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Like bindweed in the garden

By The Sea: Part II, Chapter 1

Henry Gee 15 July 2007

www.lablit.com/article/280

Perhaps that’s what drew them together: both refugees from the machined elegance of science

Editor's note: We are pleased to continue the weekly serialization of an original novel by Henry Gee, By The Sea. Set in present-day Norfolk, Gee blends science, murder, sex and Victorian secrets into a dark, gothic thriller.

Part II

Chapter 1

“Most unfortunate, Mr Willoughby, that she had to die like that. Most unfortunate.”

The speaker is a big, ruddy man like a butcher, with a mass of gingerish curls and extravagant side-whiskers. His sleeves are rolled up, his arms are big and beefy, and he spreads them wide in a massive gesture of the acceptance of life’s realities. In one hand he waves a large knife. It is dark with blood. His butcher’s apron, also, is more red than white, and words of Shakespeare come to Willoughby’s mind about seas incarnadine, about blood that would not cease its spread until it had covered the Earth. Fresh blood covers the bench between the two men completely, and runs in great washes down the sides. Blood, in fact, is this scene’s prevailing colour. Counterpointed, it must be said, by the whiteness of the corpse on the bloody bench, the corpse of a woman, bare to the waist. Willoughby, whose curiosity has always overcome squeamishness (perilously so, he now thinks), moves forwards to take a closer look, his boots now treading red prints from the splashes of blood on the floor.

Two, perfect arms lie to either side in a gesture of peace, or submission. Two, perfect breasts, nipples palest pink knots, lie symmetrical to each other, resting softly over the upper arms; the breasts are spread far more widely than is natural. It is only then that Willoughby can accommodate the most egregious fact of the corpse, that the ribs have been exposed and forced apart like clam shells, exposing the chest cavity. One cannot see the heart and lungs, though, as the cavity is now nothing more than a crucible for a flat sea of blood.

The woman’s face is covered.

“Sir Frideric, you have not tried…”

“Yes, Mr Willoughby, I had to. Her symptoms demanded more than simple physic. Sadly, I was unable to save her.”

Willoughby backs away from the blood and looks again at the corpse, as if it were one of Sir Frideric’s masterful taxidermic specimens. The skin is flawless. No sallowness that might indicate underlying malaise; no sign of pox; in fact, no blemishes whatsoever. He cannot imagine why such a person would need such strong medicine as surgery. But Sir Frideric’s reputation as the best surgeon in London has not been achieved by lack of boldness. He has long told Willoughby, the latest and keenest of his gentleman pupils, that the key to curing people is to understand the underlying causes of their ailments, not merely to assuage their symptoms with the potions of countrywomen. “Weed it out, Mr Willoughby, weed it out!” he had often bellowed. “Like bindweed in your gardens! Pulling off the flowers will not do while the plant still spreads underground, unseen.” To expose the unseen, said Sir Frideric, will occasionally mean surgery. And if the patient did not always recover, well...that was the risk one took.

Except that Sir Frideric has been taking greater risks of late. Risks that even his closest disciples, such as young Ralph Willoughby, are beginning to question, at least among themselves. But the husbands and fathers of some of Sir Frideric’s invariably wealthy, young and female patients have been less reticent. Matters are now coming to a head.

Sir Frideric drapes a sheet over the corpse as if it were no more than a sculpture of the same marble whiteness as its skin. The fabric sags into the open chest cavity and immediately takes up blood. Sir Frideric shrugs and looks up at his young acolyte, who has the high-coloured air of urgency.

“Well, Mr Willoughby, I trust this is more than a social call?”

“Yes, Sir Frideric, I’m afraid it is. It is, again, I regret to say, a matter of most pressing urgency, and...”

“If that’s the case, then, spit it out, man, spit it out!”

Willoughby shuffles his feet. His hands knot together. Sir Frideric is as intimidating as he is undoubtedly brilliant. Willoughby draws breath. In Sir Frideric’s rooms he is accustomed to breathing through his mouth. The odors that assail his nose are still very often too unpleasant to bear.

“Sir Frideric, you will remember the...um...exhibition you presented at your most recent open-house?” A ridiculous question, thinks Willoughby – Sir Frideric’s latest cabinet of the sports and fancies of nature, unveiled at the same Kensington mansion in whose cellar they now stand, had been the talk of the season. Sir Frideric, however, glows with the memory that Willoughby has disinterred. It had been a high point. Especially the mermaids: they were always a great success.

“Well, Sir Frideric, you will remember that a Mr Castle was there, whose daughter you had been treating, and who, sad to say...”

