Lifeswap – Chapters 1 – 3

Chapter 1

“So how does this work again?” I asked, eyeing the bowl with more than a little suspicion.

“It’s simple Jerry,” Tony put a reassuring hand on my shoulder. “We all put our keys in the bowl, stir them around a bit, then we each close our eyes and grab a set at random. Whoever’s keys you pick, you get to be them for a while.”

“Yeah, but that doesn’t make sense. I mean I don’t know the first thing about what you do, and you have no idea what my job entails, so how do we get to be each other?”

“By magic.” Tony’s eyes widened and he waved his hands in a mysterious way. The others laughed and I joined in, smiling nervously.

“So you mean this is just a game? We pretend to be each other for the evening. There’s nothing real about this?”

“It’s as real as magic can make it,” Tony said cryptically, the others laughing along with him yet again.

In truth I’d had a few too many that evening, otherwise I might have picked up on the edge of nervousness in their manner. As it was though, the thing sounded quite fun. I mean Mike was an airline pilot, Randall was a surgeon, Peter was a lawyer, Tony was an antiques dealer. It might be amusing to pretend to be one of them for the evening.

Something still niggled at the back of my mind though. If I’d been sober, it would have been obvious these guys were hiding something, but my brain was foggy and all I had was a vague sense of unease.

“So what happens on Monday morning?” I persisted, trying to find something real to hang my concerns on. “I mean I have responsibilities. I wouldn’t want to wake up and find Peter here opening up the bank in my name.”

Nervous laughter. I’m not sure why I picked the lawyer. Innate distrust I guessed.

“That would hardly be as bad as you finding yourself in the cockpit of a 747 with three hundred passengers to fly to the other side of the world would it?”

Laughter again, but less nervous this time. I joined in, relaxing a little.

“Look Jerry, what if I said you could have your keys back at any time? Go on, chuck them in the bowl. You’ll get to enjoy being a surgeon or a lawyer or whatever the person does whose keys you take for as long as you like. Meanwhile one of us gets the thrill of being the hotshot banker with the big house, the fast car and the trophy wife. If at any time you don’t like how things are going, just say the word and whoever has your keys swaps back with you.”

If truth be told, the big house and the fast car weren’t all they were cracked up to be. I’d inherited my wealth as well as my position at the bank, and none of it had given me any amount of happiness. As for the trophy wife, Portia was typical of the breed. Ambitious, self-centred, borderline sociopathic, but gorgeous. She swept me off my feet when I was young, naive and full of hormones, and now I was tied into a marriage that had always been loveless, only I had been too stupid to see it at the outset. She puts on a good show at events like this, we both do, but for the most part our happiest days are the ones we spend apart.

I did ask her once if she wanted a divorce – an honest enough question since I could see she was as unhappy as I was, but it turned out to be an idiotic thing to do all the same. She rounded on me like the shrew she was and told me in no uncertain terms that if I tried to divorce her she’d take me to court. She said she’d either walk away with enough of my fortune to bankrupt the bank, or she’d drag things out so long that what didn’t get frittered away in legal fees wouldn’t buy a coffee at Starbucks. Either way I’d be left considerably poorer, and the bank – my dad’s legacy – would founder, wiping out the life savings of people who trusted us to look after their investments, and leaving over a hundred loyal staff out on the street without a job. Suffice to say I didn’t bring the matter up again.

It was thoughts of Portia more than anything that made this whole nonsense seem so appealing in the first place. I’d have gladly traded places with a sewage worker for the chance to spend an evening away from her. Not that I was being asked to sacrifice so much; everyone in the room was a professional of some sort, and with the kind of jobs that brought with them some degree of prestige. But then that was at least part of the problem. With the possible exception of Tony, I knew no more about their professions than they did about mine. With lives and livelihoods depending on our skills on a daily basis, I didn’t want there to be any risk of this continuing beyond the weekend.

The others were looking at me expectantly, as though my decision was that crucial. I mean was it really such a big deal for one of them to get to pretend to be a banker for an evening?

I looked at the bowl on the coffee table. Tony dealt in all sorts of antiques and he had some pretty nice pieces. I earned considerably more than him, and over the years a significant portion of my somewhat obscene salary had found its way into his hands in exchange for the enviable collection of immaculately restored antiques that adorned my home. He had no hope of ever owning a collection like mine, yet he always managed to rouse the little green eyed monster inside me with the two or three items that he did hold onto.

The bowl was one such, and I had been eyeing it since he’d invited me in here for this evening’s party and introduced me to his friends. It was unusual in almost every way. Obviously ancient, but not recognisably from any era or culture I knew of. I’m not the expert that Tony is, but I pride myself on being a reasonably well informed amateur, so the obscurity of the piece annoyed me just as its simple elegance drew me.

“Lovely isn’t it?”

His hand still rested on my shoulder. I disliked the familiarity, but suffered it in Tony’s case for the sake of his unfailing capacity to surprise and delight me with something new.

I picked the bowl up and turned it slowly in my hands. It was smooth to the touch and deceptively heavy. To the eye, it seemed to have been carved from a single piece of tightly grained wood, perhaps twelve inches across and four deep. Its texture was more that of stone though; cold and unyielding, despite its thinness. As far as I could tell it was perfectly round and entirely unadorned by any pattern other than that held in its natural grain.

“I don’t suppose you’d consider selling it?” I asked.

He smiled a crocodile smile; all teeth and no warmth.

“I might be persuaded,” he said cautiously, “if you’ll agree to join in with our little game.”

And that was enough to hook me. As enticing as the fantasy of escaping my life might have been, even for a short time, something about their little game left me feeling uneasy and reluctant to join in. The thought of owning this exquisite piece, though, was all the incentive I needed.

I placed the bowl back on the table, retrieved my keys from my pocket and threw them in. The others followed suit, Tony included.

“Is this a private game, or can anyone join in?”

The voice held a musical lilt to melt even the stoniest heart. We all turned to greet the newcomer, naturally stepping away from the table and the bowl full of keys.

She was as beautiful as her voice promised. Long blond hair swept up off a slender neck and bare shoulders. Porcelain fine skin offset against an exquisite red, silk ball gown. She was fishing in her clutch bag, just a shade darker than her dress, and before anyone could react, she pulled out a set of keys with a lilac VW fob and tossed them into the bowl.

“No!”

“Hey, you can’t do that!”

“What do you think you’re doing?”

“Take them out!”

The response from the other four was unanimous, and totally out of proportion to her actions. Everyone seemed appalled by what she had done, but what could be so wrong about chucking a set of keys into a bowl? Deep inside my booze addle brain, warning bells kicked off, injecting me with a much needed and long overdue jolt of adrenalin.

“It’s too late,” Tony said above the others’ objections. “We have to play it out the way it is now.”

There was something vaguely sinister in the way he spoke. My rapidly clearing head told me I wanted nothing more to do with this and I reached into the bowl.

My fingers closed on my keys, and all the strength and feeling went from them. When I pulled my hand out, it held nothing; the keys stayed where they were in the bowl.

“What is this?”

“It’s how this works Jerry,” Tony’s voice retained that dangerous edge. “Once you’ve put something in, you can’t take it out. You have to pick someone else’s item.”

“What the hell are you going on about?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I tried to explain. I didn’t believe it when I discovered what this thing does, even with the evidence staring me in the face. You’re committed now. You have to take someone else’s keys, not your own.”

“This is nuts.”

“Isn’t it though?” the woman in the red dress said. “But nuts or otherwise, it actually works. And it follows strict rules which have to be obeyed. The first you’ve already discovered. You can’t take your own item. The second explains why everyone else is standing around doing nothing. Since this is your first time, you get to choose first. May I suggest the lilac fob?”

“What? What the hell is going on here?”

“It’s like your not-so-good-as-you-might-think friend Tony here says, you wouldn’t believe it if anyone tried to explain it. Whatever you believe, you do need to act though, and preferably now. One question to ask yourself: Do you trust any of these guys?”

Tony’s brow was creased in thought. He gave her a quizzical look, then suddenly his eyebrows shot up with sudden realisation.

“Mary!” he shouted. “Mary, come here.”

“You have to act now,” the girl hissed. “Before she gets here.”

Tony’s wife appeared in the doorway.

“Mary. Put something in the bowl. Don’t ask, just do it. An earring or something.”

Mary looked as confused as I was, but she knew better than to question her husband. She stepped into the room, unfastening one of her earrings.

“You have to do it now, or we’re both screwed.”

I didn’t know what to think. It was obvious Tony had some ulterior motive to this little game, and his friends, all of whom I’d met for the first time tonight, were in on it. The woman in red was a complete stranger to me, but she seemed a better bet than the others. I didn’t particularly want to pretend to be a woman, but something more was going on here, and Tony already promised I could back out if I wanted to. I reached for the bowl a second time.

“No!” Tony tried to grab my wrist, but something seemed to stop him. My hand closed on the lilac key fob just before Mary let go of her jewellery.

The earring bounced off empty air above the bowl and landed on the table beside the bowl.

“Another rule,” the woman said beside me. “Once the first item has been removed, no more can be added.

“And Tony, you should know better than that.”

Tony was fumbling with numb fingers for my keys. He gave up after a few moments’ struggle.

“What should he have known better than?” The booze and the confusion were evidently affecting my capacity to construct a decent sentence.

“Order of precedence,” she replied briefly. “First the newcomer chooses, then the weakest. I think they’re safeguards of some sort, but I was never able to work out the reasons, only the order.”

She reached into the bowl, everyone else watching with impotent rage. Unsurprisingly she selected my keys.

“How do you know so much about this thing?”

“Because it used to belong to me. Tony here stole it from me, isn’t that right Tony?”

“I’ll get you for this Laura.” Tony’s expression was homicidal, and those of his friends weren’t much better.

“I get the feeling we’ve overstayed our welcome,” I said to my new ally. “Don’t you think we should leave before things get unpleasant?”

She gave me a pitying look. “Things are going to get unpleasant Jerry – it was Jerry wasn’t it?” I nodded and she continued. “The ritual has to be completed, and the next bit’s probably going to freak you out. Best we stay here till it’s over.”

She gave Tony a you-know-what-you-have-to-do look before perching on a nearby chair.

Tony picked up his wife’s earring and handed it to her. “It’s alright Mary,” he told her. “I’ll come and find you in a while.”

“I don’t understand…” she began.

“I’ll explain it all later,” he said. “Leave us be for now. I’ll find you in a few minutes.”

Mary left, hesitant and confused. Tony looked around at his friends and gave them a nod. “Nobody take mine,” he said.

“Why do we have to..?”

“Because it’s what I pay you for.”

I gave my new best friend a questioning look.

“One of the rules,” she said. “The only way you get to take your item from the bowl is if it’s the last one in there and you’re the last one to pick. Can you move over this way a bit, and turn that way? That’s great.”

Under her direction I moved away from Tony, and was now facing him.

The three stooges reached into the bowl and each retrieved a key fob. Tony was the last to pick; his keys the last ones remaining. He reached in and grabbed them.

“Hold tight,” said the lady in red. “Here comes the shit-storm.”

I might have been shocked at her language had the shit-storm not already started, bringing with it a whole new level of shock. The whole world began to spin out of control, my vision blurred then began to pulsate before finally fading to grey. Blood roared in my ears, throbbing along with my blurred vision. My skin began to itch, then to burn, then as I was about to scream, everything went numb. I smelt burning metal, tasted strawberries and cheese. Everything became confused. Sights became sounds, smells became colours, tastes became textures. I screamed a nerve jangling, electric blue sound that tasted of Mozart and sandpaper. Confronted with the choice between madness and oblivion, I reached for the dark abyss, hoping for some respite from the insanity that assaulted my senses. Everything went black.

I don’t know how long I was unconscious, but it couldn’t have been long. I opened my eyes to see myself wrestling with Tony. The three others lay unconscious on the floor.

Tony was a big man and definitely had the weight advantage, but I was fitter, more supple. I twisted and swept my leg out hoping to trip him, but my body didn’t respond. Instead I felt a strangely sensuous feeling as delicate fabric brushed against my smooth leg. There was a tightness about my chest, and an unnatural weight. I looked down at a swath of red and a cleavage of delicate pale skin. I was sitting somehow. I leapt to my feet, almost falling as my heels refused to go all the way to the ground.

“Shit,” I shouted, with a shrillness I had never heard in my voice. My head felt heavy and clumsy. Everything was wrong.

A crash brought me spinning round. Tony had my body pinned against the wall, his forearm jammed across my throat. How come I could breathe with him doing that? My own eyes stared at me over his shoulder, pleading.

I grabbed the nearest thing to hand – the bowl – and brought it crashing down on Tony’s head. It was heavier than I remembered from earlier, and it slipped out of my grasp at the last moment, falling to the ground even as Tony wilted.

