Trouble with lichen, p.17
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.17

           John Wyndham
 
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  Diana skimmed through the rest of the papers, and pondered them for some minutes. Then she lifted the phone and dialled.

  ‘Good morning, Sarah,’ she said.

  ‘Good morning, Miss Brackley. It’s a good thing you used the private line. The switchboard’s been jammed ever since it opened. Poor Violet’s going mad down there. Every newspaper, every crank in the country, and practically every trade organization, I should think, trying to get you at once.’

  ‘Tell her to instruct the exchange to accept no more calls,’ said Diana. ‘Who is on duty in the hall?’

  ‘Hickson, I think.’

  ‘Right. Well, tell Hickson to close the doors, and to let in no one except clients with appointments, or members of the staff. He can get someone to help him if he likes, and if a crowd collects outside he’s to ring the police. Put some of the drivers and packers on the doors from the loadingbay, and the back entrance. Overtime rates.’

  ‘Very well, Miss Brackley.’

  ‘And, Sarah, will you fetch Miss Brendon to the phone.’

  Presently Miss Brandon’s voice spoke.

  ‘Oh, Lucy,’ said Diana, ‘I’ve been looking at the papers. They’re all “angled” one way or another. What I want to know is what people are really thinking and saying about it. I want you to select five or six intelligent girls on the staff, and put them on the job. You’re all to go out into café’s, pubs, espressos, cocktail-bars, laundrettes, if you like, anywhere where people talk, and see what they’re really making of it. Arrange between yourselves to get as good a cross-section as you can. Get back about four-thirty to turn in a report. Don’t choose anyone who’s likely to drink too much. I’ll arrange for you to draw four pounds each for expenses from Miss Trafford. Got all that?’

  ‘Yes, Miss Brackley.’

  ‘Good. Go ahead then, and get them out as soon as you can. Tell Miss Tallwyn to put me on to Miss Trafford, will you?’

  She fixed up several financial matters with Miss Trafford, and then spoke to Miss Tallwyn again.

  ‘I think perhaps I’d better keep away today, Sarah.’

  ‘I’m quite sure you had,’ approved Miss Tallwyn. ‘Hickson says there are already half-a-dozen people in the hall refusing to leave until they see you. I think a sort of siege is going to set in. It’s going to be difficult at lunch time.’

  ‘See if you can’t arrange for the staff to get in and out through next door’s premises. I don’t want them to be sent home because if any clients do manage to get to us they must be made to feel confident that all is well with us, whatever is being said outside. As far as possible, things should go on as usual.’

  ‘Yes-s-s,’ said Miss Tallwyn doubtfully. ‘I’ll do my best.’

  ‘I’m relying on you, Sarah. If you need me you’ll be able to get me here, on the private number.’

  ‘I expect they’ll try to reach you at the flat, Miss Brackley.’

  ‘Don’t worry, Sarah. We have two very large, well-tipped commissionaires. Good luck at your end.’

  ‘I hope so, I’m sure,’ said Miss Tallwyn.

  ∗

  ‘It’s not ethical,’ complained the Managing Director.

  He looked round the group sitting in Appeal Arts Limited’s usual morning conference.

  ‘Four times I’ve tackled that woman on opening an account with us, and every time the answer was the same: she did not intend to go in for big stuff, the mass-market did not interest her, she depended on personal recommendation. I said she’d be bound to want to expand one day, and we were in an excellent position to plan a campaign for her; in the meantime we had excellent personal-recommendation networks on various levels, and I offered her a trial of the top grade at a nominal figure. But no thank you, said she; got all the custom she was equipped to handle, said she. I gave her all the usual expand-or-die line, but still no. And now look at this! Who’s got hold of her? Who’s handling her account – hell, handling, did I say? Just look at today’s papers. All unpaid stuff, too!’

  ‘Well, whoever’s doing it has dropped her right in the – er – mud, anyway,’ said the Accounts Manager. ‘It hasn’t the earmarks of anyone I know. What a shambles! Amateur, I’d say!’

  ‘We’d better find him and sign him up,’ somebody suggested. ‘He’s no slouch at putting it over, you’ve got to admit.’

  The Managing Director snorted.

