Trouble with lichen, p.12
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.12

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘Thank you for the newspaper cuttings, Diana,’ he said. ‘Just as long as it did not occur to anyone to wonder why Mrs Wilberry should be allergic to mushrooms as a result of treatment with seaweed, it might have worked well.’

  ‘Pouf!’ said Diana. ‘Nobody’s going to. Allergies are far too erratic and mysterious in their ways for anyone to be surprised. And I take exception to “might”. It’s working like a bomb. All my hated rivals spent all yesterday on the telephone madly trying to find out more. Mr Marlin must have been offered fortunes for details. Almost every woman’s paper already has a representative waiting for me at the office; and the girl on the switchboard says we ought to employ a parrot to say “No comment” to all the newspapers and free-lancers who are ringing up. I understand there is an inquiry from the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries with regard to any permits issued to me by the Board of Trade to import seaweed from the Irish Republic.’

  ‘That’s interesting,’ Francis said. ‘They can’t have had time to act on what was in Sunday’s papers. They must have got it from somewhere else.’

  ‘Certainly,’ agreed Diana. ‘I know where Marlin got it from, but a week ago I made sure that it reached three of my least discreet girls in strictest confidence. It could have got anywhere by now. There’s going to be no end of fun over this.’

  ‘Look here,’ Francis said. ‘I regret having to strike a sour note at this stage, but I fear I must. I don’t think I’d better tell you now, but I’m coming up to London today, and I think we ought to discuss it. Can you dine with me? What about Claridge’s at eight-thirty? Would that suit?’

  ‘The time would, but not the place. It’s even more important now that your name shouldn’t be linked with mine. And I’m going to be a marked woman while this is on, so you can’t come here. I suggest we make it a little place called The Atomium in Charlotte Street. Nobody’s likely to see us there.’

  ‘It seems improbable,’ agreed Francis. ‘Very well. The Atomium, at eight-thirty.’

  ‘Good,’ she said. ‘I’m looking forward to seeing you again after all this time, Francis. And I do so want to talk to you, and explain things more.’ She paused, and then added: ‘You sounded… Is it very serious, Francis?’

  ‘Yes. I’m afraid it is,’ he told her.

  ∗

  ‘Oh, it’s you, is it?’ said the editor. ‘You’re looking very pleased with yourself.’

  ‘I am, rather,’ Gerald Marlin told him.

  ‘A good thing, perhaps, because I don’t know that I am – with you, I mean. I’ve had Wilkes from the Radar breathing noxious death-wishes down my telephone. You’ve queered a whole campaign he had cooked up.’

  ‘Too bad – too bad,’ Gerald said, cheerfully.

  ‘What happened?’

  ‘Well, as I told you, at the rate they paid the Willerby woman there was clearly something that Nefertiti didn’t want publicly known – and I’m not surprised. It’s a shattering thought, but that outfit really does seem to do something pretty remarkable for its clients. Anyway I contrived a contact there, an innocent-looking maiden who adores caviare and champagne, and haggles like a horse-dealer. I decided Quaglino’s would be about right, and as we were going in, I saw a young woman who was sitting in the lounge look at my contact with a startled expression, and then pretend not to have seen her. My contact looked a bit taken aback, too, so I asked what the trouble was. She was just explaining that the other girl was also from Nefertiti’s when a man went up to her and greeted her – Freddy Rammer, from the Radar, if you please. I turned away so that he’d not spot me, and when they’d safely gone into the restaurant we decided to dine elsewhere.

  ‘Well, I got it on the grapevine that the Radar was planning a be-your-own-beauty-queen series, and put two and two together. It was a bit of a blow. I mean, it would have been nice to hang on a while, and see whether one couldn’t do something about acquiring seaweed rights in Galway Bay. But, obviously it couldn’t wait for that, so I wired a friend in Dublin to get a head start by making inquiries about legal rights over seaweed, in Irish law.’

  The editor shook his head.

  ‘You’d probably have to petition the Pope, or something,’ he said. ‘It’s likely to be a pretty serious matter with the Irish. They eat the stuff.’

