Trouble with lichen, p.16
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.16

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘He’s moved into the coach-house flats pro tem.,’ said the girl. ‘I think he’s in there now. Gosh, what a car!’ she added with simple envy, as she watched Diana get out. She looked a little harder. ‘I say, didn’t I see your picture in the Sunday Judge this morning? You are Miss Brackley aren’t you?’

  ‘I am,’ Diana admitted, with a slight frown. ‘But I’d be extremely grateful if you’d keep it under your hat. I’d rather not have it known I’ve been here – I think Dr Saxover would say the same.’

  ‘All right,’ agreed the girl. ‘It’s no business of mine. But please do tell me one thing: this antigerone stuff the paper talked about, is it – well, is it what they’re saying?’

  ‘I’ve not seen just what the Judge is saying,’ Diana told her, ‘but I expect they’ve got it roughly right.’

  The girl looked at her sombrely for a moment. She shook her head.

  ‘In that case I think I’d rather be in my shoes than yours – in spite of the Rolls. But good luck. You’ll find Dr Saxover in Number Four flat.’

  Diana walked across to the yard, climbed a familiar staircase, and knocked on the door at the top.

  Francis opened it, and stared at his visitor.

  ‘Good heavens, Diana! What are you doing here! Come in.’

  She stepped into the sitting-room. There were half-a-dozen Sunday papers lying about untidily. The room looked smaller than her memory of it, and less ascetic.

  ‘I used to have it all white and clean. I liked that rather better, I think. It was my flat once upon a time, you know, Francis,’ she told him. But he was not listening.

  ‘My dear,’ he said, ‘it isn’t that I’m not glad to see you, but we’ve been so careful not to reveal any link – and now, just at this time… You’ll have seen today’s papers, of course. It really wasn’t wise, Diana. Did anyone see you?’

  She told him of the girl in the car-park, and of warning her. He looked concerned.

  ‘I’d better go and see her, and make sure she understands,’ he said. ‘Excuse me a moment.’

  Diana, left alone, drifted across to the window which had been knocked through the old back wall of the coachhouse to look across the orchard. She was still standing there, pensive, and unmoving, when he returned.

  ‘She’ll be all right, I think,’ he said. ‘Good girl, a chemist, and a worker. She’s like you used to be; thinks of Darr as a place where we do things, not as a marriage bureau.’

  ‘You think that’s how I used to be?’ Diana said.

  ‘Why, of course, you were one of the steadiest workers’ – then something in her tone struck him, and he broke off to glance at her. ‘What do you mean?’

  ‘Little enough now. It’s all long ago, isn’t it?’ she said. She turned to look out into the orchard again, then at the door which led to the little bedroom. ‘It’s queer,’ she said, ‘I ought to hate Darr, but instead, I’m fond of it. I have never been as unhappy as I was here. In there,’ she nodded towards the door, ‘is where I used to cry myself to sleep.’

  ‘My dear, I’d no idea. I always thought – But why? Or is that a trespassing question? You were very young.’

  ‘Yes. I was very young. It is very painful for the young to see their world take on a tarnish. It takes some of them a long time to understand that tarnish is superficial; that it affects appearance, but, if there is nothing worse, the values can remain.’

  ‘I was never good at talking in metaphor,’ Francis observed.

  ‘I know that, Francis. But I was never good at undressing my emotions. The emotions of the young are painfully impatient. They crave shop-finish perfection, and they are not quite human until their charity count has been increased. So let’s leave it, shall we?’

  ‘Very well,’ Francis agreed. ‘It can scarcely be what brought you here.’

  ‘Oddly enough, in a way it is. But the thing that brought me here now is the likelihood that I shall not have much chance to come later. I look like being very busy in the immediate future.’

  ‘You do, indeed. In fact, I would say “busy” is a restrained word to apply to the results of kicking a hornets’ nest.’

  ‘You still think it is a pretty cheap and vulgar way to do it, don’t you, Francis?’

