The Great Western Railway
The word came on Monday night. Okay. Benign nevus. No problem. On the other hand, it was confirmed that the pigmentation had gone through to a deeper level. It hadn’t just been a mole. But that was still all right. A little celebration was in order. But a modest one. It wasn’t good to act as if it had been a big thing.
The dinner was in Toni’s rather large flat over an estate agent’s office. Vic contributed by cutting up vegetables at the large kitchen table. He had long prepared food for himself, often without having a stove or refrigerator, and had made what he called salads. He was also an enthusiast of red and black pepper, and told the others that almost anything could thereby be made palatable. Toni replied, “That’s how trade with the Orient got started. The Europeans were used to eating spoiled meat, and found that the taste could be covered up with spices.”
“I have tried not to eat spoiled meat, but it takes a good deal to cover up the taste of kale or mustard greens.”
“Were those the cheapest things you could buy in America?”
“Pretty much. I haven’t seen them for sale here.”
“Children here are forced to eat Brussels sprouts when they’ve been bad. You might like them.”
The dinner turned out to be quite a feast, and everyone ate a little too much.
After a little dry sherry, which Vic had never had, it was declared time for dancing. Vic had never, to his knowledge, been within sight of a dancing school. Moreover, even though the schools did have dances in which his friends participated, he had never stepped on to a floor. Toni, having put on a record, set out to teach him. While Wanda and Vicki were dancing together with great verve, it was one step at a time for Vic, and then one-two-three. At one point, Toni suggested, “You might feel more comfortable if we counted in German, ein, zwei, drei.”
“Why is that?”
“It’s more military, and thus masculine. More like marching.”
It did seem to help. Vic launched into things while Toni, lest she be stepped on, maneuvered deftly away from his large feet. He said, “I wonder if this is the way Swede would dance.”
“It would be unwise to dance with Swede, but there’s hope for you. Just a little less thumping and more gliding.”
With one arm around Toni’s small waist and the other hand holding hers, Vic began to enjoy himself. When the music ended, Vicki and Wanda, laughing, hugged one another and kissed. Toni gave him a quick kiss and twirled away to put on another record.
Before she did so, she stopped and said, “We forgot to check Vic’s dressing. This activity might start it bleeding.”
He had changed it once in Brighton by letting the original dressing soak off in the bathtub, revealing what amounted to a hole in his leg. There was a lot of dried blood with a couple of little fresh rivulets, but he had made a new dressing with materials sent with him by Toni. Not wanting to deal with the mess again, he had left it alone since. It would probably still be messy.
Before Vic could object, he was led to the kitchen sink, and his pants were whisked down. He was getting used to this sort of thing, and it took some time, with warm soapy clothes, to get the dressing off. Toni announced, “It’s all right, but it’ll heal a lot faster if we limit Vic’s activity. No more dancing for him tonight.”
With the new dressing in place and his pants up, Vic sat with Toni while the others continued to dance. He asked her, “Wouldn’t you like to take a turn with the dancing?”
“I don’t particularly like to dance with other women. Anyway, I don’t dance well enough to do what they’re doing.”
Seeing themselves being watched, Wanda and Vicki went into a parody of romantic dancing with great swoops and exaggerated gestures. It was quite funny, and the dancers were soon laughing too hard to continue.
That night, back in her bed-sitter, Vicki checked Vic’s wound once again, tucked him into his blankets, kissed him on the forehead, and jumped into her bed.
On the second day of 1954 England returned to something like normal. Vic took the train from Paddington, following his usual practice of going to the head of the long platform to watch the main line engine back down on the train.
He wasn’t the only one. There would always be a group of men, never any women, who participated in a largely silent quasi-ceremony. There was heavy fog on this morning, and out of it slid silently backwards a steam locomotive, gliding without power. Its wheels and rods made the soft ticking noises of a giant watch, and only the slightest braking was required as the buffers of the tender touched those of the first coach and compressed. When a man dropped down to fasten the couplers, the spectators walked slowly ahead to look at the engine. It was the 4-6-0, Inchcliffe Castle, one of the Great Western Railway’s famous express engines. They were lucky to have it on the Oxford run, and the men, grunting variously in satisfaction, walked back to board the coaches.
Back at Pusey Street, Vic found Elizabeth in the lounge. Before he went upstairs, he put down his things and sat with her. Tea was more or less perpetually available, and she brought him a cup, in a way that suggested that she had something to say. She did: “The ladies in Upper Heyford have scheduled a demonstration, and our operation is proceeding apace. Joan doesn’t want you involved or compromised, but wants me to keep you informed.”
“Well, I guess that’s nice of her. I certainly don’t have a yen to be in the middle of some sort of mob scene.”
“There’s also something else. Joan regards this as a relatively minor matter which she’s doing as a favor to people in Washington. She’s much more interested in basic social issues where progress is never going to be dramatic. She’s willing to just do her bit in small but useful ways.”
“To be explained. But she thinks that you can play a role, mostly by just being what you are. Nothing extreme or violent in any way.”
“Will Swede still pay me?”
“It’s always been Joan, and that will continue. She and Swede are splitting up.”
“Wow! That’s a shock.”
“It’s been planned for some time, and it’s pretty amicable. But Swede’s just wrong for what she wants to do.”
“I’ve always wondered what Joan’s motives really were. That sounds kind of heartless.”
“I don’t think it really is. They’ve just developed different values.”
“Don’t married couples usually have different values?”
“Apart from everything else, Swede is infatuated with Katarina.”
“Damn! I thought she was too crazy for me. What’s Swede going to do with her?”
“Apart from the obvious, he may want to marry her. A lot of her craziness is practical rather than intellectual. She isn’t deeply crazy. She just gets impulses, like swimming in the canal. But Swede can afford that. He can have a taxi come with dry clothes for both of them.”
“Yeah, I see that.”
“So, right after the demonstration, when Katarina and I fly to America, Swede’s coming with us. I’ll join Bob, and Swede will probably set up housekeeping with Katarina.”
“Does she reciprocate his feelings?”
“She thinks he’s fun and exciting.”
“He certainly is that.”
“As for the future, I’ll be there to comfort her if things don’t work out.”
“It seems as if I don’t have to do much of anything.”
“Just sit tight, do mathematics, and hang out with Vicki.”
“There are times when I think Vicki would rather be with Wanda than me.”
“We’re certainly close, and will always be. But I don’t think we’ll marry.”
“Well, Vic, you’re pretty clear-headed and rational, in practice as well as theory. That’s a great asset.”
“Frank Collins thinks that I’ll eventually break out with a hell of a yell, and do something really stupid.”
“So you and he talk about things like that.”
“He divorced in Australia, and is a little isolated here in England. He isn’t sure what to do in some areas, and we confer about things beyond mathematics.”
“He’s a nice man. With luck, he’ll find a nice woman. But I do see what he means about you.”
“There is a pattern I may be following.”
“Yes. It’ll probably involve a woman or women. Just try not to get anyone pregnant. Get condoms, and keep them in your pocket.”
They both laughed, and Vic finished his tea.
As he did so, Elizabeth said, “We’ll be leaving in a week’s time, and I’ll be very busy until then. So I’ll hardly see you again.”
Vic, nodded, felt rather sad, and didn’t know what to say. Elizabeth asked, “Have you ever had sex with a woman?”
“Not really. Vicki and I don’t think it would be a good idea.”
“But you’re curious?”
“If you come upstairs with me, we can satisfy that. I’m already married, and I’ll soon be gone. No commitment. No follow up. But nice for both of us.”
When Elizabeth stood and went to the stairs, Vic followed her.