Gregory’s Gift

presentCopyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

God, I can’t believe I’m actually doing this.

The box is quite big, as these things generally are – about two feet by one and a half. It’s taken most of a roll of wrapping paper to wrap it up, and now that I’m done, I don’t know if I can actually go through with it.

Still, it’s a bit late now. There aren’t going to be many shops open at ten minutes to midnight on Christmas Eve, so I either give Greg this or I run down to that all night convenience store run by Mr and Mrs Patel and by him a selection of curry powders or something.

Shit, I’m actually considering doing just that. I can’t remember ever being so unsure of anything in my life – which is strange because when this idea first came to me, nothing had ever seemed more right.

Sod it. I grab a pen and write a note on the label, then stack the rest of the my gifts to the family on top of Greg’s parcel and sneak downstairs. Everyone’s still up and chatting in the kitchen – usual family Christmas tradition, everyone chipping in to chop vegetables and peel spuds so there’s less to do tomorrow. I add my contributions to the pile of cheerfully wrapped packages under the tree and head off to join them.

“Hello dear,” Mum says as I appear. “Nice bath?”

The bath was my pretext for ducking out of the kitchen duties to do my last minute wrapping.

“Mmmm,” I smile, wrapping my threadbare dressing gown tight around me. The kitchen in Colin’s house always seems to be that little bit colder than the rest of the place, even filled with warm bodies like it is tonight. Still a tradition’s a tradition, and you can’t just go around changing the way you do things just because of a little cold, can you? Flannel PJs and fluffy slippers help a little, but I hope someone took the hint and bought me that new dressing gown, otherwise I might end up frozen rigid with icicles hanging from my nose before we’re done with breakfast tomorrow.

“Perhaps you could give Greg a hand with the spuds, dear, otherwise we’ll never get to bed tonight. Hot chocolate?”

The chocolate’s an indulgence I rarely allow myself; figure, you know? I nod enthusiastically as I sit down next to my brother. He’s doing his best to smile and join in, but there’s a shadow behind his eyes that seems always to have been there – at least I can’t remember now when it wasn’t. When we were kids he’d been happier. I remember times back then – he’d have been seven or eight, and me just a couple of years older – when he would laugh with complete abandon. Gay abandon they used to say, but that’s just one of those phrases that went the way of the dodo in the evolution of our language. Even so, it might still be appropriate in Greg’s case, or at least almost.

“Hey little brother, how’s it hanging?” I lean against him and look up into those haunted eyes of his. He manages a smile, but it doesn’t reach much beyond his lips. Maybe the ‘how’s it hanging’ thing wasn’t the best choice of greetings – salt and wounds and stuff.

Little brother! There’s a laugh. He used to be, back in the days when life wasn’t so… complicated. He’s about five inches taller than me now, and weighs more than twice what I do. Not that he’s a giant or anything, just that I kind of stopped growing shortly after my fifteenth birthday.

Not that I’m complaining. Five foot three and seven and half stone makes me eligible for adjectives like cute and petite, which in turn means I pretty much get my pick of the guys. I have a set of steps in my kitchen at home, so the height thing isn’t an issue, though I wouldn’t mind being just a little stronger. Still that’s one of the reasons for having a boyfriend/husband, isn’t it?

“So, is John coming tomorrow?” Mum asks. After my recent absence, I guess it’s only fair that I should be the centre of the conversation for a while.

John – he’s my current significant other – wanted to join us, but assuming I actually go through with my plan, it’ll be better to keep this as pretty much a family only Christmas. John ticks a lot of the right boxes – tall, dark, handsome, kind, gentle, etc – but there’s not really much of a spark there. Which probably means that after New Year’s we may have to go our separate ways and I wouldn’t want him to have the means to be vindictive, especially if that means involves hurting me by hurting someone I love.

“No. He wanted to, but something came up. I said I’d go round his on Boxing Day.” Keep it vague, that way you don’t have to lie, at least not outright.

“Are things alright between you two?”

What is it with mother’s and that kind of perception? And why can’t she turn it on Greg for a change? He’s the one that’s hurting, and all the more now since things fell apart between him and Sarah last month.

“It’s… Well let’s say it’s not working out quite how I’d like. I mean he’s nice enough…”

“Nice enough! He’s fucking gorgeous!”

That’s Lisa, my sister-in-law. Speaks her mind and is married to my older brother Colin who…

“Oy! I’m right here you know!”

…knows that his wife loves him, so doesn’t actually mind her making that kind of observation. Still it’s not the sort of thing you can let go can you? And making the appropriate noises is a way of affirming their shared affection.

That’s what I’m looking for – that shared intimacy, that easy acceptance. John and I don’t really have it.

“…it’s just that there’s no spark, Mum. It’s like being with me is something that he does, not something that he is. Does that make sense?”

“That sort of thing takes time and effort, Gill.” Apparently I was making enough sense, at least enough for Mum. “Still, it does need to come from both of you, and if you’re not feeling it by now…”

Some sentences don’t need finishing.

“Let him down easy won’t you, sis?”

From the surreptitious glances around the table that’s pretty much the first thing Greg’s said all evening.

“I’ll try.” I give him a sympathetic smile and squeeze his arm.

The potato peeling doesn’t take long. My nimble and practised fingers are far quicker than Greg’s clumsy ones and, much as I don’t want to show him up, I really want to get to bed so that I don’t chicken out and go hide his present. He thinks I’m knitting him a sweater, so I could always apologise and explain that I didn’t have enough time, and he’ll get it by New Year. A bit lame I know, but do I really dare go through with this? I mean if things go wrong, it’s not going to be me that’s embarrassed and hurt, but Greg.

My hot chocolate’s cooled off enough to drink by the time the last potato drops into the pot. I pick it up and sit back to sip, leaving Greg to tidy away the debris. It’s only fair after all. I mean, I know I’ve only been here ten minutes, but I still ended up doing more than half the work.

The chocolate is like liquid silk as it slides down my throat, and I feel its warmth spreading through me. A moment on the lips, but what a moment. Almost worth all the diet and exercise necessary to burn it off again.

“Well, I’m off to bed.” Colin hauls himself upright and gives his wife a meaningful look. She rolls her eyes.

“Well I guess that means I am too. I suppose you’re going to want to make mad passionate love to me all night again, aren’t you?”

“What can I say? Mother wants another grandchild, and neither of my siblings is doing much to help make that happen.”

Mum’s concerned eyes glance across at Greg; maybe she is turning her maternal gifts his way after all. It’s hard to take Colin and Lisa’s easy banter the wrong way though, and Greg’s smile is more relaxed, more natural than it has been. I guess I can relate. Sharing what my older brother and his wife have, even if only vicariously, usually lifts me out of my troubles for brief moments. I guess it’s the same for Greg.

Mum climbs stiffly to her feet and carries her mug over to the dishwasher, collecting mine as she passes.

“I think that’s a good idea. Tammy and Sam will be up at some ungodly hour tomorrow, and we’re all more likely to survive their onslaught if we get a few hours’ sleep first.”

She reaches up to kiss Greg, who is tying up a full bin bag. I stand to embrace her as she turns my way. The stiffness in her gait suggests her arthritis is playing her up.

“Good night dears.”

“’Night Mum.”

“’Night Mum.”

I dig a new bin bag out of one of the drawers as Greg takes the full one outside. He’s back before I’ve managed to wrestle a new one off the roll and put it where it belongs.

“See you in the morning, Gill. Happy Christmas.”

“You too Greg,” I say wrapping my arms round his middle and burying my face in his chest. “Hey, maybe tomorrow will be better than you expect.”

He returns my embrace and smiles his sad smile. The shadows are definitely back.

-oOo-

It took a long while for me to drop off last night. Too many thoughts, too many worries.

Greg’s parting look last night was enough to convince me that I’m doing the right thing, but I couldn’t stop fretting about it even so – still can’t this morning.

The not so delicate thud of excited feet echo through the house bringing everyone reluctantly back from whatever dreams they were enjoying, and into a world with not yet enough light to see by.

