Trouble with lichen, p.5
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.5

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘I’m not at all sure that I do want to raise a family,’ Diana told her. ‘There are so many families already.’

  Mrs Brackley looked shocked.

  ‘But every woman wants a family, at heart,’ she said. ‘It’s only natural.’

  ‘Habitual,’ corrected Diana. ‘God knows what would happen to civilization if we did things just because they were natural.’

  Mrs Brackley frowned.

  ‘I don’t understand you, Diana. Don’t you want a house of your own, and a family?’

  ‘Not furiously, Mummy, or I expect I’d have done something about it long before this. Perhaps I’ll try it, though, later on. I might like it. I’ve plenty of time yet.’

  ‘Not so long as you think. A woman is always up against time, and it doesn’t do to forget it.’

  ‘I’m sure you’re right, darling. But being too conscious of it can produce some pretty ghastly results as well, don’t you think? Don’t you worry about me, Mummy. I know what I’m doing.’

  So, for the time being, Diana stayed at Darr.

  Zephanie, coming home for the Easter holidays, complained that she was preoccupied.

  ‘You don’t look tired like you did when you were working so hard,’ she conceded, ‘but you do think such a dreadful lot.’

  ‘Well, you have to think in my job. That’s what it is, mostly,’ retorted Diana.

  ‘But not all the time.’

  ‘Perhaps it’s not entirely me. Now, you don’t think as much as you did before you went to that school. If you just go on taking what they tell you without thinking about it, you’ll turn into advertisers’ meat, and end up as a housewife.’

  ‘But most people do – become housewives, I mean,’ Zephanie said.

  ‘I know they do – housewife, hausfrau, house-woman, house-keeper, house-minder. Is that what you want? It’s a diddle word, darling. Tell a woman: “woman’s place is in the home”, or “get thee to thy kitchen” and she doesn’t like it; but call it “being a good housewife”, which means exactly the same thing, and she’ll drudge along, glowing with pride.

  ‘My great-aunt fought, and went to prison several times, for women’s rights; and what did she achieve? A change of technique from coercion to diddle, and a generation of granddaughters who don’t even know they’re being diddled – and probably wouldn’t care more if they did. Our deadliest susceptibility is conformity, and our deadliest virtue is putting up with things as they are. So watch for the diddles, darling. You can’t be too careful about them in a world where the symbol of the joy of living can be a baked bean.’

  Zephanie received the advice in silence, but was not to be entirely diverted by it. She asked:

  ‘You’re not unhappy, are you, Diana? I mean, it isn’t that sort of thinking you keep on doing is it?’

  ‘Good gracious, no, darling. It’s just problems.’

  ‘More like geometry kind of problems?’

  ‘Well, yes, I suppose so – sort of human geometry. I’m sorry they oppress you. I’ll try to forget them for a bit. Let’s take the car out somewhere, shall we?’

  But the problems continued to be problems. And Diana’s growing conviction that Francis had given up, and decided to shelve the whole matter only made her the more determined to find a solution.

  The summer came on. In June she went with a Cambridge friend for a holiday in Italy. Friend proved highly susceptible to Latin charm, even to the extent of getting – rather temporarily, as it turned out – engaged. Diana, too, enjoyed herself, but returned (alone) with little regret, and a feeling that too much of that sort of thing must pretty soon cloy.

  She had been back at Darr a fortnight when Zephanie’s school broke up once more, and she came home for a part of the summer holidays.

  One evening they strolled out into the big meadow just shorn of its second crop, and sat leaning comfortably against a haycock. Diana inquired how Zephanie had got on this term.

  Not so badly, Zephanie thought modestly, at least, not so badly with work, and not so badly with tennis, but she didn’t think much of cricket. Diana agreed about cricket.

  ‘Very dull,’ she said. ‘It’s a vestige of emancipation. Freedom for girls meant having to do what boys did, however boring.’

  Zephanie went on to give an account of her term, mingled with her opinions of school life. At the end, Diana nodded.

