Trouble with lichen, p.11
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.11

           John Wyndham
 
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  Diana nodded thoughtfully, her eyes on the girl’s face.

  ‘I agree that you’re not green, Miss Brendon. I take it you’ve not mentioned it to anyone else here?’ she asked.

  ‘No, Miss Brackley.’

  ‘Good. Well now, I think the best thing – if you’ve no objection – is for you to meet this Mr Marlin tomorrow evening, and tell him the sort of thing he wants to know.’

  ‘But I don’t know what –’

  ‘That’s all right. I’ll get Miss Tallwyn to brief you.’

  Miss Brendon looked puzzled. Diana said:

  ‘You’ve not been in this trade long, have you, Miss Brendon?’

  ‘Less than a year, Miss Brackley.’

  ‘And before that?’

  ‘I was training as a nurse, but then my father died. My mother had very little money, so I had to find something that would bring in more.’

  ‘I see…. When you get to know the trade better, Miss Brendon, you will find it quite fascinating. Nobody actually cuts throats, but about ninety-five per cent of us would fill life-jackets with lead, or sell our grandmothers to South America if there were any profit in it. Now, if you don’t talk to this Mr Marlin, the poor man is going to be put to all the trouble of contriving a contact with some other member of our staff.

  ‘I much prefer to know what he is being told. Besides, if he is a careful man you won’t be his only contact. He’ll want to check. So we must do our best to see that things tally for him. Now, how, I wonder, can we steer him unobtrusively on to a second contact?’

  Miss Brendon’s formal manner relaxed as they discussed tactics. By the end of the interview she was enjoying herself.

  ‘All right then,’ Diana concluded. ‘Have a good evening. Remember that in our calling we make the most of our opportunities; we never choose one of the modestly priced dishes. That would be almost suspiciously out of character; besides, the more exotic ones will show him he’s not going to get his information cheaply, so he’ll have more confidence in it when he does get it. When he makes you an offer, put your price at double, then compromise at about fifty per cent above what he originally offered. It’s a sort of convention which helps to reassure them.’

  ‘I see,’ said Miss Brandon, ‘and what shall I do with the money, Miss Brackley?’

  ‘God bless the girl! You do what you like with it, Miss Brendon. You’ll have earned it. Now off with you. Call in on Miss Tallwyn when the shop shuts, and she’ll brief you. Let me know how it goes.’

  After she had left, Diana pressed the communicator switch.

  ‘Oh, Sarah. Bring me the file on Miss Brandon, will you?’

  Sarah Tallwyn duly appeared, bearing a slender folder.

  ‘Nice girl…. Nice change,’ Diana commented.

  ‘Capable,’ agreed Miss Tallwyn. ‘The sort that might have made a good matron one day. Pity she had to come to this.’

  ‘Dear Sarah. So tactful,’ said Diana, turning the cover of the file.

  ∗

  ‘Is that all?’ inquired Richard.

  He looked down at the bandage on his left arm, and fingered it gently.

  ‘Quite undramatic, I’m afraid. The films do this sort of thing much better,’ Francis told him. He went on: ‘This will dissolve very slowly, and be absorbed into the system. One could use injections, in fact I did use them myself at first, but it’s a nuisance – and less satisfactory, too. It gives a series of jolts, whereas this is smooth and steady.’

  Richard glanced at the bandage again.

  ‘It’s still difficult to believe. I don’t really know what to say, sir.’

  ‘Don’t try. Put it on the practical level – once I knew that you knew about it, it became a matter of sheer expediency to offer you the benefits. Besides, Zephanie would have insisted before long, anyway. What is important is that you should keep it entirely to yourself.’

  ‘I will. But –’ he hesitated, and went on, ‘aren’t you taking a bit of a risk, sir? I mean, we’ve met three or four times, but, well, you don’t know a great deal about me.’