“Santa’s been! Santa’s been.” Sammy’s excited stage whisper reaches me even through my closed door and the intervening thirty feet of corridor between my room and his parents’. I can almost feel my brother and sister-in-law groaning as they surrender to the inevitable, and a sense of relief, mixed with more than just a little envy, washes over me that it’s their room being invade and not mine.

I’m going to be twenty nine for the third time this year, and I can all but feel my ovaries shrivelling as my biological clock ticks away the days. Maybe John isn’t so bad, and we’d make such lovely children together. Maybe I should try to make things work with him after all.

Maybe that’s my hormones talking to me. It’s been two weeks since my last period, so I’m probably ovulating right now. God, we complain about men thinking with their dicks all the time. Maybe there’s just a hint of hypocrisy in there somewhere. Maybe I need to have a talk with Mum later. I know what she’ll say – that’s it’s my life and my choice to make. That she’s known a lot of friends who’ve ended up in loveless marriages, so it’s better to wait, better to be sure. Marry in haste, repent at leisure, that’s another favourite of hers, and I’m sure she’ll work it in somewhere. Maybe I’ll have that talk anyway, I mean even if I know what the advice is going to be, it’ll be good to have her reassurance.

I climb out of bed. Shit it’s cold. What is the fucking time anyway? Five bloody thirty, no wonder my toes are dropping off, the heating won’t come on for another hour and half yet. Sorry guys, you’re on your own for another couple of hours. I roll back over and snuggle back down under the duvet, searching vainly for heat I’ve already let escape.

There’s a quiet knock on the door. A glance at my alarm shows it’s still only six o’clock. Why the hell didn’t I stay in my flat last night and arrange to come over at a sensible, respectable time this morning. I make some sort of response that even I can’t make out through the thick duvet, and the door opens.

Bugger those neutrino experiments earlier this year, there’s something positively superluminal about the rate of diffusion of coffee molecules in air. The promise of caffeinated heaven finds its way into my thirteen and a half tog den and persuades me to end my hibernation early. By the time the mug of life giving elixir has made its way across the room, a chaotic mass of blonde hair and two pink flannelette clad arms have emerged to take custody.

“My, don’t you look lovely this morning.”

Honestly Mum. Sarcasm this early in the morning? Just because you have discovered some form of dark magic that keeps the hair gremlins at bay while you sleep.

“Grglflmf. Thnkwmf.”

“And so eloquent too. I do believe we’ll make a lady of you yet.”

I take the coffee without further attempt at speech, breathing in sustenance to my brain and absorbing warmth into my hands and body.

“As I’m sure you are already aware, Tammy and Sam are awake. Colin and Lisa are keeping them distracted for now, but I imagine they’ll only be able to keep it up for another half hour maximum. The central heating is on, and there’s a fire burning in the lounge. I doubt the water’s warm enough yet for a shower, so I think we’ll have excuse one another the lack of ablutions, at least for the time being.

“Greg is toasting and buttering bagels for everyone, which means that if you want yours hot and dripping, I suggest you make an appearance in the next fifteen minutes. Now Grunt once if you got all that, twice if you need me to go through it all again.”

I toy with giving her two grunts as a sort of petty revenge for her scathing wit, but this is Christmas and a time for forgiveness. I give her just the one grunt.

“Very good. Happy Christmas dear, and we’ll see you in a few minutes.”

I take five minutes to down half the coffee, sensing consciousness and conscience re-establish themselves. I slide out of bed and into my slippers, grab my dressing gown from the end of the bed and check myself out in the wardrobe mirror.

Two minutes with a hair brush tames the undergrowth (or is it overgrowth, I’m not sure) sufficiently. Hot pink PJs, deep pink dressing gown, and pale pink fluffy slippers. Fuck me, somebody save me from myself; it’s like the teenage me has taken me hostage and won’t let me grow up.

I grab the remains of my coffee and stomp elegantly out to the kitchen – via the bathroom and a seriously cold toilet seat – where Greg hands me a bagel, dripping with melted butter. God, that New Year’s diet is going to be a monster. Maybe I won’t have to end it with John. Maybe he’ll take one look at how fat I am and dump me. With that thought in mind, I take a healthy bite out of my breakfast as Greg leads me into the lounge where…

…absolute mayhem rules supreme. Sammy is jumping up and down on the sofa and completely ignoring his mother, his eyes wide with excitement, his mouth wide with a delighted – if not delightful – high pitched squeal. Tammy is sitting on Colin’s lap bouncing with no less exuberance. Lisa is on her hands and knees sweeping up the remains of a bowl of nuts that seems to be, amazingly, the only casualty of the SammyTammynado. Mum is trying to grab hold of Sam, but in evident pain from her stiff joints. Time to intervene.

I rush across the room, pausing only to put my coffee and bagel go down on the coffee table. I grab Sam and swing him round, holding him close to me so I don’t clobber anyone or anything else with his flailing arms and legs, and sit down with him on my lap. He’s still squealing, but the noise soon breaks up into giggles.

It only takes a couple of seconds, and Greg is still standing in the doorway, looking lost as things settle down a little. I pat the sofa next to me and he gratefully comes over to take up the invitation. I’m not sure how grateful he’ll be in a minute as I hand Sam into his uncertain arms, and retrieve my interrupted breakfast.

A couple of minutes later, Lisa has finished cleaning up the shards from the glass dish, and both she and Mum are seated. Mum takes charge and calls her grandchildren to her, waiting while they squirm off their respective perches and run over to her.

“Right you two, do you remember what we did last year?”

Sam’s hand shoots up eliciting a round a laughter. Mum used to be a schoolteacher, and certain instincts kick in naturally. She nods at Sam.

“We got… Tammy and me, we got presents from under the tree.”

“That’s right. You fetched presents for everyone and delivered them, didn’t you? You made sure everyone else had a present first, then you fetched one for yourselves.”

It sounds cruel almost, but I’m with Mum on this one. Kids need to learn a little self-discipline from time to time, and I think they get a lot more out of an experience if they are taught to exercise a little restraint rather than chasing about like mad things doing whatever they like.

With the screaming wobblies under control, Tammy and her brother head for the tree and start reading through the labels.

-oOo-

A large, dressing gown sized parcel lands on my lap. It’s soft and squishable and looked so much larger and warmer than the one I’m wearing.

“Don’t be pink, please don’t be pink.” The words chase around my mind like a mantra. I would probably have chosen pink if I’d been out buying for myself, but then, as I’ve said, I can’t help myself. I find I can’t wait any longer, and I accidentally poke the parcel hard enough to tear a tiny hole in the paper. I can just see a light green plush peeking through the gap and smile with relief.

I look up at Mum who’s smiling in a knowing way at me.

“I have the receipt if you want to change it, dear.”

I shake my head, not wanting to own up to my sneak preview to the rest of the family, and mouth, “it’s perfect.” Just then a large tin of biscuits shape appears in her lap, courtesy of a still slightly hyper Samuel, and I find myself smiling all over again. It takes an adult perspective to realise that the best things come in small packages – which is why, as a small package myself, I’m glad now to be in the adult world, having weathered the storms of bullying and name calling at school. The kids haven’t quite grasped the concept and are pulling out all the largest parcels first.

Which means…

“Uncle Greg, this one’s for you.” Tammy declares as she passes over a large flat box in very familiar wrapping paper. I lose interested in the parcel on my lap, the cold seeping into my bones having very little to do with lessening chill of the house.

There are no particularly large parcels for Colin and Lisa, so I gain a short reprieve while the kids hunt out the biggest things they can find – if my gift guessing hasn’t lost its edge over the years, a multi-pack of socks for my brother and a compilation set of music CDs for Lisa – then they grab the biggest presents under the tree, which is addressed to them both, and we’re ready to begin.

