Trouble with lichen, p.15
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.15

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘I still think it’s better not – not at first….’

  ‘But –’

  ‘My dear, it’s now a matter of tactics. What you are doing is, frankly, starting a sensation on a popular level. It is going to be regarded by responsible people as an advertisement for your firm, a publicity stunt.’

  ‘Possibly, just at first – but not for long.’

  ‘I still think I’d be of more value among the reserves.’

  Diana was silent for a moment.

  ‘Very well, Francis. But I wish – oh, well.’

  ‘Diana, do be careful – of yourself, I mean. A lot of people are going to get very worked up about this.’

  ‘Don’t worry about me, Francis. I know what I’m doing.’

  ‘I’m not at all sure that you do, my dear.’

  ‘Francis, this is what I’ve been working for. The idea of an antigerone must be put over. They must demand it…’

  ‘Very well. It’s too late to stop now. But I repeat, please do be careful, Diana….’

  11

  On Thursday morning Diana tackled a stack of newspapers with the avidity of a rising star after a first night. As she continued to work through them, however, her eagerness wilted.

  The Times had nothing – well, you’d scarcely expect quick-off-the-mark stuff from old sobersides. Nothing in the Guardian either. Nor in the Telegraph – which was a bit queer; hang it, there had been quite a good showing of titles at the meeting. A small paragraph on the woman’s page of the News Chronicle mentioned that a famous Mayfair beauty-specialist had announced a new treatment, claiming unusual efficacy in the preservation of youthful beauty. The Mail said:

  If the example of a famous west-end beauty house, which has annouced its new treatment with all the éclat of a dress-designer showing his season’s collection, is going to be widely followed, I can foresee a time when we shall be treated to parades of the coming fashions in autumn and spring faces by our leading beauticians.

  The Express remarked:

  Modesty was never a noticeable characteristic of the beauty business, and it was certainly not there to check the claims made by a well-known expert yesterday when she addressed an audience of Mayfair’s feminine élite. It is not to be denied that much that can be done, and is done, for the female face and figure makes the world a brighter place, but exaggerated promises can only result in a wave of disappointment which will break over the head of the maker.

  A paragraph in the Mirror under the heading: AFTER SEAWEED? commented:

  Those of our readers who have been disappointed by the miraculous powers attributed to, but not so far shown by, seaweed need not give up hope. Yesterday came another red-hot tip (from the same high-toned beauty stable) for irresistible glamour. The successes claimed for the new treatment are even more impressive – it isn’t seaweed any longer; in fact, it is not clear what it is, but it will cost you two or three hundred pounds to back it and see what happens.

  The Herald showed concern along similar lines:

  A TEENAGER AT FORTY?

  Women who have the luck to be married to a good expense-account will be rejoicing today. From perfumed Mayfair comes the good news that the doors of eternal youth will be opened to them at the cost of a mere three or four hundred pounds a year. No doubt with the present distribution of wealth in this country the capitalists who have launched this enterprise will rejoice, too. Many will feel that there are ways in which eight pounds a week could bring more benefit to the community than this, but as long as the present Tory government….

  And the Sketch:

  You’re only young once, they say. But, according to an expert in the glamour business, that’s out of date. The modern miss can be young twice, or three times – if she likes. All she has to do is to call in the help of science – and pay a thumping fee, of course. For our part, we have an idea the same offer was being made before science was even thought of; and probably on the same terms.

  ‘Very disappointing,’ said Miss Tallwyn, with sympathy. ‘If only you had been able to give it some news-value,’ she added.

  Diana stared at her.

  ‘Good heavens, Sarah! What do you mean? It’s the greatest news since – since Adam!’

  Miss Tallwyn shook her head again.

  ‘News, and news-value, aren’t the same thing,’ she said. ‘They’ve decided it’s a publicity stunt, I’m afraid. And there’s nothing that terrifies the British Press more than the risk of giving a free advertisement.’

  ‘They’ve just wilfully pretended not to understand it. The clients understood it all right, most of them. And, God knows, I made it plain enough,’ Diana protested.