“Ah, the fair Marina,” interrupted Sir Frideric. Willoughby did not dare counter him before his master’s disquisition had come to a close. “She had quite plainly the earliest signs of consumption, you see, like our fair body laid here before us. Signs too faint to be seen by the inexperienced, but which nevertheless betoken rot to the lungs. Rot that simply must be removed by section, simply must: before the malady progresses further, because, by then, death is inevitable.”

“Yes, Sir Frideric, and I am sure that Mr Castle accepted this, but...”

“But what, man? But what?” Sir Frideric’s icily blue eyes show more than a flicker of impatience. He turns away and starts to gather his bloodied instruments, placing them in a metal bucket. Willoughby now feels as though he is a stand-in curate at the pulpit, preaching to a bored and disappointed congregation who had expected their regular and more charismatic minister. But having started, he can hardly stop now.

“Sir Frideric, it’s like this. Mr Castle was at your exhibition and saw your latest creations. He was struck by the similarity of...um...parts of one of your sports, with...with...oh, hang it all, it must be said: with parts of his late daughter. He is now putting it about that you did not return her entire body for Christian burial as you had said, but instead, you...you…”

Sir Frideric now looks up, his face darkened and serious. Willoughby, suffering from exertion brought on, no doubt, by this outburst before his master, as well as from more continual exposure to this house of death, feels light-headed, as if he were disembodied, floating, having shed an accumulated load which had started as a mere grain or two and had become insupportable.

“Oh my dear Willoughby,” says Sir Frideric. “Go upstairs and ring for some refreshment, there’s a good man. I think you need it.” Willoughby nods minutely and then turns to flee as if he had been stung.

Now left alone in this scene of carnage, it dawns on Sir Frideric, not for the first time, how pioneers on the frontiers of knowledge cannot expect complete understanding from people more generally. Look at Galileo; look at Socrates! The time might have arrived when he should take his ideas somewhere more secluded, where they should be less likely to cause such a fuss. Only then might the course of the advancement of knowledge run without hindrance.

**********

For the first time since she discovered Bland’s body, Alex Beach has returned to some measure of contentment. Sensing that she needed a gentle reintroduction to laboratory life after her shock, Garry Williams has taken her under his wing, offering her a space in his lab, next door to hers (‘a home from home’, he’d called it) where she could work alongside another warm body, and, if she wanted to, to do a little work for him. Nothing very exciting, running a few gels, mainly, but it would be company of a sort.

Garry thinks he’s hot on the trail of proteins expressed in hydroid polyps as they regenerate after injury. He thinks he’s on to something big. You know, Elixir of Eternal Youth stuff. Alex thinks he’s on a hiding to nothing, and tells him so.

“These proteins could be the consequences of regeneration – their by-products – and not what kicks the cells into division, differentiation.”

“Proximate or ultimate causes? Truth or consequences?”

“Yes, Garry. Or just some correlation. Nothing to do with regeneration at all. You know, I read...”

“About the storks, Alex?”

“Storks?” Alex is nonplussed.

She had been about to mention an immense, multi-authored microarray study showing that cells when they are dividing express just about every protein in the genome. As if the control of cell division is precisely what the genome is for. Division, and differentiation: development. The genome is that agency that guides a single cell so formless that it could be from any creature imaginable, into an adulthood unique to each species. It is not one single, selfish gene that is the guide to fate, but all of them, working together in seamless concert. Unweaving that concerto is still, even now, a task for very large research teams, funded by very large grants. Which is why, here, in a laboratory of one, Garry really hasn’t a hope. Alex suspects that Garry hasn’t quite got used to the implications of retirement, or exile, in that he no longer has that vast budget and teams of postdocs to do his bidding. Perhaps that’s what drew them together: both refugees from the machined elegance of science, unused to their new but more primitive circumstances. And it was just like Garry to bowl a curve-ball. Storks?

“Yeah. Canonical example of spurious correlation. That the birth rate of Germany goes up and down with the breeding success of the European stork. You never heard of that one?”

Alex laughs, and says no, she hasn’t.

“Well, the correlation has unbelievably high statistical significance. And a funny thing – nobody has ever done the obvious test on the availability of gooseberry bushes. I mean, do they even eat gooseberries in Germany?”

This time they both laugh. It is a tonic for her. That, and a return to lab-tech stuff, the kind of work she’d been used to, is like a holiday, a comfort after the frightening unknowns of carnostomids. But, she knows, she must return to these, sooner or later. Preferably sooner. Halfway across the lab to get some reagent or other, she pauses in mid-stride.

“Hey, Alex, you OK?”

She has just had one of those insights that makes the routine of scientific lab work worthwhile.

“Genome…”

“Huh? Hey, Alex, you look white as a ghost. Come on, let’s sit down.” Garry lopes off his perch on the other side of the bench from Alex and guides her to his own relaxation corner – somewhat like Alex’s own, next door.

