Chloe Nicholls could no longer love. It wasn’t that she couldn’t trust men, but that she couldn’t trust herself to make wise choices when she was in any state of arousal, which was always.
The doctors told her that clinical nymphomania is actually quite rare and that it was most likely a psychological reaction to some kind of emotional or sexual trauma. The medication that they gave her only ever made her sleepy or hungry, so she flushed them all down the toilet, fixed herself a stiff drink and retired to her bedroom as a matter of ritual every time a new prescription failed.
As she rode in the black cab for yet another consultation, she bit her lip and tried to levitate on her seat. She really didn’t want her first session with a psychiatrist to be post-orgasm, but when she finally reached her destination, it was too late.
The doctor’s office was in the business district, housed in a modern building with keypads and a receptionist behind a curved desk. Chloe keyed in the code she had been given and approached the woman, who was talking into a headset.
‘Good morning, madam. Can I help you?’
‘I’m here to see Dr. Godfrey.’
Edward Godfrey succeeded in his work as a specialist in deviant sexual behaviour because he was an unexcitable man. Since his wife of seven years had left, he had been tending to victims of the latest sexual craze: one night stands with clones. He had spoken out against the practice as soon as it was introduced five years ago, when only the richest elites could afford it, but now, it wasn’t uncommon to see allsorts of people carrying spent clones’ corpses to the recycling station first thing in the morning. Only that morning, Edward had seen a policeman unloading a spent Marilyn Monroe from his patrol car’s boot.
Once the most respected practitioner in his field, Edward had been turned into something of a pariah by the company selling these services. Their connections to the traditional sex industry had even brought heavies to the doorstep of his Notting Hill home the previous December. Edward had been Christmas shopping for his parents, who both claimed that all they wanted was to see him settle down with a nice girl.
The threats and the vilification didn’t bother him much, being the unexcitable character he was, so he continued to warn the public away from Bone-a-Clone. Because his techniques required considerable effort on the part of his patients to heal themselves, most caved in to the ephemeral delights of clone sex to get a quick fix, but it never lasted. The complications that Edward had seen were wide-ranging in severity and nature. Two of his patients succumbed to delusions that they were actually in a relationship with two dead Z-list celebrities, quit therapy with him, and were subsequently institutionalised.
Edward reviewed the file of his new patient Chloe Nicholls, who was already in the waiting room. He was pleased to see a good old-fashioned sexual compulsive on his books again. 35 years old, born in Stratford-Upon-Avon to John and Margaret Nicholls, both teachers at a local secondary school. A string of placebos from her GP, then the usual mild psychoactives – all to neutral or negative effect. He didn’t have time to review the whole file, but he remembered that there were no specific instances of emotional or sexual trauma disclosed, and that was unusual. Edward buzzed reception to send her into his office.
Chloe prayed that the doctor would be physically repulsive in some way. It usually helped her to keep things under control. If he happened to say something erudite or authoritative, there was just as much danger there, too. She stared at the letters after his name on the brass plaque as she stood outside his door, her knuckles hovering over the wood, waiting to knock. Of course he was going to say something erudite and authoritative: that’s who he was. She tried to untangle herself somewhat before she knocked, but she still felt unprepared.
The office was large and cold, with two huge panoramic tinted windows looking down over Notting Hill. Despite the low lighting, Chloe felt exposed as she walked across the office floor to Dr. Godfrey’s desk. He stood up and stretched out his hand.
‘Sorry, Doctor Godfrey. I really shouldn’t.’
‘I understand,’ he smiled. ‘Please call me Edward.’
‘Please take a seat, Chloe. I know that this is all very strange for you, but please remember that I am on your side.’
Chloe sat down, trying to ignore the pleasant musk of the doctor’s aftershave. Trying not to imagine violent sex with him on the desk. She burst into tears at the doctor’s kind words.
‘Why would you be? I’m disgusting.’
‘You are not disgusting, Chloe,’ the doctor said. ‘You’re in pain, and I’m going to help you.’
Doctor Godfrey was a plain man with kind eyes and an awkward smile. His suit was so ill-fitting that it could only have been a hand-me-down, and his hair was like a thatch of old straw. It was as if he had locked his sexuality in a box and hidden it under the floorboards.
‘Would you like to tell me when this started becoming a problem?’
‘About five years ago, I went through a very bad break-up.’
‘And it started happening after that?’
Chloe nodded, avoiding the doctor’s eyes again.
By their third session, Edward Godfrey had to muster all of his professionalism for Chloe Nicholls. Her neurosis was certainly serious, but it was nothing he couldn’t handle. What he couldn’t handle with was the way she smiled and cried. Edward had never had feelings like this for anyone, let alone a patient. He tried not to look at her tear-stained cheeks or her toothy smile, both of which betrayed a vulnerability that made Edward Godfrey panic.