  ‘You’ve lived with it a long time, you’re used to it. They aren’t As for the clients – well, a lot of them must have been wondering a bit already, you know, one way and another – they were ready for an explanation, wanting it, in fact. But the journalists! Well, put yourself in their place, Miss Brackley. They’re sent off to cover what appears to be a business-sponsored keep-your-beauty lecture good for a paragraph or two on the woman’s page. I won’t say that you didn’t probably set a few of them thinking a bit, and you may have prepared the ground, too. But how do you imagine they’re going to get what you really told them past a hard-boiled editor? I know. I had some of it at one time. What you need now is something sensational –’

  ‘For goodness’ sake, Sarah. If what I told them isn’t –’

  ‘Sensational, in the newspaper sense, I mean. A good fast jab at the superficial emotions. What you gave us was just a sinker-in; a lot of implications that take time to register.’

  Diana said, a little more hopefully:

  ‘Perhaps it was naïve to expect an immediate explosion. But there are the Sundays to come yet. They’ll have had more time to realize it – and it could be very much their kind of thing, couldn’t it? I don’t much mind how they handle it, as long as they don’t ignore it. And then, of course, there are the women’s weeklies, and the monthlies…. Some of them are bound to make a thing of it, surely….’

  But as things turned out Diana did not have to wait for either the Sundays or the weeklies, for it was on the afternoon of that same Thursday, just after the Stock Exchange had closed, that The Threadneedle and Western Assurance Company declared a moratorium on the payment of annuities and guaranteed incomes, until further notice. They described the step as ‘a purely temporary measure undertaken with regret pending legal opinion upon the obligations of the Company in cases where means have been employed to extend the normal expectation of life.’

  In the opinion of many, particularly that of stockholders in the T. & W.A.C., and certain other insurance companies, temporary or not, it was a damnfool measure to take. ‘Why,’ muttered indignant voices, ‘why did the half-wits on the board have to shoot their mouths off in public? Even if there’s anything in it, it couldn’t have cost them much to keep quiet about it until they had taken counsel’s opinion, the silly bees.’

  On Friday, Threadneedle and Western opened five shillings down. A rumour raced round the market that a certain Q.C. had been heard to state in the National Liberal Club the previous evening that as it was already an important part of a doctor’s function to extend lives threatened with extinction, and one that was practised daily, he entirely failed to see that any question should arise. Neither God, nor the Law, was aware of an obligation to justify an actuary’s figures for him. And while the term ‘his natural life’ might raise some speculation regarding the nature of ‘unnatural life’, life continued, for the reasonable man, to mean that life had not been terminated by death.

  Insurance stocks drifted lower.

  Arguments as to whether there was anything at all in this ‘extension of life business’ washed back and forth, uncertainly. A feeling that the whole thing had been grossly exaggerated began to spread.

  Insurance stocks steadied.

  Three minor companies followed the example of Threadneedle and Western, and announced moratori
a. So perhaps there was more in it than one had thought.

  Insurance stocks started down again.

  About two o’clock in the afternoon a Late Night Final edition of an evening paper arrived. On the City page it recorded:

  Yesterday’s announcement of a temporary moratorium on certain payments by Threadneedle and Western led to unsettled conditions on the London Stock Exchange today. Insurances opened torpid and glissaded slowly lower. Later a slight revigoration set in and they sobered with dominant issues a few shillings slimmer. Fidelity, however, was not nourished, and, later, prices once more verged into a slow sink.

  The unusual step taken by Threadneedle and Western is attributed to an announcement made last Wednesday by Miss Diana Brackley, who controls the well-known West-end beauty salons of Nefertiti Ltd, in which she claimed that definite progress had been achieved in slowing the natural rate of organic deterioration, which would lead to a perceptible rise in the present figures for the expectation of life.

