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Copyright ©Francis James Gladstone April 2019

Penicillium: the opening:

 With extreme pharmacology, you extend life and thereby steal death from the gods ---  Bill Rutland, American journalist and originator of the Planet Technopolitana idea.

 

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Was old man Edwards awake? Or were these flashes in his mind dreams? November 1945! Flash! Like flash news cameras. War over! Atom bombs! Demobilization! President Truman already in trouble. At the very personal level his son Gareth was home and alive. A new drug called penicillin had saved his life. Progress…

            As to his shoulder, there was no doubt he still had acute pain – nerves bones, everything had been shattered by the enemy shrapnel – Belgium a terrible winter ago -- and you heard him nights. Progress? Such pain for a life saving chemical. His description of the pain of the injections for this penicillin defied reason. And yet it happened. The chemical saved his life. The senior doc had said about the woman.

            Which woman? Gareth’s voice had trailed off.

            His son shrugged and turned away. ‘Not like that, Dad,’ he said later. ‘The doc said ‘she changed’… Changed what?

            ‘Changed this chemical?’

            No answer.

            Wake, man!. The eastbound train is coming The Baby Ben alarm clock was clanging and he put his hand out to stop it. Ed Senior was the stationman at the little high settlement of Alderson, West Virginia. With war labor shortages he had carried on working past retirement. He'd stop soon now.

            He slept nights on the bench in the stationman’s hut, set the alarm for each freight, mainly taking coal to fuel the east, then the night passenger trains, the Cardinal sleepers  -- Sleep Like A Bird, was the slogan, which was all right if you could afford a berth. The Cardinal ran in a big U, Chicago, Indianapolis, south into Kentucky, then east crossing the mountains, linking smaller towns, his stop at Alderson and then White Sulphur Springs where the late great President Roosevelt went for the cure and had died, down the Appalachians into Virginia and then north to Washington with connections to New York City.

            The Edwards had come here from Wales later in the nineteenth century when most of the good land had gone, scratched a living, were free of English landlords and built their own chapels. After a year of grim service in France in the World War, Ed was promoted to driving the Cardinal and big coal freights and mixed freights.

            Progress. Progress had brought another war and progress had brought the railroads to a point where they were struggling for passengers. Progress had produced bigger highways, more cars, passenger air travel. Ed had liked the column called – what was it? Technopolitana, questioned progress. He opened the stove with the asbestos glove and put in more coal. Bill Rutland's Technopolitana column.

            There was a dark side to this Planet Technopolitiana the fellow Rutland had written, and a light side. Progress wasn’t all crazy and bad.

            Well, he was wrapped up and outside in the dark, the lights down the platform showing lazily falling snow flakes. It was dead still and just above freezing, snow  just beginning to settle. Peacetime Christmas soon. With their younger boy. With their war wounded younger boy. He checked the control box as he had done many hundred times before. He heard the sound of the river. If there was a big snow and then a melt, it became silent as the spate of water ran right over the rocks. Certainly the forecast was for more snow.

            He had his flags with him and tried to be still. He found it hard. He never forgot the iridescent star shells that lit up the whole battlefield when he was in France, 1918, nor the nail biting wait of earlier this year when they found Gareth's wounds had been surgically operated on -- twelve operations and then the hard-to-bear injections of this stuff penicillin.

            Now his brain kept seeing the flashes of urgent newsmen’s cameras. He kept wondering what the post war world would be like. America on top? Or reverting back into itself like the 1920s?

            Flash! Empires rise. Empires fall. America up. Progress, science, technology, atom splitting, plastics. You read about it in LIFE and NOW!     

            Television…Advertising…Packaged food.. electric refrigerators in many homes, steak for dinner, steak for breakfast, cars for all. He hoped Gareth's ideas to start his own electrical contracting business would work. He hoped to base it on contract work for the prison.

            Nothing moved. He took his big railway issued watch from his waistcoat pocket. 5.07. Four to go.  Part of progress was that the federal government had built a prison for women here, in this mountainous country, provided some jobs as farms went out of production, part of progress, and gave the little settlement a nasty reputation. People wouldn’t stay in the hotel here because it accommodated the families of the gal prisoners.

