was sure all the rats were dead, I showed them to Roger,
my boss at Grimbledon Research.
‘Brilliant, Francesca! Brilliant! Takes chemical warfare
to a new level. That’s working smarter, not harder.’ He
grinned. I’m sure he’s got more than thirty two teeth in
poked through the cage of white corpses on the bench top
as though looking for a favourite chocolate. He pulled
one rat out by its tail and dangled it like a furry yo––yo.
happened with the NATO chemical detector gear?’
‘Doesn’t detect the Novichok series. Penetrated the
protective kit as well.’
on with the testing, then.’
into the animal house and spoke to the keeper, Fred. ‘I
think I’ve got a winner here, with this Novichok-452. I
need primate tests next.’
opened my hand, revealing two vials about the size of
supermarket spice jars. I took one and tossed it into
the air. Fred caught it.
male and two female bonobos? You can have these,’ he
said, turning to the rows of cages. The animals
screeched and jumped, shaking the bars. He made a note
of the numbers written on the tags in their ears.
‘They’re all 40 kilos, so I’ll start them on 5 ml. Sign
here. Should have the results in a week.’
back to the lab.
was the end of a long process of improvement on the
Novichok series of nerve agents that the Soviets
invented. The name meant ‘newcomer’, and twenty-plus
years ago they were the most deadly nerve agents around.
What I’d produced was even more potent. Perhaps it’d end
up named after me, whatever the Russian was for
Francesca. Not bad for a woman in her fifties.
the second vial in the fridge in my lab and left for
home. I wished I could tell Desmond about it, all that
clever chemistry, but even if I wasn’t sworn to secrecy,
he wouldn’t have been interested. Not with his
wishy-washy, sixth form political ideas about chemical
warfare. Like how it was immoral when of course, really,
it’d shorten a conflict. That meant it’d save lives and
property. But some people won’t see sense. I couldn’t be
bothered to argue.
moved to a chocolate-box-pretty village when Desmond
took early retirement at age 60. It was a half hour trek
from the nearest station along a muddy lane, and the
buses stopped running at five, so I always had to walk
it. The sort of place where newcomers might be spoken
to, but only after about 20 years’ residence - only
another 18 to go.
mud had frozen into solid ridges that dug into my feet
through the soles of my boots. By the time I got home,
my face was numb, and my ears were aching. I unlocked
the front door and called hello. A reply came from
upstairs. My heart sank. I flung my bag down and went
Desmond lay in bed, flicking through some book he’d read
more times than I could remember.
you planning to get up today?’ I said, ‘It’s gone half
six. Can I expect the pleasure of your company before
‘Maybe. And then again, maybe not. I worked for nearly
40 years, I’ve earned the right to a rest. I’ll come
down when the grub’s ready.’
pulled the duvet over his head. Just like he’d done
every day since retirement. And, just as I’d done on
every one of those 731 days (there’d been a leap year),
I fought back an urge to shove a pillow over his face
and lie on it. Only a mortgage kept us together. Neither
of us could afford to move out.
we’d eaten, on went the TV, plugging the gap that should
have been filled by conversation. A news item appeared
about pollution in the water supply, from taking the
pill and hormone replacement therapy. It was followed by
an ad for men’s hair dye.
bastards,’ Desmond said, ‘I’d rather stick pins in my
eyes than use that muck. And you don’t take hormone
replacement therapy, do you? Why can’t people grow old
gracefully like us?’
‘Nothing graceful about you.’ I looked at him in his
stained shirt and baggy jeans, slumped in his chair with
his back on the seat and his backside hanging over the
edge. ‘And less of the ‘us’. I’m not old, not really.’
going to bed.’
day when the bonobo results were due, I got up early. I
had to stand up all the way to work with my head clamped
between two commuters like a rat in a brain experiment.
I tensed my muscles, willing the train to go faster. By
the time I got off at the other end, I ached all over.
flung open the door of the animal house. Fred turned
round, tucked his greasy hair behind his ears and
alive. In my humble opinion, your Novichok’s novi good.’
He pointed at the cage. The bonobos sat looking out at
me, silent and still.
sure they haven’t got some little thing wrong with
Checked them before you came in. Fit as fleas.’
him I’d be back that afternoon to watch the autopsy and
went to my lab.
hours later the phone rang. It was Fred, telling me to
come right away. I could hear Roger in the background,
shouting about pushing the envelope.
sea of white-coated bodies parted to reveal the bonobos
sitting in the middle of a table. The two females were
holding hands while the six males were doing a group
hug. Roger’s boss, the Head of Department, prodded one
of the hand-holders with a ruler. Instead of ripping it
out of his grip and attempting to pull his head off, the
animals moved farther down the table, out of reach.
a new crowd-calming measure!’ said the Head. ‘One blast
into the middle of a riot and it’ll be instant love-in.
