“Would you like to try it on, sir?”

Oh shit! Talk about worst nightmare.

Generally I try to stay away from clothes shops for just this reason, but every now and again I have no choice. The collars and cuffs of pretty much every shirt I owned were worn through, and my last pair of decent trousers was on the brink of going in an area I’d rather not mention.

Which meant a shopping expedition and God I hate shopping for clothes.

Trousers which come in all those exciting shades of blue, brown, grey or, of course, black, and with styles that seem to jump from bland to outlandish whilst managing to avoid, completely, anything that approaches stylish or attractive.

Shirts are much the same. Long sleeves or short, button down lapels or not, colour choice of white, light blue or grey – never pink though. I mean I like pink, but pink shirts are just… ugh! There are other variations – darker colours like navy-blue or black, patterns, although they seem limited to pin stripes or paisley, but overall there’s nothing stylish about them. You might as well be trying to polish a turd for all the improvement it would make.

I’m over-reacting and I know it. Men’s fashions are fine. I look around and I see other guys in chinos or jeans, tee-shirts or three piece suits, every variety of men’s fashion you can think of, and for the most part they look great. With a bit of effort I know I could find a mix of things that would look good on me, but even dressed to the nines, looking in a mirror I wouldn’t see me. Not the me inside. Not the real me.

So instead, I walk into the first clothing shop I find with a sale, grab a few things in my size – random colours and styles ‘cos frankly, when it comes down to it, who gives a shit? In and out in five minutes – almost too quick to feel the pinch as all that hard earned cash goes on stuff I don’t particularly want, but do need.

I mean there’s other things I need that aren’t particularly glamorous, like toilet paper and bleach, and I buy them without so much as a second thought, so why the hell is clothes shopping so hard? Why is it that I resent spending money on those things?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because there is an alternative. It’s because there are clothes out there that would bring out the me inside, that would make me feel good, even look good if I made the effort, and I would make the effort if I could. If I were to go that route though – if I were to satisfy my own desires – I wouldn’t meet up to the expectations of pretty much anyone around me. I’d get shocked, disapproving, even disgusted looks from most people I met, and ridicule and derision from most of the rest.

There’s my choice: Dress to suit myself and suffer the rejection of others, or dress to fit the expectations of the blinkered minds that surround me. When it comes down to it, I’m too much of a coward to choose the former route. I need the acceptance of others, so I pretend to be someone they will accept, and most of the time I get by. Most of the time.

Shopping for clothes takes me right to the edge. There doesn’t seem to be such a thing anymore as a gents’ tailor, at least not that I can afford, and definitely not that I’d want to afford. Instead I go into any of a number of high street clothing shops where, it seems, it is impossible to get to the men’s clothing section without going through the women’s first. Not only do I have to reaffirm the lie I have chosen to live every time I buy a new set of clothes, but I am forced to walk past all those beautiful delicate fabrics and designs that resonate with my soul.

God that sounds so melodramatic, but that’s what happens when you get so totally bent out of shape – your whole being cries out for some sort of release, and ordinary words won’t do. It seems ridiculous to be speaking about clothes in this manner, and maybe it’s not actually the clothes themselves, just that they’re the gateway to the life I’d rather be living, if only people could accept me as such.

And sometimes, when I’m passing the gateway, I can’t help but stop and look through at what, in a gentler, kinder world, could have been.

That’s what happened today. It was an exquisite knee length dress in layers of green, red and yellow chiffon. It had long loose sleeves with tight cuffs and a reasonably high neckline, which meant that I might actually look not too stupid in it. Especially if I shaved my legs.

I did that once last year, and it felt great. My little secret from the world. It lasted quite a few weeks and felt so good that I nearly kept it going. But then I went to stay with my parents over Christmas, and it might have been a little awkward trying to explain why I had such smooth calves sticking out from beneath my dressing gown. I don’t do PJs you see – it’s a nightie or nothing with me, which generally means nothing. So I let the growth return and I haven’t got round to doing anything about it yet this year.

I turned to the sales assistant, running through a list of possible excuses for one I felt I could believe myself, and I caught something in the way she was looking at me. For some reason that totally escapes me, I decided to go with honest for once.

“Does it show that much?”

She scrunched up a pretty little nose and shrugged.

“Not really. It’s just that my ex kind of liked to get into my things. You get to recognise the look.”

“Is that why he’s you’re ex?”

“What? God no. I actually thought it was kind of sweet, him being in touch with his feminine side and all that? What’s your size?”

It took me a few seconds to register what she had just said. I managed to recover, but not too much useful effect.

“I have no idea.”

She gave me a quick, evaluative look-over.

“I’d say you were about a sixteen, but I’d try an eighteen too just to be sure. Tell you what, why don’t you go pick out a few shirts and a pair of trousers or two and come meet me at the changing rooms?”

“Are you suggesting what I think you’re suggesting? Won’t you get in trouble for that?”

“Only if anyone sees, at which point you’ll be in deeper doo-doo than me. Go on, it’ll be fun.”

I wandered off into the men’s section, grabbed a mix of shirts, sweaters and trousers at random, and headed for the changing rooms.

She was waiting. It was a quiet time of day so nobody else was around, and I was able to walk right up to her.

“Seriously?” She took a pink shirt out of my hands and held it against me. It was rather lurid.

“God no. Sorry I wasn’t thinking. No, that is not my colour. I will try these though.” I held up the rest of my selection.

“Third on the left sir.” She gave me a wink and a smile.

With my mouth turned suddenly arid, I slid the curtain aside and stepped into the cubicle. It was the double size one reserved for disabled and oversize people, and there were a half dozen dresses hanging from a hook on one wall.

“I picked out a few others I thought you might like.” She’d followed me into the changing area. “There really aren’t many people around at the moment, so you can take as long as you like. Just leave the dresses where they are now once you’re done.”

I draped the men’s clothes I had brought with me over a convenient chair and promptly forgot about them. I drew the curtain closed and reached for the autumn dress I’d been admiring when this little adventure started.

It looked and felt wonderful. Yep, a leg shave would be in order if I ever had the opportunity to wear this thing regularly.

“Are you still there?” I called out. I’m not sure what possessed me. This was such an unlikely and exceptional pleasure I felt like sharing it. Besides, I wanted to show my gratitude, and nothing says thank you like showing a girl how you look in a dress, does it?

Like I said, I don’t know what possessed me.

“Is everything alright sir?”

The voice was hers, which was a relief. The thought crossed my mind that she could be called away to another task at any moment, and all that stood between me and public humiliation was a very thin curtain. I fought for some semblance of courage and found some.

“Could you come in for a minute please?”

The curtain twitched back and forth and she was standing in the cubicle with me.

“Well what do you think?” I asked, giving her a nervous twirl. “I mean I know the legs need some work, but…”

“You look fabulous. So you’re a sixteen after all eh? Try the pink one. I mean the shirt was wrong in so many ways, but I think you’ll like the dress. I’m not sure about the blue, but you never know.”

She slipped back outside, pinching the curtain closed so fast I caught no sight of what was going on outside, which in turn meant that the outside view of what was going on in here was equally obscured.

Again I did as she suggested. The pink was slightly tighter fitting with a shorter skirt, but I loved it, even more than the one I’d just taken off. I tried the blue one on for variety, but yet again she was right. There was something that didn’t quite work with it – wrong colour for my complexion or something.

I don’t know how long I spent in there admiring the clothes and how they looked and felt on me, but I knew I didn’t ought to push my luck. Somewhat reluctantly, I hung the dresses up as neatly as I could, then I quickly tried on the men’s clothes I’d brought with me. The fit wasn’t bad and they didn’t look stupid on me.

I changed back into my own worn togs and stepped out with just the men’s things in my arms.

“So how was it sir?” she asked with a twinkle in her eye.

“Pretty amazing,” I said. “You were right about everything. The smaller size was just right for me, and the blue didn’t quite work, but the others were perfect.”

“Would you like me to put everything back on the rack or would you like to buy any of the things you’ve just tried on.”

“Oh I think I’ll be buying all of these,” I said indicating the pile of clothes in my hand.

“You don’t want to anything else then?”

“We can’t always have what we want, can we?”

“Oh I don’t know. Maybe not always, but I manage to do so quite often myself. As it happens, I was thinking of buying a couple of dresses today. I get staff discount so they’re really quite affordable.”

I looked up at those twinkling eyes, trying desperately to read what I wanted to see there.

“Not the blue,” I told her.

“No, not the blue.”

“What time do you get off?”

“About six.”

“I was wondering if I could interest you in a bite to eat. Sort of a way of saying thank you for being so helpful.”

“That would be nice. I don’t suppose you live anywhere near here do you? It would be good to get changed before going out.”

As it happened, my flat wasn’t far up the road.

“I’ll pick you up at six,” I told her. “Anywhere in particular you’d like to go?”

“I have a place in mind. Leave it with me.”
-oOo-
“You know, when you said it would be good to get changed before going out, I didn’t think you meant me.”

“Oh come on! What’s the point in having a gorgeous dress like that if you’re not going to show it off? Especially with legs like yours.”

“Well the shoes help. I’m surprised you guessed my size so well; even more so that your shop sells mules that fit me.”

She pursed her lips, trying to swallow a self-satisfied smile.

“Actually, what surprises me most is the rest of this.” I pointed at my gently wavy hair and my face with its light dusting of make-up “I can’t believe that I’ve managed to get away without being noticed all evening.”

“Well that’s probably not entirely true. You see the main reason I chose this place this evening is because it caters for a certain minority demographic, of which you happen to be a member.

“I mean don’t get me wrong, you look fabulous, and probably ninety-nine people out of a hundred wouldn’t even suspect, but, well let’s just say you’re among friends here, and most of them, I imagine, would have spotted you. Takes one to know one sort of thing, you know?”

I looked around me at the other couples sitting at nearby tables. I’d had my suspicions, but now, in the light of my charming companion’s revelation, I began to see more and more tell-tale signs that many of the women in the room were like me.

“I suppose you came here with your ex?”

“Guilty as charged, although he made a convincing enough girl that we could have gone just about anywhere without risking too much. You don’t mind do you? I thought you’d feel more relaxed being out in public with other people like yourself.”

“No, no, it’s fine. I am curious about one thing though. Why are you being so nice to me?”

She blushed.

“Well, it’s been kind of lonely since my ex left me, and I thought you were kind of cute – plus you’re my type, and you have excellent taste in clothes.”

“You chose this one,” I said looking down at the pink dress, enhanced now with a couple of improvised boobs nestled in the bra she’d bought for me.

Apart from the shoes and bra, she’d also supplied a pack of knickers – large but lacy – some tights, and the necessary razors, make-up and hair-care products to complete the transformation. It had taken an hour and a half and I wasn’t at all sure how easily or completely I’d be able to change back, but there was a kind of insane enthusiasm about her that was infectious, and I’d been as caught up in the transformation process as she was.

The couple of hours since I’d picked her up from the shop had passed in a dizzying haze, and now, almost impossibly, here we were, sitting in a perfectly ordinary looking bar, just two girls out on the town, sharing a meal and each other’s company.

It all felt unreal – as though she’d managed to convince me I could fly and had persuaded me to jump off a cliff. At this moment I was still rising into the air, exhilarated by the sensation, but still terrified that in a very short while I’d discover I had no wings after all, and it was a long way down to the rocks.

“You agreed that it looked good.” She broke into my reverie, and it took me a moment to recall what we were talking about. “And that dress you were looking at when I found you is perfect for you. I probably wouldn’t have given it a second look, but on you it was just right.”

I concentrated on my food – Beef Stroganoff. A little tough, but quite tasty – and we lapsed into silence. I was hungry but resisted the temptation to wolf my food down as I usually did. My painted and manicured nails reminded me that I was not exactly my usual self tonight, and smaller, more delicate mouthfuls seemed more appropriate. I wish I could say it made the food more enjoyable, but I missed having a decent mouthful.

