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 Chapter 24

An Arrrangement

     The arrival of the New Year brought a lot more rain. It was rather dismal in Oxford, but it suited London better. Wet workaday people clattered in and out of the Underground as they dodged one another’s opened black umbrellas. Cheer was in the air, and the metropolis was thriving.  Come evening, hard rain bounced off the crowded pavement in front of brightly-lit theaters without interfering with the rush for seats. Fashionable people moved daringly through shadows pierced randomly by shafts of light from shops and cafes.

     While it was undeniably cold as well as wet, it wasn’t like climbing naked out of a canal in a remote area with no succor in sight. For one thing, the double-decker red busses spattering water across the pavements represented havens of warmth and comfort. As they moved slowly along The Strand in gangs of a dozen or more, people ran and jumped on to their rear platforms without waiting for the busses to stop. The more daring jumped into cabs despite the considerable risk of being cheated on their fares.

     Vic again went to the Tate Gallery on the Thames and the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square with Vicki, and even to another concert at the Albert Hall. That was motivated, not so much by love of music, but by the feeling that a cosmopolitan man would surely go to concerts. In the course of that, he discovered that he liked Handel.

     It was at the Moo Cow Milk Bar on Baker Street, after a concert at Wigmore Hall, that, on one of his many impulses, Vic told Vicki about his interlude with Elizabeth. She actually laughed, and replied, “I don’t mind. Was that her way of getting warmed up for her husband?”

“I think she hadn’t had any sex for a long time. But it seemed that there was a lot at the night club in Vienna.”

“You’d better have Toni check you for VD.”

“Yeah. I hadn’t thought about that.”

“Women don’t have to worry about that as long as they stick to other women.”

There was another little laugh, and Vic realized. After a moment, he replied,

“We used to wonder how you’d resolve the episode with your father. Is this it?”

“Pretty much. There’s a certain deep-down suspicion of men that seems always to remain no matter how good a friendship with a man may become. As with us.”

“I already knew that you didn’t want to go beyond a certain point with me. And I had my own uneasiness.”

“Did Elizabeth wipe that away?”

“To a large extent.”

“So, now, Elizabeth is gone with the others.”

Vic wasn’t sure how much information about the Upper Heyford operation had filtered from Joan to Toni to Wanda to Vicki, but it seemed that she knew that Katarina and Swede had also gone, and gone together. He replied, “I guess I’ll find someone else. But it’s not real pressing. And I still have to be careful.”

     When Vicki was at work, Vic walked the streets, now mostly dry. He was particularly taken by the Victorian steam engines, some seventy years old, which pulled little trains through the secondary lines of London. Turning a corner in Tottenham or Shepherds Bush, he might suddenly come upon one. Over an old iron bridge squeezed between buildings on both sides of the street, there would be a little black locomotive, its stack seemingly too tall for it, pulling several coaches. After a great commotion of hissing and rattling, it would be gone, leaving only a faint smell of coal smoke and a few cinders. It was these trains, rather than the great expresses, which connected the many villages comprising the city.

     Some of the villages were ancient, and there were still slightly different sorts of people populating them. There were the ‘working-class fascists’ of the Arsenal district, the boat dwellers of Fulham (whose boats rested in the mud at low tide), the people who lived under the railway viaduct in Bermondsey, and the variegated throngs of the East End. It was interesting to figure out where the boundaries lay, and the routes of communication could be traced, not only by the tracks, but from the upper decks of busses.

     At lunch time, Vic often rolled around to see if Toni and Wanda were ready to eat, and it was usually Toni who came out with him. She already knew about Vicki and Wanda, and seemed accepting. Vic sensed that Wanda had had other lovers in the past, but never in such a way as to interfere with her connection with Toni. The latter said,

“I have a number of friends with some lesbian tendencies, but they know that I don’t, and there’s never been a problem.”

“I’m looking around for someone in a vague sort of way.”

“I know some of possibilities for you. It’s tricky because I have patients who’ve become friends, and vice versa. I have to keep secret any medical knowledge I have of them, but not other kinds of knowledge. Sexual activity usually comes close to the borderline.”

