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Authors: Lionel Davidson

The Sun Chemist

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LIONEL DAVIDSON

THE SUN CHEMIST

FOR RALPH AND STELLA R.

‘You may have my rich brocades, my laces; take each household key;

Ransack coffer, desk, bureau;

Quiz the few poor treasures hid there, con the letters kept by me.’

 

Thomas Hardy, ‘Friends Beyond’

Most of this story, as hardly needs saying, is fictitious; however, it is based on some substantial activities at Rehovot, so I hope that the ‘real' people mentioned won't take amiss the caricature of themselves or the things they have been made to get up to. I must add that they didn't know what
I
was up to when picking their brains. Weizmann's fermentation process with regard to oil works; but that, for the moment, is all that can be stated. One other thing I must state: Mr Igor Druyanov did not edit volumes 15 and 16 of the Weizmann papers. At the time of writing, this task had not yet been allotted; but advance apologies to whoever gets it, and if anyone like Vava crops up he ought to keep it to himself.

I came in quietly, dabbing at the chill spots of rain on my
forehead
, and took my coat off and began sniffing. As I thought. At it again. I’d never actually caught her at it. I hung the coat up and padded silently down the carpeted corridor and got a fine full view of her through the open study door. She was
standing
by the window, the thing actually in her mouth, idly
scratching
some nether part as she looked out.

‘Well, Ettie! Still here?’

‘Christ!’ She spun round, almost coughing it out. ‘You come in like a cat!’

‘Not finished yet?’

‘Just giving a last lick,’ she said, flapping with the duster. ‘I like you tidy in here.’

‘Well, that’s nice. Have a cigarette, Ettie.’

‘I got one. Well, I borrowed one of yours, actually.’

‘I see.’

‘I run out of mine. Strong, aren’t they? I couldn’t smoke these all the time.’

‘No, well, you don’t actually have to, Ettie.’

‘It’s because I run out. What are the black things on the end for?’

‘For Russians with black mouths.’

‘Black hearts, more like.’

‘Thanks very much.’

‘Not yours. Not always. I’m nearly finished now.’

‘Good. Did Hopcroft call?’

‘No.’

‘Or Caroline?’

‘Nobody called.’

‘Funny.’


And
I stayed in all the time, even when gasping for a drag,’
she said, nodding at me, and drawing carefully at the one of my father’s as she turned and flapped elsewhere in the room. I looked after her and then at the cigarette box she had left open on the desk. Three more gone. Not a tragedy: I never smoked them myself. Still, a principle was at stake. She was taking liberties. Everybody was taking liberties. Why no Hopcroft or Caroline? My stomach rumbled, as always before a journey. Too many things to see to. I sat down and took out a sheet of paper and attended to the first of them.

My sweet darling, Verochka, my joy,

There was no letter from you today, and for me this is a great deprivation. I hope that tomorrow there will be one, and I shall patiently await tomorrow. You ask me, little darling, to fondle you, if only by letter. Verunya, my dear, this is what I do in every word of mine, with every sound. But no such caresses can satisfy me. I hope, however …

There was a great deal more, and I toiled over it, conscious of Ettie still in the room, before steaming into the last paragraph.

You do know, don’t you, that I think of you every second, that it is you I live, think and breathe. You are not going to be upset and cross but will write me nice tender letters and will love me dearly, kiss and caress me when I am with you, won’t you, Verochka? Keep well, my joy, and write to me every day regularly, or I shall get very miserable. Love to my dearly beloved Verusenka.

                       Your

                                   Chaimchik 

‘Funny writing that,’ Ettie said.

She was behind me, looking over my shoulder.

‘Yes. Was there something special you wanted, Ettie?’

‘Well.’ She seemed nervous, patting at her hair. ‘What I was actually wondering,’ she said, ‘was if you could try a bit this month.’

‘I see.’

I hadn’t dated the letter, and did so. ‘Pinsk, 27 August 1902.’ Or was it 1903? I checked again. No, 1902 he’d written it.

‘I mean, I don’t want to press,’ Ettie said, ‘but you know. I wanted to catch you before you went.’

‘I’m not going till tomorrow.’

‘Before you went to the bank.’

‘All right.’ I’d already been. That’s where I’d been to. There’d been endless delays about the tiny bit of foreign currency.

‘It’s this bleeding lockout that’s coming up,’ Ettie said. ‘You know about that, don’t you, a lockout. And you know who’ll suffer.’

‘The bleeding workers can safely be left to me, Ettie. I’m the expert there.’

‘Well, if you’re all right, I’ll pop off now. You will try, won’t you?’