“Angie?” Her full name was Angelica, but, so she told me, only her mother and people who were looking for a bruising called her that.

She looked up at me, a laden fork hovering halfway to her lips.

“Where’s this going?” I waved a temporarily redundant knife back and forth between us, then more specifically at me in my pink dress. “All this. You and me, and me dressing like this with you in public. Where do you see it leading?”

There’s a thing about being forced to live a life you don’t want to. After a while you acclimate. You reach a point where you become so used to the unpleasantness of it all that you feel uncomfortable and wary whenever anything changes, especially for the better. The accumulated thrills of being invited to dress in the shop, being able to buy new girl clothes, having an attractive girl accept my invitation out for a meal, and going out in public fully, and convincingly, dressed were overwhelming me. I wasn’t used to so much going right in my life, and I was beginning to anticipate the inevitable train-wreck that would cause it all to come crashing down around my ears.

She bit into her forkful of food – something involving chicken and salad I think – and gave herself time to think as she chewed on it.

“Does it matter right now?” She took a sip of her wine to help chase the food. “I mean, can’t we just enjoy this evening for what it is?”

“And what is it exactly?” Sometimes the train-wreck is only inevitable because you’re driving the train. I’d heard only evasion in her words, and like a demented pit bull terrier, I couldn’t let go.

“From what I remember, it’s you buying me a meal to say thank you for being nice to you in the shop today. It’s also a first night out with someone I rather liked earlier, and who I hope isn’t going to change my mind, on that score at least.”

“Do you always dress the guys you like as girls on a first night out?” Pit bulls don’t let go easily once they have a grip, and I was choking the life out of this evening. I could hear myself speak, knew the words were all wrong, but I couldn’t help myself. Is it possible to become so comfortable in your misery that you sabotage any chance you have of happiness, or is it that you can become so distrustful of things getting better that you won’t allow things to do so.

Angie put her knife and fork down on her plate and stared across at me. The smile had gone from her eyes.

“I’m sorry,” I said before she could come up with a response. “I’m not used to people being nice to me.”

“I’m not surprised,” she said in a controlled, level tone. “If this is the way you respond to a little kindness.

“I thought you’d enjoy this. But if you’re not, we can leave now.”

“Angie, please. I’m really sorry. This isn’t easy for me. I guess I’m so used to living with disappointment, I get scared whenever I have a reason to hope things will improve.”

There was a pause, then she picked up her cutlery and started to eat again. We finished out the meal in silence and left the place shortly after.

Like I said: Train-wreck.

We shared a cab home. Angie insisted, telling me that it wasn’t a good idea for girls to walk the streets after dark, and I was particularly vulnerable because of the surprise package I had hidden under my

s. Besides, she told me, walking any distance was a great way to ruin a pair of decent shoes as well as guarantee you aching feet in the morning.

My place was closer so I got out first. I wanted to say something – anything to make it right – but she wouldn’t meet my eyes. I mumbled a sorry and a thank you and climbed out of the car, leaving her with enough money to pay her fare home and tip the driver.

Back in my flat, I hung my borrowed coat behind the door, flopped onto the sofa and started channel hopping. I wasn’t in the mood though, and turned the TV off after less than a minute. I looked out the window at the empty street. I don’t know what I hoped to find , but it wasn’t there. Feeling dejected and empty, I headed for bed.

One of the things that attracted me to this flat was the fitted wardrobe, which has three sliding doors, all of which are mirrored. It makes the room look a lot bigger, but more than anything, from the moment I’d first seen it, I’d had images of standing in front of it dressed as I am now.

After I moved in, I found I never had the courage to go out and buy myself any decent clothes – not of the sort I really wanted anyway – or any of the accessories that are so necessary in completing the look. The few times I’d dressed in something cheap I’d bought on eBay, the effect had been so disappointing, I’d soon given up.

Now here I was actually looking like a girl for the first time I could remember. I tried twirling a little and smiling, but the half-hearted response of my reflection dampened any pleasure I might have gleaned from the experience. I thought about Angie and what I had just let slip through my fingers – what I had forcibly rammed through my fingers with my own self-destructive idiocy – and I found I really didn’t care how I was dressed.

An anger inside me wanted to tear the clothes off, to throw them in the rubbish, and to fall on my bed crying my eyes out, but I’ve spent too much of my life being something I’m not, my self-control has grown to a point where I won’t allow myself such tantrums. I undressed carefully, putting the dress on a hanger in a formerly unused corner of the wardrobe, and my under-things in the washing hamper.

Naked and entirely male again, I turned out the light and climbed into bed. Only then did the tears come – not in a flood, but in gentle, trickling streams that lasted until sleep took over.
-oOo-
Next morning I was back at my computer. Copy writing isn’t the most glamorous job in the world, but it pays the bills. I’d started doing it with the idea that, since I was working at home and on my own most days, I could dress how I wanted. The problem was, just putting on a skirt or a dress wasn’t enough. As previously mentioned, my half-hearted attempts at transforming myself had done nothing for me, so I’d never bothered.

When I woke up, I considered trying one of the new dresses on and having a go with the make-up and things Ang had left me, and if I’d not still been feeling bad about how things had gone between us, I might have given it a go. Instead, I showered and pulled on my usual pair of chinos and a polo shirt.

The guy in the mirror was a total scruff, and the shadows around his eyes had deepened. I found myself despising him for his weakness.

I worked my way through a few fairly generic pieces – the sort of thing you can write in your sleep after you have a bit of experience. Normally I’d be able to put a bit extra into one of these, but today my work was distinctly lacklustre – fit for purpose, but without that extra sparkle that earned me the recommendations I needed to keep in business.

The fifth one of the day was a special. I read through the requirements and made an effort at an opening paragraph. I only read halfway through my effort before my finger landed on the backspace button. I needed some air.

It was unseasonably warm out, so I didn’t bother with a coat. I grabbed my wallet and keys and headed out the door.

Usually when I need air, I go to a nearby park to wander among the greenery. Usually I just follow my feet and they take me there. Usually. My feet had different ideas this time.

I wasn’t completely surprised when I looked up to find myself standing outside the mall, but it did flummox me for a few minutes. I wish I could say that I spent the time trying to decide whether or not it was a good idea to go in, or even fighting for the courage, but in reality I just stood there with my mind a complete blank.

Eventually I told myself that I couldn’t afford to stand around all day. It was enough. I decided that since I’d made it this far, I might as well complete the journey, and with no more thought than that, I headed into the shop.

I couldn’t see her. Eventually one of the senior assistants decided I’d spent long enough standing in the middle of the place looking around, and approached me with a prim, superior look on her face.

“Can I help you, sir?” She stood at a respectable distance, her hands clasped in front of her, a slight tilt to her head and a hint of a smile that hovered somewhere between accommodating and condescending.

“Yeah,” I managed, colouring slightly. “I’m looking for the assistant who helped me yesterday. I can’t see her.”

“Do you happen to recall her name, sir?”

“Ang,” I said faintly. “Angie.”

“Angelica is working in the back of the shop today, sir,” she said, the smile definitely veering towards condescension. “I trust everything was alright yesterday.”

“Oh, yeah.” I tried not to sound to overeager. “She was very helpful. I was hoping she could, er, help me again today.”

She arched an eyebrow quizzically, but recovered before I had a chance to ask why.

“I’ll just fetch her for you, sir,” she said, a distinct chill in her voice, then walked off as prim and proper as ever.

I didn’t have to wait long. Within a couple of minutes, I saw Angie walking across the shop floor towards me, the same prim walk, the same plastic smile. I had time to wonder whether they were issued with the uniform when I noticed the fire in her eyes.

“Yes, sir.” The words were clipped and controlled, but did nothing to dispel the impression of anger.

“I, I’m sorry,” I stammered. “I wanted to talk to you, but I can see it was a bad idea.” I turned to leave.

“And so you figure you’ll make it worse by simply walking away in front of my supervisor?”

Ms Prim ‘n ‘Proper was hovering in the background, right on the edge of hearing.

“I, I, I… Could you show me some more clothes?” I turned towards the menswear department.

“For your sister you mean?” Ang inclined her head towards the women’s section. Soto Voce and between gritted teeth she added, “I work in the ladies’ department, remember?”

“Er, yes.” I tried to keep my voice normal, but my usual fear of exposure was rising to the surface, especially with the aforementioned supervisor hovering in the background. I suspect Angie was doing this in part as a punishment for… well take your pick. For being a prick yesterday, for having the temerity to turn up today, for… I don’t know what else.

She led me down several aisles and made a point of holding up several of the laciest, frilliest, girliest skirts, tops and dresses she could find. After ten minutes I was beet red and utterly humiliated, carrying a selection of very feminine clothing in my size to the till.

Ang rung up a much larger bill than I could easily afford to pay and, shamefaced and utterly defeated, I handed over my credit card.

“I get the message,” I said as she packed my new purchases into a thankfully gender neutral carrier bag. “I won’t bother you here again, but I really do want to talk to you still.”

“What’s to talk about?” The security tag on one of the dresses was refusing to detach, winning me a few more valuable seconds.

“About last night,” I said. “I mean I know I was a prat, but I’d love a chance to talk it through.”

“There really is nothing to talk through.” The tag fell away, she put the dress in the bag and looked me straight in the eye. “I’m looking for a particular kind of guy. I thought you were it. I was wrong.”

“Just like that?” I couldn’t believe her. “How can you be so sure?”

She looked me up and down. “Because I don’t see the person I thought you were here today.” She handed me my bag and receipt and put the plastic smile back on her face. “Thanks again sir. I hope your sister gets well soon. I’ll be quite happy to offer the same help any time you come in.”

I tried the plastic smile on for size. Her meaning was obvious – come back and I’ll humiliate you in the same way, and spend all you money doing it. I headed for the door.

“Another of your sissy, cross-dressing friends?” the supervisor said in one of those carefully modulated voices that sounds quiet but carries a long way. It was dripping with distaste.

“Actually no,” Angie said brightly, also loud enough that I could hear. “His sister’s an agoraphobic, so he buys her things for her, even though he’s horribly embarrassed about it.”

I glanced back at Angie, who was striding away from her boss. Had she said that for my benefit, or as a way of deflating her overly self-important boss? I couldn’t tell. She disappeared through a door without looking back.
-oOo-
Back at the flat, I took my unplanned purchases out of their bags and started hanging them up with the rest of my small stash. I felt the dull ache inside that always accompanied the realisation of having lost the interest of someone I was attracted to. I mean I hadn’t really lost Angie because I’d never had her, but the potential had been there, and now I had to accept that it wasn’t.

I did have something to show for it though. My bank balance was lighter, but for once in my life I actually owned some clothes I wanted to wear. Whatever else Ang had brought into my life, she’d introduced me to several styles that really worked for me. I held up a rust-coloured, turtle-neck dress with long sleeves and a flared, knee length skirt. I knew I would never look stunning in a dress, but in this I could at least look attractive.

The ache of loss slipped away, replaced by an urge to try the dress on. Ang and I had already done all the prep work the previous evening, shaving my legs, arms and chest, tidying my long but otherwise unkempt hair.

I undressed, and slipped into some of the underwear she’d brought the previous evening, slipping the makeshift enhancements we’d used into the bra. The tights felt magnificent against my bare legs, especially with a lacy cotton slip over them. The dress took a bit of figuring out, since I’d never come across one with the zip down one side under the sleeve, but once it was on it looked astounding.

A quick glance in the mirror still showed a man in dress, which meant I still had work to do. I slipped the dress off again and went to the bathroom where I stuck my head under the shower for a minute, just to wet my hair.