            The idea was to put the errant girls in a rural setting. They lived in houses called ‘cottages’ and learned crafts and the like and the place had no fence. Those few who tried to get away only got so far. This was wild and high country.

            And there was nothing like it, the river, the smells of the woods, hunting, the sound of hymns bursting from the full up little chapels.

            Then he picked up the first, far-away wail of the train's siren. This sounded at each of the many small road crossings up the river valley.

            He also saw a green station wagon draw up, the prison car. Its engine was running, lazy driver wasting gasoline…. and the snow seemed heavier in its headlights.

            They'd be collecting a new intake. Scenes by about-to-be-incarcerated women happened sometimes, the station their last free place in the outside. Such scenes upset him. He took out his fob watch again. The Cardinal would be one minute, maybe two, late.

            Then it was on them, the ten coach eastbound. The first of two Baldwin engines was on him,  vast, black and marvelous, snow swirling in its searchlight. This train was the lifeblood of Ed's imagination. Even after all the years of railroad work he loved the thrill of this sight, movement, smoke, steam, the silver of pistons, smell of hot oil. The two black and stainless steel engines were slowing and belching steam, old cars rattling to a stop. With railway precision, the conductors opened their doors, lowering their steps. Ed was in his usual position, midway down the train.

            'We've got one,' a voice said to him. He recognized the man, one of the big Evans family, also Welsh, drove the green station wagon. Evans was there, swearing which was against the laws of God and banging his gloved hands together. Running the engine, wasting gasoline as if it was cold tap water. 'Bloody damn cold, Ed. Say nine inches.' So one more bad and wretched gal was being taken into federal government custody.

            No, not bad. Ed’s wife, Doris Edwards, always said most of the few women are in jail because of the violence or sloth of men.

            The train was stopped, the two steam engines hissing as if with relief that this part of the climb over the high Appalachians was done, passengers getting down, federal marshals with the wretched gal for custody. Ed helps the trainman take some parcels, car tires and a heavy piece of what must be farm equipment, put them onto two four wheel carts, put the tarps over them, won’t blow in this still air. Deal with the prisoner, never a nice task and then make sure the carts are properly covered before they are collected or distributed by truck.

            Then he saw her between her guards. They were waiting to come forward. There were two federal marshals and one was a woman. And the prisoner was a young woman. They were leading her towards him. Whew! What had this one been up to? She was slim,  had elegant carriage, no thrust in her walk like cheap gals. She and her two guards were some way up the train. She was taller than her guards, must be near six foot.

            Five other passengers alighted. The gal was still coming towards him, led by the guards. She wore a plain overcoat. It fell without a belt, was good quality. She had a scarf round her neck and another covering most of her face. Her hands were manacled in front of her.

            Ungloved they looked cold and bare, expressed how much a captive she was.

            Ed Edwards knew the procedure, see the passengers were all right, then get the train moving again. He had to sign as independent witness to the transfer.

            The alighting passengers dispersed and had no big baggage. He signaled for the train to go, and directed the three, young woman and two guards to the awning by the hut where there was light and he could sign the transfer. Quickly the train moved on.

            'Mr. Edwards?' the girl marshal asked, shivering. Ed Edwards showed his C and O ID card.

            The Fed, the gal had the clip board, also the prisoner's documentation. This was odd. It was a foreign passport, British. Nathalie Joanna Armstrong, married.

            Ed looked at her.

            She had big eyes that looked at him. What was such a respectable woman doing here? Narcotics? Girl of the night, high class?

In the lamplight he noticed she had tiny freckles on her nose and cheeks… Born September 1914, London, England. So…So just thirty one.

            Ed signed in his neat and legible copper plate hand.

            He handed the clip board back.

            Then the girl who was  tall and gaunt and drawn caught his eye and her small mouth just moved. She smiled at him. She had a sparrow smile.

            Then  that rough Evans came forward and took her by the arm, pushed her forward. She stumbled. Of course, her hands were manacled in front of her. Evans opened the door of the station wagon and pushed her in so that she stumbled again, forward. Ouch! She must have banged her shins on the running board, unable to control herself with her hands cuffed.

