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Trouble With Lichen, Page 1

John Wyndham




  PENGUIN BOOKS

  TROUBLE WITH LICHEN

  John Wyndham Parkes Lucas Benyon Harris was born in 1903, the son of a barrister. He tried a number of careers including farming, law, commercial art and advertising, and started writing short stories, intended for sale, in 1925. From 1930 to 1939 he wrote stories of various kinds under different names, almost exclusively for American publications, while also writing detective novels. During the war he was in the Civil Service and then the Army. In 1946 he went back to writing stories for publication in the USA and decided to try a modified form of science fiction, a form he called ‘logical fantasy’. As John Wyndham he wrote The Day of the Triffids and The Kraken Wakes (both widely translated), The Chrysalids, The Midwich Cuckoos (filmed as Village of the Damned), The Seeds of Time, Trouble with Lichen, The Outward Urge (with ‘Lucas Parkes’), Consider Her Ways and Others, Web and Chocky, all of which have been published by Penguin. John Wyndham died in March 1969.

  John Wyndham

  TROUBLE WITH LICHEN

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  PENGUIN BOOKS

  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Books Ltd, 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, USA

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  Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  www.penguin.com

  First published by Michael Joseph 1960

  First published in Penguin Books 1963

  This edition published 2008

  1

  Copyright © John Wyndham, 1960

  All rights reserved

  The moral right of the author has been asserted

  Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject

  to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent,

  refold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s

  prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in

  which it is published and without a similar condition including this

  condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

  978-0-14-192084-9

  THE farewell was beautiful.

  The small choir, all in white, with gold nets gleaming on its hair, sang with the sweet sadness of angels forlorn.

  When it finished, the crowded chapel was full of absolute silence, and through the heavy air the scent of thousands of flowers rolled in slow waves.

  The coffin topped a small pyramid of close-packed blooms. At the four corners, guards in classical gowns of purple silk, gold nets on their bowed heads, gold cords crossing between their breasts, each with a gilded palm frond in her hand, stood as if carved.

  The bishop crossed the floor soundlessly to ascend the four steps to the low pulpit. He laid his book carefully on the shelf before him, paused, and looked up.

  ‘… our beloved sister, Diana… her unfinished work which she now can never finish… irony of fate not a proper term to apply to the will of the Lord… He giveth; He taketh away… if He takes away the olive tree He has given before its fruit has ripened, it is for us to accept His will… Vessel of His inspiration… Devotion to her aims… Fortitude… Change in the course of human history… The body of Thy servant, Diana….’

  The eyes of the congregation, the several hundred women with a sprinkling of men, turned to the coffin. Slowly, it started to move. A few disturbed blossoms rolled down and spilt upon the carpet. Inexorably the coffin slid on. The organ began to play softly. The voices of the choir rose again, high and clear. The curtains dragged along the sides of the coffin, and fell to behind it.

  There was a sound of caught breaths, a whimper or two, a dappling of small white handkerchiefs…

  As they left, Zephanie and Richard became separated from her father. She turned, and saw him a few yards behind them. Among the press of women in the aisle he seemed taller than he was. His handsome face told nothing. It looked only tired — and unconscious of everything about him.

  Outside, there were more women; hundreds of them who had not been able to get into the chapel. Many were weeping. The flowers they had brought were laid like a bright carpet on either side of the door so that those leaving had to walk between them. Someone in the crowd was holding a pole that bore a large crux ansata. It was made entirely of arum lilies, and crossed by a broad, black silk ribbon.

  On the gravel, Zephanie towed Richard clear of the stream, and stood looking at the scene. Her own eyes were moist, but, for all that, a rueful smile touched the corners of her mouth.

  ‘Poor darling Diana,’ she said. ‘Just think how this would have amused her.’

  She produced her own handkerchief to pat it at her eyes briefly. Then, in a brisk tone, she said:

  ‘Come on. Let’s find Daddy, and get him out of this.’

  But it was a lovely funeral.

  The News-Record reported:

  … Women in all walks of life, from every corner of Britain had gathered to pay their last respects. Many arrived soon after dawn to join those who had camped all night outside the cemetery gates.

  When at last the long vigil was rewarded by the arrival of the slow, flowers-laden procession, the spectators pressed forward against the restraining ranks of the police, many strewing flowers before the wheels. As the cortege passed tears streamed down the faces of the mourners, and sounds of ululation∗ broke from the patient ranks.

  Not since the funeral of Emily Davison† has London witnessed such a tribute to a woman by women.

  And then, because the News-Record is always anxious that its readers shall understand what it has written, there were two footnotes:

  PART ONE

  1

  THE floor of the hall had been cleared. Someone had put rather sombre bunches of evergreens here and there on the walls. Somebody else had thought a little tinsel might cheer them up. The tables, set end to end down one side, made a white-clothed counter supporting plates of sandwiches, plates of bright cakes, some dishes of sausage-rolls, jugs of lemon, jugs of orange, vases of flowers, and, intermittently, urns. To the eye, the rest of the room suggested a palette in motion. For the ear, even from a little way off, there was a reminder of starlings at dusk.