‘Yes,’ I said, and drew another sheet of paper, frowning.

My dear Mr Motzkin,

Unfortunately I cannot come to you and am forced to contact you in writing. I am terribly hard up; I positively haven’t a single pfennig to my name. The first is approaching, and I am unable to pay the landlady; I owe money to several persons who are causing me unbearable unpleasantness. I therefore beg you to let me have at least 30 marks without fail. This is the only source on which I can count. If you refuse, I shall find myself in a positively desperate
situation
. If I were able to find any other solution, I would have left you in peace, but I am in terrible straits and in fact depend entirely on you. I have nothing to pawn. My compasses have long been in the appointed place, and they are my only wealth. Forgive me for appealing to you.

               Yours,

I’d heard Ettie in her pop-off routine during the course of this, changing her shoes and housedress, and various bangs to do with her two shopping bags and umbrella. But she’d let Caroline in before she went. I’d heard the doorbell.

‘Caroline!’

‘Yes.’

‘What are you doing?’

‘Just a tick.’

She came in like a long wet rat. She was carrying a pair of slacks and a woolly jumper.

‘Been shopping?’ I said.

‘No, I haven’t. I’m going to change into these. After a hot bath. It’s absolutely pissing down out there,’ she said crossly.

‘You said you’d call.’

‘I just jumped in a taxi. And lucky to get one.’

‘Couldn’t you have called from where you were?’

‘I was at the Public Record Office, and bloody shriveled, I can tell you. They’ve got the heating turned down.’

‘Where’s Hopcroft?’

‘Off to Swiss Cottage.’

‘I thought you were going with him.’

‘Well, I didn’t. It was raining too hard. He took my umbrella. Just look at me. And I’ve got Willie tonight,’ she said, and went.

I thought about this, and heard the bath running. Presently I got on with another letter.

Dear Verochka,

I have as a matter of fact decided not to write any more but to wait until you get around to sending me a letter, as incidentally you promised in your last postcard. Since my return from Vienna I have been writing regularly, either every day or every other day, but I haven’t even received …

Acres more of well-merited complaint. I plodded on to the end.

There remains little to write about myself. My days and weeks are very monotonous, consisting entirely of laboratory work, and this is progressing very well. The end of the vacation is already
approaching
and people are gradually coming back. Perkin’s assistant arrived the other day. His name is Pickles. It’s four days since we began working together, and I am very pleased. In the first place there is a human being with whom one can exchange a few words during the day. Secondly, I can talk to him in English, which is
extremely
useful. By the time you come, I shall be able to converse almost freely …

Caroline was babbling from the bathroom. I signed and dated the letter, ‘Manchester, 13 September 1904,’ and had a look at my watch. Half past two. What from Hopcroft?

I padded down the corridor.

‘Caroline!’

‘Yes.’ She still had the water running.

‘It’s funny Hopcroft hasn’t called. I’ve got to ring Connie.’

‘I can’t hear you.’

I went in. The untidy girl had dropped her clothes in a heap. She was lying back, smoking, a trickle of hot water still
running
.

‘I said it’s funny Hopcroft hasn’t called.’

‘Water in the lines. I did try to call you, actually. I couldn’t get through. My goodness, this is the first time I’ve been warm today.’

‘There’s Connie to be considered. I’ve got to ring her, at Rehovot.’

‘You’ve got your ticket, haven’t you?’

‘I haven’t, darling, actually. Not the actual physical ticket. And I’ve got such a ton of things to get through.’

‘If you could just dot this in the basin,’ she said, giving me the cigarette. ‘While at the same time screwing all notions that I will go and get your ticket. I’m not running about out there again.’

‘Oh.’ I tipped the ash off and gave her back the cigarette.

‘Yes. I got a couple of jolly interesting things today, actually.’

‘Did you, darling?’

‘Quite fascinating. There’s a Cabinet paper with Ramsay Mac laying off about Chaimchik. He made a tremendously strong impression on Ramsay Mac, you know.’

‘Did he? How wonderful.’

‘What is the big problem?’

‘I have to tell Connie about Hopcroft. Whether he’s got the thing or not.’

‘He’ll swim in, never fear. Literally. I got drenched.’

‘What time did he go?’

‘Well, I don’t know. He was reading next to me. He had got on in some way to India Office things – I don’t know why. He drifts a lot. He’s probably drifting about Swiss Cottage now. What time is it?’

‘Gone half past two.’

‘Well, he went before twelve. He’ll be yarning to her. He yarns a lot, Hopcroft.’ She sat up. ‘Damn it. Could you take this a minute?’

