Trouble with lichen, p.7
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       Trouble With Lichen, p.7

           John Wyndham
 
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  ‘I’m afraid so, Daddy. And he has got a point, you know. Besides, he’s scared stiff of the way it would take her if she were to find out that he had known, and not told her.’

  ‘Then, what?’ asked Francis.

  ‘I imagine she’ll come to you, wanting lichenin treatment for herself. I don’t imagine she’ll blurt it out – not yet.’

  Francis’s only comment was a slow nod. After a little silence, Zephanie added:

  ‘Daddy. Before I go, I’d like to know a little more about it, and what it’s going to mean to me, please…’

  5

  Zephanie stepped out of the lift looking down into her bag, and fumbling for the key of her flat. A large figure rose from a severe-looking chair, which was intended rather to take the bareness off the landing than to be actually sat upon. He confronted her as she approached her door. Her expression shifted from abstraction, through recognition and recollection, to dismay, in one swift move.

  ‘Oh, dear!’ she said, inadequately.

  ‘Oh dear, indeed,’ replied the young man, grimly. ‘Practically one hour ago I was to call for you. And I did.’

  ‘I’m terribly sorry, Richard. I am really…’

  ‘But you just happened to forget all about it.’

  ‘Oh, I didn’t, Richard – at least, I remembered this morning. But there’s been such a lot since then. It – well, it went out of my mind.’

  ‘Indeed,’ Richard Treverne said again. He stood there, a tall, rather fair, burly young man, looking at her carefully, somewhat mollified by the genuineness of her confusion. ‘Such a lot of what?’ he inquired.

  ‘Family things,’ Zephanie explained vaguely. She put a hand on his lapel. ‘Please don’t be angry, Richard. I couldn’t help it. I had to go down home suddenly. It was one of those things. I’m terribly sorry…’ She hunted in her bag again, and found the key. ‘Come in and sit down. Give me just ten minutes to bath and change, and I’ll be ready.’

  He grunted as he followed her in.

  ‘Ten minutes’ll make it just about five minutes after the curtain has gone up. If it is ten minutes.’

  She paused, looking at him uncertainly.

  ‘Oh, Richard. Would you mind dreadfully if we didn’t? Couldn’t we just go and have dinner somewhere quiet? I know it’s piggish of me, but I couldn’t enjoy the theatre tonight…. Perhaps if you ring them up they’ll be able to get rid of the seats….’

  He regarded her a little more attentively.

  ‘Family rows? Someone died?’ he inquired.

  She shook her head.

  ‘Just a bit of a shock. It’ll pass – if you’ll help to make it pass, Richard.’

  ‘All right,’ he agreed. ‘I’ll ring them. No need to worry, then – except that I’m getting hungry.’

  She put her hand on his sleeve, and lifted her face for a kiss. ‘Darling Richard,’ she said, and made off towards her bedroom.

  After this poorish start, the evening did not recover well. Zephanie tried artificial aid to lighten it. She had two martinis before they left the flat, and another two at the restaurant. Finding these ineffective she insisted that nothing but a fizzy wine would restore her spirits – which, though in a way that troubled Richard, it appeared to do, for a time. At the end of the meal her demands for a double brandy were so insistent that he overrode his judgement and ordered it. With that, the wine mood collapsed. She became weepy, and sniffed, and demanded more brandy. At his refusal, she felt miserably hard done by, and appealed tearfully to the charity of the head-waiter, who presently helped to manoeuvre her protestant departure with impressive tact.

  Back at the flat, Richard helped her out of her coat, and stowed her in a corner of the sitting-room sofa where she curled up, weeping gently to herself. He went along to the little kitchen, and set a kettle to boil. Presently he returned with a jug of strong, black coffee.

  ‘Go on. The whole cup,’ he told her as she paused.

  ‘No. You mustn’t bully, Richard.’

  ‘Yes,’ he insisted, and stood over her until she finished it.

  Then she leant back into the corner of the sofa again. The weeping had finished, leaving her face remarkably unravaged. Eyes still bright, their rims a little pink, but the rest had cleared without trace, as a child’s face can. And indeed, he thought, gazing at her, that was what it was: a child’s face. It was difficult to believe, as she sat there twisting her handkerchief and disconsolately avoiding his eyes, that she was more than seventeen.