  St Merryn’s High was holding its end-of-term party.

  Miss Benbow, maths, while listening to a tedious account of the intelligence shown by Aurora Tregg’s puppy, let her gaze wander round the room, noting those she must have a word with in the course of the evening. Up at the far end she saw Diana Brackley, alone for the moment. Diana was certainly one who deserved congratulations, so, seizing a pause in Aurora’s breathless delivery, she commended the puppy’s sagacity, wished it well in the future, and broke away.

  Crossing the room she had a sudden glimpse of Diana through a stranger’s eyes: no longer a schoolgirl, but an attractive young woman. Perhaps it was the dress that did it. A simple navy-blue face-cloth, unnoticeable among the rest until you really looked at it. It had been inexpensive – Miss Benbow knew that it mu
st have been – yet there was a quality of style about it, or was there really? She wasn’t quite sure. Diana had taste in clothes, and that something else that can make three guineas look like twenty. A gift, Miss Benbow thought ruefully, not to be despised. And, she went on, still seeing through the new refraction, the looks were a part of the gift. Not pretty. Pretty girls are lovely as the flowers in May, but there are so many flowers in May. No one who knew words could call Diana pretty…

  Eighteen – just eighteen – Diana was then. Fairly tall – five foot ten, or thereabouts – and slender, and straight. Her hair was a dark chestnut, with a glint of russet lights. The line of her forehead and nose was not truly Grecian, yet it had a classic quality. Her mouth was a little reddened, for one must not go to a party undressed, but, in contrast with the many rosebuds and gashes to be seen all around, she had just the quantity and the colour that suited the occasion. The mouth itself had a kind of formally decorative appearance which told one practically nothing – yet it could smile with charm on occasion, and did not do it too often. But at closer range it was her grey eyes one noticed, and was aware of all the time; not only because they were fine eyes, beautifully spaced and set, but even more on account of their steadiness, the unembarrassed calmness with which they took in, and considered. With a kind of surprise, because she was in the habit of thinking of her as a mind rather than as a shape, Miss Benbow realized that Diana had become what in the youth of her parents’ generation would have been termed ‘a beauty’.

  This thought was immediately followed by a pleasant sense of self-congratulation, for in a school like St Merryn’s High you not only teach and attempt to educate a child; you conduct a kind of jungle warfare on her behalf – and the better-looking the child, the more slender, generally speaking, are her chances of survival, for the partisans of ignorance enfilade your route in greater numbers.

  The touts for dead-end jobs slink along beside you, butterflies with wings of iridescent bank-notes flutter just within reach tempting your charge to chase them, the miasma of the picture-papers taints the air, the sticky webs of early marriage are spun close by the track, hen-witted mothers dart suddenly out of the bushes, myopic fathers blunder uncertainly on to the path; rectangular, flickering eyes gleam hypnotically from the shadows, tomtoms beat a restless, moonstruck rhythm, and up above there are the mocking-birds, always crying: ‘What does it matter as long as she’s happy…? What does it matter…? What does it matter…?’

  So you are entitled, surely, to feel some pride of achievement when you regard those whom you have helped to guide past these perils.

  But then, in honesty, Miss Benbow had to call herself to order for taking unearned credit. Diana, one must admit, had required little protection. The hazards did not trouble her. The temptations she regarded aloofly, as if it had never crossed her mind that they were intended to tempt her. Hers was something the manner of an intelligent traveller passing through interesting country. Her destination might be unknown as yet, but it was certainly ahead, and that anyone should be satisfied to drop off this early at wayside halts and primitive villages simply puzzled her. No, one was glad Diana had done so well, but one must not take too much credit for it. She had worked hard and deserved her success – the only thing was that one could have wished – although it did seem a rather dreadful thing to wish when one had to strive so hard with inertly conformist children – but one did wish that she were perhaps a little less, well – individual…?

  By this time Miss Benbow was near the end of her room, and Diana had seen her approaching.

  ‘Good evening, Miss Benbow.’

  ‘Good evening, Diana. I did so want to congratulate you. It’s splendid, perfectly splendid. Mind you, we all knew you’d do well – we should have been dreadfully disappointed if it had been anything less than well. But this – well, it’s better than I dared to hope for you.’

  ‘Thank you so much, Miss Benbow. But it wasn’t all me. I mean, I wouldn’t have got very far without all of you helping me and telling me what to do, would I?’

  ‘That’s what we’re here for, but we are in debt to you, too, Diana. Even in these days a scholarship brings credit to a school – and yours is one of the best St Merryn’s has ever gained. I expect you know that.’

  ‘Miss Fortindale did seem really pleased about it.’

  ‘She’s more than pleased, Diana. She’s delighted. We all are.’

  ‘Thank you, Miss Benbow.’

