Trouble with lichen, p.20
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.20

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘The Antigerone,’ he said, ‘the dirtiest weapon of all the dirty weapons that the Tories have aimed at the workers. The bomb with the selective fall-out – that falls on the workers. The men who live lives of comfort and luxury are happy with the Anti-G – of course they are. For them it means more years – many more years – of that comfort and luxury. But what does it mean to us, the workers, who produce the wealth that buys that comfort and luxury? I’ll tell you what it means to us. It means working for three lifetimes instead of one. And if you are going to keep on working for three lifetimes, where are your sons going to find work? Yes, and your sons’ sons, too. It means two generations, two whole generations of unemployment, two generations on the dole, two generations born to rot in unemployment that will bring down your wages. I tell you that never in the history of the whole working-class struggle –’

  Up on the north side of the Square a van had stopped opposite the National Gallery. A panel in its side swung open to reveal the trumpets of eight louspeakers. A contralto voice, heroically enlarged, swept across the crowds.

  ‘Murderers! Cowards! Woman-killers!’

  The speaker, taken aback by the blast of sound, hesitated, and lost his thread, but he rallied quickly, and began again:

  ‘Two generations–’

  One of the young men resourcefully turned a dial to increase the power. Even so his apparatus could not contend with the voice from the north, which was continuing:

  ‘It is only people that you kill by murder. Ideas live on Diana Brackley lies dead, shot for her discoveries. But you can’t shoot discoveries dead….’

  Almost everyone in the Square had turned to look at the van, and at the policemen running towards it.

  ‘She brought us a gift of life: and her reward is death. But ideas are born of the mind and the spirit, not of a woman’s body that can be shot down….’

  The policemen had reached the van and were battering at its rear doors, but the Voice went on:

  ‘What do you know of life, you cowards who are so afraid of it that you crush it? What right have you to deny life to us? What right have you to say to us who gave you life, to your mothers, your wives, and your daughters who love life, that they shall die before they must?’

  One of the policemen having dragged the driver from his seat, took his place, and began to drive the van away.

  ‘Over,’ said the contralto voice.

  The speaker on the plinth watched the van move off, with relief. He opened his mouth to begin again, but before he could utter a word another stentorian female voice cut in, this time from behind him:

  ‘Don’t let your success in shortening one life go to your heads. We’re not going to let you shorten all our lives. We’ve met you before. You are the dolts, the dimwits, the Luddites. And now you carry Luddism to its logical conclusion – don’t stop at smashing the machines, smash the inventors, too, and they won’t invent any more.’

  More police were now moving, hot-foot and panting, in a new direction.

  ‘Obstruct, deprive, oppose – and kill. Is that your fine creed? There have been tyrannies where life was held cheap – but none so tyrannous that it would curtail the lives of its whole population.’

  The police wasted no time trying to get inside the second van. They simply drove it off, and it departed, as had the other, with a valedictory: ‘Over.’

  When the voice of the third van came in, from the west side, policemen who had removed their helmets to mop their brows, cursed, replaced the helmets, and started off again.

  They had grasped the idea.

  Van Number Three had time to deliver only a few sentences before it, too, was driven away.

  They were looking out for Number Four, on the east side, and were on it almost before it began. It managed to say no more than ‘Remember Diana Brackley, martyred by the forces of stupidity, reaction, and self-interest,’ before it followed the others.

  Everybody hopefully scanned the surrounding roads for another vehicle that looked likely to emit a Voice. But no Number Five van manifested itself. The crowd by the column gradually returned its attention to the plinth, though not all its attention, for it was dotted here and there with groups of indignant argument. The speaker set about recapturing his audience, raising his arms again for silence, the arguers were told by their neighbours to stow it. The speaker drew breath, and at that moment there occurred another interruption.

  The further crowd, back beyond the fountains, began to chant, uncertainly at first, but with increasing decision and rhythm:

  ‘Murderers…! Cowards…! Woman-killers…!’

