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 Chapter 21

An Operation

     Very few trains ran on Christmas, and the party effectively continued during the day. Only Ormsby departed, and did so reluctantly, muttering about his obscenely greedy father. To Vic’s mild surprise, Joan liked him. Moreover, it seemed that Ormsby would be a frequent guest.

     The pubs didn’t close for the holiday, and, at one point, Vic was in a group with Vicki, Wanda, and Frank Collins. They talked politics, and Collins declared,  “I’ve got my plane ticket to Australia in my bedside table. At the first sign of a nuclear ruckus, I’m off.”

Wanda replied, “I’d join you, but there are my patients.”

“I’m fortunate to be committed only to mathematics and football. Australia is good for football. Not quite as interesting for mathematics, but plenty good enough.”

“It is too bad that Europe’s in such danger through little fault of its own.”

Vicki then did surprise Vic when she said, “Vic told me about this group of women who are protesting an American air base and trying to get England to go neutral. I hope people like that have some success.”

Vic had indeed told her about the group, but in favorable terms. He had certainly not told her that Swede and Joan were trying to discredit the women with the help of Elizabeth and Katarina. Even Toni, who was much more hostile to the Russians than Wanda, was on the edge of helping Joan with her project. He was relieved when Collins said, “Those ladies are on the right track, but they’ll never get anywhere. The Tories still run England. Ask our young friend, Mr. Ormsby.”

With any luck, the defeat of the peace activists wouldn’t be traced to Joan’s group. Vic hoped that he could keep the group he was now with away from the conspirators.  

     That evening, Paddington was half asleep and London was closed down more completely than Vic would ever have imagined. Virtually every restaurant had the chairs up on the tables. He was told that they would also be closed the following day, Boxing Day. That was not the day on which everyone fought in the streets with their fists. It was one on which tradesmen received ‘Christmas boxes’, which were, usually, gifts of money. That was puzzling since there didn’t seem to be any tradesmen in the streets or closed shops to be given their boxes. But that was England.

     Vicki produced a pretty good meal out of bits and pieces, causing Vic to realize, for the first time, that she could maintain herself quite well. He knew of her mathematical and scholarly talents, but the notion of her as an ‘independent woman’ was new to him. When he commented on it, she responded by asking, “Is being an independent woman a first step on the way to being a cosmopolitan woman?”

“I’m not sure. Could a countess who depends on her servants for everything be cosmopolitan?”

“I think, if she pays the servants with her own money, and is civilized and well educated, she could be.”

“But, if the money comes from the count?”

“If he’s at all boorish or stupid, and she has to try to make up for him, that would diminish or destroy her cosmo status.”

“Which is quite likely. So, money and servants or not, the main thing is independence?”

“Yes, certainly. Wanda and Toni aren’t rich, but they’re totally upstanding.”

“We ourselves are in reach of that.”


     That night, just as they were about to go to their separate beds, Vic was prepared to go a tiny bit further than they had before. However, he sensed the beginning of resistance and backed off. Vicki laughed, said good night, and dove into her bed. As soon as Vic was on his pad, she turned out the light.

     On Boxing Day morning, Toni and Wanda came around with a surprise for Vic. Toni said, “Since everything’s closed today, we might as well open the office and remove that mole from your leg.”

He and Vicki were having breakfast in the kitchen part of her bed sitter, and he really couldn’t think of an excuse.

     They all went over to the office, and Toni went about sterilizing her instruments. Once in her mask and gloves, she couldn’t touch the outside of the canisters, and said,

“I’ve sometimes had patients open and close them, but we’ll give Vicki a mask and gloves and have her do it.”

Since Wanda was there, she also donned the equipment in case she should be needed to assist.

     Vic, on the table without his trousers, was beginning to enjoy the ministrations of the ladies as they scrubbed and sterilized the area around the mole. There was then the prick of the needle with the local anesthetic, and Toni set to work. There was lots of blood, but Vic was used to that. Lying flat, he couldn’t really see what was going on, but, at one point, Toni said to Wanda,

“Have a look at this. I think the pigmentation is spread down to a deeper level.”

Wanda looked and agreed, saying, “You’ll have to cut deeper.”

“Yes. I want to get it all.”

None of this sounded good to Vic. Was it some kind of cancer?

After a good deal more blood, Toni and Wanda seemed satisfied and got out the bandages. Toni reported to Vic, “There was more than I expected, and there could be a problem. But we got it all, and we’ll take it to the pathologists at the hospital to make sure.”