  ‘They what?’

  ‘Eat it. They call it dulse.’

  Gerald shook his head in his turn, though whether in doubt, or out of sympathy for the Irish, was not clear.

  ‘Anyway,’ he went on, ‘it was really too late. I had either to let the Radar scoop us, or spike their little game. My unfortunate friend over there has probably been trampled to death by now. I shan’t be the only one who thought of getting in early to stake a claim. Begorra, ’tis a fine sight Dublin must be this morning with all the covered wagons streaming out of the city, lashing their lathered teams westwards across the rolling bogs.’

  ‘What the devil do you think you’re talking about?’ the editor demanded.

  ‘Gold rush, old boy.’ He sang gently to himself.

  ‘Oh, there’s lot of gold so I’ve been told

  On the bank of the Galway Bay – oh!’

  ‘Mind you,’ he went on, ‘I’m not without a stake in several of the prospecting parties. Just about every beautydope maker in the kingdom – with the pointed exception of Nefertiti – rang me up yesterday, wanting to know more. I did my best to secure a participating interest, but I’m afraid it’s pretty chancey. The thing that’s held me back from a fortune,’ he confided, ‘is that there must be dozens of kinds of seaweed on the Galway strands, and frankly, I haven’t a clue on which is the magical kind. And that unfortunately is a bit vital. It really means that if the Radar has identified the kind, they can still pull one over us.’

  The editor of the Sunday Prole thought for a moment, and shook his head.

  ‘No. Wilkes wouldn’t have blown off as he did… but he might, though. He may think we’ve identified it, too, and are keeping it up our sleeves. In any case we’d better try. The thing to do is to find out where the stuff is processed, and liberate a specimen of it. Worth trying. Could do a lot for the female readership….’

  ∗

  Diana moved aside the fat red candle which stood between them. By its light they studied one another. At last Francis said, in a curious tone:

  ‘How strange that knowing should be different from seeing.’

  Diana went on looking without speaking. She became aware that her hand on the table was trembling, and hid it from sight. Her eyes went over his face, feature by feature, slowly. With an effort she asked:

  ‘How angry are you with me – Francis?’

  He shook his head.

  ‘I’m not angry. I was. When I first knew, I was very angry indeed – until I began to understand why. When I had sorted it out into shock, hurt vanity, and alarm – mostly alarm, I knew it wouldn’t do any good to hide myself behind anger. I had to look at myself; I found that fourteen years had taken away my right to be angry – though not my right to be alarmed. That, I still am.’

  He paused, examining her face as closely as she had his. ‘Now,’ he went on, ‘now I am ashamed of being angry. I am ashamed of myself. My God! To have grudged it to you; to have wished that I had been able to prevent it! That’s going to be a stain on my mind for ever. Indelible, and unforgivable. No, I’m not angry, I’m humbled. But not only –’

  He broke off at a touch on his arm. ‘What is it?’

  The waiter presented a menu.

  ‘Oh, later on,’ he said irritably. ‘Bring us some sherry – dry. What was I saying?’ he turned back to Diana.

  Diana could not help him. She had taken in barely a word of what he had already said. They went on looking at one another. Presently:

  ‘You’re not married?’ he asked.

  ‘No,’ said Diana.

  He looked at her, puzzled. ‘I should have thought –’ he began, and then broke off.

  ‘What would you have thought?’
>
  ‘I’m not quite sure – I – I suppose… this makes a difference?’

  ‘To the extent that I don’t have quite that awareness that most women seem to have of time pressing on their heels. But then I’m not much of a criterion: I’ve only known one man that I really wanted to marry,’ she said, and then, with an air of breaking away from the personal, went on: ‘I’ve been wondering, as a matter of fact, how marriage is going to mesh with the new order. One feels that people who can go on loving one another for two or three hundred years are probably pretty scarce.’

  ‘It doesn’t mesh, as you put it, any too well with the present order,’ Francis remarked, ‘but it gets adapted. I don’t see why it should not be adapted further. Fixed term marriages, with options, as in leases, perhaps?’