Chloe Nicholls was perfect in every single way except for the grave psychosexual disorder, but Edward would have that sorted out within six months.
It also would have been Bone-a-Clone’s PR dream: to find out that Dr. Edward Godfrey, moralistic crusader, was in love with one of his own patients. His practice would be shut and his licence revoked within a week.
He also didn’t want anyone else to have her, especially some muscle-bound, white-smiled, charismatic celebrity born from petri dishes and test tubes.
Chloe couldn’t decide whether the sessions with Dr. Godfrey were working or not. When she was in his office, she felt safe, but when she left, her chaos would return. She didn’t know whether it was the sheer greyness of the man or the therapy. She almost felt guilty for not being attracted to him, because he was always so kind and understanding of whatever awful confession she was making at the time.
At the end of their session, he reached out his hand – as he did every time – but that day, Chloe accepted and put her hand in his. She expected the usual buckling electricity to surge through her stomach and into her legs, but it never came. With surprise, she looked up from the desk and saw Dr. Godfrey smiling. The electricity felt like it was building in her chest slowly, warming her rather than shocking her. For the first time in five years, she allowed another person to look into her eyes.
‘Until next time, Chloe,’ he said, gently shaking her pale hand.
All the way down to the ground floor, Chloe was smiling in the lift. All the way across the reception area and all the way down the steps until she was approached by a handsome man in an expensive suit.
‘Miss Nichols, my name is Alex and I work for a boutique company based in Highgate that caters discreetly to young professionals like yourself.’
Chloe took the card he was offering to her, but didn’t look up.
‘Please come and visit us anytime. Your first consultation is free,’ he said. ‘Have a nice day.’
Alex Hands, Managing Director of City Genetic Solutions read the card, with contact details on the other side. An address:
7, Shields Way, Highgate.
The next day, Chloe finished work early and decided to visit the address in the afternoon, beaten by her curiosity as to what a genetic solution entailed.
Chloe walked quickly past the cemetery before she started thinking about the fragility and brevity of everything, which usually aggravated her condition.
The office was in a Victorian detached halfway up a hill, partly hidden from the road by ancient oak trees and a mossy sandstone wall in the front driveway. Chloe trod quietly up the gravel pathway to the door of the house. A brass plaque was engraved with City Genetic Solutions and underneath it was a button which she duly pressed. She was buzzed in through the heavy front door and on to creaky floorboards covered by an antique Persian rug. The short vestibule led to a reception desk behind which sat a beautiful young woman dressed in an expensive business suit. Suddenly, Chloe felt very plain, to which she was not accustomed.
‘Miss Nichols, so glad to see you,’ the receptionist said, flicking her shiny brown hair behind her earpiece. ‘I take it you’re here to claim your free consultation?’
‘How do you know my name?’
‘We perform extensive background checks on prospective clients before offering our services.’
‘What services?’ Chloe asked, admiring the woman’s smooth skin.
‘Mr. Hands will explain that to you now,’ the receptionist smiled as a door opened and Hands appeared, brimming with congeniality.
‘Ah, Miss Nicholls. Won’t you join me in my office?’ he said, holding the door open for her.
Chloe shuffled inside, following the patterns of yet another antique Persian rug as she went. The office was much the same as the rest of the building: old, expensive, musty. A shiny red apple stood atop a bundle of documents in the middle of Hands’ desk.
‘The services we provide are catered to every individual’s needs, Miss Nicholls. We have highly-qualified, expert staff using patented algorithms to match you with a partner.’
Chloe’s heart sank as she realised she’d been drawn into some kind of elite dating club pitch. She gathered up her handbag and stood up.
‘I’m not interested in a matchmaking agency, Mr. Hands. Goodbye.’
Hands turned up the charm, becoming more earnest and low-spoken. ‘But you don’t know who we can match you up with, yet. Please, give me another minute. You’ll be glad you did.’
He took a single sheet of paper from the pile of documents pinned down by the apple and handed it to Chloe. On the paper was a list of artistic luminaries from the past:
Hunter S. Thompson
Vincent Van Gogh
Edgar Allen Poe
Ludwig van Beethoven
‘They’re just the new additions for this month,’ Hands said, leaning back in his chair.
‘Is this some kind of joke?’
‘No joke, Miss Nicholls. We take our business very seriously.’
‘Regrettably, there are those who would use high technology for low purposes,’ he said, his voice still framed by his handsome smile. Chloe could only look at him for a split second every few minutes. ‘We don’t use Z-list celebrities, only artists like the ones on that sheet of paper you’re holding. We’re about the body of work, rather than the body, if you’ll pardon the expression.’
‘How did you get permission to clone them? And how did you get the genetic material?’
‘Three things facilitate our ability to clone these individuals: an item that they used or that belonged to them, a descendant who needs cash and a top drawer legal team.’
