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The Life of Sir Alexander Fleming
Chapter XVII - The Silences of Professor Fleming


We spoke to each other about each other Though neither of us spoke, emily Dickinson

On his return in June 1951 he invited Amalia Voureka, forthe first time, to spend a week-end at Barton Mills. She was enchanted by the beauty of the old village, by the flowers, the river and the peace of the countryside. He showed her the garden-room which he had turned into a laboratory and furnished with dilapidated cupboards and seatless chairs picked up for two or three shillings at local fairs. Superb and costly pieces of apparatus, presented to him by admirers, stood on an assortment of old tables cheek by jo\Vl with other odds and ends of equipment which he had constructed from old biscuit-tins and lengths of wire. On the wooden walls prints of birds had been glued and covered with varnish. In one corner a number of fishing-rods stood with their tops leaning against one of the rafters of the ceiling. There was a pile of goloshes and gum-boots by the door. The sterilizer was heated by means of an electric flex from the house. Through the large windows one could see the multicoloured garden of The Dhoon. The whole place presented a faithful picture of the man who had conceived and made it.

His visitor immediately fell in love with the quiet and charming house. She told Fleming that, should he ever decide to retire there, she would apply for the position of lab.-boy-cum-cook. He teased her about the far more brilliant post which she had just obtained (a unanimous vote of the Council of Management had just confirmed her appointment to the Evangelismos Hospital) and said: 'I'm afraid that would be beneath your dignity.' But she, secretly to herself, was thinking that she would willingly give up any post to work here, in this tiny laboratory in a garden, with a man on whom she felt she could rely in any circumstances. The peace of it all seemed to her like Paradise.

He had planned to spend the whole of August at The Dhoon, and suggested that she should stay for a week. She said she had a number of experiments on hand. 'Then, bring your cultures down here/ he replied, 'you can work in my laboratory.5 She set off with him in the car and had seven marvellous days. She cleaned the little lab. — something nobody had ever done before — and helped him to cut the nettles and long grass with a new machine of which he was very proud. She fished in the river, she made acquaintance with the little summer-house, an Eastern pagoda built by a local builder from the Willow pattern on a Wedgwood plate, and the garage-workshop where, on rainy days, he pottered about with electric saws and other tools. She went with him to village sales where old iron lay higgledy-piggledy with fine china. When she was working in the laboratory, he kept on coming in to see how she was getting along, or to show her something. Sometimes, not looking at her but into the distance with a curiously detached air, he said: 'Why not stay here for the whole month?' But she did not think he really meant it, and left, after a day of brilliant sunshine, under a full moon. A few days later she received the following letter: My dear Amalie, I hope that is the way to spell your name, but am not sure ... we are all lonely since you left — you cheered us all up — and I have no one to help me with my nettle-cutting.

You found that the little laboratory suited you, so you had better collect some cultures and bring them down.

Be good to the mice.

Yours, a. f.

She replied with a gay and friendly letter. Far from being good to the mice, she had massacred eighteen of them! Her experiments had been held up.

My heart is broken, and, for the time being, I have abandoned my enterococcus ... Are you coming to London at all before the end of your holiday?

Kind regards, Yours, a. voureka

My name is spelt Amalia.

She felt that she ought not to accept his invitation to return. It had seemed to her vague, and she thought that it was probably just a piece of good manners. But by return of post came another letter:

My dear Amalia,

I have just got your letter — thanks. The lab. is empty and needs a lab.-boy to clean it. I have got a boat — it came last night, and I was on the river this morning ... There is a sale at Bury St Edmunds on Tuesday — I enclose catalogue and you will see that there are plenty of antiques. Does it appeal to you? If so, come down and we can spend another day hunting for bargains. If you are coming, ring me up this evening, and we can make arrangements. If you cannot come, send the catalogue back.

On Monday evening we are having some people in for cocktails, so if you come you can join the party. We still miss you.

Yours, a. f.

This time there could be no doubt: he wanted her to go back. She arrived at The Dhoon on the evening of the cocktail party.

While Fleming was giving drinks to his friends and neighbours, the housekeeper, Mrs Marshall, told Amalia how much Sir Alexander had missed her. 'All the time you were here he was a totally different person/ Then, abruptly, she added: 'That's what he needs, a young woman in his home.' It suddenly dawned on Amalia, through her confusion, what it was that her own shyness, combined with Fleming's, had for the last year kept locked away among the things that are not said.