  Diana shook her head.

  ‘It goes deeper than that. To be anthropological about it: the present primary social role of western woman is as wife; her secondary status is as mother; in upper and middle classes her tertiary status is sometimes that of companion – in other classes companionship can come a long way down the list, and in most non-western nations it scarcely rates at all. But with the prospect of an association extended from fifty to a possible two or three hundred years, a change is likely. It seems to me almost certain that companionship must move up to the primary status. And since our social pressures, popular propaganda, and quite a part of our trade, are now devoted to obtaining wife-status for our girls, a switch over to companion-status as the primary objective is going to cause one hell of a social revolution.

  ‘Fortunately, that will only become apparent after a time, or we should have nearly all the young women tooth-and-nail against us. Wife-status is so easy; nature does most of it for you. You don’t need brains, only appearance, and you can buy plenty of aids to that. But companion-status is a great deal more subtle; you have to use your loaf a bit, and you can’t buy help in tubes and jars. That wouldn’t be at all popular if it were perceived – but it won’t be. They simply wouldn’t believe it if it were explained to them. Everybody’s prone to regard his local anthropological set-up as a law of nature. So we shall have all the dear little featherheads, and all the uxorious, and all the lazy-minded on our side, because the only thing they’ll see in a longer life is lots and lots more time for lots and lots more bedroom games.’

  Watching her, Francis smiled slowly.

  ‘That’s authentic,’ he said. ‘Diana, my dear, there are things I had almost forgotten about you.

  Diana became quite still.

  ‘There’s nothing –’ she began, and then stopped. She blinked rapidly several times. ‘I –’ she began again. Then abruptly she got up.

  ‘I’ll be back in a minute,’ she said, all in a rush, and was halfway across the restaurant by the time Francis could collect his wits.

  He sat sipping his sherry and looking unseeingly at the wrap spread over the back of her empty chair. The waiter returned to slide a large menu before him, and another beside Diana’s plate. Francis ordered more sherry. After ten minutes or so, Diana returned.

  ‘We’d better choose,’ he said.

  The waiter scribbled on his pad, and went away. There was an interval of silence which threatened to grow longer. Diana turned the red candle so that the wax should gutter down the other side. Then she said, a little briskly:

  ‘Did you hear the six o’clock news?’

  Francis had not.

  ‘Then, for your information, the Ministry of Agriculture of the Republic of Ireland has published an order forbidding the export of seaweed except under licence.’ She paused. ‘So ’tis after exporting the seaweed you’ve been Paddy? – Indayd, I have not! – Have you not now? Well, the governmint says you’re not to do it any more without a piece of paper – Licences,’ she added, ‘will presumably be issued when it has been decided what is the highest rate of duty this trade can possibly bear. There ought to be a lot of entertainment in it for everyone.’

  ‘Except perhaps the unfortunate women who’ve been put all agog to expect miracles of it,’ suggested Francis.

  ‘Oh, they won’t be much surprised,’ Diana assured him. ‘Miracle is a favourite word in women’s papers. Nobody seriously expects it to mean anything. It’s just a kind of dressing of manure to keep hope flourishing.’

  ‘Just what do you expect this seaweed nonsense to do?’ he inquired.

  ‘Provide a diversion,’ Diana told him. ‘My competitors are a fairly credulous lot. It’ll take quite a time before they become really convinced that there’s nothing in it. In the meantime customers will be clamouring for seaweed cream, seaweed lotion, seaweed breakfast food, and so on, so they’ll do all right. I have a number of booster articles ready for placing here and there. There’s one which reveals that beauty from seaweed is really a very ancient piece of knowledge now rediscovered – in fact the conception of Venus rising from the sea is really symbolic of this use of seaweed in primitive Greece. Nice, don’t you think? I reckon that at the very minimum it should hold for two years, possibly twice that, before somebody perceives that it isn’t getting the results that Nefertiti gets. By that time, it will be discovered that Nefertiti is now using an entirely new electronic device which, by ultra-sonic stimulation of the cell layers below the epidermis, restores that youthful resilience of tissues which is the secret of true deep-seated beauty. Oh, I can keep that sort of thing up for ages, if necessary. You needn’t fear that the true source will come out for a long time yet.’