  The fact that this claim has evidently received more serious attention in actuarial circles than would seem likely to be given to an announcement emanating from such a source is probably attributable to the fact that Miss Brackley is a scientist, holding high honours in biochemistry from Cambridge University, who spent several years in advanced biochemical research work before turning her talents to the development of her notably successful business in a field where competition is notoriously strong and custom proverbially fickle….

  One young man, frowning slightly, pointed the paragraph out to his colleague.

  ‘In other words she’s probably got something. “Perceptible rise in the expectation” doesn’t tell us much, but it seems to have been enough to put the wind up Threadneedle, and the others. I reckon we might sell those General Eventualities before the going gets rough.’

  It was not an isolated decision.

  The going got rough.

  ∗

  The Times restricted its comments to the financial page, and the effects on insurance stocks. Without specifying the cause, it reproved those who had allowed their judgement to be stampeded by unsubstantial rumours, and had thereby encouraged panicky reactions in what was normally one of the most stable sections of the market.

  The Financial Times was more factual, but also cautious. It, too, deplored the effect of a possibly irresponsible announcement, but it also drew attention to the noticeable rise in chemicals, particularly United Commonwealth Chemicals’ ordinaries, which had set in at approximately the same time that insurances began their second decline. The Express, the Mail, the News Chronicle all made references to Miss Brackley’s claims, but preserved a careful vagueness on details – there was, for instance, no suggested figure of the life-increase; just an indefinite proposition that people might be able to live a little longer – and in each case it was given a not-too-committal position of only semi-validity, on the woman’s page.

  The Mirror, however, had pulled off something better. It had discovered that Mrs Joseph Macmartin (or Mrs Margaret Macmartin, as it more chummily preferred to call her), the wife of the Chairman of the board of Threadneedle and Western Assurance, was a Nefertiti client of eight years’ standing. It printed its own photograph of Mrs Macmartin alongside one alleged to have been taken ten years ago. The lack of difference was impressive. She was quoted as saying: ‘I do not have a moment’s doubt of the sincerity of Miss Brackley’s claims. Nor am I alone in this. Hundreds of women whose lives have been revolutionized by her discovery are just as grateful to her as I am.’ Even so, there was again a disinclination to particularize on details of the claims.

  The Telegraph had interviewed Lady Tewley who appeared to have said, no doubt among other things, ‘Nature is unfair to women. We flower with tragic brevity. Hitherto, science which has transformed the world has neglected us, but now comes Miss Brackley like a messenger from Olympus, offering us what every woman desires – a long summer of full bloom. It seems likely that this will lead to a fall in the present rate of divorce.’

  Diana started Saturday by granting requests for interviews. Mounting pressure, however, caused her to abandon her piecemeal approach, and arrange a full-scale Press conference. It was a gathering which started with a high content of cynicism, flippancy, and a peppering of ribaldry. She grew a little short with it, and broke off her introduction to say:

  ‘Look here, I didn’t promote this meeting. It was you who were anxious to meet me. I’m not trying to sell you anything. I don’t give a damn whether you believe what I say, or not. It doesn’t make any difference to the facts. If you like to go away and cleverly take the mickey out of it, you can – though it will be your faces that get red, not mine. But, for the present, let’s get on with it. You ask the questions: I’ll give you some of the answers.’

  Nobody convinces a gathering of the Press one hundred per cent, and success is further weakened when one refuses to answer several crucial questions. Nevertheless, when the representatives dispersed several of them were looking more subdued and thoughtful than they had when they arrived.

  It was difficult to tell which of Sunday’s papers had rejected it, and which had considered it unworthy of disturbing their planned layouts. Some gave it a guarded mention but neither the Prole nor the Radar had doubts of its readability, in their later editions they changed the make-up, and went to town on it. DOES A WOMAN WANT TO LIVE 200 YEARS? asked the Prole. HOW MANY LIFETIMES WILL YOU HAVE? inquired the Radar. ‘Science, not content to baffle the statesmen of the world with the H-bomb, now confronts us with the greatest human problem of all time,’ it announced. ‘Out of the laboratories comes the promise of a new age for all mankind – a new age that, for some, has already begun – with the discovery of the Antigerone. How will the Antigerone affect you?’ And so on, to end with a paragraph demanding an immediate government statement regarding the position of old-age pensioners in the new circumstances.