  ‘Well, at least they don’t seem to be training you exclusively for housewifery,’ she said, with mild approval.

  Zephanie considered the implications of that a bit.

  ‘Aren’t you going to get married, Diana?’

  ‘Oh, I daresay I shall – one day,’ Diana conceded.

  ‘But if you don’t, what’ll you do? Will you be like your great-aunt, and fight for women’s rights?’

  ‘You’ve got it a bit muddled, darling. My great-aunt, and other people’s great-aunts, won all the rights that women need ages ago. All that’s been lacking since then is the social courage to use them. My great-aunt and the rest thought that by technically defeating male privilege they’d scored a great victory. What they didn’t realize is that the greatest enemies of women aren’t men at all, they are women: silly women, lazy women, and smug women. Smug women are the worst; their profession is being women, and they just hate any women who make any other kind of profession a success. It sets up an inferiority-superiority thing in them.’

  Zephanie regarded her thoughtfully.

  ‘I don’t think you like women very much, Diana,’ she decided.

  ‘Too sweeping, darling. What I don’t like about us is our readiness to be conditioned – the easy way we can be made to be willing to be nothing better than squaws and second-class citizens, and taught to go through life as appendages instead of as people in our own right.’

  Zephanie considered again. She said:

  ‘I told Miss Roberts – she takes us for history – what you said about the change from forcing women to do things to simply diddling them into them.’

  ‘Oh, did you? And what did she say?’

  ‘She agreed, really. But she said, well, this is the kind of world we have to live in. There is so very much that’s wrong with it, but then life is so short that the best anyone can do is to come to terms with it while doing her best to preserve her own standards. She said it would be different if we had more time to spare, but now there isn’t enough margin to make people do things about it. By the time your children have grown up you’re beginning to get old, so it isn’t worth trying to do much, and then in another twenty-five years it will be the same for them, and – Why, Diana, what on earth’s the matter…?’

  But Diana did not reply. She sat staring straight before her, grey eyes wide open, as if mesmerized.

  ‘Diana – aren’t you well?’ Zephanie pulled at her sleeve.

  Diana turned her head slowly, not really seeing her.

  ‘That’s it!’ she said. ‘My God – that’s it! There it was, staring me in the face all the time, and I never saw it….’

  She put her hand to her forehead and leant back against the hay. Zephanie bent over her anxiously.

  ‘Diana, what’s wrong? Can I get something?’

  ‘There’s nothing wrong, Zephanie darling. Nothing at all. It’s just that I’ve found out what I’m going to do.’

  ‘What do you mean?’ Zephanie asked, bewildered.

  ‘I’ve found my career….’ Diana told her, in an odd voice. Then she began to laugh. She leant back against the haycock, and went on laughing, and half-crying, too, in such a queer way that Zephanie was alarmed….

  The next day Diana sought an interview with Francis, and explained that she would like to leave at the end of August.

  Francis sighed. He glanced at her left hand, and then looked puzzled.

  ‘Oh,’ he exclaimed, ‘not the routine reason?’

  She had seen his glance.

  ‘No,’ she said.

  ‘You ought to have borrowed one,’ he told her. ‘This leaves me free
to argue.’

  ‘I don’t want to argue,’ Diana told him.

  ‘But you must. I’ve been known to argue with valuable members of my staff even when Hymen is standing in the wings. When he’s not, I always argue. Now, what is it? What have we done – or are we not doing?’

  The interview, which Diana had hoped would be briefly formal, went on for some time. She explained that she had come into some money, and intended to take a trip round the world. He did not disapprove of that. In fact: ‘Good idea,’ he said, ‘give you a chance to see for yourself how some of our tropical stuff really does in the field. Don’t hurry it. Take a year off. Consider it a sort of Sabbatical.’

  ‘No,’ Diana said firmly. ‘That’s not what I mean.’

  ‘You don’t want to come back here? I wish you would. We shall miss you, you know. I don’t mean just professionally.’

