Copyright © 2013 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.
There are times when the weight of all creation seems to hang off my soul, leaving me with a sense of aching, overwhelming wrongness.
I don’t know what causes it. Sometimes I think it’s just a change in the weather. Rainclouds building and all the frustrations of my life resonating within me in sympathy. Some shit like that.
Those are the time when my mind drifts to thoughts of that bottle of sleeping pills, or a hot bath and a razor.
More wishful thinking than anything; I’ve never been serious about taking that route. There was a time when I’d sit on the ledge of my third floor balcony, a knife held over my wrist and dream of having the courage either to cut deep enough or just to roll a little to one side.
What’s the difference between a person who jumps from the tenth floor and one who jumps from the first? One goes aaaaaargh, splat. The other goes splat, aaaaargh. Third floor wouldn’t have been high enough.
Apart from that, I could never quite do it. I’m not sure if it was cowardice or optimism. Little nuggets of hope, glistening like gold and offering the tantalising promise of a shiny seam of something bigger and brighter somewhere deep in my bedrock. An answer to all those impossible questions, that deep aching sense of wrongness; of misfittedness.
All that glisters is not gold. Fool’s gold, fool’s hope. It was probably nothing more, but hope is hope, and often, even false hope is enough to keep you going.
The closes I ever got to killing myself was when the papers came up with a slow news day story that the colouring in red Smarties was bad for you. For some months, every time I bought a tube of Smarties, I’d keep the red ones to one side. When I had three tubes stored, I ate them all at one sitting.
Nothing. At least nothing more than a sugar rush.
Yeah, chocolate helps a bit, but it brings its own problems. Too many years. Too many bad evenings where the only thing that took the edge off was another chocolate bar, then another, then another…
So anyway, when one or another of my friends sees me getting like this, the usual response is to pester me into going out with them for a night on the town. Forget about your troubles, have a few drinks and a laugh, maybe chat up a girl or two.
Yeah, like that’s going to help.
They mean well, my friends, but it’s just another indication of how much out of synch they are with me, that the solution they propose – the solution that seems to work for them – is about the last thing I want, especially when I’m at my lowest.
See I’ve thought about this. I’m no super-genius, but I’ve just about figured out what’s going on here; why I’m so fucking miserable so much of the time.
It’s like we have a fundamental, primal need to belong; to fit. For most people that isn’t a problem, because the way they feel on the inside is close to the way people expect them to behave on the outside. Going out for them is a case of being themselves in a group of people doing the same, and yeah, I get how that would be fun; how it would take your mind of life’s troubles.
But what if life’s main trouble is that you don’t fit?
If I were to be myself in public, the best I could hope for is that everyone else would feel uncomfortable with me. Worse would be people laughing, or even getting angry enough to do something unpleasant and painful.
I mean I grew my hair out a while ago. I like long hair. I like the way it looks on other people, and I love the way it feels; the weight of it, the way it moves independently of my head, the way it brushes my back. It makes me feel good, but there aren’t many of my friends who haven’t commented on it in some way or another. ‘Why don’t I get it cut? It would look so much better short.’
Maybe it would, but it feels better this way, even if it is affecting my business. Not so many people like dealing with a guy with long hair. It would be okay if I were a woman, but because I’m a guy, they don’t like it.
See? Even a small change. Even a small attempt to make me feel more comfortable in my own skin makes others feel less comfortable around me.
That’s my choice. Either be me and let the world go fuck itself, or be what they want and squeeze myself into the world’s expectations of who I should be.
So I dress up as someone I’m not, and go out with my friends and pretend to be someone I’m not. They like that, and the people we meet like that, and I can pretend to like that; sort of.
So everyone’s happy, except me. My friends are happy because I can pretend well enough to fool them into thinking I’m actually shaking off the fugue, but inside I’m screaming louder and louder; dying a little more.
