Read an Excerpt
Friday the 15th October
The water in the metal tank slopped sideways and a treacly ripple ran along the edge, reached the corner and died away. Under the electric lights the broken surface was faceted as a cracked mirror, a watery harlequin’s coat of tilting planes and lozenges in movement, one moment dull as stone and the next glittering like scalpels. Here and there, where during the past two hours the water had been fouled, gilded streaks of urine and floating, spawn-like bubbles of saliva rocked more turgidly, in a way suggestive—if anyone present had been receptive to such suggestion—of an illusion that this was not water, but perhaps some thicker fluid, such as those concoctions of jam and stale beer which are hung up in glass jars to drown wasps, or the dark puddles splashed through by hooves and gum-boots on the concrete floors of Lakeland cattle sheds.
Mr. Powell, his note-pad ready in hand, leant across the flanged and overhanging edge of the tank, wiped his glasses on his sleeve and looked down the two or three feet to the contents below.
“I think it’s packing in, chief,” he said. “Oh, no, wait a jiffy.” He paused, drew back the cuff of his white coat to avoid another, though weak, splash and then bent over the water once more. “No, I was right first time—it is going. D’you want it out now?”
“When it definitely sinks and stops moving,” answered Dr. Boycott, without looking up from the papers on the table. Although there was in the room no draught or air movement whatever, he had placed the two graphs and the log sheet on top of one another and was using the heavy stop-watch as a paperweight to ensure that they remained where he intended them to remain. “I thought I’d made it clear the other day,” he added, in a level, polite tone, “what the precise moment of removal should be.”
“But you don’t want it to drown, do you?” asked Mr. Powell, a shade of anxiety creeping into his voice. “If it—”
“No!” interjected Dr. Boycott quickly, as though to check him before he could say more. “It’s nothing to do with want,” he went on after a moment. “It’s not intended to drown—not this time anyway; and I think probably not the next time either—depending on results, of course.”
There were further sounds of splashing from inside the tank, but faint, like metallic echoes, rather as though a ghost were trying, but failing, to come down and trouble the waters (and indeed, as far as the occupant was concerned, any sort of miracle, being unscientific, was entirely out of the question). Then a choking, bubbling sound was followed by silence, in which the rasping call of a carrion crow came clearly from the fell outside.
Mr. Powell stood up, walked across the concrete floor and took down a shepherd’s crook which was hanging on a peg. Sitting down once more on the edge of the tank, he began unthinkingly to tap with the butt of the crook the rhythm of a current popular song.
“Er—please, Stephen,” said Dr. Boycott, with a faint smile.
The large mongrel dog in the tank was continuing to struggle with its front paws, but so feebly now that its body, from neck to rump, hung almost vertically in the water. The spaniel-like ears were outspread, floating on either side of the head like wings, but the eyes were submerged and only the black, delicately lyrated nose broke the surface. As Mr. Powell watched, this too went under, rose again for an instant and then sank. The body, foreshortened by refraction as it descended, seemed to move sideways from its former floating position, finally appearing on the bottom of the tank as an almost flattened mass and disturbing round its sides, as it settled, little clouds of dirty silt. Dr. Boycott clicked the stop-watch. Mr. Powell, looking quickly back to see whether he had noticed the silt (for his chief was particular about the cleanliness of equipment), made a mental note to insist to Tyson, the caretaker and head-keeper, that the tank should be emptied and cleaned tomorrow. Then, allowing for the refraction with the skill of a certain amount of practice, he plunged in the crook, engaged the dog’s collar and began to drag it to the surface. After a moment, however, he faltered, dropped the crook and stood up, wincing, while the body subsided once more to the floor of the tank.
“Christ, it’s heavy,” he said. “Oh, no, chief, I don’t mean it’s any heavier than usual, of course, only I pulled a muscle in my wrist last night and it’s been giving me a spot of gyppo. Never mind, never say die, here goes.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Boycott. “Let me help you. I wouldn’t want you to suffer avoidably.”
Together they pulled on the crook, raised the heavy, pelt-sodden body head-first, broke the surface tension with a concerted heave and laid the inert dog on a foam-rubber mattress beside the tank. Here it resembled an enormous, drowned fly—very black, with a compressed shape something like that of a raindrop; and smaller than life, on account of a kind of collapse of the limbs and other excrescences into the central mass of the trunk. Mr. Powell began resuscitation; and after a little the dog vomited water and commenced to gasp, though its eyes remained closed.
