Trouble with lichen, p.18
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.18

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘Well, Miss Brackley, your announcement last week certainly seems to have created something of a stir.’

  ‘One rather expected it would, Mr Pigeon.’

  ‘Just in case some of our viewers happen to have missed seeing the papers lately, do you think you could give us, quite simply, the essence of your announcement?’

  ‘It is quite simple. It is that if people wish to live longer lives, the means to do so is now available.’

  ‘I see. That’s certainly forthright. And you claim that you have developed a form of treatment which will ensure this?’

  ‘I don’t think we need loaded questions, Mr Pigeon.’

  ‘I beg your pardon?’

  ‘Do you claim to have had breakfast this morning, or did you have breakfast this morning, Mr Pigeon?’

  ‘Well, I –’

  ‘Exactly, Mr Pigeon. Tendentious, is it not?’

  ‘Er – your announcement clai— I mean, you announced that a number of people have already had treatment from you which will have this effect.’

  ‘I did.’

  ‘How many people, roughly?’

  ‘Several hundred people.’

  ‘All women?’

  ‘Yes, but that is an effect of circumstances. It is equally effective with men.’

  ‘And how long are these people going to live?’

  ‘I couldn’t possibly tell you, Mr Pigeon. How long are you going to live?’

  ‘But I understood that you claimed – I mean, said –’

  ‘What I said was that their average expectation of life had been increased, and that if the treatment were continued they could expect to double the normal expectation, or to treble it, according to the quality of the treatment given. That is quite different from saying how long anyone is going to live. For one thing, when you double the expectation of life, you also double the chances of a fatal accident, and it appears likely that you more than double susceptibility to illness.’

  ‘Then someone whose expectation has been trebled doesn’t stand as good a chance of realizing it as she would of realizing her normally expected age?’

  ‘No.’

  ‘But, barring accidents and serious illness, she could live to see her two hundredth birthday?’

  ‘Yes.’

  ‘Well now, Miss Brackley, it has been stated by more than one newspaper that none of these people you have been treating with your Antigerone – is that right?’

  ‘Antigerone, yes.’

  ‘That none of them was aware that she was having this treatment until you made your announcement a few days ago?’

  ‘I think one or two may have guessed.’

  ‘You mean you don’t deny it?’

  ‘Why should I want to deny it?’

  ‘Well, I should have thought it was a rather grave charge to make. Here are all these people coming along and putting themselves in your hands in good faith, and there are you treating them with this Antigerone which is going to make them live two hundred years, without even telling them about it. It seems to me that it could be a pretty serious matter.’

  ‘It is. If one is facing the prospect of two hundred years of –’

  ‘I was referring to the – well, the element of deception that is implied in the statements.’

  ‘Deception? What do you mean? There was no deception – in fact the very opposite.’

  ‘I’m afraid I don’t quite –’

  ‘It’s quite simple, Mr Pigeon. I run a business that we are not allowed to name over the air. These ladies came to me as clients and said, in effect, that they wanted their youth and beauty preserved. Well, that’s jargon of course; no one can preserve it. But I said I could prolong it for them. They said that was what they meant, really; so that’s what I’ve done. Where is the deception?’

  ‘Well, it is hardly what they must have expected, Miss Brackley.’

  ‘You’re implying that they expected to be deceived, and that I am guilty of deceiving them by giving them what they asked for instead of the deception they expected. Is that it, Mr Pigeon? I really can’t think you’re on very firm ground there. The whole of my trade professes to prolong youth and beauty. I am the one member of it who does what she is asked – who delivers the goods – and you talk about a “grave charge”. I just don’t understand you, Mr Pigeon.’

  ‘You clai— I mean, your treatment with the Antigerone is always one hundred per cent successful and safe?’

  ‘Out of my several hundred clients there has been only one failure. A lady who suffered from a rare, unsuspected allergic condition.’

  ‘So you would not say it is infallible?’

  ‘Certainly not. Only that it is well over ninety-nine per cent successful.’

  ‘Miss Brackley. It has been suggested that if the Antigerone were to be widely used – indeed, if it is used at all – it will have far-reaching effects upon our social system. Would you agree with that?’

