Back To the Grind

September already.

That means less than a week to go before we start back.

I hate this sinking feeling.

Over a month ago there was nothing but time. Time to relax, time to enjoy myself, time to fit in all the things I had to do over the summer.

Now with just a few days left I’m going to have to work like stink to get them all finished before the start of term.

I hate this time of year.

It’s going to be worse this time round as well. I mean the arseholes who pass as my friends aren’t the easiest to get on with at the best of times, but this year, with all the changes, it’s going to be like swimming with sharks. The least hint of blood and they’ll be in there tearing away at my flesh.

Not literally of course; I mean there’s laws against that sort of thing. Mentally though, or emotionally. Carefully chosen words can bruise your soul as badly as well placed blows can hurt your flesh. Sticks and stones eh? Whoever came up with that was a dick of the highest order.

I’m told girls are really good at the whole emotional bullying thing. I guess I’m going to find out how true that is.

Mind you, I don’t know if I’d feel much worse if some fuckers did lay into me with their fists. What happened to me when I was on holiday; shit, it was like being run over by a train. I mean it’s been a couple of weeks now and it still hurts just to move.

Which is why I’m wearing my old sweats. Loose and baggy, and soft. As little in contact with my tender parts as possible. I don’t feel much like going out, so it doesn’t matter that I’m not exactly dressed to impress, and it does make things easier.

I wouldn’t have the time to go out even if I did want to, what, with that fucking pile of work. Shit, why do I always leave things till the last minute?

“You’re your own worst enemy,” Mum keeps saying.

Not that that helps.

Nothing for it. Grab a coke out the fridge and get started. I’ll order in a pizza later.

-oOo-

Shit, I can’t ever remember feeling this nervous.

It’s early, so the playground’s almost empty. A few bored and depressed faces turn in my direction as I make my way through the gates, but they slide away just as quickly.

That has to be a good indication, doesn’t it?

My bag seems heavier than usual, the shoulder strap digging deeper into my flesh than I’m used to. Of course there’s more in it than I’d normally have, this being the first day back and everything, but it’s still a lot more uncomfortable than I’d like.

A low whistle tickles my ears. I turn to see Jamie Sargent staring appreciatively at my backside. Not exactly the sort of attention I want to encourage, so I glower at him until his eyes come up to meet mine.

He raises an eyebrow and flashes me a cheeky grin before scooting off round the corner and out of sight, leaving me clutching my pile of books to my chest and feeling faintly disturbed.

My breasts are still a little sore. They’re not particularly big, which suits me fine. I’m sure I have a little growing to do in that department and I don’t fancy the idea of constant backaches and having to lug around a couple of cantaloupes for the rest of my life. Right now I have them tucked away in a bra designed more for comfort than style. The restriction feels a little unpleasant, especially with them being so tender, but I’m still enjoying the novelty of the sensation.

I keep my hands gripping tightly to my books. Jamie’s lecherous attention has me feeling vulnerable and I know they’d be tugging at the hem of my skirt if I let them have their freedom.

The decision to come in a skirt today had been a hard one to make, but it had been the right one. Trousers had been an option too, but I figured I’d be better off taking the bull by the horns. It’s a tight skirt, but not that short, falling an inch or maybe two above my knees. It looks good which is the important thing. I force myself to take a few breaths and remember the way I felt when I looked in the mirror earlier.

-oOo-

It had been a long summer, and had started a few weeks before the end of term when I’d begun a crash diet. Six hundred calories a day for four weeks initially. I hadn’t been massively overweight, but it’d still been a long and arduous trek to reach my goal. The first couple of weeks had been tough, especially with so many kids around the place, stuffing their faces with chocolate and crisps, but I’d stuck with it and the weight had tumbled away. Twenty-five pounds in that first month, leaving me looking positively slender as I climbed onto the aircraft at the beginning of my long awaited voyage.

A couple of weeks later I’d been back in England with pretty much every part of my body screaming out in silently agony. I’d had bruises on my bruises, and I’d felt so miserable that restarting the diet had been unusually easy. My stomach had shrunk quite a bit in the first four week stint, and I hadn’t eaten much during the trip; certainly not enough to make an appreciable difference.

Yeah, the trip. Holiday’s not exactly the right word to describe it. They do say a change is as good as a rest though, and if there’s any truth in those words, my experience that trip was as good as the all-time mother of rests.

It didn’t feel much like it as I limped and staggered my tortured body off the plane, and dragged my luggage towards the train station and eventually home.