  The new assault brought the speaker’s crowds round again, with expressions on its faces that were far from amiable. It hesitated. The speaker himself did his best to call back its attention, but only snatches of his words could get through the swelling chant.

  Slowly his crowd made up its mind, and started to move towards the other.

  Already, the policemen were sprinting from all directions to put themselves between the two bodies before they could meet, and now the mounted constables rode in, with their horses’ hoofs striking sparks from the pavement…

  ∗

  Monday was a busy day at Bow Street.

  ∗

  The funeral took place on Wednesday. After it was over, the great crowd dispersed quietly. The police reinforcements that had stood by unneeded, pinched out their cigarettes, climbed into their vans, and departed, too.

  Only the mounds of flowers remained.

  But some two hours later many of the faces seen at the funeral were to be seen again in Trafalgar Square. For an hour or more the great open space continued to fill up with a crowd in which women vastly predominated.

  Police circulated advising the groups to move along, which they did, only to reform a moment later.

  At about seven o’clock banners started to appear:

  THE LEAGUE FOR THE NEW LIFE

  and placards bearing simply the initials:

  LNL

  Young women were hoisted up in the crowd to scatter handfuls of badges, white discs with the letters LNL printed on them in fluorescent orange.

  A great four-pole banner with a deep black border and a wreath of flowers at the top of each pole miraculously appeared:

  IN MEMORY OF

  DIANA BRACKLEY – MURDERED

  LIFE WAS HER WORK

  DEATH HER REWARD

  Elsewhere, several large portraits of Diana rose above the heads of the crowd, and there was one blown-up photograph of her, taken as she lay on the steps.

  Signs of marshalling and organization were to be seen. The police stationed groups of men ready to draw a cordon across the top of Whitehall.

  The crowd bulged, and began to flow into the roadway on the south side. The traffic there came to a halt. Hastily, the police held up the Whitehall traffic, and formed a line across the road. The crowd rolled on in a dense, treacly flow across the roadways and the traffic-islands, past immobilized cars and buses, until it came to the cordon. The police, with linked arms, strove to hold it back, but still it flowed. The line of police, scrabbling for foothold, bent in a bow, and finally broke. A scattered cheer arose from further back, and the crowd flowed on down Whitehall with its banners and placards tossing on the flood.

  Presently the front ranks began to sing. Further back, too, the song was taken up:

  Diana Brackley’s body lies a-murdered in her grave,

  Diana Brackley’s body lies a-murdered in her grave,

  Diana Brackley’s body lies a-murdered in her grave,

  Her work goes marching on!

  As the crowd drained out of the Square more people flooded in from the streets to follow on behind. Passengers on stranded buses got out to join, too.

  The volume of the singing increased as the head of the procession passed the end of Downing Street:

  Shoot us if you want to as they shot Diana down,

  Her work will still go on!

  There was another
cordon at the far end of Whitehall, stronger than the first, but it, too, sagged before the pressure, and gave way. The crowd flowed out, over Parliament Square.

  From somewhere a loudspeaker roared ponderously:

  ‘WE – WANT – THE – ANTI-GEE!’

  giving the rhythm. The crowd took it up, and its multi-voiced chant rebounded in echoes from the Abbey to the Government Offices, from the Central Hall to the face of the Houses of Parliament:

  ‘WE – WANT – THE – ANTI-GEE!’

  ‘WE – WANT – THE – ANTI-GEE!’

  ∗

  ‘The P.M. was impressed. He admitted it,’ Lydia Washington told Janet Tewley. ‘ “A performance quite in the historic tradition of demonstrations,” he called it.

  ‘So I said to him: “Well, there it is, Willy. What are you going to do? Are you going to take notice? Or are you going to send me away to turn the League for the New Life into a political party which will fight you tooth and nail at the next election? Or, of course, there is the third possibility of civil commotion: what our grandmothers could do, we can do.”