  ‘The object of this agency is to promote its clients’ interests, not to wreck ‘em and make their names stink. Publicity can be notoriety, but only so far; and this is a lot further,’ he said, coldly. ‘Whoever’s done this is a menace to the entire profession. It could shake the whole faith of the public in the integrity of advertising. Instilling hope and faith is one thing; claiming bloody miracles is quite another.’

  The youngest member of the group cleared his throat diffidently. He was not long down from Oxford, and had been with the firm for little more than a year, but he was the Managing Director’s nephew, and faces turned to him attentively.

  ‘I was wondering –’ he began. ‘Well, I mean, we all seem to be taking it for granted that all this is entirely phoney. After all, practically every newspaper this morning…’ He let it trail away, discouraged by their expressions. ‘Only an idea…’ he concluded weakly.

  The Managing Director shook his head tolerantly.

  ‘Can’t expect to pick up all the angles in a few months, Stephen, you know. It’s clever, I’ll grant that, but it’s the kind of cleverness that blows itself up. I don’t care who put it across; it’s not ethical.’

  ∗

  Telegram to the Home Secretary:

  Sir: At a special emergency meeting of the General Council of The Brotherhood of British Morticians held today the following resolution was passed unanimously: That this Council shall convey to the Government the grave concern of the Members of the Brotherhood regarding the drug Antigerone. Use of this drug, if permitted, could not fail to cause a falling off in the demand for the services of this profession, leading to a serious degree of unemployment among its Members. The Brotherhood earnestly urges that steps should be put in hand immediately to render the manufacture and/or administration of the Antigerone an illegal operation.

  ∗

  ‘I – er – well, I want your opinion of my age, doctor.’

  ‘Madam, I am not here to flatter my patients, nor to play guessing games with them. I suggest that if you have no copy of your birth certificate, you apply to Somerset House for one.’

  ‘But there could have been a muddle. I mean, there are muddles, aren’t there? It might not be really my birth certificate, or someone could have made a mistake in the entry, couldn’t they?’

  ‘They could, but it is most improbable.’

  ‘All the same, doctor, I’d like to be sure. If you could –?’

  ‘If this is some sort of game, madam, I am not a player.’

  ‘Well, really, doctor –’

  ‘I have been in practice now for thirty-five years, madam. And in all that time not one of my patients who wasn’t senile has been in honest doubt about his, or her, age. Now, this morning two ladies come to me requiring to be told how old they are. It’s preposterous, madam.’

  ‘But – well, I mean, coincidences –’

  ‘Besides, it’s impossible. The best I could do would be simply an approximation. Scarcely better than a non-medical guess.’

  ‘Is that what you gave the other lady, doctor?’

  ‘I – er – yes, a rough approximation.’

  ‘Surely, then, you won’t refuse to give me just a rough approximation, too, will you, doctor? I mean, it’s rather important to me….’

  ∗

  ‘Three coffees, please, Chrissie – I say, chaps, this is getting a bit grim, isn’t it? People were saying over the weekend that things would steady up again today. By Saturday morning quite a lot of types were wondering why they’d got into such a flap on Friday.’

  ‘Oh, there was a sort of staunch air at the opening.
It lasted about ten minutes, then they started to get panicky again. Prices fluttering down like autumn leaves.’

  ‘But – oh, thanks, Chrissie… That’s a-girl. No, Chrissie, if you hit me I shall complain to the Lord Mayor, and he’ll put you in the stocks – where was I?’

  ‘You were saying “but”.’

  ‘Oh, was I? I wonder why? Well, anyway, if there’s anything in this Antigerone thing, why doesn’t somebody confirm, or deny it, officially? Then we’d know where we stand.’

  ‘Haven’t you seen a paper today?’

  ‘The paper didn’t have a thing about it.’

  ‘Well, old boy, some other Top Persons have high-stepping wives who go to Nefertiti, and the furphy round the House is that they believe in the thing so solidly that they’ve convinced their husbands, and that’s what’s really at the back of it.’

  ‘Now look, you two, sober up a minute. This is serious. I think Bill’s furphy’s right. Oh, maybe it’s not so sensational as it sounds, but if there’d been nothing in it, it would have been blown wide open by now. This thing has already played hell with the market. If it goes much further I’d not be surprised if the House stops dealings, pending some official statement from somewhere.’

  ‘Can it?’