            ‘OK, Edwards… we’ll get some sleep’. The two federal marshals would stay the night in the hotel here and go back in twenty two hours when the west bound train next came in. ‘Espionage act if you want to know. Stealing our secrets.’

            Espionage?

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            The bastard driving her had pushed her and she was just quick enough with her manacled hands that she had fallen forward and managed not to bruise her shins. She was, for the second time in her life, in the prison car going up the hill. Too much had gone wrong. Only six weeks ago she had been in Stockholm where the Nobel Prize had been given for work on penicillin. She had been meant to meet with Wessler the man who ran her and with her husband. Only she had discovered that she had been chased there by the British who also wished to imprison her, or worse.

            She had run, only to run into the arms of the American law.

            Only wait! In the last part of the actual European war and in the summer after, she had worked at an American military hospital outside Paris. There had been a honey coloured stone building on the edge of the town of Montfort L’Amuray and alongside it those Type A huts. Even in the prison car in the snow she could see it, hands manacled. The hospital had been on the edge of the hardwood French forest and where the hospital ward huts had been there were redundant ambulances lined up, US army ambulances. Each had many stories. Gradually the huts had gone and the patients had gone home, stateside, as they said. She had stayed on, going through records for the penicillin study.

            She said she could take refuge in the cold, paper records, in which each wounded man was given a number rather than a name. She was not sure she could ever take refuge from herself, from the pain and destruction and mud and blood she had seen. And now! She is trapped. Yet….among the last patients had been a horribly injured man whose repair was a combination of surgical miracle and multiple doses of penicillin. Crusty old General – doc and general – Mylon  Braithwaite had said to this man, with her on the ward round, ‘this gal saved your live, Edwards.’

            Almost no one recognized that she was the pivot on which the introduction of penicillin to American military medicine swung.

            ‘Where are you from, Edwards?’ she asked him a couple of days later, before his discharge. She had worked so much inside penicillin for so long that it was hard to remember that it was a medical miracle. Edwards would walk from his bed, go stateside and be an electrician again. Indeed she was it. She wasn’t very important in all this. She was important.

            ‘Small town, Lieutenant,’ Gareth Edwards said, ‘Alderson, West Virginia. Not got too nice a reputation. Prison for gals there. Bad uns.’

            ‘It’s on the railroad, right, goes through the Appalatians? I once was on that train.’

            ‘Hope you didn’t stop,’ he said. ‘My Dad’s on the railroad,’ he said. ‘Used to drive express trains. Now the stationman. Prison for gals. Not your type Liut!’

            Here they were, car stopping at the prison reception. Edwards had to be here somewhere.

            In fact it was too good to be true. He had prison work, a program to help veterans. She had saved his life, or helped to.

            In January 1946, he reciprocated. Nathalie Armstrong disappeared for ever.

 

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Nathalie Joanna Armstrong who would be twenty four tomorrow, on September 28 1938 sat cross legged on a hard chair,  pondering.

            She liked to think she could think her way our of most things, or into them. Or when into them, out of them. She was wearing stockings which were new and American nylon and a short slip instead of a brassiere. She should be getting dressed and doing her hair, although it was short and did not take much doing.

            Thanks to him. Brushing it across, she thought, made her long face less ‘horsey’.

            The wicker seated chair she sat in, not smoking, not doing anything but thinking, tapping her head and nodding, was in the sparse but comfortable guest room for servants in the house of Belinda and Bernard Lowenstein in Highgate Village in the very north of London. The Lowensteins had been her patrons. Belinda who was born American and the daughter of a diplomatic family in Paris who hid their Jewish origins to work for the US government had come to Cambridge university, virtually as a child, aged sixteen, graduated top in mathematics, been unable to work in math because of being a girl, declared Jewish faith, broke with her family and married Bernard who was head of the London branch of the sprawling Lowenstein bank.

            Belinda devoted her life to helping girls get into science and Nathalie was a beneficiary. Now she had graduated from Cambridge university herself. On top of that she had completed the work for a doctorate in the new subject of biochemistry. Girls did not get the actual degree. Anyway, biochemistry.

            Which was going to change the world, she added when she said the word ‘biochemistry’, added not in parentheses ( ) or as a footnote 1, as a headline. BIOCHEMISTRY IS CHANGING THE WORLD.