We watched the bowl fall as if in slow motion. The floor was polished hardwood. Rugs here and there but nothing where it fell. It may have already been weakened by the recent mistreatment I’d given it, but either way, contact with the floor was more than it could take. It cracked and fell into two pieces.

“Oh shit.”

It was strange hearing my voice from the outside. All the more so since the words were out of sync with my thoughts.

I watched as my body crouched to retrieve the broken pieces of the bowl. It stood and smiled at me a little ruefully.

“Thanks for the assist, but I wish you’d used something a little less valuable.”

Tony groaned and rolled onto his back.

“Come on, we should get out of here while we can.”

My body reached out to grab my hand and I felt my mind slipping over the edge. I giggled, then giggled again at the bizarreness of the sound.

“Oh no! Don’t do this to me, please.”

I was talking to me again. Everything became disjointed. The room receded, started to spin. Strong arms caught me as I fell. Funny, I never thought of myself as particularly strong before, but here I was carrying myself with apparent ease.

The room spun, but it was different this time. The walls swung back and forth as I was carried out of the room and down the corridor. Memories of my father carrying me to bed swam to the surface. I tried to raise my head, but nothing seemed to work right.

“Could you fetch my car please? She’s had a little too much to drink and I really ought to get her home.”

My voice again, but not me speaking. Who had stolen my voice?

The Mercedes pulled up beside us and the valet climbed out, opened the passenger door. I was gently eased into the seat and the safety belt pulled across. It felt rough against my bare shoulder, and it didn’t sit right across my chest. Once more I stared down at a milky white cleavage and wondered where it had come from.

Doors closed, opened, closed again. I looked across at me securing myself in the driver’s seat. What was I doing over there when I was over here?

“Do you have my handbag?” my voice asked.

I had vague memories of a dark red clutch bag falling to the floor when I had stood up out of the chair I shook my head.

“Bollocks!” Usually my language wasn’t this course. “We’ll have to go to your place then. Are you up to giving directions?”

I reached out a long, slender finger and turned the satnav on. It was more than a little freaky having such delicate hands and arms, though I found I kind of liked it. The screen blinked to life. I touched it a few times in different places, setting home as the destination.

“What about Portia?” I managed to say, the words sounding distant in my ears. Not surprising since it wasn’t my voice.

“She’ll have to make her own way,” I heard myself say.

“She’s not going to be happy with us.” There was a familiar music to my voice. Not my voice. Her voice. Why was I speaking with her voice?

“Portia is the least of our problems at the moment.”

The car pulled away, out into the early evening traffic. I could feel myself fading.

“You won’t say that tomorrow.”

I could hear my words slurring. My words, but not my voice. Not my body either. I couldn’t face the impossibility of what had happened, and surrendered to blissful unconsciousness as it washed over me at last.

-oOo-

I woke to the sound of raised voices; Portia’s familiar, shrill ranting and my own muffled response. I was tucked up in the guest bedroom, upstairs and on the other side of the house from the main living area. It was no surprise that I could hear my wife; she could out- scream the lady in Psycho when she put her mind to it, and she was putting her mind to it right now. What impressed me was how well I was holding my own in the argument.

I sat up and almost fainted all over again as the unfamiliarity of my situation overwhelmed me. I was wearing one of Portia’s white, cotton nightdresses, which begged the question who had dressed me.

An uncomfortable and oddly urgent need overtook me and I swung my legs out of bed.

The argument became louder and more intelligible when I opened the bedroom door, but my body’s need overrode any desire to eavesdrop. I padded softly down the corridor to the nearest bathroom and shut myself in. A few moments’ frantic scrabbling, lifting this and pulling down that, and I was seated and letting out an oddly uncontrolled stream into the toilet.

I stared down at my smooth, pale, hairless legs, a curtain of tangled blond hair channelling my vision. This was actually happening. I wasn’t me anymore. Somehow I was someone else. Someone whose name I didn’t even know. Someone who wasn’t even male.

The garden sprinkler seemed to have exhausted its reservoir. I folded a couple of sheets of loo paper and used them to wipe my bits dry. I probably should have been freaked out by what was missing between my legs, but for some reason it didn’t bother me that much. Maybe I was in denial. Maybe after so many years married to Portia I’d come to look on it as being superfluous – a sort of external appendix. Certainly I hadn’t had much use for the thing since she’d insisted on separate beds, then separate rooms just months after we were married. Somehow it felt neater down there not having anything dangling between my legs. I pulled up my knickers, enjoying the simplicity of it all. Nothing to arrange into a comfortable position.

Toilet flushed, hands washed and back out into the corridor. The row had subsided and an uneasy truce existed downstairs. I say uneasy; it was only an assumption based on my own previous domestics with my dear wife. I thought about going downstairs, but here I was an intruder in my own home. I had no idea what my counterpart had told Portia. As far as I was aware, he might not even have mentioned my presence, and just what sort of fresh scene would that generate if I suddenly appeared wearing her nightclothes? She might even consider changing her mind about the divorce if we gave her reason to believe I had been unfaithful, if she thought she could get away with it. In matters like this the truth didn’t come into it. Circumstantial evidence and someone as loud and obnoxious as Portia would most likely end up with a ruling in her favour so quickly I wouldn’t have time to sit down.

I made my way quietly back to the guest room and climbed into bed.

I had flushed the toilet.

Usually there wasn’t anyone in the house other than Portia and myself.

She wasn’t stupid. She’d realise someone else was here.

Best not to hide then. I climbed back out of bed and looked around for a robe or dressing gown. It was warm enough that I didn’t really need one, but I’d look a bit more decent if I was properly wrapped up. A cursory search turned up nothing, so I did what I could to make myself a bit presentable, then I headed downstairs.

“She’s a bit of a cow, your wife.”

I spun around and there I was, or at least she was. He was? My body was in any case. I felt light headed again and made my unsteady way over to the couch opposite him. Her. Whatever.

“She has her moments,” I agreed. “The most recent one’s lasted about eight years so far.”

He laughed. I decided I was going to have to think of him as male, just as I would have to think of me as female now.

“Where is she?” I asked.

“Said she was going to her mother’s; too angry to stay. Just came to grab a few things and have a good yell at me. Wanted to know who was the floozy I brought home with me, then told me to expect to hear from her solicitor.”

“Who is the floozy you brought home with you?”

There were a lot of other more pertinent questions I could have asked. How did she know about me? Not so hard that one. The valets had seen us drive off together. What did she plan on doing? Also not such a mystery. Given the volume of her harpy screech and her comment about her solicitor, the divorce suit was all but inevitable, and there would go the bank.

“I never did introduce myself, did I? I’m Laura Townsend. Or rather I suppose you are now.”

“Nice to make my acquaintance, I’m sure.”

“You’re taking this very well. It can’t be easy for you.”

“No different for you, I expect.”

“You forget I owned the bowl before Tony. I’ve used it quite a few times; been a man more than once too. Makes a pleasant change to be in a body that’s been well looked after.”

“Thank you, I suppose.”

Silence drifted in like a sea mist.

“So what happens now?” I found the courage to ask from somewhere. I’m not sure what terrified me more, the expectation that he’d have no idea, or the possibility that he might.

“Well right now I’m going to enjoy another glass of this excellent malt whiskey. I’d offer you one, but knowing that body, you’d pass out after the second sip.”

“It’s okay, I never cared much for the stuff anyway. How many have you had?” I couldn’t keep the hint of disapproval from my voice.

“This,” he waved the bottle expansively before pouring a generous triple, “will be my third. And that,” he pointed at me with his newly filled glass, “is a very woman-like thing to do. You should do well in your new life, which is probably just as well, ‘cos I don’t see anything changing for a while.”

“Since we’re swapping clichés, your looking for a solution in the bottom of a bottle is about as typically male.” There were real barbs in the words now; I couldn’t hide my disappointment in him, especially after the resourcefulness he’d shown at the party.

“Creative solutions tend to come to me better when I’m a little tipsy. Unfortunately it’s taking a bit more than usual to reach the level of pissed-ness when they usually start coming. How come you have so many bottles of this stuff if you don’t like it?” He took an appreciative mouthful of whiskey and collapsed back onto the sofa.

“They were birthday gifts from Portia. I’m not sure if it’s a deliberate slight, or if she just couldn’t be bothered to try and think of something I’d actually want.

“Maybe I should have a drink. Given that I now have the brain you used to be creative in the past, you may no longer have the capacity.”

“Your funeral, but I’d water it down a long way if you hope to stay conscious. I’m not sure how much help you can be though, without all the facts.”

I eyed the malt. I really didn’t care for the stuff. There was a bottle of vodka in the cabinet as well; Portia’s drink of choice. Mixed with enough orange juice, nobody could tell you were drinking.

I poured out half a finger into a tall glass then carried it to the fridge, topped it up to the brim with OJ. I took a sip.

“So why don’t you fill in the gaps. If nothing else, talking about it might prompt a few fresh ideas.” I chose the armchair opposite him and perched on the edge. “Let’s start with the bowl. What is it precisely?”

“You haven’t figured it out yet?”

“It swaps consciousnesses between bodies. Everyone involved puts an item in, then whoever’s you pull out, your mind goes into their body. I imagine Tony suggested keys since they’re traditional for wife swap parties.”

“Oh, been to many of those have you?”

“I wish. Portia would never do anything so openly scandalous.”

“Trouble in paradise?”

“You think this is paradise, you have a nasty surprise waiting for you.”

“No, not really. I already met her, remember?”

“Yeah, what did you tell her?”

“I said we were talking and you fainted. I was taking you to hospital when you roused enough to ask me not to, so I brought you here instead.”

“Not the greatest story.”

“Alright smartass, what would you have said?”

“Probably not much better to be fair, but with it being your word against hers with no witnesses we can call on, who do you think the jury’s going to believe? She fakes charm pretty well does my wife.”

“There’s the valet. You were pretty much out of it when I picked up the car. He may have seen you rouse a little once we were in.”

“I’m not convinced. I doubt that’ll be enough.”

“Well sorry for breathing. Maybe I’ll just tell the jury I couldn’t help myself, brought you home and took you straight to bed.”

“Yeah, about that. I’m guessing it was you who changed me into this nightdress.”

“Yeah, what of it?”

“What do you mean what of it? It’s hardly appropriate.”

“You’re forgetting that was my body for the last twenty-seven years. I’ve seen it naked before.”

“Yeah but not with a penis in your pants!”

He smiled, reliving the memory and took another swig. “Yeah, I wasn’t expecting that. I guess you’re right. It won’t happen again.”

I sipped at my mainly orange juice. The taste was so much more alive in my mouth, and I could even pick out the hint of alcohol it contained. “So back to this bowl. I’ve figured out what it does, but not how or why. Anything you can say that might shed a bit of light?”

He stood and started pacing, ordering his thoughts before speaking. I gave him the space and before long he started.

“It’s old. I mean really old; predates history by quite a way. It’s made of petrified oak, which you probably sort of figured out already. But that doesn’t answer the question of how it was made. Oak is hard enough to work with just stone tools, and any wood that’s petrified is considerably harder. There are no signs of tool marks or anything; and the thing is perfectly round. Measured with a laser and everything. The diameter doesn’t vary by so much as a tenth of a millimetre. How the hell a stone age cave man could conceive of such a thing, let alone make one, is beyond me.

“It’s been in my family for quite a few generations. We don’t know who came by it originally, or how, but there’s a story of how my great, great grandmother unearthed it in the attic of the house she inherited from her grandfather. She stumbled on its secret when she and her husband were putting fruit in it. After the initial freaking out, they eventually got to experimenting and figured out how to reverse the change.

“She called it the witch’s cauldron. I mean it’s not a cauldron obviously, but what it does upset my grandmother enough to make her think of witchcraft, so the name stuck.

“My great, great grandparents decided it couldn’t be trusted to just anyone, so it’s been passed down to the most responsible member of the next generation since their time, along with a demonstration of what it does and a warning not to use it or to tell anyone about it.”

“So how did Tony find out?”

“Well I’m a bit of an antiques collector anyway, and a few months back I was a bit strapped for cash, so I invited him round to give me a price on a few pieces. I like to keep the bowl where I can see it, so it was on display when Tony came round. He wanted to look at it and wouldn’t be refused, so I let him handle it. He wasn’t too happy when I told him I had no intention of selling it, but we agreed a price on the stuff I wanted to get rid of, and he left.

“A couple of days later, someone broke into my place. The bowl was one of the things taken.”

“So you figured Tony was the thief.”

“In all the years it’s been in my possession, he’s the only person outside the family who’s shown any interest in it.”

“Do you think he knew what it was before he took it?”

