The Poet Speaks
The Poet Speaks
by Harry Buschman
When Supervisor Singman broke the news, Dr. Wilbur Shippers was surprised to find only he and Millicent Hastings were going to the meeting.
"You see, Doctor," Singman said. "I cannot possibly go, can I? May 24! .... It's completely out of the question! It is Queen Victoria Day. The Queen herself puts in an appearance at the clinic and all department heads must be at their posts." Doctor Vijay Singman raised a delicate brown finger as though he were pointing to the ceiling. "I would not discount the possibility that the French are hosting the meeting at this particular time knowing it will embarrass us."
The Societe Genetique had decided to hold its seminar in La Maison Internationale beginning Monday May 24. Breakthroughs in genetic research were occurring almost daily, and this international meeting in Paris was expected to set off fireworks in the area of cloning. It was a feather in Dr. Shippers' cap, (and Dr. Hastings' as well) to be the only representatives of the London General's Genetics Department at the conference––on the other hand, he would not get to see the Queen on the occasion of Queen Victoria Day.
In his apartment later that evening, Wilbur Shippers stood at the foot of his bed and stared into the vast emptiness of his suitcase. He decided he would bring his camera this time. He never seemed to have it when he needed it, this time he would have it with him every day of the conference––in which case he mustn't forget a film card and batteries. Then a change of underwear for each day, you can never depend on French hotel laundries. And the tickets! What in the world did he do with the tickets? Oh! there they were, on the lavatory sink. He better put them where he wouldn't forget them. How about in the suit he would wear this evening? But then, suppose he changed his mind and didn't wear that suit? He wished he had a wife to take care of such mundane matters. He decided to put the tickets with his passport and wallet. It wasn’t likely he would forget all three of them ... but then again.
Although fairly competent in the field of genetic research, Wilbur Shippers was a child in the practical world. He was no more capable of traveling alone than the Queen would be. Each trip was a gut wrenching experience for him, and for anyone else traveling with him. He was a nervous wreck until he found himself back home again staring at the door of his Chelsea flat and searching vainly in his pockets for his key. This was why he had chosen to take the night ferry to Paris.
The night ferry was really a train which left London every night from Victoria Station at 9 p.m. and arrived next morning in Paris. It was a superbly civilized achievement in international travel in which all proper Englishmen took great pride. Upon boarding, the passenger presented the porter with his or her passport and hotel reservations, enjoyed a dinner of grilled halibut or perhaps a Coquilles St. Jacques Meuniere, either would be served with a proper wine, then retire to a comfortable compartment for the night. The train was off loaded to the ferry in Dover and arrived in Dunkirk in the morning. The passenger awoke and had breakfast en route through the fields of Picardy to Gare du Nord in Paris. Travel documents were returned and a taxi was waiting for a leisurely drive to the hotel. Only the English could think of such a convenience.
Doctor Shippers arrived at Victoria Station three hours early the evening of May 23rd and checked his bags. He sat in the cavernous waiting room searching his pockets from time to time to make sure he hadn't forgotten anything. He would have moments of panic trying to remember if he'd turned off the gas or locked the door. Although it was a cool evening for a late day in May, a fine film of nervous perspiration coated his brow. The medical journals he intended to read lay unopened on his lap––he was too overwrought to read them. He consulted his watch at frequent intervals.
"Doctor Shippers!" He looked up in surprise to see Millicent Hastings standing in front of him.
"Doctor Hastings, you're taking the ferry too?" He struggled awkwardly to his feet scattering his magazines on the floor. He reached to remove his hat only to discover he had forgotten to bring it.
"Yes I am, Doctor. I'm such a terrible traveler, I thought the ferry would be as much as I could possibly handle." She looked around her and fanned herself. "Aren't we lucky to be picked to attend the conference––it's my first. Have you been to many?"
"I travel as little as possible, Doctor."
"But Paris is special, isn't it? I mean, it's the city of spring." She spread her arms and spun on her heel. "... just to be there this time of year; and traveling by the night ferry is so––so effortless. Do you plan to attend all the lectures, Doctor?" She sat down abruptly beside him.
"Why yes, I thought so. There isn't much else to do in Paris."
Millicent Hastings looked up into the vast emptiness of the Station. "Oh, I don't know. I plan on looking around if I can." She leaned toward him and said, "You know, Doctor, printouts of all the lectures are available, DVD’s too, complete with all the charts and illustrations."