Another plus from my line of work was that I rarely met people in a professional capacity, meaning it didn’t matter if I decided to grow my hair out. Despite the fact that I rarely put on a dress these days, I had still grown my hair to shoulder length. Angie had trimmed the split ends the previous night, but had left it in a fairly gender neutral style. That meant that by default I looked like a man with long hair, but with a bit of encouragement I could look like a girl. I spent half an hour working on it with brush and hair-drier, trying to copy what Ang had done, and I wasn’t displeased with the final result.

Lastly, I put on a little make-up There had been a time when I’d experimented briefly with the old war-paint, but I’d never been able to avoid ending up with a clown face, so had given up. Again, after Ang’s ministrations the previous evening, I had a clearer idea of what I was doing, and after a few subtle touches, I definitely looked more woman than man.

I slipped the dress back on and straightened it, climbed into the mules I’d worn previously. When you only have one pair of shoes, it’s as well to have black – they go with just about everything.

I looked in the mirror and my spirits lifted. Like I say I’ll never be a beauty – in the past, the best I’d managed was not totally ridiculous for a man in a dress. Now looking back at me was something of that person who’d been scrunched up and hidden inside me all my life. I squared my shoulders and walked back through to the room I used as an office.

Smoothing the dress under me, I sat in front of the keyboard and read through the specification for my current job once more. This time the words came easily, and within half an hour I had earned myself another few quid.

I worked steadily into the afternoon until my stomach growled at me with an insistence I couldn’t ignore. I had worked through most of my urgent jobs, and already emails of appreciation for jobs well done had started coming through. I even had a second stab at my unimpressive efforts from the morning. Two of the appreciative notes had come from those, one of which offered me a larger and potentially quite lucrative job, which I’d accepted on the spot. It pays to keep your clients happy if you can.

I checked through the fridge, but there wasn’t a lot there. I grabbed my wallet and headed for the door, only just realising how I was dressed when I tried to check my pockets for my keys. It would take me ten minutes to clean off the make-up and change into my usual clobber, but I found I really didn’t want to.

God, was I really considering this?

The handbag I’d used the previous evening was sitting in my wardrobe with the rest of my girl things. I collected it and transferred my keys and wallet into it, then stood in front of the mirror, trying to look for the guy who still had to be in there.

He was well hidden.

I swallowed. It was the middle of the day outside, and there would be people out there who knew me. Did I dare? Did I really have the courage?

No I didn’t.

Tears trickled from my eyes as I dropped the bag on the bed and I worked at the zip in the side of the dress.

Some rebellious part of me hoped that it would get stuck and I’d be forced to go out like this, but it slid open smoothly, and I lifted off first the dress, then the slip.

In bra and knickers, even with nylon clad legs and high heels, I looked like a guy again – a fat guy in frilly underwear. I looked the same sort of ridiculous I had always hated about myself. The rebel inside chose that moment to take a stand.

“This is as good as it’s going to get you know?” I yelled at the mirror. “And you know what else? It’s good enough. You want to go back to living the way you were? Pull yourself together and start living your life. Okay, so what if someone sees through you? Isn’t the risk of a little embarrassment better than the certainty of the loneliness and misery you’ve been used to?”

Those crushing feelings threatened from the edge of my consciousness. I’d been lonely all my life, and I knew loneliness wasn’t about whether or not you were with other people, but whether or not you could be yourself around them. I’d had enough of pretending to be someone I wasn’t just to please the people around me. If they couldn’t accept me for who and what I was, then the worst that could happen was that I’d still be lonely – just for a different reason.

Maybe not everyone would reject me for being different. Angie hadn’t.

It was worth a try, wasn’t it?

My stomach growled insistently. It didn’t mind as long as it was fed sometime soon.

Oh sod it.

I pulled the slip on again, then climbed back into the dress. It took a moment to repair the damage the tears had made to my face. I picked up my handbag and added a hairbrush, a few bits of make-up and some tissues to its contents. Just in case.

I grabbed the borrowed coat and headed for my front door before I lost courage again.
-oOo-
There was a sense of no turning back as the door closed behind me. Of course I always had the option of taking the keys back out of my bag and going back inside, but now I was outside, it was like the hardest step had been taken. Mind you the next step wasn’t that easy either. I thought about deliberately locking the keys inside so that I’d have to find the caretaker to let me back in, but that was probably going too far. I took a deep breath and headed for the stairs.

There’s something about wearing a dress that makes you feel vulnerable and exposed which, I imagine, is as true for women as it is for men. I think we are all a little protective of what we have between our legs, and there’s a sense of security that comes from wearing a pair of trousers that just isn’t there with a frock. Maybe it’s just me, but having that open space seems to be something of an invitation – like a flower inviting the attention of insects. Of course modern civilised behaviour considers it inappropriate to act on such invitations, and most men know not to, but the invitation remains.

The human eye is naturally drawn towards movement, so what’s going to happen when you walk down the street with a gently swaying skirt? Eyes will naturally turn towards you and that part of your body in particular, minds will naturally start thinking about what you normally do with that part of your anatomy. Even if it only happens on a very superficial level, it’s still there, and for a guy who’s already terrified about being out in public dressed as a girl, the thought of being looked at in that way heightens the terror.

I nearly didn’t make it out of the building.

I was at the foot of the stairs, trying to muster the courage to step out into the sunshine, when I heard a familiar voice behind me.

“Can I help you miss?”

Shitshitshit. Too late to turn back now. The only choice was should I try to hide or just be natural. He was bound to find out sooner or later. I took a deep breath and turned.

“Thank you, I’m fine,” I said in the softened voice my female alter ego uses.

I watched as a number of emotions crossed his features, like wind sweeping across the water. Suspicion, surprise, confusion, concern, acceptance.

“As you say, miss.” He shrugged. “You take care out there.”

I managed a fleeting smile before turning to the door. One step, then a second and I was outside. Fuck, shit and bugger, I was outside at last. Training wheels off and no-one to support me as I raced off down the lane. God keep me from scraping my knees.

With each step I felt my confidence grow, and as I squared my shoulders and smiled at the world, I found more and more passers-by smiling back. Friendly smiles, not smirks of derision.

My courage didn’t extend so far as using my usual sandwich shop, but there was a new delicatessen that had opened a few streets down. Ironic the way my lack of courage pushed me into walking further and spending more time out in public than I had originally planned.

The girl behind the counter gave me a friendly smile as I paid for my chicken salad sandwich. The say confidence is most of what carries it, but before last night I wouldn’t have thought I had a chance of passing regardless of how self-assured I felt. The girl was either oblivious or totally accepting, either of which was fine by me. I turned to leave and looked straight into the curious gaze of Angie’s supervisor.

I couldn’t help it. Terror took me and I tried to rush past her. She looked suddenly flustered.

“I’m sorry,” she said, grasping my arm. “I imagine the last thing you need is someone staring at you. I was just thinking, you look a lot like your brother.”

Unable to proceed, I turned towards her and smiled nervously. “I’m… I’m sorry?”

“Your brother,” she repeated as though I were too stupid to understand the word. “I work at the local mall. I recognise that dress as one that we sell. There was a man in yesterday who bought one for his sister. He looks a lot like you.”

“We’re… we’re twins,” I said.

“Well of course you’re much prettier than he is. But that goes without saying, doesn’t it? I must say, it’s gratifying to see you out and about already.”

“I’m, I’m sorry, but I really have to go.” I pulled my arm gently out of her grasp and headed for the door.

“Oh, of course,” she snatched her hand back as though I’d tried to bite it. “I’m so sorry if I upset you.” I barely heard the last as I pushed through the door, the bell jangling over my head.
-oOo-
I was too hungry to carry my sandwich home, so I headed for the nearby park. I found a bench in the shade by the children’s play area. I would never have considered sitting there ordinarily – I mean a bloke sitting on his own near where kids play is going to attract attention isn’t it? – but I was hungry and it was convenient. In deference to my appearance, I took care to break the sandwich into small pieces and eat it slowly. A scattering of hopeful pigeons turned up, but I wasn’t in the mood for sharing. I stared absently over the fence at the children playing with complete abandon. I vaguely remembered being like that once. When had life become so complicated?

“Aren’t they adorable?”

It took a moment to realise the words had been addressed to me. In truth I hadn’t even noticed the arrival of the other woman now sitting at the opposite end of my bench.

I managed a smile.

“I was just trying to remember being as innocent as that.”

“I think that’s what makes them so wonderful,” my new companion said. “Makes you want one of your own doesn’t it?”

“Need to find someone to have one with first,” I replied a little wistfully.

She gave me a sympathetic look. “I know what you mean,” she said.

I’m quite sure she didn’t actually, but that’s not the point. This was about sympathy and making a connection more than about being right or wrong.

“All the good men are either taken or gay,” she continued. “I almost wish I could do it with another woman.”

I gave her a panicked look and she gasped.

“Gosh, did I just say that? Please tell me I didn’t. I didn’t mean…”

I couldn’t help smiling at her discomfort, and before long we were laughing together.

“Don’t worry,” I said, taking my turn to be empathetic. “I can’t think of any men I’d like to be dating right now. Not that they’d be likely to offer in any case.”

She put a hand on my knee. There was nothing in it more than a simple point of contact, but she kept it there until I raised my eyes to look into hers.

“You mustn’t think that way,” she said. “There’s someone out there for you. You just have to be patient and not give up hope. You’re young, and I’m sure someone will come along soon enough who’ll realise how lucky they are to have met you.”

“You’re very kind,” I said, turning my gaze away again. I looked back towards the children in the hope of distracting her. It seemed to work as a few seconds later she withdrew her hand and let out a long sigh.

“It’ll happen for you too,” I said quietly, hoping I wasn’t misreading the situation. “You’re so slim and attractive, I’m surprised you haven’t found anyone yet.”

She reddened and kept her eyes looking over the fence. Anything but look at me.

“Not that I’m suggesting anything,” I said, reddening myself when I realised how I might have sounded.

I finished my sandwich, stood up and brushed a few crumbs off my dress. The ever hopeful pigeons darted forward and squabbled over the meagre remains.

“I’m sorry, I need to be getting on,” I said and held out a hand. “I’m Jen by the way. It was lovely to meet you.”

Jennifer was the name Angie and I had decided upon when we’d gone out the previous evening. God, was it just the previous evening? Amazing how hours can seem like years sometimes. I guess it just depends on what you do with them.

“Hilary.” My companions stood and took my hand. It was a gentle shake – none of the macho firmness that so many men insist on, and no wet fish soppiness to it either, just a gentle grasp, which I returned, and single gentle shake. “Perhaps I’ll see you down here again?”

“Perhaps.”

I wasn’t about to commit to anything, but I liked the idea of having a friend. I walked off, dropping my sandwich wrapper in a nearby rubbish bin as I passed.
-oOo-
I didn’t want to get undressed that night.

I’d spent a productive afternoon working through a number of pieces, and even made a start on the larger contract I’d been offered earlier in the day. I knocked off for the day at six, with the contented feel that I had gone some way towards paying for my new wardrobe. Before I closed the computer down for the night, I put an order through to one of the supermarkets for delivery the following day.

I thought about ordering a takeaway, but decided I needed to conserve funds for a while. On close inspection, I found a couple of eggs in the fridge that didn’t float, a bit of cheese that was alright once the mould had been cut off, and a rather desiccated onion which was, nonetheless, usable. Ten minutes later I sat down in front of the TV with an omelette that wasn’t too burnt around the edges.

The news was the usual tedious round of doom and gloom, consisting of war and famine in distant lands and vandalism and theft more locally. I dropped my dirty plate in the sink and put the kettle on, just as there was a knock on the door.

The peep-hole revealed the caretaker looking back and forth down the corridor. No sense delaying this any longer. Any sense of terror I’d felt earlier in the day had been replaced by a calm acceptance of whatever might come. I opened the door.

“Hello, Mr Styles,” I greeted him, keeping my voice soft but not too forced. “Is everything alright?”

“Hello, Mr Swift.” He looked me up and down a little nervously. “I, er, I thought that was you earlier.”