“Well given what he was trying to do with it at the party, I think that’s a fairly safe bet.”

“So maybe he could tell us a thing or two about it. Give us some clues on how we could fix it or where we could find another.”

She laughed, but with little humour. “So what, we just call him up and ask him? After what we did last night, I doubt he’s going to be too pleased with us. In fact I’m kind of expecting a visit from him sometime soon.”

I set my drink down and walked out towards the front door. The alarm panel was set to standby. A few key presses had the external sensors up and running. None of the alarms went off straight away, so I figured we were safe for the time being. I returned to the living room.

“What was that about?” He was beginning to slur his words slightly.

I told him what I’d done, and that I thought he’d had enough to drink.

“What would you know about it?”

“Well, like you pointed out earlier, until recently that was my body and I know its limits.”

“So what, am I going to collapse in a heap any time soon?”

“No but you’re going to make progressively less sense from hereon in. Your brain probably already feels numb, and if you think about it, you’re not thinking as quickly or as clearly. Keep going and within the next few minutes you won’t be able to open your mouth without saying something stupid. I know, I’ve been there a few times.”

He looked at the half-filled tumbler in his hand and drained it before putting it down.

“I could make some coffee,” I suggested.

“No. We should get some sleep.”

“What time is it?”

“I’m not sure. Two, maybe three?”

“You could check your watch.”

“Oh.” He stared at his wrist with some surprise, made an effort to focus. “It’s a liddlafter three. I mean the big hand’s on the two and the liddlhand is between the three and the four.” He chortled at his joke.

I walked into the kitchen area and filled a large glass with water.

“You should drink this before you go to sleep.”

“Why? So I piss myself in bed? This isn’t the time for practical jokes you know.”

“No it’s to stop you having too much of a hangover in the morning. I’ve been there too, and I think we’d both be better off if you could think clearly when you wake up.”

He downed the water in one heroic go, spilling a fair amount down the front of his – my? – suit. It would have to do. I offered him a hand to pull him to his feet. He took hold of it and pulled me onto his lap, grinning madly into my face.

“You know I’m very pretty,” he said examining me closely. “I don’t think I ever realised it before, but I have a very pretty face.”

I felt a cold chill run through me. There was no way I’d be able to fight him off if he decided he wanted to have some fun. I knew it was only the booze talking, but I also knew how loud it spoke, and this was his first time dealing with a libido that had been frustrated for quite some years. I pushed away at his chest. There was a wiry strength in these slender arms I’d inherited, but not enough if he stopped playing.

“Whereas I,” I tried to keep my voice light and joking, “have whiskey breath and almost no charm to speak of when I’m drunk. Come on, let’s get you to bed. We’ll continue this in the morning.

He let me climb to my feet, and with far more effort than I’d normally have needed, I hauled him off the sofa as well. I let him drape his arm across my shoulders, then had to grab his hand and pull it to one side as he tried to cop a feel.

“Doesn’t it feel wrong, trying to grope your own body?”

“No, it feels soft and squishy, and I like it.”

He tried to pull his hand free to have another go and I ducked out from under him, leaving him leaning against a wall.

“If you’re going to try that, I’ll leave you to fend for yourself.”

“No ‘salright. I’ll behave.”

I shouldered my burden again and we made slow, unsteady progress up the stairs to my bedroom, where I pushed him onto the bed, slipped off his shoes and loosened his belt and tie.

“You know you could stay.” He was sleepy and drunk and not trying very hard.

“You’re wife’s about to sue you for marital infidelity. Don’t you think it might be best not to give her any ammunition?”

I was glad I’d only had a couple of sips of my drink. I mean this whole thing was weird and scary, and something in me was drawn to the idea of having strong arms around me. I’d looked after my body, and it was in pretty good shape – hansom too – so it probably wouldn’t have taken much more alcohol to persuade me to do the foolish thing.

He started to snore gently, which more or less settled the matter. I used the alarm panel in his bedroom to set the internal alarms before heading back to my bed in the guest room.

I couldn’t sleep. Everything was different. The feel of the nightdress instead of pyjamas, the smoothness of my skin, the additional weight on my chest, the gaping void between my legs. I felt lighter, weaker, and so oddly shaped. Even basic things like walking or simply lying down felt so unusual.

My mind felt different as well; filled with a constant barrage of thoughts and ideas, many of them inconsequential. I tried to grab hold of them, focus them into something that made sense, but it was like trying to persuade a room full of cats to line up on parade. As soon as I grabbed hold of one, the rest squirmed out of my control and drifted away.

That might have been why I wasn’t more upset by the change in me. The transformation had been as wild a ride as anything I could imagine, and everything had been so unusual since, I couldn’t get my balance. Physically, sure, but mentally and emotionally, everything was swinging around like one of those nausea inducing fairground rides. Trying to get control in the middle of the maelstrom was all but impossible.

I closed my eyes and tried some deep breathing exercises. The hailstorm of inconsequentialities continued to rattle on the window pane of my inner-most self; impossible to ignore to start with, but as time wore on, I found I was able to put them to one side. I don’t know how long it took – no watch, no clock – but after what seemed like forever, my mind began to clear, and the calm inner me that had held things together so far expanded to fill all of who I now was.

I thought about sleep again, but it was as far away from me as it ever had been. A glass of warm milk should help, but I’d need to disable the alarm if I wanted to go downstairs. I made my way back to the master bedroom and stuck my head in.

He was still snoring, still in the position I’d left him with his legs hanging off the end of the bed, his shirt and his trousers loosened. I turned to the panel and disabled the downstairs sensors. A blip of paranoia had me run a diagnostic on the outside sensors, and they all came up in the green.

Peace of mind is worth a lot though, and I was able to breathe easily as I headed for the stairs.

I tried to analyse the walk and what was different about it. I’ve often wondered why women’s backsides tend to swing backwards and forwards the way they do, and I came to the conclusion after feeling the way my newly acquired woman’s backside moved that it had a lot to do with leverage. My hips were much wider, the torque between the base of my spine and the hip joint of whatever leg I was standing on was that much greater, and the strength in my muscles that much lower, it was easier to let things swing than to keep everything level. I don’t know, the sensation was actually quite pleasant as well, so maybe there was a bit of choice in the matter too.

I was unusually calm despite having to face so many issues. How to change back into me before the bank opened on Monday, how to deal with Portia, what to do about Tony. They were massive questions. I guess the whole lot was too much to face, so here I was hiding in a cocoon of sensation, and finding I enjoyed it. The feel of my bare feet against the hardwood floor, the awareness of all the quiet sounds and smells in the house, the hum of the refrigerator, the smell of day old polish from the furniture, even my own subtle scent, they were all things I would have overlooked usually, but somehow my senses were heightened to the subtleties. I loved the weight of my hair, and the way it brushed against my back, the soft caress of my nightdress against my legs, the way my breasts bounced. The sensations were alien to me but, different as everything else was, I found myself enjoying being a woman.

I set a pan on the hob and added a mug full of milk. While it was heating gently, I rinsed out the glasses from earlier and added them to the dishwasher. We had a maid come in to do the cleaning so it really wasn’t necessary, but the mundane action was soothing, helping my mind to remain calm.

I poured the milk out, filled the pan with water and left it to soak, walked out to the conservatory where I sat to enjoy the garden. There was a half-moon up, and a clear sky for once, so I could pick out all the features of the garden in shades of light and dark. I supped at my milk and let my mind relax.

I thought about Laura and the way she was coping in my body. It wouldn’t be fair to leave her that way. We’d have to find a way to swap ourselves back. I felt an unusual pang of regret at the thought, but it was only fair. The only reason she was in this mess was because she’d been trying to help me, and because I’d broken the only means of changing us back.

Only? Maybe not. If Tony had recognised the bowl the first time he’d seen it, maybe he’d come across one before. Maybe there were others out in the world. Maybe Laura’s could be fixed. We may not have been on Tony’s list of favourite people anymore, but I had money – well technically Laura as me had money – and with someone of Tony’s temperament, money would go a long way towards answering the questions. It would be best to spend it quickly too, before Portia stuck her greedy fingers into the pot.

That was a thought. I ran through to the study and fired up my computer. Portia was pretty sharp legally and financially speaking, but late Friday night going into Saturday morning wasn’t the best of times to try and get an injunction to freeze our assets. I logged into our joint account to find it had been raided; all funds transferred into a new account in her name. We had savings accounts we could only access with both signatures; she couldn’t touch them any more than I could. Then there were the investment accounts I’d put together in my name once I’d figured out just what a scheming bitch Portia was. She knew about them of course. She’d asked me about the difference between my income and the amount I was bringing home, so I’d told her I was investing it against the future. Mine rather than ours, but I’d left that bit out. These were the accounts that an injunction would freeze, but fortunately none of the judges Portia knew suffered with insomnia, or were likely to be particularly happy about being woken up in the early hours on the weekend.

I used my bank manager privileges to sign the ownership of the accounts over to one Laura Townsend, and did the same with my shares in the bank. That would raise some concerned eyebrows among my colleagues, but it would at least keep the bank safe.

Next was the house which was pretty much paid for. The deeds were in the safe, but I’d need a lawyer if I was going to do anything with them.

One of my friends from university had emigrated to Australia after finishing law school. There wasn’t enough difference between judicial procedures to cause him much difficulty in transitioning, and he’d always loved the idea of living south of the equator. He was ideal from my point of view as he knew English law, he would be awake and at his desk, it being early afternoon where he was, and he was a friend. I sent him an email outlining the problem.

The reply came back a couple of minutes later, giving me the names of a couple of lawyers he didn’t think would mind being woken up at four in the morning if the price was right. I called one of them, introduced myself as Jerry’s assistant and explained the situation. He agreed to come over and sign as a witness to the exchange. I gave him the address and he promised to be with me within the hour.

While I was waiting, I dug the deed out of the safe, then as an afterthought, the log book for the car and some of the spare cash I habitually kept in there.

I practised signing my name a few times – Jerry’s name that is. The pen felt enormous in my dainty hands, but my handwriting was still pretty much the same. I also practised signing Laura’s name. I didn’t have anything to compare it against, having dropped her handbag at Tony’s party, so I’d have to come up with evidence for the new one, but that shouldn’t be too hard. The account ownership needed examples of her signature, and I had the relevant forms in my briefcase.

I filled out the change of ownership details for my Mercedes, then signed it twice; once as Jerry, once as Laura. The new owner’s address promised to be a problem until I realised I was about to sign this house over to the same person. The DVLA might scratch their heads over the addresses being the same, but there was nothing to stop me from doing it.

The lawyer arrived at around five, pretty much as promised. By then I had the deeds laid out and signed, along with a letter declaring that I (as Jerry) had bequeathed the house and all its contents to me (as Laura). I explained that Jerry was upstairs, sleeping off a booze binge, and offered to take him upstairs to show him. I’d placed a stack of banknotes on the table next to the deed – five thousand pounds in fifties, a reasonable fee for someone who was prepared to come out all this way in the middle of the night – and he found no pressing need for proof.

He witnessed and dated the transfer of ownership and offered to take the documents and put them in the system for me. He had some work to do in the office that morning, and he would be glad to do it. Apparently he’d suffered through a messy divorce himself, and was very much on Jerry’s side.

He signed and dated an affidavit to witness the change of ownership on both the car and the house and left with a smile. He even took the car’s change of ownership notification to post.

There had been a little over ten thousand in our joint account and maybe fifty more in the joint savings accounts. What I had just secured for myself was worth millions, and it was out of Portia’s reach for good now. She could ruin Jerry’s name with her accusations – despite there being no proof of infidelity, mud has a tendency to stick when it is thrown – but she wouldn’t walk away from this with anywhere near as much as she’d hoped.

Dawn was breaking. I made myself a cup of coffee and stepped out into the dew soaked garden. The birds were greeting the dawn with their usual cacophony of birdsong, and I stood with my eyes closed, taking it all in. The rough, damp grass against my feet; the cool of the gentle morning breeze; the sounds of the wildlife; the gentle sting of the early morning rays against my face; the rich, inviting smell of the coffee. There may never have been a more pleasant experience in all my life.

Of course it didn’t last.

Chapter 2

I heard a car door slam, then the front door to the house. Stilettos against the hardwood floor warned me of who was coming, and I turned to face the storm.

“What the hell are you doing in my nightdress?” Portia’s voice was shrill, and I found myself wondering how I had ever thought her beautiful.

“Is it yours?” I tried to sound as innocent as I could. “I am grateful. I hate sleeping in my underwear, and it would have ruined my dress…”

“You’re ruining my nightdress you stupid cow! Look!”

I looked down at where the dew had wicked up about six inches above the hem. There were a few green marks, but nothing, I suspected, modern detergents couldn’t sort out. I showed willing and scooped the hem up out of contact with the grass.