“Right, that’ll do,” said Dr. Boycott briskly. “Now the usual tests, please, Stephen—pulse, blood sample, body temperature, reflexes—the various things we’ve been working on—and then plot the graphs. I’ll be back in about twenty minutes. I’m just going over to the Christiaan Barnard block to learn what I can about this afternoon’s brain surgery work. And please don’t smoke while I’m gone,” he added, mildly but firmly. “You’ll appreciate that that could have an effect on results.”
“All right to put its muzzle on, chief?” asked Mr. Powell. “Only this one, seven-three-two, ’s been known to be a right sod at times and it might come round enough to start in on me—sudden-like, you know.”
“Yes, there’s no objection to that,” replied Dr. Boycott, picking up the stop-watch.
“And the time, chief?” enquired Mr. Powell in a rather sycophantic tone, as though the time were likely to be something to Dr. Boycott’s personal credit.
“Two hours, twenty minutes, fifty-three and two fifths seconds,” answered Dr. Boycott. “Without looking at the papers, I think that’s about six and a half minutes longer than Wednesday’s test and about twelve minutes longer than the test before that. It’s rather remarkable how regular the increase appears to be. At this rate the graph will work out as a straight incline, although obviously we must reach a diminution somewhere. There must come a point where the additional endurance induced by the dog’s expectation of removal is counterbalanced by the limits of its physical capacity.”
He paused for a moment and then said, “Now, there’s another thing I’d like you to see to, please. I forgot to mention it this morning, but Cambridge are anxious for us to go ahead at once with the social deprivation experiment. We have a monkey set aside for that, haven’t we?”
“Yeah, I’m pretty certain we have,” replied Mr. Powell.
“I thought you told me we definitely had?” Dr. Boycott’s voice was a shade sharper.
“Yes, that’s right,” said Mr. Powell hastily. “We have.”
“Good. Well, it can go into the cylinder this evening. Now you’re sure that that cylinder excludes all light?”
“Yep. No light, restricted movement, adequate ventilation, wire mesh floor, faeces and urine fall through. It’s all checked.”
“Right, well, start it off, keep it under twice daily observation and, of course, mark the particulars up in a log. The total number of days should be kept up to date day by day, on a slate beside the cylinder. That’s a matter of courtesy to the Director. He’ll probably want to see it.”
“Where’s it to be kept, chief?” asked Mr. Powell.
“It doesn’t matter, as long as it’s somewhere where you can readily keep an eye on it,” answered Dr. Boycott. “I suggest, near where you normally work, as long as it’s not anywhere near any other animals. There should be silence, as far as possible, and no organic smells, of course. That’s part of the deprivation, you understand.”
“How about the balance-cupboard in Lab. 4, chief?” asked Mr. Powell. “Plenty of space in there at the moment and quiet as the grave.”
“Yes, that’ll do,” said Dr. Boycott. “Don’t forget to tell Tyson about feeding, and keep me informed how it goes on. We’ll aim at—well, say—er—forty-five days.”
“Is that the lot, chief?”
“Yes,” said Dr. Boycott, with his hand on the door. “But since it seems necessary to mention it, you’d better see that this tank’s cleaned out. There’s silt on the bottom which shouldn’t be there.”
