Weston, near Runcorn, Cheshire, England, Jan. 2000
The knock at the door was totally unexpected. Albert Braithwaite looked at his wife questioningly but didn’t yet feel the need to expend unnecessary energy in actually speaking. She shook her head. “I can’t imagine who that could be at this time of the morning.” She moved towards the window. Out of long habit, she was going to pull back the net curtain to vet the respectability of the visitor before opening the door. Then she remembered that her husband was home with her now, and she changed direction. She pulled open the new Mahogany door with pride at its heavy, yet smooth movement and admired again, out of the corner of her eye, its natural, grained finish and leaded, double-glazed panel. Only the slightest tinge of guilt reminded her that one really ought not to be supporting the use of hardwood for this purpose. But the nice man from the firm that sold it to them had assured them that more trees were being planted than were cut down. And it did look so much smarter than this new UPVC stuff.
Three men were standing there, none of whom she recognized. Their demeanor might have resembled that of mourners at a funeral, she thought with amusement, had their front garden been a graveyard. The two older men were dressed in dark suits and she vaguely thought she had seen the one on the left somewhere before, in the local newspaper perhaps; earnest, thin graying hair and moustache. The other was also important-looking, used to responsibility and exercising authority but less reassuring, an air of condescension about him. The third was dressed in smart but casual trousers and sweatshirt, also wearing trainers as opposed to the polished black shoes of the others. His left hand rested on the handle of a trolley, similar to but looking much more expensive than the sort that was once used by railway porters for moving suitcases around; on it were two very large and somehow foreboding, aluminum cases. It was also transporting a machine whose purpose she could not imagine. It had a protective plastic cover, although the weather hardly seemed to justify it, so that the details were obscured but a wealth of buttons and dials suggested something impressively technical.
“Mrs. Braithwaite?” asked the earnest looking one.
She nodded, curious but with a hint of nervous anticipation beginning to mar the experience.
“I’m Peter Greenfield, Runcorn Council,” he turned the statement into a question, as though guessing that she might have already recognized him. Although she was still unable to place where she had seen him before, the name, too, seemed familiar. “This is Mr. Drew, Safety Executive Manager from ICI and Stuart Rolands, one of their science officers. I wonder if we might come in for a few minutes?”
Albert, who had been out of sight but nevertheless eavesdropping on this interchange, moved into the doorway. “Ok Fran, I’ll deal with this. What is it you want?” he asked, looking the visitors over with considerable suspicion. “We never buy anything from door-to-door salesmen.”
“It’s official business concerning the plant,” said, Drew, clearly believing that the phrase conveyed all the necessary information and authorization. “It really would be better if you allowed us to come in and explain everything. Here’s my identification.” He handed a plastic coated photograph to Albert, who examined it carefully. It corroborated the details and the photo was a recognizable likeness of the man in front of him, albeit clearly taken quite a number of years earlier.
“Right, well that seems to be in order,” said Albert handing back the pass, although the notion did pass fleetingly through his mind that anyone could have one of these made quite easily. “I suppose you’d better come in then.”
Drew and the Councilor followed them into the house, leaving Rolands to maneuver the trolley with some difficulty over the step. Fran looked back with concern, worried that the door might be scratched. “Does that thing have to come in, too?” she asked. “What is it anyway?”
“We will explain, Mrs. Braithwaite,” Greenfield attempted to reassure her. “Perhaps you would both like to sit down first.”
The couple looked at each other with dawning trepidation. This was all beginning to sound too much like someone bearing bad news.
“I expect you knew that there were once quarries a couple of hundred yards beyond your back garden, began Drew, “and that ICI used these to bury factory waste until the early nineteen seventies?”
“Well, actually, no we didn’t,” answered Albert, clearly somewhat taken aback at this revelation. We only moved into the village six months ago and no one told us anything about it when we bought the house. I mean we knew there was a chemical factory here obviously – you can’t really miss it can you – but what do you mean by ‘factory waste’ exactly?”
“It all began a long time ago. There’s been a site here for the last eighty years. In the early days they weren’t very good at keeping records. It was mostly rubble, lime and general industrial waste but we know that some more dangerous chemicals were disposed of. Of course it was all covered up a long time ago so ought not to be a problem.” He paused to clear his throat, as though he had only just realized that the very fact that they were here now implied that there might well be a problem. “It’s just that we wanted to be absolutely sure so, about six months ago, we began taking some samples from around the area and analyzing them. We wanted to show that there was no danger from any leaks or contamination.
“Anyway, to come to the point, we’ve recently found traces of a gas that we hadn’t expected and we want to check all of the houses in the area just to reassure ourselves, and you of course,” he added quickly, “that there is nothing to worry about.”
“What gas? You mean like coal gas?” asked Fran. “I remember once, when I was little, there was a leak of coal gas in our street. New Years Eve, it was. Policemen came round in the middle of the night to wake everyone up and ask them to go and stay with relatives. It seems that all of the people in the two end houses had been found dead; been gassed in their beds, they had.”
“No, nothing like that, Mrs. Braithwaite. This is a gas that has been formed as a result of the decomposition of the material that was dumped in the quarry. It’s called hexachloro-1,3-butadiene, HCBD for short. The quantities are only very tiny; nobody’s going to be gassed in their beds I can assure you!” He might have looked up at the others at this point with a short laugh to break the tension but, significantly, he didn’t.
“It’s obviously something to worry about though, isn’t it?” asked Albert. “Otherwise you wouldn’t be coming round here without any warning with that thing, whatever it is. So what is it?”