  ‘Certainly.’

  ‘What sort of effects do you envisage?’

  ‘Can you think of anything that would not be affected if we were all to have the opportunity of living two hundred years?’

  ‘I believe that, as yet, Miss Brackley, there has not been any scientific investigation into your clai— er, into the Antigerone?’

  ‘That is a mistake, Mr Pigeon. I have, as a biochemist, investigated it very thoroughly.’

  ‘I – er – well, shall we say independent investigation?’

  ‘Not yet.’

  ‘Would you welcome such an investigation?’

  ‘Why should I welcome it? I’m perfectly satisfied with the efficacy of the Antigerone.’

  ‘Let us say, then, would you object to it?’

  ‘Again, why should I? Frankly, Mr Pigeon, I don’t give a damn. The one thing to be said in favour of an investigation is that it might perhaps lead on to the discovery of other, perhaps preferable, types of Antigerone.’

  ‘Miss Brackley. One thing that has been causing a lot of speculation is the nature of the Antigerone.’

  ‘It is a chemical substance, possibly one of a class of such substances produced by micro-organisms, that has the property of retarding certain of the metabolic processes, and bears a distant chemical relationship to the antibiotics.’

  ‘I see. Could you, perhaps, tell us the source of this substance?’

  ‘I prefer not to disclose it just yet.’

  ‘Don’t you think, Miss Brackley, that it would – er – inspire more confidence if you could give us some indication?’

  ‘We seem to be rather at cross purposes, Mr Pigeon. What makes you think I want to “inspire confidence”? I am not a faith healer, or a politician. The Antigerone exists. It doesn’t depend on confidence for its results, any more than castor oil does. Whether people “believe in it”, as the phrase goes, or don’t “believe in it”, will not have the least effect on its properties….’

  ‘Oh, switch over to the ITV, Bert, there’s a dear. She’s not going to tell us anything. Might ’uv known it’d turn out to be just a lot of BBC highbrow stuff. That’s better….’

  ∗

  ‘Darling… You awake?’

  ‘Uh…’

  ‘Darling, I’ve been thinking – about this Antigerone thing…’

  ‘Uh?’

  ‘Well, it’s going to be a long time, isn’t it? Longer than we thought, I mean. Would you call two hundred years for better, or for worse, darling? I – wuh – wuh – wuh – wuh…!’

  ‘What on earth are you mumbling about?’

  ‘Mumbling! I like that! I was suffocating. I don’t think people ought to be allowed to wear beards in bed. I – wuh – wuh – wuh…!’

  ……….

  ‘But, duckie, you still haven’t answered my question.’

  ‘Oh, for worse. Definitely for worse.’

  ‘Oh, darling, you pig!’

  ‘Ought to be three hundred years, at least.’

  ‘Unpig… Oh, da-a-a-arling…!’

&nbs
p; ∗

  ‘This is Radio Moscow.

  ‘Referring to reports in the London papers, the Moscow newspaper Izvestia states today:

  ‘The British press announcements of the discovery of a drug that will extend the normal expectation of life does not come as any great surprise to the well-informed citizens of the People’s Republics of the U.S.S.R. The Russian people are well acquainted with the pioneer work in this field of the Geriatrics Department of the State Clinic at Komsk under the direction of Hero of Soviet Science Comrade Doctor A. B. Krystanovitch. Scientists in the U.S.S.R. are little impressed by the unproved claims made in London. They point out that this development, based no doubt on the work of A. B. Krystanovitch, is being exploited in England by capitalist interests, and that the claims made can therefore be considered to be exaggerated from motives of private profit.

  ‘Thus there is demonstrated once again, in the work of A. B. Krystanovitch the lead that is constantly being given to the rest of the world by the swift progress of Soviet Science…’

  ∗

  ‘Good evening, Constable.’

  ‘Good evening, sir. You all right?’

  ‘A little drunk, Constable. Take no notice. Not incapable, not dish-disorderly. Just a little drunk.’

  ‘You’d better be getting home, sir.’

