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 Chapter 12


     Toni and her partner, Wanda, were in the office when Vic and Vicki arrived. Wanda was blonde and pretty, a bit younger than Toni, who explained, “She’s my little cousin, and we escaped Poland together. While I was doing my residency here in London, she went to university, and then medical school. We’ve now shared this practice for some years. We get the old Poles, and scattered other people.”

After a short discussion of her problem, Vicki said, “Usually, the symptoms disappear when you go to a doctor. Luckily, I’m having some right now.”

With that, Wanda whisked her into an inner room, and Toni, having finished for the day, asked Vic if he would like some coffee. Sitting in the otherwise empty outer office, she said,

“It’s nice that you’ve found someone, as the Spanish say, simpatica.”

“I guess we’re both escapees trying to find a firm footing.”

“And succeeding.”

“Vicki certainly is. I don’t even have a high school diploma.”

“In Europe, certificates aren’t so important. I dare say that your ability is being recognized.”

Vic allowed that he did seem to be favorably impressing the mathematicians he came upon, and concluded by asking, with a laugh,

“Do we then live happily ever after, as in the fairy stories?”

“We’re all four displaced persons, Wanda and I from Poland, and you and Vicki from your own families. We may not be so inclined to believe in fairy stories. Besides, there are certain after-effects.”

“As in?”

“The stranger mentality. Not being sure where you might fit in, and always testing the water before jumping in.”

“It’s funny, Vicki and I were just talking about that. I was recommending testing with the big toe.”

“And Vicki agreed?”

“I think so. Of course, she’s just arrived, and we’ll have to work things out.”

“Once she has, she may not feel such a stranger.”

“She and I are both sufficiently conscious of being Jewish to have a lot of the stranger mentality.”

“Didn’t you realize that Wanda and I are Jews?”

“No! It never occurred to me.”

“To the English and Americans we just seem Polish. But the other Poles here mostly aren’t Jewish, and they know the difference. We don’t sense any hostility from them, even though there’s a tremendous amount of anti-Semitism in Poland.”

“I didn’t know that.”

“What’s called the Holocaust was as much Polish as German. The Poles we escaped with, and who are now here, were the anti-fascists, so that’s a comfort. Even so, Wanda and I are strangers among strangers. You and Vicki may be something of the sort.”

“That’s not so bad is it?”

“It promotes objectivity, and has many other advantages. But, as a medical person, I don’t think it’s good to be stressed a lot of the time.”

“I hardly know if I’m stressed or not.”

Toni gave him a questioning look, and, eventually, the Mafia story came out. At the end, she replied,

“Since it looks as if I’m to be your doctor, it’s useful for me to know that.”

“I think I am safe here. I’m sure there are English gangsters, but they aren’t tied to the Mafia.”

“I should hope not. But people don’t just relax automatically. It has to be learned.”

“Is that possible?”

“There’s time, of course, but it can be hurried up. I once had nightmares about the Gestapo and the NKVD. I don’t now.”

“I do sometimes wonder about my father’s last hours. He certainly didn’t deserve what they may have done to him.”

“Is there any way you could find out?”

“Only by compromising myself.”

“I wonder.”

     It had been quite a while since Vicki went in with Wanda, and Vic said,

“I bet she’s telling your colleague her life story.”

“It wouldn’t be surprising. Wanda is someone who inspires confidence, and someone in Vicki’s position is likely to need support from someone a bit older.”

Vic had been wondering, off and on, how undressed Vicki was likely to be. As if to partially answer his question, she now arrived, fastening the little belt of her dress. Wanda was right behind her, smiling. She said,

“It’s nothing serious. But it’s irritating, and will require persistent treatment.”

With that, it seemed time to go. But Vicki hesitated for a moment. Toni broke in,

“Are you hungry after your long flight?”

It might have been a doctor’s concern, but it seemed more like an invitation. Vic responded,

“We did have a big lunch, but it’s never too early to eat.”

 “Wanda and I are on a funny schedule, but we can go to the neighborhood Indian place. If you aren’t terribly hungry, you can get little bits of things to eat.”

