Some of you may have noticed that there is a Charles Quackenbush story at the back of this week’s Nature. For those of you without a subscription, why not entertain yourself instead with the second of Chuck’s seven miracle cures?
The couple from the Thai stall huddle in their van. The man with the Koftas stands in his gazebo, arms folded, staring through the rain at the Thais. The burritos people haven’t even bothered turning up, and the crepes stand has blown over. A man in his late forties, hi-vis Royal Mail vest over his blue shirt, runs across the Farringdon Road, holding a newspaper over his ragged receding hair. He puffs and pants up the cobbled street, between the deserted stalls, and dives into the pie and mash shop. There’s a queue, as the usual patrons of the street stalls opt for a lunch inside.
A middle-aged woman piles one-flavour one-size fits all pies and scoops of runny potato onto plates for trendy creatives from the warehouse-conversion offices. She breaks into a gap-toothed grin when she sees the postman. “Alright ‘enry? The usual, is it?” She puts two pies on a plate and piles on an extra scoop of mash, winking. “I’ll just get you yer tea.”
Henry carries his plate and mug over to a long plastic table occupied by a thirty-something man in a designer suit, reading the Independent. “Anyone sittin’ there, mate?” He slides into the bench seat, kicking the suited man’s umbrella under the table. He pours pepper and vinegar over the mash, and pulls open his saturated copy of the Mirror, spraying rainwater over his neighbour’s meal. He settles into a story, picks up his fork, and is about to attack the first pie, when something collides with him.
“Budge up, ‘enry,” says a younger man in a dirty Royal Mail jacket, dumping a plate on the table, and pushing his way into Henry’s seat. Henry moves along, kicking the suit’s umbrella some more, eyes never lifting from the newspaper. “Af’noon, Jack,” he says. Jack spreads out a Daily Mail before him, half covering the Mirror, and raises his fork. Henry flicks and waves the rival paper out of the way. “‘ow can you read that Tory rag?”, he asks. “Look at it. ‘Dinosaur postal unions vote for more strikes: time to kick these Stalinist bullies out, says Melanie Philips’,” he reads. “Yer on the picket line one day, and reading this crap the next.”
“Look at yer fingers,” says Jack.
“What?” Henry looks at his fingers. Their tips are smudged black.
“Look at ’em,” says Jack. “You’re ganna get ink all over everyone’s letters this afternoon. You can’t go doin’ that. Nah, Daily Mail‘s only one what the ink don’t rub off on yer fingers.”
Henry gives up trying to argue, and returns to reading the Mirror. At some point, the suited man rises, retrieving his battered umbrella and tucking his newspaper under his arm. “Final edition,” cries the Independent‘s main headline. “The brief history of Independent News & Media,” announces a side-story.
Eventually, Henry scrapes the last of the ground meat and mashed potato from his own plate, and belches at Jack. “Budge it,” he says, gathering up the damp Mirror. As he runs back down the Exmouth Market to the sorting office, battling against the wind, the newspaper is beaten by a gust, torn into pieces, and blown away.
A man in his thirties, smart suit and smart hair, wonders through a laboratory, looking like he’s putting a lot of effort into not touching anything. “And it was here, at St Bart’s, that the discovery was made. Professor Charles Quackenbush, how was it that your team found this, this ‘miracle cure’?”
“Well, it was really a large part serendipity,” says a forty-something man in a quirky untucked shirt and a neatly trimmed beard. “We found that some of the mice, despite having a gene-knockout that caused cancer, were living full and healthy lives. We were excited that the drug we were investigating at the time was working. But then we noticed that our control animals weren’t dying either. It took us a long time to prove that we hadn’t made a mistake and we weren’t using the wrong animals. Eventually we found what had happened: a few pages of old newspaper had come through a crack in the roof, and fallen into the cold water tank.”
Quackenbush continues the story of his chance discovery of the cure for all cancers, before the scene switches back to a shiny studio. “Science correspondent Steve Bartman reporting, there, with more on today’s top story,” says Jeremy Paxman. “Now, just time for tomorrow’s headlines. The Mirror go with that ‘Newspaper ink prevents all cancers’ story; The Times there with ‘Now newspapers are good for you’, there’s a subheading here ‘when will those scientists make up their minds?’;The Sun go with ‘Pen mightier than scalpel’, I wonder if that one might be a bit lost on some of their readers; the Mail have run with ‘Lesbians plot knife crime on Queen says Met Chief’; and finally, the Daily Express were going to go with the cancer cure story, but as we just heard, Express Newspapers have just gone into administration today. Unlucky, there.”
“Budge up, Jack!” Henry slams plate and mug on the plastic table. “Come on, shift some of this. What are you reading that for? Daily Telegraph? Bit poncey ain’t it?”
He glances at the headline. “Newspaper sales up 450%.”
“Yeah, I know,” says Jack, with a sigh. “I’m tryin’ ’em all out. It’s a pretty good one, though. ‘ere, look, the ink really rubs off on yer fingers.” He shoves the palm of his hand into Henry’s face. Then frowns. “Shame it’s so boring.” He drops his fork on the empty plate. “‘ere, you can have it, I’m done.” He rises, closes the paper, and dumps it in front of Henry.
Henry holds the broadsheet up, gently rubbing the front page headline between his thumb and forefinger. “Daily Mail and General Trust Folds,” it says. “Sales of 120 year old Mail plummet.” And the story smudges to grey.