  ‘It isn’t a way that would ever be likely to commend itself to me, I admit. Are you satisfied with this, yourself?’ He waved a hand towards the crumpled newspapers.

  ‘On the whole, and as a beginning, yes,’ Diana told him. ‘I have built up my corps – my living examples. The next step is to get it across to the mass of the people before it can be hushed up, and if the approach is vulgar and stupid, well, that’s the editor’s opinion of his readers.’

  ‘Curiously,’ said Francis, ‘he seems in almost all cases to assume: A – that all his readers are women, and B – that they alone are going to be the beneficiaries.’

  Diana nodded.

  ‘I imagine that is due partly to my launching the whole thing off from Nefertiti, partly to practical psychology – and, quite a bit, to caution: you can, if necessary, brush off an article slanted at women more easily than one that purported to give reliable news to men. And the psychology happens to be right, too. The appeal is more immediate.’

  ‘If you’re suggesting that women are anxious to live longer, but men don’t much care, I’m going to disagree thoroughly,’ Francis objected. ‘I don’t think they like dying any more than women do, oddly enough.’

  ‘Of course not,’ Diana said patiently, ‘but they don’t feel about it the same way. A man may fear death just as much, but in general he doesn’t resent age and death quite as women do. It’s as if a woman lives – well, on more intimate terms with life; gets to know it more closely, if you understand me. And it seems to me, too, that a man is not so constantly haunted by thoughts of time and age as a woman is. Generalizations, of course, but averagely valid, I think. I’d not be surprised to find a connexion between that and her greater susceptibility to mysticism, and a religion that promises a hereafter. At any rate, this factor of resentment of age and death is strong. So, therefore, is the disposition to grasp any weapon against them.

  ‘That suits my purpose well. I have my corps of women who will fight for their right to use an antigerone. It is now announced to millions more women who will demand it, and any attempt to withhold it will provoke a useful, incensing element of suggestion that “they” – a male government – are trying to oppress women by denying them longer lives. It may not be logical, but I don’t think logic is going to count a lot. So that is why I say “yes”,’ Diana concluded.

  Francis said, unhappily:

  ‘I can’t recall a particular fable that applies exactly, but I’m sure there must be one in which someone showed the population a delicious, mouth-watering cake, munched one slice of it, and then told them he was sorry everybody couldn’t have some, but unfortunately there wasn’t enough to go round; and then, of course, the crowd tore him to bits.’

  ‘But they still wanted the cake,’ said Diana, ‘so they marched to the palace, and threw stones at the windows until the King came out on the balcony and promised that he would nationalize all the cooks in the kingdom, and ensure a regular ration of cake for everyone.’

  ‘Which did not, however, put the original cake-maker together again,’ added Francis. He turned a troubled face towards her.

  ‘You’ve determined to go your own way, my dear. Nothing can stop it now. But do be careful, do be careful…. I wonder if, after all, I ought not…’

  ‘No,’ said Diana, ‘not yet, Francis. You were right before. The opposition hasn’t organized yet. Wait a while till we see how it goes in the field. If it doesn’t look too good, then you can bring your scientific guns to bear from the heights.’

  Francis frowned.

  ‘I’m not sure what your intentions are, Diana. Do you see yourself marching at the head of a monstrous regiment of women? Addressing mass rallies? Or perhaps the spirit of your militant great-aunt is tempting you to s
ee yourself sitting on the Front Bench, with your feet on the table? Is it power you want?’

  Again Diana shook her head.

  ‘You’re confusing the means with the end, Francis. I don’t want to lead all these women. I’m just making use of them – deceiving them, if you care to say so. The idea of a longer life has an immense superficial appeal to them. Most of them have no notion of what it is really going to mean to them. They don’t see yet that it will make them grow up – that they simply won’t be able to go on for two hundred years leading the nugatory piffling sort of lives that most women do lead; nobody could stand it….

  ‘They think I’m just offering them more of the same life. I’m not. I’m cheating them.

