"I feel very old," Napoleon said. "Do you feel old?" He and Illya stood in the open doorway to Clair's apartment watching a room full of grad students dance and drink beer. It was Clair's apartment warming, and they were clearly the oldest guests by a fairly wide margin. Calypso music blared from a record player and the air was thick with cigarette smoke.
"I can't remember being that young," Illya said, nodding at the young men and women singing along with Harry Belafonte as he told the story of Matilda who stole from him and absconded to Venezuela.
Illya spotted Clair across the room with a very tall young man whose arm was draped around her, a bottle of beer in his hand. She looked up at him, smiling and laughing at something he said.
Illya recalled the only other time he'd come to this apartment. He'd followed a runaway Clair to the home of her newly dead father-his and Napoleon's colleague. The door had been ajar that time, and he'd watched Clair stand alone in the living room as she tried to puzzle out what sort of man her father had been and how he could have left her alone in the world.
She looked happy now, surrounded by friends. And in the case of the tall fellow, enveloped. The sparse and impersonal flat that had been Jack Donovan's was now brighter and homier, decorated in shades of blue and yellow.
The song reached an audience participation call and response:
"Matilda! Matilda!" Belafonte sang.
"MATILDA, SHE TAKE ME MONEY AND RUN VENEZUELA!" the raucous crowd in the apartment hollered back along with the audience on the record.
When the song finally came to an end, Clair looked up to see them standing in the doorway. She waved and headed over to them, the tall guy close behind her.
"You made it! I'm so glad." Clair's grin echoed her words. "Let me introduce my friend, Danny Callihan. Danny this is Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin." They each shook hands with Danny whose grip was just short of crushing.
"Clair talks about you two all the time. Hey, let me get you something to drink. We've got wine and beer," Danny said, rather too proprietarily for Illya's taste. He was a good looking young man, with an a lot of white teeth and a mass of auburn hair. Interestingly, Clair had never mentioned this fellow. Both men replied that beer would be fine and Danny went off to get it.
"Are these your classmates," Napoleon said, gesturing to the casually dressed group.
"For the most part. And a few people I've met in the building. And you two, of course."
"Everyone seems to be having a great time. Sign of a successful party."
"I waited long enough to have it," Clair said. "Mind you, I'm grateful that I didn't have to wait until my 21st birthday next year."
Illya had helped her convince Alexander Waverly that she was mature enough at nineteen to live on her own in the apartment she'd inherited from her father. She'd been looking forward to escaping dormitory life, but when the current resident of the apartment asked for an extension on the lease, Clair found it hard to say no when she heard the reason. The small son of the tenant was being treated for a heart defect at Mount Sinai Hospital and they desperately needed to stay in New York for another year so he could be properly monitored after heart surgery. So, Clair stayed in campus housing for the year and handled her disappointment with such grace that more than proved the maturity Illya had argued qualified her to live independently.
"The little boy is well?" Illya asked.
"He's doing great. I have a picture of him on my refrigerator."
Danny brought back a couple of cold beers and resumed his "hands on" stance next to Clair.
The crowd was shouting along with Harry to "Mama Look a Boo Boo," the volume rising with the chorus of "Oh no! My Daddy can't be ugly so."
"Great apartment, isn't it," Danny said, loud enough to compete with the singing. "I share with three other guys and let me tell you, it can get pretty rank in there. " Presumably, Danny spent as much time at Clair's as possible to avoid the guy stench.
A few more guests arrived and Clair went off to greet them while Danny went to put more beer in the fridge. One of the newcomers looked vaguely familiar to Illya. Napoleon's attention perked up at the sight of the stunning blonde girl Clair was bringing over to them. She was just a bit more polished and elegant than the other young people.
Illya smiled as he remembered where he'd met her before, extending a hand. "One of the many Mary's of St. Boniface. Good to see you."
"You remembered! That's impressive," she said. "As I recall, you had the entire senior class in a complete swoon when you came to visit."
"Not sure I can picture that," his partner said. Clair gave Napoleon's shoulder a teasing punch.
"Where are my manners!" Clair said. "Mary Grace, this is Napoleon Solo. Napoleon, Mary Grace Denton, my roommate at St. Boniface. Mary is a stewardess for Pan Am."
"New York's my homebase, but I'm usually only here a couple of days a week," Mary said. "I'm so glad I was free tonight to celebrate with Clair."
Stewardesses were definitely one of Napoleon's favorite categories of women. They were literally here today and gone tomorrow, and that schedule worked very well for a man who rarely saw the same girl two nights in a row.