  ‘Now then,’ he said warmly. ‘What’s it all about? What’s the trouble?’

  She shook her head, without replying.

  ‘Don’t be an ass,’ he told her kindly. ‘People like you don’t go and get tight deliberately for no reason. And people who make a habit of it need a lot more than you’ve had.’

  ‘Richard! Are you saying I’m tight?’ she demanded, with an attempt at dignity.

  ‘Yes. And you are. Drink another cup of this coffee,’ he told her.

  ‘No!’

  ‘Yes,’ he insisted.

  Sulkily she drank half.

  ‘Now, let’s have it,’ he said.

  ‘No. It’s a secret,’ said Zephanie.

  ‘To hell with that. I can keep secrets. How can I help you if I don’t know what the trouble is?’

  ‘Can’t help me. Nobody can help. ’S a secret,’ she said.

  ‘It often helps just to talk about things,’ Richard told her.

  She looked at him, long, and fairly steadily. Her eyes glistened, brimmed, and began to overflow again.

  ‘Oh, God!’ said Richard. He hesitated, then moved across and sat down beside her on the sofa. He took her hand.

  ‘Look, Zeph, darling,’ he told her, ‘things often seem the wrong size when you’re up against them all by yourself. Let’s have it out, whatever it is, and see what we can do. This way of going on isn’t you at all, Zephie.’

  She clung to his hand, and the tears trickled down.

  ‘I’m f-frightened, Richard. I don’t want it. I don’t want it.’

  ‘You don’t want what?’ he asked blankly, looking at her helplessly.

  She shook her head.

  Suddenly his whole attitude stiffened. He stared at her bleakly for some moments, then:

  ‘Oh!’ he said very flatly. After a pause he added:

  ‘And you only knew today?’

  ‘This morning,’ she told him. ‘But I didn’t really – well, I mean, it just seemed sort of exciting at first.’

  ‘Oh,’ he said again.

  There was a silence which stretched out for almost a minute. Then he turned suddenly, and took her by the shoulders.

  ‘Oh, God, Zephie… Oh, Zeph darling… Why couldn’t you wait for me?’

  Zephanie looked back at him, bemused, and still woeful.

  ‘Richard, darling,’ she said, mournfully.

  ‘Who was it?’ he demanded fiercely. ‘Just tell me who it was and I’ll – I’ll… Who did it?’

  ‘Why, Daddy, of course,’ Zephanie said. ‘He meant it for the best,’ she added, loyally.

  Richard’s jaw dropped. His arms, too. For a moment or two he looked as if he had been hit on the head by a mallet. He needed an appreciable time to rally. At last:

  ‘We don’t appear to be thinking about the same thing,’ he remarked with grim restraint. ‘Let’s get it clear. What is this whatever-it-is that you so passionately don’t want?’

  ‘Oh, Richard, don’t be unkind,’ she said, miserably.

  ‘Damn it, I’m not being unkind. I’ve had a shock, too. Now I just want to know what the hell we’re talking about, that’s all.’

  She stared at him, not quite focused.

  ‘Why, about me, of course. About me, and going on and on and on. Jus’ think of it, Richard. Everybody getting old and tired and dying, and jus’ me going on and on and on, all alone, on and on and on. It doesn’t seem exciting now, Richard, I’m frightened. I want to die like other people. Not on and on – jus
love and live and grow old and die. That’s all I want to do.’ She ended, with the tears flowing fast again.

  Richard regarded her attentively.

  ‘Now you’ve reached the morbid stage,’ he said.

  ‘It is morbid – just going on and on and on. Very morbid,’ she asserted.

  He told her firmly:

  ‘That’s enough of this on and on nonsense, Zeph. It’s time you packed it in, and got to bed. Try consoling yourself by thinking of the sadder side – “In the morning it is green and groweth up: but in the evening it is cut down, dried up, and withered.” For my part I prefer a bit of on and on, and leaving the drying up and withering as long as possible.’