You can keep your lacrimators and your water cannon,
they’re so last year.’ Nods all round.
to get the design lads in to come up with better
protective suits, don’t want the police turning into a
bunch of hippies. We’re going to keep these test animals
alive, see how they get on. You never know, they might
end up composing the works of Shakespeare! Have to get
them some typewriters. You know, infinite number of
monkeys and all that.’
ripple of toadying laughter ran round the room. I turned
so fast! Because of your part in all this, I’ve
nominated you for a bonus. Fifty smackers!’
to the fridge, took out the second vial of Novichok-452
and slipped it into my bag. It fitted into a gap at the
back of the kitchen cupboard, behind the pack of exotic
spice mix I’d only used once.
morning, Desmond grunted, got up and lumbered onto the
scales we kept in the bedroom. As he stood scratching
his gut I peered round him at the numbers.
done, 170 pounds. You’ve stayed the same,’ I said.
‘Tea?’ Ten ml should do it.
came back upstairs Desmond was lying with the duvet
pulled up to his ears, looking like a giant maggot. He
shut his eyes and turned his back, the light from his
bedside lamp glinting off his bald patch. After I put
the Novichok-laced cup next to the bed, I said goodbye
and left for work.
bonobos were still alive, although they hadn’t written
any plays. Two were lying on the bench, one with its
head on the other’s chest. A third was fanning the
loving couple with Fred’s newspaper.
‘Morning, boys and girls,’ I said, giving them a wave.
One reached out, took my hand and shook it. Two hopped
off the table and lollopped over to the coffee machine
that Fred kept in the corner, against all regulations.
Between them they managed to pour out a cupful and pass
it to me.
evening, I managed to get my fingers thawed out enough
to open the front door.
of tea?’ Desmond stuck his head round the kitchen door.
‘You look like you could do with one.’
do you mean ‘look like I could do with one’?’ I snapped,
‘All dried up and worn out, am I?’
‘Course not. You look just fine. Don’t have a go at me.
I just meant, you’ve had that rotten train ride and then
that walk. And after a hard day, doing whatever it is
you do.’ He came out of the kitchen and put his arm
round my shoulders.
shook it off and undid my coat. ‘Like you care what I
do. And I can’t tell you anyway.’
Desmond helped me off with the coat and hung it up.
‘Don’t be like that. What’s wrong? Can’t you tell me
shrugged. ‘It’s nothing, just a crap commute. You’re
right about that, at least.’ I took off my gloves and
looked at his turned down mouth and creased forehead.
‘Don’t worry. It’s nothing, I mean it. Sorry I was
ratty. It’s brass bonobos out there – feel my hands!’
Desmond took them in his. ‘Ow– they’re like ice! Poor
you.’ He blew on them and rubbed them with his thumbs.
We stood looking at each other for half a minute.
you can let go now,’ I said. ‘I’ll have a cuppa, but
only if you’re going to. You don’t have to wait on me.’
no trouble. There’s tea in the pot.’ He went into the
kitchen and came back with a steaming mug.
that down you. Milk in first, no sugar.’
remembered! Didn’t think you heard me say I was cutting
down on the carbs.’
heard. But you don’t need to lose weight. You look just
always say that. Without actually looking at me.’
sipped my tea. ‘This is the most time we’ve spent
actually talking, in years.’
to do something about that.’
day, I didn’t go into work. I said something had come
up. I was awakened the morning after that by the front
door slamming. I leaned over the banister. Desmond was
hanging his coat up.
back to bed! I’ll be up in a minute.’
backed into the bedroom, carrying a tray.
went to the florist’s shop in the high street. Last
one!’ He pointed at a red rosebud in the crystal vase
we’d been given as a wedding present. He shivered. I
helped him warm up.
result, I got to work an hour late. Fred leaned back in
a chair in the lab, feet on the bench.
was waiting for me as well, nostrils flaring.
‘Bloody trains,’ I said, taking my coat off. ‘Sorry,
I’ll stay late this evening. How are the bonobos?’ I
fought an urge to knock Fred’s feet off the bench and
him off his chair with a single swipe of my arm.
bore down on me, flapping a bit of paper at me like a
are they? Look at this! Look – at – this!’
shoved the paper under my nose. Fred’s writing: autopsy
results. Subjects: six female bonobos, two male. Test
‘What’s the problem? You used more animals, Fred?’
he bloody wasn’t tasked with that,’ Roger said. ‘Those
were the eight original bonobos – six males and two
females. Your chemical made them all swap sex. No
mistake - these are the ears tags, see? See?’
He waved them in my face. I backed away from him.
he yelled, ‘I just submitted a paper to ‘Nature’, on our
new wonder riot control measure.’ He slammed out of the
down with a thud. Fred came and leaned over me, wiping a
trail of sweat off his face with his sleeve. I leaned as
far away from him as I could without falling onto the
‘Interesting how it affects different species in
different ways,’ he said, as though this was some
academic theory, not my job on the line. ‘I reckon it
makes the body resistant to its dominant sex hormone.
And super-sensitive to the minute quantity of the
opposite one that we all produce. So, your male bonobos’
testosterone doesn’t work anymore while the oestrogen
does. And vice versa. We’re waiting to see what it does
to the chromosomes, but it’s sex swap, Bob’s your uncle.