  ‘All my life I’ve been watching potentially brilliant women let their brains, and their talents, rot away. I could weep for the waste of it; for what they might have been, and might have done… But give them two hundred, three hundred years, and they’ll either have to employ those talents to keep themselves sane – or commit suicide out of boredom.

  ‘And it applies to men almost as much. I doubt if the brilliant ones can develop their full potentialities in a mere seventy years. The clever moneymakers will grow tired of just making money for themselves after sixty or seventy years of it, and turn their cleverness to something more useful. It will become worthwhile. There will be time – time to do really great things at last…

  ‘You’re wrong if you think I want power, Francis. All I want to do is see that homo diuturnus gets born somehow. I don’t care how inconvenient he is, how different; he must have his chance. If it takes a caesarian to give him a start, it doesn’t matter. If the surgeons won’t help, then I’ll be head midwife, and do it myself. The only advance in millions of years, Francis! It shan’t be crushed – it shall not, whatever it costs!’

  ‘We’ve got beyond that now, Diana. Even if it were to be suppressed now, it would be rediscovered and launched again before very long. You’ve done the job already. There’s no need for you to run into personal danger.’

  ‘We’re back to our basic difference, Francis. You think it can make its own way: I think of the opposition it is going to meet. Why only this morning I heard a sermon on the wireless…’ She gave him the gist of it. ‘It’s the institutions, fighting for their lives, that I’m afraid of,’ she added. ‘They might delay it for a century, or more.’

  ‘You’ll be risking a lot – two hundred and fifty years of your life,’ Francis told her.

  ‘Not worthy of you, Francis,’ she said, shaking her head. ‘Since when did anyone take to calculating risks in terms of the number of years he might possibly live? If that is going to be a by-product, we might do better to suppress lichenin ourselves. But I don’t think it is.’

  Francis interlocked his fingers, and stared down at them.

  ‘Diana, in the years since I started Darr many people have worked here, hundreds by now. They have come, and gone. Most of them have left no memories at all. Others one has never forgotten. Some were self-sufficient; others one felt a – a responsibility for. Of course, one feels a responsibility for everyone here, but towards most it is a duty; for a few it is more personal – on a different level. And once one feels that kinds of responsibility it doesn’t just stop because it is no longer direct; it lingers on, quiescent perhaps until something arouses it, irrational, perhaps, too, but nevertheless it is there. It is as if with just a few people one has been an influence, perhaps unintentionally, which has set them on a particular course, and has thereby acquired at least a partial responsibility for what happens further along. I am feeling that now.’

  Diana looked down at her toes, considering.

  ‘I don’t see why,’ she said. ‘Of course, if you had known that I knew anything about lichenin, it could well be so. But you didn’t.’

  ‘I didn’t,’ he agreed. ‘So it was not anything consciously to do with that. It was to do with yourself; something that seemed to have happened to you while you were here. I did not know what it was, but I felt it.’

  ‘You’ve not done much about it all this time, have you?’ said Diana.

  ‘Anyone making the success you have wasn’t in much need of help or advice,’ he pointed out.

  ‘But you think I am now?’

  ‘I am only advising caution as regards your personal safety.’

  ‘For which you take it upon yourself, after all this time, to feel some responsibility,’ Diana remarked, brusquely.

  Francis shook his head.

  ‘I am sorry if you regard it as interference. I thought you might understand.’

  Diana raised her eyes and studied his face.

  ‘I understand,’ she said, with sudden bitterness. ‘I understand very well. You are a father feeling responsible concern for his daughter.’ Her mouth trembled. ‘Damn, damn you, Francis, damn you! Oh God, I knew I ought to have kept away from here!’

  She got up, and walked back to the window. Francis looked at her back. The lines above his brows, and the furrow between them, grew deeper. At length he said.

  ‘I was so much older than you.’

  ‘As if that mattered,’ Diana said, without turning. ‘As if that ever mattered!’