I sighed. “Would you like to come in for a moment Mr Styles? I have the kettle on.”

“I don’t mind if I do.” He stepped through the door and sat down on my sofa. “Coffee please. Milk and two.”

I prepared the drinks, trying to go through in my head how I was going to explain this.

“I suppose you’re wondering…” I started, handing him his coffee.

“None of my business, sir,” he interrupted me, taking the mug with a nod of thanks, “except for the other residents. I mean, how you choose to live your life is your concern, sir, but I expect some of your neighbours will notice sooner or later, and it’ll be easier for all of us, I expect, if I knew how you wanted me to handle it.”

“I appreciate your open mind on the matter, Mr Styles. At the moment I’m not sure myself. I suppose for now you could call it an experiment.”

“Er, what sort of, er, experiment.”

“Sort of a trial I suppose. Something’s happened over the past few days that’s made me take stock of my life. None of the choices available to me are particularly easy but I think I’ve more or less decided that the path of least discontent isn’t necessarily the path of least resistance.”

“I’m sorry sir. I don’t follow.”

“I’m not surprised. I’m still trying to work it out myself. I suspect you’ll be seeing me going about like this for at least another week. After that, either it’ll stop or become permanent – or at least semi-regular.”

“So what would you like me to say to the others if they happen to ask?”

“Say this is something I have to try. Say if they want to ask me about it, just to knock on my door and I’ll be as honest with them as I’m being with your right now. Say that nothing’s changed except the way I dress. I’m not gay, I’m not a pervert and I’m not sick. I’m just doing the same as the rest of us – living the life I’ve been given as best as I can and trying to cause as little distress to those around me as I can.

“If you have problems with it, please tell me Mr Styles. I don’t want to make anyone’s life more difficult than it already is.”

“Right you are, sir.” He drained his mug. I envied him that ability. I would have scalded my mouth if I’d tried to drink something that hot. “Er, sir?”

“Yes, Mr Styles.”

“Just, er, well… er, is it sir, or would you prefer miss?”

I couldn’t help smiling. “Whatever you think’s most appropriate, Mr Styles. Whatever makes you feel most comfortable.”

“Er, thank you, er, erm… thank you, miss.”

He stood and made for the door, ducking his head to hide his embarrassment.

After he left, I sat down with my cup of tea and tried to watch something. My usual fare of guns and violence hardly seemed to fit. It was odd how the dress affected my mood. It was as if the person it allowed me to become had different preferences, different interests.

I tried streaming a few girly shows to see if they appealed. I gave up on Sex in the City and One Tree Hill almost before the opening credits had run out. Ugly Betty kept my interest for a while, but I couldn’t really get into it. Eventually I settled on Being Erica. I found I had a lot of sympathy for someone with regrets about her past, and wished I had the same opportunities to change some of mine.

I switched the box off after two episode and headed for the bedroom, where, as I say, I didn’t want to get undressed.

There was no alternative though. I couldn’t sleep in this or any other dress I’d bought – not without ruining it – and I didn’t have any feminine nightwear. I thought about using the slip I’d been wearing, but the straps looked delicate and I was afraid I’d snap them as I moved about during the night.

I cleaned my make-up off and brushed my teeth fully clothed, putting off the inevitable moment as long as I could. Back in my bedroom, I turned my back on the mirror and stripped down to my skin.

I had to turn back to the wardrobe in order to hang up my clothes, but seeing myself naked wasn’t as upsetting to me as seeing myself in that halfway stage. I squeezed at the rolls of fat around my middle, and told myself I was going to lose some of that excess weight. I already knew that though, and had been careful in my choice of shopping.

The usual weight that hangs around my neck, unusual in its absence for most of this day, settled into place again, and I sighed with resignation. I needed one more shopping trip to the mall.
-oOo-
I wore a gypsy style white blouse with black skirt and white tights the next day. Everything contrasted quite nicely, especially with the black pumps and black handbag. The grocery shopping was due between midday and two o’clock, so I allowed myself a single slice of toast and a cup of coffee for breakfast, and set to work for the morning.

I was ahead of target by the time the buzzer went at just gone twelve-thirty, and I called that I would be right down. The supermarket delivery guys don’t like delivering to flats like mine, because there’s nowhere to park, and they don’t like climbing stairs.

I arrived in the foyer looking, if not like a million dollars, then at least like a few thousand. Okay, hundred. The disgruntled look on the drivers face cleared as he looked up at me coming down the stairs in my heels.

“Mr Swift?” he asked, obviously not believing his own words.

“My brother,” I replied breathlessly, favouring him with a bright smile. “Everything okay with the order?”

“Yes, everything as ordered,” He showed me the printout, which I checked through rapidly and signed for him.

There were seven bags – they don’t tend to use the reusable crates for deliveries to blocks of flats – which I started arranging so I had the weight more or less evenly balanced.

“Do you want a hand with those?” he asked as I stooped to pick up the bags.

The seven bags were well filed and it would have been a struggle on my own. I gave him a second appreciative smile. “Are you sure?” I asked. “I’m on the third floor.”

“No trouble,” he said, reaching for the heavier side of my lopsided load. “Let me take those.”

“Thanks,” I released the four heavier bags and divided the remaining three between my two hands. “Are you sure you’re okay doing this? I know there’s no parking outside.”

“It’s no trouble miss. We aim to please.”

I smiled sweetly at the lying arsehole. If I had a quid for every time one of these guys had moaned about delivering here, and refused to deliver to my door – this guy included, I was pretty certain – I’d have enough to double the size of my new wardrobe.

He followed me to my front door, where I rewarded him with yet another smile – which payment he was pathetically grateful to receive. This part of being a woman I could get used to very easily.

I spent half an hour putting things away in cupboard, fridge and freezer, then looked out the window. The February weather was back with a vengeance, and my quick trip downstairs had persuaded me I needed something more than my thin cotton blouse. Clouds scudded across the sky, promising a wind to chill me even further. My borrowed coat was too thin on its own, and most of my sweaters were scruffy or too masculine. One of the new ones was an attractive teal colour though. I tried it on and checked my appearance.

I needed to change my eye-shadow, but the overall effect still left me looking convincingly feminine.

I made the necessary changes to my make-up, checked and approved the new look and headed for the door. If I was lucky, I’d be able to get everything done and still get to the park with some lunch around the same time as yesterday.
-oOo-
The wind whistled around my legs and passed through my coat and sweater like they weren’t there. That meant more expense, but it couldn’t be helped. I gave up after just fifty yards and caught a passing bus, arriving about a pound poorer but several shades less blue at the mall.

I caught sight of Angie over the other side of the store, but her supervisor saw me first and was all over me like mould on week old bread. It was probably as well the I didn’t have anything more to do with Ang anyway. She’d made it very plain how she felt last time I turned up.

“How lovely to see you here madam,” she said, dripping insincerity. “I was given to understand that you found it difficult to leave the house.”

“I, er, it’s… I have trouble with crowds. I’m trying though. My brother shouldn’t have to buy my clothes for me.”

“Very noble, madam.” The sycophantic old leach was beginning to rile me. “How may I be of assistance today?”

I wanted to tell her to climb up her own backside, but that wouldn’t have been particularly lady-like, and I couldn’t risk letting on who I really was. I didn’t expect this one to offer me much in the way of understanding. I gave her a nervous smile.

“Erm, I, er need a new nightdress,” I said. “And a coat. Not too expensive, but warmer than this.” I indicated the one I had on over my sweater. “I had to borrowed this sweater from my brother today, but even with that I’m not warm enough.”

She lead me into the sleepwear section of the shop and started showing me the different night dresses on offer in the shop. I drifted away from her towards a display showing a lacy, white cotton nightie of the sort I’ve always wanted. High, embroidered neck, long sleeve with gathered cuffs, and ankle length. The display had a light shawl with it as well, in a pale green.

“This one,” I said, interrupting her spiel.

“Er, yes madam,” she said, obviously a little miffed to have her presentation interrupted in mid flow.

“With the wrap too, please.”

“They come as a set madam. What size please?”

“Sixteen.”

I caught Angie looking at me from a couple of aisles over. On hearing the exchange, she came closer.

“Er, excuse me,” she said tentatively.

I turned to her and gave her a questioning smile.

“Angelica, can’t you see I’m dealing with a customer?” Tantamount to the old battleship fired a warning shot across her subordinate’s bow.

“It’s alright,” I said waving her down. “Are you the young lady who helped my brother the other day?”

“Yes,” she said. Then picking up on my pretence she added, “He told me you were having difficulty leaving the house.”

“That’s true,” I replied, “But I’ve decided to make more of an effort. After all, it’s not fair to ask him to do everything for me is it?

“Anyway we’re both very grateful. You have exquisite taste and you made a potentially embarrassing experience very easy for him.”

“I’m glad I could be of help. Were you thinking of buying one of these?” she indicated the mannequin in the nightgown I’d been admiring. “The wrap comes in several colours. I think you might like the pink.”

Mrs Battleaxe was fuming and struggling not to let it show. “I was just about to show the lady, Angelica.”

I’m not sure she was, but give her the benefit of the doubt, she pulled out four sets for me to look at – all size sixteen, with the wraps in pale shades of green, yellow, blue and pink.

“I think I prefer the green,” I told Angie, “but thank you. Angelica is such a lovely name; I’m quite envious.”

It was a minor revenge for yesterday. I knew how much she hated her name, and now she had to be polite about it.

“Thank you,” she managed without quite loosing composure. “Did I hear you say you were looking for a coat as well?” I nodded. “You might want to look in the duffel coats. They’re lovely and warm, and there’s a beautiful red one that’s on offer.”

“Angelica!” A second warning shot, this one all but grazing the bowsprit.

“I’m sorry Mrs Price. It’s just that, well I’ve already chosen a few things for this customer and it just sort of sprang to mind.”

“Well. Alright then. Thank you. If madam would follow me.”

With chosen nightdress in hand, madam followed. I thought about looking back to see if Angie was still watching, but I was quite ready to give her the satisfaction.

However much I wanted to be angry with her, I still couldn’t fault her clothes sense. The red duffel was perfect, and the only thing I liked in the coat section. It wasn’t the cheapest – not quite – but with the offer price, it was very affordable. In a small way it made up for the previous day’s expenditure.

I wore the coat out of the shop, along with a pair of soft leather gloves that added to today’s total. The nightdress and receipts went into a carrier bag, along with my borrowed coat. Fortunately my credit card is made out to my initial – no first name, no title – so there was no trouble paying.
-oOo-
I headed for the deli I’d used the previous day, and from there to the park, this time with a chicken salad in a plastic container, with its own plastic fork.

Hilary was waiting when I arrived, smiling in welcome and sliding up the bench to make room.

“I didn’t think you’d come,” she said.

“Why ever not?”

“Well, you left a bit abruptly yesterday, and I think we both said things that might have been a little embarrassing. I can’t believe I all but suggested I was a lesbian. I’m not by the way”

“I know. Or at least I kind of got that impression. It wasn’t what was said though. I don’t get out much, or at least I haven’t until recently. I get kind of nervous around people.”

“Oh God! And here I am just coming up to you and prattling on a load of rubbish about wanting kids and stuff. It really is a wonder you came back.”

I looked up at her reddening face. She seemed to take an unnatural interest in the gathering pigeons.

“Actually you shouldn’t sell yourself short,” I said quietly. “The main reason I came back is because I really did enjoy our chat yesterday.”

She looked up at me, not quite ready to believe what I was saying.

“I, er, I kind of dashed off because it was all a bit too much and a bit too soon, but when I got back home and thought it through, I decided I really liked talking to you. So here I am.”

“You’re not just saying that are you?”

I stifled a giggle. “I’m sorry,” I said, once I’d managed to bring things under control a bit, “but we’re a real pair aren’t we? If there was a competition to see who was the most messed up and insecure person in the world, you and I would be finalists.”