‘And the clone has no idea who I am?’
‘All they will be aware of is that they are in the company of a – pardon me for saying so – most beautiful woman. They will not question how they arrived. We prime them for that.’
‘And how much does this cost?’
Hands slid an envelope across the desk and under her thin fingers. Chloe opened it and read the contents.
‘Cheaper than I expected.’
‘We came to this figure based on your current salary. I’m glad that you find it agreeable. Of course, this is only for one night – 12 hours.’
‘Van Gogh sounds interesting. Now does he come with one ear or two?’
Alex Hands smiled. ‘You might want to rethink, Miss Nicholls – unless you speak Dutch?’
‘Might I make a suggestion for you? For your particular needs, our algorithms recognised William Blake as the best match,’ Hands said, rising from the desk to face his bookshelf. He plucked a green leather-bound edition from the shelf and thumped it on to the dark mahogany. ‘You remember him from university, surely? We know that you studied him quite extensively.’
‘I barely even remember uni. I do remember his paintings, though,’ Chloe said as she flicked through the book. ‘I remember this poem, too.’
‘Do you still read?’
‘Who has the time?’
‘Take that book tonight and give me a call in the morning. Let me know what you decide.’
Chloe heaved the collected works of William Blake off the desk and shuffled out of Hands’ office, thanking him quietly as she left.
Edward Godfrey sat in his crumbling Mini Cooper across the road from the Victorian house in Highgate. Chloe Nicholls had already been in there for 20 minutes. Edward’s chest ached as he thought of her with another man behind all that wood, red brick and glass. Edward would smash it all to bits to rescue her. Edward would beat the man to a pulp for stealing her away from him and defiling her.
He’d lose his practice – even his licence – for her.
But he knew that he wouldn’t.
He never had. Not even when his wife left him for another man. At least he would have retained some confidence, some sense of pride, instead of being the burnt-out husk he was these days. Doctor Godfrey began to feel shame for his inactions, rather than his actions.
Edward ducked down as the door to the house opened and Chloe emerged, treading delicately down the gravel driveway. She was carrying a large, green book with the name William Blake embossed on its leather cover in flakey gold. Her fine hair blew across her face in the gentle morning breeze as she walked down the hill towards the cemetery. Edward waited until she’d turned the corner at the bottom of the hill, then marched up the gravel path and pushed the buzzer above the plaque which read City Genetic Solutions. He’d not heard of this company before, but reasoned that they must be doing alright to be able to pay the rates in this neighbourhood. Godfrey waited for thirty seconds and pushed again. Another thirty and again, followed by a double-push.
He ran back to the car and drove off down the hill after Chloe, but she had already vanished into the park amongst the playing children, smacked-up inheritance hippies and picknicking couples. He guessed that she’d emerge at the northeast corner nearest her workplace, but Edward couldn’t hang around to find out. He was already going to be late for his next patient, and he was all too aware that this folly was becoming a compulsion.
Chloe Nicholls concluded her nightly routine of self-relief and lay back on her bed, flushed and breathless. Her hand fell on the William Blake book which sat heavily on the bed next to her, so she sat up and opened the book at a random page and began reading. Chloe found poems that she had cherished when she was younger, before the heartbreak. As memories of how she used to be came back to her, she cried without stifling herself for the sake of the neighbours, as she usually did. All of her finer virtues were nearly dead, suffocated by the pillows of lovers; strangled by the sheets of their beds. The words pulled her from the mire she was in and she wanted more of that feeling, so she kept reading into the night to make herself a tyger bright, just like she used to be.
The next morning, Chloe woke to her alarm clock after only three hours sleep. Blake’s Collected Works’ considerable weight on the other side of the bed made her think that there was someone else in there upon waking.
His words made her feel as if she was not alone. As if she still had a chance.
That she would not fall into the abyss.
Chloe Nicholls was sold. She picked up her phone and called Alex Hands, asking him to email her an invoice and to have Blake ready in 48 hours.
‘We can do that in 12 hours, if you prefer, Miss Nicholls?’
Chloe panicked and failed to find words.
‘We’ll have him delivered to you around 7pm.’
Hands ended the call, leaving Chloe staring at her phone, wondering what she had done.
Edward Godfrey did not go home that night. At 5pm, he went straight from his office to City Genetic Solutions to see if he could find out more about this man Chloe was seeing. He parked the mini behind a dark blue Bentley and watched the office for about ten minutes until a man emerged. He was good-looking with groomed hair and expensive shoes that echoed throughout the leafy neighbourhood when they hit the pavement. The man was heading straight for the Bentley, so Edward ducked sideways as if looking for something in the footwell of his Mini.
His heart rate increased and he felt his fight/flight begin to kick in. The adrenaline made his hands shake. He wasn’t accustomed to this kind of thing.
