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Trouble With Lichen, Page 2

John Wyndham

  ‘No boy-friends,’ her husband observed bluntly. ‘No good wanting trouble, my dear. It’ll come.’

  ‘But it would be more normal. A good-looking girl like Diana…’

  ‘She could have boy-friends if she wanted to. She’s only got to learn to giggle, and not say things that panic them.’

  ‘Oh, Diana’s not a prig, Harold.’

  ‘I know she’s not. But they think she is. Very conventional neighbourhood this. Three kinds of girls: “sports”, gigglers, and prigs, no others recognized. It’s bad enough to have to live in an uncivilized area; surely you don’t want her to take up with any of its oafs?’

  ‘No, no of course not. It’s just that…’

  ‘I know. It’d be more normal. My dear, last time we talked to Miss Pattison at the school she predicted a brilliant future for Diana. Brilliant was the word, and it doesn’t mean normal. You can’t have it both ways.’

  ‘It’s more important for her to be happy than brilliant.’

  ‘My dear, you’re getting very close to suggesting that all what you call normal people are happy people. And that is one hell of a proposition. Just look at ’em… No, let’s be thankful, very thankful, that she hasn’t fallen for any of the oafs. There’d be no brilliant future for her there – nor, come to think of it, for the oaf. Don’t you worry. She’ll find her own way. What she needs is more scope.’

  ‘Of course, there was my mother’s youngest sister, my Aunt Annie,’ Mrs Brackley said, thoughtfully. ‘She wasn’t quite ordinary.’

  ‘Why, what was wrong with her?’

  ‘Oh, I don’t mean that way. No, she went to prison in 1912 – or was it 1913? – for letting off fire-crackers in Piccadilly.’

  ‘What on earth did she do that for?’

  ‘She threw them in among the horses’ legs and caused such a tangle that the traffic was jammed from Bond Street to Swan and Edgar’s, and then she climbed on top of a bus and shouted “Votes for Women” till they took her away. She got a month for that. The family was very ashamed.

  ‘Soon after she came out she threw a brick through a window in Oxford Street, and got two months. She wasn’t very well when she came out after that because she hunger-struck, so my grandmother took her down to the country. But she got back somehow, and succeeded in throwing a bottle of ink over Mr Balfour, so they took her off again, and this time she very nearly set a wing of Holloway prison on fire.’

  ‘An enterprising woman, your aunt. But I don’t quite see…?’

  ‘Well, she wasn’t just an ordinary person. So Diana may get it from my mother’s family.’

  ‘I’m not sure what it is that Diana may have got from a militant great-aunt, and frankly, my dear, I don’t give a hoot where it came from, beyond the fact that whatever she has, we have somehow transmitted to her between us. And I think we’ve done a good, if rather astonishing, job.’

  ‘Of course we have, Harold, dear. We’ve every right to be proud of her. It’s only – well, it’s not always the most brilliant life that’s the happiest, is it?’

  ‘I don’t know. You and I know – at least I know – that one can be happy without being brilliant – what it feels like to be brilliant, and what you want then to make you happy I haven’t a clue. But I do know that it can make someone else happy. Me, for one thing – and for a thoroughly selfish reason. Ever since she was a little girl it’s been on my conscience that I couldn’t afford to send her to a first-class school – oh, I know the St Merryn’s people are good teachers, she’s proved that, but it’s not the same. When your father died I thought we might be able to manage it. I went to the solicitors, and put it to them. They were sorry, but firm. The instructions were quite clear, they said. The money is in trust until she is twenty-five. It cannot be touched, nor may anything be raised on it, even for her education.’

  ‘You never told me about that, Harold.’

  ‘There wasn’t much point in telling either of you until I knew whether it could be done. And it couldn’t. You know, Malvina, I think that was about the shabbiest of all the things your father did to us. Leaving you nothing – well, that was just in character. But to leave our daughter forty thousand pounds, and then tie it up so that in the most critical formative years of her life she could have no benefit from it…! So I say, good for Diana. She’s done for herself what I couldn’t do for her, and what he wouldn’t do for her. She’s wiped the old bastard’s eye properly, without even knowing it.’