Twenty more pounds lost in the month of August. I tried not to use the pain killers I’d been given that much, which made it a fairly miserable month overall, so not having a great deal to eat wasn’t that much of an added hardship.

As was to be expected, given the severity of the diet, as much weight came off my muscle mass as from my fat deposits, leaving me with gratifyingly slimmer arms and legs. I knew I’d have to do some exercise to build up at least a little of the lost muscle once things stopped hurting so much, but overall my body had slimmed down more or less to the size and shape I’d been hoping for. When I’d put that skirt and blouse on this morning, and stood in front of the mirror, I’d barely been able to believe the reflection staring back belonged to me.

Those sheer nylon clad legs had been breath-taking. None of the bruising had reached my extremities, which meant I had about a yard of elegantly shaped, smooth, shimmering skin leading from my low heels up to the hem of my skirt. My waist had narrowed sufficiently, and my arse lost enough of its lardiness, that the skirt looked amazing, or rather I looked amazing in the skirt. My blouse was shimmering, grey silk, loose and long sleeved with the buttons done up high enough to hide both my cleavage and the bruising that still discoloured my chest, but everything went in and out in the right places and added to my truly astonishing appearance.

Even my face looked different. I’d covered the few remaining areas of discolouration with a light dusting of foundation. The school neither approved nor sanctioned the use of makeup, but I doubted they would complain in this case. I’d done nothing with my eyes or lips or cheek bones, but they were, respectively, large, full and prominent, even without cosmetic enhancement.

My hair wasn’t that long. I’d been growing it through the summer, but it had been short to start with and still only just reached my shoulders. My neck had slimmed down along with the rest of me though, thanks to my extreme diet, which meant that the short, feathered hair-style I’d settled on complemented my more delicate features perfectly.

It should have been enough. Looking in that mirror should have been enough to convince me that I had nothing to worry about, but the brain is inventive in its capacity to sow seeds of doubt, and by the time I’d climbed on the bus, laden down with all my first day back crap, I’d been desperately looking for a dark hole to crawl into.

From then to now, the feeling hasn’t left me. I close my eyes and visualise the reflection in my mirror. It’s enough to unglue my feet, and I continue walking towards the main entrance.

I catch sight of my reflection as I approach the glass fronted double door. My hair is weaving about, drawing its own sine wave through the air, just a little out of phase with the rest of me. The reflection isn’t perfect. It’s dark and indistinct, but it’s enough to lift my spirits, and by the time I reach out for the handle, my head has risen a couple of inches, my shoulders are back, small breasts protruding just a little, despite being squashed by my books, and my back is straight.

A suspicious face looks up from the computer screen behind the receptionist’s desk. It wears the air of dejected disinterest appropriate to the menial and thankless task of its owner.

“Can I help you?” The nasal whine seems to beg me to answer in the negative.

“I believe I’m expected,” I say, trying for a cheerful – but in my terror, probably just about managing manic – grin. “Jackie Swan?”

“You’re not related to er..?” Her attention is diverted elsewhere as she hunts through various screens of information, seeking to appease the demon lord of bureaucratic administration by printing out several forms for me to read and fill in. She doesn’t finish her sentence, and by the time she offers me the forms, she seems unaware she ever started it.

“Thanks.” I take the sheaf of papers, choosing to ignore her half uttered question. “Is it alright if I get these back to you by the end of the day?”

“Yeah, that should be fine.” It doesn’t surprise me. The later I let her have them, the more likely she’ll be able to put off yet another onerous task to the next day. “You know where you’re going?”

I nod down the corridor in the right general direction. This place is familiar to me, even if I’m not entirely familiar to its inhabitants. In an hour’s time, the corridors will be a sea full of boisterous faces and too much noise where I’m used to disappearing in the chaos; it’s hardly surprising I can pass unrecognised.

For now.

I swallow and decide to enjoy a few more moments of anonymity before pennies start dropping. I don’t think Jamie recognised me any more than Carol did on the desk, but there has to be enough familiarity about my features that something will be nagging away in the backs of their minds. Sooner or later something will click…

-oOo-

The classroom is deserted; as empty as the corridors given that very few people are in yet. That won’t last for long. I can feel the tension building in the walls. The school knows term is about to start; it’s bracing itself for the imminent onslaught. I drop my burden onto my desk and settle into my chair. The skirt is tight enough that I don’t need to scoop it under me, but it is also short enough that I’ll have to work on keeping my legs together. Nothing there to make doing that uncomfortable now though. Except maybe some residual tenderness.