Or your aunt.’
my coat back on again. ‘Tell Roger I was called away on
an urgent personal matter.’
legs turned to water as I unlocked the front door. The
smell of baking wafted out. I could hear Desmond in the
kitchen singing along with the radio, in his usual
baritone. I exhaled.
came into the hall.
back already?’ He put his arms round me, getting flour
on my coat. ‘What’s the matter? You’re shaking.’
‘Nothing, I’m fine. As long as you are.’
shouldn’t I be? Go and sit down. I’ll stick the kettle
next day was Saturday. I woke up, rolled over and
stretched out my arm. Just a rumpled duvet and a dented
pillow next to me. The bathroom door shut, and footsteps
came back. The bedroom door opened. I turned round, with
a sick feeling.
was naked. Six feet tall. Straight, shoulder-length
blonde hair, blue eyes, and Desmond’s smile on the face
of a thirty year old. Body the same age.
been awake for hours! What do you think?’ She twirled
‘Desmond, I’m so sorry.’
be, it’s not your fault. Must be that stuff in the
water. No, don’t cry,’ she put her arms round me.
is, it’s all my fault,’ I howled, pushing her away. ‘Put
some clothes on.’
‘Haven’t got any. It can’t be your fault, unless you’ve
started taking HRT.’ I shook my head, and burst into
it, I was only joking. I should sue the arse off the
water company but, you know, I kind of like it. Feels
what are we going to do?’
pursed her lips and her brow creased.
first of all, let’s go shopping. I need a whole new
wardrobe. My jeans still fit me but they make me look
like shit. Can I borrow a bra?’
good, your boobs are much bigger than mine.’
cupped them and stood looking at herself from the side
in the mirror, smiling and nodding. ‘Yeah, they are,
a shirt till we get something better.’ I started to get
dressed. ‘What shall I call you? Desdemona?’
mimed putting her finger down her throat. ‘Actually,
I’ve always liked the name Felicity.’
‘People are going to call you Flick.’
‘They’ll only do it once.’
woman next door trimmed the same bit of hedge repeatedly
as she stared at the stranger getting into the car
wound down my window and jerked my thumb towards
Felicity. ‘Desmond’s sister, keeping me company! He’s
working away and she’s staying for a bit.’
in a noisy café in the shopping centre, surrounded by
bags and boxes.
are going to take some getting used to.’ Felicity
stretched out her fishnet-encased leg, ending in
pointed-toed purple patent leather with a five-inch
shoes look too tight.’
they’re fine.’ She got up and looked down at her feet.
‘I love them,’ she shouted over the noise. ‘They make my
legs go on forever.’
your voice down! Those men are looking at us.’
‘Looking at me, you mean.’ She sat down again.
glowered at her.
don’t be cross. You’ve got your good points too. Like,
you’re so clever, saying I was my own sister.’
reached across the table and took my hand.
snatched it back. ‘Stop it! It looks weird.’
OK. It’s not like I fancy you, or anything. I fancy
scowled at the two gawping men. One of them nudged his
old one’s staring me out,’ he said. ‘Probably the fit
I reckon she’s a lezzer,’ the other one replied.
they were holding hands.’
on, we’re going.’ I grabbed Felicity by the arm and
pulled her to her feet.
do we have to?’ She towered over me, frowning. ‘I want
to practise flirting.’
dragged Felicity out of the café, staggering along on
be a stupid tart, that’s not how it’s done. Undoing so
many buttons, on that dress you insisted on buying, that
they could see your knickers. And it’s too tight.’
would you know? And don’t tell me what to do.’
not? We’re still married,’ I said.
are we, though?’
the way home, neither of us spoke.
the front door behind us and leaned against it, fanning
myself and gasping.
never want to do that again.’
Felicity apologized. ‘It’s my hormones. I’ll try to be
more subtle when you and me go clubbing it tonight. Best
mates?’ she put her hand out.
shook it. ‘Best mates. But do we have to go out
tonight? After that ordeal I’ve earned the right to a
frowned. ‘Miserable cow. I’ll go on my own, if you’re
going to be-’
‘Alright, I’ll come, calm down. Go and make us a cup of
wiggled towards the door.
don’t walk like that!’ I called after her.
lighten up. I’m just rehearsing for later.’ She thumbed
her nose and sashayed out of the room.
old one, they’d called me. How long would it be before
Felicity’s new best friend wasn’t enough for her? How
long before I found myself living on my own, or in some
kind of ménage a trois?
handed me a cup. I took a sip. ‘You forgot the sugar.’
‘Thought you’d given it up.’
back on it. No, stay there. I won’t be a minute.’
my cup into the kitchen. 10 ml of Novichok-452 would be
enough for someone my weight. I added another spoonful,
for good luck.
Felicity switched on the telly.
Wan. Great. I want some fashion tips, I think you’re
right about this dress. What are you going to wear?” She
picked up her tea. “Cheers!”
leaned back in my chair and raised my cup.
“Here’s to us,” I said, downing it in one.