I find myself unable to breath as Greg very slowly peels away the Sellotape, careful not to tear the paper or pull away any of the pattern. I remember a time when he would have torn at the paper in a mad rush to see what was inside, but no more. I suppose it gives him time to compose himself. It’s what I’ve noticed about him over the past few years you see. Christmas never gives him what he really wants; he never expects it to. So instead he puts on a brave face and tries to look pleased.

What clinched it for me was something Mum said earlier this year. She said she just wished she could give him something that would make him happy. She suggested clothes, but he doesn’t seem to be interested in them, and that was when I remembered those times when we would play dress up games as kids. After that the memories kept piling in. Little things. Things like the way I’ve seen him looking in shop windows with a wistful look of longing in his eyes. The way he looks at other women – not with the sort of hunger I see in other guy’s eyes, but with sad regret. The way over the years his appearance has degenerated, as though he’s had enough and isn’t going to play along anymore. The odd delays and sounds of thumping about behind the door of his flat whenever I visited him unannounced.

Two plus two plus two adding up to six. I was so certain of this a few weeks ago when I finally decided to go ahead with my plan. I popped in on him one day, armed with a tape measure and took a bunch of measurements, saying that I was getting into knitting and this was to help me with his Christmas present. He didn’t suspect anything, and why should he, after all I was being honest, if in a deceptive sort of way. I mean I was getting back into knitting, and the measurements were to help me with his Christmas present, it’s just that the two statements were unrelated.

The paper is neatly folded to one side, and Greg has a plain white box on his lap. Feeling light headed, I force myself to take a breath. I notice that everyone else has spotted my odd behaviour and is watching as well. Everyone else that is except for Samuel and Tamsin who are bouncing up and down in their own private heaven, having just discovered their new PlayCube360 or whatever. Greg glances round nervously and lifts the lid of the box.

All the emotions are there that I hoped and half expected to see. Wonder, delight, hope, but mixed in with less encouraging ones – shock, terror, shame. He recovers quickly, but then I guess he’s had to get used to covering up for himself. He looks across at me with a rapidly concocted look of confusion on his face.

“I think there’s some mistake, Gill. This isn’t a sweater.”

“I wasn’t measuring you for a sweater, silly. I wanted to get you something really special this year. Something that was right for you.”

“What is it dear?” Mum asks form across the room. “Show us please.”

The fear comes back, as does the shame. Greg reaches into the box and pulls out the gift I had hoped – still hope somehow – would bring an end to the sadness he carries with him everywhere.

It’s midnight blue and made from shimmering satin. The sleeves are long and loose fitting, and the neckline high, because I don’t know how much hair Greg has on his arms and chest, and I don’t want him to look silly. The skirts are generous and hang in elegant folds down to just below knee length.

“Stand up dear,” Mum encourages him. “Hold it against you.”

My brother is too stunned to protest. If the gift was a shock, then the easy acceptance of our mother is doubly so. I have to admit I feel a little numbed by it, but then I shouldn’t be surprised; she already showed that she sees far more than is apparent on the surface last night.

Greg puts the box down next to him and stands to hold the dress against himself. Sammy and Tammy stop their bouncing and look around. Like most children they’re highly perceptive of moods and seem to know without being told that this isn’t a time to laugh. There are other things in the box; underwear, tights, that sort of thing, but they are very much secondary to the dress.

“The colour suits you dear,” Mum says matter of factly. “A nice choice Gill, I approve.”

There’s a very slight hint of emphasis on those last two words, as if to convey approval not only of my fashion sense, but of the nature of my gift as well. Greg is nearly in tears.

“I don’t understand. I… I never told anyone…”

“You didn’t have to you lummox. You leak around the edges like an old steam train – especially when the pressure builds.

“I’ve known something was up for a long time now – I think we’ve all known.” Nods around the room confirm my assessment. “It’s just taken a while to figure out exactly what was wrong.”

“Your sister’s right, dear,” Mum chimes in. “You seem so sad so much of the time, as though the whole weight of the universe is bearing down on your shoulders. We love you, sweetheart, and we none of us would wish for you to go through life so miserable. This is a little unusual, but if it helps you find that peace, I think we can all adjust.”

Greg collapses back onto the sofa, the dress bunching up in his lap. I take it from him, rescuing it before it becomes creased, and put it back in the box.

“Are you saying that I could have done this years ago?” Greg asks. “That there was no need for me to fight it all this time?”

“I’m not sure we would go that far, Greg,” Colin says, taking his wife’s hand as though looking for reassurance from the woman he loves. “This is all a bit weird for us – more than a bit weird. I think years ago we wouldn’t have understood – that we’d have reacted differently.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well it’s not exactly normal, is it? A grown man like you wanting to put on a dress. I mean I’m still a bit shocked and uneasy about it all; I hadn’t made the same links as Gill has, but now that I see your reaction, it all makes some kind of sense.

“I think if you’d turned up for Christmas this year wearing a dress through your own choice, I would have reacted badly. I’m not sure what I would have thought – was it sick joke, or had you finally flipped in some way? Was it maybe some desperate attempt to find gratification in some sort of kinky perversion – no please let me finish. I’m not saying that’s what I believe now, because I’ve seen the way you’ve been these past years and I’ve worried, and then I saw just now how you reacted to Gill’s gift, and I can see that this isn’t something you choose to do, that somehow it meets a deep unfulfilled need. I don’t understand it still, but it’s obvious that it means so much more to you than anything I could have imagined. It’s going to take a lot of adjustment, bro – er sis? I don’t know – but none of us want you to be the sort of miserable you’ve been all these years, so if we need to make adjustments, I guess we’ll do it.”

He looks at Lisa for confirmation and she nods her head. Her eyes are swimming and she takes a deep breath.

“Is this what happened to Sarah, Greg?”

Sarah is Greg’s most recent ex, and the one we all thought was going to be right for him. They’d been together for almost a year when all of a sudden she’d disappeared out of all our lives with no explanation. That had been nearly a month ago and it had been while trying to pick up the pieces from the ensuing aftermath that I had finally put together the clues as to what was wrong with my brother.

Greg’s head droops; all secrets exposed, nowhere to hide. He nods, just enough for all of us to see. It seems the right time to pull my brother into a hug. He doesn’t resist and I feel him quivering like a frightened rabbit as he pours out all the hurt.

“Colin dear,” Mum says quietly. “I wonder if you’d be a love and go out to my car. There’s a large parcel in the boot.”

Colin takes the keys and leaves the room.

“Greg.” Mum waits until Greg shifts his weight slightly off my shoulder – enough of a sign that he’s listening. “I’ve had similar suspicions for a while now, and I was going to try something similar last year. I didn’t have your sister’s courage though and changed my mind at the last minute. I still have the present I had intended to give you last year, and now that Gill has opened the doorway, it seems appropriate.”

Colin reappears with a large box in his hands, wrapped with Mum’s immaculate attention to detail. At her nod, he places it in Greg’s lap, who stares at it in shock. This is happening too fast for him and oddly – perhaps ironically – he’s having a harder time adjusting than we are.

“Mummy,” Tammy asks, moving to Lisa’s side, “is Uncle Greg going to be our aunty?”

Children have the capacity to see and to speak right to the heart of the matter sometimes. Greg lets out a surprised bark of laughter as Lisa pulls her daughter up onto her lap.

“We don’t know what’s going to happen Tamsin. Would you mind it very much if something like that happened?”

“I don’t think so,” Tammy replies, then picking up on what else has been said, continues. “I suppose if it makes him less sad it has to be a good thing doesn’t it?”

Lisa hugs her daughter. Sammy remains quiet and still, the new toy forgotten for a moment. He stares at Greg with wide eyes. Greg notices and puts Mum’s gift to him to one side, unopened. It says a lot about my brother that, even in the middle of all of this, he notices Sammy’s distress and responds to it.

“Hey Sammy,” he says. “This is all a bit strange, huh?”

Sammy jumps to his feet and runs out of the room.

“Don’t worry bro,” Colin says, turning to follow him. “It’s a lot for all of us to take on board, and he’s really young. I’ll go talk to him; you get back to your presents.”

