She was wary of testing out her ability, like a learner swimmer who loved the sea but feared the waves. One thing she noticed was that when she lost her human form the clothes she was wearing disappeared with it, yet when she changed back she was dressed exactly as before. (She accidentally exploited this when a devastatingly attractive man came into a jeweller's on Princes Street just as she was trying on an expensive necklace. On becoming human again in the back lane, she decided to keep it: there had to be some compensations. There was no danger of her plummeting into a life of crime as long as she was unable to control her transformations). She was more preoccupied with finding ways to thwart her squirrel-shape. There was no problem with looking at photographs of hot guys. And familiarity tended to dull the feeling, so that after a few weeks she was able to make friends with some of the better-looking male students. But no sooner did the prospect of real, hot, breathless sex rear its head than the squirrel reflex kicked in and she would have to scuttle into the nearest dark corner, beating her paws in anguish until the object of her desire took matters into his own hands and left.
Once, on a skiing trip, she got friendly enough with a guy she knew to risk taking him out for a drink. She exaggerated the effect of the alcohol so that they staggered up the hotel stairs arm in arm. So far, so good. In the room she persuaded him to put on a zombie mask she had brought for the occasion. And it might have worked, too, had the guy not wrong-footed her by leaping out of the bathroom wearing the mask and nothing else. He gave up a full-throated roar as she gave up her human form. The worst thing about it was that there was no way to escape the room, so she was forced to hide in the corner, impatiently twitching her whiskers, while her dejected would-be lover consoled himself to the jerking rhythms of the porn channel. As she watched furious-faced men couple mechanically with women whose bodies had been vulcanised by plastic surgery, who moved like inflatable dinghies on a storm-tossed sea, she thought: was that what real sex was like for ordinary people? It looked anything but arousing, and for a moment she wondered if watching porn while she did it might be the solution to her problems. But the thought that guys could be turned on by bodies that were even more grotesquely distorted than her own appalled her. Her squirrel form didn't trouble her for several months after that.
The source of Lydia's condition was a perfect mystery. No, worse than a mystery: in the Middle Ages, or in a part of the world where religion was still the rule, it might have counted as a mystery. She would perhaps have gone to a priest or a witch doctor and submitted herself to a painful and degrading exorcism, but at least she would have cherished some hope of a cure. Instead she was confronted with an insoluble conundrum, like a crossword puzzle where the clues didn't fit the grid. There was no history of animal transformation in her family: this had been confirmed when the 15-year-old Lydia tried to raise the subject with her mother in the wake of some early experiences in the playground. It happened three times, always in the same fashion, always involving the centre-forward on the school football team: she would eye him up for weeks with measured coquettishness, go to her chosen spot on the edge of the playground to play with her hair and wait for him to saunter over with his seductive air of detached self-confidence. First came the rush of blood, then a sensation like acute travel sickness as her heart dropped into her shoes, then the towering wave of rage and anguish as the backs of his smooth, brazen, muscular legs retreated towards his circle of friends.
It took her weeks to build up the courage to confront her mother: she was horrified by the thought of what she might find out about her parents' relationship. "Mum,the 15-year-old Lydia had asked furtively, "Did you ever get any weird sensations when you were, you know ... with a man?Her mother had looked alarmed and said: "Is there something you need to tell me, sweetheart?"I don't know, Mum. I've just been having these strange feelings lately whenever I'm around Gerry.(Gerry was a boy in her class whom she had no feelings for whatsoever, but at this stage she was still worried that just thinking about a gorgeous guy might trigger the change). "Ah,her mother had laughed with relief, "You don't have to worry about that. Just don't look too interested in him. Boys don't need any encouragement in that department, believe you me.”
There was no scientific explanation either: she had exhausted every biology textbook in the university library in ascertaining that, thumbing through pictures of genetic mutations that gave her nightmares for weeks but yielded no hint of her apparently unique perversion of the DNA double helix. It was clearly not a subject she could raise with her doctor, and when she consulted a psychoanalyst all he did was bore her with esoteric jargon and charge her the equivalent of several monthsrent for the privilege. Like the witch doctor and the exorcist, he made the elementary mistake of assuming that the squirrel was something separate from her that could be expunged with careful probing: "Do you think this squirrel is a metaphor for your fears about sexuality and the act of sexual congress? "No," she'd wanted to scream, "It's a wee furry creature that I become whenever I'm about to get properly laid!" She knew all the fairy stories in which animals are transformed into people as they endeavour towards, if not full human status, then at least indefinite leave to remain, but this wasn't her nature. She wasn't a squirrel who had taken human form to find her prince: she was a woman who at the least convenient moments took the form of a squirrel. It wasn't a fairy story, just a pain in the tits.