I close my eyes and take in a deep breath, swallowing hard to keep the dread from flooding through me. I want to run away. This is a crazy idea. How could I ever have thought I could get away with it? I’m about to be eaten alive! Despite my efforts, I can feel the terror taking hold. Icy fingers sinking into my chest, my arms, my legs, paralysing me. I swallow again. I can feel myself beginning to hyperventilate. It’s not something that’s ever happened to me before. I’m becoming light headed. Just what I need; to faint on my first day back.

“Hi.”

I look up, startled, into a friendly, smiling face. Clear eyed delight furrows into concern, and she steps into the classroom.

“God, you look awful. Are you alright?”

I nod, too fast, and look away, down at the floor, so worn and scuffed through years of mistreatment, it looks filthy even through its freshly polished surface.

“Come with me,” she said. “You don’t want anyone to find you in this state.”

I let her drag me down the corridor into the loos. They’re deserted like the rest of the place, although the growing noise in the hallway outside suggests that we only just evaded the marauding masses.

She leads me to an empty stall and pushes me inside. I don’t really need to go, but the enclosed space and the privacy and semblance of protection it provides are just what I need. I close the door, but I don’t bother lifting my skirt before perching on the edge of the seat.

I feel the panic receding. I let out a deep breath, and it must be audible through the door, as my rescuer speaks softly through the thin wood.

“You can’t let anyone see you like that, you know. It’s dog eat dog out there. Show no fear and all that. You’ll be fine. I mean it’s not as if you’ve never been in a school before, is it? You just have to stay on top of yourself. You can do this. You’re better than them. You’re an amazing person, and you don’t have any reason to feel intimidated by those arseholes out there, right?”

There’s strength in her words. I can feel myself soaking it up. The feelings of powerlessness, of impending, unavoidable doom begin to recede. I stand up and slide the bolt open. My newest friend smiles at me with the same cheerful greeting she offered me a few minutes ago, and I manage to return it. Not quite so many megawatts, but I can feel something of her courage in me now. Enough to give me back my voice.

“I had Jamie Sargent ogling my arse when I arrived this morning.”

She laughs out loud; a delightful, musical sound.

“That’s enough to put the wind up anyone. How do you know Jamie?”

“Oh come on! Who doesn’t know him?”

She gives me a puzzled look. Somehow she isn’t quite connecting the dots.

It seems strange that she doesn’t recognise me. Then again in retrospect, maybe not that strange. Claire and I have been at this school for more years than I care to think about. I mean what a waste of life, being stuck for so long in a place like this. I guess I’ve always admired her; for her confidence, for her bright cheerful smile.

I, by contrast, have always been the sort of person who blends into the background. It goes with the territory when you’re like me. So busy struggling to cope with the crappy hand life dealt me that I never managed to stand out.

It wouldn’t surprise me if she’d never noticed me before. I suspect the only reason she’s paying me any attention now is because of how I’ve changed.

I wish I could say the change has been more than physical, but if anything I’m more timid, more frightened of life now than I ever was.

Again, it’s early days yet, so probably not fair to judge too harshly at this stage.

At least I found the courage to do something about my problems. Maybe with time, and luck, and a bit more of that courage, I might end up a little like Claire.

If I can just get through this day.

“Here, splash some water on your face. It usually makes me feel better.”

More because she suggested it than because it was a good idea, I do as she says.

“What the fuck…!”

Shit. I forgot about the makeup.

“What happened to you? You don’t have some creep of a boyfriend at home using you as a punching bag, do you?”

Well that settles it; she doesn’t recognise me. I look in the mirror at the bruises all over my face. They’ve mainly gone that sickly yellowish green colour, which means they’re all but healed now. They don’t look good though.

I grab a handful of paper towels and start dabbing at my face until the damp parts are no longer damp. Dumping them in the nearby bin, I grab my handbag and start rummaging through it for my compact.

“It’s not what you think,” I say. “It happened a few weeks ago, when I was on holiday. Nobody to blame but myself.”

“Yeah, I’ve heard that before. Who the hell did this to you?”

“I never could pronounce his name. Doctor Tulaya-something or other.”

“A doctor did this to you?”

“You really don’t recognise me, do you Claire?”

-oOo-

It took fifteen minutes to repair my face. I could probably have done it in five, but with having to explain everything to Claire, then making sure she was okay with it, which she was after the initial shock wore off.