"Hey, Clair," Danny said, slinging an arm around her waist, "they're playing our song." Apparently, their song was the "Jamaica Farewell." He pulled her into an open area of the room and they started to dance.
"Reverend Mother would not approve-they haven't left room for the Holy Spirit," Mary Grace laughed. And there was truly not a hair's breadth of room between Clair and Danny. The height disparity left Clair's face pressed into Danny's chest, his chin resting atop her head.
"May I have this dance?" Napoleon asked. "Room for the Holy Spirit or not-up to you." Mary Grace laughed and took his hand.
"Maybe a very skinny Holy Spirit," she said, pulling him over to the impromptu dance floor where several other couples had joined in. Mary Grace laughed at some witticism from Napoleon. Illya shook his head and drained the last of his beer. Calypso was not Illya's favorite musical style, but he had to admit that the lyrics to this song were haunting.
"My heart is down, my head is turning around. I had to leave a little girl in Kingston town."
He watched the dancers for a while, before wandering over to the shelving that ran along one wall of the living room . Among Clair's eclectic mix of books and momentos was an assortment of framed photographs.
There were several he remembered: the photo of the young postwar family that Waverly had shown them that fateful morning of Jack Donovan's death, a picture of Clair and Jack on the teacup ride at Disneyland which he'd found in Jack's desk at headquarters along with the art class ashtray next to it.
One photo he'd never seen before showed a small Clair with her mother and a kindly looking elderly man in a clerical collar. They were standing in a garden, with a stone country church in the background. Illya smiled at the pure Englishness of the setting.
Illya was surprised at a few photos. There was one from Clair's graduation from St. Boniface. He and Napoleon, Mr. Waverly and Heather McNab surrounding Clair in her white formal dress. It was, he realized, a family portrait. Another photo showed the same group at Waverly's celebration the previous
year. He suddenly felt the heavy weight of responsibility for the place Clair had assigned them in her life.
The danceable "Jamaica Farewell" was replaced by another lively number, this one with nonsense lyrics about "the famous Granny scratch scratch." The young people were back to loud, rather drunken singing.
Napoleon appeared at Illya's elbow, asking, "So did the schoolgirls actually swoon? You never mentioned."
"I can't imagine there was any swooning. It was back in '59, a month after I'd been shot in the stomach. I looked like the second to the last stop on the train to death."
"I remember that. Actually, it looked like you were on the express train for a few days there. I was afraid I would have to get used to another partner. By the way, is it time for the old folks to head home to bed yet?"
"Don't you want to get to know Mary Grace better?"
"She's a lovely kid," Napoleon said wistfully. "But so very young. Besides, I have a meeting with Waverly at 8:30 tomorrow to go over our quarterly numbers."
"Ah, the responsibilities of rank. I'll let Clair know we're heading out."
Illya found Clair gathering up some of the beer bottles and carrying them into the kitchen. "Old age is catching up with Napoleon, so I'm going to take him home so he can have a bowl of gruel and get to bed."
"Poor Napoleon," she laughed. "I'm so glad you came. You two are important to me."
Illya ducked his head to hide a smile. "I have a housewarming gift for you, but Old Man Solo and I were held up at work so I didn't get home to pick it up before the party. May I bring it by tomorrow morning?"
"Not too early, but sure. I may put you to work on cleanup, though."
"I am duly forewarned. How about ten?"
"Ten it is, and I'll find you an extra apron."
The next morning, Illya rang the doorbell and waited, a package wrapped in brown paper under his arm. When Clair opened the door, he could see the ravaged room behind her. Empty beer bottles and paper napkins and plates adorned with pizza crusts covered every surface.
"Your timing is excellent!" I was just getting started." Clair wore dungarees and a sweatshirt, her hair tied back with a bandanna.
"Before we dig in, I have something for you," Illya said, handing Clair the package.
"You didn't have to get me anything." Her smile told him she was clearly delighted, though. She handed it back to him and took a minute to clear paper napkins and plates from the coffee table. They sat together on the sofa and she carefully untied the string ties on the package.
"Oh. Oh my goodness," she said as she pulled the framed watercolor from the wrappings. "How? Where did you find this?"
The watercolor depicted a country church in the background, soft gray stone walls and a terracotta colored slate roof. In the foreground, an ancient graveyard and a partially crumbling stone wall.
"I was in England for work last fall and had a free day. I called Napoleon and asked him to check the records for your grandfather's church. I found the painting in a funny little shop on the High Street in Prindleton, a short walk from the church.