            And you will be part of it.

            Well… that might not be any longer true.

            Something had gone badly wrong.

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            Light fell across her summer bronzed shoulders and arms, light from the small window. She liked the freckles on her skin and face, as if God scattered them as a small bonus. It had rained hard and the light was now pale. Her slip was rayon and just off white, had vertical pleats running up it. The tiny freckles became more pronounced in summer. It was September now, September 27, 1938. The rest of the simply furnished room was, in contrast to the shaft of light, dark.

            She did not move except clenching her fists, her face and shoulders, that is she did not stand or even smoke a cigarette. She just sat knowing she should be dressed fully. She thought. Then she held the left ankle crossed on her right thigh in her two hands. Sprawling at desks or pulling on her hair or limbs helped her think. She said that, without physiological proof. It could be: tension helps, she thought. It was almost sure that walking pushed blood to the brain. Why not this tightening?

            The idea of hormonal control of the body’s functions was at the heart of what she was about. She knew the chemistry of ‘butterflies’, of adrenaline, who discovered it, its formula and when it had been synthesized. Her PhD had been to do with the chemical mechanism by which an enzyme on the snake bite transmitted to an enzyme controlling the rhythm of breathing in the victim – well, shut it down. This exact tracing of chemical cause and effect had not been hers. She had done some important tests on the molecules concerned. She had worked under the émigré biochemist, Ernst Chain who had been shut out of his Berlin lab in 1933, found refuge if not security in the UK, worked at Cambridge, now was at Oxford, and wanted her to work with him on the potential of the mould Penicillium Notatum.

            How could you pass up such an opportunity? A good question with a bad undertoe. Because you could not. Did not make sense. She was going to. Or not to.

            She pulled the ankle. It was OK. Or, it was going to be OK.

            Having had help with the Lowensteins in catching up to get into Cambridge – she was a war orphan and had been educated in a grammar school in south London…having had that help, she had become somewhat of a Lowenstein confidante, at least to Bernard, and a family friend. In the summer months they gave receptions and chamber music concerts, usually accompanied by dinners in a marquee that extended their already large musical room. There were the menus, wines and there were guest lists, seating arrangements, flowers, Kosher meals, tent to hire, caterer’s staff, needing to keep them apart from the Bernstein’s terrifying cook, Mrs. Segal, printed invitations, Mrs. B who looked like a swan gliding in toga like coats, had a temper like a sea squall… Nathalie came in as a secretary.

            She was tall and slim and intensely pretty. She knew that. Ever since she could remember when she was four or five, when she came into rooms, people looked. It was an asset and it was a problem and her goal was to steer to being effective professionally, find a way past the open doors that invited females of the late 1930s to be silly, domesticated or bluestocking in a sterile way.

            The actual sensible, good looking working woman was a true rarity – not unknown, far from common.

            Because Belinda Bernstein had wanted to be a professional mathematician and because he, Bernard who was handsome in a dashing and dark way… because he suffered from rejection from his obese wife’s bed since the birth of their two boys, Nathalie had become his trusted confidante.

            That is why it is going to be OK, tonight. Just go on thinking.

For a start, she was OK in this house. Because she was well presented as a person, she acted, during the events as a go-between, moved among the guests yet was there as a servant to troubleshoot and organize.

            Tonight there was to be such a reception.

            Only this was different. Normally she wore a black dress that was a simple shirtwaist of glazed cotton. She could look the servant and mix with guests. The black signaled that she was there to facilitate. The men all wore black. None of the women unless they were in mourning, certainly not in this busty, sheeny late 1930s period. Nor these women who, Bernard, who laughed with her said were ‘well heeled’ – the point of the guests was to raise money. Well-arsed, she whispered to herself.

            She laughed a lot. And she liked to think she laughed at herself, or could do so. Her mother who was Swiss was overtly grave and hurt by life, and so were almost all women scientists, all of the few. Nathalie had two things. She made funny faces, no three – she imitated people and lecturers well and she was taller than most of the men. She was especially tall like her father who had died horribly at the end of the Great War. She had picked up the nickname ‘moorhen’. She was half an inch from six foot and she said, in the way she had of self-deprecating she would teach girls science, wear ugly hats and call herself Miss Beanpole. ‘Moorhen’ was the one that caught because it was not what she was. And yet, it was.