  ‘ “My dear Lydia,” he said, “I am against civil commotion. It is costly and untidy, and I am even more opposed to it since resistance movements have given people ideas that your grandmother never thought of. Also, I confess, our side of the House would regret to see a new, and, possibly, very popular Party arise. The Opposition, I am sure, would regret it still more: they are deeply riven by this business already, you know. It is not impossible that some of their quite prominent figures might come over to you: there is a dated – dare I say, arrested? – quality in their far left that many of their intellectuals find extremely trying at the best of times. So I think we may say that they would rather lose to us than be split by a new challenger.

  ‘“Our own Party is, one must admit, far from single-minded in this matter. Many seem not to have learnt, even yet, that if you turn your face away from Science, she will land you a mule’s kick on your backside. Nevertheless, in view of the alternatives, I have no doubt that we could put it through – if it lay within our power to do so.”’

  Janet frowned.

  ‘What did he mean by that?’

  ‘He had received a letter – he showed it to me – written from some hospital by a Dr Saxover who, he assured me, is a well-known biologist – or was it biochemist? – something of that kind, anyway. The letter was dated last Monday, two days after Diana’s death. This Dr Saxover said that he knew all about the Antigerone, and had been making it for years, though not for Diana, but he had been holding it back in the hope of finding some alternative source-material. It came, he said, from a lichen growing only, as far as he knew, in North Manchuria – the P.M. told me his own reports confirmed that – but he went on to say that he had that morning received an air letter from his agent in Hong Kong telling him that the Chinese authorities had initiated a large new collective farm in a district which included the whole of the known lichen-bearing area, and that the ploughing up was already in hand. To the best of Dr Saxover’s belief there had never been more of the lichen than would supply the quantity of the Lichenin Antigerone that would be needed by three or four thousand people. Now there would be none! consequently, no more of the Antigerone could be produced.

  ‘ “An artless man, this Dr Saxover,” said the P.M. “He appears to regard the development as a coincidence.”

  ‘ “Which you do not?” I said.

  ‘ “So far,” he remarked, “the rest of the world has not taken this very seriously – rather as if it were a silly-season stunt, with just, perhaps, the merest atom of something somewhere in it. But the Chinese are a very subtle people. Also they have an excellent Intelligence Service. Observe how convenient this is for them. Quite fortuitously all the lichen, which could have caused a great deal of trouble, has disappeared. No need to say anything but velly solly. It won’t do anyone any good to raise a rumpus about stuff that no longer exists, will it! Furthermore, their own over-population problem is already serious; if they were to add longevity to their remarkable fecundity the country would very soon burst at all seams.

  ‘ “One may doubt,” he added, thoughtfully, “whether quite all the lichen will have gone under. It will be interesting to notice whether any of their leaders shows signs of wearing unusually well during the coming years. However, be that as it may, the lichen is certainly put out of anyone else’s reach. And that leaves us with our problems.”

  ‘ “It certainly does, Willy,” I agreed. “In fact it is just about as conveniently pat for your government, isn’t it? So convenient that nobody is going to believe it – which is not going to do you, or your Party, or any of us, any good.’

  ‘He agreed, but he said:

  ‘ “Well, what do you suggest? We can’t grow the stuff for them. Even if this fellow Saxover could let Kew have spores from it – it is spores that lichen uses? – anyhow, if Kew could develop it, it would take many years to start such a scheme, and even then it is doubtful whether it could be produced in anything like sufficient quantity.”

  ‘ “Nevertheless,” I told him, “Something must be done, Willy. In this case, at any rate, it certainly isn’t true that what you’ve never had, you never miss. Now that we’ve got them all worked up, they’ll miss it all right; want to fight the Chinese, most likely. They’ll bawl like a child who’s had its toy snatched away – What’s the matter…?” I said, for he’d suddenly opened his eyes wide.

  ‘ “You’ve got it, Lydia,” he told me, beaming.