It wasn’t laugh-out-loud funny, but it earned me a rueful smile.

“Let’s make a pact,” she said. “Whatever happens, you’re okay with me and I’m okay with you. Deal?”

“I’d really like that,” I told her, “but I’m not entirely sure it would be fair to hold you to it.”

“Why ever not? You’re not going to tell me you’re a guy under all that hair and make-up, are you?”

Laughter is a social thing. Unless it has friends to share the moment, it becomes lonely and dies. Hilary’s laughter choked off after about the third or fourth second when she realised I hadn’t joined her. By the time she noticed, I had turned a very unbecoming shade of beetroot which, quite apart from anything else, clashed with my new coat.

“No way!”

I looked across at her shocked and disbelieving face. There would always be a downside of choosing this lifestyle – probably, subconsciously, the reason why he’d resisted it for so long.

Any time I would meet someone for the first time when in girl mode, their first impression of me would be as a woman – hopefully. I wouldn’t tell them the truth – not at first, not until I was sure they wouldn’t embarrass me. In most cases that would be okay, because we’d meet, we’d part, we’d go your own separate ways, but every now and again, I’d start to develop a friendship with someone, like I had with Hilary, and that someone would think they were befriending a woman – a normal woman at least.

The longer we remained friends, the more our friendship would develop, the harder it would become to tell the truth, but I’d have to sooner or later. I can’t have a friend – not a real friend – and keep a secret like that from them.

But when to tell? Too soon and they wouldn’t know me or like me well enough to be able to counter the shock of the revelation, too late and they would feel violated and betrayed by my subterfuge. Either way, they’d have to totally re-evaluate the way they thought about me. For one thing, should they think of me as a man or a woman?

And for good reason, I mean am I a woman? Physically, genetically – obviously no. With the help of the medical profession and more money than I could easily afford, I could become a good facsimile, but that was it. Mentally, emotionally – I felt like one, at least when I allowed myself to. I’d buried it for so long, I wasn’t sure if what was coming to the surface was truly feminine or just some messed up kludge from my very confused past.

Things feel more right the more I’m able to express myself as a woman, and definitely the more other people see me as one. I like being attractive – or at least as attractive as this dumpy, overweight body of mine can look. I like the pretty clothes, with their pretty shapes and pretty colours. I like not feeling like I have to prove myself all the time, not feeling that I have to stand on my own two feet or not at all. I like the wholehearted acceptance of one woman for another – the assumption, more often than not, that we’ll be friends before we start talking, that we’ll most likely have something in common, just because we’re women. I feel more at home in their world, and I wish – God, how I wish – that I could belong there.

“I guess this is where you get to be angry with me for pretending to be something I’m not.” I couldn’t meet her eyes. I couldn’t even keep looking at her face. Any moment, I was expecting the anger to surface.

It didn’t

“Is that what you’re doing?” she asked in a quiet voice. I could hear emotions being strangled in there as she battled to keep calm.

“What?” I looked up into her eyes. They were glistening, but what prompted the tears I still didn’t know.

“What are you pretending to be?” She swallowed, still trying to control emotions I still couldn’t recognise.

“…”

I’ve never been rendered so speechless before. Some questions are so obvious you never think to ask them.

“… …”

Every time I tried to answer her, new thoughts came tumbling into my mind – new questions, new answers, new realisations. At the same time the whole thing became incredibly simple in my own mind and incredibly complicated in the way it fitted into the rest of the world. It was like discovering the reason for breathing, then having to figure out how to explain it to a rock.

“I…”

“Yes?”

“I’m not,” I managed at last. I looked into her eyes, my own widening with the clarity that was suddenly mine, even as hers narrowed in confusion. “I’m not pretending to be anything. This is me. For better or for worse, take it or leave it, this is me.

“I don’t fit. Not in this world we’ve made, not really. I’ve spent most of my life pretending. Every time I try to be a man, I’m pretending. I’m not a woman – not in the physical sense, but whatever it is that I am, it’s a lot closer to being female than male.

“That’s my problem though. For most people you’ll meet, there are only two options – you get to be a guy, or you get to be a girl – and for most people that works fine. Every now and then though, you get someone like me. I don’t want trouble, I don’t want to upset people, or embarrass them, or cause any kind of hurt. I just want to belong. I want to be me, and be accepted for who I am.

“Which is this. No pretence – not now, not ever again if I can help it. I know I’m not what you expect. I get that maybe there’s an implied trust you feel I’ve violated. You thought you were getting close to another woman, and now it seems I’m a guy after all, and because of your preconceptions about the way guys are, it’s like I’ve infiltrated and desecrated something sacred to you. But I haven’t. Not in my mind anyway. I feel like I belong here as much as any woman. And I just wish you could feel I belong too.”

“This is messed up.” She shook her head slowly.

“I know. Look I’m going to go again. I really wanted to be your friend. Nothing kinky or weird. Just a friend.”

I waited a second or two longer than was comfortable, hoping that she’d say something. She didn’t, so I stood up, leaving my chicken salad unopened and abandoned on the bench.

“Jen?”

I stopped and turned. The tears were running down her face now.

“I’m sorry. I’d have liked to be friends too. I think I understand what you were trying to say, but it’s too much. Just too different. Thank you for being honest though.”

I nodded. Tears weren’t so far from my eyes, but I had more years’ practice at holding them in. I wanted to run, or at least stride, away – to get out of there as quickly as possible. The heels on my mules weren’t that high, but they still shortened my step and it seemed forever before I rounded a corner and left her behind.

My stomach grumbled at me on the way home, so I stopped by my usual sandwich shop. I was inside before I realised what I was doing, by which time it was too late. Fortunately the proprietor wasn’t very observant.

“Hey beautiful!” he greeted me as I walked in. “I’ve not seen you around here before. New to the area?”

I nodded nervously.

“What can I get you? I have a nice tuna salad, or maybe you’d like the chicken?”

“Tuna sounds great, thank you.”

He handed me my lunch, and I counted coins out into his hand.

“You look a little upset,” he said. “Anything I can do?”

I shook my head. “Just dealing with life,” I said. “Same as everyone else. Thanks all the same.”

“You sure?”

“Sure, but thank you.”

I headed out the door before he decided I looked familiar after all.
-oOo-
I didn’t go out for the next few days. No real need. No real want either.

I worked hard, but my usual creative spark eluded me most of the time. Most copy writing is bland stuff – banal specifics about banal topics – and it’s hard to keep focused on such trivia with big thoughts circulating your head. I put the more important projects to one side, hoping I’d get back to something like my usual self before the deadlines loomed, and focused on more mechanical things. Typing up reports, essays and dissertations was a small but essential part of my income, and I had a few of those in my in-tray. They were the sort of things I could do on autopilot, so while the best part of my mind was away trying to deal with loftier questions, I plodded my way through a bunch of tedious write-ups.

Between sessions at the keyboard, I spent a lot of time staring at my reflection. Various dresses, skirts and tops, the new nightdress. The more I looked, the less of the sad old me I found, and the more of my feminine side presented itself. It was like trying to keep the cork on a champaign bottle after the wire’s been cut and the bottle given a good shake. That’s what Angie did for me. Before I met her, the pressure had been there – constant, overwhelming, but bearable, just. Then she’d let the girl inside me out and now, like a genie that refuses to go back into its lamp, here she was – here I was in all my glory, insisting on being seen and accepted by the world. Except I didn’t know how that could be possible.

Angie had loosed the inner me, and then I’d driven her away. I was on my own, lonely for different reasons now. Not so much because I couldn’t be seen for who I was, but because I couldn’t be accepted for who I was. Hilary had shown me that, and she’d been right. Women who become friends want nothing more from the relationship than friendship, and maybe that’s the way it would have been between Hilary and me if our friendship had survived the truth of who and what I was. She wasn’t exactly my type, which meant, I’d hoped, that we could be friends without worrying about there being anything deeper.

The problem was, I had a type. However much I felt like a woman inside, I was still attracted to women. I couldn’t see myself in a relationship with a man, and not just because I was afraid of what might happen when what I had hiding beneath my skirts was discovered. I don’t have the equipment to please a man, and I’m not interested in buggery, or being buggered for that matter. Sorry if that’s offensive, but it’s not an idea that sits well with me.

I don’t find men particularly attractive either. I do find women – some women at least – beautiful, and I know that in the long run, I’d want a relationship with a woman. Kind of a male lesbian sort of thing. So did that get in the way of the other sort of female company I longed for? Could I have a simple friendship with another woman without there being some degree of sexual undertone to it? When they found out I was physically male, or when I owned up to it, would that mean that the free and easy trust two women can have for each other would be broken? Would one or the other of us start wondering, waiting for that kiss, that fumble, that sexual imperative taking over?

This was messed up.
-oOo-
It was Saturday morning. Outside the weather seemed to reflect my despondent mood. Low, grey clouds covered the city, and squally, icy rain cleared the pavements and the parks of people.

Four days of seclusion was too much, even for me. Each day, I’d made an effort to bring out the girl in me. Each day had brought new and improved success. I thought I’d looked convincing before, but now even I couldn’t see the guy I used to be. But what was the point in doing it just for myself? A brief walk in the fresh air would do me good, and on a day like this, with most other pedestrians driven inside by the inclement weather, I’d be relatively safe from interacting with other people.

I was wearing a light blue and white dress that Angie had picked out for me during my second visit to the mall. I slipped on the black mules that were still my only pair of women’s shoes, and then settled my red duffel coat onto my shoulders. The only umbrella I had was a man’s large, black one, but beggars can’t be choosers, and on a day like this no-one was likely to pass comment.

Gloves on hands, bag over shoulder, out the door. The corridors and stairwells were deserted, and even Mr Styles was absent from view as I headed for the entrance. The wind whipped at my skirted legs, fat drops of icy rain splattering against my tights, freezing my shins. My umbrella nearly turned inside out a couple of times, and the only direction I could safely walk was into the deluge. It happened to be in the direction of the park where Hilary and I had met.

My teeth were chattering by the time I reached the bench beside the children’s play area. I’m not sure what I expected, but everything was unsurprisingly deserted. No mother in her right mind would bring her child outside to play in this weather, and even the park beyond was devoid of its usual occupants. Joggers stayed home, teenagers satisfied themselves with TV and video games, even the park keepers were tucked away in their sheds or hidey-holes, hands wrapped around hot mugs of cocoa. I was insane to be out in this.

I turned and headed back towards my flat, soaking the rear of my legs as much as I had the front. Halfway home, the wind caught my umbrella and turned it inside out. It was senseless trying to fix it; I could see some of the ribs were bent or broken. I jammed it into a nearby rubbish bin and quickened my pace as much as my shoes would allow me.

It was a relief to get home. My lips and my legs were as blue as my dress by the time I arrived back at the building, and my teeth were going like a pair of castanets. My duffel coat was heavy with the rain it had drunk, and I felt damp all the way through. All I wanted was to get upstairs and out of my wet things, but it had been four days since I’d checked my mail box, and there were envelopes bulging out the top of it.

I pulled off my gloves and searched through my bag for my keys. My fingers were about the only parts of me that were warm and dry, but with the uncontrolled shivering of the rest of my body, it still took me longer than usual to find the right key and open the box. There was quite a lot in there. Some new manuscripts to type up, some cheques, some bills, and a large purple envelope.

I was curious, but colder still. I hurried up the stairs to my door, inserted the key with shivering hands, and pushed back into the warmth of my flat. Dropping the post on the table, I shucked off my sodden coat, and set about stripping out of my soaking clothes. Once down to my underwear, I found hangers for the coat and the dress, then headed for my bathroom to turn on the shower. I stripped off my underwear and climbed under the hot stream of water, staying there until I could feel everything again. The cold had done its thing with my thingy, shrivelling it down to a degree that had me, even naked, I looked more woman than man for once.