Drew seemed unsure whether he was being asked about the gas or the analyzing equipment so chose the latter as the easier option. “Well, we take some samples of air from the rooms on the ground floor, in the corners away from the doors and drafts. We then feed them into this machine, which is called a gas chromatograph. It analyses all of the gases in the sample and produces a graph on the screen. From that we can measure the amount of HCBD in the air.”
“I suppose you’d better get on with it, then,” said Albert, with obvious reluctance. Drew nodded to Rolands, who immediately set to work uncovering his machine and looking around for a suitable location and power socket.
“Would you like some tea?” asked Fran, being from the generation that was ever conscious of such social responsibilities and equally convinced of the restorative power of tea for any emotional or physical upset. In reality, it was simply something to do to take one’s mind off the problem in hand, if only for a moment, and give providence an opportunity to bring forth a miraculous solution.
“No, that’s quite alright,” answered Greenfield, to Fran’s obvious disappointment, “it won’t take us very long. And we have to visit all of the other houses in the village too,” he added, clearly without much enthusiasm.
Rolands opened one of the aluminum cases, somewhat deeper than a typical brief case, and took out two black plastic objects, each about six inches by four and two or three inches deep. Protruding from one end of each was a clear plastic tube that divided into two, each branch then terminating in rubber tubing sealed with a spring clip. He gave one of the boxes to Drew, who indicated he would go into the kitchen to take a sample there. Rolands bent down in the far corner of the room, unclipped the tubing and pressed a switch on the side of the box. A feint whirring ensued and, about ten seconds later, he placed the clip back on the rubber tube and returned to the machine. Having switched on the equipment and connected the rubber tubing to a brass inlet on the rear of the casing, he turned a small tap above the pipe and released the spring clip. He pressed a number of keys and the screen illuminated, showing a flat green line and a vertical scale.
“What happens then, if you find this ABCD stuff?” asked Fran, hesitantly.
“Well, if it’s present at levels that could be detrimental to health, we will have to ask you to leave the house. Naturally we would pay all your expenses at a good hotel until other accommodation could be found,” Drew answered with as much encouragement as he could inject into his voice, although he clearly realized that this idea would be unlikely to sound very attractive.
“How long for?” asked Albert, the rising incredulity in his voice showing that the potential seriousness of the situation was only just beginning to dawn.
“Shall we wait to see what the results are first, Mr. Braithwaite,” interrupted Greenfield. “No use worrying unnecessarily.”
“But you’ve already worried us just by coming here! We’ve put all our savings into this house; spent the past six months decorating and putting in a new kitchen and central heating. What happens if we have to move out?”
“As I say, we would reimburse you for everything. We would even buy the house for above its current selling price, if that were necessary. I assure you would not lose out; the company would make sure of that.”
“But where would we go? We couldn’t live in a hotel for ever, could we?” Fran’s voice was becoming clearly emotional as the possible repercussions grew more significant in her imagination. She raised her hands to her mouth to stifle an involuntary cry of alarm.
Albert moved quickly to her side and put an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, love. We’d be sure to manage and anyway, it hasn’t come to that yet, has it?”
Rolands had, meanwhile, been taking readings from the digital scale and jotting down figures in a notebook. He looked up and waited for the others’ attention. “I’m afraid it’s rather high,” he announced apologetically.
“Just how high is ‘rather’?” asked Drew, impatiently. “Let’s not keep the Braithwaites in suspense any longer than necessary.”
“Well, we need to check back at the labs to be absolutely sure but I reckon it’s between ten and fifty times higher than our agreed limit.”
“Oh!” was the response to this, the significance lost on no one.
“Oh, God!” wailed Fran.
“We can arrange to have you in a hotel by tonight,” said Greenfield. “Someone will call round in an hour or two to make arrangements with you and sort out any problems.” He tried to sound conciliatory but the enormity of what was happening could not escape him.
“Look,” said Albert, trying desperately to avert the increasing inevitability of the outcome. “I thought you said there wasn’t any real danger of explosions or anything; that the quantities of gas were very small. We’ve been here six months without any problems. Why the sudden urgency? What does this stuff do?”
“Well we know that it can be very toxic. We don’t know an awful lot about it. It’s possible we may be over-reacting but we must err on the side of safety.”
“But what does it do?”
In significant quantities, HCBD has caused reproductive problems in animals and reduced fertility and it can concentrate in the kidneys and cause problems there.”
“Cancer, you mean?”
“Yes, it is probably carcinogenic. The company will arrange to give you both full medical examinations to make sure that everything’s alright so please try not to worry.”
Fran suddenly looked up and stopped her silent weeping, the implications of the recent announcement filtering through the other worries. “Reproductive problems? You mean birth defects and that sort of thing?”
“That’s a possibility, yes, but nothing for you to worry about.” Drew slightly regretted the inadvertent comment on the obvious fact that Fran was well passed childbearing age.
“But what about Helen? Albert, what about Helen?” Her hands returned to her mouth again and the sounds of alarm and despair broke forth with renewed vigor.
“Helen’s our daughter,” explained Albert in subdued tones. “We moved into the village to be close to her. They’ve been here a couple of years.” He looked up desperately. “Helen’s three months pregnant.”
Just as moths rush headlong into the blazing fire, so does this world plunge to destruction into your mouths. XI.29
This is the prologue to the main story. You can read about the background to the book, an article discussing the problems of combining a fictional thriller with philosophical discussions and an extract which includes the introduction to those discussions here.