  ‘ “I only said –”

  ‘ “What do you say to pacify a child who’s lost a favourite toy?”

  ‘ “Why – ‘don’t cry, darling. I’ll buy you another.’”’

  ‘ “Exactly,” he told me, and beamed again.’

  ∗

  ‘As listeners to our later bulletins will have already heard, the Prime Minister addressed the House last night on the subject of the Antigerone.

  ‘The Government had, he said, for some little time been giving this matter their gravest consideration. If their announcement should have seemed to the public to be somewhat delayed, that must be put down to an earnest desire to raise no false hopes. The stage had now been reached, however, when it was desirable that the people should be acquainted with the facts. They were these. The discovery of the Antigerone was a scientific triumph which was again showing the world that British research was second to none. Unfortunately, however, it did not follow that when you had made a discovery you had found an infinite quantity of your discovery. On the contrary, many substances could only be produced at first with great difficulty, and at great cost. He would instance aluminium which was on its first appearance rarer than, and, as a result, more costly than, platinum. The present state of the Antigerone was not dissimilar from that. At present it would only be derived in minute quantities from an extremely rare form of lichen. The Government had consulted eminent scientists in attempts to discover methods by which the output could be raised to a degree where it was readily available for all. Unfortunately, again, the scientists could hold out no immediate prospects of improvement. It was, however, the Government’s firm intention that this state of affairs should be remedied as soon as possible.

  ‘The Government, therefore, proposed an immediate grant of ten million pounds to subsidize research to this end.

  ‘He had little doubt, indeed our record of scientific progress assured him that he need have no doubt, that British brains, British purpose, and British know-how would succeed – and succeed in the very near future – in producing a supply of the Antigerone for every man and woman in the country who wishes to use it….’

  15

  Francis Saxover stopped his car at the point where a whitegated lane led off from the secondary road. On the top bar of the gate was neatly lettered: GLEN FARM. By turning a little more left, he could see the house. A comfortable-looking house that belonged in the scene, built of grey local stone, perhaps three centuries ago, seeming almost to g
row out of the hillside. It rested on a small shelf, looking out across the lake from shining, white-framed windows, a small garden, now in the chrysanthemum stage, immediately before it, the fell rising steeply behind. On its north side some lower outbuildings linked it to a large barn. Blue smoke rose from one of the two chimney stacks, and drifted back towards the fellside. A farm, undoubtedly; equally without doubt, not a working farm.

  After some moments’ contemplation of it he got out, opened the gate, and took his car through. He drove up slowly, parked where the lane widened, close to the house, and sat there for a moment before he got out.

  He did not approach the house at once, but walked thoughtfully to the edge of the levelled shelf, where he stood looking across the garden and the placid sheet of water beyond. He remained there in unmoving contemplation for almost a minute. Then, as he made to turn, something close to his feet caught his attention. He regarded it for some seconds, and then bent to pick it up. He looked at it expressionlessly, as it lay in the palm of his hand. Then the corner of his mouth twitched slightly. He let the piece of lichen drop, and turned towards the house.

  A staunch-looking country girl opened the door.

  ‘Mrs Ingles?’ Francis inquired.

  ‘I think she’s in the barn, sir. I’ll tell her. What would be the name?’

  ‘Oh, just say I’m from the County Rating Authority,’ he told her.

  He was shown into a large, low, comfortable sitting-room: white paint, grey walls, a few excellent flower pictures, wood embers smouldering beneath a polished copper canopy in the fireplace. He was looking out of the window when the door opened.

  ‘Good morning –’ the familiar voice began.

  Francis turned.

  ‘Oh –!’ she exclaimed. Then more faintly, ‘Oh –!’ And she swayed…

  ‘That was a silly thing to do,’ Diana said unsteadily, as she came round. ‘Oh, God, I’m going to cry.’ She did. ‘I’m not a cryer, I’m not, she said through it. ‘Nobody ever makes me cry but you. Oh, hell!’

 
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