  Francis shook his head slowly.

  ‘Ingenious,’ he admitted. ‘But I’m very much afraid it’s all wasted, Diana.’

  ‘Oh, no!’ she exclaimed, suddenly concerned at his tone. ‘Francis, what’s happened?’

  Francis looked round the room again. He did not recognize any of the other diners. They had no immediate neighbours, and there was enough general sound in the room to cover ordinary conversation in their corner. He said:

  ‘That’s what I wanted to tell you about. It isn’t pleasant to have to admit, but in the circumstances, it could possibly be dangerous for you if I were not frank. It involves my daughter-in-law.’

  ‘I see. Zephanie told me about her. You mean Paul did decide to tell her?’

  ‘Yes,’ Francis nodded. ‘He considered it his duty to tell her. He told her the next day. It was not, I gather, an entirely amicable occasion. They were both a little rattled – with the unfortunate result that he can’t recall just how much he told her. But he did mention lichenin, and he did mention you.’

  Diana’s fingers clenched.

  ‘That,’ she said, with restraint, ‘would scarcely seem to be necessary.’

  ‘Oh, the whole damned thing was unnecessary. But apparently once he’d begun, he felt he had to account for my decision to tell him and Zephanie about it.’

  Diana nodded. ‘And what happened then?’

  ‘Jane did not take it at all well. She brooded over it for several days, and seems to have made some inquiries for her own satisfaction. Then she came down to Darr to see me.’ He gave her an account of Jane’s visit.

  Diana frowned. ‘In other words, she staged a hold-up. Not a very nice young woman.’

  ‘Well,’ Francis said fairly, ‘she did have a point in considering that as my son’s wife she had been unjustly excluded from a benefit that she should have been offered, but her approach was – er – far from tactful.’

  ‘But you did it for her? You gave her the lichenin?’

  Francis nodded. ‘It would have been easy enough to fob her off for the time being with something else,’ he admitted. ‘But there seemed to be little to gain by that. I should have had to confess to it later on, or she would have discovered for herself; either would simply have made relations worse. The serious damage, I thought, had been done already – the fact that she knew about it at all. So I gave it her. I gather you use injection, but I implanted, in soluble tablet form, as I do with Paul and Zephanie. I wish to God now that I’d had the sense to make it an i
njection.’

  ‘I don’t see how that would have made any difference.’

  ‘It would. When she got home she told Paul she had been to see me – I suppose she thought it best; he’d be bound to inquire about the dresssing on her arm. Paul guessed what sort of a line she would have taken with me, and was extremely angry about it. When he did see the dressing he knew at a glance that it was not done my way. He’d already got suspicious – something in her manner, I suppose. He insisted on examining the incision… and, well – the lichenin implant was not there.

  ‘Jane went on obstinately protesting that it must have come out when she was putting on the new dressing. Sheer nonsense, of course – the incision had been opened, the tablet extracted, and the incision closed again, with a couple of stitches, as it had been before.

  ‘But she stuck to her story, rubbish though it was. Finally she rushed off to the bedroom, and locked herself in. Paul spent the night in the spare room. When he woke up in the morning she had already gone – with two suitcases…. Nobody’s seen her since.’

  Diana thought for some seconds.

  ‘There really is no chance that it could have been an accident?’ she asked.

  ‘None whatever. The two stitches must have been removed and replaced. It would have been more intelligent to have inserted a harmless, similar-shaped tablet as a precaution. She might possibly have carried that off.’

  ‘But the implication is that she got it from you in order to take it to someone else?’

  ‘Clearly. Probably with a promise that she would be treated again, once they had the secret of it.’

  ‘And a whacking good payment down, by the sound of her. How much could they learn from the tablet?’

  ‘A lot less than they think, I imagine. Neither you nor I has been able to synthesize it in all this time. But we’d better assume she’s told them all she knows. It will give them at least a line to work on.’

 
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