At least if I were home the misfitting wouldn’t be so obvious. But no, at the times when it hurts the most, I have to go out with a friend who’s trying to cheer me up, to a place where it hurts even more; where the difference between me and the world becomes so glaringly, dazzlingly obvious, that I can’t escape it.
Not even into a bottle.
I tried it once, but I don’t lose myself in booze. One evening when I was younger; one gin, one vodka, two crème de menthe, ten whiskeys, after which I stopped counting. I lost the ability to speak, the ability to walk unaided, but not the ability to think or to feel. It was like I was sitting outside of myself, watching myself turn into this complete dick. I remember the whole thing. No escape, no oblivion, just a sense of shame and a headache the next morning.
I haven’t bothered drinking since, except socially.
And, yeah, there’s even pressure to fit in there. I ask for a fruit juice or a coke and my friends tell me I should have something stronger. I’m not driving. They’ve brought me out to have a good time, not to sip at soft drinks. And if I were to ask for a vodka-orange, or a wine spritzer, I’d just get those odd looks, like I’m from outer space or something. Beer’s a man’s drink, so I order a pint. Even though I don’t particularly like the taste, even though I hate the way it makes me feel bloated, even though I know it’s going to add to the weight problem.
So here I am sitting in a noisy, smelly, overcrowded pub, nursing a pint of some golden brown liquid that tastes more foul than usual – I suspect the barman hasn’t cleaned his taps recently – and smiling along with the jokes. Each smile a betrayal of self, a stab in the back as my outer Brutus runs with the crowd and adds his own knife strokes to the Caesar of my soul. I’ve barely taken an inch off my drink and already some of my friends are draining theirs. There’ll be comments soon and a general cajoling to empty my own glass, maybe even that ridiculously childish drink, drink, drink chanting until I’ve done it.
I could rebel, refuse to play their game, but that would just be me taking off the mask, refusing to fit in. That would be churlish given that this whole evening is for my benefit. Well I guess theirs too, since it was as much about them feeling better about seeming to make me feel better as it was about trying to make me feel better.
If only desire were enough to make something happen, but it always requires sacrifice. My sacrifice in this case. Always my sacrifice, because there’s just one of me and millions of others. At least that’s the way it seems. Maybe if there were more like me, more who were prepared to stand up and say, “We’re different. This is the way we are; make room for us; get used to us; learn to accept us, because we’re here to stay and we have as much right to be who we are as you do.”
But then that’s not me either. I don’t have the strength to stand alone and be myself, not with the whole world standing by, ready to reject what’s different about me. I barely have the strength to hide, but I do, and successfully enough that no-one knows about me. We’re all good at hiding, the people like me. So good that we don’t know how many of us there are. So good that we wouldn’t even recognise others like ourselves if they were standing in front of us.
Well most of the time.
She caught my eye as she walked into the bar with her friends. They were all frills and flounces, short skirts and lacy tops, but she was wearing jeans and a blouse. Loose fitting jeans as well, not skin tight, fuck me, spray on ones, just plain old cheap and cheerful denim jeans from the bargain rack at the local supermarket. On second look, the blouse was actually a shirt. The buttons did up the wrong way for girl clothes, but it had a flowery design and overly large lapels. Charity shop stuff from the seventies. Flower power, groovy nylon, goes well with mutton chops and long hair. Definitely out of the question for any self-respecting male these days, but it looked good on her. No mutton chops, but she did have long hair. Pulled back into a loose pony tail and looking austere compared to the more elaborate, bouffant, wavy styles of her girl-friends.
Our eyes met briefly, and I wondered if the pain in hers was mirrored in my own. For all that she was so different, looking into her face was like looking in a mirror. Reluctantly out on the town with friends who truly found pleasure in the experience; trying to fit in; smiling on the surface, but dying inside. Like a swan; all grace and elegance above the water, but paddling like stink below, doing all she could to keep up with the current.
That describes my life in spades: Going against the flow; always, always fighting to stay where the world wanted me to be; where it expected me to be.
