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Authors: Anthony Burgess

The Wanting Seed

BOOK: The Wanting Seed
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THE
WANTING
SEED

Anthony Burgess

W · W · NORTON & COMPANY

New York · London

Part One

One

T
HIS
was the day before the night when the knives of official disappointment struck.

Beatrice-Joanna Foxe snuffled a bereaved mother’s grief as the little corpse, in its yellow plastic casket, was handed over to the two men from the Ministry of Agriculture (Phosphorus Reclamation Department). They were cheerful creatures, coal-faced and with shining dentures, and one of them sang a song which had recently become popular. Much burbled on the television by epicene willowy youths, it sounded incongruous coming from this virile West Indian deep bass throat. Macabre, too.

‘My adorable Fred:

He’s so, so sweet,

From the crown of his head

To the soles of his feet.

He’s my meat.’

The name of the tiny cadaver had been not Fred but Roger. Beatrice-Joanna sobbed, but the man went on singing, having no feeling of his business, custom having made it in him a property of easiness.

‘There we are, then,’ said Dr Acheson heartily, a fat gelding of an Anglo-Saxon. ‘Another dollop of phosphorus
pentoxide for dear old Mother Earth. Rather less than half a kilo, I’d say. Still, every little helps.’ The singer had now become a whistler. Whistling, he nodded, handing over a receipt. ‘And if you’ll just step into my office, Mrs Foxe,’ smiled Dr Acheson, ‘I’ll give you your copy of the death certificate. Take it to the Ministry of Infertility, and they’ll pay you your condolence. In cash.’

‘All I want,’ she sniffed, ‘is my son back again.’

‘You’ll get over that,’ said Dr Acheson cheerfully. ‘Everyone does.’ He watched benevolently the two black men carry the casket down the corridor towards the lift. Twenty-one storeys below, their van waited. ‘And think,’ he added. ‘Think of this in national terms, in global terms. One mouth less to feed. One more half-kilo of phosphorus pentoxide to nourish the earth. In a sense, you know, Mrs Foxe, you’ll be getting your son back again.’ He led the way into his tiny office. ‘Ah, Miss Herschhorn,’ he said to his secretary, ‘the death certificate, please.’ Miss Herschhorn, a Teutonico-Chinese, rapidly quacked the details into her audiograph; a printed card slid out of a slot; Dr Acheson stamped his signature – flowing, womanly. ‘There you are, Mrs Foxe,’ he said. ‘And do try to see all this rationally.’

‘What I do see,’ she said with asperity, ‘is that you could have saved him if you’d wanted to. But you didn’t think it was worth while. One more mouth to feed, more useful to the State as phosphorus. Oh, you’re all so heartless.’ She cried again. Miss Herschhorn, a plain thin girl with dog’s eyes and very lank straight black hair, made a
moue
at Dr Acheson. They were, apparently, used to this sort of thing.

‘He was in a very bad way,’ said Dr Acheson gently.

‘We did our best, Dognose we did. But that sort of meningeal infection just gallops, you know, just gallops. Besides,’ he said reproachfully, ‘you didn’t bring him to us early enough.’

‘I know, I know. I blame myself.’ Her tiny nosewipe was soaked. ‘But I think he could have been saved. And my husband thinks the same. But you just don’t seem to care about human life any more. Any of you. Oh, my poor boy.’

‘We do care about human life,’ said Dr Acheson, stern. ‘We care about stability. We care about not letting the earth get overrun. We care about everybody getting enough to eat. I think,’ he said, more kindly, ‘you ought to go straight home and rest. Show that certificate to the Dispensary on the way out and ask them to give you a couple of pacifiers. There, there.’ He patted her on the shoulder. ‘You must try to be sensible. Try to be modern. An intelligent woman like you. Leave motherhood to the lower orders, as nature intended. Now, of course,’ he smiled, ‘according to the rules, that’s what you’re supposed to do. You’ve had your recommended ration. No more motherhood for you. Try to stop feeling like a mother.’ He patted her again and then turned a pat into a slap of finality, saying, ‘Now, if you’ll forgive me –’

‘Never,’ said Beatrice-Joanna. ‘I’ll never forgive you, any of you.’

‘Good afternoon, Mrs Foxe.’ Miss Herschhorn had switched on a tiny speech-machine; this was reciting-in the manic tone of a synthetic voice – Dr Acheson’s afternoon appointments. Dr Acheson’s fat rump was turned rudely to Beatrice-Joanna. It was all over: her
son on his way to be resolved into phosphorus pentoxide, she just a damned snivelling nuisance. She held her head up and marched into the corridor, marched towards the lift. She was a handsome woman of twenty-nine, handsome in the old way, a way no longer approved in a woman of her class. The straight graceless waistless black dress could not disguise the moving opulence of her haunches, nor could the splendid curve of her bosom be altogether flattened by its constraining bodice. Her cider-coloured hair was worn, according to the fashion, straight and fringed; her face was dusted with plain white powder; she wore no perfume, perfume being for men only – still, and despite the natural pallor of her grief, she seemed to glow and flame with health and, what was to be disapproved strongly, the threat of fecundity. There was something atavistic in Beatrice-Joanna: she instinctively shuddered now at the sight of two white-coated women radiographers who, leaving their department at the other end of the corridor, sauntered towards the lift, smiling fondly at each other, gazing into each other’s eyes, fingers intertwined. That sort of thing was now encouraged – anything to divert sex from its natural end – and all over the country b1ared posters put out by the Ministry of Infertility, showing, in ironical nursery colours, an embracing pair of one sex or the other with the legend
It’s Sapiens to be Homo
. The Homosex Institute even ran night-classes.

