Forrester was weird. That was my first impression. He said he couldn’t talk about his job, it was something hush hush. No, actually he didn’t use those words, I inferred them, but I suspected it was Intelligence work. The day he moved in, a security guy turned up to fit a scrambler to our phone and returned frequently to sweep the apartment for buggings. Forrester would only say that it was ‘necessary’ for his work. There was the zoo smell when he left his door open, and those odd grunts and yelps in the night, which might have been down to bad dreams or solo sex jinks. And then, in the shower, I began finding what appeared to be scales, the same size and colour as lime-pastel honesty seeds. I contemplated boxing them up and sending them to the Zoological Society with a simple query like, ‘What sort of reptile is this?’
He paid his rent, at least, which I depended on (this is London), and seemed comfortably off, whatever it was he did. Expensive suits, nice stuff I admired, and good shirts, double-cuffed with diamond links; a signet ring on his left little finger, lumpy gold with a diamond dint. But didn’t Intelligence operatives need to be ‘grey men’, unlike Forrester? He was always the first man you’d notice in a crowd, tall and bigly built. Most of his head seemed concentrated in meaty jaws, like a Rottweiler, belittling his eyes to small and squinty nicks of piercing blue.
I never saw him date anyone, neither boy nor girl. He ate breakfast with me, tête-a-tête, which was nice, but he appeared to consume only meat. Huge amounts passed through the refrigerator: steaks, plaited chitterlings, purplish kidneys, piled spirals of red fatty grindings. For many weeks, he kept almost entirely to his room, and I had little more than glimpses of him, listening on headphones, or occasionally plinking at an electronic keyboard.
I had a guinea pig and I loved it, petted it until it purred. It was all I could have, no dogs or cats allowed by the lease. It went missing. I suspected Forrester right away. You would, after all that meat in the diet. And my instincts were telling me. I questioned him. ‘Sorry mate,’ was his reply. ‘No idea. Probably ran away. I expect they do that.’
The middle of one night, Forrester came into my room, naked and ready for anything. It was after the guinea pig mystery. I, myself, can be receptive to a lot of things like this, I mean, someone making advances. It all depends. But it was a shock to discover Forrester wanted me that way. I said no, no, but he did it anyway, brutal and nasty. He went in for biting, and sweated an animal stink.
First my pet, then me.
Something had to change. A locksmith came and fitted a lock and bolts to my bedroom door. I purchased a rape alarm, slipped a note under Forrester’s door. Please get out of my apartment, which he ignored. A few days later there was a reply under my door. This place suits me, and so do you. I thought you wanted what happened. There’ll be no repeat, promise. Amaury xx.
Those bloody kisses. Wanted it?
After that, I avoided him in the kitchen, and he stopped breakfasting or watching TV with me. I’ve got to be honest, I felt it, like a tooth missing after the dentist has pulled it. But I was thinking rape all the time, like when you can’t help chewing on words like beheading and cancer, and I began stopping out a lot at cinemas and shops, walking stores from end to end and drinking at cocktail bars and nightclubs, all places I’d never normally frequent. All to avoid Forrester. That’s when I met Breda.
My first impression was she was dithersome, like a drag act. She was all over me from the off, and I soon decided she would do for now, and moved her in. I wasn’t in love with her, it wasn’t necessary, and I don’t think she cared two hoots for me, either. With Breda, it was sex at first, then money. As for me, I needed to know I could still hack it with a woman after Forrester. And I could, but the thing had shifted. Truth was, I liked it better with Forrester.
My bedroom became Breda’s dressing room. My clothes were mostly routed from the wardrobe for space to house her expensive frills and fusses, the fake furs and strapless skimps. Many nights, the wardrobe doors burst open with a crack from the pressure of all her ruched attire. Unguents and essences populated the dressing-table. I couldn’t find my hair gel or brush any longer. Shoes were paired everywhere, under the bed, on the windowsill, and a rank Parisian stink engulfed us nightly, fugging the air like powdered asbestos. ‘Did you spray the actual bed?’ I asked one day, but she didn’t answer. She rarely answered, once she was moved in.
It wasn’t long before she had got someone to remove the lock and bolts from our bedroom. ‘We don’t want to seem unfriendly,’ she said. ‘Besides—I feel trapped, locked in with you every night.’ I guessed what she was chasing. Hard luck for her, though, because Forrester didn’t like her. There were a few spats in the kitchen. He hissed at her, and one morning tried to bite her. Breda screamed murder, and a couple of mugs got smashed.
‘What are you going to do about it?’ she snarled at me. ‘He needs to be told.’
By then, I had no need to think it over. ‘You should move out,’ I said. ‘That’s the best solution.’
‘I’ve got no money,’ she said. ‘All my cards are maxed. Sub me, and I’ll go.’
So I made a substantial donation to be rid of her, including the cost of taxiing all her baggage to the new billet.
‘Well, she was a bad idea,’ Forrester said. We had soon resumed our breakfasts à deux. ‘By the way, I’m sorry about the guinea pig.’
He was microwaving bacon, sausages, black pudding with its mystery pearly bits (what is that stuff?). There was a steamy carnal odour, and the sound of Forrester eating mouthily, open-wide style. ‘We don’t need anyone else around here, you and me,’ he said. ‘And don’t look at me like that.’
‘I know what you are,’ I said. ‘You don’t fool me.’ I tried to swallow. ‘You’re not even human. I know you can change shape. Your face alters, and I’ve seen the weird lights coming from your room. Why don’t you show me your real body? Go on.’ I hadn’t meant to say that much. Until then, it had only been suspicion in my mind.