It didn’t help that someone else came into the toilet while we were talking. We exchanged smiles with the newcomer, but it was pretty obvious from the silent glances Claire and I shared, that the intruder had interrupted what was turning out to be a rather private conversation, so she did her thing as quickly as she could, and disappeared back out into the building maelstrom in the corridor outside.

I’d just about finished my story and answered all Claire’s questions when a bell sounded from somewhere nearby. The noise level outside increased slightly for a while then dwindled to nothing as everyone else headed for their classrooms or wherever they were supposed to be.

“We’d better get our skates on too,” Claire said. “Don’t want to be late first day back, do we?”

So we’d ducked out into the near empty corridor and run to and up the stairs. Tight as it was, my skirt rode up to an almost indecent level by the time we reached the second floor. I paused long enough to ease it back down into a more modest configuration and gave myself a quick once over. Not for the first time, I thanked whatever deity had granted me the common sense not to wear too high a heel today.

We walked the last few feet together in an unhurried and composed manner. The door was closed and we could hear talking on the other side; not so much a general hubbub as a single voice making announcements.

So much for not being late.

So here I am, standing outside a closed door. My mouth is dry and my knees are suddenly made of rubber, a marginally more robust and appropriate material than the jelly that seems to fill the rest of my legs.

I don’t know if I can do this. I’m staring at the door as though it’s a cobra with its hood spread wide. I want to run, to hide, to be anywhere else but here.

“Oh for fuck’s sake.” Claire breaks through my trance and reaches past me, twisting the door knob and swinging the door inwards.

The room is filled to bursting as usual at this time in the morning. The door bumps gently into someone’s back and he shuffles deeper into the crowd, turning as he does so to frown at us late comers.

Mr Thurber; the Head.

So, first day back at school, and already not only am I’m late, but I’ve also interrupted the Head’s briefing.

So fucking not the first impression I wanted to make.

He frowns at us for a moment, glancing at Claire, then looking at me with a half puzzled, half expectant expression on his face. When the light finally dawns, it does so with ponderous grace, the incremental glory of dawn rather than the instant flare of a light bulb.

As recognition floods his eyes, his frown tilts upwards at the edges and his face creases with genuine pleasure. He reaches an arm behind me and guides me into the middle of the room where expressions of curious perplexity adorn the faces of people I’ve known years.

“As I was about to say,” the Head resumes his interrupted briefing, “it is with some sadness that I have to announce that Mr Swan will not be re-joining us this term.” As usual at such moments, there are a few noises of disappointment. How many are genuine is beyond my capacity to discern, but there certainly seem to be more sad eyes in the room than I would have predicted. I find it oddly touching.

“Filling his place,” the head continues, “I would like to welcome the newest member to our little team. Miss Jacqueline Swan. How was Thailand, Jackie?”

It takes a few moments for the penny to drop. Quite a few with some of them. Honestly, for a bunch of university graduates, you’d expect a little more mental agility. Except for the PE teachers of course.

As expected, they are the last to react.

Also as expected, they are the worst.

Ignorance and prejudice often walk hand in hand; probably because the former begets the latter. And, whilst not always the case, there are few so ignorant within the teaching profession as those whose ambitions in life extend no further than teaching youngsters to run, jump and do push-ups.

I catch sight of a few faces scowling from their perches above tracksuited bodies, but they’re easy to overlook as the majority of my colleagues move in to welcome the new me into their midst. There are questions of course, like why would I chop off a perfectly serviceable piece of my anatomy. I derive a small amount of pleasure from the number of scowling faces that wince at that particular question; the number of hands that move involuntarily to protect tracksuited crotches. The question doesn’t bother me because the answer is so obvious.

“It always felt like it didn’t belong to me, like it had been given to me by mistake. No I don’t miss it. Yeah, it hurt like bloody hell. My body and face was bruised black and blue by the surgery. I still have quite a few of the bruises to show for it. Yeah, of course my face as well; it would hardly be worth the effort of turning myself in to a woman if I still ended up looking like a bloke in a dress. You should have seen me last week though; it looked like I’d gone ten rounds with mike Tyson, with my hands tied behind my back.

“No I don’t regret it. I feel right for the first time in my life. No I’m not that bothered about the kids; they’re more open minded than adults. To be honest, I was more worried about you arseholes. No, Derek, I’m not a poof.” His term, not mine. I would have ignored the question completely, but then there had been something about his attitude that suggested I needed to confront him in the here and now. His next question takes me by surprise. “Well you could always ask me out and see. Or perhaps you could tell me which makes more sense to you. Would you think me a poof if I went out with guys now, or would I be a lesbian if I went out with girls?”

