The Glorious Fourth Affair
There was no more than a whisper of breeze in the air. The weather was hot; too hot. It was nothing that Illya was not accustomed to; growing up in Kiev he had suffered his fair share of heat that he considered oppressive. But there was something about the still heat of the American midwest, coupled with the cloying nationalism of this particular day, that got to him. All of the businesses along Main Street were hung with red, white, and blue, and there was a disconcerting proliferation of American flags.
They had been here in this godforsaken town for five days now, and Illya found the place excessively boring. Napoleon seemed to be discovering some kind of hitherto unknown roots and was acting every inch the small-town American, spending time in the local diner chatting up the local belles and dragging Illya to the tiny movie theatre to see films that had been out of date in New York City for the past six months. The Thrush man they had been looking out for had shown no sign of turning up, and Waverly was getting twitchy about expenses. Illya would have gladly donated his own money to anyone who could have directed him to a slightly illicit jazz club in someone’s cellar or a showing of Bergman’s films, but he thought the locals were more likely to burn jazz records and foreign films as witchcraft.
‘You may intend to sit in here sulking all day, my taciturn little Russian,’ Napoleon Solo said, turning from the window, ‘but it’s the Glorious Fourth, and I intend to enjoy myself. There’s supposed to be a parade in about half an hour featuring the majorettes of the local high school. They’ll pass right under this window.’
Illya didn’t bother to lift his chin from his hand. He was deep in the middle of a particularly well-read copy of Dostoevsky, a French translation that he used periodically to refresh his knowledge of the language, and he didn’t have any interest in chest-beating nationalism.
‘If they’re from the local high school you should be ashamed of your interest,’ he told Napoleon with a barely moving jaw.
Napoleon cleared his throat and straightened his tie. ‘Some of them will have elder sisters cheering them on from the side, I’m sure. And they’re having a barbecue later, all welcome.’
That caused Illya to lift his head. ‘A barbecue?’
‘Uh, yes, that’s when we get charcoal and set it alight, and then cook – ’
‘I know what a barbecue is,’ Illya growled, finally shutting his book and setting it on the night stand. ‘When they say all welcome do you think they mean my type as well?’
‘Ah,’ Napoleon said, as if something momentous had been revealed. Yesterday at the local gas station Illya had been called a commie bastard by a guy with a pick up truck who had overheard him speaking, and he had noticed other oblique and hostile looks from some of the less well educated people in town. The events of 1962 were still fresh in people’s minds around here.
‘I’m sure you’d be welcome, Illya,’ he said with a conciliatory smile, coming to sit on the twin bed that paralleled the Russian’s. ‘I’ve noticed enough of the local beauties casting looks your way.’
‘Yes, and their fathers with shotguns nestled in the crooks of their arms and a beady look in their eyes. Do you like shotgun weddings, Napoleon?’
‘I like lithe young things that have never been despoiled in their lives,’ Napoleon told him with a grin.
‘And you like to be the one doing the despoiling,’ Illya continued for him, as if the idea were unutterably wearisome to him.
‘Illya, I never despoil a girl,’ Napoleon assured him, straightening his tie and smoothing down an imaginary kink in his hair. ‘At least, not against her will...’
‘Hmm. Well, Mr Waverly will be less than impressed if the organisation’s sued for – what would you call it in legal terms, Napoleon, when an agent of a reputable organisation sullies a girl’s innocence and then refuses to marry her?’
Napoleon declined to answer.
‘Will you come to the barbecue?’ he asked rather impatiently. ‘Our man might turn up there.’
‘I will come to the barbecue. I will not come to the parade,’ Illya replied. ‘I have never been a fan of band music mangled by high-schoolers who have been told every day of their lives how precious and talented they are by deluded parents.’
‘You are a dour Russian,’ Napoleon sulked. ‘But I’ll take the compromise. Will you come to the barbecue with a smile on your face?’
Illya snorted. ‘I promise that I will be present, but I leave geniality up to you.’
