Gass stepped towards the window with the idea of resting his tired eyes for a moment. He looked down from this second storey into Havelock Crescent which was still busy, as busy as ever. Carriages passed at a brisk pace, gentlemen smoked and strolled, women crossed with purpose from grocer to butcher, children played with an excitement out of all proportion to their small achievement. It would be an interesting study to observe them, the children, from this eyrie and to codify the rules of their arcane games, games invented one day and forgotten the next, even by those who had invested some tearful passion in them. All this in silence, from the sanctuary of the Bacteriologist’s panelled laboratory.
Dr Wells spoke from behind him,
– I have prepared another slide. One I think you will find…attractive.
Gass decided to ignore Wells and yawned. The doctor’s voice sounded tired and bored and some boys were batting a hoop along the gutter with an enviable gusto. The tall boy, the leader, beat the wooden ring with his wand as he ran beside it, trailing smaller boys, in order of height almost, skimming the rim of the hurtling toy, keeping it upright and fast and all but out of control. Their delight was detectable even at this height, but attracted no attention from the passers-by. A woman with an empty string bag held in hands crossed at her waist, waited at the kerb for the boys to trot swiftly before her as she would have done if they had been a tram or a trio of horse guards. The tall boy slipped his rod inside the rim and skipped the hoop over his head and onto his shoulder for the return to their starting line, striding like a hero. A young hermit sat on his heels and whipped a top with sulky fury. Two girls held a thin rope slack between them which they might have used for skipping had a missing third girl been there. These people went their ways as though they were invisible to one another, some like ghosts, but which were the quick and which the dead it might not be possible to say.
– I think I would like to have another look, said Gass. That is, to look again.
Wells stepped back from the desk so that his guest could bend once more over the microscope. Gass was getting used to this, but his stance was unprofessional. He gave himself away when he raised one limp hand to cover the eye not pressed to the brass eye-piece. Gass reflected that this was a new thing; pressing one’s eye in this way to peer into a world very close and very small, reaching with one free hand to touch the tread of the focus wheel, even when there was no need to make an adjustment. Human beings had only just begun to make these gestures, which would, no doubt, soon become familiar. Progress.
– The cholera bacillus, said Wells. Should this germ escape into the water supply of the city, it would separate and multiply and decimate the metropolis.
– Wonderful, Gass replied.
Wells smiled. His guest was a pale man with lank black hair. Not a European type, strictly speaking. A Slav, perhaps, or a Tartar. As he leant over the microscope, his cheek fell into the shadow cast by the blind and his white complexion became quite blue, a great bruise. He had a very small but livid ulcer at the corner of his mouth, no more than a pinhead. Sporadically he licked that sore spot with a lizard tongue.
Gass rubbed his cheek. He could feel the bristles that had sprouted there since this morning. His face was a clock. Both men now moved and spoke in sleepy rhythms.
– This slide is of cholera killed and stained of course, Wells said. For observation. The living bacillus I keep in sealed tubes in that rack, unlabelled and unguarded. I feel no need to take precautions in my own laboratory.
Gass looked at the streaks and shreds of pink. Spun sugar. A shattered crystal, splintering into feathers. All that might remain of hundreds of thousands of Jurassic hummingbirds.
He straightened himself and stepped back to the window. He slipped his hand into his pocket and fingered the milled edge of the half sovereign he had there, as though he were focussing something in secret.
If you left the Crescent, Gass knew, you could walk up Haverstock Hill and into Camden Town High Street, among the teeming masses. Then, a striking woman, quite petite, self-possessed and with a floral wreath around her black hat like a matador’s just disappeared into the butcher’s shop. Wells’ wife? Minnie? I do not pity him, Gass thought. He allowed himself to imagine Mrs Wells standing in the shop inhaling that deathly smell of the slaughtered and the skinned. The air all around her buzzing with invisible flecks of blood, settling on her own fragrant flesh. Painted with it. When she spoke to give her order those spots would settle even on her tongue. Sting her there. Unseen certainly, but it must be so, for smell is nothing more than this unconscious ingestion of the tiniest particles. It must be so. Were she to be examined under a microscope, their discovery would be inevitable. What might she order, pointing at the hooked-up dead, craning over the proffered handful of plump sausages, the chops artfully cut, requesting that a ring of fat might be sliced away or left intact? And would Gass bear to eat it, taken from her hand, against his custom and his principle?