  ‘On my way, Constable. Live near here. This is most exceptional – most exceptional.’

  ‘Glad to hear it, sir. All the same, if I was you –’

  ‘But you don’t know why I got drunk, do you? I’ll tell you. It’s this woman with her anti – anti – well, it’s anti-something…’

  ‘Antigerone, sir?’

  ‘That’s it. Antigerone. Well, you see, I’m interested in satis – statsisticks. I’ve been working it out. Once this anti – anti-thing gets going we shall all starve. Less than twenty years, all starve. Very sad. So I got drunk. Very exceptional.’

  ‘Well, sir, we shall have to see to it that it doesn’t get going, shan’t we?’

  ‘No good, Constable. Will to survive’s too strong. We shan’t be able to stop it. Individual will to survive’s part of life-force. ’S all a matter of balance. Too much life-force’s self-destructive. Ever think of that, Constable?’

  ‘Can’t say I have, sir. Now, hadn’t you better get along home. It’s gone midnight, you know.’

  ‘All right, Constable. On my way. Just wanted to tell you, that’s all. All starving in less than twenty years. Very serious state ’f affairs. Don’t forget I told you.’

  ‘I’ll bear it in mind, sir. Good night.’

  ‘Good night, Constable.’

  13

  ‘Where are you?’ asked Lady Tewley.

  ‘Out here. Come along, Janet,’ called Diana’s voice.

  Janet Tewley stepped to the window.

  ‘Oh, Diana. What an adorable garden, right up here. No one would ever suspect it.’

  ‘I love my little garden,’ Diana said, straightening up, and pulling off her gloves. ‘I’m glad you managed to get in.’

  ‘My dear, without your special permit I’d not have got near. You seem to have a whole corps of Commissionaires to guard you.’

  ‘It’s necessary, unfortunately,’ said Diana. ‘I had to smuggle out in a tradesman’s van to get to that broadcast on Monday, and send a decoy to the front entrance in my car so that I could get safely back again. I’ve been a prisoner ever since. Come and sit down. We’ll have some coffee while you tell me what’s been going on.’

  ‘I can’t stay long. I’m frantically busy.’

  ‘It’s going well?’

  ‘The League, you mean? Oh, yes. Lydia Washington has been elected Leader. She’s a good choice, ready to work like the devil, and not scared of anybody, or anything. She’s got a good nucleus of a Council together already, and she’s thoroughly enjoying herself, too.’

  ‘So are you, by the look of you, Janet.’

  ‘Oh, I am. The only trouble is it doesn’t seem to leave much time for sleep. Never mind though, that can come later. But Diana, my dear, I do lift my hat to you. Now we’ve really looked ourselves over we seem to be wives, or daughters, of half the Establishment. We’re married to four Cabinet Ministers, three other Ministers, two Bishops, three Earls, five Viscounts, a dozen blue-chip companies, half-a-dozen Banks, twenty-three members of the Government, eight members of the Opposition, and lots of others. In addition, we have close relations that are not quite marital with a lot of other Influences. So, you see, one way and another, there isn’t much we don’t know, or can’t get to know.’

  ‘That’s what I want. In the last three days I’ve had practically nothing but what the newspapers and the BBC have told me. And bits from Sarah, at the office. I gather that the chief trouble has come from the Trumpeter?’

  ‘Oh, yes, there was a lovely row there. They found they’d backed the wrong horse from the party point of view on Monday, and the poor editor went out on his neck. The very next day they came out with the Opposition line. Exploitation of the workers. Prospect of three lifetimes spent at the factory bench. Inevitable rise in unemployment. Impossibility of paying adequate pensions even if the age of retirement were raised by a hundred years. Lack of opportunities for promotion. Favouritism of the rich. Favouritism of the intellectuals. Favouritism of all upper administrative and managerial grades. Entrenchment of the Monarch. (That was a bad line to take, and they dropped it quick.) Lack of opportunity for the young. No fresh blood in anything. Rise in prices owing to increased demand by increased population. Breakdown of National Health Service faced by population problems, and so on. Call to all unions to register unanimous massive vote of protest. Hints of general strike action unless use of the Antigerone is made a criminal offence.