Wilbur Shippers was about to respond reproachfully, when a disembodied voice reverberated throughout the cavernous Sunday night emptiness of Victoria Station. "Passengers for the night ferry to Paris are now advised that the boarding process will commence shortly at Gate eight. Please have your travel documentation available for surrender to train personnel."
One of the elegant privileges of the night ferry is that a passenger is not encumbered with his luggage. It is waiting for you in your compartment. Doctor Shippers carried only three medical journals he intended to read on the train, and Doctor Hastings carried Ernest Hemingway's, "A Moveable Feast." The two doctors rose and made their unhurried way to gate eight.
The night ferry consists of six or more cars. In holiday seasons somewhat more. It was late May, and spring in Paris draws tourists like flies, therefore it was a stroke of fortune that the two doctors found themselves in adjoining compartments. Was this a stroke of fortune or was it because the travel office at the hospital had purchased their tickets at the same time? Whether fortune or fact, it prompted Doctor Shippers to suggest that they dine together that evening.
"Oh look!" Doctor Hastings exclaimed excitedly, "They have snails. One might think one was in Paris already."
"Don't see how anyone can possibly eat such rubbish, think I'll have the trout. We should ask the waiter for separate checks, Doctor Hastings, so we can keep our travel expenses straight."
"Good thinking, Doctor. Although, it might be nice to share a bottle of wine. Would a sweet white sit well with snails and trout?"
They decided on a Chardonnay, and Millicent, not used to having wine with dinner became a little capricious. She confided to Doctor Shippers that in spite of the importance of the genetic conference she was determined to have a good time in Paris.
"Science should not stand in the way of culture and art, don't you agree, Doctor Shippers? I want to walk the streets of the Left Bank. I want to see The Dingo Bar where Hemingway first met Scott Fitzgerald. I want to visit 27 rue de Fleures where Gertrude Stein lived." She leaned back comfortably in her chair and drained the last of her wine.
"Well, I'm sure you'll find time to do everything .... " He was a little concerned that Doctor Hastings had gotten herself tipsy and it was probably his fault. He felt duty bound as a colleague to see that she turned in and got a good night's sleep before the conference began. He walked her slowly but firmly to her compartment door.
"Good night, Doctor Hastings."
"Bon nuit, Doctor Shippers." She smiled archly as she closed her compartment door. "See you at breakfast."
The crossing was turbulent, and from Dover to Dunkirk the restless sea made sleep difficult. He could hear the distant voices of partying people. Other cars were lined up on adjoining tracks and his compartment seemed to be next to a dining car. He lay back with his hands cradling his head and thought about Millicent Hastings only a few feet away. She appeared to be in her early forties, a proper age for a post doc, did most of her work on the computer as he recalled, as so many did these days, had rather nice legs for a post doc. Damn! He'd forgotten to check to see if she wore a wedding ring! In this state of mind, Doctor Shippers drifted off to a troubled sleep just north of the Normandy coast.
Millicent Hastings dropped off to sleep immediately. She had intended to finish "A Moveable Feast," but the wine made her drowsy. She lay back on the pillow and thought of Doctor Shippers in the next compartment. Middle forties, unmarried and seemingly very successful as a researcher. She had been sharp enough to notice the fine dark hairs on the back of his wrists and the way he squinted at things when he tried to focus on them. A pity he didn't have the antic disposition she always looked for in a man. The most eligible men were always like that. "I suppose," she thought, "a man needs a sense of humor to marry .... Well, let's see if we can't get him to loosen up in Paris."
In an hour everyone would be speaking French and he would not hear his mother tongue until next Saturday. The prospect was depressing to Wilbur Shippers. His knowledge of spoken French was primitive, and most of these arrogant Frenchmen wouldn't stoop to speak English to a visitor if they were drowning––getting even for Henry the fifth most likely.
He sat alone at a table in the dining car squinting at the schedule for the week's lectures and didn't notice Millicent until she sat next to him.
"Bon jour, monsieur Shippers."
He had to smile. "Bon jour, madam. You slept well I hope."
"Like a baby doctor." She waited to see if he got the pun––oh well, not a morning person I suppose. "Oh, I'll have a croissant too."
He felt he should say something complimentary. "That's a very gay dress for a genetic seminar, are those cornflowers?"