  The Antigerone [said the Prole] is without doubt the greatest advance in medical science since penicillin. It is another triumph of British brains, initiative, and know-how. It offers you longer life in your prime; this is something that is going to affect all our lives. It is likely to affect the age of marriage. With a longer life before them, girls will no longer have the same incentive to teen-age marriage. Families are likely to be larger in the future, and more extensive, too. Many of us will be able to hold our great-great-grandchildren in our arms, perhaps even their children. A woman will no longer be considered to be approaching middle age at forty, and this is certain to have a great effect on fashions….

  Diana, skipping through the columns with a rueful smile, was interrupted by her telephone bell.

  ‘Oh, Miss Brackley, Sarah here,’ said Miss Tallwyn’s voice, a little breathless. ‘Have you got the Home Service on?’

  ‘No,’ said Diana. ‘I was looking at the papers. We’re on our way, Sarah.’

  ‘Well, I think you ought to listen to it, Miss Brackley,’ said Miss Tallwyn, and there was a click as she hung up.

  Diana pressed the radio key. A voice swelled in, saying: ‘… moving out of its own province, committing an act of aggression in realms which are the administrative territory of Almighty God. To the other sins of science, which are many, are now added those of pride, and arrogant opposition to the expressed will of God. Let me read you the passage again: the ninetieth psalm: “The days of our age are three score years and ten; and though men be so strong that they come to fourscore years: yet is their strength then but labour and sorrow; so soon passeth it away, and we are gone.”

  ‘That is the law of God, for it is the law of the form He gave us. Our end, no less than our beginning, is a part of His pattern for our lives. “The days of man are but as grass: for he flourisheth as a flower of the field,” says the one hundred and third psalm. Mark that: “as a flower of the field”; not as the flower of some scientist’s horticultural meddling.

  ‘Now science, in its impious vanity, challenges the designs of the Archite
ct of the Universe. It sets itself up against God’s plan for man, and says it can do better. It proposes itself as a new golden calf, in the place of God. It sins as the Children of Israel had sinned when it was written of them: “Thus were they defiled with their own words, and went a-whoring with their own inventions.”

  ‘Even the crimes and sins of the physicists become almost venial before the effrontery of men who have so lost God in their souls that they have the presumption to challenge His dispensation. This satanic temptation now dangled before us will be rejected by all who fear God and respect His laws, and it is the duty of such right-minded men to see to it that the weaker-willed among us are protected from their folly. It is unthinkable that the laws of this Christian land should countenance this flagrant attack upon the nature of man as he was created by God….’

  Diana listened thoughtfully to the end. Almost immediately the hymn following the address had started, the telephone rang again. She switched off the wireless.

  ‘Oh hullo, Miss Brackley. Did you hear it?’ said Miss Tallwyn.

  ‘Indeed I did, Sarah. Good stirring stuff. Makes one wonder whether healing the sick, and travelling faster than one can on foot, are sinful interferences with the nature of man, too, doesn’t it? Anyway, I don’t imagine anyone’s going to be able to smother it now. Thank you for telling me. Don’t ring again, Sarah, I’m going out. I don’t suppose there’ll be anything more until tomorrow’s papers.’

  ∗

  Diana’s Rolls pulled up before Darr House rather in the manner of a large yacht losing way. Amid her own preoccupations Diana had forgotten the trouble there, and she looked at the family-wing with dismayed recollection. Much of the interior débris had already been cleared out of the shell, and dumps of builders’ materials in the side garden showed that work was already in hand, but certainly no part of what remained was habitable. She restarted the car, and drove towards the car-park. There was only one other car there, with its bonnet open while a buxom, up-ended young woman peered at the engine. With no more sound than a crunch of gravel Diana came to rest beside her. The young woman looked up startled, and goggled at the Rolls. Diana inquired for Dr Saxover.

 
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