Greg is reluctant, but allows himself to be persuaded. Mum’s box turns out to contain a pretty burgundy knitted dress – also longs sleeves and a high neckline; like mother like daughter I suppose – along with matching shoes and handbag – the accessories I’ve bought him are in separate parcels, still under the tree – various pieces of underwear, a small makeup kit, a wig on a mannequin head, and a couple of what look like flesh coloured jellies.

That’s where we differ, Mum and I. I kind of have an idea and act on it without thinking it all the way through. Mum, on the other hand, plans meticulously then over-thinks things and ends up talking herself out of acting more often than not. Whereas my gift contains only the clothes necessary to dress up, Mum has gone the whole nine yards and given him everything he needs to look like a woman. There’s even a hairbrush in there and a necklace and clip on earrings – costume jewellery, but nice stuff even so.

Greg looks up at Mum with tears in his eyes. “I can’t believe you did all this for me,” he says. “I can’t believe that you can see me and accept me this way.”

“Greg, you’re my son, and there’s no way I could ever do anything but love and accept you. What’s more, there’s no way I can sit idly by while you hurt the way you have been hurting. I’m only sorry I didn’t have the courage of my convictions last year, and thank you Gill for correcting that shortcoming today.

“Now it seems that the usual course of Christmas morning has been disrupted – no Greg, not your fault, and I’m not getting at you. I just wondered if it might be a good time to put a break in proceedings. Why don’t I go and put the kettle on while Gill helps you to get dressed properly?”

The question is sort of rhetorical as she has no intention of allowing us to do anything else. I pull out the two additional parcels from under the tree that have the shoes and bag I bought for Greg, and help him gather up the rest of his things before leading him to his bedroom.

-oOo-

I don’t try to influence Greg’s choice, but it pleases me when he chooses my blue dress over Mum’s burgundy. When it comes down to it, satin is far more appropriate for a Christmas celebration than the knitted material, so it shouldn’t have surprised me.

I suspect Mum didn’t feel comfortable tricking Greg into measuring him like I did, or maybe she just didn’t think of it, so instead had to settle on a dress with a fair amount of ease in the fabric. It would do well for Boxing day, but for now, the blue dress was very much the order of the day.

I leave Greg in the bathroom to shower and dress in his new underwear. As a parting shot, I manage to persuade him to use some of my scented shower gel. I figure that the more Greg feels the part, the better he’ll look all round, and smelling good will go a long way to achieving that. “Don’t worry,” I tell him. “The scent washes off, so you won’t end up smelling of flowers forever.”

My gift to him includes a slip and a camisole so he shouldn’t feel too self-conscious about me seeing him in his underwear. While he’s washing and changing, and most importantly, shaving, I take the rest of his stuff into his room and lay out the things we’ll need. It doesn’t take long, and I end up perching on the end of the bed, draining the last of my coffee while he finishes.

He comes in all hunched in on himself, self-conscious and blushing gently. His legs are clean shaven, but his chest and arms are still covered in a fairly heavy growth of dark hair. No time really to do much about that now, but since he won’t be showing a lot of skin up top, it doesn’t really matter.

“Not bad,” I say, more for encouragement than because I really feel it. It’s going to take a fair bit of work to make him presentable, but it won’t be impossible. On second thoughts, it will be a lot easier without the hair, and we do have time to spare. “How do you feel about getting rid of the gorilla look? I mean if you go around much with bare chest or short sleeved shirts, people are going to notice and maybe comment on it, but there are quite a few guys these days going in for personal grooming thing, which usually involves getting rid of all their body hair, so it won’t be that unusual.”

“I don’t know. This is all kind of sudden, Gill. Can we get by without?”

“Well your legs are nice and smooth. I guess you don’t wear shorts much.” He shook his head. “That means we shall be able to get by with just one pair of tights.”

“Yeah, I was wondering about that…”

“Something I read a while back. If you have hairy legs, they don’t show as much if you wear two layers of nylons over them. Not going to concern us though. I chose that dress so that it wouldn’t matter so much if you were hairy up top. It won’t feel as good, but it should still look pretty stunning. We’d better finish off the foundations before we build the house though. You know how to put a pair of these on?”

I pull a pair of tights out of the packet, and hand them to him. He rolls them on like he’s been doing it all his life. Who knows maybe he has.

I pull the jellies out of the box and look around for some idea as to what to do with them. I mean, I know, you just stuff them into where there’s a gap and they fill it, right? Surely there’s more to it than that though.

I find a small leaflet and a tube of what looks like glue. Most of the leaflet has to do with how to clean and take care of said items, but there is a little bit about using the adhesive to hold them in place. I think about Greg’s hairy chest and decide that maybe that would be cruel and unusual punishment, even from a sister.

“It looks like we can slip these straight into the cups of your bra. They’re a little cold, so be warned.” I don’t give him time to react, but pull the saggy front of his camisole away from his chest and slip them into the cups.

He doesn’t react much, then settles them into place, feeling the weight and looking down at them with something akin to wonder in his eyes. For some reason, he still trusts me to come close and fiddle with his clothing, and with a little bit of adjustment, I have the ‘over shoulder boulder holder’, as my dad used to call it, settled comfortably and holding the additional weight. The change to his profile and the necessary change to his stance in order to balance the false breasts is enough to change his overall appearance, and already he is beginning to look more like a woman.

I push him over to a stool in front of a small vanity and sit him down in front of the mirror. Next job is the wig which settles comfortably onto his head. I spend a little longer brushing it out than I did my own earlier in the day, and it pays dividends. The wig is a good quality one – well I’d expect nothing less from my mother – and it genuinely shines by the time I’m done. I look over Greg’s shoulder at his reflection, and can already see a very shy girl peeking out from behind his eyes.

“Okay, turn my way and we’ll see about putting some paint on this canvas.” He gives me a blank look for a second or two before spotting the pad of foundation in my hands. Honestly, is he a bit thick, or are my metaphors that obscure?

Well, I don’t know about Greg, but I have been putting on makeup for all my adult life and, whilst it’s different doing it on someone else’s face, it’s actually easier. Greg’s skin is quite smooth and, with Mum’s advice from years ago echoing in my ears, I use as little as possible to smooth out the few blemishes that are there. A few different colours and shades bring a healthy glow to his cheeks and highlight his cheekbones, then a very careful few minutes working around his eyes with eye liner and a dark blue=grey eye shadow, and I can’t see my brother any more. A deep red volumizing (ach, that word makes my teeth itch) lip gloss finishes things off and I sit back to look at my handy-work. The hairy arms and chest still scream man, but they now look more out of place on him than the lacy underclothes.

“Let me see.” He reacts to something in my expression, and tries to turn to the mirror. I manage to stop him.

“No, not yet. I want the first thing you see to be the finished article. Here, stand up.”

He does as I ask and I hold out the blue dress for him.

It fits like a glove. Zipped up and pulled straight, it looks perfect. I see him shiver at the sensation of the soft, cool material, and it’s like he’s shaking off all his worries. He can’t help smiling, and there’s a light in his eyes. I hook the necklace around his neck and clip on the earrings.

Taking his hands gently in mine, I step back and look him over. His excitement and delight are infectious and I can’t help smiling at him.

“I think you’re going to need a need a new name, bro. Greg doesn’t work anymore. Mind you, neither does bro.”

I give him the packages with the shoes and bag and wait, fidgeting impatiently, while he opens them. The shoes are court shoes, but with only an inch and a half heel; just enough to give his legs some shape without risking crippling him or making him too tall. He slips them on. They look a little tight, but they should stretch a bit. Lastly I hand him the bag and the illusion is complete.

There’s a full length mirror in his wardrobe. I open the door and let him see.

I don’t know if you’ve watched one those natural history documentaries where an anemone extends its fronds, or there’s a time lapse film of a flower opening, but that’s what it looks like; the only word that fits is blooms. Greg blooms like a flower in the first rains after a long drought. He starts off standing awkwardly before the wardrobe, arms and legs bent ape-like as he balanced precariously on the low heels, then as he catches sight of himself in the mirror, he straightens his back, pulls back his shoulders and smiles.