Illya was true to his word. When the distant sound of the parade started up at the far end of Main Street he went down the hall to the shared bathroom and brought back enough tissue to fashion earplugs. As the majorettes passed by the window he concentrated firmly on his Dostoevsky and ignored Napoleon’s calls for him to look down at some of the more lissom beauties that the town had to offer. He knew they would all be in the local diner come five o’clock anyway, bothering him as he tried to look inconspicuous and read while Napoleon socialised. Although perhaps not today, he reminded himself. Today was special.
‘Hey, do you think our Thrush man might sneak into town as part of the parade?’ Napoleon asked suddenly.
That was enough to make Illya look up. ‘Why would he bother? He could drive into town any time. He doesn’t need to make a song and dance about it.’
He slipped a spare piece of tissue between the pages as a bookmark and set the book down.
‘So, the parade is almost over. When is this barbecue scheduled to begin – and when does it finish?’
Napoleon grinned. ‘It’s not done, comrade, to turn up on the dot, shovel hamburgers down your throat, then retire when you’re full up.’
Illya rolled his eyes. The only benefit to being stuck in this town in a hot July was the chance it was giving him for catching up with his reading. He had brought a variety of science journals, and the literature for light relief. Until this morning he had completely forgotten that this date had special significance, and he had planned to get through a handful of essays on a new discovery in thermodynamics this evening. He had no objection to barbecued food, but he would have rather been able to bring it back to his room and eat while reading. Now it looked as if Napoleon would have him out all evening, probably downing root beer and what Americans referred to as cider, and indulging in other wholesome activities. Perhaps if he were lucky Napoleon would pick up a girl early in the evening and slip away, leaving him in peace, but then he would probably expect Illya to vacate their hotel room until the small hours so that he could be alone with her with no fathers likely to appear on the scene.
‘Let’s wander down to the football field and take a look,’ Napoleon suggested. ‘You know, I swear I can smell charcoal burning...’
Illya looked down at his white shirt with its sleeves rolled up and his skinny black tie. ‘Should I change?’
‘I’m sure the fathers of Mapleville will think you beautifully dressed,’ Napoleon told him with a grin. ‘Especially when Billy-Bud and Joey et al turn up in plaid shirts or t-shirts, chewing on wheat straw.’
‘If you talk like that in front of them you’ll get a beating for being a city snob before I get a beating for being a red Ruskie bastard,’ Illya commented dryly.
‘Which is why I am unfailingly polite to them,’ Napoleon assured him. ‘Come on. I want to get you within smelling distance of that meat before you change your mind. The whole town will be at that barbecue and if our man turns up, we’ll be there to spot him.’
The scent of meat and ketchup and various sauces intermingled with the ever constant drift of charcoal smoke and the occasional sharp tang of some kind of accelerant. Once Illya had left his book behind and come outside he felt happier to be there. So far he had encountered no dark hostility because of his nationality; only warm and welcoming comments from various mothering ladies of the town, and a few interested questions from some of the college-age kids. He was perfectly happy to pile his paper plate with various pieces of semi-cremated meat, coleslaw, bread, and slices of pie cooked by homely women who seemed to want nothing more than to feed him up.
He sat on a checked blanket that Napoleon had procured from somewhere and ate steadily, watching as Napoleon sauntered through the crowds ostensibly talking to the locals but also covertly looking out for the Thrush man that they had been expecting for far too long. Earlier today Illya had been hoping for his arrival to bring to an end the stultifying boredom of small-town America, but now he was rather hoping that he wouldn’t come until at least tomorrow, at the earliest. The food was good.
A girl plumped herself down on the blanket beside him, and he looked up in surprise.
‘Hiya! I brought you some lemonade,’ she said, proffering a paper cup.
Illya looked at her appraisingly. She was very blonde and very perky, more Napoleon’s type than his with her blue and white check shirt tied up into a kind of bra-top and her snug-fit high-waisted red trousers that gave her enviable hips. But the lemonade was cool and sweet, and socialising like this made his position here near the entrance to the field a little less obvious a lookout post.
‘You ain’t from round here, are you?’ the girl asked, looking him up and down in much the same way as he had looked at her.
‘I am from the Ukraine,’ he said rather stiffly. He had never had Napoleon’s gift of speaking effortlessly to women. ‘Russia,’ he clarified, at her blank look.