‘Best not, mate. You don’t want that. It’ll scare the shite out of you. Let’s just say, I can do human, I can do nice, whatever you want. I can love people— love you. I’ll try much, much harder. Only, be warned. I’ve got my limits, short temper and stuff. And don’t be stupid around me. I don’t suffer fools.’ He had eaten all his breakfast and was wiping the last traces of grease and blood off the plate with his fingers and licking it off. Abruptly he stopped; stood behind me, gripped me in his arms and briefly jammed his head—clunk—against mine. His goodbye kiss was like a dart landing on my neck. Beneath the aftershave came an elusive funk of pond-weed, something foetid. I brushed against tightly-bunched muscles under his shirt, pale and luminous in the cold morning light.
We slept together every night after this, and I forgave the guinea pig thing. Sex is sex, after all, it’s what you want, and I’d come around, though there were drawbacks, particularly when the reptile under the skin peeped out. The fact is, Forrester’s hologram, or whatever trick it was, did occasionally slip. And there were those stinks; the raw meat diet; the eyes shifting to acid green slits. Believe me, glittering reptilian eyes in the bedroom’s half-light, looking me up and down like I was dinner, were not nice. Those times when he was annoyed, he hissed like a steam-hammer and his teeth morphed into needles. I kept a good distance, then.
I was soon into the routine of being with him, acceptant, and falling in love. Yes, I know, don’t bother lecturing me. You can’t love someone who terrifies you. Only he did, and I did, and there it is. We breakfasted and dined together, and weekends, there were marathons of greedy sex, leaving me cracked, battered, blissy. I gave up girlfriend-hunting, forgot about women entirely and we began travelling together. He told me a few things: his mother was French, his father a criminal doing a long stretch for something really bad (unspecified—I suspected murder). He had, he said, found it ‘complicated’, coming to terms with what he was, took comfort that he wasn’t alone in having this weird genetic inheritance. ‘You’ll find us everywhere in public life,’ he said. ‘Just look—politicians, big showbiz names.’ He named some well-known people. Some of it—his appetites—he battled with. I wondered about cannibalism, but there might have been even worse proclivities, things I didn’t want to name. He never actually said MI6, but I was sure it was where he reported, day in, day out. He talked non-committally of the world of Intelligence—nowadays, he said, it focused on gas and oil supplies, the people one bought them from, and the delicate balance of international relations. It was dangerously complex, dealing with Russians, Saudis, the Chinese. Any operative had to have a precise comprehension of consequences.
‘Just look at Libya,’ he said. ‘Look what we did to Iraq.’
I said I knew nothing of international politics. ‘Always vote Labour and leave it at that.’ He snorted at me. ‘I thought you had more sense.’ Yes, Forrester was more intelligent than me. He had, after all, masterminded his way to Oxford, then Harvard—where, I suspect, he’d first been recruited by some agency or other. He hinted at grotesque players I knew I’d never choose to meet. ‘You live in an Enid Blyton world,’ he said. ‘No clue what’s out there. It’s not like that for me. Oh, by the way, I’m being sent abroad soon. I may be gone as long as a year, I don’t know yet.’
This hit me in the guts. I’d never loved before, and now this. ‘I won’t be able to contact you,’ he said. ‘No calls or emails. The office won’t tell you anything, either.’ So matter-of-fact about it, he was, like a man under sentence.
‘What office? What do they know about me?’
‘Well—everything. They have to.’
He was going somewhere in the Middle East—probably—but couldn’t give details. Later, before leaving, he admitted it was a high-risk mission, every mission was. I could find no comfort anywhere. I pictured him captured, imprisoned, tortured. Probably some ghastly execution, beheading most likely. I saw little chance of getting him back alive and unmaimed.
My last snapshot of him: passport on the kitchen worktop, suitcase packed (he travelled questionably light) and him, wearing uncharacteristic casuals— pale summery slacks and polo shirt, luminously marked kickers, sunglasses wedged in his buzz-cut. We had our final hug, his bruising kiss (he couldn’t do any other kind). And he was gone.
Months passed; a whole year, as he had predicted. Towards the end of that time there was a postcard, from Riyadh. My last voyage. After this, I’m yours, it said. Unsigned, of course.
A full fifteen months after leaving, he stumbled through my door. I had waited, could do no different, and he was back and, I saw at once, dying. His skin was the grey of stone, his breathing terrible. I helped him into bed. ‘They poisoned me,’ he said, ‘I don’t know what they used, but it’s probably hopeless. Get an ambulance anyway.’ Reptile eyes glowered often, as the hologram slipped—it happened a lot then—and I had to jump clear when the alligatorish head darted at me. I didn’t ask who poisoned him. Maybe I didn’t want the responsibility of knowing. Before the ambulance could collect him, there was an interception: men in white overalls swarmed in, taking us both by plain van to a private ward, complete with armed guard. They let me stay with him and we clung together, for days it seemed, as he wrestled against death.
He pulled through, but my arm is gone. It was the left one, torn off by those needle teeth during the worst of his frenzies. I had to leave him then, for emergency treatment, transfusions and stitches. Nothing could be done to save the arm because it was gone, inside of him. I have forgiven him, of course. We were bludgeoning fate to save him and I guess a sacrifice was called for. When he was in his right mind again, he asked, ‘What happened to your arm?’ I hesitated, still too traumatised, and then he said, ‘Oh. I see.’
There are debriefings now. People coming and going. I make tea, keep out of the way. I am tormented by phantom limb pains, off and on.
A file exists, he says, notes on a new mission. Phrases like prolonged fieldwork and ultra-sensitive slip from his lips. I see his need, greedy for fresh testing. And one raw look—jungly and bleak—tells me our future, even as he reaches for the hand that is still mine.