It’s magic. One second there is my brother in a dress, made up and looking as good as cosmetics and artificial enhancements can manage, the next, I’m looking at a striking woman, a little older looking than myself. She isn’t beautiful, not by a long chalk, but she’s definitely a woman, and stunning in her own way.

“So what do we call you, sis?”

Greg beams, preening over my choice of words.

“Grace. I’ve always liked Grace.”

“You have no idea how much that suits you. Ready for the family to meet you?”

There’s a flicker of fear and uncertainty, but it only lasts a second. She looks at her reflection and breaths in confidence. That’s what it is. Women the world over look for it, because so much of beauty is rooted in it. They say that beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, but it’s just as much, if not more, in the eyes of the beheld. If you believe it, you project it, and Grace is putting it out like a lighthouse. After so many years of hiding and hating himself, my brother finds an inner strength and peace as my sister.

I hug her. It’s so strange to feel her breasts, false as they are, pressing against mine, but for all the newness of the feeling, there’s a rightness to. I can smell the flowery scent of my shower gel on her and it gives me another idea.

I disengage and check through my bag for a small bottle of amber liquid. It’s probably not quite her scent, but it’ll do for now. I spray a little on her wrists and neck and any last lingering doubts are gone. I take my sister’s hand and lead her out into the world.

-oOo-

“Hi Mum, I’d like you to meet Grace.”

Mum’s standing at the sink preparing the sprouts. It seems like an awful amount of effort for what you get out of them, but then most of the rest of the family seem to like them and I can swallow one or two just to show willing. She wipes her hands on her apron and turns.

“Oh, my dear!”

For a moment it seems like her legs are going to give out on her, then she recovers and heads straight for Grace, arms open.

“How could I not have seen this in you? I take it you’re responsible for this vision, Gill?”

“I helped a bit with the makeup and clothes Mum, but it’s like you say, you can dress mutton up as lamb, but all you have is mutton dressed up as lamb. As soon as she was dressed and looking in the mirror, it’s like she came to life. This morning I didn’t know if I was doing the right thing, but now I’m sure. I have a sister, and she’s beautiful.”

Mum puts her arms around us both, and we share a three way hug. There are sniffles, but not quite tears enough to require cosmetic renovation.

“Grace, did you say?” Mum seems to be in a trance, but it’s delight rather than denial. “It’s not a name I would have chosen, but it suits you well, dear. Would you mind helping with the veg. There’s an apron over there and gloves by the sink. That colander full of beans needs topping and tailing.”

“Can I do anything, Mum?” I ask. The offer isn’t entirely sincere. I’m not much use in the kitchen, and we all know it. Besides, I rather suspect Mum wants to spend some time getting to know her knew daughter, so I think I’m safe.

“You can pour the coffee, Gill, but other than that, I think Grace and I can handle things. Tammy’s on her own in the lounge. Perhaps you can go and keep her company. Colin and Lisa are both talking to Sam. He’s upset over something he heard at school it seems.”

I pour out three coffees and place two near the sink.

“What sort of thing?”

“How should I know? Go talk to Tamsin, I’m sure your brother and sister-in-law can handle it.”

“This is all my fault,” Greg mutters, his expression clouding over like a British summer’s day.

“Don’t you dare, Greg – Grace, I’m sorry. But don’t you dare. You didn’t ask to be this way, and I certainly don’t recall it being your idea to put on a dress this morning.”

“So you think it’s my fault?” I chip in, more facetious than truly offended, but Mum takes it seriously.

“There is no fault here Gill. Greg had a problem, you found the answer and brought Grace into our lives. Now Sammy has a problem, which is most likely down to something he misheard or misunderstood, and Colin and Lisa will sort that out. Now will you go and keep your niece company? I want to get to know the daughter I never knew I had.”

I head of in search of Tammy. As suggested, she’s in the lounge. She’s been allowed to open another present to keep her quiet while her parents calm Sammy down. It turns out to be a makeover head for practising makeup, and she is totally focused on painting it up to look beautiful. She’s young and has no idea, so the results are more clownish than cosmetic.

“Hey, Tammy,” I put on the cool aunty act. “Watya got there?”

She shows me. Her expression tells me she’s not particularly happy, but whether it’s because of Greg, Sammy or her poor results with the toy, I have no idea. I take the cowards way out.

“Mind if I have a go?”

She shrugs and wipes the face clean before handing it to me. My recent practice on Greg helps me out, and in no time I have half the face looking really good. I show Tammy how to get similar results on the other half. A bit shaky still, but much better; she’s a quick study.

“Does Uncle Greg want to be a woman?” Tammy asks me.

“Well, who in their right mind wouldn’t? I mean girls have more fun, right?”

She smiles, but she won’t hold my gaze.

“Sammy says that Tommy Loake at his school has an uncle who wants to be a woman. He wears dresses all the time now, and he looks a bit silly – certainly not pretty. And Tommy says his Mum and Dad argue about it all the time. I don’t want Uncle Greg to turn into an ugly woman, and I don’t want everybody to get upset about it.”

“Well…” I pause, trying to gather my thoughts. “Why don’t you come to the kitchen and see whether you think your uncle is likely to turn into an ugly woman?”

Tammy takes my hand and I lead her through to the hallway where we can see into the kitchen without disturbing Mum and Grace’s conversation.

“He’s not very pretty,” Tammy says uncertainly.

“Not many women really are, and I’ve met quite a few who were a lot less fortunate than that. What’s more, when you talk to her, you’ll see her eyes sparkle, and her smile come alive, then you’ll see where she’s beautiful.”

“You keep calling Uncle Greg she. Does that mean he’s going to change into a girl now?”

“I don’t know Tammy, but whatever he – or she – decides, it’ll be with the love and support of our family. What I do know is that even now, there’s a girl inside your uncle, and she’s been fighting to get out for a very long time. I think if I had to choose between a brother who was sad all the time, and a sister who looked a little odd, I’d choose the sister any day of the week.

“What’s important here is helping your uncle to know that we care for him, and to let Sammy know that even if things are going to be different with Uncle Greg – who now, incidentally is calling herself Auntie Grace – they’re going to be better. What do you think? If Sam saw how good she looks, do you think he would be reassured?”

Tammy nods uncertainly, and probably more because she thinks it’s was what I want to hear than because she believes it. I’ve seen this before. During times of upheaval, young children – and overly stressed adults to an extent – sometimes become very eager to please, as though siding with someone brings stability to the situation. It probably isn’t quite right to take advantage of her at a time of vulnerability like this, but if she can help reassure Sammy then maybe we can all get through this crisis and get on with Christmas – and the rest of our lives. I take her hand and lead her towards Sammy’s bedroom.

I knock gently and crack the door a fraction before anyone can tell us to go away. Sammy is sitting in the corner of the room, surrounded by his toys and playing with them like his life depends on it. Colin and Lisa are sitting on the bed and look up to see what the interruption might be about.

A gentle nudge and Tammy heads falteringly over to her brother. I join my brother and sister-in-law on the bed, curling slipper clad feet under me as I sit.

“How is he?” It’s kind of obvious, but it’s something to say to distract his parents while their daughter goes to work.

“He’s in denial,” Colin says. “He won’t listen to us right now. What are you doing here?”

“I thought he might find it easier to trust his sister than the rest of us. The way we’ve all accepted Greg must be confusing to him, especially if he has reason to believe things are going to get worse as a result. I thought it was worth a shot.”

Tammy has Sam’s attention. He isn’t looking at her, but he is looking at the floor next to her, and he’s stopped driving his toy cars into each other. A symbol of the wreckage he sees coming into his own life, or am I reading too much into an otherwise fairly normal sort of boyish game? Tammy’s quiet words get through to him, and when she tentatively offers her hand, he just as tentatively takes it and allow himself to be led. The rest of us follow quietly at a discrete distance.