  ‘You’d be surprised, my dear fellow. At Darr,’ he explained, ‘we have always several projects on hand, some of them of great potential value. Naturally, our competitors are interested in finding out what they can about us. A few of them are none too scrupulous. They would not hesitate to use any means to their end. When one has an attractive daughter it therefore becomes one’s distasteful duty to learn something about her friends, and their backgrounds and connexions. When they turn out to be employed by subsidiaries of large-scale manufacturing chemists, or to have uncles on the board of chemical concerns, a broad hint is usually enough to send them on their way.’ He paused thoughtfully. ‘Incidentally, I should take particular care not to let Mr Farrier get any inkling of this.’

  Richard looked at him in surprise.

  ‘Tom Farrier, but he’s an advertising man. I knew him at school.’

  ‘I daresay, but you’ve only fairly recently come across him again, and introduced him to Zephanie, haven’t you? Did you know that his mother remarried three or four years ago, and her husband happens to be the head research man with Chemicultures Limited? No, I see you didn’t. Ah, well, it’s a devious world, my boy.

  ‘Let’s go downstairs again. By the way, I don’t think we’ll mention any of this to Zephanie. It is, as I said, a distasteful precaution, but necessary.’

  ‘Hullo, Richard,’ Zephanie said, as they entered the sitting-room. ‘Itches, doesn’t it? That soon goes, though. Then you wouldn’t know anything has happened.’

  ‘I hope not,’ Richard told her, doubtfully. ‘My first depressing thought was that since one of my days is going to equal three of anyone else’s, I might have to cut down to one meal a day. I still don’t see why not.’

  ‘Because unless you go torpid, or hibernate, or something, your physical structure is still going to need the same quantity of calories to fuel it and sustain it,’ Zephanie said, with an air of pointing out the obvious.

  ‘But – oh, well, I’ll take your word for that,’ Richard conceded. ‘I might as well. I’m finding it hard enough to have faith in any of it. In fact, but for the name Saxover on the packet….’ He shrugged, frowned, and went on: ‘You must forgive me, Dr Saxover, but what I still find hardest to take is the – the secret recipe – er – set-up, if you’ll forgive me. You’ve both explained most patiently to me, I know. It’ll sink in, perhaps, later on, but, as yet, I can’t get rid of a feeling of anachronism – rather as if I’d suddenly fallen among alchemists. I hope I don’t sound offensive, I don’t mean to be. It’s just that this is the twentieth century, and science doesn’t – at least I didn’t think it did – behave like this any more; not as if it were afraid of being taken up for witchcraft, I mean.’ He ended by looking at them both a little uncertainly.

  ‘It doesn’t like behaving in this way, I assure you,’ Francis replied. ‘And if there were adequate supplies, or if we could make the synthesis, it would not have to. That is the crux of the whole situation. Well, now, if you’ll excuse me, there are some things I must see to before dinner,’ he told them, and took himself off.

  ‘I suppose,’ Richard said as the door closed, ‘I suppose I shall really begin to believe in this one day – up till now I’ve got stuck at the stage of accepting it as an intellectual proposition.’

  ‘I suppose so, too,’ Zephanie said, ‘but it isn’t easy. In fact it’s a lot more difficult than I thought. It means pulling to pieces the whole basic pattern we accepted in childhood. The ground plan – young children, middle-aged parents, elderly grandparents, the whole idea of the generations rolling on like that is so fundamental. There’s such a lot we shall just have to scrap. So many yardsticks and reference-points that won’t be any good any more.’

  She turned to look at him earnestly.

  ‘Ten days ago I was happy at the thought of spending fifty years with you, Richard – if we should be lucky. Of course, that wasn’t how I put it to myself
I just thought of spending my life with you. Now, I just don’t know… Can one spend a hundred and fifty years – two hundred years, perhaps – with somebody? Can two people go on loving one another that long? What happens? How much does one change in all that time? We can’t know. There’s no one who can tell us.’

  Richard moved beside her, and put his arm round her.