  ‘On the way here I passed a wall, somewhere Notting Hill way, scrawled with BAN ANTI-G! ALL OUT ON DEMO. TRAF SQ SUNDAY.

  ‘They’ll get an impressive vote, all right. You know the way they reckon the figures. Besides, who wants to be threatened, or sent to coventry? – No secret ballot; their Chartist ancestors shed blood for that, but they… Anyway, it won’t mean a lot. The wives aren’t for the ban, whatever they may tell their men. For one thing there was that gaffe about the Queen; for another, they don’t think much of the idea of their husbands voting for shorter lives for them.’

  ‘And the Church? I heard a sermon on Sunday…’

  ‘No need to worry. He jumped the gun, and got away in the wrong direction. Cantuar’s pro, Ebor’s qualified pro, Bath and Wells is pro, in fact, they’re all more or less pro, though Llandaff and Newcastle are shaky. After all, being an anti would almost amount to counselling suicide by neglect of opportunity to live, wouldn’t it? Though there are some small sects who are taking what they claim to be a fundamentalist line. Rome still seems to be thinking it over – and our communications aren’t so good there, for obvious reasons.

  ‘The Stock Exchange got out of hand, and has had to close down for a bit – but I expect you know that.

  ‘On the whole, I think it’s not going so badly. Our members are putting in a lot of fifth column work, domestic and social, and it seems as though we may not have to come out with a full-scale New Life Party at all, but we’re not counting on that. As I told you, Lydia Washington’s getting the organization together and ready, in case we need it.

  ‘We hear the P.M.’s very unhappy indeed, poor man. If he sanctions use of the Anti-G there’ll be chaos everywhere, and riots from the Left. If he tries to ban it, there’ll be such an outcry and near-revolution that our New Life Party will come towering up almost overnight. At present they’re offering four to one in the clubs that he sanctions, on the grounds that it will have to come sooner or later, so why let foreigners get in with it first? The eventual outcome will be a population with greater experience, and therefore greater ability, so we’d gain by being first ourselves.’

  Diana nodded.

  ‘Well, at least they’re beginning to have some realization of what it is going to mean,
’ she said.

  ‘But that’s only a part of the poor man’s anxieties,’ Janet Tewley went on. ‘If he does agree to sanction it, then there’ll be the whole question of dealing with China.’

  ‘China!’ Diana exclaimed, in dismay.

  ‘My dear, you don’t have to look surprised with me,’ Janet told her.

  ‘But I am surprised,’ Diana said. Then she recollected Richard’s and Zephanie’s uncomfortable experience. From Zephanie’s account there had been three men there when she had admitted the source of the supply. It could have leaked out from any one of them. ‘What about China?’ she added.

  ‘It is said to be the only source of the particular lichen that yields the Antigerone,’ Janet said, her eyes on Diana’s face.

  ‘I see.’ Diana’s voice and expression were non-committal.

  ‘So once the Chinese find out why we want to buy their lichen – well, that will finish that. They’ll want it for themselves, and even if they don’t, we’d be a long way down on the list of customers.’

  Diana nodded again.

  ‘It could be more troublesome than that,’ she said. ‘Once the Chinese know, the Russians will know. The lichen doesn’t come from China proper. It grows in northern Manchuria, close to the Russian border. If the Russians were to think it valuable enough to be worth grabbing, anything might start.’

  ‘Anyway, it looks as if we shan’t get it,’ Janet commented, ‘and in that case what happens? Is there any point in conducting a campaign for the Antigerone at all?’

  Diana hesitated.

  ‘I didn’t agree that it was the only source,’ she pointed out.

  ‘All right. Be cautious if you like. I’m just telling you what’s being said – that this lichen is imported from China, and is processed to produce the Antigerone for you, at Darr House.’

  Diana suddenly sat up.

  ‘But that’s utterly untrue. I import the lichen, and I have it processed, but it doesn’t go anywhere near Darr House. That’s a complete fabrication.’

  ‘My dear, don’t glare. I didn’t fabricate it.’

 
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