Next day, he took her to an auction sale at the charming Tudor village of Lavenham, presented her with a pretty antique vase, and gave her lunch at an old inn. During the meal he asked her about her domestic affairs. She told him about her constantly recurring disappointments. The separation between the Voureka husband and wife which, in spite of their very real affection for each other, had been going on for fifteen years, was now to be legalized. When tea-time came, he sat reading the paper without addressing a word to her. From this she concluded that she had bored him with her personal concerns, that Alice Marshall had a romantic imagination ... and that so had she! On their way back to Barton Mills he drove her a long way round so as to show her some enchanting thatched houses. In the course of the drive he spoke about a book in which the gods came alive and behaved like young men. 'Even the gods/ he said, 'have human feelings.' She deliberately refused to understand these enigmatic words and, a week later, returned to London.

He followed her on September 3rd. On the 17th, Dr Voureka was to read a paper to the Microbiological Society at Manchester. Fleming was to make the journey by road and offered to take her in the car with him. On the evening before they were to start, he invited her to dine in Chelsea with his son Robert and a nephew. He had just received his horoscope which Marlene Dietrich (whom he had met several times, and who now regarded him as one of her heroes) had had cast for him in Hollywood. Of course, Fleming would not have taken it seriously, but opening the document at a certain page, he asked her to read it. She had read only a few words when dinner was announced. Amalia abandoned the horoscope and Fleming never mentioned it again.

Much later, after his death, when she was turning over many memories in her mind, she recollected this episode and wondered what the contents of the page had been which he had wanted her to read. Here is what the horoscope had said:

Your emotional responses are rooted in your need for security and a home, and this makes your love a very loyal, dependable and devoted thing. You are emotionally very sensitive, since so much is at stake, and are likely to hide this side of yourself until you have found somebody whom you feel to be worthy of your love ...

That, obviously, was what he had hoped to make her understand, but a tiny incident may change everything. Dinner had been announced, and Amalia had read only the first few words.

On the drive to Manchester, he asked her whether she intended to marry again. She replied ('stupidly', she says) that she was married. He became more silent than ever. At Manchester, while he was attending a committee-meeting, another doctor did a little gentle pulling of her leg, saying: 'Where is your god this evening?' At this moment Fleming came into the room, and she replied: 'Here is God in person.' After their return to London he took her to lunch in an hotel near Windsor, and then to the Zoo, where he photographed her in front of one of the lion cages. He kept this photograph in his study and called it cShe and the Lion5.

At the Private View of the Academy she much admired a portrait of Fleming by the painter, John Wheatley. He said nothing, but wrote to Wheatley:

Nov. 27. 51

Dear Wheatley,

In the last Academy show you had a small picture of me. Have you still got it? If so, are you prepared to sell it to me, and at what price? I admired it but I am not enamoured of myself but someone who is important to me also admired it and if it is not too expensive I would like to acquire it for him.

He later sent this picture to Athens as a farewell present. Amalia was due to leave for Greece on December 15th. He asked her to dine with him on the 14th. He gave her a photograph of the little laboratory at Barton Mills under the snow. 'I want you to take this with you,' he said. 'You mustn't forget the little laboratory.' On the print he had written: 'The little lab. which you liked so much, and which liked you as the only person who had ever kept it clean.'

For this last dinner, he took her to his Scottish club, the Caledonian. He gave her champagne, spoke of the five years just past and of the work she was going to do in Greece. Then he took her to the Morning Room where they had coffee by the fire. At first he sat in an armchair beside her, but after a short while he got up and sat down again facing her. 'I want to have a good look at you, to remember you by.5 For some seconds he stared at her in silence, and then said: 'What a pity these years are over! Later, he drove her home.

When she reached Athens, she found a telegram from Fleming waiting for her. Good wishes and remembrances. Two or three days later she got a letter which said: 'There is a gap in lab. No. 2. We know why. We miss you.' Then a second letter: 'We still miss you. No. 2 is no longer the same.' A third letter: CI cross the park alone now: no one to talk to me. We miss you all the time.' But the end of the month brought a more resigned letter: 'We still miss you, but we shall get used to it.'


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