One of her group made it back from the bar with a tray full of drinks; all the fancy ones with a variety of colours in a range of different glasses. She took a plain glass filled with sparkling, clear liquid when it was offered – gin and tonic at a guess – and looked hungrily across at my pint.
Convention keeps us all in our place, I realised. Girls don’t drink pints – at least that’s what we’re told – any more than guys drink fancy cocktails.
Suddenly it was all too much for me. Usually I could hold the feeling down, suppress it, play the game, but here it was bubbling up inside me like Mentos in a bottle of coke. I couldn’t stand it any longer. If I stayed there another second, I would explode. Perhaps not literally, but it would have been difficult to recover from even the metaphorical eruption that threatened.
I stood up, beer in hand.
“I need some air,” I said to anyone who was prepared to listen and headed for the back of the pub, to the door that led to the beer garden.
It was a cool night following a grey overcast day, so my only company was a few die-hard nicotine addicts, and they stayed near to the door, sheltered from the chilly breeze and close to where they could duck back inside as soon as they’d had their fix.
I walked across to the ornamental fish pond at the far side. It was dark, but not too dark to see, the street lamps reflecting off the low cloud picking out the garden’s features in stark silhouette.
I don’t know how long I stood by the pond, staring at the inky black surface, but it wasn’t long enough for the turbulent feelings inside me to settle. On reflection this wasn’t such a rare occurrence for me. Every party I’ve ever been too, weddings, birthday parties, just plain old no-reason-for-it parties, I’ve usually ended up escaping like this at some stage. It’s too hard to pretend to enjoy yourself when everyone around you seems to be having a genuinely good time, and I’ve always needed to escape at some point. It hasn’t often happened on a night out like this, and never so early in the evening, but the feeling was familiar, so I couldn’t pretend it never happened.
This was usually the point where my imagination kicked in. My safety valve, creating a virtual world of make believe and wish fulfilment. A place to hide from harsh reality for a while. This was where I usually dreamt of a beautiful girl walking up behind me and asking if I was alright, of talking and laughing and falling in love. The dream was harder to sustain these days since I’d started putting on weight, but it was what I needed. More recently my imagination had been putting me in the role of the beautiful girl.
I’ve always found it difficult – getting on for impossible – to approach girls and ask them out. Partly because it feels like I have to persuade them that I’m worthwhile before they’ll consider spending time with me, and I have a hard enough time convincing myself of that fact. Partly it’s because rejection is so hard to take. The guys I know seem to be able to develop emotional callouses, though I’m not sure how much of that is genuine in most cases. Regardless of how others cope with it, I’ve never been able to. My dreams have always been of having someone come up to me and ask. That way they’ve decided they want to spend time with me before anything happens. That way I know they’re interested without my having to convince them. It’s a dream I never expected to see fulfilled because most of the girls I know wouldn’t dream of approaching a guy. It’s just not in their make-up.
Which is why it was such a surprise when…
Her voice was throaty and low pitched; probably artificially so.
I started, spilling some of my beer. I hadn’t so much as tasted it since carrying it out here.
“Hi.” I turned to see her looking at me with a quirky lopsided smile on her face. Her gin and it was as untouched as my beer and I found myself looking at it with the same longing as I’d seen in her eyes earlier when she was looking at my glass.
“Want to swap?” She lifted her glass to indicate what she was talking about. I smiled and held my slightly-less-than-a pint out for her to trade.
I don’t much care for gin and tonic, but it was ambrosia after the beer. Just a sip and I felt so much more who I was. Meanwhile she was chugging away at my pint with evident relish. She polished off half of it before pausing for air.
I managed a half smile myself as I watched her. I’m not sure how visible it was in the dark, but enough for her to blush and duck her head.
“Were we born wrong?” I asked, my voice so quiet I could barely hear the words myself. I felt a thrill at voicing thoughts long buried, long hidden, long supressed.
“I don’t know,” she was less worried about hiding her feelings, “but I’d trade with you in an instant if there were a way.”
I stared at her, seeing the hunger in her eyes, feeling my own hunger growing, consuming me like the ravenous monster it was.