  ‘And, of course, your parents must be delighted, too.’

  ‘Yes’, agreed Diana, with a touch of reservation. ‘Daddy’s very pleased. He likes the idea of Cambridge for me because he’s always wished that he’d been able to go there himself. If I’d failed the scholarship Cambridge would have been out of the question: it would have had to be just –’ in the nick of time she remembered that Miss Benbow was a graduate of London, and amended to ‘– one of the redbricks.’

  ‘Some of the redbricks are doing very good work,’ Miss Benbow said, with a faint touch of reproof.

  ‘Oh, yes, of course. It’s only that when you’ve made up your mind to do something – well, having to do something else is a kind of failure, however you look at it, isn’t it?’

  Miss Benbow resisted being drawn along that line.

  ‘And your mother? She must be very proud of your success, too.’

  Diana looked at her with those grey eyes that seemed to see further back into one’s head than most people’s.

  ‘Yes,’ she said, judicially, ‘that’s how Mummy feels about it.’

  Miss Benbow’s eyebrows rose slightly.

  ‘I mean, that she must be very proud of my success,’ Diana explained.

  ‘But, surely, she is,’ protested Miss Benbow.

  ‘She tries. She’s really been awfully sweet about it,’ said Diana. She fixed Miss Benbow with those eyes again. ‘Why is it that mothers still think it so much more respectable to be bedworthy than brainy?’ she inquired. ‘I mean, you’d expect it to be the other way round.’

  Miss Benbow blinked. Something awkward was bound to crop up in conversation with Diana, but she took it straight.

  ‘I think,’ she said judicially, ‘that I would substitute “comprehensible” for “respectable”. After all, the “brainy” world is a mysterious closed book to the majority of mothers so they feel uncertain about it; but they are all, rather naturally, under the impression that they are authorities on the other, so that they can understand, and help.’

  Diana considered.

  ‘But “respectable” does come into it somehow – though I don’t quite see why,’ she said, with a slight frown.

  Miss Benbow gave a slight shake of her head.

  ‘Aren’t you mixing up respectability and conformity?’ she asked. ‘It’s natural for parents to want children to conform to a pattern they understand.’ She hesitated, and then went on: ‘Has it ever occurred to you that when the daughter of a domestic-minded woman chooses to have a career she is criticizing her mother by implication? She is saying, in effect: “The kind of life that was good enough for you, Mother, isn’t good enough for me.” Well, mothers – like other people – don’t care for that very much.’

  ‘I hadn’t looked at it that way before,’ Diana admitted thoughtfully. ‘You mean that, underneath, they are always hoping that their daughters will fail in their careers, and so prove that they, the mothers, I mean, were right all the time?’

  ‘You do dash off, don’t you, Diana?’

  ‘But – well, it does follow, doesn’t it, Miss Benbow?’

  ‘I don’t think we’ll do any more following at the moment. Where are you going for your holidays, Diana?’

  ‘Germany,’ Diana told her. ‘I’d rather go to France really, but Germany seems to be more useful.’

  They chatted about that for a time. Then Miss Benbow congratulated her again, and wished her well in her university life.

  ‘I’m terribly grateful for everything. And I’m so glad you’re al
l so pleased,’ Diana told her. ‘It’s a funny thing,’ she added meditatively, ‘I should have thought practically anybody could be bedworthy, if she put her mind to it – I mean, even if she hadn’t much mind to put. So I don’t see why –’

  But Miss Benbow declined to be re-entangled.

  ‘Oh!’ she exclaimed, ‘there’s Miss Taplow. I know she’s anxious to have a few words with you. Come along.’

  She managed the transfer efficiently, and as Miss Taplow began, a little warily, to congratulate Diana, Miss Benbow turned to find herself face to face with Brenda Watkins. As she felicitated Brenda whose very small, very new engagement ring obviously ranked above all possible scholarships in every university, she could hear Diana’s voice behind her saying:

  ‘Well, being just a woman and nothing else does strike me as one of the dead-end jobs, Miss Taplow. I mean you can’t get any promotion in it, can you? – well, not unless you take it up as a courtesan, or something…’

  ∗

  ‘I simply don’t understand where she gets its from’, said Mrs Brackley, with a perplexed expression.

  ‘Well, it wasn’t from me,’ her husband told her. ‘I’ve sometimes wished a bit of braininess did run in our family, but, as far as I know, it never has. Anyway, I can’t see that it matters very much where it came from’.

  ‘It wasn’t really the braininess I was thinking about. Father must have had brains of a kind, or he’d not have done so well in the contracting business. No, it’s this – well, I suppose you could call it independence… the way she keeps on questioning things. Things that don’t need questioning.’

  ‘And finding some pretty funny answers from what I’ve heard now and then,’ Mr Brackley said.

  ‘It’s a kind of restlessness,’ Malvina Brackley persisted. ‘Of course, young girls do get restless – one expects it, but – well, I mean, this isn’t the usual way.’