  ‘But two hundred years is too much on and on and on, I think. Such a long, long way to go all alone, all alone. Two hundred years is –’ She stopped abruptly, looking at him wide-eyed. ‘Oh dear! shouldn’t have said that. You mus’ forget it, Richard. ‘S a secret. Most important secret, Richard.’

  ‘All right, Zephie, dear. It’s safe with me. Now you get along to bed.’

  ‘Can’t. You help me there, Richard.’

  He picked her up, carried her to the bedroom, and laid her on the bed. Her arms clinched firmly round his neck.

  ‘You stay,’ she said. ‘Stay with me. Please, Richard.’

  He struggled to detach the arms.

  ‘You’re tight, darling. Just you relax and go to sleep. You’ll be all right in the morning.’

  Tears came again.

  ‘But I’m so lonely, Richard. I’m frightened. All alone. You’ll be dead, everybody dead – ’cept me, going on and on and on.’

  Richard succeeded in disentangling himself. He put her arms down firmly. She turned her head, and wept into her pillow. He stood for a moment at the bedside, then he bent down and kissed her gently below her ear.

  Leaving the door of her room a little ajar, he went back to the sitting-room and lit a cigarette. Even before it was finished, the sound of sobs had ebbed, and then ceased. He gave her a few minutes more before he tiptoed back. The sound of her breathing did not falter as he switched off the light.

  He closed her door softly, collected his hat and coat, and let himself out of the flat.

  ∗

  Telling Jane turned out to be less simple than Paul had thought. To start with, he had forgotten that they were invited that evening to a cocktail party by which she set some store. His late arrival home was met with chilly reproof; his suggestion that they should skip the party was curtly rejected. Then the party itself, with the unsatisfying support of something called a fork-supper, lasted all the evening. A final snack at home with which they supplemented the deficiencies of the fork-supper did not offer the ideal occasion for an announcement of major importance. So he decided to wait until they were in bed. But Jane snuggled down with the air of one determined to sleep. Paul turned out the light. He toyed for a moment with the idea of making his announcement into the darkness, but then, out of experience, thought better of it. While he was still not quite decided, her breathing became regular, and that settled the matter. Revelation must be postponed until next day.

  Jane’s character had been worked upon by forces and circumstances which had barely touched the Saxovers, and the most important of these was financial stress, for, while in the Saxover family money was a by-product which seemed to increase almost of itself, the concern of her own family for as long as she could remember had been the rate at which it dwindled.

  Her father, Colonel Parton, regular army, retired, held a small estate in Cumberland; the kind of estate that had been pared away piece by piece until the little of it that remained could now well be in its last generation as a family seat. The Colonel’s only son, Henry, by a former marriage, was a presentable and, indeed, popular young man. There had been hopes that he might marry well, but he had dashed these by espousing the rector’s daughter, thus disposing of the last chance that he might become a scion capable of beating the fiscal vultures off his father’s corpse.

  Reluctantly facing this fact, the Colonel had transferred his final hopes to his daughter, for, even now, it is not impossible for a dutiful daughter, capably instructed in the hard facts of life, to prove an asset. And if she shows aptitude it is worth raising some capital to back her – might just as well take the chance, anyway: no good trying to save, with the Chancellor of the Exchequer waiting there at the end of the line like a figure of doom. So the capital had been invested in an expensive school, a Paris finishing, a London season, and had culminated, after several rather more glamorous frustrations, in marriage to Paul.

  Though Jane was not exactly what Francis would have wished for his son, and it could scarcely fail to occur to him that the Saxover prospects had played some part in her decision, he recalled earlier possibilities that would have pleased him less, and put a good face on it. As well as looks, Jane had assurance. Her manner and appearance were precisely those expected of a young woman in her stratum. Her social instincts were well developed, her sense of taboo was reliable, and she had a proper respect for all of the Commandments that were currently in good standing. There could be little doubt of her capacity to be a most presentable wife, and a capable manager. Also, she knew what she was doing, and where she intended to go – and that, with certain reservations, was to the good, Francis felt. Certainly a clinger would not have been suitable for Paul.

  Nevertheless, Paul had been right when he said that neither his father nor his sister liked Jane. Both had tried. Francis was prepared to go on trying, but Zephanie had given up.