‘Oh my,’ she cooed, leaning a little closer. ‘However did you get out of there?’
Illya arched his eyebrows and took another sip of lemonade. ‘I flew.’
Her eyes widened further. They were astonishingly blue, and went well with her wheat-gold hair. There didn’t seem to be much mind behind those eyes, though, and that was what Illya craved in a woman. He wished Napoleon would come back, either to distract the girl or to dislodge her.
‘Was it awful hard learning English?’
Illya held back a sigh. He thought his English was probably better than hers. He at least knew how to form an adverb.
‘I managed,’ he said.
There was enough iciness in his tone, it seemed, to finally penetrate the girl’s perception, because she exchanged a few more platitudes and then excused herself. Napoleon returned at that moment and stood watching the swaying of her hips and her well-shaped behind before turning to Illya with something of a glazed expression.
‘Don’t even think about it,’ Illya warned him. ‘She would bore you to tears. You would have nothing in common.’
‘When it comes to women, it’s the differences I like most,’ Napoleon said suavely, his voice loaded with meaning.
Illya shook his head in disgust. ‘Any sign?’ he asked, lowering his voice as Napoleon sat down.
‘Not yet. Just a lot of girls and a lot of guys and a lot of protective fathers and nurturing mothers. Well, they seem to want to nurture you anyway,’ he added with a slight hint of jealousy, his eyes on a particularly large slice of pie on Illya’s plate.
‘Perhaps they don’t think you need feeding any more,’ Illya said pointedly.
Napoleon looked down at his stomach. ‘Really, Illya. I saw the doctor just last week and he said I was the perfect weight for my height and build. I think what you’re saying is that they think you’re scrawny.’
Illya geared himself up for a hot retort, but he was distracted by the sight of a man in a dark suit slipping awkwardly through a small crowd of teenagers.
‘Hey, is that our man?’
He didn’t point, but Napoleon followed his gaze, then shook his head.
‘Too tall, and ours is more chestnut brown than dark brown.’
Illya grunted. ‘Do you have a paint chart against which you check hair colours?’
‘Only for girls,’ Napoleon said smoothly. ‘Why don’t you enjoy yourself, Illya? I don’t think he’s going to come tonight. He’ll slip in when it’s quieter. Just relax and enjoy the day.’
‘Enjoy a lot of people strutting around celebrating a victory that they were never part of?’ Illya asked grumpily.
‘Don’t they do that kind of thing in Russia? Ever?’
Illya lay back on the blanket and folded his arms behind his head, letting the hot sunshine penetrate his skin. It felt good with his eyes closed. He drew his mind back to the few Victory Day celebrations he had attended in Kiev before leaving for the Sorbonne and then Cambridge, when the streets had thronged with people all celebrating their very real victory over the Nazis during the last world war. That was a victory that was strong and real in his memory. It was tangible and bittersweet, and when the fireworks burst overhead in the night sky it had felt like an outcry of joy.
‘I celebrated the occasions that were meaningful to me,’ he said.
‘Which were?’ Napoleon prodded.
Still with his eyes closed, Illya gave up a little of himself.
‘On May the ninth in Russia we celebrate our victory over fascism, over the Nazi threat,’ he said as if from far away. ‘That is a victory that we all remember. We all have a tale of someone who was lost, someone who was maimed. We all know families who were reunited after the war, and families who were torn apart. We set off fireworks, just like you do on this day, and we watch them bursting above the houses, above the river, and remember. There is a lot of joy, but also a lot of sorrow.’
‘Oh,’ Napoleon said softly, as if he had not considered before how Illya must have lived through war on his doorstep.
‘Of course before I was too old I left for Paris, for the Sorbonne,’ Illya said, opening his eyes and sitting up, almost startled to see the red, white, and blue throngs around him. For a moment he had been back in Kiev in May.
‘Bastille Day, huh?’ Napoleon asked.
‘Yes, there was Bastille Day, but only one, and I only glanced out of my window at the celebrations. I was researching for an essay.’
‘And then you were in England?’ Napoleon prompted. ‘For some time, too.’
Illya smiled, becoming introspective again, remembering those fireworks.