“Even like this?” I asked. “Even fat and flabby as I am?”
“Fat and flabby can be sorted; just needs exercise. God, if only…”
She reached in and kissed me.
I’ve never been kissed. Well once maybe, when I was young and naïve, and there was this girl who’d had a few. I’d had a few as well, but all they’d done for me was make me morose. I’d told her I’d never kissed a girl. Eighteen and I’d never even kissed a girl. So she leaned across and planted one on me. It didn’t go beyond that because she was too drunk and I was too full of my own misery. It hadn’t counted either since she’d been drunk. No-one wants to be kissed out of pity, especially not drunken pity.
This was different though. As hungry as her need, as passionate as I could imagine. I felt myself being drawn into the kiss, losing myself in the feeling. All my aching wrongness, all my need and desire went into it, and with it all of me. It became a swirling, confusing, all embracing thing which went on and on.
I felt something snap inside. It was like whatever was anchoring me to myself gave way and I floated free into this churning maelstrom of emotion and need. For a while I lost myself completely, unable to feel where I ended and the rest of the universe began. For a while I lost track of time, unable to tell whether a few seconds had passed or few minutes, hours or even years. For a while it was as though I was drawn into infinity, swirled around and then released.
Eventually I felt my lips against soft lips, my arms around a neck, my own neck straining up, my right leg raised, my whole insides thrumming like a taught string. I was so disoriented it took me a while to realise I shouldn’t be reaching up. I mean she was smaller than me wasn’t she?
Other strangenesses made themselves known. The two breasts pressed between us seemed to be attached to me, not her. There was a tautness around my upper body that was only familiar to me because of the few times I’d cross-dressed. A sports bra by the feel of it; no frills, just comfort and support. The rest of it doesn’t take much guessing – the feel of nylon against my arms instead of the cotton polo shirt I’d put on to come out, denim against my legs instead of my cotton chinos, even the tautness in my hair from being drawn back into a ponytail.
“What the hell…?” My voice was higher pitched, even than the one she’d used to talk to me. My hands went to the obvious places: my chest and my groin; presence in the former, absence in the latter. This wasn’t possible. This was the real world. Things didn’t change like this in the real world.
“Fucking hell!” My voice sounded strange from the outside: like hearing a recording of myself; the tonality altered from not having it resonate in my head.
“How is this possible?”
“Maybe God was listening. Maybe we both just wanted this enough. You did want this didn’t you?”
“Oh God, yes!” I have never spoken truer, never felt the truth of my words so profoundly as I did then, never felt more right than in that moment. “Please God let this be permanent.”
“You may not say that in a week.”
“What do you mean?”
“That’s when I’m – that is to say you’re – due.”
“Oh, time of the month?”
He nodded. It was he now. I was the she in this encounter. In many ways I’d always been the she, except that my body hadn’t matched. In many ways I’d only been pretending to be a he. Now I didn’t have to.
I’ve heard people talk of having the burdens of their life slip away and always wondered what it must feel like. I stopped wondering in that instant. Every moment was a renewed and increasingly amplified sense of rightness, of completeness, of things being the way they should be.
It was hard though. After so many years of waking up to the dull ache of being the wrong person in the wrong place and the wrong body, after so many years of seeing hope dwindle, it was hard to accept that everything I’d struggled with for so long was now in the past. It seemed somehow unsatisfying that everything should suddenly be so right after being so very wrong for such a very long time. How could everything change with something as simple as a kiss? How could fairy tales and magic come true in the brutal world we lived in? Surely this was just another cosmic joke from the universe’s enormous bag of cruelties. Surely I’d start awake sometime soon and find myself rousing from the deepest and most vivid of dreams. Surely this was impossible.
“Bring it on,” I said. “It’d make all this more real. Right now I’m having difficulty believing it’s actually happened.”
“I know what you mean. A prize as big as this, you’d expect to have to slay dragons for it, wouldn’t you?”