  ‘Harold, dear –!’

  ‘I know, my dear, I know. But really…! I don’t think of the malignant old so-and-so much these days, but when I do…’ He broke off. He looked round the small sitting-room. That wasn’t too bad; a bit shabby now, but comfortable. But the mean little semi-detached house set in a street of exactly similar houses in this seedy suburb… The narrow life… The struggle to get along on a salary which always lagged behind prices… So few of the things Malvina must long for, and ought to have had…

  ‘Still no regrets?’ he asked her.

  She smiled back.

  ‘None, darling. None at all.’

  He picked her up, and went back to the armchair with her. She laid her head on his shoulder.

  ‘None,’ she said quietly. Then she added: ‘I shouldn’t have been any happier for winning scholarships.’

  ‘Darling, people aren’t all alike. I’m coming to the conclusion we’re a bit exceptional, anyway. How many of the people you know in this road could truthfully say “no regrets”?’

  ‘There must be some.’

  ‘I rather think it doesn’t often happen. And however much you wish it for other people you certainly can’t make it happen. What’s more, Diana isn’t much like you – she isn’t much like me, either. Goodness knows who she is like. So it’s no good worrying because she doesn’t want to do what you would want to do if you were in her place – and if you could recall just what it feels like to be eighteen. Brilliant, they said. Well, the only thing we can do is to watch our daughter being brilliant in her own way – and back her up, of course.’

  ‘Harold, she doesn’t know about the money, does she?’

  ‘She knows there is some money, of course. She didn’t ask how much. I didn’t have to lie. I just tried to give the impression of – well nothing very much, say three or four hundred pounds. It seemed wiser.’

  ‘I’m sure it is. I’ll remember that, if she mentions it.’

  After a pause, she inquired:

  ‘Harold, I expect it sounds very stupid of me, but what does a chemist actually do? I mean, Diana has explained that it’s not the same as a pharmacist, and I was glad about that, but she didn’t make it very clear.’

  ‘Nor am I, my dear. I should think we’d better ask her again. Yes. The see-saw has tipped, all right – we’ve reached the stage where she tells us.’


  It turned out not to matter much to the Brackleys what a chemist did do, for in the course of her first year Diana changed her mind, deciding to read biochemistry instead, and what a biochemist did was something that her mother never did succeed in getting clear in her mind.

  The reason for this change lay somewhere in a lecture given before the Mid-Twentieth Society on Some Evolutionary Trends in Recently Modified Environments. It did not sound very exciting, and Diana was never quite sure how it was that she had come to attend it. Nevertheless, she did, and, in doing so, took a step which was to determine the course of her life.

  The speaker was Francis Saxover, Sc.D., F.R.S., sometime Gilkes Professor of Biochemistry in the University of Cambridge, and widely regarded as an intellectual renegade. He came of a South Staffordshire family which, after potting in a small way for unrecorded generations, had, about the middle of the eighteenth century, acquired a notable gene of enterprise. This gene, so suited to the climate of the time and to the imminent industrial age, had led the Saxovers into new methods of firing, applications of steam power, reorganization of production, and so, by taking advantage of the new navi
gation canals, to a world-wide trade, and a large family fortune.

  Nor had it weakened in the succeeding generations. There was no clogs-to-clogs about the Saxovers. They kept in the van with new processes and methods, and even went into plastics when they perceived in them a growing competitor for crocks. In the second half of the twentieth century they were still doing well.

  In Francis, however, the spirit of enterprise had taken a different course. He had been content to leave the family concerns in the hands of his two elder brothers and follow his own bent to its culmination in a Chair. Or so he thought.