‘Yes. It takes longer to complete a doctorate than it does a masters.’
‘Even for a genius like you, eh?’
Illya flashed him another smile.
‘I took just as long as most people do, Napoleon. So yes, I was in Cambridge for six, seven years. I forget. And they don’t send their fireworks up in the summer. They save them for winter.’
‘Guy Fawkes Night, yes? November fifth?’
Illya nodded. ‘It strikes me as ironic that the English host a celebration in winter to celebrate keeping a king, while you host one in the summer to celebrate losing one. On the whole I think I prefer the English one. There is less – less showiness about it. Also, one does not have to stay up so late for the fireworks when one has work in the morning.’
He lay back on the blanket, remembering. He had been as reluctant to go to his first Guy Fawkes as he had Bastille Day, or this July the Fourth. But one of the post-grads in his digs had wheedled at him and nagged him until finally he had slammed his text books shut, dragged on coat and gloves and a scarf, and followed Philip out into the night to join the other students crowding onto a local playing field where a twelve foot high bonfire with its roughly constructed effigy of Fawkes was just starting to blaze nicely. The crackling heat had driven the cold away and he had stood there biting into a toffee apple pressed on him by another student, a woman who he thought probably fancied him. Philip had brought out a packet of sparklers and urged him to write his name out in the hissing sparks while his breath clouded white before him and children ran about excitedly waiting for the fireworks to start.
And then they had begun, screaming into the air and bursting against the black sky. A Catherine wheel whizzed in circular showers of golden sparks, and another rocket had gone up, lighting up the clouds and the upturned faces below. Philip had laid an arm around his shoulders and squeezed, and asked if he were enjoying himself. He was too hot where he faced the fire, his feet were too cold, there were fumes in the air from something on the fire that shouldn’t have been there. But the sky was alive with bursting showers of lights, the taste of the apple was sticky and tart in his mouth, and the excitement of the children had been infectious. He had honestly been able to say yes.
‘I’ll take you to a Guy Fawkes celebration one day, Napoleon,’ he promised. ‘You’d enjoy it.’
‘Do they have girls there?’ Napoleon asked with mock anxiety.
‘Yes, Napoleon, they have girls,’ he nodded. ‘And in Cambridge most of them have brains too.’ He looked out across the field. ‘I suppose we have a while to wait for the fireworks?’
He hadn’t realised until now, forced back into reminiscence, how much he enjoyed fireworks, how they tied him to memorable and meaningful times in his life.
Napoleon twisted his wrist to look at his watch. ‘Yeah, a while,’ he nodded. ‘How about we take a walk around, see if we can pick out anyone of interest?’
Illya looked down at his plate, which now only contained a few scraps of food. He shrugged, crumpled the plate around its leftovers, and shoved it into a nearby rubbish bin. Napoleon folded the blanket and put it under one arm.
‘Need to give this back to Mrs Richardson,’ he told Illya. ‘When she saw us without anything to sit on she pressed it on me.’
‘Is Mrs Richardson pretty?’ Illya asked warily. ‘Is she widowed?’
‘Mrs Richardson is about seventy years old and has three chins,’ Napoleon said confidentially. ‘But she’s a dear. Ahh, Mrs Richardson,’ he continued in a louder, genial voice as they strolled up to a small family sitting around in deck chairs. ‘Thank you for the loan of the blanket.’
The woman peered up at the two U.N.C.L.E. agents from behind thick black sunglasses.
‘It was my delight, dear,’ she promised, patting Napoleon’s hand as he passed the blanket back to her. ‘Forgive me not getting up. My rheumatism. And is this the friend you mentioned? Mr Curry – Coory – ’
‘Kuryakin,’ Illya supplied quickly, holding out his hand. It was easier to correct her than listen to his name mangled further. ‘Yes, thank you. The blanket was – very comfortable to sit on.’
‘Well, aren’t you two polite young men?’ the lady asked, beaming. ‘You know, I offered a blanket to that man on his own, even asked him if he wanted to sit with us – and he was so abrupt. Why I was shaking a clear five minutes after he left.’
Illya looked at Napoleon and Napoleon looked at Illya.