I washed my hair, and dried it thoroughly. Put on clean underwear and noticed that my drawers were running low on girl clothes. I would need to visit the laundrette tomorrow. Not today though. I wasn’t going out again in today’s weather. Who’s stupid fucking idea had that been? I checked back in the bathroom for something to fill out my bra, but the temporary boobs Angie had made me were looking very much the worse for wear. I would have to go flat chested this afternoon.

I put on my warmest dress – the rust coloured one with the turtle neck – and the thickest pair of tights I owned. Back in the living room, my coat was dripping in one corner and my blue dress in another. I took them through to the bathroom and squeezed the worst of the moisture from both without, I hoped, stretching them out of shape. The blue dress, along with all the other dirty clothes I could find, went into a large bag ready for the laundrette. The coat, I hung up in the airing cupboard, hoping it wouldn’t shrink or something stupid.

I sat down with the mail and started opening envelopes – manila first. Always get the bad news out of the way first. The bills were bills, the cheques were cheques. Income exceeded expenditure, which was how I preferred it. The credit card bill wouldn’t be through for a while yet, though. There were, as suspected, a couple of new documents that needed transcribing. I could probably get those done this afternoon, after I’d finished the two I was working on.

The purple envelope was a mystery though. It was addressed to ‘Jen’, the letters of my name having been cut out of pink paper and stuck on. The hole in the ‘e’ had been made into the shape of a heart. The envelope was stiff, as you’d expect from a greetings card. I tore it open and pulled out the contents.

The picture was a face on image of a beagle, soulful eyes looking out of its sad, sagging face. Inside, the message was pieced together from more cut and stick lettering, it simply read ‘sorry’.

I checked the envelope again, and the card – front and back. There were no clues as to who had sent it. I didn’t know a great many people. The first person who sprang to mind was Hilary, but she didn’t know where I lived, did she? Maybe she followed me, but then why wait until now? Did she wait until now? Just because I’d only just opened it didn’t mean it had just been delivered.

I found space on the window ledge for it and sat down behind my computer. I couldn’t remember the last time anyone had given me a card, and I liked the warm feeling it gave me.

One of the down sides of working for yourself. Evenings and weekends can be very much like any other part of the working week, and I still had bills to pay. I worked on the transcriptions for the rest of the afternoon, my eyes drifting to the card from time to time, and a smile creeping over my face whenever I did.
-oOo-
The next day the weather improved. As often happens after a squall blows through, a calm, clear day followed. Winter was very much still in the air, and my breath streamed out in strands of silvery vapour as I carried my bag of washing down to the laundrette. My coat was still damp, and did little to keep the chill out, but the laundrette was nearby, and there was a dry cleaners next door. I stopped there first and handed over my duffel coat. The Chinese lady smiled at me and told me one hour. I smiled back, took my ticket and went next door to do my other necessary chores.

I’d spent most of the previous night on damage limitation. I quick browse online had given me some tips on getting rid of water stains from leather shoes, and half an hour with water, white vinegar and a soft brush had them looking spotless again. I wiped them down once I was finished and left them by an open window to dry.

The false breasts were more of a job. The wet had twisted them out of shape and torn a hole in at least one of them, allowing some of the bird seed filling to escape. I cut them both open and spread the seed out on a baking sheet, putting it in a warm oven to dry everything off. I then sacrificed one of my few pairs of tights to rebuild them, evenly distributing the remaining seed between the toe ends of the tights, then twisting, tying off and folding over several times. The tights I was using were thicker than the originals, so even with less birdseed, the finished items ended up about the same size as the originals. Softer too, and perhaps slightly more realistic. I tried them on as soon as I’d finished them both, and declared myself well satisfied.

With my washing churning away, I popped across the street to a mini-supermarket. My main thought being to buy myself a magazine to read while I waited on the wash. They had three packs of sheer tights on offer though – probably a bit thin for the weather, but too tempting to ignore. I also bought some scented skin cream and a pack of razors. My legs still looked pretty good from the last time I’d shave them, but I could already feel the stubble poking through in places.

I made it back to the laundrette quite some time before the wash cycle was finished, and settled down for a read. I found an interesting article on eye make-up and picked up a few tips I intended to try once I got home.

From washer to dryer, feed the machine and back to the magazine. Everyone else in the place seemed to want to avoid eye contact, which suited me. After Hilary, I wasn’t ready for another encounter. Even if it was her that sent me the card, I still felt a little weird

Clothes folded and back in the bag. Magazine tucked in with the other shopping. Duffel – now clean and dry – recovered from the dry cleaners. The walk home was actually pleasant. The day had warmed up enough that I could no longer see my breath, and I found myself dawdling, looking at dresses in windows – dresses I couldn’t hope to afford, or fill out for that matter – and generally enjoying myself.

There was an envelope poking through my mail box when I arrived back at the flat – pink this time. I retrieved it, noting the same decoupage method of addressing it, and dropped it in with the washing, then headed up the stairs.

First things first – everything away that could go away, dresses on hangers ready for the iron, skin cream and razors into the bathroom. The kettle had boiled by the time I’d done all the scurrying about, so I extended the wait long enough to make a cup of coffee.

The photograph had once been a close up of a squirrel eating a nut, but the nut had been airbrushed out, and the little hands looked as though they were clasped in prayer.

The message read, ‘Please forgive me.’

I decided to try the park for lunch again tomorrow. There wasn’t really much to forgive. I’d dumped something of a shock piece of news on her and she’d reacted to it. If anything, I was the one who needed more forgiveness.

I looked up few healthy recipes on the Internet and settled on a sort of tuna pasta dish as being closest to what I could make with what I had. I’d never really had much interest in cooking, but I suspect that was largely because I associated it with a lifestyle from which I had tried to distance myself all my life. The change I felt inside now that I’d decided not to was quite astounding. I no longer wanted to fill up on the high carb, high fat, high sugar diet that had been my staple up until now, but instead sought after foods that seemed to go with the new me. Sophisticated, flavoursome and delicate.

After lunch I went for a walk in the park. The weather was just too good to ignore, and there were quite a few people out there. I thought back on the sheer terror the thought of doing something like this would have brought me just a week previously. Now I smiled at the people I passed a though it were the most natural thing in the world, and the smiled back as though they agreed.

The mules pinched my toes if I walked too far in them, but I still felt a thrill from walking around with my heels elevated, amplified by the sensation of my skirt swirling around my nylon clad legs. I noticed more than one guy turn his head as I walked past and, based on the area of interest, took comfort in the knowledge that they appreciated what they saw.
-oOo-
On Monday the winter weather returned and I stayed in all day working. I finished all the transcripts and sent them off before heading downstairs to check the mail. Mr Styles was in the foyer when I arrived. He nodded and smiled and called me miss, which tickled me no end.

The mail was its usual onslaught of brown envelopes, along with a pale blue one with flowers. Same cut-out lettering. Same absence of any further information. I opened it then and there.

The picture his time was of a lipstick and compact case. The message on the inside read, ‘can we make up?’ It was corny, and normally I don’t have much appreciation for such half-baked humour. I found myself smiling, though, despite myself.

Somehow this didn’t seem to be something Hilary would do though. Maybe one card, maybe two, but a third from someone I’d only met twice? The fact that the envelopes were addressed simply to me as ‘Jen’ meant that they had to have been hand-delivered, and I doubted Hilary would brave weather like today’s just or a friendship. I started to suspect a different source.

I knocked on the caretaker’s door.

“Yes, miss?” I could see I still made him a little uneasy. He was trying though, and I was grateful for that.

“I’ve, er, I’ve had a number of letters – well cards really – delivered over the past few days. Delivered personally that is.” I held up the latest card to show him. “I was wondering if you might have seen who delivered them.”

He pursed his lips in thought, then slowly shook his head. “Sorry, miss. I’m not out in the foyer much, and I can’t say I’ve noticed.”

“This makes you nervous, doesn’t it?” I indicated the peach dress I was wearing.

He nodded, bowing his head.

“What can I do to make it easier on you?”

“Go pack to wearing trousers?”

He smiled up at me. The hope in his eyes wasn’t entirely feigned, but from his expression and the tone in his voice I sensed he was joking – sort of.

I laughed. “Apart from that.”

“Just give me time. It’s all a bit weird, but I’ll get the hang of it.”

“Any grief from the other residents?”

“A few muttered comments is all. I’m not sure most have noticed yet.”

“Okay, thanks. If you happen to notice who’s sending me these,” I waved the card, “let me know, won’t you?”

“Sure thing.” He closed the door, probably a little quickly.

That was another thing about choosing this path. The people who knew me, few though they were, would have to deal with a new weirdness in their lives. Every decision has its consequences, and not just for the person making it. Mr Styles was an easy going, live-and-let-live sort of person, so it wasn’t a surprise that he was reacting the way he was. I just hoped most people would be as easy.

I turned and all but bumped into a young woman about my own age who’d just stepped out into the corridor.

“Oh, I’m sorry,” she said, stepping back into her flat.

“That’s okay,” I smiled at her.

“I like your dress,” she said, returning the smile.

“Thank you,” my own smile widened. I looked for some reason to return the complement, but she was wearing a faded white tee-shirt and jeans that were ripped at the knees. Her hair was nice though. “I love your hair. Where do you get it done?”

She fingered the ends of it for a second. “Actually mine needs a trim. I was thinking of going later this week. Maybe I could book you in as well.”

“Sure, just let me know when and where.”

“I haven’t seen you around,” she said giving me an appraising look. “Have you just moved in?”

For better or for worse, I wasn’t going to hide who I was. “Actually I’ve lived here for a couple of years. I’m in three-c.”

“Oh, I thought…” She looked closer. “Oh!”

I didn’t fancy waiting around for the inevitable questions and possible negative response. “So, just let me know if you’re still okay introducing me to your hairdresser. I work from home and the kettle’s only ever a minute away from boiling.”

I eased past her and headed towards the stairs, leaving her still trying to make up her mind.
-oOo-
Back in my flat, I placed the card beside the other two and sat down behind my computer. The knowledge that someone was reaching out to me gave me a warm feeling. If it wasn’t Hilary, then that left only one other person I could think of. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that, but whoever it was, she was making an effort.

With warm feelings inside, I decided to get started on the big project. It was due by the end of the week and I figured it would take two or three days to complete. Fortunately my muse was singing, and I made good progress, working solidly into the early evening.

For the first time since I moved in, I regretted not having a bath in the place. As I stood and stretched – an odd feeling the way the whole dress rides up when you do that – I thought how much I would appreciate a long soak in a bubble bath right now.

A quick consultation with my friend Mr Google had me an interesting recipe lined up for dinner and I set about getting things together. I hadn’t yet started cooking when there was a light tap on the door.

It was the girl from downstairs.

“Hi,” She held out a hand. “I’m Lisa. I don’t think we got off to a good start earlier.”

“Call me Jen,” I took her hand and shook it gently. “Would you like to come in? I was about to start cooking.”

“I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Don’t be silly. It’s always nicer to have company when you eat. Unless you have other plans of course.”

“Well, I just popped up to say I’d booked us in for a hair appointment on Wednesday morning if that’s okay.”

“That’s great. What time?”

“Ten? It’s only five minutes’ walk from here.”

“That’s wonderful. So shall I come down to you at about quarter to? It’s one-b isn’t it?”

“Er, yeah that should be fine.”

“Will you let me cook you tea as a way of saying thank you? I’ll warn you, I’m not the greatest cook in the world, but I did just find a recipe for something called Fettuccine Alfredo which I don’t think even I could mess up.”

“Well, I suppose… I am curious about… you know. That is if you don’t mind talking about it?”

“Great. I have a bottle of Chianti in the cupboard over there and a glasses are up there.”

She poured for both of us and I set about the preparing the uncomplicated meal, doubling amounts as I went. She asked a bunch of obvious questions and we settled down for a long evening talking about the thoughts and feelings that had brought me to my most recent lifestyle choice.