Her tone was reassuring, but Vic knew better. He didn’t want to utter the word ‘cancer’, and no one else seemed inclined to do so.

     After he was bandaged and dressed, Toni put the material she had excavated into a little case with ice and called a taxi. She had to call three numbers before finding one that was on duty on Boxing Day.

     After dropping the sample at the Paddington Hospital, they had the taxi go down Praed Street, Toni remarking,  “If we can’t find a restaurant that’s open, we can go to the Great Western Hotel at the station.”

It seemed that even the British didn’t leave hotel guests orphaned without food on holidays.

     The Great Western offered a traditional English meal, rather like the one they had had at the airport, but a bit more formal. There were quirks that Toni knew about, such as the need to tip separately the man who carved the roast beef. One was also asked whether one desired the sweet or the savoury, whatever that was. Vic felt that he was carrying on normally, but he couldn’t get rid of the feeling of unease over the black stuff that had been removed from his leg. The fact that Toni insisted that she had got all of it suggested that it could be cancer.  And it might already have spread.

     It was somewhat reassuring that none of the others seemed worried, but, still, he wasn’t entirely reassured. Of course, there was always the risk that they’d all be blown up in nuclear war, but this risk was much more personal.

     When they got back to Vicki’s room, she said, “You’re worried, aren’t you?”

“Well, yes. It wasn’t just on the skin. She had to go deeper.”

“I can’t pretend that there’s no danger. But I had a little conversation with Wanda. She said the odds are very good.”

“I wonder how long it will take them at the hospital.”

“I think they said a couple of days. We need to keep you busy so you don’t brood. Since I’m off work until after New Year’s Day, we could go somewhere.”

     At Wanda’s for breakfast the next morning, Vicki announced their plan and asked advice as to destination. Wanda replied,  “I’d go to Brighton. It’s a resort town that’s horribly crowded in the summer, but, on a winter day like this, it could be very nice.”

The sunlight was streaming in the window, and they got ready in a hurry.

     Even though the day after Boxing Day, a Sunday, was treated as a partial extension of the holiday by the English, there were fast trains running from Victoria to Brighton. They went first class for fun, and had a compartment to themselves.

     The train was advertized to be fast, and it was. They ripped through tunnels, banged through switches and crossovers, and heeled to the curves. Vicki asked,

“Is it safe to go this fast through congested areas?”

“The theory is that the signals will keep us from meeting another train going the opposite way on the same track.”

“Oh you! You know it’s more than a theory. I certainly hope it is.”

Vic had recently read a book about train wrecks, many of the most famous ones being in England. There was usually some unlikely combination of circumstances or distractions that led to disaster, and he regaled Vicki with them as they sped along. She reacted with satisfactory squeals, particularly when they passed a train going the other way on the next track and were buffeted by the compressed air.

     Leaving the Brighton station and walking toward the ocean, they followed Wanda’s suggestion and entered a medieval district of tiny twisted streets and funny little houses called ‘The Lanes.’ It was an area, like that of St. Ebbs in Oxford, in which people had once emptied chamber pots from the upper floors on to the heads of passers-by whose looks they did not happen to like. The residents of St. Ebbs now lacked the gumption to behave in their old ways, but persons who could even imagine performing such actions had long since been banished from Brighton.  Moreover, the buildings themselves had been cleaned up and advertized as being charming. Some were more charming than others, and it was probable that modern plumbing had somehow been squeezed into the tiny houses.

     Being hungry, they turned into a low-ceilinged café-restaurant which looked inviting. The menu was rather strange, but they ordered what amounted to chicken sandwiches. Vic had long since discovered that, in all manner of peculiar eateries, a chicken sandwich was the thing least likely to go wrong.

     The few tables were so close together that they soon fell into conversation with a young couple at the next table with a pretty little girl of some four years. She seemed fascinated by Vic, and, announcing herself as ‘Luda’, she asked for a shilling. Her parents, embarrassed, explained that, having just arrived in England, the child thought that a shilling was some sort of sweet candy. As obsessed as the English were with all sorts of tooth-rotting candy, it wasn’t surprising that the child had made such a mistake. Despite remonstrances, Vic gave Luda a shilling, which seemed to both puzzle and please her. Fortunately, she didn’t try to eat it.