“Where is my fucking husband?” she spat at me. I obviously wasn’t helping her mood.

“I imagine he’s still asleep. It’s early and he did have quite a bit to drink last night.”

She snarled and spun on her heels. I followed at a more leisurely pace.

I heard a door bang open upstairs, then the dulcet tones of my former beloved drifted down the stairs.

“What the fuck?”

This was followed by an indistinct murmur from my former body, which I couldn’t quite make out. I tried to increase my speed, but wet feet on hardwood floor, plus one hand holding my coffee and the other my nightie, I didn’t exactly feel safe climbing the stairs. By the time I reached the master bedroom, Laura was sitting up, having pulled up his fly and re-buttoned his trousers. His head was in his hands and he was evidently struggling with the morning after.

“Take them.” Portia was holding out two large envelopes, which he was ignoring in favour of the hammering in his head. At least that’s what I assumed he was feeling. It’s what I remember from the last time I drank my way through half a bottle of anything.

I perched on the bed next to him and offered him my coffee. It wasn’t exactly hot anymore, but I’d hardly touched it.

“Go on. Your need is greater than mine.”

He took it gratefully and swallowed half of it in one gargantuan mouthful. Hardly lady-like, but then I’d hardly been acting like a gentleman since the change. How much of our behaviour was derived from the bodies we wore, I wondered.

“Well don’t you make the cute couple?” Portia sneered. “This will go down really well with the jury.”

“What the hell is this?” Laura had recovered enough presence of mind to rediscover her voice. Whether anything more significant in her brain was firing remained to be seen.

“This is a petition for divorce,” Portia said, too wrapped up in her own indignant rage to notice anything amiss. “And this is an injunction freezing all your assets. The house, the car, the savings, those investment accounts you talked about, it’s all frozen until the courts sort out our settlement.

“I hope you weren’t hoping to catch a rich man,” she said, facing me briefly, ‘cos by the time I’m done with him, he’ll be poorer than you.”

She threw the envelopes onto the bed and turned to leave.

“Before you go,” I said, stopping her in her tracks. I stood and retrieved the pen I always kept in my suit and held it out to her along with the envelopes I had picked up off the bed. “Would you mind writing the date and time of delivery on these please, and signing it.”

She glowered at me but did as I asked.

“Since ownership of the house is in dispute, you don’t get to stay here anymore than I do. I’ll make sure the bailiffs come round by ten to seal the place up. If you’re still here then, you’ll be forcibly removed.”

“Okay, thanks. Do you mind if I borrow some of your clothes? All I have is a ball gown, and I’d feel a bit silly wearing it this morning.”

“You keep your hands out of my stuff you conniving little bitch. You may have your claws into him, but he’s the only thing you’ll be keeping. You’re welcome to him too, waste of space that he is.”

She stormed out of the house, slamming the front door so hard we could hear the force of it upstairs in the bedroom.

“You’re wife’s a charmer,” Laura said, the coffee cup drained and the caffeine having done its work. “Tell me again, why did you marry her?”

“You know, I don’t have a good answer to that. Sorry, but she’s actually your wife now, unless and until we can sort out the thing with the bowl. Come on, we’d better get up. We have things to do this morning, and not a lot of time. You hit the shower first, and I’ll go and get us some more coffee.”

“Yeah, er, where is it?”

“En suite, dimbo,” I pointed at a door over the other end of the room. “What did you do with my dress? I need to wear something other than this.” I indicated my borrowed nightdress with its damp and stained hem.

“I’ll find you something once I’ve stood under a cold shower for five minutes. Another coffee would be appreciated though,” he handed me the empty mug, “but with a couple of sugars in it this time if you don’t mind.”

There was an oddness. I’d have thought that if anything would come from the body rather than the mind it would be a preferred sense of taste. Everything tasted more intense in this body, but I’d enjoyed the few sips I’d taken of my unsweetened coffee before handing the cup over.

I went downstairs and poured out two fresh mugs. Neither Portia nor I used sugar in our drinks, but we had it available for when we had guests round. I added a couple of spoons to Laura’s mug and carried them back up, checking the front door as I passed it to make sure it was properly closed.

“More than a woman, more than a woman that’s me.”

I couldn’t help smiling at his off-key singing and his choice of song, slightly altered lyrics included.

“Coffee’s on the bedside cabinet,” I called into the room. There was steam billowing out of the bathroom, so either he’d been lying about the cold shower or he’d chickened out. “I’m going to the guest bathroom down the hall.”

“Okay, catch you in a few.”

I retrieved a large towel from the airing cupboard and stepped into the bathroom. For the first time I stopped to take in the face I now hid behind, staring at my reflection in the mirror. It was thin and a little pinched, with features slightly too sharp to be called truly beautiful. I tried a smile and plain became pretty. I suspected that if I put some effort into it, I could look quite stunning. I remembered Laura had done so when I first saw her last night.

I put the mug down and stripped off the nightdress and underwear. The knickers fit too well to be anyone else’s, and they were a deep red to match last night’s dress. I didn’t much like the idea of wearing them for another day, but I doubted I’d have the choice.

Natural blonde, I thought, looking down at my naked body for the first time. Breasts maybe a little small, but everything in proportion. Slim, trim and full of vim, as my mother used to say.

The shower was amazing. I turned the temperature up higher than I normally would have and fell in love with the sensation of a million scalding drops of water cascading over my lithe form. Oh yes, I could get used to this if I had to.

Rubbing myself dry wasn’t an option; my skin was too sensitive. With almost no body hair, it was easy and quick enough simply to pat away the dampness. There was soap and talcum powder, spray on deodorant and even small sample bottles of perfume. One thing Portia was insistent on was being a better hostess than anyone else she knew. It wasn’t thoughtfulness so much as one-upmanship, but I was glad of it for once. I tied the towel around myself over my breasts, and carried my night things and coffee mug out of the bathroom.

Laura was waiting for me, wearing slacks, a polo shirt and a cravat of all things. On my bed he’d laid out a summer dress and fresh, unopened bra and panties.

“Portia said no…”

“I say fuck Portia, although not literally, ‘cos I doubt there would be any pleasure in it. The dress was right at the back of her closet, so I doubt she even remembers she owns it, and the smalls are unopened, so arguably not hers yet.”

“She’ll remember the dress,” I said. “She has a hoarder’s temperament and knows everything she owns. Still, chances are she won’t be coming back with the bailiffs, so what she doesn’t know, she can’t scream about.”

We stood facing each other for a few seconds. The oddest feeling looking at myself and realising I was someone else. Even odder when I realised that I actually felt attracted to me. I suspect Laura was dealing with similar feelings, because we broke eye contact about the same time and ended up looking just about anywhere except at each other.

“Right, I’ll get dressed then. If you wouldn’t mind waiting downstairs…”

“Oh, I thought I might help. You know adjusting bra straps isn’t that easy the first time.”

“I’m sure I’ll manage. If I get in difficulties, I’ll call.”

“Erm, okay. Well er… I’ll, er, I’ll see you downstairs then.”

“In about five or ten minutes.”

“Yeah right.”

“I beg your pardon.”

“Five or ten minutes. I’ll see you then.” He couldn’t quite keep the smile off his face.

I closed the door on him and let the towel drop to the floor. The knickers were a little small, but I decided I’d rather that than wear the red ones for any longer. The bra was more complicated than I was expecting. Portia being better endowed than me meant the cups weren’t a great fit. There were multiple hooks at the back, and it took me a couple of minutes to find the most comfortable one, then a few minutes more to adjust the shoulder straps until they were comfortably snug. I thought about padding out the extra space in the bra cups, and after a few more minutes experimenting with tissues, I gave up.

The dress was easy enough to put on. Having the zip underneath one of my arms was a bit odd, but it fit okay and I stood in front of the mirror tugging at it until it sat just right.

My face would do without makeup, but my hair was a rat’s nest. I found a brush beside the mirror, either new and unused, or carefully cleaned of the last user’s leavings. It took a while to rake out all the knots, but eventually it shone with a silky smoothness, and fell in gentle waves over my shoulders. I declared myself done and headed downstairs for breakfast.

“Five or ten minutes, yeah right.”

“Yeah, I wasn’t more than ten minutes was I?”

“More like half an hour,” Laura said. “Toast or cereal?”

Cereal sounded nice. “There’s some muesli in the corner cupboard, and some fruit in the fridge. Raspberries and blueberries I think.”

He set about making my breakfast without comment.

“Oh, and a glass of orange juice please. Hold the vodka this time. Was I really half an hour?”

“Well more like forty minutes, but I wasn’t really paying that much attention.”

“I miss my watch,” I said looking at it on his wrist.

“Well you had one of your own,” he replied. “It was on the nightstand when I put you to bed last night.”

“Really?” I turned to go back upstairs.

“Yeah, and I left a pair of sandals in your room too.”

I ran upstairs and found both the watch and sandals. The buckles on the shoes were small and fiddly, but with nimble fingers not too much of a bother. The watch was one of those with a tiny face; decorative but not particularly practical. The clasp was awkward, but I sorted it out in the end. I came back downstairs to find my breakfast waiting.

“So what things do we have to do this morning?” He asked chomping on a slice of liberally buttered toast.

“Well,” I said around a mouthful of muesli, “first we have to phone your lawyer; the one I hired for you this morning. It would be best if he were here when the bailiffs arrive, because he’s our official witness to your signing the house over into my name at five o’clock this morning.”

“I did what?”

“Well it was me really. You were still snoring away in a drunken stupor, and I doubt you’d have been able to learn how to sign your new name in time anyway.

“You signed the car over to me as well, along with a few investment accounts and all your shares in the bank.”

“Wow, I didn’t realise I was that generous.”

“Yep, you are currently looking at the newest millionairess in the country. We’ll lose quite a bit in tax, but I’d rather the government had it than your wife.”

“Sorry we? I thought you said I signed it to you. Or you signed it to you or something. I need another coffee.”

“As soon as Portia sued for divorce, any property and funds owned by either you or her were frozen pending the settlement. She already emptied our joint account, and there were some joint savings neither of us could touch because access requires both our signatures, but there’s always been quite a lot in my – Jerry’s – name alone. As I said, shares in the bank which I inherited, investment accounts made out in Jerry’s name only, the house and the car.

“At about four o’clock last night, I, as Jeremy Goodman, logged into the bank and signed all the assets I held at the bank over to me as Laura Townsend. I then contacted a friend in Sydney, who suggested the names of a couple of lawyer friends of his who wouldn’t mind being woken in the middle of the night if there was some money in it for them. One of them came around at five last night and signed an affidavit to say that Jerry Goodman signed ownership of both his house and his car over to Laura Townsend at that time. The injunction freezing assets only comes into effect from the time and date when notification reaches all affected parties, which is when Portia delivered the letters at about six-thirty this morning.

“As of five o’clock, Laura Townsend became the legal owner of all Jeremy Goodman’s assets, which means the bailiffs can’t throw us out of my house. Nor can they drive away in my car, nor can they touch my investments or my shares.

“You, sadly, are a pauper. Well not quite, since you still have about sixty thousand pounds worth of money and savings to scrap over, but I doubt you’ll see much of that ‘cos Portia knows how to work the system.

“Lucky for you, I’m a sucker for the destitute, so my house is your house, and whatever I own is yours to use until this all blows over, then we’ll find some amicable way to settle things.

“Right now, you’d better call your lawyer. His name is Paul Burrows and his number’s on the pad over there. Tell him about Portia’s visit and her little gifts for you. Tell him the bailiffs are expected at about ten and we could use him to fend them off.”

I made it halfway through the bowl of cereal before I was too full to eat any more. I joined Laura, in full Jerry mode, finishing off his conversation with Paul.

“So what happens next?”

“You need to talk to the chairman of the bank to tell him what’s happening. I’ll brief you as best as I can, but we’d better take the call on speakerphone with me ready to write down your script as we go. He’s not going to be happy, and there may be something of a tempest to weather, but the important thing is the bank will be safe and all our customers too.”

Suitably coached, Laura made the call with me listening in and providing written prompts when needed. I had a conference phone with built in recorder for occasions such as this, as I’d learned early on that it was best to have records of every discussion to do with the bank. Unsurprisingly, the chairman wasn’t happy with the turn of events, but with much effective persuasion on Laura’s part, he accepted that nothing really significant could happen over the weekend, and we would be able to sort this all out Monday morning.

The next surprise came at about eight-thirty when the doorbell rang. Jerry answered it to find a couple of grim faced police officers standing at the door.

“Jeremy Goodman?” One of them asked.

“Yes,” Laura replied.

“We have a warrant to search your premises.” He held out a folded sheet of paper.

“Can I ask what this is about?”