The meal was over and we were sitting back drinking the last of the bottle.

“So you’re not gay then?”

“No. Well, not in the conventional sense. Conventional doesn’t really apply to me I guess. If what you’re asking is do I fancy guys or girls, then it’s definitely girls.”

“The thing is you can’t have it both ways. Either you’re a guy looking for a girlfriend, or you’re a girl looking for a girl friend.”

“Why not? Lesbians get the best of both worlds.”

“Not really. Not entirely. Most of the women I know feel uncomfortable around lesbians, so they really have to make the choice, at least to some extent too.”

“”Well, I’m not sure I have that many openings on the relationship side. Obviously that would be nice, but if I had to choose, I think I’d settle for just being one of the girls.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It’s what I feel like on the inside, and it’s the way I’d like most people to see me. I doubt guys would – most guys would freak out at the idea of a chick with a… you know what. Which leaves me with having girl friends as you put it.” I emphasised the pause between the two words.

“Well I guess if that’s the way you feel, you can count me in.”

“For real? You’re not weirded out by this?”

“Well I am a little, but you’re pretty convincing as a girl. If I hadn’t seen you around before you.. you know… changed, I probably wouldn’t have suspected.”

“What if you hadn’t suspected and we’d become friends? What would have happened if you’d found out a few weeks later?”

“I imagine I’d have been a bit pissed off. I’m kind of glad it didn’t come to that.

“Listen, I have to buzz. Look, any chance I could borrow that dress for Thursday?”

“I think it’d be a bit big on you.” I looked down at the peach dress she’d admired earlier. I’d managed not to drop any of my food or wine on it so it looked in pretty good shape.”

“I think I can make it work.”

“Sure. I’ll bring it down in Wednesday.”

“Great. Thanks. See you then.”

I changed for bed and hung the dress to one side. Making a trip to the laundrette for just one dress seemed a bit over the top, but I figured I could give it a quick hand wash before Wednesday morning.
-oOo-
Tuesday saw an improvement in the weather. Not exactly balmy or bright, but dry at least. I went for a walk around lunchtime and passed by the park. Hilary wasn’t there, and I was a little worried what she might have said to who. I mean bad enough being a bloke watching the kids playing. How much worse being a bloke dressed up as a woman doing the same. I walked on into the park and found a quiet bench out of the wind – which was quite brisk – and chewed my way slowly through my sandwich. The usual entourage of pigeons found me, but otherwise no-one gave me a second glance.

A little disappointed, I headed home, to find yet another card in my mailbox.

This one had two doves sitting on a branch, necks entwined. Inside it read, ‘friends?’

It went on the ledge with the others. I sat and looked at them for a while, smiling a contented smile. It definitely couldn’t be Hilary, and the only other person I could think of was Angie. But she’d been quite adamant the last time she’d spoken to me that I wasn’t right for her.

Not quite the last time we’d spoken, come to think of it.

What if it was Angie? How would I feel about that?

I went back to work, making good progress. The rate I was going I’d be finished by Thursday lunchtime, a whole day and a half ahead of deadline.

I knocked off early, made a light dinner and spent a little while washing my peach dress in the bathroom sink. I rinsed it thoroughly and wrung it out as best I could, then hung it up in the airing cupboard. It looked okay, and I just hoped it would be dry for the morning.
-oOo-
It was. I dressed in a frilly white blouse with my black skirt, white tights, black pumps. All contrast with the only colour coming from my coat. I had time to iron the peach dress and to do half an hour on the project before my phone chimed to tell me it was twenty to.

“You look nice,” Lisa told me on opening the door.

“So do you,” I replied, admiring her simple yellow dress.

“Thank you. I’m not sure if it’s my imagination, but Millie always seems to do a better job of my hair if I don’t turn up looking like a slouch.”

“Well you’re definitely not that today. Here’s the dress. You know they’re selling them down in the mall at the moment. I’m sure you’d look better if you go one in your size.”

“Thanks, but pay day isn’t for a couple of weeks and I’m not much smaller than you.”

We walked out into the brisk weather chatting like old friends.

Five minutes to the hairdressers was a bit optimistic. Lisa had us stopped and looking in a number shop windows on the way, so we were just about dead on time for our appointments as we walked through the door.

Introductions were made. Lisa went off with Millie and I sat down with one of the other hairdressers.

“So what did you have in mind?” Her name was Kelly, and she seemed focused on doing things right.

“Er, well, I er, I rather like the style that Lisa has right now,” I managed to sputter out.

“Hmm.” Kelly walked over to a stack of magazines, searched through them a little then came back flipping through one of them. “How about this?” She showed me a picture. The hairstyle was very similar to Lisa’s, but a little shorter. The girl in the picture was a little plumper, probably closer to my face shape, and the style looked right for her.

“Yeah, I suppose so. I was hoping to keep it quite long though.”

“Oh, I can do that, but you see how it’s shaped here and here? I think that would work better on you. And the highlights would work better with your complexion.”

“I put myself in your obviously capable hands.”

She smiled and lead me to the sink.

It took forever. I mean don’t get me wrong, it was a pleasurable experience having my scalp massaged, but then all the fiddly bit with wrapping pits of my hair up in tin foil. I let her get on with it.

“So, what do you have planned for Valentine’s?” The question came out of the blue.

With having grown my hair long, I’ve not been used to hairdressers of barbers. Even when I did go, it was usually a case of lying back, closing my eyes and hoping he – usually he – wouldn’t take too much off the length. The talking here was a surprise.

Not to mention the whole Valentine’s thing. I mean I knew it was February, but I was so used to ignoring the date, I hadn’t even registered that Valentine’s Day was just round the corner.

“Oh,” I gave her question a moment’s thought. “Bottle of wine, box of chocolates and a Meg Ryan film.”

She chuckled. “Oh, I’ve been there. I just thought with having your hair done and everything, you might have something planned.”

“Oh, no. You have to look your best for Tom Hanks though, don’t you?”

She laughed again. “So what is it? Sleepless or You’ve Got Mail?”

“I was thinking You’ve Got Mail. I love that bit at the end where he keeps bumping into her and being friendly, and joking about what this guy’s going to be like that she’s emailing. Then they meet on the bridge and you see all those emotions in her face.”

“It’s a great film. Have you seen French Kiss? It’s another oldy with Meg Ryan and Kevin Kline.”

“It doesn’t ring a bell.”

“Oh it’s fantastic. Meg Ryan is flying to France to chase after her fiancé, and Kevin Kline is this criminal who sits next to her and sneaks a diamond necklace into her bags. They get stuck together and they can’t stand each other at first, but then the slowly fall in love.

“There’s this great scene when Kline gets her to taste some wine, then he gets out a set of wooden boxes and has her smell all the different things in each one. Then she tastes the wine again and starts to recognise all this subtle extras that are hidden in it.

“That’s the thing I really love. You know when a guy opens up and tells you all about this passions. That’s when you get to see inside his soul. When he stops putting on an act and lets you all the way in.”

We chatted on for the best part of an hour and a half while she did her magic. The end result was worth the effort too. There was no way I’d pass as a guy now – not without having this lot cut really short.

I was ecstatic.

I even managed not to react when she rang up the bill.

“Oh. This is your first time isn’t it? That means you get fifty percent off. Same if you refer someone, like Lisa today.”

It was still a lot. I handed over my card without questioning. It was worth it.

Lisa was waiting for me, and made all the right gushy noises. Hers wasn’t much changed, but it was better for the tidy up. We headed home, chatting and window shopping all the way.

“Oh, a Valentine’s card!” she exclaimed as I emptied my mail. I hadn’t thought about these cards as Valentine’s. A bit daft, I suppose, given the time of year, but like I say, I’ve never had much truck with it.

“Open it then,” she insisted, looking over my shoulder.

I did. The card had a picture of a steak an salad. The inscription read, ‘lettuce meat’.

I groaned.

“That is so bad, it’s almost good,” Lisa said. “Do you know who it’s from?”

“I have an idea, but the last time we met she more or less shot me down in flames.”

“She?”

“Yeah. She’s the one who set me off on this little adventure. I mean she gave me a nudge. It’s all been me since I got over the hump.”

“Well, it sounds like she did you a favour.”

“There are two ways to look at it. I mean there are a lot of potential problems associated with going this way.”

“But are you happier? I remember seeing you hanging about before, and you were always so miserable. And scruffy. I mean I never would have talked to you before, but you actually smile now, and you… well you look fantastic. So surely this is better.”

“I guess. But she pretty much told me I was the wrong person for her.”

“And now it seems like she’s changed her mind. It’s a thing women do. You should try it some time, especially if you’re going to spend much time in our shoes.”

“She is trying isn’t she?”

“So what are you going to wear tomorrow?”

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes silly! It’s Valentine’s tomorrow. She’s bound to clinch it then. Come on, show me what you have.”

So we went upstairs and she rummaged through my wardrobe.

“You have some pretty fantastic stuff here.”

“Yeah. She chose most of it.”

“Really? Most? What didn’t she chose?”

I pulled out the light dress Angie had caught me looking at when we first met. Lisa held it against me.

“Probably a little cold for the time of year, but otherwise perfect. Got any shoes to go with it?”

“Only these,” I indicated the mules on my feet.

“Then we have a bit more shopping to do girl friend.” She tossed the dress on my bed and took me by the arm.

We visited several shoe shops before we found one that catered with my size. Lisa picked out a pair of deep red court shoes that matched my autumnal dress. They had slender heels that stood a fair bit higher than I was used to. They did look good though, so I gave in. I also bought a pair of white strappy sandals to give me a little more variety.

Despite my late start, I managed to make some headway with the project. Thursday lunchtime still seemed doable.

I stopped at seven when Lisa knocked on my door. She was carrying a tray laden with food and a bottle of Cote de Rhone.

We ate and chatted through the evening. She had plans for the following evening too, and wasn’t short on dreams.
-oOo-
None of my girl clothes were particularly loose fitting. They were comfortable enough, but there are times when you just want to feel a little more relaxed.

On impulse I tried on a pair of chinos and a polo shirt.

I looked like a girl.

The new haircut, even without make-up, did more to feminise my appearance than I could have hoped or expected.

On further impulse I stripped, put on a bra and knickers, and slipped the chinos and polo shirt back on.

Now I really looked like a girl.

It was almost better than wearing a dress. In some ways it was better than wearing a dress. I still felt like me.

By late morning I’d finished my copy writing project. I read through it, correcting a few typos, and changing a few bits here and there. It had reached that point, though, where pretty much anything I did to it would just make it different, not better. One last skim through and I sent it off.

Around lunchtime there was a knock on the door. I checked the peep hole and found Lisa standing outside with a large red envelope in her hands.

I opened the door and let her in.

“Oh my God!” she exclaimed.

“I know. I can hardly believe it myself.”

“That Kelly is amazing. You almost make me want to change hairdressers.”

“Come in. I was just putting the kettle on.”

“Yeah. Well I was just checking my mail and I saw this sticking out of your mailbox.”

I took it from her. The same cut out letters on envelope. I dropped it on the counter and started ferreting around for mugs.

“Don’t be mean.” Lisa picked up the envelope and put it in my hands. “I’ll make the drinks. You open the damned card.”

I smiled and did as I was told.

It wasn’t a card this time, at least not a store bought one. It was a photograph, home printed on photo paper and stuck onto a piece of folded card. There was no writing inside.

The photograph showed the entrance to the nearby park. Across the entrance was an arch with a clock built into it. From the look of things, it had been taken earlier in the week during some of the kinder weather. The clock face showed seven thirty.

I showed it to Lisa who shrugged.

“Well I guess that’s the where and the when. I’m meeting Toby at the Mall around the same time, so we can walk down together if you like. As long as you don’t go like that anyway.”

I smiled and put the card with the others. “It would serve her right if I did.”