“It must be funny when you have an outwardly super-respectable patient whom you know to have all kinds of affairs.”

“That happens quite often. In fact, it’s just that sort of woman who might be of interest to you.”

“They’re usually married, aren’t they?”

“Yes, but the marriages usually aren’t very satisfactory. People stay together because of children, or other reasons. But they wander. Both the men and the women.”

“So the people they wander to aren’t necessarily home wreckers?”

“They sometimes provide the outlet that keeps the home going. I’ve done a little of that. It sounds like a rationalization, but it’s sometimes literally true.”

It wasn’t clear to Vic that he had ever made many moral judgments about adultery, or much else, and thus hadn’t needed rationalizations. Before he could reply, an older couple came crashing into the restaurant, seemingly out of control, and landed at the next table.

     Their new neighbors were tall, beaky, and stooped, seeming more like brother and sister than husband and wife. They spoke loudly, seeming oblivious to Vic and Toni, but let loose a lot of information about themselves with sentences that began, more or less, ‘When I was at Kandahar,  ……’  

     It was possible for Vic and Toni to simultaneously carry on a conversation in low tones, and she said,

“This is the kind of upper-class speech that comedians parody.”

“The repetition and content reminds me of my parents.”

“Didn’t you say that they weren’t intelligent?”

“That was an understatement.”

“Idiocy crosses geographical, political, and social barriers. It also wins. Such a person can simply outlast more intelligent people.”

“That’s scary!”

“These were the people who ran India for the British. No wonder they were hated in return.”

     Even Vic could see that the woman diagonally across from him was dressed in loud clashing colors topped off with a regrettable hat. It did seem that she wanted to be noticed, and, speaking as if to someone ten feet away, she asked her companion,

“Do you know this young man who seems to be seeing Janet’s daughter?”

“I believe his name is Jackson. But I haven’t met him.”

“Is he someone whom one could know?”

“Very likely not. But, then, one knows more sorts of people than one used to these days.”

Toni made a gesture, as if calling on heaven to intervene, at that point, but evidently reconsidered to the extent of whispering,

“She’s worse than he is.”

Almost simultaneously, the man beside Vic was asking,

“What are you wearing to the Kenniston’s anniversary party?”

“The pink and purple dress.”

“Yes. You know, it’s always chilly there. Lots of draughts. You might wear a coat over it.”

“My light-weight green one should do.”

“Yes. Capital!”

     Out on the street, Toni asked Vic, “Could people with influence and power in America be as hopeless as those two?”

“The only powerful people I know are Swede and Joan. People like my parents have zero influence and power.”

“I think it’s because there’s a remnant of landed aristocracy in all the European countries. But it’s fading. The people like the ones we just saw are old, and they’ll be gone soon.”

“You could help them along by injecting the wrong things into their rear ends.”

Toni laughed, but walked along in silence for a bit, perhaps wishing that she could act on Vic’s suggestion.

     Looking down at Toni’s crown of black hair, cut evenly along the back, Vic put his hand on her extremely white neck, moving his fingers up under her hair. She let out a peculiar noise, tilted her head back, and said, “Don’t do that unless you’re prepared to do a whole lot more.”

“Sorry, I didn’t mean to alarm you.”

“That sort of thing feels very good, but it leads to things. I have in mind a better arrangement for you which may just be possible.”

     After walking in silence for a moment, she said,  “I have a patient coming in shortly who might be amenable. She’s married to an older man, a Member of Parliament who’s on the Opposition front bench. She’s the perfect wife for him, but he’s far too occupied with politics to be the perfect husband for her. She looks a bit like Amanda Twilling, the lady who gave you a show at the consignment shop. But Amanda’s a fake, and this one is genuine.”

“Sounds great.”

“If you come to the office for a bit we’ll just see what happens.”

     Vic was standing with Toni in the waiting room when Valerie Marshall came in. She immediately reminded him, not only of Amanda Twilling, but, even more, of a younger blonder Alicia Byers. Toni said, “Hello, Valerie. I’ve just been having lunch with this young gentleman.”

After introducing them, she said, “I’ve recently taken a chunk out of Vic’s leg and have to check him. But your appointment comes first. Just wait a little while I get organized.”

