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Tuesday, April 22, 2008

CLOSELY ENOUGH

It is foolish to admit to such things, but I never really held that much faith in our ability to even get the damned thing to print. We were scientists, my colleague and I, not entrepreneurs, and although I never entertained these ideas in front of Edwin, I had envisaged the whole sorry affair to have fallen over within the first week. But, to Edwin's credit, I had underestimated his persistence, and some six months into our venture, words such as typesetting and layout had entered our lexicon.

I had spent so much time away from my laboratory, I had begun to feel like a sailor far from home. I was no proofreader, and yet the nights I spent poring over some other fool's scientific prose! My microscope remained under its cloth cover, but all the time I felt I could imagine it looking at me, peering up with a pleading cyclopic eye. The damnation of an inanimate is not a pleasant thing.

I met Edwin at our usual table in the old teahouse for the umpteenth time that winter, shivering sleet from my shoulders as I entered, welcoming the stale warmth. Edwin sat, as he always did, surrounded in shrifts of paper, shirtsleeves rolled up to his elbows, with that harried look on his face that had settled there of late like a nesting bird.

"What ho, George!" came his robust welcome.

"Hello," I said. "What news?" I ordered my weak Ceylon with a nod of the head towards the service counter.

"We're going to print!" Edwin exclaimed.

"When?"

"Next week."

I searched my brain for the right words. This was a moment I really had never imagined. "I thought we still had some ... revisions."

"Done, old boy. Finished and done." His face constructed a nearly convincing grin. "The Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science is almost ready for its adoring public!"

"Who are we using to print it? Not Worther & Sons?"

"The very same."

"But they're completely incompetent. Those ham-handed so-called sons have done nothing but lose our proofs, underquote and generally prove themselves to be unprofessional."

Edwin pushed his pince-nez up to the bride of his nose. "Ah, that was before, George. I have spoken to Mr Worther himself this very morning, and he has assured me that he will be personally dealing with our printing."

And for this, there was not more argument needed. Edwin had made up his mind. He had shipped off the galleys, unknown errors and all to Worther. Whatever was to come was to come. My tea came, and Edwin downed it for me.


***

The grand unveiling came some weeks later, in the form of a large package arriving one morning at my doorstep. I had spent the morning pottering about in my laboratory, enjoying some time following my favoured hobby of viewing biological specimens from the water of a small pond in a lake near my house, but this small enjoyment was interrupted by the loud knock at my door, and one of the larger Worther sons plunging an enormous package into my arms. It was terribly heavy, covered in brown paper, tied in thick twine.

When the Worther had left, I sent word at once for Edwin. I didn't want to open the copies of the first issue of our Journal without him, so I spent the time cleaning my desk in lieu of the various distribution and invoicing tasks that Edwin would inevitably lumber me with once we realised we had 400 copies of a periodical in our hands and in no one else's.

Edwin arrived, half-shaved, odd-socked and thoroughly out of breath.

"This is it, old chum!" he said, reaching into the pocket of his greatcoat and removing an alarmingly dangerous looking Arabic letter opener. His hacked away the twine and ran the blade down one side of the package, before peeling the brown paper back carefully. His face went white.

"What's wrong?" I asked him. I couldn't see into the package from where I was standing.

Edwin's hands shook. "Journal ... " he stammered, " ... Microscopical ..."

I pushed his shaking body aside and looked into the package. What I saw was what looked like piles of shredded paper. I looked closer. "Oh, they didn't," I said suddenly. "They couldn't have."

Edwin put his head in his hands. "They did. With my pre-paid deposit."

"You didn't sign anything, I hope," I said, searching somewhere for a receipt.

Edwin just nodded. "The contract looked fine," he gasped. "How was I to know they'd ... oh God!" He hit his head several times, luckily with the hand not containing the scimitar letter opener.

I found the receipt, handwritten proudly by Worther the Elder, no doubt. I read from it, aloud. "For Mr Edwin Lankester, being Four Hundred copies of his scientific magazine The Microscopic Journal of Quarterly Science."

Edwin just groaned.

I must admit, although I did not make it obvious, I smiled. My colleague and I had become unique, being the owner of England's (and I would hazard to guess, the world's) tiniest professional quarterly. I picked one up between thumb and forefinger. "They have done a good job," I said, "you'd have to admit. This is very intricate work."

"We'll be the laughing stock of every worthwhile mind from here to Cornwall," seethed Edwin. "Imagine the laughter."

"Oh, I don't know," I said. "At least we know only people with microscopes will be able to read it. That's quite a sales angle. In fact, I can see this working."

"Really?"

Yes, I thought. Really. I pulled the cover off my microscope placed our journal beneath it. I began to read.

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