     It next developed that the parents had a quasi-secret which they disclosed rather hesitantly. The man, Alexei, was a junior diplomat at the Soviet Embassy in London, and they, too, had come down to Brighton for a holiday.

     Alexei had started out as a physicist, but was now an assistant commercial attaché specializing in the purchase of electronic equipment. Both Alexei and Tanya were attractive people, conspicuously well educated, and it occurred to Vic that, in his voluminous, but haphazard, reading, he had never read Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky, or, indeed, anything by or about hardly any Russian. There was Yuri, of course, but, from a Soviet point of view, he would be the wrong kind of Russian. It was fortunate that Vicki, who had a more systematic education, could talk with them on an equal footing.

     The most notable thing about Alexei was his casual expertise in a number of different areas. There was nothing propagandistic about either of them, and Tanya said she was quite enjoying England. “We joined the diplomatic corps partly to see the world, and , having just begun our trek, we’re excited.”

Vicki replied, “We’re expatriates ourselves, we don’t know for how long.”

“We’re already missing our families, but we have to be careful what we say. A German diplomat was recently sent home in disgrace because his wife, at a party, said that she felt as a foreigner in England.”

Vic reacted, “That’s amazing! After all, she was, in fact, a foreigner.”

Alexei replied, “But her statement suggested that she felt uncomfortable in England, and thus had the wrong nuance. That’s the main problem with being a diplomat, no matter what country one represents. One isn’t allowed to say what one thinks.”

He then added with a smile, “Except on vacation here in Brighton.”

It was interesting to Vic that their new friends felt more bound by the rules of the diplomatic corps than by Soviet censorship. He had also read that Soviets abroad couldn’t go anywhere without ‘minders’. That obviously wasn’t true. It was Vicki who later remarked, “We’ve recently met an older Polish gentleman who says that an educated Pole is almost the same as an educated Russian.”

Tanya laughed at that and replied, “Poland and Russia have had a very long and complicated history. Poland has been a little like the Confederacy in your Civil War, while Russia has been the larger country enveloping it most of the time.”

“Our southern gentry have always claimed to be more civilized than the rest of us.”

“The members of the Polish intelligentsia also think that we rough Russians are less civilized. The Polish gentleman you met was being unusually generous toward us.”

Eventually, Alexei said, “You both are doing extremely well to manage on your own at such a young age.”

Vic mentioned his patrons and Vicki’s programming in explanation, but left the rest vague. Alexei replied, “In our country, you’d have many certificates and regular employment, but your thirst for adventure might not be satisfied.”

“Sometimes, there’s been a little too much adventure.”

Vicki, apparently afraid that he’d spill the beans about his family and the Mafia, gave him a look. But it wasn’t necessary. Alexei and Tanya seemed to understand without knowing the details. As they left, Alexei said, “I’d give you my card, but you’d get into trouble with your own people if you were seen with me in London. However, here in Brighton, you’re pretty safe. Here’s to next time.”

     As they strolled along the seafront, Vicki said, “Starting with Yuri and Ken, you’ve been meeting with more and more cosmopolitan people. Do you think you have enough models?”

“Yes. I just need to be more like them. Starting with not making a fuss over this little mole removal.”

“You’re doing okay. Another day or so, and we’ll be in the clear.”

“Those were nice Russians we just met.”

“They’re also totally different from either Elizabeth’s or Toni’s concept of them.”

“Elizabeth and Toni are thinking of Red Army rapists and Stalinist executioners.”

“Sure. Those also exist, along with some pretty primitive Americans.”

“It’s tempting to move beyond nationality altogether. You and I, Ken, Yuri, Frank Collins, Wanda, and Toni would all belong to one country, just happening to be located at various different places.”

“Do you feel very American, Vic?”

“Never thought about it, really.”

“Now that you do think about it?”

“A lot of the good things in the world happen to be in America, and it’s convenient to have an American passport. That’s as far as it goes.”

“Me, too. But Swede and Joan really are American. Elizabeth and Katarina really want to be. Ormsby really is English.”

“And we’re still only seventeen, Vicki. Are we the only people of our age who have to make such decisions?”

“I’m sure there are people our age in third-world countries wondering whether to escape and become refugees.”

“As Toni says, we’re already refugees, in fact if not in legality.”

“We certainly want to hang on to our handy little passports, but, in a larger sense, couldn’t we be, as they say, citizens of the world?”

Nodding decisively, Vic concluded, “That would be truly cosmopolitan.”


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