Back in the kitchen, it takes a moment or two for Mum and Grace to notice their newly arrived audience and to stop their quiet chatting. It has to be reassuring for Sammy to see them doing such normal things as preparing lunch and talking. The way Grace turns, wipes her hands on her apron, settles down onto her haunches, smiles – it’s all very feminine, very natural. Well maybe a little unpractised, but there is a delicacy about it and… well a grace, I suppose.

Sammy steps forward with slow uncertain steps, arms held rigidly by his side, head down. Grace waits patiently.

“Are you going to turn into a lady?” Sammy asks. “Only my friend Tommy at school says his uncle did that and she looks funny and people laugh at her all the time now, and that makes her sad. It makes Tommy’s Mummy and Daddy sad too, and angry, and they shout at each other all the time, and Tommy thinks they’re going to get a divorce, like Ethan baker’s Mummy and Daddy did, which is why Ethan had to go away, and I don’t want Mummy and Daddy to get a divorce. I don’t want to go away and be sad like Ethan was, and…”

We don’t hear the rest because Sammy breaks down into great sobs and, probably because Grace is closest and not entirely unfamiliar, runs forward into her waiting arms. She holds him gently and rocks him until the tears and the wailing subside, then eases him away, brushing hair out of his face.

“Feel better now?” she asks.

He nods, still keeping his gaze averted.

“You’re nice and soft, and you smell nice.”

“So you wouldn’t mind if I looked like this from time to time then?”

“I don’t think so, but I wouldn’t want people to laugh at you, or for Mummy and Daddy to get angry.”

“I don’t think that’s going to happen, do you? Look, do they look angry?” Sammy looks and has to shake his head. Colin and Lisa have their arms around each other and are looking on with concern.

“Sammy, most people in the world don’t understand people like me. They get upset because we can’t be normal, because we make their world a different and perhaps a little scarier place, because we’re all a little scared of what we don’t understand. I think your friend Tommy’s parents were more worried about what other people would think of them because they had someone like his uncle in their family, which was why he probably looked funny and had people make fun of him, because he didn’t have anyone to help him. It’s probably also why his parents fought, because they were more worried about themselves than anyone else.

“You ask if I’m going to turn into a lady. Well I suppose I always have been a lady a little bit, but on the inside. I’ve always been afraid of what your gran and your mum and dad and your aunt would think of me if I let the girl in me come to the surface, so I’ve tried to hide that part of me away for a very long time. Aunt Gill saw that, and she saw how much it hurt me always to pretend to be something I’m not, and that’s why she gave me a dress for Christmas, and why she helped me to get dressed. I know I’m not very pretty, but I don’t look silly do I?”

Sammy shakes his head. “I think you do look pretty – a bit.” Blushing a little, he buries his head back into Grace’s chest.

“Then you don’t have anything to worry about do you? And neither do I. We’re very lucky to live in a family that loves as much as we all do, so I don’t think there are going to be any angry words, or divorces or anything else nasty.

“Uncle Greg’s not going away completely either. I mean, I haven’t decided yet what I want to do next. I may just be happy to be Aunty Grace every now and again, which means Uncle Greg will come visiting sometimes as well, and best of all, I don’t think he’s going to be as sad anymore. Won’t that be a good thing?”

Sammy tightens his grip by way of answer, although his semi-submerged head does nod gently against Grace’s breasts.

“Well,” Mum says, taking her apron off and dropping it on the kitchen table, “if we’ve got that all sorted, perhaps we can get back to opening our presents. There were some very large ones under the tree, and I, for one, can’t wait to find out what’s in them.”

It’s just the right thing to say at just the right time. Sammy’s eyes light up at the prospect of Christmas getting back on track, and he and Tammy race ahead of the rest of us back into the lounge, crisis averted and completely forgotten.

-oOo-

Just an ordinary Christmas. The lounge strewn with torn wrapping paper and empty cardboard boxes, Tammy and Sammy running around excitedly somewhere in the farther reaches of the house, performing durability tests on their new acquisitions. Colin is doing his man-of-the-house thing with the turkey and Mum and Lisa are laying the table.

My sister and I have been charged with tidying away the debris, but not just yet. I feel distinctly less pink in my new dressing gown and, would you believe it, matching slippers, and Grace sits poised in a way that Greg never was, though still with a slightly bewildered look on her face. We’re both nursing the remains of that second cup of coffee, reheated courtesy of that miracle which is the modern microwave.

“So, Grace, do you fancy hitting the sales next week?” I ask. “You’re going to need a new wardrobe, and the New Year’s free-for-all would be a great place to start.”

Fear and uncertainty again. I guess she has years – decades even – of hiding to get over, but then all the more reason to encourage her.

“Oh come on, it’ll be fun.”

“Right up until the time when someone works out what I am. Gill, I appreciate what you’re trying to do, I really do, but you’re going to have to give me some time. I don’t know what you expect from me now that this is out in the open, or at least out in the open with the family, but I’m not even sure where I want to go with it.

“Don’t get me wrong, I can’t thank you enough for confronting me on it; for the first time in my life I feel like I can truly be me, and it’s such a relief, I can’t even begin to tell you. The thing is, I don’t know, I guess I already feel that I’ve got Greg tucked away somewhere in here now, and it’s his turn to hide from the world. If I become Grace full time, I think a few months down the line the Greg in me will be screaming to be let out. I’m kind of stuck in the middle, neither one thing nor the other.”

“Or maybe you’re both. Look Grace – Greg or whatever – you’re right, this is early days, and certainly not time to be making any big decisions, but don’t you think we can at least agree that Grace is here to stay, at least some of the time? I like the idea of having a sister, even if it is only part time, and you said yourself that this is something you need – a way to let the girl out.”

“I suppose you’re right.”

“Great, then Grace is going to need some clothes. Two dress just will not do. So why don’t we go away for New Years? Somewhere neither of us have been. Somewhere we don’t expect to go again. That way you can go out and about as Grace, and if anybody spots you – which frankly I think is unlikely; you are really quite natural – then we beat a retreat and drive away none the worse for it.”

She’s still not convinced; her body language all but shouts it.

“Look. Okay. I’m not going to push things. If you’re not ready, you’re not ready. It’s just that it’ll be a shame to miss out on all the bargains, and I do so much want to go shopping with my big sister. You could always think of it as a sort of thank you for doing this to you.”

It’s mean I know, but sisters are supposed to be manipulative, and I’ve never pretended to be perfect.

“I tell you what,” Grace says with a sigh. “I’ll think about it. No promises, but depending on how I feel by the end of the day, I’ll let you know.”

She looks at her watch, something that Colin and Lisa gave her as a late present. It’s one of Lisa’s old ones that she doesn’t use any more, but they felt it was important to recognise Grace like Mum and I had, by giving a gift to her rather than to Greg. It has an elasticated strap made of sprung metal links, so it fits well enough, and most important, it has the small delicate face of a lady’s watch.

“We should get this cleared up, and you should get dressed. I don’t know how much longer the others are going to be in the kitchen, but we should make sure this place looks a little neater for when they’re done.”

So we did. Clearing up the wrapping paper is the easy part of Christmas, and five minutes joint effort has the place looking spick and span. I let Grace chase me back to my room to get dressed. For a few seconds I toy with the idea of getting her to help me pick a dress for Christmas, but I already have plans, and like she’s already said, things are moving fast enough as it is.

Showered and dressed, I find the family back in the lounge. Everything’s bubbling away nicely and promising lunch for about two o’clock, which means that we have a few hours to kill. Usually we invite the neighbours over for coffee and cake, but this year that probably won’t be such a good idea.

I take the vacant seat next to Grace and try and catch up with the conversation. It seems they’ve been grilling Grace a little on how long she’s been struggling with being hidden away inside my brother, and how she’s coped. That’s okay, I should get to catch up sometime in the New Year when we meet up for a drink and a chat.

Colin and Lisa dash off to get dressed, shooing the kids in front of them.