“That’s not what this evening’s about. Have you got everything you need? Dress, check. Clean underwear, check. Make-up, check. Perfume?”

“I’ve been using a scented skin cream these last few days.”

“Nope. I’ll let you use one of mine. You should have a bath before you go as well. It does wonders.”

“I don’t have one. Are you telling me you have a bath?”

“All the ground floor flats have one. Why don’t you ask if you can move into once-c? It’s been empty for a while now.”

“It’s quite a bit more expensive, and I’m only making ends meet as it is.”

“Make them an offer. You never know. For now, you get to use my bath. Come down at around sixish and bring all your things with you. I’d prefer it if you were wearing something else when you came too.”

“So a couple of days ago you were weirded out because I was wearing a dress, and now you’re weirded out because I’m not.”

“A couple of days ago I wasn’t sure if you were a boy or a girl. Now I know, and you definitely don’t want to be seen in public wearing those.”

We chatted over coffee and I rummaged up some lunch for us. Eggs and something I think. I was already getting nervous.

Lisa disappeared after lunch, leaving me to my own devices. I found I was too nervous to work, so I set about doing a few other things around the place. Cleaning, tidying, washing up, changing the bed. They were all things I avoided doing before, but now they were a welcome distraction. I wasn’t sure what to expect form tonight. I wasn’t sure how Angie would be, or even if it would be Angie. I wasn’t even sure how I’d react to her after the way she’d brushed me off.

I spent a few hours in the bathroom shaving myself all over. There had to be an easier way than this, but for now it would have to do. I went over my entire body several times, looking for those hidden nooks and crannies where bits of stubble escape.

I dressed in my best underwear and a pair of the tights I’d bought on Sunday. They were thin and would offer no protection against the cold, but wow did they look good, and wow did they feel even better.

I tried the dress with a slip under it, but it looked and felt wrong. I tried again without and just about took my breath away. I stepped into the court shoes and stood in front of the mirror. There was no doubt I was going to freeze my arse off tonight, but boy was it going to be worth it. Even without makeup, even being the rather well-endowed size sixteen that I was, I looked amazing.

The second half of the afternoon threatened to drag by. I turned on the computer in the hope that it might do its usual trick of compressing time. There was an email waiting in reply to the project I’d sent off earlier.

“Very impressed… Excellent work… Just what we were looking for… Like to discuss putting you on payroll… Can we meet for lunch next Monday?”

Fuck-a-duck-l-uck-a-doo.

Suddenly the date wasn’t the scariest thing in my life.

The time stamp on the email was just a few minutes old. Chances were he’d be expecting an answer today. Payroll meant income – regular income. It would mean I could pay off all these new expenses. It would mean I could afford the ground floor flat. It would mean a lot of things. The problem was would they be prepared to accept me like this? If not, would I be able to go back to being who and what I was? Even if I could, would they still offer me the post once they’d discovered what I was like?

There were supposed to be laws protecting people like myself, but they could come up with a whole string of reasons why they decided not to offer me the job.

Still I couldn’t pass up the chance of a job, not in today’s financial climate. I clicked the reply button.

“Dear Mr Boscombe,”

It sounded like a fairly old fashioned name. I was already not sure.

“Thank you for the offer of lunch on Monday. I would be most interested in speaking to you regarding the prospect of joining your company.”

And there I stuck. If I were simply to turn up looking like this, I could definitely kiss my chances goodbye, but how to introduce it here in a way that wouldn’t have them making their minds up against me? I puzzled over it for half an hour, then decided on a new tactic.
-oOo-
“Hi Jen. You’re a bit early. Wow, look at you!”

“Yeah. Look, Lisa, sorry to bother you like this, but I have problem.”

“You’re not getting cold feet are you?”

“No. Well yes, but not in that way. Thin tights, thin shoes. No I’ve been invited to lunch on Monday, sort of a job interview.”

“Oh!”

“Yeah.”

“So what do you want to do?”

“Well I want to go. I think I have a lot to offer them, and I could do with more regular income.”

“By go you mean…”

“Well that’s the problem. I either go as I was, in which case I just throw away everything that’s happened over the last few days, or I go as I am in which case I pretty much throw away the job offer.”

“Why?”

“What?”

“Why would you be throwing away the job offer?”

“Because…”

“Because you’re a little unconventional. Listen, are they employing you for your ability to write or your ability to wear trousers?”

“I get that. Look, I have to do this as I am and hope that whoever I meet on Monday is prepared to listen and able to understand, but I can’t just turn up like this. They’d think I was taking the piss. I need to tell them something so they’re ready for me when I turn up.”

“So tell them.”

“Tell them what?”

“Tell them in the time you’ve been working for yourself you’ve adopted an unconventional dress code. Tell them it helps with your creativity and say you hope they’ll understand.”

“As simple as that?”

“Pretty much. If they don’t appreciate honesty and if they can’t get past your differences for the sake of what they’ve already admitted is pretty damn good, then maybe you don’t want to work for them.”

“Thank you. I knew it would be a good idea to ask.”

“You’re welcome. And listen, if you’re this nearly ready, come down again and have your bath.”

So I did. Pretty much everything she suggested. I finished the email almost word for word as Lisa had said, then I shut the machine down and headed downstairs.

Lisa leant me a bath-cap so I could keep my hair dry while I was soaking, and it was delicious. Water so hot you can hardly feel it against freshly denuded skin was a complete delight, and the scented oils did me no end of good. I spent half an hour soaking and only emerged when Lisa warned me against wrinkling my skin.

I dried myself off and put the dress back on, then spent ten minutes brushing my hair back into the style Kelly had given me. When I stepped out of the bathroom, Lisa was waiting. She ordered me onto a chair and set about my nails. It was a rare treat to have them shaped and buffed and painted, and the varnish she chose was perfect for the dress – a deep rusty red.

With my fingers and toes splayed and drying, Lisa abandoned me to her own ablutions, taking a lot less time then I had. She laughed at me when she reappeared to find me still holding my fingers and toes out.

“They’ll be dry by now, silly.”

“Well I didn’t know, did I? I didn’t want to spoil the finish, so I thought I’d wait.”

“Well no harm done.”

She ducked into the bedroom to dress and I took over the bathroom again working on my make-up. It took me three tries to get it just right, but the third was definitely the charm. I perched on the toilet – led closed – to ease on my tights again, and gave them a thorough look over to make sure I hadn’t torn the delicate fabric. So far so good. All I needed were my shoes, bag and coat.

Lisa called me from the bedroom and I went in to find her flapping about inside my peach dress.

“I told you it would be too large.”

“I know. Can you help me with these please?”

She held out a couple of safety pins, and I waited by while she pinched the seams under at her waist and pinned them in place. A belt went over the top and suddenly the dress wasn’t too large any more.

“You’re quite the magician aren’t you?”

“I’m guessing your mother never taught you tricks like that. Here hold out your wrist.”

I did as I was told while she upended a small, ornate bottle. She removed the glass stopper and dabbed it against me wrist.

“What do you think?”

I held up my wrist and breathed gently. The scent was perfect.

“You, my girl, are on a roll. This is just right.”

She quickly added more to my other wrist and either side of my neck.

“She’d better appreciate all this effort you know,” Lisa warned me. “Hang on a minute. Come over here.”

I did as I was told and sat on the bed while she rummaged through her jewellery box.

“I should have suggested getting them pierced while we were out yesterday. Too late now, but these should do.”

I felt a pinch on each ear lobe and a weight pulling down. Next she reached around my neck and clasped a chain in place. It sat comfortably in the v of my neckline.

“Have a look.”

I followed her to a mirror where what looked like diamonds dangled from my ears, matching the pendant against my chest.

“They’re only cubic zirconium, but they’ll do you.”

There wasn’t much I could do to help Lisa get ready that she couldn’t already do very well for herself. I made us both a cup of tea and we chatted away the time. Every now and again she’d hold up two pairs of shoes or two earrings and I’d make what I hoped was the right choice.

Soon enough seven o’clock came round and we gathered our coats and bags.
-oOo-
We walked together as far as the park, arriving ten minutes early.

“You’d better get on if you’re going to meet your boyfriend,” I told her.

“You sure you’ll be alright?”

“One way or another, I’ll be fine. Have a great evening, and thanks for all your help.”

“What are friends for?”

We hugged and she disappeared down the road. Neither of us were really alone. The streets were filled with singles rushing to and couples ambling from their various assignations. All I had to do was wait a few more minutes for my own.

“Jen?”

The voice made me jump and I turn towards a familiar face.

“Angie?”

“You got my message then?”

Well obviously. I bit my tongue though. Not exactly the way to start a reunion, especially given the way things had ended before.

“I got the message.”

“I’m glad you came. I wasn’t sure you would.”

“I thought you weren’t interested in me.” Even I could hear the hint of pain in my voice.

“That’s not quite what I said. If you remember I said I was looking for a particular kind of guy. I didn’t think you were it at the time.”

“What changed your mind?”

“When you came back to the shop wearing a dress.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s what attracted me to you in the first place. You know the way you were looking at the display. That dress wasn’t it?”

“It was.”

“It looks amazing on you.”

“Thank you. Don’t get off the subject.”

She looked around at the couples walking around the park. Most were boy-girl, but not all, and the ages varied as well.

“We’re like jigsaw pieces,” she said. “All of us looking for the perfect fit.”

I moved a little closer, but she was lost in thoughts.

“I don’t know I you’ve ever had a go at one of those really big jigsaws. You know the five thousand piece ones? Every now and then in those you get some pieces that have a really weird shape. That’s kind of like you and me.”

“How come? I mean I get that I’m an odd shape, but how come you?”

“I’ve always been more attracted to girls than boys, but I’ve never really thought of myself as a lesbian. I love the way girls look, the shape of them, the way they look in pretty clothes, the smell of their perfume, but I can’t imagine myself falling in love with another girl.”

Light dawned.

“So your perfect piece is a guy who looks like a girl.”

She smiled. There was something of an apology in there, and something of a pathetic sort of hope.

“So when we went out that first evening, you were hoping that would be me. That’s why you got me dressed up. To see how I’d react. To see if I could be the person you wanted me to be.”

She bowed her head.

“And when I started to question what it was all about. When I asked if you put all your first dates in a dress, I got a little close to the bone.

“Then I turned up the next day, back in my scruffy chinos.”

“I was upset. I had no right to be, but I was. It was like you wanted something from me and weren’t prepared to give me what I needed, even though you were able to. I’m sorry I strong armed you into buying all those clothes. I felt bad about it for a few days afterwards and I was going to come around and offer to pay for them. Then you turned up wearing a skirt and I didn’t know what to think.

“I’ve been stalking you for a few days now. I hope that doesn’t sound too creepy, but it took a while for me to accept how you’d changed. When I realised this was something you’d decided to do sort of permanently, and even without me being in the picture, I kind of…”

“Changed your mind?”

“Yeah.”

“And?”

“And I was kind of hoping you might change your mind about me too.”

I took the time to look at her. She was pretty – certainly prettier than I merited – but good looks alone doesn’t give much to a relationship. She was wearing a dress, the same as me. That at least was a good sign. I didn’t mind women in trousers, I mean that would be hypocrisy, to object to them having the same freedom I wanted. But for the same reason I liked wearing skirts and dresses, I also like women who wore them. They embodied feminine beauty, delicacy, vulnerability.

She wasn’t expecting anything from me. She stood before me as vulnerable and hopeful as I had ever felt, and waited. Nowhere in her eyes, her face, the way she stood did I see anything more than hope. Nowhere did I see a self-confident anticipation that if she did that, I would respond like this. It’s a masculine trait, and one that I detest, but it’s not limited to the male half of the population.

I made my decision then. We weren’t so different after all, both odd shaped jigsaw pieces. I’d been trying to bend myself into a more conventional shape and it hadn’t worked. Wasn’t it worth seeing if we actually fitted together?

I took her hand in mine.

-Fin-