"I believe so, it is Paris after all." What would happen when they got there, she wondered. Would he ignore her and disappear into the crowd for the week. "They put me up at the Richelieu."
"Yes, I'm there too. Perhaps we can compare notes at the end of the day. Doctor Lazlo's presentation is this afternoon, we don't want to miss that."
She made a sour face, "I've worked with him on the net, he is so full of himself––and the methodology!" She rolled her eyes. "Ask me no questions and I'll tell you no lies."
Wilbur Shippers looked at Millicent with growing respect, "It was the methodology I was told to check into also."
"You'll find it suspect, Doctor."
Throughout that morning, the settling in, the registrations, and the introductions, Wilbur Shippers couldn't get Millicent's remarks out of his mind. As the day progressed, their paths rarely crossed, but occasionally he would get a glimpse of cornflowers in the center of an animated discussion group. Lazlo was a vast disappointment. His world-wide grants were impressive and he promised great things, but to date his clonings had been limited to German cockroaches.
The giant assembly hall of the Maison Internationale soon became unbearingly stuffy on this warm May 24th, and by late afternoon his attention began to wander. He watched two jet black Kenyan researchers with hair like black cotton candy floss, each of them talking into cell phones as the lectures droned on. The buzz in the giant hall was cloning––"the next century––yes––giant strides––yes!" He overheard three Italian women from Milan University ...."Yes! Final and immutable immunity from sickness and disease––yes! Immortality. Life everlasting!" "Humph," he thought. "Emotional Italians!"
He caught himself dozing. It had been such a long day. He scanned the ocean of faces for Millicent Hastings but couldn't find her. As his mind drifted, forgotten voices of his past came back to him. He remembered, as a young intern on duty long ago at a Charing Cross hospital at a mother's death bed. How quickly and effortlessly she slipped away, how nothing he could think of kept her from dying. Life can be as slippery as an eel, he thought. Her son, a perfect likeness of her, wearing a Nottingham soccer shirt, saying, "Kin y'bring me mum back again doctor?" What a fraud it all was. "She's in the hands of God, son." As if God preferred the dead to the living.
He must have slipped away a moment himself. He woke with a start after a vivid image of his sister on Christmas Eve just after the tree was dressed. Suddenly there were the words to a song, "Over the Banister, Leaning." He hadn't remembered it until now but there she was, staring at the Christmas tree from the upstairs hall. "Who will guard the tree?" It was unthinkable to his sister that the family would go off to bed and leave no one to protect the Christmas tree.
The man next to him had fallen asleep too, a post doc from McGill University in Montreal. How could it be possible for immortality to be so boring? He had to stifle a laugh as he got a mental image of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice" and its multiplying mops and pails. He could see Doctor Lazlo dressed as Mickey Mouse trying to keep them from inundating the castle.
There was a rush for the stage when the lecture was over. "Doctor Lazlo, Doctor Laslo––how does?––what if?––have you considered?” Wilbur Shippers took the opportunity to step outside for a breath of air. He looked around for Millicent but her cornflowers were nowhere to be seen. Well, perhaps she sneaked back to the Richelieu. He pushed through the crowd in the lobby and walked out into the fresh spring air to find a cab.
"Doctor Shippers, over here." Blinded in the sudden light, he didn't see Millicent Hastings at the curb holding the door of a taxi. "I have a cab, Doctor. Possibly the last one left in Paris! Isn't it a lovely afternoon?"
"How did you know I had it up to here?" He said as they sat back and stared at the blue Parisian sky through the open roof of the cab.
"It occurred to me that we were in Paris––Paris in the spring, by the way. Doesn't this seem the most suggestive place in the world to host a conference on genetics?" She fished in her tote bag and pulled out a plastic sackful of DVD’s. "Guess what I have," she smiled.
"Are those the lecture notes?"
"For the whole week, Doctor."
The chestnut trees, in full bloom shaded the street and arched above the open roof of the cab like the nave of a cathedral. The cafes were setting their tables outdoors, and in spite of the rattling engine of the old Peugeot, the plaintive notes of an accordion could be heard.
The driver turned and looked at them blankly. "Where do we go m'sieur?"
Wilbur Shippers looked at Millicent Hastings uncertainly, "Hotel?" he asked.
"I think so," she replied.
"Hotel Richelieu," he said firmly.