“I can’t figure out how it’s even physically possible.”
“Does it matter? What if by disbelieving you make it impossible and change us back? Wouldn’t it be better just to accept that it’s happened, to accept it as a gift from God or the universe or whatever, maybe a redressing of an imbalance – I mean I can hardly believe there was ever a purpose to us being the wrong minds stuck in the wrong bodies?
“I don’t know you, but I get the feeling that you felt like me all your life: twisted out of shape; a body and mind mismatch that was constantly under tension. Maybe us meeting like this provided the opportunity for causality to smooth out some of the kinks in its make-up. We should accept it as the gift it is and get on with our lives now that we have lives to live.”
“I guess.” It still felt wrong somehow, like there was still a price to pay. I mean don’t get me wrong, I’d have paid the price and happily. It just made me feel uneasy that we were getting this for free. “What do we do now?”
“Swap lives? That is unless you’re a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon or something. I mean I like being a man, even slightly rotund as I am, but I don’t think I could cope with inheriting your life if it meant I had to be something I have no idea how to be.”
“You can relax. My mum and dad own an ironmonger’s shop. Mum does the accounts, and I’ve been helping Dad run the place since before I left school. He plans to retire in a few years and let me take over. It’s a living of sorts, but I’ve ever been very interested in the kind of things we sell. If you have any experience working in a shop, you should fit in fine. You might even impress the old man after a few days. God knows you can’t do worse.
“Your name’s Derek by the way. Derek Willis. Single, broke, prospects to inherit a small business that makes enough money to sustain a small family. How about me?”
“Alison Turner. My mum owns a dress shop on the high street, and we live in the flat above the shop. Have done since my dad left fifteen years ago. I guess Mum’s always had the idea that I’d take over the family business one day, but I’ve been something of a disappointment to her in recent years. My needlework is sloppy, and I just don’t have the same interest in women’s fashion as she does.”
There was only one dress shop on the high street and it had some pretty special stuff. Bespoke, made to measure, one of kind things with price tags like the GNP of a small African country. Late nights walking through the town on my own, I’d stop to look in the window and daydream of trying on some of those dresses.
“This hardly seems fair,” I said. “You get to be the overweight and vaguely ineffective son of a struggling small businessman, and I get to be this really slim and attractive daughter of a successful fashion designer. Aren’t you upset about the inequality of this exchange?”
“Are you kidding? Willis Hardware has massive prospects if you market it right. I get to enjoy the challenge of building the place up and making a success of it, and I don’t have to suffer the incessant, despondent sighs of a mother who can’t conceive why her daughter hates dresses. Hates wearing them, and God how she hates sewing them.
“You want that life, you can have it with my blessing. Show the slightest bit of interest and she’ll turn you into a walking advertisement for her work. Make even a half-hearted attempt with a needle and thread and you’ll improve on the best sewing I’ve ever managed. Guaranteed to make her the happiest woman on the planet.”
“You think that’s what this is about? We get to make each other’s parents proud and happy? I mean my Mum and Dad would be chuffed to bits if I took a little interest in the running of the shop. You give Dad ideas on how to make the place more profitable and you’ll likely give him a heart attack, which’d mean he’ll at least die happy.”
“What about us?” His voice was quiet, slightly strangled, as though he were broaching a subject he hoped would go away.
“It would feel a bit weird dating the face I’ve grown up seeing in the mirror every morning for the last who-cares-how-many years. I mean I don’t want to blow you off or anything, but I’m kind of sensing a vibe that you’re not interested in me that way either.”
He let out a sigh of relief, which was a little hurtful, but it was for the best. With all the best will in the world, I couldn’t ever see myself as being contented in what had once been my own arms. I mean I’m not that bad looking once you get over the central bulge, but the thought of getting up close and personal felt just a little too much like incest for my way of thinking.
“Friends then?” He stuck out what had once been my hand.
I took it tentatively. “Friends,” I agreed. “We’d better go in before we’re missed.”