            Instead of being tall, and fair, moorhens, members of the rail family, were short and squat and they pecked around in dark places. Well, she did peck around in dark places, although she was not short, dark or squat. Information was life. Thinking and making connections. Making sense of gossip and discarded ideas. Scientists could be pompous and fashion counted for a lot in a world said to objective. Peck around. Turn over the discarded.

            The other part of the joke was that Moorhen was the species name. There was no Moorcock, just Mr. Moorhen. The girl was on top.

            Was this girl on top? Three months ago she had married. She had been, daringly and dangerously for both of them, his lover for a year before that. It had started when she seduced him. She was twenty two and he was a professor of history at Oxford university and an author of travel memoirs and he had been forty six. She had thought of it first as an adventure. She found out, from nosing around in Belinda Bernstein’s private papers, about a woman doctor who would ‘fix up’ young women. Even if not married.

            Before she seduced David Armstrong, she had been a celibate. Something had happened to her with a man when she was seventeen.

            Bernard knew. Bernard had the secret pictures of her. Conversely she knew and had taken money to the woman he made love to in Golder’s Green, across north London. Bernard Lowenstein was fifty five and she now twenty four. They meshed in these confidences and a sense you could find a way round marital troubles.

            Which is what she, so soon, had. THE MAN, the unbearably nice and supporting and beautiful man, had another woman. Only don’t say it is awful. Say it has happened. Say you don’t want to have children yet – the British Prime Minister has today come back from Munich saying there will be peace with Hitler – this while The Times shows pictures of air raid shelters being built in a London park, soldiers at an anti-aircraft battery, news the Navy is on full alert. Peace indeed.

            Appeasement to the right wing of  the Tory party who would not mind a more Hitler-styled government.

            If she puts her left toe in her mouth, then she can really think. Bite on it. Life is about finding truth, yet life is also about managing half truth, which you could call lies. She does not want to work with Ernst Chain on Penicillium – getting the extract known as ‘penicillin’ has gone nowhere in ten years since Dr. Fleming discovered it. Doctors Raistrick and Clutterbuck worked on it for a time in London University, one an expert on moulds, the other a biochemist. Nothing. And the ‘job’ she has been offered in the Dunn Lab in Oxford with Chain is not a position, just an offer to use his lab space and help, unpaid. His proper assistant, paid and contracted, is a man. This offer is a slight to her. There is another thing: while you have to be good to be selected for a PhD, let alone get one, as with playing the violin, you can be very good indeed and still not have that extra flair that makes you soloist material. Same with biochemistry, imagining complex molecules needs a level of math and a level of hunch she lacks.

            She has thought herself out of Oxford, or part time out.

            Her father died at the end of the Great War, having fought all through it. She has been told by Professor Sir Gowland Hopkins, like Bernard an older man she does not threaten yet amuses and does indefatigable work for on his archive, told she can make connections others don’t see, not at the atomic level, at the ideas level. Relations with B L, Bernard Lowenstein, are such you don’t need to tell him that much. Say, in memory of your father’s war service,  you would like to find work in London, to do with a government lab, secretarial or research, three days and two night a week. The man can have the revolting rich Mrs. Pillains with her flat chest three days a week. And you will be elsewhere.

            It is not what you intended, moorhen. Then nor have other things been. B L says there might be gossip: you have only been married three months. Then you have made that face at him which involves shaking your head from side to side like a sort of dance and smiling. ‘You are impossible, Mrs. Armstrong.’

            Now he says a man wants to look at her. Like a filly at a horse auction? ‘Dress your best and bring your husband.’

            So it is to be. Don’t ask questions. And THE MAN who understands so much about her and whose tight friend she is in spite of their age gap…the man has red fabric, a satin with a slight sheen. ‘Don’t dress up. Just do it.’ She does not normally wear red, and he has taught her that the more muted her colors the more effective she looks. Not ‘pretty’ – effective. The red dress, a version of the black dress, simple shirtwaist is there on the hanger.

 

 
 

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