“I have a complaint from a Mr Tony West who has accused you of attacking him and stealing a bowl from him, which he describes as being twelve inches in diameter, made from petrified oak and lacquered green. He has provided witnesses to the effect that you were seen fleeing his apartment last night in the presence of a young woman, with the bowl in your possession.”

“The bowl was never his.”

“Are you admitting you took the bowl sir?”

“No he isn’t,” I interjected before Laura dug a pit big enough for both of us. “Did Mr West provide you with any proof of ownership of this bowl?”

“I’m sorry.”

“I’m assuming the bowl in question was valuable? An antique of some sort? Surely Mr West would have to prove ownership of the item before accusing anyone of having stolen it.”

“And who are you Miss?”

“My name is Laura Townsend, and I’m the young woman in who’s presence Mr Goodman was seen allegedly fleeing. A bowl fitting that exact description was stolen from my home several weeks back. I reported it missing,” I looked at Laura who nodded confirmation, “and I suspect that Mr West was the one who stole it.”

“Did you report this to the police?”

Again a look at Laura, this time a subtle shake of the head. “No I didn’t. I only had my suspicions; nothing that might constitute proof. As to proof of my ownership of the bowl,” Laura was nodding again, “I have that. I believe I already presented it when I reported the robbery.” Another nod.

“I don’t know anything about that Miss. All I know is we have a warrant to search this house for Mr West’s missing bowl. I must warn you, if we find it, we will be arresting you, Mr Goodman, for theft and assault.”

“There was no theft, because the item never belonged to Mr West, and there was no assault because I was defending myself from Mr West. Look at my neck.” Laura raised his chin and pulled his cravat away from his neck. The front of it was a livid bruise. “Miss Townsend was there so she can back up at least some of my story. Mr West had three companions, who I managed to incapacitate before Tony had me by the throat. I did hit him over the head with the bowl, but only in self-defence because he was strangling me.

“At some point in the confusion, Miss Townsend fainted, and I thought it best to get us both away from there while our assailants were incapacitated. The bowl broke in half when I struck Mr West, but since I knew it didn’t belong to him, I took it as well with a view to returning it to its rightful owner.”

“And the bowl is here?”

“In the living room, I’ll show you.”

The two policemen followed him into the house where he pointed out the two pieces of the bowl, complete with blood stains.

“Mr Goodman, I am arresting you for theft and assault. You have the right…”

Well you know how the rest of it goes.

“What about me?” I asked.

“Personally, I think you’re in it up to your pretty little neck, love, but I don’t have cause to arrest you too. If you’d like to accompany us to the police station though…”

“No!” Laura said; almost shouted. “You need to stay here. Sort out the house first, then come and find me. If you can bring proof of ownership of the bowl, it would help.”

“How would I do that?”

“Well I would imagine you might keep it in a filing cabinet in your house,” he said through gritted teeth.

“And my house?” I hissed back.

“Why don’t you look in your handbag?”

“Because I lost it at Tony’s party.”

“Well he’s hardly going to hold onto it, is he? Since he’s trying to do this through legitimate channels, he’ll find it hard to explain not returning your purse, won’t he? Just go back to his place and ask for it back.

“Don’t forget you rented the dress along with the shoes and bag. If you don’t get them back by midday, there’ll be a penalty.”

Funny how different people see things with different perspectives. The penalty would likely be less than a hundred quid, which was pocket change in my world. In Laura’s it was probably about a day’s income.

The police officer gave me the address of the police station where they were taking Laura, and moments later I was alone.

I had time before the bailiffs and Paul were due. I phoned Paul to let him know what had happened to ‘Jerry’ and he said he’d the police station in question was right next to the courthouse near where he worked, so he’d drop in on the way over. That took all of five minutes. With more than an hour to wait, I made another pot of coffee and sat brooding over how to get the handbag back. In the end, the simplest solution seemed to be the only one that had much hope of working. I picked up the phone.

“Tony, hi. It’s Laura Townsend here.”

“Hello Jerry. How do you like your new look?”

“What makes you so sure we haven’t changed back yet?”

“Because it doesn’t work that way. You don’t get to change back for at least a week.”

“So what, it wears off after a week?”

“No, you have to use the bowl again, but if you try to do it too early, it locks you in for a longer time.

“Look, if you give the bowl back, I’ll get you and Laura switched back, good as new.”

Yeah, like we were still friends and he was doing it out of the goodness of his heart. Still I didn’t want to antagonise him.

“The bowl’s broken.” He was going to find out sometime.

“What!”

“You were strangling my body. I hit you over the head with the first thing I could find. It slipped out of my hands and broke into two pieces when it hit the floor.”

“That’s… disappointing.”

“I imagine so.”

“Mike, Pete and Randall will not be happy.”

“Especially when they realise they’re stuck as each other and you still get to be you.”

“Hey at least they’re still guys. When they hear what you and that interfering bitch have to deal with, they won’t think it’s so bad.”

“Will you drop charges against Jerry?”

“Laura you mean? That stupid cow screwed up the biggest score of my career. I want her to suffer.”

“How about me then? Do you hate me that much?”

“You’re just collateral damage, Jerry, like Mike, Pete and Randy. I mean you were a spoiled little rich kid with more money than sense, but no, I didn’t hate you.”

“Well since I’m stuck living Laura’s life, perhaps you wouldn’t mind if I dropped by later to pick up her handbag and keys. I dropped them in all the confusion.”

“Yeah, whatever. Mary should be home all day. Stop by whenever you like.”

I pressed the button to hang up the phone, and turned off the recorder. I certainly didn’t have enough to take to the police, but maybe I had something to take to Tony’s henchmen.

-oOo-

Paul arrived five minutes before the bailiffs. Between his affidavit and his personality he had enough push to send them scurrying back to their cars and their phones. A minute later, a disgruntled but stiffly polite man in a cheap suit apologised for the inconvenience and withdrew with his entourage.

I thanked Paul, who told me I needed to get down to the police station and see Jerry.

I did, but I took the scenic route. I phoned the security company to get the alarm code changed, then contacted a locksmith to do the same to all the external locks in the house. He told me he would come in the afternoon, so I took the Merc and headed over to Tony’s place, parking it in a long term car park a few minutes’ walk away.

Mary was quite nice about everything, although she said she didn’t understand what all that nonsense had been about the keys in the bowl. I spun some tale about a silly game that went wrong, and apologised if the disturbance had ruined her party. She told me to think nothing of it and sent me away with Laura’s handbag and car keys.

That was a point. How had I dropped Laura’s VW keys? How come he had my Mercedes ones when we left the party? Sure he’d picked the Merc keys out of the bowl, but he’d been wearing this body when he did so. Questions for later.

The valet service was something Tony and Mary had arranged for the evening, the cars being parked, coincidentally, in the same structure where I’d just parked the Mercedes. I hunted through five floors, pushing the button on the key fob before a cheerful chirp led me to a turquoise VW Beetle which I drove to the bay where I had parked the Merc.

I transferred the dress and shoes from the Merc to the back seat of the bug, then upended the handbag on the passenger’s seat. A quick rummage through the flotsam uncovered a driving license with Laura’s home address on it, and a ticket for a dress loan shop. I checked my silly little watch. I had just twenty minutes to find the shop and return the dress.

A sucker mark on the windscreen suggested that Laura owned a satnav, which I discovered, after a brief search, in the glove compartment. It refused to pick up any satellites until we were clear of the parking structure, but woke up in time to guide me to the shop with five minutes to spare.

After returning the dress, I punched in Laura’s home address and was led a circuitous route to a small terraced house in a modest suburb of the big city. The house number matched the address on the driving license, and the keys fit the front door, so I assumed I was in the right place.

The house was tidy, but cluttered. Antique pieces covered every available surface, and even my amateur’s eye recognised some of them as quite valuable. I found the filing cabinet quickly enough, then puzzled over Laura’s filing system for a good ten minutes before finding the documentation and photographs describing her bowl.

I took ten minutes – well okay, half an hour – changing out of Portia’s borrowed clothes and choosing something of Laura’s. Most of what she had was Jeans and tee shirts, cardigans and pullovers, but I did find a dress or two. I’d rather enjoyed wearing Portia’s summer dress, and suspected that Laura’s girly clothes would probably be cooler given the weather.

Armed with bra, knickers, dress and sandals, all of which fit comfortably at last, I locked the house up and climbed back into the car. Portia’s clothes went on the back seat, to be returned to her wardrobe later. The documents went on the passenger seat, after I gathered up the scattered treasures from Laura’s rented handbag, and inserted them into a more sensible one I’d found in the corner of her bedroom.

The satnav led me to the police station where Laura was being held and I presented myself at the front desk, asking to see him. There were no official visiting hours in a small clink like this, which led to an in depth discussion between three of the officers on duty and a final, begrudging acquiescence. I was led down into the bowels of the building and given a seat in what looked like an interview room. A few minutes later Laura was led in.

“How’re you holding up?” I asked. I wanted to be flippant and try and cheer him up a bit, but the police officer who’d brought him up from the cells to had remained in the room with us and was earwiging on our conversation. Plain and simple seemed the best bet.

“Oh, it’s not so bad. The bed’s not quite up to the standards I’m used to but it’s quiet and cool. I see you found the files.”

“Yeah. What do you want me to do with them?”

“Get them to Paul, or don’t I have a better lawyer? I mean surely a bank manager would have a pretty good one.”

“Yeah, he’s great when it comes to the legal side of tax and finance. From what I’ve seen Paul’s pretty clued up for what we’re dealing with at the moment, and he comes with a recommendation.”

“Okay. Get them to Paul. Get him to compare the photos and description from my files against those of Tony’s and see which of them best fits the bowl in evidence. The way I see it, Tony already had a bowl, but it stopped working, which means it must have been damaged in some way. If Tony’s documents describe a blemish that isn’t present on mine, then we might even have enough to get me out of here.”

“Well it might squash the theft accusation, but what about the assault?”

“I already said it was self-defence. Tony and his mates might be denying that, but when it’s shown that they already lied about ownership of the bowl, then that brings into doubt the rest of their testimony.”

“You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

“What, sat around in a jail cell? Yeah, but I was exonerated every time, just like I’m going to be here. In my experience, the rich and powerful think they can get away with whatever they want. I tend to fight back against that sort of crap, which usually ends up with the authorities believing the guys with money and me ending up in jail until someone’s forced to look at some evidence. I’m not ashamed of this.”

“No, I can see that. I admire you, you know. You have more courage than I ever had.”

“Yeah, well, the sooner you get those things to Paul, the sooner I’m out of here. What happened with the house?”

“Oh, nothing much. The bailiffs made a few calls, apologised for disturbing me and left. I have a locksmith coming round in an hour or so to change all the locks.”

“Good for you. I’ll let you know when they let me out. I’ll ask one of these guys to give Paul a ring.”

I took that as my cue and left the cells. I had time to find Paul’s office, which a friendly receptionist in the courthouse told me was across the road and up a couple of floors, and from there to Paul’s desk. I handed over the files with Laura’s instructions, then headed home to wait for the locksmith and return Portia’s clothes to her wardrobe.

It was getting on for five by the time the locksmith had smithed all the locks. I paid the man, then asked if he was heading back into town, and if he could drop me anywhere near the car park where I’d left the Merc. He obliged, probably more for my pretty smile than anything else, and in no time I was back at my car.

It was quiet and smooth and luxurious after the Beetle, but I found I didn’t much care. I’d enjoyed the little car. It was lively in traffic and a more enjoyable colour than this dull black thing with cream leather seats. The satnav popped out of a hidden compartment in the dash rather than having to be glued to the windscreen every time you wanted to use it. The Merc had more gadgets than you could shake a stick at, whereas the Beetle had a radio and a cigarette lighter, but that made pretty much no difference. For some reason I preferred the cheaper and massively more cheerful little run-around.

I drove back to Laura’s place to grab some clothes and thought of staying the night. The house was cramped though, and foreign to me. I packed a small suitcase and headed back to the mansion on the hill. On impulse, I phoned through to the house and used the code to play back messages on the answerphone. There was one from Paul saying that he’d taken the evidence I’d provided to a judge who agreed that there was no reason Jerry should be locked up until the trial, so he’d been released and could I pick him up.

I called the police station to find he was still there, had just been given back his belt and his shoe laces and was busy putting himself back together. I asked them to tell him I was on my way and would be there in about fifteen minutes.

He was sitting on the station steps, sunning himself and dozing by the time I pulled up. I let him drive us home. I mean I’d been running around all day and I was pooped, whereas he’d just sat in a small room and chilled. I did think about making him cook, but that would have been unfair in an unfamiliar kitchen, so we ordered in and settled down in front of the DVD Laura picked out from my collection.

-oOo-

How the fuck did this happen?