Once back inside, we paused long enough to exchange drinks again and to point out and name each other’s friends. We agreed to meet for lunch the next day to exchange life histories in more detail and headed back to each other’s respective crowds. Fortunately our friends had low expectations from us given our earlier moods, so making it through the rest of the evening consisted largely of keeping quiet and listening. I noticed… I guess I should call him Derek from here in; accept the identity swap in its entirety. I noticed Derek downing pints with relish and all but keeping up with the other guys, and I found myself frowning with concern that he might lose control and give something away.
“Shouldn’t be so judgemental, Ali,” a woman whose name I vaguely remembered was Barbra leaned against me and murmured in my ear. “You’re on your third yourself.”
I looked with some surprise at my glass and drained the last few drops from it before replying.
“Fourth,” I said with a slight smile. “My round. Who’s in?”
I collected the tray and the various drinks orders and made my way to the bar, easing my way between clumsy monoliths of drunken masculinity, dodging between their unsteady stumbling. Funny the way your perspective changes; I’d always been aware of how much smaller and more delicate most women seemed, and how having them around made the world somehow a gentler place. Now, redefined as one of the smaller and more delicate members of the human race, everything seemed skewed in a different direction.
I could imagine how things might seem more frightening, more exciting, more exhilarating had the room been filled with rippling muscles and minds attuned to the dangers of a more savage world, and I had an insight of sorts into why some girls prefer bad asses like members of biker gangs and soldiers. As it was, negotiating my way to the bar was more like navigating through a field of jelly baby asteroids. Modern civilisation had tamed the wild beast in so many men, leaving them almost bovine in their dull acceptance of their new role in the world. Was this perhaps part of what had made me so keen to reject in my own manhood?
The three gin and tonics were dulling my senses in a way I’d never experienced before. I felt a pleasant buzz in my head and lessening of tension in my body. I flashed the barman a grin and he stopped to take my order, ignoring the few protests of guys nearby who’d been waiting to be served.
I smiled my apologies at the people around me, and they quietened down quickly enough. This was a new super-power to me. I’d been vaguely aware of it in some women, but I had never suspected I’d one day possess it myself. I mean here I was, dressed in baggy jeans and a nightmare shirt from the seventies, and still these soft and squidgy parodies of men were turning to complete mush at my gently fluttering eyelashes.
I managed to remember all the girls’ drinks orders and passed over a twenty in return for a tray full of exotic beverages and an all too small handful of change. I found myself hoping that dress-making might pay better than the hardware business.
The route back to the girls was circuitous and fraught with near disasters. Despite my growing inebriation I found myself avoiding the blundering leviathans around me with relative ease though, and made safe passage back to our table. Somewhere in the rapidly numbing centre of my brain I wondered why being drunk should feel so different now. Maybe it was something physiological. Maybe Derek was having to cope with the weird way I remembered alcohol affecting me. I glanced across at him and found him laughing and swaying unsteadily with the rest of his crowd, so maybe not. Maybe it was the mismatch of my mind in that body. Maybe the booze had simply acted to accentuate the detachment I had grown up feeling existed between who I was physically and who I felt myself to be.
One of the girls followed my glance and smiled mischievously.
“So who’s your new boyfriend, Ali?”
I felt my face flush with warmth and the girls around me all giggled and snorted in the undignified way of drunken women. I was going to have to watch myself if my new body was this ready to betray me.
“He er… I don’t know. He was nice. Kind, sort of. Said a few things I needed to hear. Gave me something I’ve needed for a while now.”
“He doesn’t look that special.”
It was true. Before today I’d been aware I’d let myself go, but when you’re fighting depression on a daily basis, you get by any way you can, and chocolate had featured way too highly in my coping mechanism. Looking at my former body now, I was starkly aware of just how much I’d let it go to seed. How Alison could have been happy with this exchange was beyond me, but I was glad she was.
“Looks aren’t everything,” I replied distractedly.
“So are you going to see him again?”