  ‘Oh, that’s not it all,’ she told him, wretchedly. ‘I – I –’ she dried up, and remained staring at him.

  ‘If someone offered you a better job…?’

  ‘Oh, no – no. I’m just giving up.’

  ‘You mean, getting out of research altogether?’

  She nodded.

  ‘But that’s preposterous, Diana. With a talent like yours, why –’ he went on at some length, and then broke off, looking back at the grey eyes, suddenly aware that she had heard nothing of what he had said. ‘It isn’t like you at all. There must be a good reason,’ he told her.

  Diana stood uncertain, hesitating as if she were on a perilous brink.

  ‘I –’ she began again, and then stopped as if she were choking.

  She went on facing him across the desk. He saw that she was trembling. Before he could move to help her, an astonishing conflict of emotions broke through her usually calm expression, as if a fierce, alarming, internal struggle were taking place.

  He got up to move round the desk to her, and she seemed to get back partial control. She said, almost gasping:

  ‘No – no! You must let me go, Francis. You must let me go.’

  And she fled from the room before he could reach her.

  PART TWO

  4

  ‘I’M glad you were both able to get away,’ Francis told his children.

  ‘I ought not to be here, but you did make it sound pretty urgent,’ Paul said.

  ‘It is important certainly, but just how urgent still seems to be in doubt. I hoped to know myself by now, but the fourth member of our quartet has been delayed. I doubt whether you’ll remember her. She left Darr nearly fourteen years ago now – Diana Brackley.’

  ‘I think I do,’ Paul told him. ‘Tall, rather distinguished-looking, wasn’t she?’

  ‘I certainly do, very well,’ Zephanie put in. ‘I had a pash for Diana. I used to think she was the most beautiful, and next to you, Daddy, the cleverest person in the world. I cried like anything when she went away.’

  ‘It’s a long time ago. I don’t see how she can have anything really urgent to tell us. What’s it about?’ asked Paul.

  ‘That needs quite a little preliminary explanation,’ Francis told him. ‘In fact, perhaps it’s as well that she’s been delayed. It will give me a chance to clear some of the ground first.’

  He gazed critically at his son and daughter. Paul, twenty-seven now, and an engineer, still looked boyish in spite of the beard with which he attempted to give himself more authority. Zephanie had grown up to be much prettier than he had expected. She had her mother’s curling golden hair, his own structure of face, femininely softened, and dark hazel eyes that she got from neither of them. As she sat now in his study, in a cotton summer dress, her hair not fully tamed after her drive to Darr, she looked more like a girl about to leave school than a member of a university engaged upon a post-graduate course.

  ‘You are almost certainly going to think that this is something I should have told you before. Perhaps that is so, but there seemed to me to be good reasons against it. I hope you will see that, when you have had time to consider.’

  ‘Oh dear. This sounds terribly ominous, Daddy. Are we foundlings, or something?’ Zephanie asked.

  ‘No. You’re certainly not. But it is rather a long story, and to make it clear I’d better start at the beginning, and try to condense it. It began in the July of the year your mother died….’

  He gave them an account of the finding of the lichen speck in the saucer of milk, and went on:

  ‘I took the jar of lichen up to my own lab to be looked at later. Soon after that your mother died. I went rather to pieces over it, I think – it’s not at all clear now, but I remember waking up one morning and knowing quite suddenly that if I didn’t get down to some work and lose myself in it I should crack up altogether. So I went off to the lab and worked. There were half a dozen things there waiting for me, and I worked on them pretty much night and day to keep my mind occupied. One of the things I looked into was that lichen that Diana had spotted.

  ‘Lichens are queer things. They’re not single organisms, you know. They are actually two life forms living in symbiosis – fungi and algae, interdependent. For a long time there didn’t seem to be any use for them except that one kind is the reindeer’s food, and others produce dyes. Then comparatively recently some of them had been found to have antibiotic properties of which usnic acid is the most common agent, but there was, and still is, a great deal of work to be done on them.