I mean a couple of slices of pizza, not that I finished the second one. Pizza and beer go together, so I had one bottle. One bottle! Then the film got sad. I mean I knew it would, I’ve watched it a dozen times in the past, but there I was sniffling and crying, and Laura put his arm around me.

I should have pulled away. I knew I should have pulled away. I mean with Portia on the warpath I knew better than to do something this stupid. I was going to pull away. I was going to get up and sit on one of the armchairs instead of the sofa. Instead I snuggled up next to him, and it felt so good.

Next thing I knew, neither of us was watching the film anymore. I was looking into his eyes, and he was looking into mine. I was all but quivering with anticipation. Would he, wouldn’t he? Should I? He leaned in and I closed my eyes.

The touch of his lips on mine was almost an orgasm in itself. I couldn’t help myself. I was all over him, kissing him back with all my feeble strength, unbuttoning his shirt and reaching inside to caress him. I wanted him to do the same, to put his hands on me, to put himself inside me.

The TV snapped off and I looked down at the remote in his hand, then up into his eyes. I had a chance to stop it then. For a moment I was lucid and aware of what I was doing. I knew it was stupid. I almost had the strength to say no, but it had been so long. So many years since Portia and I shared that one night of intimacy. I didn’t care that I wasn’t the man any more, I just wanted…

I kissed him. He wasn’t me anymore. I know it may seem narcissistic to the nth degree, but it wasn’t as though I was kissing myself. It had been my face once, long ago, right about last night, but right now it belonged to Laura. There was someone different behind those eyes, and he was offering me an intimacy and closeness that I had never known.

He lifted me into his arms, easily, as though I were a child, and I clung to his neck. I felt out of control, completely at his mercy. It was an illusion and somewhere inside I knew it. All I had to do was say no and he’d stop, I knew he would, but that added to the excitement. I could say stop, and the word was on the tip of my tongue all the way up the stairs and into the bedroom. I balanced on the knife edge between yes and no, between pragmatism and foolish, insane abandon. I could have stopped him at any time. I nearly did a hundred times, but each time I held back.

I unbuttoned his shirt, stroked his bare chest. I had once hated the way I was never able to grow any hair on my chest – the original metrosexual man – but now I was glad of it as I stroked it with my hands, kissed it with my lips.

He unzipped my dress and I pulled back for long enough to let it fall to the ground. I reached for his belt buckle and undid his trousers while he reached behind and deftly undid my bra.

I giggled, almost hysterically, at the thought that he was more experienced at undressing me than I was.

His trousers slipped down his legs and I slid my hands inside his boxer shorts, around the back where I grabbed two handfuls of flesh and pulled him towards me.

The part of the old me that had never seemed big enough when I had been in that body seemed enormous as it pressed against me now. I was breathing so deeply I was light headed. I pulled down his pants and pulled back enough to untangle myself from my bra.

“Are you sure..?” he started.

“Shutup!” I planted my lips on his to stop him from saying anything sensible and pulled him down onto the bed, on top of me.

He reached down to remove my knickers with me wriggling to help. I parted my legs and felt him prodding, probing. I reached down and guided him. I knew exactly where he needed to go, and I so wanted him there.

A moment’s sharp pain had me biting my lip, then he was in me and it felt so good. I have never felt so complete, so much a part of someone else.

He started to move back and forth inside me, and with each thrust I felt a new surge of something indescribable coursing through me. It was like flying, with all the wonders of the universe streaming through my body. Every movement took me higher and faster and filled me until I was sure I would burst.

It can’t have lasted long, but whether it was minutes or seconds, I was caught up in my own slice of eternity for all of that time. I was wondering how much more of it I could endure when I felt him go rigid. No I mean all of him. Then he relaxed on top of me and rolled to one side.

I continued the roll until I was on top of him, wanting to stay together for as long as possible, but he was already deflating inside of me. I couldn’t feel him anymore, and I was only vaguely aware when he flopped out of me.

I grabbed for the tissues I kept on one side of the bed – just in case, you understand – and mopped things up as best I could before the bedclothes got all sticky. Then I nestled into his side and rested my head on his chest.

I could feel his body relaxing. I remembered the feeling, but it didn’t match my own mood just then. Somehow, it felt as though we’d finished halfway through. I was energised and buzzing, ready for another round. I decided to give him five minutes and try again.

“Wow,” he said and kissed me on the top of the head. “I never expected to lose my virginity that way.”

“I was a virgin?” I looked up at him. That moment’s pain at the outset. I guess I must have been.

“Yeah, kind of. I mean, your body was at least. The you inside, I’m guessing not so much.”

“You’d be surprised.”

“What?”

“I mean, apart from one time on our wedding night, we haven’t…”

“Hang on. You’ve been married for, what…?”

“Eight years, and this was only the second time I’ve made love in my life. Is it wrong that I enjoyed it more this time round?”

“I don’t know what to say. I was more worried that you’d think I was taking advantage.”

“I’m not really sure who took advantage of whom. Besides, this is your body. Doesn’t it bother you that you just deflowered yourself?”

“It doesn’t feel like that. I don’t know how you’re going to respond to this, but that doesn’t feel like my body anymore. I’ve switched places with a bunch of people over the years and it always felt like I was borrowing someone else’s life for a few days. This is different somehow. It feels like…”

“…coming home.”

I felt the same way. It was crazy. All my life I’d been happy enough being a guy, or at least I’d thought I’d been happy. This was different though. Despite all the stress and weirdness of the last twenty-four hours, “I really like being a woman.”

“Wait a few days. You may change your mind.”

“You mean I’m due?” You don’t live with a woman for eight years without picking up on the monthly variations in her life.

“Middle of next week unless I’ve miscounted.”

“Best we make the most of the time we have then.”

I climbed onto him and kissed him. There was already a stirring from down below. I worked my way down his body and kissed his sensitive parts until he was fully erect again, then I climbed on top of him and took control.

I took it slow. Second time round, he wasn’t in such urgent need of release, so between me setting the pace and him have a little more stamina, we made it last, and I peaked maybe three times. By the time he reached his own climax, I was well and truly spent.

I lay down on the bed and stared at the ceiling. That was how the fuck this had happened.

It hadn’t been clever. I had just had unprotected sex with the man Portia was divorcing for marital unfaithfulness; an accusation that had no truth to it until just now. It had been the mother of all stupid, and now that it was done, the potential consequences broke over me like a tsunami. I was going to have a very nervous few days, and I didn’t know how I was going to look Portia in the eye the next time we met.

Chapter 3

I lay in bed staring at the ceiling for a long time. Sleep wouldn’t come so I got up and gathered my things. I retrieved my towel from the guest bedroom and headed for the bathroom I’d used that morning. I don’t know how long I stood under the stream of hot water, but long enough to scrub myself raw. It didn’t make any difference; I could still smell him on me when I was done.

His smell, my smell, it was too confusing. For a short crazy while, things had been wonderfully right, now in the emptiness of the night, all the wrongness of what we’d done crowded in.

I dressed and made my way downstairs, put a pan of milk on to warm. The night was chilly so I hunted out an old fleece I kept in the cloakroom. Again my smell, his smell. Comforting. Confusing.

I carried my drink to the conservatory, switching out the lights as I went. It wasn’t that late, so the moon wasn’t up yet. It was another uncharacteristically clear night and the stars sparkled down on me with Disney magic.

I pulled my legs up close to my chest and held my mug in both hands. A tear escaped from one eye and I tried to analyse why. It was so hard to be detached in this body, and every thought brought with it a flood of intermingled feelings.

Did I regret making love to Laura? No, surprisingly not. Yes there was something weird and twisted about climbing into bed with the person who was wearing my old body while I wore hers, but somehow the issue of who belonged in which body didn’t seem to matter. Sure I’d been born Jeremy Goodman. Sure the person I’d been for the last thirty-two years was asleep upstairs. Sure I had no experience of being a woman – up until now I’d had no thoughts about wanting to be one. But just because all that was true, it didn’t lessen the truth that I’d felt more comfortable in the last twenty-four hours than I had in my whole life. A truth which, if Laura had spoken honestly, extended to her also.

Laura’s bowl was broken, so was Tony’s, assuming he’d ever had one. It seemed right given our conversation earlier that morning, and if he was to be believed – a big if on reflection – then a broken bowl had no power to change. The artefacts were incredibly rare to begin with. We needed a bowl if we were ever going to change back, and the likelihood of finding one was remote to say the least.

The chances were very good that we were going to have to accept these changes for the rest of our lives, and no matter how much that seemed like the most unusual piece of good luck for both of us, there is a grieving to any loss. Even when there is more gained than lost, you still need to mourn the loss.

A fox scampered across the garden; a vixen, followed a moment later by her cubs. There was an animal that had embraced change. Loss of its natural habitat had turned it into an urban animal, scavenging from people’s bins. It seemed happy and healthy enough in its new circumstances, maybe I could be too. Maybe it was all wishful thinking.

I breathed deep, tasting my old scent. His scent now. This was a decision we’d have to make together, a topic for discussion over breakfast maybe, but in light of what both Laura and I had said, we had to decide whether we were going to look for a way to turn ourselves back, however remote our chances, or whether we were going to accept what had happened to us.

My mug was empty. I didn’t even remember drinking its contents. I set it down on a nearby coffee table and stood up. Part of me wanted to stretch out and fall asleep under the gently twinkling stars, but my legs were cold and I had other concerns crowding in.

I made my way to the study and fired up my computer. Opening the web browser in incognito mode, I googled ‘can you get pregnant just before your period?’ The response wasn’t encouraging, so I then googled ‘morning after pills’. I wasn’t sure how I felt about taking something like that. For one thing, I’d have to be careful about where I bought them. If news of a purchase like that made it to Portia’s ears, we’d be in the brown and smelly up to our noses. For another, I wasn’t sure how I felt about messing with nature that way in any case. I mean sure, contraception is messing with nature, but there was the whole issue of when that little cell becomes a person. Something else to discuss in the morning.

I shut the computer down and made my way back to the conservatory, wrapping the fleece tight around me. It didn’t help the goose bumps forming on my legs, but somehow I felt warmer. I caught sight of the suitcase of Laura’s clothes I’d packed earlier standing in the hall. Why hadn’t I put any trousers in, I wondered. The skirt of my dress brushed against my legs as I walked and I realised I actually enjoyed both the look and the feel of skirts and dresses, especially in this body. Maybe I’d go back to jeans and sweatshirts in time, but for now I had the body to take advantage of pretty clothes and I found I wanted to, even if it meant cold legs sometimes.

I picked up the case and headed for the stairs. Despite its small size, it was heavy. My old strength was something I was going to miss, I realised, but then when had I ever really used it as Jerry?

Back in the guest room, I unpacked, hanging up the clothes I’d brought and smoothing out the creases as best I could. I changed out of my clothes and into the nightie I’d packed. It was short and sexy, lace trimmed red satin that barely reached down to the tops of my legs. I wondered why I’d packed it when Laura had more sensible nightclothes. Had I been thinking of seduction, or was it just the thought of looking and feeling sexy? I admired myself in the mirror and a smile came unbidden to my face. A bright, genuine smile that lifted my sharp features all the way through beautiful into stunning. I thought about re-joining Laura in the master bedroom and the temptation was too great.

‘Might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb,’ my dad used to say, and we’d already had the lamb. I headed back down the hall and slipped into the room. Habit had me setting the burglar alarm before I climbed into bed beside used-to-be-me. He was still breathing gently in his sleep, his back to me. I slid under the sheets and spooned up close behind him. My mind was rested now and sleep came easily.

-oOo-

I woke to the sensation of someone turning in the bed beside me. I opened my eyes to see Laura’s – mine formerly – looking back at me. I gave him a sleepy smile and stretched, cat-like.

“You look good enough to eat,” he said pulling me close. He had an early morning erection which was tempting, but not overly so. I kissed him, tasting stale beer and last night’s pizza.

“You need to brush your teeth,” I said. “I probably do too.”

“It can wait.” He rolled me onto my back pinning my shoulders playfully. I didn’t resist, at least not physically.

“Laura, I’m not so sure about this.”

“You seemed pretty sure last night.”

“I know. Last night was wonderful, and I definitely don’t want it to be a one off, but this isn’t sensible. I mean you’re not on the pill are you, I mean I’m not? I didn’t see anything like that in your bag when I emptied it yesterday. Besides, even if you are I must have missed one by now.”

“Don’t you have any condoms?” He rolled over to check the cabinet beside the bed.

“Why would I? I mean Portia and I haven’t been intimate since we were married. She doesn’t even sleep in here.”

“Then what are these?”

He was holding a box of ribbed luxury condoms. It was open and half empty.

“What the hell?”

“I take it these aren’t yours then?”