The blue Bentley growled to life and pulled away. Edward lifted his head, saw that it was turning right at the bottom of the hill and followed after it in the Mini.
He tailed the Bentley to an industrial park where most of the units were shuttered. The ones that were still open were garages populated by eastern European roughnecks covered in oil. Their wet eyes followed the Bentley and ignored the Mini, as they held their wrenches and spanners like weaponised thigh bones. Edward saw the Bentley pull into a unit up ahead, so he parked at the other end of a section, near such a garage. Looked like a tyre place, given the two giant pillars of rubber tread that had been erected either side of the door. Before he could even get out, one of the oily attendants appeared at his half-open window.
‘What you want? We nearly closed.’
‘I … Uh … Spare tyre, please,’ Edward said.
‘Gimme money. £60.’
Edward handed over the cash without even asking whether it was a new tyre or part-worn he was getting. The attendant stared at him a moment with his cigarette clamped between his thin lips, before disappearing between the rubber pillars and into the garage.
Edward looked back towards the Bentley to see the handsome man emerging from an unmarked unit with an older, untidier man. The old chap looked bewildered by his surroundings and at his suit, which looked even worse than Edward’s. When the handsome man opened the door of the Bentley for him, the old man refused to get in. Edward watched the handsome man prove that it was safe by getting in himself, closing the door and getting out again. He repeated this performance a few times before the old man finally agreed to get in.
Edward followed after them, forfeiting his spare tyre.
The Bentley pulled up outside Chloe Nicholls’ home address. For all he knew, the handsome man could be her lover and her pimp, and the old man was her newest client. He’d seen it before with sexual-compulsives: certainly personality types would turn their affliction to their financial benefit by selling their bodies. The doctor could hardly fault their logic, but Chloe Nicholls didn’t need the money and she wasn’t the type.
The two men knocked at the front door of her detached cottage in Hampstead, and she answered in an evening dress. She shook hands with the old man and welcomed him inside, whilst the handsome man bid her goodbye and walked back to his Bentley.
Edward waited there all night for a sign of what might have been taking place inside the house, but none came. He heard the occasional bursts of music and laughter, but apart from that, at 4 a.m. there was only the sound of rain on the leaves of the trees outside her house.
Dr. Edward Godfrey realised that he was heading for tragedy. He was allowing his emotions to rule over his sense of reason, and that just wasn’t like him. His shame was creeping like a banshee through the shadows. Shame for spying on Chloe, and shame for giving in to his baser instincts. When the first tide of realisation receded, Edward felt hollowed out: disgusted with himself.
He drove away from Chloe Nicholl’s house at 5.52 a.m.
Chloe Nicholls savoured the sensation of the paint cracking and drying on her breasts as the old man breathed on her bare skin. They were both naked and caked in greens, browns, whites and yellows. All about the walls were magnificent daubings which twisted together like vines, and strewn about the floor were reams of paper with words scribbled on them in two different sets of handwriting: hers, and William Blake’s, who was now dying in her arms.
It had been the greatest and briefest friendship she had ever known. They had both spent the night painting, drinking, reciting, drinking, writing and laughing. Chloe no longer felt shackled to her hormones. The compulsion was gone, pummelled into the ether with paint, laughter, red wine and black ink.
Blake’s breathing had become very quiet now, and the paint on Chloe’s breast was dry. As she held his head in her lap, she told him that she would miss him terribly.
‘Do you pity me?’ he asked.
‘Yes,’ replied Chloe, unable to prevent one of her tears falling on to his cheek.
‘Then I love you.’
And with that, William Blake died in her arms at 6.07 a.m.
She dialled the number Alex Hands had given her for removal of the spent clone, wrapped it in an old towel and left it on her front lawn, as instructed.
Then Chloe Nicholls went to bed and fell asleep immediately for the first time in five years.
At their next session, Chloe sensed that Edward was more distant than usual. Perhaps he knew that she was going to quit, now that she had been cured by William Blake.
‘Is something wrong, doctor?’ she asked.
‘Not at all, Chloe,’ he replied after a pause. ‘Kind of you to ask, though.’
‘I’m feeling much better. I’m not sure that I need further treatment.’
‘I’m so glad for you, Chloe,’ Dr. Godfrey smiled awkwardly and shifted in his chair and his face dropped. ‘Thank you for being forthright with me.’
‘But I thought that we might see each other again. Outside of therapy,’ Chloe blushed. ‘If that’s not too forward?’
The doctor looked shocked and Chloe’s heart sank in anticipation of a professional brush-off. Now he was blushing, too. He didn’t seem to know what to say as he wrestled with his smile. Chloe took one of his fidgeting hands in hers.
‘I have to ask you one question first,’ he said.
Chloe nodded, and kept looking into Edward’s shy eyes while he spoke.
‘Do you pity me?’