Chloe Nicholls could no longer love. Doctors told her that her sexual compulsion was most likely a psychological reaction to some kind of trauma. And the medication that they gave her only ever made her sleepy or hungry. As she rode in the black cab for her latest consultation, she watched all the normal people go about their business in the city. She wanted to appear as normal as possible to her new psychiatrist. She just wanted to be beige and grey, just like them.
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 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 had succeeded 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 techno-sexual craze: one night stands with clones. He had spoken out against the practice in the beginning, when only the richest could afford it. Now, it wasn’t uncommon to see allsorts of people carrying spent clones’ corpses to the recycling station first thing. 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 become a pariah, thanks to the company selling these services. Their connections to organised crime had even brought heavies to the doorstep of his Notting Hill home. But neither the threats nor the vilification bothered him much, being such an unexcitable sort. He continued to warn the public away from Bonaclone anyway. The complications that Edward had seen were wide-ranging in severity and nature. One of his patients eloped with his preferred clone and was subsequently institutionalised by court order. The Church weren’t too happy about being duped, either, having consecrated the marriage in a small Hampstead chapel.
Edward reviewed the file of his new patient Chloe Nicholls. A good old-fashioned sexual compulsive on his books again, with no history of clone use. A string of placebos from her GP, then the usual mild psychoactives – all to neutral or negative effect. Edward buzzed reception to send her into his office.
Chloe prayed that the doctor would be repulsive in some way. And that he wouldn’t say anything erudite. She stared at the letters after his name on the brass plaque as she stood outside his door, her knuckles hovering over the wood. Of course he was going to say something erudite. That’s what she was paying him for. She held her breath as she knocked.
The office was large and cold, with two huge panoramic tinted windows looking over Notting Hill. She walked across the office floor to Dr. Godfrey’s desk. He stood up and stretched out his hand.
‘Sorry, Doctor Godfrey. I 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. She burst into tears at the doctor’s kind words.
‘Why would you be? I’m disgusting.’
‘That’s not true, 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 like an old keepsake.
‘Would you like to tell me when this started becoming a problem?’
‘About five years ago, I went through a bad break-up.’
‘And it started happening after that?’
Chloe nodded, avoiding the doctor’s eyes again.
Her neurosis was serious, but 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 him panic. She was perfect in every single way except for the grave psychosexual disorder. Ed would have that sorted out within six months. Bonaclone’s PR dream: to find out that Dr. Edward Godfrey, moralistic crusader, was in love with one of his own patients. His licence would be revoked within a week. He also didn’t want anyone else to have her. Especially not some muscle-bound, white-toothed test-tube golem from Bonaclone.
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. 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’s kind smile. 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 down the steps until she was approached by a handsome man in an expensive suit.
‘Miss Nichols, I work for a boutique company based in Highgate that offers a discreet service 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
7, Shields Way, Highgate.
The next day, Chloe finished work early and decided to investigate. She walked quickly past the cemetery before she started thinking about fragility and brevity. Surefire triggers for arousal.
The office was in a Victorian detached halfway up a hill, hidden from the road by ancient oak trees and a mossy sandstone wall. Chloe walked up the gravel pathway to the door of the house. She buzzed in through the front door and stood on the creaky floorboards. 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 an 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 words 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?’
‘All we need is 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.’
‘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. He plucked a green leather-bound edition from the bookshelf 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.
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 and defiling her.
He’d lose his practice – even his licence – for her.
He probably wouldn’t, in truth.
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. Edward felt shame for his inactions, rather than his actions.
He 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 in the morning breeze as she walked down the hill towards the cemetery. He waited until she’d turned the corner at the bottom of the hill, then walked up the gravel path and pushed the buzzer. 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. 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. She sat up and opened the book at a random page. 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. She realised that all her finer virtues had been suffocated by the pillows of lovers; strangled by the sheets of their beds. Blake’s words and illustrations were pulling her from the mire and she wanted more of that feeling. 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 believe that she was loved, for a moment. 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 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?’
‘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. He parked the Mini behind a dark blue Bentley and watched the office for ten minutes before a man emerged. He had groomed hair and expensive shoes that echoed when they hit the pavement. He 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 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 car to an industrial park. The only units that were still open were garages populated by mechanics 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 car 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. He exhaled a puff of smoke and disappeared between the rubber pillars.
Edward looked back towards the Bentley to see the 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 young man opened the door of the Bentley for him, the old man refused to get in. Edward watched the young 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 oblige.
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. Certain personality types would turn their affliction into financial gain. 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 until Chloe 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 car.
Edward waited there all night for a sign of what might have been taking place inside the house. He heard the occasional bursts of music and laughter, but by 4 a.m. there was only the sound of rain in 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 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 various colours of paint . Magnificent daubings twisted together like vines on walls. Strewn about the floor were wild scribblings 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 spent the night painting, writing, reciting, drinking, and laughing together. Chloe no longer felt shackled to her body. Metaphysics had taken over. The compulsion was gone, pummelled into the ether with paint, red wine and black ink.
Blake’s breathing had become quiet now, and the paint on Chloe’s breast had dried. As she held his head in her lap, she whispered in his ear. ‘I’ll miss you.’
‘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?’
‘Not at all.’
‘I’m not sure that I need further treatment.’
‘I’m so glad for you, Chloe,’ Dr. Godfrey 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?’
Chloe’s heart sank in anticipation of a professional brush-off. He looked shocked. 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?’
More Short Stories
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