much. But you do seem to have some problems. Next time you come up to London, I’ll have my office partner check you over. She’s a pretty young woman, and you’ll enjoy the experience.”
They were soon walking past a very large very ugly old house, too large for the city house of even a rich person. Toni explained, “That was the German Kaiser’s London residence. He used it when he came over to visit his grandmother, Queen Victoria. I believe it’s now been cut up into apartments.”
“It’s really depressing looking.”
“The old Kaiser wasn’t anything like Hitler, but he may have been a pompous fool.”
“Would that be someone who prides himself on qualities he doesn’t have?”
“Quite possibly. The Kaiser belonged to people who prided themselves on physical courage. However, toward the end of the first war, when he had become an embarrassment, his chief of staff suggested that he go into the front lines and lead an infantry charge. If killed, he would have died as a hero. If only wounded, he could have resigned with what they thought of as honor.”
“He fled to Holland. And was never again taken seriously.”
“So he was humiliated?”
“In one way. There are many other ways. Just recently, the French resistance fighters at the war’s end paraded the Nazi collaborators. The men without their trousers and the women stripped to the waist.”
“The spectators must have enjoyed it.”
“I’m sure they did. Some of the victims probably did. They got more attention than they had ever had before.”
“So it’s good to get attention, and bad to be scorned. However, the balance may be positive.”
“Yes. In those very intense cases, the balance was probably highly negative. But in the clothes shop, I’m sure some of the women will enjoy having you there as they parade around in various costumes.”
“Really? Won’t they just ignore me?”
“They’ll pretend to, but I don’t think they will. There’ll be at least one visible in her underclothes. She’d be too embarrassed to do that in a really public place, but the degree of embarrassment in the shop will be minimal enough to be titillating. As in your previous experience with your cousin.”
The shop was much smaller than the bargain basement, and it seemed that it was much more expensive. Toni, seeming to take note of that fact, whispered,
“Even some very expensive women love bargains. And some think that the miracle dress may be hiding in one of the racks.”
Taking a seat in one of the two chairs, Vic noticed that most of the dozen or so women were fairly attractive, much like Toni. Most were poking through the racks, but a couple were standing and twirling in front of large mirrors. Vic had occasionally seen men in rest rooms looking in mirrors and poking their hair around, but nothing like this. It really was a different world!
No one was changing out in the open area, but there was a large common dressing room with a heavy curtain that swung to and fro. Toni gave Vic an amused look as she went in, leaving the curtain open a little. Moving back and forth across the gap were women, mostly in slips, but, just then, another woman entered the store.
Vic’s first thought was of Alicia Byers. It wasn’t she, but the effect was much the same. This woman, probably younger, was also blonde, but with her hair upswept into a little hat. She also had on a dark blue suit with matching pumps and gloves. As opposed to Mrs. Byers, who had a rural gentry look, this woman was thoroughly urban, and looked to be connected to money and power. That thought was confirmed when a woman who seemed to be the owner of the shop rushed out to greet her. They seemed to be on first-name terms and the visitor, Amanda, was informed that the dress was ready to be tried on.
Vic watched closely as they went past the curtain, even leaving it a little more open. Amanda stopped, turning her left side to Vic. The jacket covered her pretty well, and her skirt came well below her knees, but, tall and slim, she looked athletic. The owner had disappeared, but reappeared with a brightly colored dress she held up to Amanda. There was a brief conversation and inspection, and a seeming approval. It was a little like the wine tasting in restaurants Vic had heard about. First a little sip, then a nod, and then the full glass. In this case, an assistant came up from the other direction, and began disrobing Amanda.
Amanda turned her head slightly in Vic’s direction while he had his head turned as far left as he could without obscuring his view. Her blouse and skirt were undone, ready to be removed, and she could have moved a step or two forward out of view. In the event, she didn’t.
It was odd to see a woman in a hat, gloves, and high heels, but in minimal underclothing. While the assistant prepared the dress, Amanda spoke with the owner as if they were chatting in a restaurant, waiting to be seated. There seemed to be a delay, and someone brought Amanda coffee which she accepted graciously. It was in a paper cup, not a glass one, but she sipped it with sophistication and no sign of irritation at being left with so little clothing.
The dress was a full-skirted gold and pink one, voluminous, but not fully opaque. Amanda swept in front of Vic to the mirrors, apparently without noticing him. She there stood briefly, turned, and looked back over her shoulder. That seemed to be enough, and she returned to the dressing room, this time moving just out of sight. Vic could see the assistant, evidently helping her, and then coming away with the dress. When Amanda appeared a few minutes later in her suit, she had a few final words with the owner. Then, she was gone. It seemed to Vic that Amanda was the epitome of elegance.
Outside the shop, Toni, laughing, said, “Amanda Twilling gave you quite a show. Did you enjoy it?”
“Was that intentional?”
“I’m pretty sure it was. I crossed behind her and saw you out there trying to look as if you weren’t looking. But women always glance around at least a little before they’re undressed in anything like a public place.”
“Is she a countess, or something?”
“No. She was a movie actress in what’s called soft-core pornography. She’s now in a show on the telly, but she’s always in the gossip sheets with her messy affairs, divorces, and drunken driving offenses.”
“I would never have guessed! Do you know her?”
“Slightly. We both belong to a community do-good and uplift community. She tries to be everywhere and know everyone. However, she’s rather dim-witted and boring. Some unintelligent people can be interesting, but Amanda really only talks about herself. Whenever I meet her, I try to get away as soon as possible.”
“Maybe one day she’ll turn up in your waiting room with a septum that needs to be straightened.”
“Ugh. If you have any more thoughts like that, please keep them to yourself.”
“I’m really amazed.”
“It’s almost impossible to spot phonies in a different culture. I once read a short story about an English woman in Italy who takes up with an Italian who impresses her as a great gentleman. Another man who really is an Italian aristocrat tells her that her friend is probably a Neapolitan barber.”
“I’d probably make that mistake.”
“So would I. The woman mistakes the professional courtesies a barber shows his customers for the behavior of a duke.”
“I guess I’ll have to think deeply.”
“It’s no big thing. You got a free burlesque show.”
“It was very well done.”
“She’s an actress, and that was her speciality.”
On the walk back, Toni asked Vic about his mathematical work. She had some background in the area, and had also known Alfred Tarski, one of the famous Polish logicians. Having guided him to a station from which he could take the underground to Paddington, she gave him her card and shook hands.