  ‘Naturally, I thought, as anyone would, that an antibiotic was what I was looking for. And to some extent that lichen seemed to have such a property, but – oh, well, we can go into the details some other time – the point is that after a while I had to recognize that it was not an antibiotic, and was gradually forced to admit that it was something quite different. Something there was no name for. So I had to invent one. I called it an antigerone.’

  Paul looked puzzled. Zephanie said, forthrightly:

  ‘Meaning what, Daddy?’

  ‘Anti – against; gerone – age, or, more literally, an old man. Nobody seems to mind mixing Latin and Greek roots nowadays, so – antigerone. One could have been more accurate, but it will do.

  ‘The active concentrate derived from the lichen I call simply “lichenin”. The actual physico-chemical details of the actions and effects upon the living organism are extremely complex and require a great deal of study, but the total effect is quite straightforward in its results: it simply retards the normal rate of metabolism throughout the organism.’

  His son and daughter were silent while the implication sank. It was Zephanie who spoke first.

  ‘Daddy – Daddy, you don’t mean you’ve found – Oh, no, it can’t be that !’

  ‘It is, darling. That’s what it is,’ he told her.

  Zephanie sat quite still staring at him, unable to express anything of what she was feeling.

  ‘You, Daddy, you – ! ’ she said, still barely credulous.

  Francis smiled.

  ‘Even I, my dear – though you mustn’t give me too much credit for it. Someone was bound to come across it quite soon. It just happened to be me.’

  ‘Just happened – my God!’ said Zephanie. ‘Like it just happened to be Fleming with penicillin. Gosh, Daddy. I – I feel quite queer…’

  She got up and crossed the floor a little uncertainly to the window. There she stood with her forehead pressed to the cool glass, looking out across the park.

  Paul said, in a bewildered way:

  ‘I’m sorry, Dad, but I’m afraid I don’t fully get this. It seems to have knocked Zeph endways, so it must be quite something, but I’m only a plain civil engineer, remember.’

  ‘It isn’t very difficult to understand – it’s believing it that comes harder at first,’ Francis began to explain. ‘Now the processes of cell division and growth –’

  Zephanie, at the window, suddenly stiffened. Abruptly she swung round to face the room. Her gaze fastened on her father’s profile, studying him intently, then it moved to a large framed photograph of him standing
beside Caroline, taken only a few months before her death, then back again to his face. Her eyes widened. With a curious, half-awake motion, she crossed to a wall mirror, and stood looking into it.

  Francis broke off his disquisition to Paul in mid-sentence, and turned his head to watch her. Both he and she were perfectly still for some seconds. Zephanie’s eyes became less wide. She shifted their focus, and spoke through the mirror without turning her head.

  ‘How long?’ she said.

  Francis did not reply. He might not have heard her. His gaze left her and travelled across the wall to the portrait of his wife.

  Zephanie caught her breath suddenly, and turned round, almost fiercely. The tension in her whole body hardened her voice.

  ‘I asked you how long,’ she said. ‘How long am I going to live?’

  Francis looked back. Their eyes held for a long moment, then his dropped. He studied his hands intently for a few seconds, then he looked up again. With a curious kind of pedantry flattening any emotion out of his voice, he replied:

  ‘I estimate your expectation of life, my dear, at approximately two hundred and twenty years.’

  ∗

  In the pause that followed there was a knock at the door. Miss Birchett, Francis’s secretary, put her head in.

  ‘Miss Brackley on the line from London, sir. She says it’s important.’

  Francis nodded, and followed her out of the room, leaving his children staring after him.

  ‘Did he really mean that?’ Paul exclaimed.

  ‘Oh, Paul! Can you imagine Daddy saying a thing like that if he didn’t mean it?’

  ‘No, I suppose not. Me, too?’ he added in a bewildered way.

  ‘Of course. Only it’ll be a bit less for you,’ Zephanie told him.

  She walked over to one of the armchairs, and dropped down into it.

  ‘I don’t see how you got on to it so fast,’ Paul said, with a touch of suspicion.

 
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