“I hate to bruise your delicate male ego so soon after you’ve got it but, while you’re the perfect size for me, you’re no Trojan Magnum XL.” I tapped the box to emphasise my point.

The implications of this discovery slowly bloomed inside me. Not only had Portia been cheating on me, but she’d been doing it in my bed, deliberately laughing in my face. The fact that she’d left the condoms next to my bed meant she either thought I was too stupid to find them or too weak to do anything about her betrayal if I did. Her decision to divorce me changed things though. No wonder she’d wanted us out of the house.

“Put them back,” I said, “and get up.”

He did as I asked, and I pulled the sheets off the bed. They were marked from our exertion the previous night and would need washing. We had maids who came in to clean the house and they change the beds twice a week. It had seemed a little excessive when Portia told me, but then Portia can be excessive, so I hadn’t questioned it. Until now. I examined the mattress and there were definitely signs of activity. A lot of it.

“Help me turn this thing.”

We struggled to flip the mattress, but it was worth it as there was more evidence the other side.

“I think you need to call Paul,” I said.

We ate breakfast in silence. All the things I’d meant to discuss with Laura, eclipsed by the morning’s startling discovery.

Paul wasn’t happy at having his Sunday disturbed, but the promise of more easy money salved his mood, and he agreed to contact Portia’s lawyer and try and set something up for the afternoon.

I put the previous night’s sheets into the washing machine and left the bed unmade. It didn’t seem right to cover it up after the discovery, and I for one never wanted to sleep on it again.

Paul phoned back at around ten to say the others had agreed to a meeting at two that afternoon.

“This had better be dynamite,” he said. “They already have you by the short and curlies.”

I spent the morning pacing, seething with rage and going over and over in my mind what I was going to say. Laura kept out of my way, pretending to read, but looking up at me every now and again, a concerned expression on his face.

He made us lunch; a light feta cheese salad from the copious supplies of food in the fridge. I wasn’t hungry, but he insisted I eat something, and it did look good.

“So what happens this afternoon?” he asked, watching me pick at my food.

“I’m going to confront her. Tell her that we changed the bed this morning.”

“That’ll go down well. How exactly is it going to help our cause if you admit to spending the night with me?”

He was right. I hated it, but he was. I glowered at him.

“I know you want to be the one telling her, but it has to be me who does it. I’m not even sure you should be there.”

Begrudgingly I agreed. Paul came round at one and I reluctantly stayed behind while he and Laura headed off to the meeting.

The next hour passed slowly, turning me into a fidgeting, quivering wreck. The next one didn’t seem to want to end, but I forced myself to wait it out, trying not to stare at the phone too much. By the end of the third hour there wasn’t much left of my fingernails, and as the fourth drew to a close, I’d started on the skin of my fingers. The fifth hour I spent wracking my brains, trying to figure out what could possibly have gone wrong and why they had been gone for so long.

It was past six before they returned. Paul didn’t look as though he should have been behind the wheel, and both of them were drunk and laughing fit to bust.

I met them at the front door with arms crossed and as stern an expression as I could manage.

“Uh oh,” Paul said catching the look in my eyes.

Laura didn’t lose his smile, but held his arms out to me.

“You should have seen the look on her face when I told her.”

Not helping! I’d wanted to be there almost more than anything.

“What happened?”

“She went ape-shit at first; wanted to know why we were still in the house ’til Paul here explained all that. Then she tried to keep her face straight and bluff it out, until I talked about getting DNA tests done on the mattress stains. She started ranting about how she wouldn’t debase herself by giving a DNA sample, and how it was me who had been unfaithful and not her. I have to say, she almost had me convinced. Then I suggested we could use a hair from her hair brush or something and she caved in like an overworked mineshaft. It was so funny.”

“So you settled?”

“Yup. Like you suggested, she gets to keep the money she took from the joint account and half the savings. She drops all charges and we never see her again.”

“And just when was this settled?”

“Oh, about three, three-thirty.” He looked at his watch and his face sobered. “Oh shit.”

I turned my back on him and stormed into the house. Sometimes not saying anything is the most effective form of communication.

Laura followed me as I knew he would. “Listen, I’m sorry. We just felt the victory needed celebrating, and there’s this bar just across the road from Paul’s office.”

“You didn’t think I should be a part of the celebration? I’ve been going out of my mind trying to figure out what went wrong.” My voice sounded shrill and ugly, and I hated him for turning me into this shrewish thing.

“Listen, I’ll make it up to you. We’ll go out.”

“Yeah. I really feel like going out with you in this state. Just forget it.” I’d had my rant. The anger was draining away, leaving only a frustration at having no one to share my own feelings of triumph and relief.

I walked out through the conservatory into the garden. Paul decided his best bet was to withdraw discretely. I hoped he would make it home safely.

Laura followed me outside a few minutes later, carrying a cup of coffee for himself and a glass of wine for me. I gave him an odd look which he returned with a twisted grin.

“I thought we could meet halfway.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it.

“Look, I really am sorry. I just got so caught up in the moment; it didn’t enter my mind to pick up the phone.”

“Well you’re getting the hang of being a man, that’s for certain. Thoughtless idiot one minute, quirky and charming the next.”

“Since we’re handing out the compliments, may I say that was a guilt trip any woman would be proud of?”

That earned him a slap, albeit a playful one.

“So tell me again what happened?”

So he did, in detail and in a way that had me doubled over with laughter. It was almost as good as if I’d been there, and almost enough for me to forgive him.

For the second evening in a row we ordered in. I was ravenous, having eaten nothing but a few forkfuls of salad since breakfast, and the local Chinese takeaway promised the best choice at the shortest notice. I’m sure I’ve never tasted anything so wonderful.

Fun and frolics were not on the agenda that night. We were both more than a little nervous about the shareholder’s meeting at the bank, and what we would say, so we went to bed early.

-oOo-

Seven o’clock in the morning seemed ludicrously early, especially as I’d already been up two hours getting myself ready. I mean there was no reason for me to bother; on the face of it I was a low-end antiques dealer with a wardrobe full of jeans and sweatshirts, but if you want to be taken seriously in the boardroom, you have to look the part.

Which was why Laura looked smart and relaxed in one of my bespoke double breasted suits, sporting a most powerful of power ties, and I was feeling less comfortable in one of Portia’s linen dress suits, with silk blouse. The reason for my discomfort was partly the shortness of the borrowed skirt – Portia was always one to show off her assets – and partially the tightness of the bun Laura had pulled my hair into, which left me feeling like my face had been stretched taught like a drum skin across my skull.

She’d also done me a makeup job which, whilst it felt unusual, made me look quite stunning.

I pointed my parking spot out to Laura, and she pulled the Merc up exactly mid-way between the lines. Did spatial awareness come with the body, or was she just one of those women who made a lie of the whole women and driving thing?

“Right,” I said, letting out a nervous sigh, and tugging at the hem of my skirt, “you’ll let me do the talking, won’t you?”

“If you’re sure. I mean they’re going to be expecting me to give them an explanation, aren’t they?”

“Maybe, but you do have something of a reputation for being pussy whipped, so it won’t come as a surprise that you’ve exchanged one strong minded woman for another, and now that I’m the current majority shareholder, they’ll have to listen to me.

“Besides, you don’t know enough about banking to be able to hold your own in there.”

“Yeah, but that’s the point; you shouldn’t know anything about banking.”

“It won’t matter. This is a closed meeting, so nothing will get reported outside of it, especially if we settle things to everyone’s satisfaction.”

“And how are we going to do that?”

I smiled at him sweetly and noted his reaction, finding there an explanation for the prevalence of misogyny in my profession. Businessmen weren’t so much afraid of the competence of women as they were of the incompetence they induced in men. If I could make Laura sweat with a simple smile from a face she’d seen every day for twenty-seven years, then what effect was I going to have on the men inside?

Seven o’clock was early for most of these guys, but nothing was more likely to get them out of bed than a perceived threat to their respective bank balances. I caught a yawn here and there as I stepped through the door ahead of Laura, just before everyone snapped into attentiveness.

The foci for their attentions were mainly my legs and my cleavage, and I experienced my first encounter with the frustration of pretty women everywhere.

I coughed politely and smiled, encouraging them to aim a little higher with their eyes. “Good morning gentlemen. I suspect you’re interested to know exactly what happened over the weekend.”

I sat at the head of the boardroom table, hiding half of the scenery from their ogling eyes. There wasn’t much I could do about what I had up top; I’d chosen the least revealing blouse I could find, but as I’ve said, Portia isn’t one to hide what she has, so it still didn’t leave much to the imagination.

“Er, yes. Thank you,” Frank Lampard, the chairman, coughed uncomfortably. “Er, perhaps Jerry, you wouldn’t mind.”

“Actually, I thought I’d let Miss Townsend have the floor,” Laura said, resting a hand briefly on my shoulder. “After all, this was her idea, and she is now the major share-holder in this bank.”

That shut them up. I tried another smile. Less effective than with Laura, but I was beginning to suspect that I had a special influence over him.

“On Friday evening, Jerry and I met at a party hosted by one of our mutual friends. We were witnesses and unwilling participants in an altercation over an antique bowl I recognised as having been stolen from me some weeks earlier. I don’t recall much about the disturbance as I fainted briefly. Mr Goodman here carried me out of the flat and wanted to take me to hospital, but when I asked him not to, he took me back to his house and put me to bed in one of the spare bedrooms.”

A few knowing looks passed around the room, angering me that they should so casually believing the worst.

“Jerry’s wife came home shortly afterwards and began yelling at him for deserting her at the party. The argument was loud enough to wake me, and when I made an appearance, Portia made the same assumption I see many of you have chosen to do, and accused Jerry and me of having an affair. She stormed out promising that we would hear from her solicitor shortly, and that through the ensuing divorce, she would either take enough of Jerry’s wealth to destroy the bank or, if it looked like she might not win her case, that she’d drag proceedings out long enough to use it all up.

“The last thing the bank needed was a messy divorce with all of Jerry’s shares and other assets tied up pending an outcome to the proceedings. He realised this and was trying to think his way out of the problem when I suggested he should give everything he owned to someone he trusted. He liked the idea, and decided I ought to be that someone.

“I wasn’t too keen to start with, but Jerry insisted he didn’t know anyone else he trusted enough.” I took some gratification in the affronted looks on some of the faces around me. It was true though, I didn’t trust any of them, and their lack of judgement on my character was ample proof that they didn’t deserve my trust. “We found a lawyer to witness the transfers, and had them signed and dated before Portia came back in the morning with her divorce petition and an injunction freezing all Jerry’s assets. It turns out Jerry was right to take the precautions he did, and we beat Portia’s attempts at interfering by several hours.”

“Erm, excuse me,” Frank spoke up. “How do we know that you’re any better than Mr Goodman’s wife when it comes to your intentions regarding the bank?”

“For one thing – er, Mr Lampard isn’t it? I believe you’ve met Portia, so I find it insulting that you would even ask that question. For another, I came here with Jerry this morning, and he can confirm that I share his concerns for the welfare of this institution. I’m not sure what assurances I can give you beyond that, but for whatever saying it is worth, I do have the bank’s best interests at heart.”

“You could sign your shares over to us.”

“I said I had the bank’s best interests, Mr Lampard, not the shareholder’s. My primary concern is for the customers and the staff of the bank, which means I want things to carry on pretty much as they have been.”

“I don’t see how that’s possible with things as they are.” Richard Gimble, the chairman’s personal arse licker.

“You object to having a woman in charge, Mr Gimble?”

“Er, I think we all object to having someone in charge, regardless of their sex, who doesn’t have the proper education or experience.”

“I suppose that’s a valid point, or at least it would be if Jerry wasn’t still here.”

“Except that a number of us have to question Mr Goodman’s judgement in transferring ownership of all he has to you, Miss, er, Townsend.” For once Frank was supporting his lackey.

“For what reason? Have I done anything to put the welfare of the bank in jeopardy?”

“Not yet, but then you haven’t been given the opportunity to do so. Apart from anything else, it’s the principle of the thing. If he’s going to go signing large chunks of his wealth over to people he barely knows…”

“That’s hardly fair and you know it. The circumstances were extreme, and our actions were the only thing that prevented Portia from getting her hands on the bank’s assets, which I’m sure you’ll agree was something we all want to avoid…”

“He could have chosen someone else he trusted…”

“Like who? One of you guys? I’ve only just met you and even I would think twice before signing my wealth over to you…”

“For the welfare of the bank…”

“Even, and perhaps especially, for the welfare of the bank. Besides, it was in the early hours of the morning. The details had to be sorted out quickly before Portia could organise her own paperwork, and I was available.