‘That man on his own?’ Illya asked carefully.
‘Oh yes, oily looking man, you know. Now I come to think on it I’m glad he didn’t stay.’
‘Chestnut hair?’ Napoleon asked.
‘Oh, some kind of brown. My eyes aren’t what they used to be.’
‘Well, thank you,’ Napoleon told her warmly, leaning in to kiss the woman’s wrinkled cheek.
Illya hung back until Napoleon was ready to move on, having no intention of starting to kiss elderly ladies that he didn’t know.
‘Well, shall we look around for an oily chestnut man?’ Napoleon asked when they had moved off into the crowd.
Illya smiled. ‘You have such a way with words.’
They wandered around the crowd for what seemed like hours but no single man with chestnut hair came to light. Illya was itching to return to the hotel so that he could catch up on the reading that he had missed, but Napoleon seemed to be quite happy just wandering through the crowds, nodding at particularly attractive girls and studiously avoiding their fathers or boyfriends.
‘He’s not here,’ Illya said dourly after their third turn around the field. ‘And my feet ache. Can’t we go back to the hotel for some dinner?’
Napoleon looked at him in surprise. ‘You’ve just eaten your own weight in picnic food! If I’d known an Illya was so much trouble I’d never have chosen one as a pet.’
‘Do you really think this man is going to turn up at a homely Fourth of July barbecue and start to terrorise the good townspeople?’
‘The point is that we don’t know when he’s going to turn up. This is a celebration, Illya. Why don’t you just relax and enjoy it?’
‘I enjoyed the pie,’ Illya admitted. ‘But there are too many people here for my liking. Too many places for a Thrush agent to hide. What’s he doing in this place anyway? What do Thrush want with the people of Mapleville?’
Napoleon shrugged widely. ‘Domination, subjugation, devilry? Who knows. We just got a tip off that a top Thrush man would be here, and this was our chance to reel him in. Maybe his dear grandmother lives here and he promised he’d visit for her birthday.’
‘Well, in that case it’s rather rude of us to spoil her birthday,’ Illya commented.
Napoleon sighed, looking exasperated. ‘I’ll tell you what. You go back to the hotel, kick off those shoes, order room service, get out your journals – whatever it will take to make you a better tempered Russian. I’ll see you back here at dusk for the fireworks? Huh? Will that put a smile on your face?’
At last Illya smiled. ‘It will help,’ he said. He patted his pocket where his slim U.N.C.L.E. communicator was nestled. ‘Keep in touch.’
Napoleon gave him a mock salute and wandered back into the crowd.
Back in the hotel room Illya did as Napoleon had suggested; kicked his shoes off, ordered a reasonably palatable meal from room service, and got out his journals. He wasn’t reading, though. He was trying to address exactly why he felt out of sorts; why this celebration was making him feel so uneasy. Perhaps it was that he had never felt so much of a stranger in the country as now, when suddenly everyone was so conspicuously American. Very few of the town’s residents had been overtly hostile, and some had actually been very warm to him, but he was extremely conscious that he had been brought up in a very different place and a very different culture to his American partner. There was enough antipathy towards Russians and Communists in backwaters like these to make him uneasy, and on a day like this those feelings were even more pronounced.
Perhaps it was more than that. Perhaps it was that most curious of sensations; nostalgia. There were many things he didn’t miss about Russia, but he did miss the celebrations, the coming together of all the people, the traditional foods and songs and communal joy. He was unlikely to ever have that again. Russia did not welcome people back with open arms, at least not people who left the country to work for the Americans. He wanted to rest back on the banks of a river under the spring sunshine in his own country, hearing people speaking his own language, and be at ease. It had taken him a long time to feel at ease here in the U.S., and when he was out of New York some of his carefully acquired ease faded away.
He missed England, too. That was where he had acquired the majority of his English language ability and really had spent his most formative years there after what felt like very brief stints at university in the Ukraine and Paris. He had settled quickly into the academic community of Cambridge, where there were plenty of other foreign students and even a small group of Russians who gathered occasionally to speak in their own language and eat familiar foods. Thus far he had spent less time in America than he had in Britain, and all of his time in Britain had been amongst like-minded intellectuals. He missed the understated celebrations, the aged buildings, and the unassuming culture. America was brash in comparison.