  ‘Why on earth shouldn’t it if it wants to, in members’ interests? Anyway, I’m betting on this Antigerone being the genuine article – damn it, it’d never have got this far if it weren’t.’

  ‘So what?’

  ‘So now’s the time to buy – everything’s way down, isn’t it?’

  ‘Buy what, for goodness’ sake?’

  ‘All right, but keep it under your hats. Stores.’

  ‘Stores!’

  ‘Keep your voice down, you clot, old man. Now, look here, it’s obvious really. Did you know that seventy-five per cent of the women’s clothing sold in this country is bought by women aged seventeen to twenty-five?’

  ‘Is it really? Sounds sort of unfair, but I don’t see –’

  ‘It is. Now then, that means that even if this Antigerone isn’t all it’s cracked up to be – say it only doubles the expectation of life – there are going to be twice as many women sort of thinking they’re between seventeen and twenty-five as there are now, so they are going to buy twice as much clothing, aren’t they?’

  ‘Er – aren’t they all going to need twice as much clothing, anyway?’

  ‘All the better. And of course if the Antigerone factor is really three, better still, but even one hundred per cent increase in turnover’s no sneeze. Go for the big drapers, and you can’t fail.’

  ‘Yes, but I still don’t quite see what seventy-five per cent has to do –’

  ‘Never mind. You keep thinking it over, old boy. I’m off to put my lolly in the lingerie….’

  ∗

  Telegram: The Prime Minister from Secretary, Sabbath Preservation Society:

  The days of our age are threescore years and ten…

  ∗

  ‘Spiller! Spiller! Where are you?’

  ‘Here, Sir John.’

  ‘About time, too. Spiller, you know about this Antigerone thing?’

  ‘Only from certain references in the papers, Sir John.’

  ‘What do you think of it?’

  ‘I really can’t say, Sir John.’

  ‘Been talking to m’ wife about it. She believes in it absolutely. Been going to this Nefertiti place for years. Inclined to agree with her. Looks scarcely a day older than when we were married, eh?’

  ‘Lady Catterham preserves her looks wonderfully, Sir John.’

  ‘God damn it, man. Don’t make her sound like a dowager. Look at that photograph. Taken nine years ago. And she looks just as young, and just as pretty now as she did then. Not a day over twenty-two.’

  ‘Quite so, Sir John.’

  ‘Either it’s uncanny, or there’s something in this thing.’

  ‘As you say, Sir John.’

  ‘I want you to get on to the woman who runs the place – a Miss Brackley. Fix up for a course of treatment right away. No delays. If she gets sticky over bookings offer her twenty-five per cent above the usual fee, for quick service.’

  ‘But, Sir John, I understood that Lady Catterham already –’

  ‘Oh, for God’s sake! Spiller, this isn’t for m’ wife, it’s for me.’

  ‘Oh – er – yes. I see. Very good, Sir John.’

  ∗

  ‘Henry, I see there’s a Question down for tomorrow, on this Antigerone business. Have we any more details yet?’

  ‘Not yet, I’m afraid, sir. Nothing reliable, that is.’

  ‘Well, do put a jerk into them, there’s a good fellow. We don’t want the Minister having kittens again, do we?’

  ‘Indeed, not, sir.’

  ‘Henry, what is your own unofficial opinion on this?’

  ‘Well, sir. My wife happens to know several ladies who are Nefertiti clients. None of them seems to have any doubt at all that it’s the genuine thing. One has to make allowances for exaggeration in some of the newspaper reports, of course, but, on the evidence so far, I’m inclined to believe it can be done – I mean is being done.’

  ‘I was rather afraid you’d say that, Henry. I don’t like it, my boy. Don’t like it at all. If the claims are true – or only half-true – the effects are going to be – er – er –’

  ‘Apocalyptic, sir?’

  ‘Thank you, Henry. Le mot juste, I fear.’

  ∗

  ‘It’s just a case of being prepared, Inspector. By the way things are building up it looks as if we’re bound to have to pull her in sooner or later – even if it’s only for her own protection. I can smell real trouble. You say dangerous drugs is no good?’

  ‘The Superintendent and I have talked that over, sir. We’ve no evidence of the use of any known drug, and the trouble is that a thing isn’t a dangerous drug until it’s scheduled as such.’

  ‘Suspected possession of?’

  ‘Risky, sir. I’m sure we’d not find anything within the Act.’