“What’s the hurry?” I ask. “We’re not expecting guests are we?” I mean it as a joke, but it turns out not to get any laughs. Mum looks a little sheepish and Grace’s eyes widen in alarm.

“Colin called the neighbours to cancel the usual get together, or at least to postpone it until New Year, but I did invite one other person. No, please don’t panic Grace, think of this as my meddling now that Gill’s had hers, and trust me like you trusted her.”

I’m intrigued, but it seems I won’t have to wait for long. The bell chimes and Mum climbs out of her chair to answer the door.

Mum’s muffled greeting drifts through to us, along with the equally muffled reply. It’s a woman’s voice and I’m sure I recognise it. Greg’s face goes pale, and it is Greg. Gone are Grace’s poise and confidence, and in their place are the terror and panic of a man about to be caught in women’s clothing by someone who obviously matters to him.

“Gill, hide me, I can’t let her see me like this.”

That last coffee must have been decaf, because my brain chooses that moment to go stupid. I look at Greg in vacant confusion.

“It’s Sarah. Gill, I can’t, I really can’t…”

He’s almost frantic, but there’s no escape. There’s only one door out of the lounge, and it leads to the hallway and the front door where Mum is even now inviting Greg’s former girlfriend back towards us.

No it was caffeinated; it just took a while to kick in. There may be no way out of the room, but maybe there is a way I can hide my brother.

“Greg, listen to me. You know Mum and Sarah are outside that door, and there’s no other way out. The only way this has any hope of working out right is if, when they come in, they find Grace waiting for them and not you.”

“What are you talking about, Gill? My life’s about to end and you’re talking drivel?”

“It’s not drivel, Greg. I was there when you looked in the mirror this morning, you became a whole other person. It was like… I don’t know, like you saw yourself for the first time, and Grace came to the surface.

“All morning, you’ve been proud and elegant, happy, confident, outgoing – along with all the really great bits of you. If Sarah meets that person, there’s no way she’s going to react in the way you think.”

“But she knows me, Gill. All she’ll see is me. The me she’s known for most of a year, only this time I’ll be in a frock, and the reasons she had for leaving me will be confirmed.”

“So you’ve got to make sure she doesn’t see that bit of you. Greg – no, Grace, you need to take control. Remember that feeling you had when you saw the real you in the mirror – or the girl part of you or whatever. Remember the way it made you feel good and strong and complete – yes I saw all of that in your expression. Grab hold of those feelings and let them draw out my sister. Trust me, Grace, you’re such a lovely person, such a strong person. If you don’t hide, she’ll see the good that’s in you. She’ll see what this is all about and, unless she’s has tunnel vision to match the Dartford crossing, she’ll see that she was wrong.”

I take Greg’s hands and will him to retreat, to let Grace come to the fore. He takes a deep breath and, with a strength of mind that I would never have expected from Greg, but would quite readily accept in Grace, I see him push down the fears. Lisa has a thing for mirrors, and there aren’t many rooms in the house that don’t have one. The lounge has a large one over the mantelpiece, and I turn Greg to face it. The magic happens again and I see my sister emerge. Shoulders back, back straight, head raised, but not so much as to seem haughty. The smile returns just as the door opens and Mum and Sarah step through.

“I’m really not sure what this…” Sarah breaks off in mid-flow. Her jaw hangs loose and she stares. “Greg?”

It would probably sound contrived coming from him – her – so I interject.

“Not at the moment, Sarah. I’d like you to meet the newest addition to the family. Sarah this is Grace, Grace I think you already know Sarah.”

Grace holds out a hand in greeting.

“I can’t imagine how strange this must be for you Sarah, I’m sorry.”

“I don’t understand,” Sarah addresses me, ignoring the elephant in the room with true British obstinacy, “are you telling me that Greg has a split personality?”

“Why don’t you ask her for yourself? And it’s Grace at the moment, not Greg.”

Sarah turns to her former boyfriend. It’s obvious she’s not going to take the offered hand, so Grace takes it back, holding it with the other one in front of her stomach. Sarah’s expression shows more confusion than outrage, which is as encouraging a start to this encounter as we could hope for.

“It’s rather complicated, Sarah. Why don’t you sit down and I’ll do my best to explain.”

“And I’ll put the kettle on,” Mum says. “It’s tea through preference, isn’t it Sarah? Milk and no sugar.”

She nods dumbly and lowers herself onto the settee. Mum looks at me and twitches a head towards the door. “Come on, Gill, I could do with a hand in the kitchen.”

I’m reluctant to leave, but Mum’s right; this has to be between Grace and Sarah. Grace has sat down beside our guest, no closer than a friend would sit from another. As I close the door, I hear the beginning of her explanation.

“I suppose split personality is a good place to start. I mean, I’m not. I have all the same memories and I think all the same things, more or less, but I feel different…”

In the kitchen, I turn on Mum. “Alright, how long have you been planning this?”

“Oh, that’s hard to say,” she replies without the slightest hint of shame. She fills the kettle and turns it on while I fill a tray with cups and saucers. “Sarah and I have kept in touch this past month or so since the breakup. You know, she never once told me what it was that caused her to walk away, and for that she has my most profound respect. I’ve spent the last few weeks hoping for a reconciliation between the two of them, and it’s only been this morning that I’ve understood what’s necessary to achieve that.

“I did think about inviting her round for the coffee and cake thing, but decided that it would be awkward for everyone involved, but then I met Grace, and I thought that if Sarah could just get to know her, she might change her mind a little, and they might perhaps at least be able to be friends.”

“You’re a conniving old baggage, Mum, you know that, don’t you?”

“Well really!” she find it hard to hide the smile. “Is that any way to speak to your mother? And in the holidays too!”

She lifts the cafetiere and twitches an eyebrow.

“No, I’d better stick to tea this time Mum; I think all the beans are affecting my ability to think.”

“I’ve been telling you that for most of your adult life, young lady.”

“I know you have, Mum,” a surge of warmth washes over me and I wrap my arms around her, “and I count myself fortunate to have such a caring mother.”

“Less of your cheek young lady,” she bats me away. “You know you’re neither too old nor too big for me to take you across my knee.”

Colin and Lisa choose that moment to appear, fully togged up for Christmas and with equally smart children in tow.

“Did I hear the doorbell just now?” Lisa asks.

“Mum invited Sarah over for coffee and cake – well tea and not cake in her case, the way she avoids both caffeine and calories.”

The look Colin and Lisa exchange speaks volumes. “And how’s that working out?” Colin decides that words are also necessary.

“We’re about to find out,” Mum says, pouring boiling water into a teapot and setting it on the tray with all the other little essentials. “I think they’ve had enough time to sort things.”

-oOo-

We find them as we left them. Sarah still sitting on the settee near the door, a blank look in her eyes and her mouth gaping slightly. Grace perches next to her, looking on anxiously. Her hand is resting with gentle concern on Sarah’s arm, and she’s nibbling apprehensively at her lower lip.

The rattle of bone china brings them out of their respective reveries. Mum and I put our trays down on the coffee table in the middle of the room, and everyone scatters to various seats around the room. Sam and Tammy squeal with unfeigned delight at the presence of Auntie Sarah and run over to clamber over her in enthusiastic greeting, until Lisa calls them to heel. They run off in search of new toys to show off, and a momentary hush settles over the room as five pairs of concerned and expectant eyes turn in the same direction.

Sarah laughs nervously. “No-one expects the Spanish Inquisition,” she says with the appropriate awful accent. “Alright, where do we start?”

We all take the question as rhetorical and wait for her to continue. She marshals her thoughts, looking around the room.

“Okay, so I suppose first of all, how long have you all known?” There’s a hint of hurt betrayal in her expression and her voice. I suspect she thinks we’ve all been laughing at her behind her back; funny the way so many people go on the defensive the moment they’re confronted with something new and unusual. I guess since I started this whole thing off it’s up to me to lead the response.