He pushed aside his empty plate and told himself to stop maudlin. Just because the whole country around him was celebrating a festival that held no importance for him was no reason to sulk the day away. He pulled the top journal off the stack and opened it to his bookmark, and began to immerse himself in pleasingly complex equations, satisfied that if Napoleon dipped into this essay he would be completely at sea.
He must have fallen asleep. It was semi-dark in the room and the journal was spread open, upside down on his chest, some of the pages bent where it had come to rest. Illya snapped the journal closed and laid it on the night stand, fumbling to turn on the bedside light a moment later. He looked at his watch and saw that it was almost ten o’clock. Yawning, he pulled his communicator pen out of his pocket just as a key sounded in the door, and Napoleon walked in.
‘I thought you were going to meet me?’ he asked rather plaintively. He was glowing as if he had soaked up all of the day’s sunshine. Napoleon seemed to thrive on social contact.
Illya smiled ruefully. ‘I’m afraid I fell asleep.’
Napoleon came on into the room and picked up the discarded journal, leafing through the pages. ‘I can see why. Have you ever tried Playboy as an alternative, Illya?’
Illya gave him a disgusted look, and the American grinned.
‘Well, I’ve come to rouse you, so get on out of bed and come watch these fireworks with me. It won’t be the same without you.’
It was a throwaway comment, but it created a burst of warmth in Illya’s heart.
‘Really?’ he asked.
Napoleon looked up, meeting his eyes, and registered his sincerity.
‘Yes, really,’ he said with equal transparency, holding out a hand to haul Illya up from the bed. ‘Come on.’ He held up his other hand, which was gripping a rustling paper bag. ‘I bought doughnuts. You know, just in case you’re still hungry.’
Illya’s eyes lit up. He could trace his strong attraction to food to those days during the war when everything was scarce. He had been at an impressionable age and had lived, as everyone else had, through severe privation, and now whenever he felt ill at ease he was overcome with the urge to eat. Luckily he was also very efficient at burning off those extra calories in a way that Napoleon envied.
‘Well, I am a bit peckish,’ he admitted. ‘Shall we go?’ As an afterthought he asked, ‘Is there a river where they’re setting off the fireworks?’
Napoleon looked thoughtful. ‘I don’t know. There might be. Do you need one?’
‘I would like one,’ Illya told him.
There was a river, meandering at the side of the meadow where half the town had gathered to watch the fireworks. Although the light was almost gone it was still warm enough to be comfortable in shirt sleeves, and Illya rested his back against the bole of a tree as the river ran languidly by, glinting under the occasional flashes of light from the field. Because of the darkness groups of families and friends were keeping largely to themselves, and strangely that made him feel like less of an outsider.
‘This is nice,’ he said.
Napoleon offered him a doughnut from the bag.
‘You can’t see in this light, but they’re glazed red, white, and blue,’ he said.
‘Either way, they taste good,’ Illya told him after biting down into a doughy, sugary ring.
‘Glad you came?’
There was a sudden whiz and then a bang, and a shower of stars glittered across the night sky and then faded into nothing. Illya gazed at the slowly drifting smoke left behind from the rocket, and nodded.
‘I’m glad I came.’
Napoleon settled down next to him and plucked his own doughnut from the bag.
‘Mmm, these are good,’ he said through a sugary mouthful.
Another burst of rockets sparkled across the sky, and another. In the darkness Illya shut down his awareness of the voices around them and concentrated just on the sound of the river rippling by and the intermittent flashes and crackles of each new burst of fireworks. It was too warm to put him in mind of Cambridge in wintertime, but he could easily slip into imagining he was back home in Russia, with the fireworks sailing aloft for Victory Day, and all those around him his compatriots sharing in the day.
As the final firework burst in the air, showering the upturned faces with reflections of silver and gold, Napoleon asked, ‘So, how did you like your first Fourth of July?’
Illya smiled. ‘It was all right,’ he said.
What he meant, at least in reference to the fireworks, was It was beautiful. But Napoleon would understand.
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