"Prindleton. I haven't heard that name in such a long time." Clair held the picture up and pointed to the gravestones. " I used to have tea parties right about there with my dolls and teddy bears."
"In the graveyard?" Illya asked.
Clair nodded, laughing. "My mother helped Grandad in the church office, which was about there." She pointed to a corner of the church building. They were both very busy all day. Our housekeeper was a cantankerous woman who followed me around the vicarage with the carpet sweeper as if I left piles of crumbs in my wake. I liked the graveyard because it was close to the church office and far away from the carpet sweeper."
Clair stood the painting up on the shelf where her photographs were. She moved the photo of her family in the churchyard to sit next to the watercolor. Illya heard movement from behind the closed bedroom door.
"I'm going to be late," Danny said, opening the bedroom door. His hair was damp from the shower, droplets of water still clinging to the copper colored curls. "Sorry-I didn't realize anyone was here."
"Illya's going to help me clean up since you were too tired to get out of bed." Clair's tone suggested she was teasing and not actually annoyed.
Illya busied himself taking a load of bottles into the kitchen. He'd rather not intrude any more than necessary. He took his time placing the empties in a cardboard box he found there. He only returned to the living room when he heard Danny call out, "Goodbye Illya," the front door closing behind him.
If Clair was self-conscious, she hid it well as she slid trash into a garbage bag and emptied ashtrays. "You might as well ask me the question that I can clearly see on the tip of your tongue."
"I don't know what you mean," Illya replied, carrying the cardboard box of empties over to the living room to fill it more easily. "I guess I do have a question: how did you and Danny meet?"
"Actually, we met at a party. He was funny and irreverent and so damn bright. I know you're curious, so let's see...Danny is a medical student. He's from the Boston area. Nice Irish Catholic family. Mother living, father deceased. Two sisters and a brother-Danny is the youngest. He put himself through college with scholarships and a bunch of part time jobs. Is that satisfactory?"
"I know you think I'm prying, but I've seen education go off the rails with relationships, and I don't want that to happen to you."
Clair laughed. "Illya, are you trying to have the "sex talk" with me?"
"No! No, of course not. More of a "life talk."
"Good, because with Danny's medical education and my study of biology, I promise, we understand human reproduction and are well versed in contraception."
Illya carried the now full box into the kitchen. Clair followed him. "Coffee?" she asked, probably to diffuse things. At his nod, she took down two mugs from the cabinet and filled them with coffee from an electric pot. She took a jug of milk out of the fridge. He helped her carry everything over to the table.
"When I was around your age," Illya began, stirring sugar into his coffee. "I was at Cambridge, my first time abroad and the world seemed full of possibilities. Of course, I was aware that I was still firmly tethered to the Soviet Union. I was not my own man, to be sure. But there was such freedom right in front of me-within my reach, it seemed."
"Was there a girl?"
"Isn't there always?" he replied, smiling. "But it was so much more than sex or romance. It was movement and music, and art, and books. I had a tutor who had taken an interest in me, though I always suspected he was an unofficial handler. My homeland had many such "watchers." But he gave me some solid advice, even if it was a directive of sorts. He said that people like me-with no family or money-operate without a safety net. He said that I had to consider the decisions I made very carefully, because those choices had consequences and there would be no one to protect me when there was a price to pay for the decision."
"That's so harsh," she said.
"It was, but it was the truth," Illya replied. "I know that you're in a more secure position than I was. But I worry that you'll regret choices you make when they divert you from your dreams."
"That's just life, though, isn't it? We start out on a path and every time we come to a fork in the road we have to choose this way or that. And we lose the possibilities we might have found at the end of the other road." Clair traced a finger around the rim of her cup. " Just to set the record straight-Danny leaves for Houston at the end of May for his internship. I'm staying here in New York, so…you don't need to worry that I'll abandon my dreams."
Clair leaned forward and kissed Illya on the cheek. "What was that for?" he asked, resisting the urge to cup his hand over the area.
"You've always talked to me as an equal and not a child. Even when I was a child. I just wanted to let you know how much that meant to me."
"There's a ton of dishes to wash." She inclined her head toward the sink which was indeed full of pans and trays. "I'll wash if you'll dry."
Note: It's been a long, long time between installments of this series. It took the great Coronavirus Quarantine of 2020 to get me writing again. Hope it isn't as long for the next one.
When I was young, my mother and I would play this amazing Harry Belafonte record every afternoon when I got home from school. I'm pretty sure it was "Harry Belafonte at Carnegie Hall" recorded in 1959 as that one has most of the songs I remember. Mr. Belafonte is 93 years old-may he continue in good health!