“What’s up?”

“I could run some simple gels, of course. Just like I’m doing here. You know, I don’t know if anyone has ever done that. With...them.”

“Sorry, you lost me.”

Alex turns her head and looks straight into Garry’s eyes for the first time. Garry thinks he’s never seen anything so arrestingly beautiful, nor so highly charged. No – not with sex, not quite: but with something he’d say was higher. Beatific. Her eyes are huge and blue, streaked with gray, the pupils shrunk to points, luminous in a bone-white face. Her lips part in a kind of yearning.

“Garry, you couldn’t help me, could you? Please?”

“I’ll do what I can. But as I say, you lost me.”

Alex shakes her head as if twisting herself through some kind of foreign dimension and returning to reality. She laughs, her pupils dilate, and to Garry, just for a minute, it looks like this face could light up the Universe.

“Oh, Garry, I’m sorry. I was thinking of carnostomids. You know, those things from the Spaniel Expedition I’m working on. I don’t think I’ve seen any genomic work on them at all. No comparisons, no Hox genes or anything. I had been thinking of getting into that, ages ago, when I first started, but I got, you know...delayed. And now I am not really sure what kind of creature they are. Just before...before...well, I had this idea that they were larvae, and what with the kind of work we’re doing here with your hydroids, maybe, I thought...if you didn’t mind…”

“Larvae, huh? Cool. Sure, Alex. I’ll help you. Set you up. Show you what to do.”

He thinks he could sink into those eyes, to follow their fleeting changes of expression, from anxiety, to unbridled joy, and back to thoughtfulness, all helter-skelter in a matter of shavings of seconds. It is strange he’d never seen Alex so close-up before, but this evanescence of expression reminds him of the beating hearts of small birds, a romantic cliché which he imagines would make any man want to put his arm around her and protect her. No wonder Bland made such a fool of himself over her.

But there is, well, something that goes with the package. Their faces are close enough now that he can feel her breath on his face as they talk, and in the set of her eyes, her cheekbones, the angle of her face, he sees a haunted look. Driven, anxious, as if she is forever looking over her shoulder, ever on alert for some nameless pursuer. This anxiety has corrupted her otherwise flawless face, as if her image has been stamped with every age and condition of humanity, from girlhood to extreme old age. A kind of Turin shroud, as if something mysterious is trying to peek through; as if Alex’s face is a Western storefront onto our own, cartoon inexistence, a window on an older, harsher and more concrete reality that is altogether grimmer and grittier than our own, sanitized version.

For an instant he sees in her eyes the face of death, growling at him. He feels as if he’s been slapped, but before he can recoil, Alex grabs his hands in hers. Garry knows better than to respond too willingly to what is, after all, once he catches his breath and rights himself, a simple gesture of thanks.

A knock at the door is a jolt that makes them both sit up straight.

Alex turns and sees Morrison in the doorway, and lets Garry’s hands go as if they were hot plates fresh from the oven. Garry, caught out by Alex, is now wrong-footed by Morrison, who always looks ridiculously tiny when framed in a doorway. But Garry knows that his constant surprise at this – Morrison’s seeming smallness – is conditioned by his prior knowledge of the man himself. Morrison is as large as life. No, larger.

“Morrison.”

“Garry...Alex.” Morrison smiles like a tiger shark. “Sorry to break up the...er...conference.” The smile narrows, as do his eyes. “Alex? Might I have a word?” And Alex rises from the sofa and walks out of the lab without a backward glance. Garry sits there, gutted, and wondering.

**********

They are next door, in Alex’s own lab. Morrison has ushered her in, locking the door behind them with a snick, and now spreads himself well back on the sofa; arms, Jermyn-sleeved and Asprey-cuffed, flung across the seat backs, suit jacket wide to reveal red striped silk tie and a shirt front as white as a penguin’s. Without so much as a word, or even a movement, he makes it clear that Alex should sit down next to him. She perches, primly, as knotted as he is expansive, as tense as he seems relaxed.

Alex muses abstractedly that she never really knows what Morrison is thinking. The corollary of this is that she cannot know what he might say or do next. She had once thought this unnerving. In fact, she still does. But a rebellious part of her – or is it the enslaved part? She’s not sure – finds it obscurely thrilling. She now finds that the rebellious part of her is taking more of a hold, and has done so ever since Bland’s death, an event which seemed to damage the more cautious part of her beyond repair, so that it now ceases to care. As if Bland’s death were somehow both her own fault and also a harbinger of worse things, and that in face of a remorselessly oncoming doom she should just release herself from any kind of prior bondage while there is a world still to inhabit.