He knew that one should beware men with too much imagination, as one should those who had none, for different reasons.
It was a release to come to the window and test the pulse, the throb of human life again. Systole and diastole, even around the butcher’s shop. Gass found value in this human narrative, this frenetic restlessness, more than in Wells’ clockwork devices.
– Come aside, said Wells. Here is the live bacillus. Some more…activity. I should not…but your letter of introduction…such high authority…trust.
– Ah, look, said Gass. A mouse.
Wells pointedly wound his watch.
The wainscoting in the doctor’s wooden room soaked up light, but a grey mouse ran along it easily seen, its anxiety audible in the scratching of its claws across the boards. Gass smiled his asymmetric smile, an unsettling affair that in itself, until he saw the trap, baited with its wedge of Cheddar, cut with a careful housewife’s wire.
– I abhor cruelty. To animals, squeaked Gass. He was certain Wells was a vivisector.
– The trap is humane and, I fear, altogether useless. It’s snapped more fingers than mice.
Wells flexed his hand, letting his own soft fingers fold over one another and indeed that nervous grey creature had no regard for the cube of cheese pinned in the dreary mechanism. The mouse had an egg-shaped metallic patch behind its ear where its fur had been perhaps rubbed away. Gass’ eyes unusually acute now,
– What is that? That ribbed place? A note of accusation undisguised. It looks like a keyhole.
– It’s a tick, said Wells. The mouse cannot escape scot-free. We all pay some tithe.
The mouse stood still. Static and intense.
– Now even the mice will not make a move, said Wells, picking a thread from his velveteen sleeve.
– What if the mouse caught cholera? thought Gass.
Time dragged. The bowels of both men began to hang heavy. The clock chimed from the hall, that reminder, that acknowledgement, that they were both going to die. Gass may have wanted to tell Wells that that would be alright, a sentiment which Wells wanted most emphatically to convey to Gass. Enough really is enough.
Gass gaped at the papers on Wells’ desk.
– Your most recent work?
– Some observations. Observations are permanent, interpretation is ephemeral.
Gass could tell that Wells did not know what he was talking about.
– It is surprising, said Gass, how quickly things move into the past. Quite of their own accord. And the present stumbles into the future.
Wells looked as though he might be about to offer Gass some advice. Gass looked at him as though Wells had a bomb in his hands.
– Let us see this live bacillus then, doctor. Before it dies.
Once more the Bacteriologist stepped away from the lens and showed his guest the palm of one hand, while hiding a yawn with the back of the other. Gass bent his aching back and applied his weary eye.
What Gass saw now was the pullulating frenzy of life at the cellular level. He was horrified. Blanched and bled albinos with no use for colour or skin, hardly for a definition of self; aqueous spasming globules, a mouth joined to an anus with a jagged stitch of gut, a blind voracity, an infernal fusion of mindlessness and undeviating purpose. If there could be a music from this, this silent life, it would be a persistent ululation, torn by banshee squeals. The seizures and ecstasies of these obscene jellies, their lewd concupiscence. A palsied agitation. The poisonous stings, the probes, prongs, the ovipositors. The lashing of a tail that could be a tongue. The dream-like intimacy of these tear-shaped microbes, burrowing like moles but more senseless. This x-ray world, this fervid and transparent jungle. These were the real gods of forest, fire and water. This might be what Galileo had called, Gass thought, mistakenly, the dark soul of the world. Vive l’anarchie.
– What is this, are these, doctor? Some…order of…insects?
He heard Wells splutter, but he did not take his eye from this plunge into the depths five inches from his face.