  ‘I’m sorry, Daddy,’ she had admitted to Francis. ‘I’ve done my best, but she and I don’t seem to live in the same world, or see the same things at all. She doesn’t think about anything – she’s sort of programmed, like a computer. There’s a conditioned response system. She hears, and then acceptance, rejection, and reaction drums go click-click-click, and the answer comes out sort of codified, just exactly right for people who use the same code.’

  ‘Isn’t that a little intolerant?’ Francis had suggested. ‘After all, aren’t we all rather like that if we consider ourselves honestly?’

  ‘To some degree,’ Zephanie admitted. ‘Only some people seem to be rigged always to pay the house – like fruit machines.’

  Francis had rested a speculative eye on his daughter.

  ‘I think perhaps we had better drop this analogy,’ he said. ‘But I trust that we shall do our best to preserve a civilized relationship in the family.’

  ‘Of course,’ Zephanie agreed, and then added as an afterthought: ‘Though that’s really just it – “civilized” is one of those words that she decodes quite differently from you and me.’

  Thereafter, Zephanie had followed a course of measured disengagement from her sister-in-law’s society, which suited both parties.

  And that, Paul thought, as he reconsidered his approach, wasn’t going to make Jane’s reception of the news any kindlier.

  Morning was not, he realized, the ideal time to broach the subject. On the other hand, they were going out again that evening, so he would be in the same position tomorrow, and he was aware that the longer he delayed, the stronger Jane’s position would be. In the end, he decided in favour of the direct move: over his second cup of coffee he came straight at it.

  There is no conventional reply provided for a young woman whose husband tells her across the breakfast table, and in a rather explosive way, that he expects to live for two hundred years.

  What Jane Saxover did do was, first, to stare at him blankly, then, to rally her faculties in order to examine his countenance more carefully. Much of it was hidden by beard, but it is chiefly the eyes that are important at such times. She sought in them a poached look, off-colour whites, a clenching of the surrounding muscles, and found none of these things. Negative evidence, however, was not enough; a wife naturally feels easier when an aberration can be ascribed to a traditional cause, and the more hackneyed the cause, the happier. Even the fact that she had
not noticed anything amiss the previous night was hopefully disregarded. She affected not to have heard properly, giving him an opportunity to reconsider his announcement, without loss of face on either side.

  ‘Well,’ she said consideringly, ‘expectation of life has increased a lot in the last fifty years. Perhaps living to a hundred won’t be anything very remarkable in another generation or so.’

  It is frustrating to have one’s dramatic swipe parried by a cushion. Paul replied irritably.

  ‘I didn’t say a hundred years,’ he told her. ‘I said two hundred years.’

  She inspected him again.

  ‘Paul, are you feeling quite well? I did warn you not to mix them last night. It never agrees with you –’

  Paul’s customary consideration lapsed.

  ‘Oh God, the banality of women!’ he exclaimed. ‘I drove you home, didn’t I? Haven’t you got two bits of imagination to rub together?’

  Jane started to get up from the table.

  ‘If you are going to be abusive –’

  ‘Sit down!’ he snapped at her. ‘And stop giving me standard reactions and standard phrases. Sit down, and listen. What I’ve got to tell you affects you.’

  Jane was aware that by the unwritten handbook of strategy and tactics this was the moment when withdrawal would leave the opposing forces in a state of bafflement and deteriorating morale. On the other hand, Paul did look genuinely anxious about something, and was unlike his usual self, so she hesitated.

  When he shouted ‘Sit down’ again, she did so, more from surprise than from anything else.

  ‘Now,’ said Paul, ‘if you will listen, and suspend the series of reflex discounts for a while, you’ll find that what I have to say is of considerable importance.’

  Jane listened. At the end of it, she said:

  ‘But Paul, you really can’t expect me to believe this. It’s fantastic. Your father must be joking.’

  Paul’s fingers tensed. He glared at her in a quite alarming way, then he relaxed.

  ‘Evidently they were right,’ he said wearily. ‘I’d have done better not to mention it.’

  ‘Who were right?’

 
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