I took the cigarette out of her mouth and gave her a towel for her hands.

‘Why has Connie got to know now? Why can’t you tell her when you see her tomorrow?’

‘I don’t know why. Some kind of tremendous flap has
developed
with Bergmann, in Jerusalem. She has to let
him
know. Perhaps he is going somewhere.’

‘Well, Hopcroft will appear. When he does, you can send him out for the ticket.’ She was smiling at me.

‘It’s two hours on in Israel, you see. Half past four there. They knock off early.’

‘They’ll hang on. Might I ask you a personal question?’

‘Ask.’

‘What is it about small tits? I mean, I know you like
extravagances
. Whose is that jumper, incidentally?’

‘I don’t know.’

‘Well, you have a high old time, don’t you?
Re
modest jobs, though, what is it?’ She was looking down at her own. ‘I know there’s supposed to be
something
titillating, to coin a phrase. Only what?’

What has Willie got to say?’

‘Oh, come on. I can’t ask him. As between friends. One never really learns when one needs to know.’

‘Well, they’re very pretty.’

‘Do you think they appeal to queerish people?’

‘Is Willie queerish?’

‘There’s such a whole range of things one never finds out. And it goes so fast. I mean, you find out at some stage, presumably. But it’s later. You learn about everything too late. Saddening thought.’

‘It’s a thought of youth. You’re in a stage of disquiet.’

‘Am I?’

‘Owing to youth. It is a stage of disquiet. And your work saddens you. The people one studies always end up dead and usually miserable, after their triumphs. We’re analysts of tragedy, darling – at least the smack of it.’

‘Yes. Your English is extraordinary, isn’t it? Smack.’

‘Thanks very much. And I’d love to know about Ramsay Mac and Chaimchik, and I’m sure you’ve spotted the absolutely
relevant
thing. You’re a bright girl with a lovely brain and exactly
right tits. They suit you, they really do. Only what it is, my stomach is turning over and over because of my journey, and I haven’t packed or got my ticket, and Hopcroft hasn’t phoned, and I have to ring Connie and don’t know what to tell her. It’s one of those fluid situations, you see. I don’t like them.’

‘Well, tell me what I can do apart from the ticket, which seems made for Hopcroft.’

‘I don’t know. His papers will have to be gone through,
anyway
, when he gets back, for queries.’

‘I can go through them. I and my lovely brain,’ Caroline said.

‘You liked that, did you?’

‘Mmm. Quite nice. I’d better get out, then, hadn’t I, with this mountain of work.’

I moved over. ‘Except you probably can’t, damn it – I’ll bet anything they turn out to be in Russian. Damn and blast
everything
. And I’m still wrestling with little Kaplan, in Manchester. I promised him those early letters.’

‘I will wrestle with Kaplan, I,’ she said, stepping from one steaming leg to the other.

‘You cannot, idiot. As you know very well, they’re in Russian, too. That’s what Kaplan wanted. He didn’t like the look of the published English. And I would have run out and got them copied myself if I hadn’t worried that you or Hopcroft would ring, instead of slaving away by hand, which is the case you put me in!’

‘Igor, darling, you’re getting moany and foreign. So if you could just hand over some of your heavenly talc and fuck off.’

The telephone rang just at that moment, so I did, at the trot. Hopcroft.

‘Hello.’

‘Mr Igor Druyanov?’

Not Hopcroft. Long distance. ‘Yes.’

‘I have a personal call for you from Rehovot, Israel.’

‘Yes. All right.’

‘Igor?’

‘Connie, darling!’

‘Well – this – is – amazing. I just this minute put in the call! I thought I would put it in and leave it standing. It is so late. You
were going to call me. It’s amazing!’ The ripe, slow, twangy cadences of Brooklyn came plangently over the line, with an undertow of Venezuela. I could see her standing there, the South American butterfly, dark eyes flashing in the animated face, in her room at the end of the corridor, in the glacial calm of the President’s House, the nation’s shrine.

‘Well, you see –’

‘Meyer is here. I am in Meyer’s house. He wants to say hello.’

I rapidly readjusted. Not in the nation’s shrine. In Meyer’s house. Next to Sir Isaac Wolfson’s house. Natural pine, royal-blue carpets, splendor, many pictures; outside trees, the lovely
landscaped
harmony of the Institute.

‘Igor, you son of a bitch.’

‘Very nice of you to say so, Meyer.’

‘Listen – Bergmann is on my ass. All kinds of geniuses are on it. How about getting off yours?’

‘What’s the trouble, Meyer?’

‘Did you get them yet – those Vava papers?’

‘Hopcroft is coming back with them now.’

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