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Supervisor Singman broke the news, Dr. Wilbur
Shippers was surprised to find only he and
Millicent Hastings were going.
"You see, Doctor, I cannot possibly go? May 24!
.... It's completely out of the question! It is
Queen Victoria Day. The Queen herself puts in an
appearance at the clinic, 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 conference 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.
Wilbur Shippers stood at the foot of his bed and
stared into the vast emptiness of his suitcase. He
decided to bring his camera this time. He never
seemed to have it when he needed it, but this time
he would have it with him every day of the
conference -- in which case he mustn't forget film
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 Sunday night? But then, suppose he
changed his mind and didn't wear that suit? He
wished he had a wife to take care of such things.
He decided to put the tickets with his passport and
wallet. He wasn't apt to forget all three of them.
Although fairly competent in the field of genetic
research, Wilbur Shippers was a babe in the
workaday 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
traveling with him as well. 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 can take
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
with the proper wine, then retired 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 woke 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 three hours early the
evening of May 23rd and checked his bags. He
sat in the cavernous waiting room of Victoria
Station, 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 the end of 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.
He looked up
in surprise to see Millicent Hastings.
"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 wear
"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
"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
Millicent Hastings looked up into the vast
emptiness of the Station. "Oh, I don't know. I plan
on looking around." She leaned toward him and said,
"You know, Doctor, printouts of all the lectures
are available, floppy discs too, complete with all
the charts and illustrations."
Wilbur Shippers was about to respond reproachfully,
when a disembodied voice reverberated throughout
the vast 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
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 may consist 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 the
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 we were in Paris
"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 instead, 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
"Good night, Doctor Hastings."
"Bon nuit, Doctor Shippers." She smiled archly as
she closed her compartment door. "See you at
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. 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 walking down the aisle.
"Bonjour, monsieur Shippers."
He had to smile. "Bonjour, madam. You slept well I
"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
"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's the methodology I was told to check
"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 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?" 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 her 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
There was a rush for the stage when the lecture was
over. "Doctor Lazlo, Doctor Lazlo -- 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
"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 sack of cassettes and
floppy discs. "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 cafés were
setting their tables outdoors, and in spite of the
rattling diesel engine of the 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.
"Richelieu," he said firmly.
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