“Sure, if there had been more time, he would almost certainly have found someone more suitable, but given the circumstances, I think he showed great presence of mind…”

“And good judgement of character? Miss Townsend, how could he possibly know what you were going to do?”

“He couldn’t. However, I imagine he was able to make something of a judgement of my character from my behaviour earlier in the evening, but he didn’t and he still doesn’t know what I might or might not do.

“Which brings us to the crux of the matter. I currently have controlling shares in this bank, so whatever your judgement of Jerry’s actions, it’s still me you have to deal with now.

“You’ve made it perfectly clear that you don’t have any faith in me, and if a significant number of you were to withdraw and drop all your shares on the market, it would be as bad for everyone as if Portia had succeeded. Worst case scenario, you’d make a loss in the sale as the share prices dropped, the rest of us would have to deal with the loss in value of our shares, we’d probably end up with customers losing faith in us and having a run on the bank. As more and more people withdrew their funds, many of them would lose out with the penalty clauses for making early withdrawals, and quite a few would lose out when we ran out of money with which to pay them. The bank would close and all the staff would be made redundant.

“We all want to avoid something like that, so let me make you all a proposition. Mr Banks, Mr Whortley and Mr Stevens, I’d like to offer you some of my shares at current market value, sufficient to give you each seventeen percent of the total, which would then give the three of you combined a controlling interest…”

“Why not just give your shares back to Jerry?” Richard Gimble really wasn’t that bright at times.

“It wouldn’t be prudent to do so until his divorce is finalised, and I doubt any of you will be content for me to remain in charge until then.”

“Why Paul, Daniel and Andrew then?” He used the first names of the shareholders I’d already indicated.

“Because they are the people Jerry trusts most to act in the best interests of the bank…”

“You’ll still have most shares.”

“Yes, I’ll still hold thirty four percent. Too many shares change hands and people get nervous, you know that.”

“We’ll want someone else to run the bank,” Frank said, his remark accompanied by the nods of everyone around the table.

“I can understand that,” Laura said from behind me. “I’m prepared to resign in the best interests of the bank.”

“With an appropriate severance package,” I added for him.

“That sounds fair.” Frank was looking altogether too satisfied.

He’d wanted me out of my inherited position since I’d taken it on. It wasn’t that I was bad at the job, but I didn’t like to take the risks that he proposed sometimes. For my part, I didn’t think it was right to gamble with other people’s money, and I rather hoped that the three I’d named would be strong enough to stand up against him. If needs be, I’d still be able to swing any vote if I had just one of them on my side.

There was a bit more wrangling, over price and how the three were going to pay me for their shares, and a number of other small but significant details. It took most of the morning to thrash things out and get the paperwork drawn up, but by the time we left the bank, my new account was bulging with funds.

“Now what?” Laura asked.

“Now, I’d like to go shopping for something a little less revealing, then how about I take you to lunch?”

“Well you are the one with the money, but that’s not what I meant.”

“I know. How about we talk about it over lunch? I was thinking, with your experience and my money, we could probably make a go of the antiques trade.”

-oOo-

And that’s more or less what happened. Laura knew a lot about her profession, and had only been limited in her achievements by lack of finances and a poor business plan. With me providing everything she’d been missing, we became successful very quickly.

Tony West received his comeuppance at our hands, as we rapidly took his business from him by offering a better service to his customers at a fairer price. As his shop went into receivership, we managed to buy up a lot of good stuff at bargain prices, including his damaged bowl, which we put on display beside Laura’s own.

Mike, Pete and Randall came to work for us after Tony went bankrupt. They’d mellowed quite a lot since their transformation. It’s amazing how a little bit of hardship can make a person less selfish, though not always perhaps. Tony went back to being a petty criminal and was caught fencing stolen goods less than six months after his business went bust. By contrast, his three former accomplices turned into quite trustworthy and valued members of our staff.

Laura – or rather Jerry, since our situation was unlikely to change anytime soon, and it seemed idiotic to keep calling him by the name that went with my current body – and Portia’s divorce went through quickly and without a hitch, pretty much as agreed in the settlement. Portia wanted a bit of Jerry’s severance package, but all we needed to do was threaten a bit of naming a shaming, and she gave in. As agreed, she got to keep the money she’d raided from our account and half our joint savings. She didn’t have a hope of touching anything else as it was mainly in my – that is Laura Townsend’s – name.

Portia gave in with her typical ill grace, and got on with her life. The last we heard, she was hanging around an elderly widower with a few million to his name. He was a wily old character though, and it seemed unlikely she’d be allowed into his bed without a fairly ironclad prenuptial agreement.

Pretty much from day one, Laura and I completely swapped identities. Even in private, I called him Jerry, and he called me Laura. He stayed on at the mansion, although we kept to different beds and bedrooms until he and Portia were officially two separate individuals again, then we moved into the master bedroom together, with a brand new bed. We burnt the old one once the divorce was ratified.

Our bout of unprotected sex didn’t amount to anything. My first ever period brought with it a degree of relief to offset the inherent discomfort. When we did start sharing a bed again, we began taking precautions – pharmaceutical rather than polyurethane – and, although the sum total of my sexual experience as a man amounted to that one time with Portia, meaning I didn’t have much to go on, I decided I much preferred it from this side of the gender divide.

-oOo-

Our one year anniversary came round and Jerry had something planned. Earlier in the year, he’d traded the Merc in for a soft top sports car – a rich burgundy Maserati – which he loved driving just about everywhere. Personally I couldn’t see anything particularly special about it. I mean, yeah I did enjoy whizzing through the countryside with the wind blowing through my hair, but then I had the inevitable tangle to sort out whenever we stopped. For the most part I preferred my VW Bug, but this was Jerry’s thing, so I went along with it.

We left Mike, Pete and Randall in charge of the shop, and hit the country lanes. At first I thought he’d just found a flash restaurant somewhere, or had a picnic organised, but two hours of zipping round tight bends seemed a bit much just for lunch. I tried asking where we were going a couple of times, but all he’d give me in reply was that knowing look of his.

Eventually we arrived at a small cottage in the middle of nowhere. Jerry climbed out, grabbed a rucksack from the back seat and came round to open my door. It wasn’t necessary, but I did like the gesture. In a way we were both playing caricatures of our adopted genders, behaving in ways we had learned to appreciate from books and films. I had slipped into a role of demure submissiveness which must’ve given any nearby ardent feminists the screaming habdabs. For his part, Jerry had become gallant and gentlemanly to the point of nobility.

I swivelled on the seat, reaching both feet out of the car together, so as to keep me modest, and allowed him to help me out of the car.

“Are you going to tell me what this is all about?” I asked for the umpteenth time.

“You’ll see soon enough.” He led me to the door and rapped the knocker three times.

A kindly, wrinkled face appeared from within.

“Ms Maxwell? I’m Jerry Goodman, we spoke earlier? And this is Laura Townsend. We used to be each other.”

“Jerry!” I was shocked that he’d share our secret so readily.

“Don’t worry dear, I know more about all this than you might think. Oh, and it’s Mrs if you don’t mind. My husband’s been gone a while now, but I never could be bothered with the Ms nonsense. Did you bring them?”

Jerry swung the rucksack round and opened it, pulling out the two halves of the bowl I’d broken a year ago, and the chipped but more complete one we’d acquired from Tony’s bankruptcy auction.

“You’d better come in,” Mrs Maxwell said, standing back and ushering us through. “Would you like some tea?”

We were polite. We sat in her small and overfilled living room, sipping tea from fine bone china and admiring the shelves full of trinkets that surrounded us. Mrs Maxwell cut us each a generous slice of Dundee cake, and we chatted about the weather and the state of her garden, like any good guest in an English home.

Eventually our host put aside her teacup and reached for Jerry’s bowl, examining it closely.

“Not very careful with it, were you?”

“While it was in my possession, I was very careful with it,” Jerry said. “It was stolen by someone who owned, and damaged, the other one.”

“Hmm, that would make it very unpredictable. I hope he didn’t try to use it in that state.”

“I don’t know. He never said as much, but I suspect he might have. I don’t think he’d have been so eager to get hold of mine unless he’d been certain his own didn’t work anymore.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate for whoever would have used it.”

“Unfortunate in what way?”

“Like I said, it’s unpredictable, but never good.”

“Give me a for instance.”

“The bowls transfer minds from one body to another. It’s a very complex thing to do correctly. With a damaged bowl, part of the process would be lost. It might remove minds from their original bodies but not put them into new ones, meaning death or something very close to it. It might shift only part of each mind making hybrid personalities and memories, resulting in madness in almost every case. It might not shift all the minds, meaning one body would end up empty and another would contain two minds, inevitably causing madness again.”

“How do you now so much about them?” I asked.

“Stories my grandmother told me before she passed her bowl into my care; the same as your friend here.”

“Except that your grandmother seemed to know a lot more than mine.”

“You said one of your ancestors found it in your attic. That means there was a break in the inheritance. You won’t have heard all there was to know.”

“Can you tell us?”

“I could, but it wouldn’t do any good.”

“Why not?”

“According to ancient lore, six bowls were made. Before your Jeremy called me, I know of three others that had been damaged and rendered unusable. Now you have shown me two more.”

“Which means there’s only one left,” Jerry said. “Yours.”

“Which I have kept hidden and unused until now, and which I fully intend to destroy now that I know that the others won’t work.”

“Why?” Jerry asked.

“You of all people should be able to answer that. Surely you can’t think it right that anyone should have the power to do what was done to you.”

“But it could be used for good. Surely there are people who could benefit from it. Blind people who could be given a chance to see for a while, paraplegics who could walk again…”

“And what about those who trade places with them? They’re not going to want to stay in the damaged bodies, are they? And when they change back, wouldn’t that be more cruel, to give an individual a taste of what they could have, then to take it away?

“And as for good, there are a hundred more ways in which it could be used for evil. I’m an old woman with an old woman’s aches. Don’t you think I’ve been tempted to use mine to trade places with someone younger and more beautiful, like yourself dear? No it’s safest that this power disappears from the world.”

“So why did you keep yours all this time?” I asked. I couldn’t fault her logic.

“Because of people like yourselves, dear. You didn’t choose to be transformed like this, and as things stand, my bowl is the only one left that can allow you to transform back. Once that’s done, I’ll be done with it.”

“What if there are others out there who’ve been switched around? We know of three at least.”

“I can’t advertise it, dear. There are people, like the former owner of this one,” she indicated Tony’s chipped bowl, “who know what the bowls can do, and would use them for selfish purposes. If any of them found out I had one, they’d come and take it from me.”

“We could stand as go-betweens; advertise on your behalf. Anyone who came to us having been shifted, we could send them to you to have it corrected.”

“I’m sorry, dear. It’s just too risky. I’ll sort you two out, and your three friends, but beyond that, this has to end here.”

I looked at Jerry, who was looking deep into my eyes.

“Do you want this?” I asked. “Really, do you want your life back?”

The look on his face was unreadable. He sat silent for a while then glanced at the old woman.

“I’ll leave you two in peace, shall I? Go and fetch it?” She stood and stepped out of the room.

“A year ago, you didn’t have a choice,” Jerry said quietly. “When you put your keys into the bowl you were expecting some silly game, not a magical transformation, and certainly not to be changed into a woman. Tony and his friends knew what was coming, and so did I. We walked into this with our eyes open, but you…”

“Look I may not have chosen this, but I’m content with the way things worked out. Have I given you any reason to believe in all of this past year that I wanted things to be otherwise?”

“No,” he glanced down at the table surface, avoiding my eyes for a moment, “but I’m concerned. I’ve done the gender swap thing a few times and I know how the different hormones and stuff can mess with the way you think. It worries me that a lot of the reason you don’t want to turn back is because your feelings are being affected by your body.

“I need to be sure. Laura, I need you to go back to being Jerry again, and when you’re fully yourself, I need you to make the decision then as to what you want.”

“But if we’re both happy the way we are now, why should either of us change? We fit the way we are, and I know I’ve never been happier.”

He didn’t answer; just stood there working his jaw.

“He’s right dear.” The old lady stood in the doorway with her bowl in hand. “You’re not fully you unless you’re in your own body. You should try the change, then come back in a week with your friends. By then you’ll know for sure whether or not you want to change back.”

“But…”

“One of you is obviously concerned. Wouldn’t it be better to try things for a week, if only to clear away any shadows of doubt? You needn’t worry; I’ll keep the bowl until you make your decision once and for all.”

She placed the bowl on the low table and Jerry, or perhaps I should start calling him (her?) Laura now, dropped his keys into it.

“We’re committed now,” Jerry told me, pointing at the bowl.

If we wanted to get home in the Maserati we were. I fumbled in my bag for the VW keys, hesitated, dropped mine in and reached for his.

He gave me an encouraging smile and grabbed mine.

-oOo-

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