IT’S ALMOST EMBARRASSING TO admit that this is my favourite fantasy. It is so commonplace, after all, and something plenty of women do every day and every night. If only I wasn’t such a freak, I’d have done it myself long ago. But I can’t bring myself to do it – I can’t get past the thought that he might be contaminated. Any amount of fungus might be blooming beneath his perfect skin. His broad chest could be full of deadly spores. I might put my lips up to his be kissed, only to find the sweetish stench of decay wafting from his mouth. Ulcers, sores, nail infections – all might hide inside a fashionable suit.
I sound mad, I know. I’m quite aware that my scruples aren’t normal. Not everyone wears surgical gloves to leave the house; not everyone flinches if a person comes within half a foot of them; not everyone has a weekly spend of £150 on household detergents. And other people have sex. They touch each other. They give each other pleasure. I have not had an orgasm other than by my deeply-disinfected vibrator in five years – not since Gerry left, citing irreconcilable differences. He said I should be cryogenically frozen because nobody would be able to tell the difference. He said I could cosy up to a bottle of bleach if that’s what I wanted.
It wasn’t what I wanted though. I don’t want to be this way. I want to feel a touch again, without fifty images of rotting flesh flashing before my eyes. That is why I dialled the Number. I suppose they are used to people asking for all kinds of perverted, disgusting stuff, but all I wanted was to pick up an attractive man in a bar and take him to bed. So simple, so dull in a way. But it would – perhaps – change my life.
I received an email a week later, inviting me to London to choose a suitable candidate and to witness the many, many tests I had stipulated in my initial contact. The address I arrived at was in Harley Street, at the back of a large private practice. I was shown to a rather nicely furnished waiting room, where I was introduced to a gentleman in a suit. At least, I say I was introduced – he did not give me his name. He simply said, ‘Mrs Davies – I’m delighted to meet you. I’m from the Number.’ Then he held out a hand, which I waved away as usual.
‘You must excuse me,’ I said. ‘This is all … a bit like a dream.’
‘I’m sure it must be,’ he said, with a friendly chuckle. He had kind eyes, which was a relief. ‘Your request was a very interesting one. We have had nothing like it before.’
‘No, well, I know I’m a freak,’ I said with a high-pitched laugh that did nothing to convince him that there was anything funny about it.
‘Not a freak, Mrs Davies,’ he said gallantly. ‘We all have aspects that diverge from the norm. I assure you, I am probably substantially less normal than you are.’
‘Oh, do call me Naomi.’
He indicated one of the chintz armchairs, but I did not want to sit down. This was a medical establishment after all. Who knows how many germ-ridden posteriors had brushed those floral cushions?
‘Our candidates should be here very shortly,’ the Number man said to break the awkward silence. ‘We have three – you choose your favourite, obviously. Then we may proceed with the tests.’
‘Ah.’ At that moment, the door opened again, and the receptionist showed in three men, all mouth-wateringly handsome and very, very clean-looking. I turned to the Number man, suppressing an almost irresistible urge to giggle.
‘Gentlemen,’ he said, ‘may I introduce Naomi to you. She is going to choose one of you to perform the scenario she has outlined to us.’
Perform! I actually laughed out loud. This had to be the crowning bizarre moment in a life full of them. They smiled warmly back at me, sizing me up, not that I minded. I’m a good-looking woman, still a long way off middle age, a trim size ten with long legs and unblemished skin. I wondered if they would look so pleasant and forthcoming if I was one of those slobby tracksuited types I see passing my window every day with their dirty-faced children. I supposed they were being paid for this … so they probably would.
‘Well, Naomi, the choice is yours. I’ll leave you to your decision.’
The Number man shrank back in his armchair, picking up a copy of Horse and Hound and flicking through it.
‘What are your names then?’ I asked bravely, trying to maintain a calm demeanour in the face of raging nerves and excitement. Was I really going to end up in bed with one of these dreamboats? Perhaps I should have asked for two … would that cost me extra though? This service was not coming cheap as it was.
‘I’m Liam,’ said the broadest one, a clean-cut, farmboy type in properly-pressed jeans and a plaid shirt. ‘I’m studying vet science.’
‘Oh, a vet. How lovely.’ I shuddered inwardly. Diseased animals – even worse than diseased humans. I flicked my eyes along the row to the next chap, a tall slight blond with a long nose.