  ‘Old enough to be your father…’

  ‘“Was,” you said. Even though you were – for what it mattered – are you now? Don’t you understand, Francis? Between us, we’ve changed even that. How much older than I are you now?’

  He went on looking at her back, but with a new, rather bewildered, expression in his eyes.

  ‘I don’t know,’ he said slowly, and paused. ‘Diana –’ he began.

  ‘No!’ Diana burst out. She turned. ‘No, Francis, no! I won’t let you use that. I – I –’

  She broke off, and fled into the inner room.

  12

  The Sunday papers had broken the dam. On Monday there were headlines:

  STILL GLAMOROUS AT EIGHTY? (Mirror)

  BACK SEAT FOR TEENAGERS? (Sketch)

  STAND BACK FOR THE OLD FOLK (Mail)

  PRIORITY FOR HOME AND PEOPLE (Express)

  ANTIGERONE SETS MORAL PROBLEMS

  (News Chronicle)

  NO PRIVILEGE FOR WEALTH (Trumpeter)

  A NEW APPROACH TO AGE (Guardian)

  Almost alone, The Times appeared to be giving the matter further consideration before pronouncing judgement.

  For no particular reason, save that it was to hand, Diana picked up the Trumpeter first, and turned to its leader:

  It is no less than a national scandal that the Tories should have permitted the greatest discovery of the age to be developed by private enterprise and exploited at rates beyond the reach of any but the idle rich. The idea that those who can afford to pay shall live longer than those who cannot is an outrage upon the people of a democracy, and on the whole conception of the Welfare State. The Trumpeter demands in the name of the people that the government shall nationalize the Antigerone forthwith. It must not remain the privilege of the few a moment longer. We call for fair shares for all. Stocks of the Antigerone must be impounded, treatment centres arranged at hospitals, and the public issued with cards entitling them to free treatment under the National Health Act. Share and share alike must be the watchword. And it is to the families of the workers who produce the wealth of this country that priority must be given….

  And the Mail:

  Our first concern is naturally with the old folks. They must have the priority which will give them a few more years of life. It would be an indelible blot upon this country’s honour if the young were permitted to seize this new wonder-drug for themselves while the aged must die the sooner for lack of it. A strict order of priorities beginning with the elderly, and entirely free from the influence of wealth or position, should be drawn up a once….

  And the Telegraph:

  Neither the principle of ‘first come, first served’, nor subservience to clamour from organized sections of the community will give adequate guidance in the handling of the
latest scientific marvel which, if first reports are confirmed, has just swum into our ken. It must, of course, be made available to all. Rome, however, was not built in a day, and the problem of distribution in a way that will best serve the national interest until supply can be made to catch up with demand requires serious consideration. There can be little doubt that the fortunes of the nation depend to a large extent upon the wisdom and experience of those who direct our economic policies and steer our great industries. It is their capacity to take the long view which has, as a general rule, raised them to their present positions, but even that ability must be to some extent controlled by the knowledge that, often enough they will not be alive to see its fruits. If, however, their expectation of life were to be extended…

  And the Mirror:

  ‘What?’ women all over the country are asking themselves today, ‘What will it feel like to be not only young in heart at sixty, or seventy, but still young in face and figure, too?’

  Well, first, it is going to mean many years in which you can face your mirror with confidence, and without that question nagging at the back of your mind: ‘Am I losing his love as I lose my looks?’

  And, too, it will mean more confidence. How often have you said to yourself: ‘If I had only known what I know now when I was younger’? Well, in the future that the Antigerone holds for us, you won’t need to say that any more; you will have youth plus experience, an appeal which is simple and sophisticated at the same time….

  The Gazette:

  A Longer life for YOU – FREE!…

  Six fortunate readers of the Gazette will be among the first to move into the new age. YOU could be one of those who will receive the latest Antigerone treatment absolutely without charge…. All you have to do is to arrange the following twelve benefits of living a longer life in what you feel is their order of importance….

 
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