On a sudden she has the impression she is being spoken to. At first it seems from far away, but it is, in fact, closer: it is Morrison’s voice, speaking to her, against the background hum of the laboratory. But she can’t quite shake her head back to reality, as she had in Garry’s lab, whenever that was. No, her head feels like it’s encased in a warm blanket. Warm, soft, inviting, like the tartan rug her parents always kept in the car for long trips when she was a child. She wants to sleep. She has wanted to sleep for ages but all effort is thwarted by dreams, of Bland’s bulging, fish-dead eyes, Bland’s blood. The contrast with Bland’s big, groping hands like kelp, his old-man’s breath, when he at least acted like he was alive. She has not seen or talked to Morrison since Bland’s death, and, surprising though it may seem to the more cautious but rapidly crumbling part of herself, she knows that only Morrison can put it right, say the right things, grant her absolution. Of course, she always knew.

“Alex! Alex? Are you all right? There is no need to worry. I’m so sorry I haven’t had a chance to catch up with you, since...well, you know. I really am. I should have made more of an effort.”

And with that she knows that Morrison has broken the spell: or has replaced it with a new one. But who cares? She sags, as if all the springs holding her taut have been released at once, and collapses next to him, so that his right arm can rest on her shoulder. She folds herself in towards him and starts to cry.

“Morrison, I…”

“Hush now, Alex. Really. It’s not your fault. You’ve had a terrible shock. You have been all alone when I should have been with you, to help.” With his free left hand he strokes her hair. She sits up a little, shakes his left hand free, pulls the tears back in to her eyes and looks at him.

“It’s just, you know, not what I was expecting. What it would really be like, once it happened.”

“No, nor I.”

“Dr Bland...that he should be in the lab when I was. Why? He’s been chasing me for ages. I couldn’t get free of him. I hoped he’d just go away, leave me alone, but that he’d find me in the lab...at night...and be dead! I feel so awful. So guilty.”

“Guilty? But why?”

“Guilty that I’d wished it, and that it happened.”

“Well, don’t. And don’t worry about him being in the lab, Alex. How could he possibly have known you’d have been there?” He pauses: his voice takes on a more businesslike note, but still full of the warmth of reassurance. He allows her to come closer into his embrace. Her right hand meets his chest, just inside the left lapel of his jacket.

“I do have a reason for coming down here, Alex. It’s to reassure you that Dr Bland’s death can’t be seen as a casualty of your work, of mine, or of ours.” Briefly, Alex looks up into his eyes and sees an expression of distant worry. She has not seen that expression before.

“Ours?”

“Yes. Your work on carnostomids, and my...well...efforts to secure the future of this Institute, through MagusPharm. Your work on carnostomids is vital to that future, Alex, you can’t afford to be distracted. I should say that MagusPharm is impressed with your progress. Very impressed. And so am I.”

“Yes, Morrison...but sometimes I feel, you know, like it’s always back to square one. Like I am having to learn everything from the beginning. But, well…”

“Hmm?” His smile. Like a father. Like a confessor. Like a lover. She basks in it.

“I’ve got to admit it but...well, I am starting to enjoy myself. The discoveries...the possibilities...the...well, everything, really.” Her smile opens in submission, to mirror his.

“I know, Alex. I can see it. I always said, didn’t I? That you were the right person for this job. Someone who could see the problem with new eyes. And don’t worry any more about Bland – that’s an order!” They both laugh. “I know it sounds horrible, but now he’s out of your way, out of your hair…” He strokes her hair again, now. “You can make much greater progress, more easily. And if you need anything, I’m here to help.”

Her smile crumples, but there is a command in his body for it to revive, for her to straighten up, for her to approach him yet more closely still. She watches herself as his face moves in with the inevitability of a docking spaceship and they kiss.

The cautious part of her wants to scream that this is all wrong; that this is disgusting; that the tongue squirming around inside her mouth is a slime-hag that will burrow down into her guts and gnaw her alive from within; that the hands weaving around and over her breasts and thighs and hips, awakening her skin and senses, are morays about to strangle her, drag her down, rip her to shreds, body and soul.

But the cautious part of her is now in long retreat and is now visible only as a thin line in the far distance, like low tide on a muddy foreshore. Now the rebellious part of her is in the ascendant, and it is this part that propels her to try to loosen his tie and his shirt, an effort that soon peters out before Morrison’s more expeditious removal of her own clothes, so that she is now unclad and on the sofa beneath him, his teeth and lips in and around her throat like a burning necklace; the leatherette of the sofa pulling and sucking and stinging at her exposed shoulders and backside; his jacket rubbing her hardened nipples raw; the expensive wool of his trousers scraping the insides of her thighs as he moves inside her like a branding iron.