Work proved more of a challenge. Front-of-shop jobs in hotels or banks or clothes shops were out - she couldn't risk transmogrifying in front of a startled customer and having tail trodden on in the ensuing panic (she'd read a lot about squirrels and knew that they could shed part of their tail to escape a predator; the thought of how that might look when she reverted to human form was truly terrifying). As a student she took holiday jobs in tourist shops on the Royal Mile, reasoning that attractive people didn't shop there. It would have been easy to hide in a pile of woollen sweaters if she had ever needed to, but her intuition proved sound and the summers passed without incident. And after graduating with a degree in politics she began a career in the civil service, where the danger of ever meeting anyone alluring was, in her estimation, infinitessimal.
Then one day it happened. Against all the odds, Lydia fell in love.
Graham was a slightly older colleague in the policy planning department, a well-built but unprepossessing man with dishevelled mousy hair, ears that were slightly too big for his face and a narrow range of facial expressions. He fell into the category of not-quite-good-looking people who wonder why they always get overlooked at parties: his face was tidily arranged, but there was nothing about him that would make a woman want to jump in his car unless he was driving straight past her door and didn't mind diverting past the 24-hour garage to pick up some milk. Lydia got talking to him in the staff canteen and found he had a smile that might have been cute on someone with less craggy teeth, as well as an inexhaustible capacity to listen, nod in the right places and comment without judging. Nice but resistible: it wasn't such a bad compromise, when she thought about it. Like all men he loved to dive deep down into her magnetically black eyes, and because he never quite managed to turn her on he was pretty soon diving into other places as well.
She loved him in every way except the obvious, and that gap was easily plugged with some well-timed gasps. They talked of getting engaged and she was surprised to find the idea excited her. He marked their first anniversary with an extravagant bouquet and a table at their favourite restaurant. As Lydia chatted to friends and investigated the opaque world of long-term relationships, she started to understand that mediocre sex was a wall everyone hit sooner or later. And deep down, she was so grateful to Graham for being kind and snugly and passive and amenably drab that she thought her intenser feelings might simply fade away over time, like a neglected foreign language or the ability to perform cartwheels.
Yet all the time she was stalked by the fear that she couldn't force her squirrel-side into permanent hibernation. One false move at the supermarket checkout or in a hotel lobby bar was all it would take. Graham was not unobservant: if he noticed one of her abrupt disappearances and started asking awkward questions, it would set her irretrievably down the scree-ridden path of deceit. That was the clincher: the thought that there could be no love without honesty. It would be unforgivable of her, she thought, to betrothe herself to a man without declaring her full biological history; it might not even be legal (imagine the stink if it ever reached the divorce courts!). So she sat him down on the sofa one wet August afternoon and poured her human heart out. The whole story took less than an hour to tell, but by the time she was finished the sun had set and it felt to Lydia as if six months had gone by.
He took it well at first. But then the inevitable happened. Like many men, Graham wasn't tremendously vain, but the knowledge that he was incapable of engineering a climax in his beloved was an intolerable burden. A few weeks later, while they were on a weekend by the coast, he rounded on her. "So you mean you've been faking it all this time?" he thundered. "But darling, it's really not important to me," she said (tragically, she was telling the truth). "It's the intimacy that I like, the huddling close to you before and after."
Graham might have been appeased, but fortune was not. That night, as they sat having a drink in the bar, trying to coax their friendship back out from wherever it was cowering, the most beautiful man Lydia had ever seen strolled in and ordered a lime cordial. Her transformation was so explosive that she didn't even have time to put her drink down, so that her vodka tonic toppled over onto its side and drenched her grey fur. She ran out of the door, bristling with rage and dripping with vodka (the stench, magnified by her squirrel senses, made her retch), thinking she had never been so humiliated.