Toni then went into the inner office, and Mrs. Marshall said to Vic, “I see that, like the rest of us, you’re a friend as well as a patient.”

Vic explained that he was an American student and added, “I was being checked for athletic injuries when Toni discovered a big black mole that had to be removed.”

“I see. I hope she doesn’t discover any big black moles on me.”

“The odds are heavily against it.”

At that point, Toni, in white coat, beckoned Valerie in. She left the door ajar, and Vic, sitting, could hear Valerie say,

“He’s very young, isn’t he?”

“Oh yes. But he’s a mathematical prodigy, which has automatically thrown him into the adult world. He’s also quite an athlete.”

“I hope his problem isn’t serious.”

“No. It’s just a matter of clearing up a bit of a mess.”

The voices grew faint as they went into the inner room, but Vic could just hear something about ‘slipping out of your dress.’ That excited him. Men didn’t slip into or out of their clothes, and the suggestion of sinuosity combined with exposure was attractive.

     Twenty minutes later, after Valerie had slipped into everything she had slipped out of, they came out. Toni said to her, “I won’t be long with Vic if you’d like to go to tea afterwards.”

Valerie hesitated, and then said, “I actually don’t have anything scheduled until later.”

     With Vic, it was another change of dressing. There was less dried blood and pus this time, and the old dressing was easier to get off. There was the sting of antiseptic, and then the good clean feeling of the new bandaging.

     They went to a different café this time, and the tea that followed was full of suspense from Vic’s point of view. However, his companions carried on in the calmest way imaginable. When the talk turned to politics, Valerie explained, “Being the wife of a prominent M. P., I’m really not supposed to deviate from the party line in any public way. But, since I have liberal inclinations on the one hand, and aren’t intensely political on the other, I don’t have any great difficulty. The upshot is that, as long as I don’t do anything that gets into the papers in any controversial way, I’m all right.”

Toni asked, “Are there reporters and photographers who follow you around?”

“I’m not flashy enough for that. I dress in much the way that the queen does, which seems dull to most people. I don’t get drunk and say quotable things, and I’m careful not to insult anyone. Whenever I really want to be alone, I go to the little place in Putney that my sister keeps. In fact, I’m about to go there now.”

She then surprised Vic by giving the address. It was one that wasn’t hard to memorize.

     Once they had separated, Toni told Vic which Underground to take to Putney, and where to go from there. As it turned out, the train came out of the ground to cross the Thames on a bridge, and then remained elevated. The address turned out to be a Mews. That was an alley which, instead of being garbage strewn, had been ‘tarted up’ with pretty little apartments. They had probably once been occupied by servants working in the larger houses facing on the main street, but were now maximally discreet little studios.

     Vic had moved slowly, lest he arrive before Valerie, and, when he rang the bell, he heard steps on the stairs inside. When she opened the door, she said, “Why Mr. Ross, how nice to see you! Won’t you come up for tea?”

Vic allowed that he would, and followed her up the stairs. She was now wearing a suit with a skirt well below her knees, and he noticed the seams of her stockings bisecting her slim ankles and muscular calves. It seemed that most English women, used to walking and cycling, had powerful legs.

     There was, indeed, more tea, this time an herbal mixture. Valerie, being more chatty than Alicia Byers would ever have been, asked, “Did you enjoy your medical session with Toni?”

Laughing, Vic replied, “In a way. I’ve hardly been to doctors until now.”

“She’s a very attractive woman, and you must have had your trousers down.”

“Yes. I was embarrassed the first time, but I do kind of like it now.”

“I was a little embarrassed myself. She left both doors partly open, and, as I was undressing, I wondered if I was visible.”

“Not from where I was sitting. I did hear her tell you about me and my mathematics.”

“Yes. Very impressive. I was still in my dress at that point.”

“I did figure that you’d be undressed, and I was thinking about it.”

“Ladies do have to have breast examinations, and the brassiere can’t be removed until the dress is off. Some women can slide their slips down to their waists, but my swimmers’ shoulders are too broad for that.”

“I wonder if Toni likes seeing us undressed.”

“I’m sure she does in your case. Then, too, even heterosexual women have some homosexual tendencies, more so than most men. Do you look at other men in locker rooms?”