     There were indeed, lots of little things, beginning with spiced papadums. Wanda said that they were the Indian version of potato chips, the result being that none were ever left on a plate. Moreover, the papadums led to other things, some of which were very hot. Vic had to drink a lot of water and rice to neutralize the red pepper, but Vicki took to it quite naturally.

     At one point, Vic asked about politics and the cold war. Toni replied, “Wanda and I have somewhat different attitudes. Since the Nazis are gone, my vitriol is more centered on the Russians and communism.”

Wanda added, “We both lost many relatives and friends in Stalin’s Katyn Forest massacres, and we aren’t likely to forget.”

Neither Vic nor Vicki had known that, at the end of the attack on Poland, the whole Polish officer corps, but for a few escapees, had been taken off to Russia and murdered. Toni explained, “Since university graduates were automatically made reserve officers, that took care of a whole class of people. My father among them.”

That stopped Vic short. In the momentary silence, it seemed to him that one didn’t offer condolences for things that had happened long ago. Before he could think of anything else to say, Toni spoke, “Since Stalin personally ordered the executions, I was cheered when it was announced that, during his last illness, his doctors were using leeches in treating him.”

“Wasn’t that a medieval treatment?”

“So far as I knew. I’ve never seen it used.”

She then gestured to Wanda and said, “Wanda lost her parents to the Germans, not the Russians.”  

The idea that one could lose parents to either of two simultaneously invading countries amazed Vic, and made his own experience seem rather small. Wanda went on, “While I’m happy to be here with Toni, I could probably have adapted to life in Poland. But Toni came to my school one day and snatched me out. I was still in my school uniform when we made our escape.”

It turned out that Toni’s father, as an army intelligence officer, had seen what was coming. Just before the invasion, he insisted that Toni get out of the country, and arranged for her to leave on the destroyer Burza.

It was Toni’s idea to take her favorite cousin with her.

     While they left just before hostilities began, their column of ships was bombed by stukas on their way to England. The ship ahead of them was hit, but the Burza  made it. Wanda related the story as if it had just happened. At the end, Vic asked,

“Would you ever be tempted to go back?”

Wanda looked at Toni and laughed as she replied, “Not seriously. However, since Stalin died, I don’t fear the Soviet Union as much.”

     As it developed, Vic found that there was a difference between himself and Vicki mirroring that between Toni and Wanda, but in microcosm. He had gown up in an environment of violent bullies. They weren’t on nearly the scale of Stalin and his followers, but many couldn’t be reached by any kind of reasoning short of a blow to the gut. Vicki was a child of the middle class with a bad family. The problem was certainly a serious one, but the overall environment was more likely to be helpful than threatening. She, like Wanda, thought that the world might evolve in a peaceful way. She supported liberal politicians and causes, and hoped for the best. Vic still couldn’t put the Mafia entirely out of his mind, and he wondered if Toni had really banished ugly memories.

     Whatever filled Toni’s dreams, she said pleasantly to Vicki,

“Anyway, politics aside, you’ll apparently be working for a company that makes people happy by serving them tea.”

“Yes. Much of the computer work at home is done on military contracts. I don’t really mind, but it’ll be a nice change.”

Vic added, “By contrast, I’m a rent collector, one who makes people unhappy. Actually, I haven’t had any complaints so far.”

Wanda replied, “But aren’t you a mathematician?”

“Yes, but theoretical mathematicians don’t get paid unless they teach at universities, usually after getting Ph. D.s.”

“And, of course, that takes time. Will the rent collecting hold out until then?”

Vicki answered for him, “Vic has a rich patron who owns the buildings. He and his wife are also my patrons to the extent of feeding me dinners and buying me airline tickets.”

Vic watched both Wanda and Toni. They reacted with pleasure, without any obvious reservations, much in the way that Yuri had. Perhaps it was their common eastern European background. It was Penderby and Collins, sharing much the same culture despite their educational distance, who had been suspicious.

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