The room separates into two factions. The PE teachers make up one lot – all four of them. No three; Sharon Tyndall joins the rest of the staff standing beside and behind me. All this unexpected support is enough to bring tears to my eyes, although I could argue that the hormones I’m on are contributing. I’m wondering if perhaps they may have been at least partly responsible for the other overwhelming feelings I’ve experienced today. Given the amount of support I have right now, it seems my earlier fears couldn’t have been more unfounded.

Three PE teachers, the only flies in the ointment.

“Right ladies and gentlemen,” Mr Thurber’s voice rises above the ugly murmurs. “And just so I’m clear, I was referring to Jackie as one of the ladies there. We have a school to run and a couple of thousand teenagers in various stages of adolescent distress from their own hormonal overdoses. We don’t have time to deal with this particular issue now, so whatever you think of it, I expect to see you treat Jackie with the same respect and support you show to every other member of staff here. If you can’t do that, then I expect you stay the hell away from her.

“There will be a full school assembly in half an hour, in which I’ll be inviting Jackie to say a few words about her experience in Thailand and her reasons for doing what she did. I will open the floor for questions, but not inappropriate ones. Any of you catch any of our little darlings making the least derogatory remarks or gestures, you grab hold of them and bring them to see me after assembly.

“For the rest of the day, those of you who work near Jackie’s classroom, I want you to keep an eye and an ear open. If it sounds like she’s having any trouble, I want you to step in and help defuse the situation. Whatever your feelings, and I’m glad to see so many of you standing by her already, but whatever your feelings, I want the kids to know that we support her.

“You have any problems over this, my door is open throughout the day, including lunchtime. Come and talk to me; we’ll sort something out between us.

“Once we’ve done educating our country’s best and brightest, we will convene at the Marshall’s Arms. Sorry Jackie, that’s alright isn’t it? You don’t have any other plans? No, great. We’ll convene at the Marshall’s Arms at around four, where you can ask Jackie whatever questions are bothering you, after you’ve bought her a drink of course. If this day ends up unfolding the way I expect it to, I will almost certainly be ready for a pint or two myself by then.

“Right, there were a few other things, but we’re out of time, and they can wait till tomorrow. Welcome back ladies and gents. Let’s go mould Britain’s future.”

The room empties around me. Hands reach out to shake mine, to touch my shoulder, to offer me a hug – painful with the bruises, but I don’t shy away from any of them.

Derek and his followers – Shite One and Shite Two – are among the first to leave, no doubt looking for ways to stir up trouble for me. I’m not worried. They don’t have the imagination to come up anything that effective, besides I have so much genuine support, it’s hard to focus on the few miserable gits who can’t cope.

Before long the only people left in the staff room are Claire and myself.

“Come on,” she says. “We have a couple of form groups to register before assembly, then a morning filled with barely controlled mayhem to look forward to.”

“Speak for yourself. I fully intend to have my morning’s mayhem fully under control.”

“Yeah, right. Look, do you fancy doing lunch together?” She was already halfway to the door, with me just a step or so behind.

“Sure. Sounds good. It’ll give Derek something to go towards his aneurysm, if nothing else.”

There’s a twinkle in her eye and mischief in her smile as she slides her hand gently over my rear.

“Hey!” I say, slapping her away. “Just what kind of a girl do you take me for?”

“My kind I’m hoping.”

That comes as a shock, but there are curious eyes watching through open classroom doors. I don’t know if they saw or heard something of what passed between Claire and myself, or if maybe if the rumour mill has already been peppering the grapevine. Either way the day looks like it’s going to be an interesting one, and in the most beautiful, bright and complicated manner imaginable.

Maybe Claire was teasing me just now, I can’t be sure. I’ll find out at lunchtime, maybe. I’d be happy just to have her as a friend, but who knows, maybe a friend with benefits? How is it that in this modern day, a guy has to turn himself into a girl in order to get another girl interested?

I’m not sure how I feel about men or women in that respect just yet. My sex life was the last thing in my mind when I decided to go through with this. All I know is I’m happy being a girl, and, now the worst of the day’s fear has passed, I’m becoming happier by the minute.

My love life can be a problem for later. Right at this moment, I have 10C to register and a few words to untangle in my mind so I have something relevant to say in assembly.