“Known for certain, pretty much just this morning. Suspected to a greater or lesser degree, I suppose it’s different for each of us. I’ve had strong suspicions for the past few months, Mum I would guess for over a year, Colin and Lisa…”

“We didn’t really suspect anything,” Lisa says, taking her husband’s hand for confirmation. “Like everyone else, we’ve known there was something wrong, something that made Greg really unhappy a lot of the time, so it wasn’t a complete surprise when Grace popped out from behind his eyes, but no, all this is new today.”

“And you’re all alright with this?”

“Well it takes a little getting used to,” Mum says. “I don’t think any sane mother would wish her son could become her daughter – well maybe every now and then when he comes in from playing in the mud and traipses half the garden around a newly cleaned house, but not really.

“No, I think the issue here isn’t so much how we feel about having Grace join the family as how relieved we are at finding the cause – and the solution – to Greg’s depression.” I join in with the general nods around the room. Tammy and Sam come rushing back in, but with that same level of perception they showed early, they decide this isn’t a good time to interrupt, and slip out to play by themselves for a while longer.

“Greg never had a choice over this, Sarah,” Mum continues. “It’s not as if he woke up one morning, tried on a dress and decided he liked it. It’s more something that’s always been buried inside him, and he’s fought it all his life. We all know there’s a social stigma attached to boys wearing girl’s clothes – I’m afraid I’ve done my bit to perpetrate that idea, the times when he was younger and wanted to play dress up with Gill, and I told him that boys just didn’t do that – but just because most people think it’s wrong doesn’t help those who can’t help feeling it’s right.

“I think Greg – or Grace – will have to explain what it feels like. We’ve only seen the effects from the outside, how the frustration builds over days and weeks until finally something bursts and there is relief, but also guilt. It’s a miserable existence from what I can see, and if I’d known that letting him put on pretty clothes every now and again would have made it easier, I would have encouraged him to do so a long time ago. After all, it’s not as if he’s harming anyone is it? And if he were allowed to practice getting himself ready he wouldn’t look in the least bit grotesque – not that that should be an issue; I mean the number of obese women who go around wearing Spandex and nobody bats an eyelid.

“That’s part of the reason I wanted you to come round today, dear, to see how completely my son becomes my daughter when he puts on a dress. That and to let him – or her – explain things better. You never said anything, but I understand the reason you split up was because Greg tried to explain this part of himself to you and you didn’t understand. What you need to know is that he wasn’t inviting you to join him in some perverted fantasy life, but rather trying to be honest with you. This isn’t the sort of thing you go around telling just everyone, not if you don’t want to have some enormous stigma attached to you, and it’s a measure of how much he cares for you that he was prepared to take the risk and let you in on the secret.”

Sarah turns to Greg, hope dawning with the revelation, burning away the hurt like the sun on an early morning mist. Greg smiles back, and yes it is Greg again; my brother in a dress, but not ashamed, just a little embarrassed. Something I’d said makes a connection in the back of Sarah’s mind and she turns towards me then Greg.

“Hang on. You said you’ve only known since this morning, so is this the first time you’ve dressed up with your family?”

“Yes,” I say before Greg can answer, “and it was my idea. He’d have kept this hidden for years if we’d let him, but I gave him that dress as a present this year – sort of forced the issue – and when he saw that we were prepared to accept him as he is – sometimes a she – he allowed himself to be persuaded.

“He didn’t know you were coming today until you came in through the door, and you should have seen the look of mortification on his face when he realised he was trapped, that there was no way he could get out of you seeing him dressed like that.”

“So, it wasn’t your idea?” Greg shook his head. “But you looked so poised when I came in, as though you were daring me to say there was anything wrong.”

“Again me,” I confess sheepishly. “It would have been the worst thing for you to see him so panicked by it all – sort of a confirmation of all your suspicions. When he’s in Grace mode, he has such a confidence and – yes – grace about him. I thought it would be best for you to see that, and I managed to help him find it before you came through the door.”

Sarah lapsed into a thoughtful silence and we all waited for her to continue. Eventually she moved on to the next stage.

“So what does this all mean? Do you want to become a woman, Greg? I mean I’ve seen those programs about men who start taking hormones and end up having bits snipped off, is that going to be you in ten years’ time?”

“I don’t know, Sarah,” Greg drops his head, the long hair of his wig hiding the expression on his face. “I don’t think so. I think that people like me can have these feelings to different extents, and it’s not as though I feel like I want to be a woman all the time. I think if I were to go through with it, I’d be stuck wishing I could change back some day, not that that would be such a hardship, I mean I could always dress down on those days couldn’t I? But no, I’m okay being a guy most of the time, just as long as I have a way of letting the girl out every now and again. It’s the feeling of having her trapped inside with no hope of ever letting her out to be with other people that makes it so hard.

“When I told you last month, I had no expectations from you – just the hope you would understand and accept that I have this need to let Grace out every now and again. I didn’t want to risk you ever coming home one day and surprising me while I was in the middle of dressing up.

“I love you Sarah. It’s something I’ve known for a long while, and I couldn’t live with there to being any secrets between us. I just hoped that you would be prepared to accept – tolerate even – my occasional lapse into this.

“I never expected my family to accept me the way they have this morning, and it’s opened up a whole new vista of possibilities. I’m not sure where to go from here, and I guess the djinn is well and truly out of the bottle, so I suppose Grace is here to stay regardless of whether I feel totally comfortable with the idea. Gill’s even invited me – as Grace – to go shopping in the January sales.”

“Speaking of gin and bottles,” Mum says, “I know it’s early, but would anyone like something a little stronger than tea? I mean, it is Christmas after all.”

It’s enough to break the tension, and it seems Sarah has heard enough for now. Colin takes orders and sets about filling them. The teapot goes neglected, but Lisa takes charge of distributing the cake, and even Sarah succumbs to a small slice of chocolaty goodness. The conversation drifts back into the mundane, and the kids take it as their cue to come in and monopolise Auntie Sarah for a while. There are still words unsaid, issues unresolved, but I catch the occasional meaningful glance between Greg and Sarah, and there’s a lot more warmth in her gaze than I remember seeing the last time I met her. Her hand rests gently on Greg’s arm as she turns to give Sammy and Tammy her attention.

-oOo-

“I’m hoping you’ll stay for lunch,” Mum had asked Sarah. It’s taken a little reorganising – a phone call home to apologise and plead indulgence, the hunting out of a spare chair and the laying of an addition place – but we’re all sitting around the table tucking into way too much food and letting the wine loosen our inhibitions a little.

Greg asked Sarah if she would rather he change, but she told him she wanted to get to know Grace a little better, so she’s still here and wearing her midnight blue satin dress. It’s funny watching them, because Sarah doesn’t quite know how to treat her – whether as a woman she wants to be friends with, or as a man she realises she does have feelings for after all. As for Grace, this time it’s Greg that keeps leaking through. All his life he’s wanted to see just how green the grass is on our side of the fence, and no sooner is he given the opportunity, than he has a reason to want to go back. I can’t help giggling at their confusion, but I guess they’ll work it out in time.

I’m a little envious of their easy intimacy, so very similar to Colin and Lisa, and Mum and Dad when Dad was still alive. Watching them makes me realise that it’s something John and I have never shared, nor ever will no matter how long we stick together. It’s something worth holding out for, I decide, but for the moment, it’s enough to be a part of a family that loves the way ours does.

I don’t know if it’s common to women, or if I’m a little unusual in this respect, but there’s always been that part of me that’s fantasised about what it would be like to kiss another woman. The wicked side of my personality speculates as to whether or not Sarah will be indulging her own version of that particular fantasy later, and again I can’t help giggling.

Nobody notices, after all this is my third glass of wine and everyone knows I’m a cheap date when it comes to booze.

Maybe I should look for someone like Greg. I already love that he can be my sister some of the time, and he’s always been more sensitive than pretty much any of the men I’ve dated – something I really like about him. Yeah, maybe that would work, now just how does a girl go about meeting a guy with a girl hidden inside him?

-Fin-