Gass stared desperately. What refuge here for intelligence? What for beauty? He wondered how time might pass in a world where such energy, such dervish-like abandon had to be expended to move a minuscule body an unimaginably small distance.
– I was thinking, said Gass, still not looking up, what an extraordinary thing it would be if I were to die in your laboratory. Not that I am unwell, or anticipate dying anywhere, in the at all near future, but what a peculiar end to my life it would be, if it were indeed to end in surroundings so unfamiliar and to which I had never thought of coming until I dined with our friend. When I was a little boy, how could I have thought that my last living sights should have been these abominable visions. Such a bizarre ending, a totally unmotivated denouement.
Wells was nonplussed. These men were like two actors, accomplished, experienced, well-rehearsed, who had somehow wandered together onto the same stage prepared to perform different plays. Their powers of improvisation were tested. Wells simply began to speak.
– You think you are in a jam, so you had better just do something, anything. You think that it cannot possibly get worse. Can it not? What nonsense. Of course it can.
Gass was still thinking that this, the mercurial activity of the microbes too far beneath what might even be considered living, this mineral fury of little atomies, was the real secret of the world. This was how things really were. How futile to attempt to use words and ideas which we glean from life’s disguise, that life in which we ordinarily move from minute to minute, to describe that utter difference which lies beneath the world’s mask. If only he could intervene here, reach in front of himself and insert a long yellow nail between a pair of mandibles and arrest or divert this pulse, feel it thrum against him.
– Explanation becomes a habit. Wells was still talking, as though automatically. Unproven theories, unjustified speculation.
Even at the doors of her own home, Mrs Minnie Wells knocked with a tentative scratch of her fingernails. Her chores were her clock and they drove her.
– And is your wife a scientist too, Dr Wells?
– She does not consider all of this a study for a woman, sir.
Although Gass had never seen her before today, Minnie already seemed older to him now. She was paying the price that has to be paid for living this life. He allowed his tired eyes to come to rest upon her.
– I thought you gentlemen might care for tea and I have brought more sandwiches.
Gass stepped in front of the visibly annoyed Wells to take the tray from Minnie. He touched her moist hand quite deliberately as he did so and let that moment last. She looked at him in exhausted alarm. Wells could see nothing of his wife behind Gass’ broad back. He looked beyond the two of them into the hall where he could see the blue sparrow they had there, inexpertly stuffed, under a shining glass dome.
Gass noted the plates, decorated with painted children running round the edges, throwing and catching balls and bowling hoops and chasing little dogs forever in a circle. He would put them with the others.
– This is most thoughtful of you Minnie dear, said Wells. But I fear that Mr Gass has no time to spare in his busy itinerary. He must breakfast in Paris, perhaps.
Wells turned his back on Gass, who had moved over to the wooden test-tube rack where the phials of Asiatic cholera were carelessly lined up. They inclined their corked tops, sealed with wax, towards one another, as though conspiring. Wells made faces at his wife but succeeded in conveying nothing to that guileless woman.
– Mr Gass has an agenda, my dear. And of course, you know, he eats no flesh.
He turned now to Gass and saw the lank-haired anarchist munching seriously into a ham and cheese sandwich, a half-inch tongue-tip of greasy fat depending from a crunchy brown crust. Gass looked at the married couple greedily. He wiped a shiny moustache from his lip with the back of his other hand, in which he held a second sandwich.
Robert Stone was born in Wolverhampton. He works in a press-cuttings agency in London. He has been a teacher and the foreman of a London Underground station. He has had stories in 3:AM, Stand, Panurge, The Write Launch, Confingo, Eclectica, Punt Volat, HCE, The Decadent Review, Heirlock, Lunate, Main Street Rag, Clackamas and Wraparound South. Micro-stories have been published by 5×5, Third Wednesday, The Ocotillo Review, Star 82, deathcap and Clover & White. He had a story published in the Nightjar chapbook series. A story has been included in Salt’s Best British Stories 2020 volume.