  It had happened, however, that the health of Joseph Saxover, his father, had become uncertain in his later middle-life. Upon discovering this, Joseph, a provident man, had lost no time in making over his holdings and putting his two elder sons in full charge of the business. He had then devoted much time in the remaining eight or nine years of his life to the fascinating hobby of devising schemes to defeat the rapacity of the Exchequer. Certain scruples prevented him from doing quite as well in this field as some of his competitors, but he, nevertheless, did well enough to set the authorities blocking a number of interesting lacunae against imitators after his death.

  As a result of the manoeuvres Francis had found himself a great deal better off than he had expected to be, and became disturbed. It was as if that Saxover gene had been pricked into activity by the thought of capital unemployed. After an increasingly restless year he had resigned his Chair, and removed himself from the cloister to do battle in the market-place.

  With a few trustful assistants he had set up a research establishment of his own, and set out to justify his contention that discovery, in spite of popular opinion, was still not exclusively the province of massed researchers working for huge companies in semi-military formations.

  Darr House Developments, as the company was known, simply from the title of the estate he had bought for it, had at that time been in operation for six years. Not only was that five years longer than most of his friends had predicted, but it appeared to have made a promising start. Already it held several patents important enough to have roused interest among the larger chemical manufacturers: and, perhaps, a little envy among former colleagues. Certainly there was a tinge of malice in the suggestion that this visit of Francis’s to his former haunts sprang less from his desire to instruct than from his company’s need to recruit.

  Oddly enough, Diana could never recall the lecture in any detail. Quite early on, she remembered, he had stated, more as though it were a self-evident fact than a proposition, that the dominant figure of yesterday was the engineer; of today, the physicist; of tomorrow, the biochemist. Once this thought had been presented to Diana, she could not imagine why she had not perceived it before. Stirred as if by a revelation, she had a quite overwhelming sense of understanding, for the first time, the meaning of the word ‘vocation’. Whereafter, she hung upon the lecturer’s words – at least, she had the impression she was hanging upon them, though it was a bit puzzling that she could never recall any of them, and that they seemed to have fused into an en bloc support for the sense of vocation.

  Francis Saxover was then still under forty. A spare man with an aquiline face, who gave the impression of being a little over, rather than half an inch under, six feet. His hair was still dark except for a little greying at the sides. His eyebrows, while not bushy, contrived nevertheless to bristle forward, slightly shadowing his eyes and giving them an appearance of being more deeply set than they were. His manner was easy and relaxed, he talked rather than lectured, roving his platform lankily, and using his brown, long-fingered hands to emphasize his points.

  All that Diana really took away from the lecture was a mental picture of the lecturer, a strong impression of his purposeful enthusiasm – and, of course, the sense of having discovered the only life-work worth while….

  And so, the change of school to biochemistry.

  And so, a lot of hard work.

  And so, in due course, an Honours Degree.

  And then, the question of a job.

  Diana suggested Darr House Developments. This was not immediately acclaimed.

  ‘H’m. Possible, on your showing,’ admitted her tutor. ‘But Saxover’s pretty choosey. Can afford to be on what he pays, of course, but the turnover of staff is said to be a bit high there. Why don’t you consider one of the big firms? Plenty of scope, more stability, not spectacular as a rule, I grant you, but it’s good solid work that counts in the end.’

  But Diana favoured Darr House.

  ‘I’d like to try there,’ she said firmly. ‘If it isn’t a success, I can try one of the big companies later on, but from what I hear it would very likely be more difficult the other way round.’

  ‘Very well,’ said her tutor, and her manner relaxed slightly. ‘As a matter of fact,’ she confided, ‘at your age I’d feel the same. It’s parents who don’t.’

  ‘Mine won’t mind,’ Diana told her. ‘If I were a son, they’d probably want me to go into one of the big companies, but girls are different. Their serious interests are only a frivolous preliminary to taking up the frivolous life seriously, so it isn’t thought to matter much, you see.’

  ‘See is a rather definite word for that, but I perceive the drift,’ her tutor said. ‘All right. Then I’ll drop a line to Saxover for you. It could be interesting there, I think. Incidentally, did you see that he’s now produced a virus that produces sterility in the male locust? – Admittedly the female locust can go on producing female locusts for a number of generations without male assistance, but one feels that it must tell sooner or later, or there wouldn’t be much sense in sex, would there…?’