It was only after a considerable administrative and political battle that the site for Animal Research, Surgical and Experimental (A.R.S.E.), had been approved at Lawson Park, a former fell farm on the east side of Coniston Water. As a Departmental project the scheme had, of course, attracted deemed planning permission, but following Circular 100 consultation both the County Council and the Lakeland National Park Planning Board had objected to it so strongly that the responsible Under Secretary at the Department of the Environment (having, no doubt, a vivid mental picture of himself in the chair at any confrontation discussions that might be arranged to try to resolve the matter in Whitehall) had taken very little time to decide that in all the circumstances a public local inquiry would be the most appropriate course. The inquiry had lasted for two weeks and at various times during the proceedings the Inspector (who in his private hours indulged a taste for seventeenth-century English history) had found himself wishing that, like that Mr. Bradshaw who presided at the so-called trial of King Charles I, he had been provided with a bullet-proof hat. The deputy county clerk had cross-examined the Ministry experts with brilliant penetration on the precise extent of the urgency and need to site yet another Government project in a national park. The Secretary of the Countryside Commission, subpoenaed by the Planning Board, had been virtually compelled to give evidence against the Department into which he was hoping to be promoted to Under Secretary. The Council for the Protection of Rural England had greatly assisted the case in favour of the project by testifying with passionate emotion that nobody ought to be allowed to build anything anywhere any more. A Mr. Finward, a retired merchant naval officer, who occupied a cottage on the fell not far from the site, had threatened the Inspector with bodily injury unless he undertook to report against the proposal. And a Mr. Prancebody, who testified amongst other things that he had discovered the truth of the British Israelite theory while exploring the Derbyshire caves, had read in evidence most of a sixty-three-page submission, before the long-suffering Inspector had ruled it to be irrelevant and inadmissible and Mr. Prancebody, violently objecting, had been somewhat eponymously removed by the police. There was, in fact, scarcely a dull moment throughout the proceedings. Of particular interest had been the evidence of the R.S.P.C.A., who were emphatic that they favoured the scheme, on the grounds that the experiments and surgery would redound to the benefit of animals in general.
After the inquiry the Inspector, pressed by the Deputy Secretary of the Department to complete his publishable report as quickly as possible (regardless of whatever length of time he might need to make a good job of it), had recommended against planning approval for the site at Lawson Park and consequently against the compulsory purchase order on the property. The Secretary of State, the Right Hon. William Harbottle (known to his Departmental civil servants as “Hot Bottle Bill” on account of his chronically cold feet), had succeeded in getting the matter up to Cabinet Committee, following which a decision to approve against the Inspector’s recommendation had been traded with the Home Secretary and the Minister of Labour, sub rosa, for agreement to a new open prison in Worcestershire, the head of the Chief Alkali Inspector on a charger and the tail of a young lady named Miss Mandy Pryce-Morgan, who was currently dispensing her favours to certain of the Front Bench.
Upon the announcement of the Secretary of State’s decision, public reaction had been generally adverse. Under fire, Hot Bottle Bill had stood his ground like a good ’un, manfully ensuring that the Parliamentary attacks were invariably answered by one of his junior colleagues, Mr. Basil Forbes (otherwise known as Errol the Peril, on account of his unpredictable imprudence). Eventually brought to bay by Mr. Bernard Bugwash, Q.C., the Member for Lakeland Central, he had, on the night, brilliantly contrived to be unavoidably absent and Errol the Peril had spoken for six minutes flat. The next morning a much better stick with which to beat the Government had appeared in the form of the report of the Sablon Committee, which recommended that more public money ought to be spent on medical research. Since the Government, keen to reduce public expenditure, were reluctant to accept this recommendation, the Opposition had naturally supported it: and since support for Sablon was virtually incompatible with any further attack on the Lawson Park decision, it was generally conceded that Hot Bottle Bill had contrived to survive yet another cliff-hanging instalment of his career. Lawson Park passed into Government hands; and the celebrated firm of architects, Sir Conham Goode, Son and Howe, were commissioned to design the buildings.
It was generally agreed that these blended very well into their surroundings—the open hillside and oak copses, the darker patches of pine and larch, the dry stone walls, small green fields and knife-bright, cloud-reflecting lake below. Sir Conham had retained the old farmhouse and outbuildings, converting them into a luncheon room, common room and offices for the resident staff. Local stone and slate had been used to face and roof the laboratories, the Christiaan Barnard surgical wing and the stables, while for the livestock block Lord Plynlimmon, the well-known photographer and aviary expert, had been co-opted to design a single, large building, comprising under one roof more than twenty various sheds and rooms equipped with cages. The establishment had been opened on midsummer day, in pouring Lakeland rain, by Baroness Hilary Blunt, the former all-time high in Permanent Secretaries, and the flow of letters to The Times had trickled, faltered and finally ceased.
“And now,” said the newly appointed Director to Dr. Boycott, as the first consignments of dogs, guinea-pigs, rats and rabbits came rolling up the smooth, steeply gradiented tarmac in the station’s three distinctively painted blue vans, “now let’s hope we’ll be left in peace to get on with some useful work. There’s been a lot too much emotion spent on this place so far, and not enough scientific detachment.”