She went straight home and tried for three solid days to phone Graham. When he eventually picked up, he cut her off savagely before she could even begin to explain. "I'm breaking off our engagement and going to find myself a real woman," he roared, "One who when she squeals, I know it won't be because she's foraging for nuts!" He was so satisfied with the way he delivered this riposte that he hung on the line momentarily to listen for the first sobs, the involuntary whimpering sounds that would signal his final victory, but she denied him even that pleasure. It cut her to the quick, though: she had never, ever foraged for nuts. For superstitious reasons she refused to do anything that might encourage her squirrel form to become permanent. As a result, the return to human form could leave her ravenously hungry so much so that she had been know to walk into a Chinese noodle bar at one o?lock in the morning and polish off three set meals for two as the waiters looked on open-mouthed.
She took the next three weeks off work after persuading her doctor to sign her off with a stomach complaint. Graham didn't breathe a word about the weekend or the true nature of her illness. Secretly he longed to have her back, but he couldn't face dealing with both the woman and the squirrel. On the weekend before she was due back at work, he called her and invited her out for a drink. She accepted, relieved but wary, and boarded a bus, clutching hope and a sturdy black handbag, the kind that women boast of carrying their lives around in.
As the doors closed she looked at the bus driver, a lean, handsome man with a brittle covering of stubble, and when she pulled out her ticket he looked her in the eye and gave her an appreciative smile. She felt the familiar combination of "Phwoar, you'll do!and "Oh, no, not again!" as she suddenly found herself looking up at the space her head had occupied a second before. As her handbag bounced on the ground and spewed forth its contents she scampered for cover under the nearest seat.
“A squirrel!" someone screamed. "There's a fucking squirrel on the bus! Vermin! Get it off!"
The bus driver slammed on the brakes and sprang from his cab. "A squirrel on my bus?" he shouted. "I hate those fucking long-tailed rats. Where is it?" She heard him open the cab door and stamp menacingly towards where she was lurking.
Lydia ran out, gave the driver a sharp bite on the ankle, and scurried upstairs to the top deck. She heard him scream: "Fucking beast!" like an actor in a shark attack movie. Her squirrel heart was beating like a bee's wings, but her fear was all human.
Perhaps there was an open window she could leap through, or an acrobatic route back down to the street level. But upstairs all she found was a sea of legs which churned and rippled as the cries of "Squirrel!" went up in wave formation. ("Is it a red or a grey?" someone asked. "A grey! A fucking grey!" yelled the driver, who was halfway up the stairs in hot pursuit. "Fucking scum should never have been allowed into this country!"
She ran to the back of the bus, but there was no bench to hide under. She ducked away from a swinging leg, only to run straight into a large pair of hairy hands which lifted her up to confront the leering face of the driver. "A-ha, I have you now," he said and constricted his fingers around her. She scratched at him frantically with her paws, but his skin was coarse like leather. His hands embracing her torso, squeezing the air from her squirrel lungs, sent a quickening surge of blood around her body and out between her legs. "Ah, so that's what it feels like," she thought, closing her eyes in giddy triumph. And whether it was the ecstatic twitching of her tiny body or the shock of being covered in effluent, something in the moment distracted her assailant for a vital second. His hands slackened fractionally, Lydia squirmed from his grasp, vaulted over her handbag and its scattered contents, and scurried away.
Graham never saw her again. On Monday morning, riddled with confusion and regret, he called in at a police station and reported her missing. The desk sergeant, a wispily balding man with a tattered moustache, yawned as he went through a time-worn list of questions: whether they had had any blazing rows recently or if there was somebody else in her life. "She might have seemed like a vibrant, engaging young lady to you, sir, but you really didn't know her all that well, did you? All sorts of secrets about people come out when they disappear suddenly."
Gradually the acuteness of Graham's grief softened to a dull ache and then a niggling pain. Yet for months after Lydia's disappearance, on encountering a squirrel, he would offer it a nut and gaze longingly into its eyes, hoping against hope to catch a spark of recognition. Finally, on their second anniversary, just as the last of the autumn leaves were falling, he went into the woods behind his house and buried a foot-long coffin at the foot of a tree where they had once made love. When he went down to the spot the next morning he was bewildered to find a cluster of nuts on top of the freshly turned earth, arranged crudely but unmistakably in the shape of a human heart.
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