  ‘Of course I hope you get the job if it’s what you want, darling, but what is this Darr House place?’

  ‘It’s a research centre. A company, but a private one run by a Dr Saxover, Mummy. There’s a big late-eighteenth-century house in a park. One of those places that’s too big for anybody to live in, but not interesting enough for the National Trust. Dr Saxover bought it nearly ten years ago. He and his family live in a wing of the house. The rest has been turned into offices and labs, and so on. The coach-houses and stables were converted into flatlets for the staff. And there are several cottages on the estate. And after a bit he built more labs, and some new houses for the married staff, and so on. It’s a sort of community.’

  ‘You’d have to live there?’

  ‘Yes – or near by. Somebody told me it has overflowed a bit, but if I were lucky I might get one of the flatlets. There’s a sort of staff dining-hall in the house you can use if you like. And, of course, one can get away at weekends. Everybody says it’s a lovely place, right in the country. But you do have to work, and you have to be interested. He doesn’t want time-servers.’

  Mrs Brackley said:

  ‘It sounds a very nice place, I’m sure, darling, but we don’t know much about this kind of thing, your father and I. What’s puzzling us is what does this place really do? What do they make there?’

  ‘They don’t actually make anything, Mummy. They work out ideas, and then licence other people to use them.’

  ‘But if they’re good ideas, why don’t they use them themselves?’

  ‘That isn’t their job. Darr House isn’t a factory, you see. What happens is – well, as an example, Dr Saxover had an idea about termites – white ants, you know – they eat houses and things all over the tropics –’

  ‘Houses, darling?’

  ‘Well, the wooden parts, and then the rest falls down. So Dr Saxover and the Darr House people went into it. Now, a termite chews up wood and swallows it, but by itself it can’t digest it any more than we could, but there is a protozoan parasite living inside the termite which breaks down the cellulose structure of the wood, and then the termite can digest it, and live on it. So the Darr House people investigated the parasite, and looked for a chemical compound that would be fatal to it. Well, they found one that was effective and saf
e to use. They gave it to termites, the termites went on chewing wood, but without the parasite they couldn’t digest it, so they just starved and died.

  ‘So the Darr House people called this stuff AP-91 and patented it, and Dr Saxover took it to Commonwealth Chemical Enterprises, and suggested that there would be a big tropical market for it. C.C.E. tested it, and found it satisfactory, so they agreed to manufacture it. And now they sell it all over the tropics under the trade name of Termorb-6. and Dr Saxover collects a royalty on every tin they sell. That alone must bring in thousands a year, and there are quite a lot of other patents as well. That’s roughly the way it works.’

  ‘White ants. How horrid!’ said Mrs Brackley. ‘I shouldn’t like to work on ants.’

  ‘That was only one project, Mummy. There are several going at a time on lots of different things.’

  ‘This place. Are there many there?’

  ‘I don’t know quite how many. Somewhere about sixty, I think.’

  ‘Are many of them girls?’

  ‘Yes, darling. The decencies are preserved, too. I’m told that the incidence of marriage is quite high. Though I’m not quite sure whether you’d consider that for or against. However, not to worry, I haven’t the least intention of joining the great majority yet awhile.’

  ‘Darling, that expression is usually used to mean –’

  ‘I know, Mummy. I know – oh, you’ve not seen the new dress I’ve got for the interview yet. Come up and I’ll show you…’


  Diana never knew it, but the new dress came near to losing her the job. Not that there was anything wrong with it; on the contrary. It was made of a thin woollen material in a soft green which became her chestnut hair well, and, as did most of her clothes, looked worth quite a little more than its price. But, while there is no uniform for young scientists comparable with that which indicates some kind of association with art, they do tend in general to divide into two main types; the not-very-well-cut neat-presentable, and the scruffy, and Diana was decidedly neither. The sight of her caused Francis Saxover misgivings.