  ‘Darling. Nobody can cross all the bridges in even fifty years, before he reaches them. And couldn’t it be that some of the rough patches are there just because there usually is no more than fifty years? We can’t tell that, either. Of course we shall have to plan differently, but it’s no good worrying about that a hundred years ahead. As for the rest, is it so very different, really? We couldn’t know our future ten days ago; we still can’t know it now – only that we shall probably have more of it than we expected. So why not start off just as we should have done – for better, or for worse? That’s what I still want to do, don’t you?’

  ‘Oh, yes, Richard, yes. It’s only –’

  ‘Only what?’

  ‘I don’t quite know… The loss of the shape, the pattern… Being a grandmother, perhaps, when one’s only the equivalent of twenty-seven, or a great-grandmother aged thirty-five. Still being able to have a baby oneself after ninety years or so. And that’s only with a factor of three. It’ll all be such a queer mess… I don’t think I want it – but I don’t not want it, either….’

  ‘Darling, you’re talking as if all normal-length lives were planned. They aren’t, you know. People have to learn how to live them – and by the time they find out, they’re nearly gone. No time to remedy the mistakes. We shall have time to learn how to live, and then time to enjoy living. It’s still not real to me, but I can see how your Diana could be right. More time is important. If we live longer we shall learn more about living, about how to live. We shall understand more. It will be a fuller, richer life. It must be. No one could fill two hundred years with the trivialities that are good enough for fifty years…

  ‘Come on now, darling. It isn’t to be worried about. It’s to be lived. It’s going to be an adventure. Make up your mind to that. We’re going to enjoy finding out about it together. Come now – aren’t we?’

  Zephanie turned her face up to his. She let the troubled look clear, and smiled.

  ‘Oh, yes, Richard, darling. We are… of course we are….’

  8

  Dominating the sparse Monday-morning post beside Francis Saxover’s breakfast plate was a slightly bulging envelope addressed to him in a dashing hand which he failed to recognize. He opened it to find that though most of the content was newspaper, there was also a brief covering letter:

  Dear Francis,

  Recalling that on Sundays at Darr one customarily exercises only in the well-tended acres of the Observer and/or Times, I suspect that the enclosed may not have reached your attention, and feel that you should be acquainted with their contents.

  The explanation is that one of the red herrings in my defence system has now taken wing, and is likely, I think, to prove a credit to its stable. The situation is made still happier by the apparent fact that the left hand of Fleet Street did not know what the right hand was doing, and that A is probably very hopping mad with B.

  Yours, in haste,

  Diana Brackley

  Puzzled, Francis picked up the folded piece of newspaper marked A. It revealed itself as a complete page from the Sunday Radar, with certain parts marked by red crosses, the whole being headed by four pairs of photographs, and the announcement:

  CORNER IN BEAUTY BROKEN FOR RADAR READERS

  Beneath, he read:

  Great news for YOU, YOU, AND YOU!

  They’ll tell you that money can’t buy everything. There are things like the sun in the morning and the moon at night, great big smiles, loving hearts, and a flock of other things that don’t carry cash tags, and they could be right at that. But you know and I know that the way we’ve got things arranged in this modern world money can still help to give you a much smoother ride through life – may even run to a gold-plated Daimler if you’re lucky.

  Now take a look at the gallery of beauty above, and see what I mean. In each case, the upper picture is the way she looked ten years ago, and the lower is the way she looks today. Now, compare the picture you had taken ten years ago with what looks out of your mirror. See? A lot more difference than there is on the comparisons on this page, isn’t there?

  And what does it cost a socialite to have ten years go past and scarcely leave a mark? Well, our gallery of ladies reckon that $300 to $400 a year, or could be more, paid to a high-toned beauty establishment in London’s Mayfair to achieve it is money well spent.

  And maybe that’s so – if you have that kind of money, and don’t mind handing it out.

  Most of our readers, though, will be wistfully telling themselves they’d have to win a treble chance to afford it. But no. This time they are wrong. Now, thanks to the Radar everyone, but everyone, can afford it.