Beatrice-Joanna looked with distaste, entering the lift, on the embracing giggling pair. The two women, both Caucasian types, were classically complementary – fluffy kitten answered stocky bullfrog. Beatrice-Joanna nearly retched, her back to the kissing. At the fifteenth floor
the lift picked up a foppish steatopygous young man, stylish in well-cut jacket without lapels, tight calf-length trousers, flowery round-necked shirt. He turned sharp eyes of distaste on the two lovers, moving his shoulders pettishly, pouting with equal disgust at the full womanly presence of Beatrice-Joanna. He began, with swift expert strokes, to make up his face, simpering, as his lips kissed the lipstick, at his reflection in the lift-mirror. The lovers giggled at him, or at Beatrice-Joanna. ‘What a world,’ she thought, as they dropped. But, she reconsidered, glancing covertly but more keenly at him, perhaps this was a clever façade. Perhaps he, like her brother-in-law Derek, her lover Derek, was perpetually acting a public part, owing his position, his chance of promotion, to the gross lie. But, she couldn’t help thinking yet again, having thought this often, there must be something fundamentally unsound about a man who could even act like that. She herself, she was sure, could never pretend, never go through the soggy motions of inverted love, even if her life depended on it. The world was mad; where would it all end? As the lift reached groundlevel she tucked her handbag under her arm, held her head high again and prepared to plunge bravely into the mad world outside. For some reason the lift-doors refused to open (‘Really,’ tutted the big-bottomed exquisite, shaking them) and, in that instant of automatic fear of being trapped, her sick imagination converted the lift-cabin into a yellow casket full of potential phosphorus pentoxide. ‘Oh,’ she sobbed quietly, ‘poor little boy.’

‘Really.’ The young dandy, bright with cyclamen lipstick, twittered at her tears. The lift-doors unjammed
and opened. A poster on the vestibule wall showed a pair of male friends embracing.
Love your Fellow-Men
, ran the legend. The female friends giggled at Beatrice-Joanna. ‘To hell with you,’ she said, wiping her eyes, ‘to hell with the lot of you. You’re unclean, that’s what you are, unclean.’ The young man swayed, tut-tutted, undulated off. The bullfrog lesbian held protective arms round her friend, hostile eyes on Beatrice-Joanna. ‘I’ll give her unclean,’ she said hoarsely. ‘I’ll rub her face in the dirt, that’s what I’ll do.’ ‘Oh, Freda,’ adored the other, ‘you’re so brave.’

Two

W
HILE
Beatrice-Joanna was going down, her husband Tristram Foxe was ascending. He was humming up to the thirty-second floor of the South London (Channel) Unitary School (Boys) Division Four. A sixty-strong Fifth Form (Stream 10) awaited him. He was to give a lesson in Modern History. On the rear wall of the lift, half-hidden by the bulk of Jordan, an art-master, was a map of Great Britain, a new one, a new school issue. Interesting. Greater London, bounded by sea to south and east, had eaten further into Northern Province and Western Province: the new northern limit was a line running from Lowestoft to Birmingham; to the west the boundary dropped from Birmingham to Bournemouth. Intending migrants from the Provinces to Greater London had, it was said, no need to move; they merely
had to wait. The Provinces themselves still showed their ancient county divisions, but, owing to diaspora, immigration and miscegenation, the old national designations of ‘Wales’ and ‘Scotland’ no longer had any precise significance.

Beck, who taught mathematics to the junior forms, was saying to Jordan, ‘They ought to wipe out one or the other. Compromise, that’s always been our trouble, the liberal vice of compromise. Seven septs to a guinea, ten tanners to a crown, eight tosheroons to a quid. The poor young devils don’t know where they are. We can’t bear to throw anything away, that’s our big national sin –’ Tristram got off, leaving old bald Beck to continue his invective. He marched to the Fifth Form classroom, entered, blinked at his boys. May light shone from the seaward window on their blank faces, on the blank walls. He started his lesson.

‘– The gradual subsumption of the two main opposing political ideologies under essentially theologico-mythical concepts.’ Tristram was not a good teacher. He went too fast for his pupils, used words they found hard to spell, tended to mumble. Obediently the class tried to take down his words in their notebooks. ‘Pelagianism,’ he said, ‘was once known as a heresy. It was even called the British Heresy. Can anybody tell me Pelagius’s other name?’

BOOK: The Wanting Seed
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