‘My name’s Kai. I work as a chauffeur – paying my way through college.’
‘A chauffeur! That’s rather … unusual these days.’
‘It’s a limousine hire company. I drive hen parties around town.’
‘Oh, gosh, rather you than me.’ All those heifers in themed outfits vomiting champagne all over the upholstery. Ugh.
My final candidate was an elegantly-suited black man with glasses.
‘I’m Justus,’ he said. ‘I recently qualified as a lawyer.’
Oh, now this sounded hopeful.
‘What kind of law do you specialise in?’ I asked, dreading that he might say criminal or family.
‘Intellectual property,’ he told me. Perfect! His only contact would be with clever people with enough money to pay him to fight their cases. He seemed by far the safest bet, and the most confident of the three to boot. He might well know his way around a woman’s body, whereas the wet-behind-the-ears youth of the other two did not inspire such hopes.
‘Intellectual property.’ I repeated the phrase, rolling it around my tongue, eyeing his snow-white starchy collar and the way his gold signet ring gleamed in contrast to his matt skin.
‘Are you a lawyer yourself?’ he asked politely, perhaps a little confused by the way I was relishing his career choice.
‘Me?’ I laughed. ‘Oh no, not a lawyer. Though I have used them before. Not your type though – the divorce type.’
‘I’m sorry,’ he said with a formal nod.
‘Don’t be. If I was still with him … Justus, I’d like to pick you. If you’re absolutely sure … I mean, if you don’t fancy me, please walk away, but …’
‘I’m delighted,’ he said. ‘I don’t want to walk away! Just a moment.’ He fished in his pocket and brought out something I recognised only too well. Surgical gloves. After slipping them on, he held out a hand to me. I was captivated – it was such a strong and emotional feeling, it was almost like love. To think that a man could be so considerate … it was new to me.
The Number man had discreetly dismissed the other two, and now the three of us were alone, to get to the bare bones of the matter – the necessity for tests.
I watched through glass as Justus underwent a battery of examinations and swabs and needle pricks. I was impressed that he was willing to do all this for … OK, for money. Not for me. All the same, I thought, many men might have just shrugged halfway through the taxing afternoon and flitted off to find a normal girl and a bar job. Justus gave up every part of him, from epidermis to saliva to blood, just so that I could have this one shot at an ordinary life, with uncomplaining stoicism. This was a man, I thought. A real man.
‘We will have the results in a week,’ the lab technician told us.
‘A week,’ nodded Number man. ‘Very well. Naomi, we will be in touch. Be prepared.’
I laughed, a little miserably. I was always prepared.
I had a text the next week to say that all the results were clear, and I should wait for further instructions. Wait. Waiting is a thing I do well, walled up in my disinfected gleam-white haven. I see ordinary life through the screen of my television and I yearn for it, for the careless kisses and rough embraces I watch in the soap operas. I was watching one such soap opera – an omnibus edition – on the fateful Sunday afternoon. My telephone bleeped and I knew it was them. I never get text messages from anyone else.
I took it off the table and fumbled with the buttons, taking far too much time to call the message on to the screen in my anxiety.
‘Hotel Luxe Noir, seven o’clock,’ it stated. ‘Introduce yourself at Reception.’
And that was it. No more than that. I had four hours to get ready and get into London. The journey would take an hour, so I should allow two, I supposed, even on a quiet Sunday.
I spent two hours in front of my mirror, scrubbing my skin and taking my cosmetics out of their tightly-sealed containers to apply them. I had no idea what to wear – I supposed I ought to look sexy – so I put on the slinky black dress I had not worn since Gerry’s office Christmas party of 2002. That was my last night out, I think. It still looked brand new, and luckily I had chosen a classic cut and design, so it had not dated. Perfume. I should wear perfume, though I had a deep suspicion of scents, which I always suspected of being designed to mask the smell of rot. I was committed to appearing as normal as possible, though, so I took a deep breath and spritzed on a citrus thing from Jo Malone that my mother had given me for my birthday.
Before my mascara had dried, the taxi was at the door and I had no option but to grab my handbag and my cushion, shin on my surgical gloves and set off on my adventure.
All the way to London, I sat on my cushion and twisted my latex-covered hands in my lap. Every five minutes I had the urge to take out my phone and make a cancellation by text. All that money though – all the things I had sold on eBay to pay the fee. No. I was going to be brave.