  ‘Well, you can always pin something on ’em if you really want to. What about vagrancy?’

  ‘Vagrancy, sir?’

  ‘She’s been telling ’em they’re going to live two hundred years. That’s telling fortunes, isn’t it? So it makes her a rogue or a vagabond, within the meaning of the Vagrancy Act.’

  ‘I’d scarcely think so, sir. She’s not actually been foretelling. As I see it, she simply claims to have something that increases the expectation of life.’

  ‘That could be fraud, nevertheless.’

  ‘It could, sir. But that’s the real question – is it? Nobody seems to know.’

  ‘Well, we can’t wait two hundred years to find out, can we? Seems to me the best thing we can do is to make out a warrant on conduct calculated to lead to a breach of the peace, and hold it till we need it.’

  ‘I very much doubt if we’d get it granted on the present showing, sir.’

  ‘Maybe, Averhouse, maybe. But today’s showing isn’t going to be the same as tomorrow’s, or the next day’s. You mark my words. Anyway, get it filled in as far as you can. I’ve a feeling we may need it granted in a hurry later.’

  ‘Yes, sir. I’ll do that.’

  ∗

  QUEEN AND THE ANTI-G

  The Evening Flag has no doubt that it voices the sentiments of the overwhelming majority of its readers in urging that top priority in sharing the results of the latest triumph of British science must be given to the First Lady in our land…

  ∗

  ‘Two pints, guv…. So then I tells ’er straight. I says: “Look ’ere, my girl,” I says. “Natcheral’s natcheral, and this ’ere ain’t. Did your ma tick about not livin’ two ’undred years? Did my ma? Naow – and never no more you didn’t ought to, neither. ’S not natcheral” – Thanks, guv. ’Ere’s ’ow.’

  ‘“S right, Bill. ’S unbloodynatcheral. Wot she say to that?’

  ‘She tosses ’er ’ead an
says, “Come to that, our mas didn’t ’ave no flippin’ telly, neither.” “I’m not arguing,” I says to ’er, “I’m just tellin’ yer. I know what you’re after. You’d like it so you was still rockin’ and rollin’ in Bikinis an’ such when I was safely screwed dahn. Well, you ain’t goin’ to ’ave it that way, an’ that’s flat. When they talk about ‘till death do us part’, they don’t mean no ‘ankypanky about one livin’ three times as long as t’other. So you can put this ’ere anti-wotsit right out of your ’ead, ’s far as you’re concerned. An’ if I ever do catch you up to any o’ that lark, my girl, I’ll bash yer – can’t say I ’aven’t given yer fair warnin’. ’T’aint natcheral.” Oh, told ’er straight, I did.’

  ‘She’d not like that?’

  ‘Naow. Starts snivellin’, she does, sayin’ as it’s not fair, an’ as ’ow she’s got a right to live as long as she can. “All right, then,” I says, “you try it, an’ see what ’appens to yer.”

  ‘So then she turns the taps on some more, till I yells at ’er to stow it, an’ she goes back to snivellin’, like. Arter a bit she says: “I got a right to, if I want to.” So I gives ’er a look. “An’ you got a right to, too,” she says, “but you don’t have no right to say as I can’t.” “That’s as maybe,” I tells ’er, “just you try it an’ see.” Then, in a bit, she lays orf of ’er snivellin’ an’ looks at me kind of steadylike. “Bill,” she says, “s’pose you was to ’ave this ’ere antithing, too? ’T’ud be the same for both, then, so ’t’ud be right.” I looks at ’er. “See ’ere,” I says, “two unnatcherals doesn’t make a natcheral. Never did. An’ wot about me ’avin’ to put up with two ’undred flippin’ years o’ your flippin’ tongue? All right, says you! Cor strike me flamin’ pink! Stone that for a lark!” ’

  ∗

  ‘Bert, oh Bert, put it on to the BBC, will you? There’s a dear. They got that woman on that tells you what you got to do to live two hundred years. Not that I’m all that keen to live that long. There’s times when I know what it feels like, already. But it might be nice to know how….’

  ‘Good evening, ladies and gentlemen. Welcome to another programme in our Newsmaker series. Our Newsmaker this week has certainly been in the headlines these last few days… Miss Diana Brackley… Miss Brackley is interviewed by Rupert Pigeon…’

 
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