  The article went on to explain that Radar investigators had uncovered the secret of preserving beauty used in this establishment, and that far from costing three hundred pounds a year, it could easily be covered by three hundred pence. It proposed to share this discovery with its readers.

  A series of exclusive articles commencing in next week’s Sunday Radar will reveal the whole secret, telling every woman reader all she needs to know about preserving her youth, as is her right.

  So make certain to place an order for next week’s Sunday Radar – the paper that finds out what YOU want to know!

  Francis, with a feeling of having been given the minimum amount of information grudgingly, laid the sheet aside wondering how many weekly articles the Radar would be able to shell off before it arrived at the kernel. From his point of view, however, the interest lay in the red line which encircled the photographs, and then added: ‘Clients!’

  He then picked up the other cutting, a more modest affair in the form of a double-column panel from the Sunday Prole. It, too, was headed with pairs of contrasted photographs, though this time only two pairs, and in smaller format. Nor were the ladies whose past and present appearances were compared here members of the quartet that appeared in the Radar. The heading this time was:

  AGE SHALL NOT…!

  and the by-line, Gerald Marlin. His piece began:

  It has been no secret around Mayfair this week that a certain beauty establishment whose name is a household word – provided it is an upper-income bracket, high expense-account household – settled for damages on a lavish scale rather than expose its workings to vulgar notice in the law-courts – and rather, perhaps, than have to answer pertinent questions in public. So silken skirts have been drawn aside from contamination, and privacy, it may even be virtue, preserved, at a price.

  An allergy is a whimsical thing, given to revealing itself unexpectedly, and, sometimes, distressingly. One’s sympathy must go out to a lady who not only had to suffer great discomfort, but had to suffer it alone, without the support of a husband whose important South American interests caused him to depart thither somewhat hurriedly a year ago, and kept him from being at her bedside during the critical time – or, indeed, from returning at all. And as well as our sympathy, she deserves our congratulations. She hasn’t done at all badly out of it.

  But an allergy does not always distress the afflicted alone: the provider of its cause may also be far from happy about it, particularly if the provider is a firm of standing with a reputation for helping wealthy ladies to cheat the years, which, as our pictures above eloquently testify, is by no means ill-deserved. Accidents will, of course, happen, but it is preferred by elegant establishments that their happening there should be known to as few people as possible. For one thing, it is better not to perturb valued and valuable clients; for another, all trades have their secrets, and it can be worth agreeing to generous compensation if one thereby avoids having to admit in public that the source of one’s not inconsiderabl
e profit is not an exotic product of Arabia, or a subtle substance from Circassia but a simple something which can be acquired far nearer home, for merely the cost of its collection and carriage.

  Francis Saxover, growing a little tired of Mr Marlin’s turgid style of innuendo, skipped until he came to the last paragraph:

  The source of the sensitive client’s discomfort, and what precautions she should take against its recurrence, remain, in spite of the otherwise highly satisfactory terms of the settlement, unknown even to herself. It seems unjust that the lady should be left in such a state of anxiety, never knowing from moment to moment when she may encounter a substance that will cause a discomfort which might well be quite unprofitable on its second manifestation. So, out of sympathy with her plight, may we offer her the following advice: let her avoid, if possible, the shores of Galway Bay: but if she must go to Galway Bay, let her avoid bathing there; however, if there are circumstances which make it impossible for her to avoid bathing in Galway Bay, she should at all costs avoid coming into contact with a certain type of seaweed to be found there. Provided she takes this simple precaution she should be able to enjoy her generous compensation with an easy mind – unless, of course, it should happen that other cosmeticians are tempted to make their fortunes out of a magic weed which has proved itself worth a great deal more than its weight in gold.

  After he had finished breakfast, Francis broke his usual habit of going straight up to his laboratory, and made his way, instead, to his study. There, with his hand on the telephone, he hesitated which number to call, and decided that Diana was unlikely to have left her flat yet. It was the right choice.

 
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