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Story 3

Judith Field

Judith Field lives in London, UK. She is the daughter of writers, and learned how to agonize over fiction submissions at her mother’s (and father’s) knee. She’s a pharmacist, medical writer, editor and indexer.

She has two daughters, a son, a granddaughter and a grandson. Her fiction, mainly speculative, has appeared in a variety of publications, mostly in the USA.

When she’s not working, writing or singing, she’s studying part-time for a degree in English. She speaks five languages and can say, “Please publish this story.” in all of them.

She blogs at

Judith Field's story "The tap-washer talisman" appeared in the Fall 2013 issue of 4 Star Stories.

“Novichok-452” is a cautionary tale of science gone wrong -- or did it?.











By Judith Field






When I 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 there.

He 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.

‘What happened with the NATO chemical detector gear?’

‘Doesn’t detect the Novichok series. Penetrated the protective kit as well.’

‘Carry on with the testing, then.’


I went 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.’

I 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.

‘Six 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.’

I went back to the lab.

This 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.

I put 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.

We’d 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.


The 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 up.

Desmond lay in bed, flicking through some book he’d read more times than I could remember.

‘Are you planning to get up today?’ I said, ‘It’s gone half six. Can I expect the pleasure of your company before feeding time?’

‘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.’

He 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.

After 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.

‘Sad 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.’

‘I’m going to bed.’


On the 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.

I flung open the door of the animal house. Fred turned round, tucked his greasy hair behind his ears and smirked.

‘Still 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.

‘You sure they haven’t got some little thing wrong with them?’

‘Nope. Checked them before you came in. Fit as fleas.’

I told him I’d be back that afternoon to watch the autopsy and went to my lab.

Two 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.

The 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.

‘It’s 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.

‘Have 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.’

A ripple of toadying laughter ran round the room. I turned to leave.

‘Not so fast! Because of your part in all this, I’ve nominated you for a bonus. Fifty smackers!’

I went 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.


Next 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.

‘Well done, 170 pounds. You’ve stayed the same,’ I said. ‘Tea?’ Ten ml should do it.

When I 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.


The 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.


That evening, I managed to get my fingers thawed out enough to open the front door.

‘Cup of tea?’ Desmond stuck his head round the kitchen door. ‘You look like you could do with one.’

‘What 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.

I 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 that much?’

I 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.

‘Er, 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.’

‘It’s no trouble. There’s tea in the pot.’ He went into the kitchen and came back with a steaming mug.

‘Get that down you. Milk in first, no sugar.’

‘You remembered! Didn’t think you heard me say I was cutting down on the carbs.’

‘I heard. But you don’t need to lose weight. You look just fine.’

‘You always say that. Without actually looking at me.’

‘I’m looking now.’

I sipped my tea. ‘This is the most time we’ve spent actually talking, in years.’

‘Have to do something about that.’


Next 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.

‘Go back to bed! I’ll be up in a minute.’

He backed into the bedroom, carrying a tray.

‘I 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.

As a result, I got to work an hour late. Fred leaned back in a chair in the lab, feet on the bench.

Roger 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.

Roger bore down on me, flapping a bit of paper at me like a matador’s cape.

‘How are they? Look at this! Look – at – this!’

He shoved the paper under my nose. Fred’s writing: autopsy results. Subjects: six female bonobos, two male. Test substance: Novichok-452.’

‘What’s the problem? You used more animals, Fred?’

‘No, 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.

‘And,’ he yelled, ‘I just submitted a paper to ‘Nature’, on our new wonder riot control measure.’ He slammed out of the room.

I sat 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 floor.

‘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.’

I put my coat back on again. ‘Tell Roger I was called away on an urgent personal matter.’


My 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.

He came into the hall.

‘Hi – 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.’

‘Why shouldn’t I be? Go and sit down. I’ll stick the kettle on.  Cake?’


The 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.

She 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.

‘I’ve been awake for hours! What do you think?’ She twirled round.

‘Desmond, I’m so sorry.’

‘Don’t be, it’s not your fault. Must be that stuff in the water. No, don’t cry,’ she put her arms round me.

‘It 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 tears again.

‘Stop it, I was only joking. I should sue the arse off the water company but, you know, I kind of like it. Feels right, somehow.’

‘But what are we going to do?’

She pursed her lips and her brow creased.

‘Well, 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?’

‘No good, your boobs are much bigger than mine.’

She cupped them and stood looking at herself from the side in the mirror, smiling and nodding. ‘Yeah, they are, aren’t they?’

‘Wear a shirt till we get something better.’ I started to get dressed. ‘What shall I call you? Desdemona?’

She 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.’

The woman next door trimmed the same bit of hedge repeatedly as she stared at the stranger getting into the car beside me.

I 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.’


We sat in a noisy café in the shopping centre, surrounded by bags and boxes.

‘These 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 stiletto heel.

‘Those shoes look too tight.’

‘No, 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.’

‘Keep your voice down! Those men are looking at us.’

‘Looking at me, you mean.’ She sat down again.

I glowered at her.

‘Oh, don’t be cross. You’ve got your good points too. Like, you’re so clever, saying I was my own sister.’

She reached across the table and took my hand.

I snatched it back. ‘Stop it! It looks weird.’

‘It’s OK. It’s not like I fancy you, or anything. I fancy them, though.’

I scowled at the two gawping men. One of them nudged his friend.

‘The old one’s staring me out,’ he said. ‘Probably the fit one’s mum.’

‘Nah, I reckon she’s a lezzer,’ the other one replied.

‘Yeh, they were holding hands.’

‘Come on, we’re going.’ I grabbed Felicity by the arm and pulled her to her feet.

‘Oh, do we have to?’ She towered over me, frowning. ‘I want to practise flirting.’

I dragged Felicity out of the café, staggering along on her stilettos.

‘Don’t 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.’

‘What would you know? And don’t tell me what to do.’

‘Why not? We’re still married,’ I said.

‘But are we, though?’

All the way home, neither of us spoke.


I shut the front door behind us and leaned against it, fanning myself and gasping.

‘I 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.

I shook it. ‘Best mates.  But do we have to go out tonight? After that ordeal I’ve earned the right to a rest.’

She 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 tea.’

She wiggled towards the door.

‘And don’t walk like that!’ I called after her.

‘Oh, lighten up. I’m just rehearsing for later.’ She thumbed her nose and sashayed out of the room.

The 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?

She handed me a cup. I took a sip. ‘You forgot the sugar.’

‘Thought you’d given it up.’

‘I’m back on it. No, stay there. I won’t be a minute.’

I took 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.

“Gok 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!”

I leaned back in my chair and raised my cup.

“Here’s to us,” I said, downing it in one.




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