“When I see someone who looks strong, I usually work out what it would be like to play football against him. Some people who look strong, and can even lift a lot of weight, can’t do much else.”

“So you’re always comparing yourself to others, wondering who’s the better man?”

“I guess so.”

“I can hardly imagine doing that. Women have such different concerns.”

“As in?”

“I was once waiting for an elevator with a stranger, a fairly ordinary-looking man, when a pretty young woman joined us. He leered pretty openly at her, but there happened to be a full-length mirror near the elevator. She ignored us, but stared at herself.”

“So men look at women, and women look at themselves?”

“We often do like to be looked at, but it may be because it reassures us about ourselves.”

“Does Toni look at you in the right way?”

“Because of the professional situation, her approval is quite muted, but there are signs, and I must admit that I play for them.”

“How do you do that?”

“I don’t laugh or smile, but undress carefully, maintaining erect posture as much as possible. There’s nothing so attractive as just standing straight in one’s knickers, suspenders, and stockings.”

“Boys in America still sometimes wear heavy corduroy knickers.”

“I’m not much for corduroy or those sorts of knickers. It’s English slang for what you call ‘panties.’ But that seems rather undignified.”

“Or even inelegant?”

“I should say so. Besides, mine are loose, lacy, and not terribly revealing.”

“Do you keep your shoes on?”

“But of course. One doesn’t want to be one of those women who traipse around slumped over in stocking feet whilst trying to cover themselves frontally with their arms crossed.”

“Toni told me that some American women act that way in front of her.”

“It sounds as if Toni reveals a lot of feminine secrets to you.”

“None about you.”

“In that case, we might go in for a spot of mutual disclosure.”

“I’d like to see how straight you can stand.”

When Valerie stood, removed her jacket, and put her hands to the fastenings of her skirt, they had drunk only half their tea.

     After showering together, Valerie put on a heavy white bathrobe and said, “Our tea must be cold, but let’s finish it anyway.”

Having sat down, she continued,  “That was most satisfactory, didn’t you think?”

“Oh, most.”

“I see you’ve learned the correct English understated reply. There’s an old joke about conversation after sex. The German woman says, ‘Ach Wunderbar.’ The French woman says, ‘Ah merveilleux’. The English woman asks, ‘Feeling better, George?’”

Laughing, Vic replied, “In fact, so much better that …”

“No, no. At your age, you could keep going all night. Once is enough for me. Actually, you might expend some of your energy in Toni’s direction.”

“I did, a little bit. She seemed to like it, but she arranged for me to be with you instead.”

“I see. She’s a little shy. However, I think you should ask again. Shall I give her a recommendation?”

“Well, no. A friend of mine is interested, and I wouldn’t want to get in the way.”

“Is he married?”

“No. He’s an Australian mathematician at Oxford.”

“That might become serious. We married people take these things more lightly.”

“Your husband doesn’t know, I take it.”

“He may suspect. But he’s really only interested that there be discretion. How would your girl friend feel about our meeting?”

“She and I have decided to be Platonic. We look elsewhere for whatever sexual arrangements may be appropriate.”

“So I’m the only one who has to be discreet. My sister, who’s in like case, and I use this place as you see. It wouldn’t fool a private detective, but English gentlemen don’t hire detectives.”

 “Are we likely to run into your sister and her friend when we’re here?”

“Not likely. But, if it should happen, we’d simply have tea for four.”

Vic, still naked, could hardly imagine the scene. When he moved a little, Valerie pointed to his leg and asked,

“Isn’t that blood?”

It turned out that the dressing on the wound had come off, probably in the shower. Valerie looked at it closely and remarked,

“I was all for disclosure, but perhaps not this much.”

“There must be blood on the towel.”

“No matter. I’ll tell my sister that virgins have been here.”

Valerie retrieved the dressing from the shower, but it was a soggy mess. She then improvised a new one by cutting up a freshly laundered dish towel and tying it on with string. She concluded,  “That won’t stay in place very long, but it should get you to a chemist’s. With luck, there’ll be a pretty young assistant who’ll drop your trousers and fix you up.”

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