There was no sense denying it. In a small town like this, people noticed things; word would get around. As Derek, I’d always been the last to hear anything, but even I’d picked up on the local gossip eventually.
I nodded. “We’re meeting for lunch tomorrow, but it’s not what you think. We’re just friends.”
“Yeah right! Don’t kid yourself sweetie. He’s a guy which means he’s only got one thing on his mind.”
“Yeah, guys’ll say anything to loosen a girl’s knickers.”
The trash-talk circulated around the table until everyone had had a say. It saddened me that guys had a reputation like that, but I couldn’t help wondering if it wasn’t deserved by many of them; maybe even most. Thinking about the guys I’d come out with, pretty much every one of them talked about girls in terms of conquest, competing to come up with the best story of how beautiful a girl they’d snagged, or how great a lay they had, or how many they’d tagged. It was all bollocks of course, just pissing over their territory, but it was as much a sadness that guys could get so caught up in their I’m-better-than-you games that they weren’t aware of how their objectification of women affected the way the two genders saw each other. Not that the girls’ reactions were particularly helpful in improving matters.
“Hey, keep up the cynicism ladies. You’ll all end up as sour faced spinsters wondering where your lives went. Tell a guy he’s an animal enough times and sooner or later he’s going to start believing you, then don’t be surprised when he turns round and bites you. I like to think there’s something worthwhile in most of them. You just have to dig a bit to find it.”
“Woo, listen to little miss high and mighty here.”
“Yeah, who the hell are you, and what have you done with Alison?”
“Yeah Ali. How come the sudden change? I can’t remember you ever being like this?”
Shit! Here was one thing Derek would find things easier to cope with than me. Guys tend to be blunt instruments when it comes to picking up behavioural changes, and all the more so when it comes to responding to them. It was almost definite that my old friends would have noticed the change in their companion, but they wouldn’t talk about it with him; just enjoy it and maybe believe that they’d been part of what brought him round. Girls were an entirely different matter. They lived in each other’s lives, so any change was noticed and commented on. Big ones became subject of an inquisition that would have put the Spanish church to shame.
“I guess I was getting fed up with who I’ve been lately. He was too. It’s what we talked about mostly. We both decided to try being someone else, and we agreed to meet up from time to time to see how the other was getting on. Kind of like having a sponsor alcoholics anonymous.”
‘Stick to the truth,’ my Dad always told me, ‘especially when dealing with women. They can sniff out a lie like a pig sniffs out truffles, so stay as close to the truth as you can.’
“So what does that mean?”
“I don’t know. I guess I’ve been fighting who I am for a long time. He has been too. I mean he was in a real state when I found him in the garden a while back, and, you know, just sharing a misery can help change things sometimes. Something happened out there which turned things around for both of us. I think for the for the first time in way too long I feel like I can give being me a go. We both do, kind of. Time to stop fighting and start accepting who and what we are.”
“Does that mean we might even see you in a dress one of these days? ‘Cos you know, this whole tomboy thing is really getting on my tits.”
I glanced across at her. Jean, I seemed to remember from my earlier brief. She was a well-endowed woman and was wearing a low cut blouse to show off her assets to best advantage.
“You have tits? I never noticed.”
The table erupted in with laughter.
“Bitch!” Jean – or whoever – threw at me through her own laughter. “You’re only jealous. I bet you keep yours hidden away in that Sloggy ‘cos you’re ashamed of them.”
What the fuck’s a sloggy?
“Sounds like a challenge to me.” This was Barbara; probably one of the louder mouths in the group, and already louder from the contents of her martini glasses. “Next night out we’re having cleavage competition girls. Winner is whoever gets the most guys offering to buy her a drink.”
More laughter and eyes wide open in mock outrage.
“Hey! No fair!” Ruth(?) said over the din. “I don’t stand a chance over you guys.”
It was true, she was a bit lacking in that area. It seemed unfair suggesting a competition where some of our number had a distinct handicap.
“I don’t think anyone suggested we restrict ourselves to natural assets,” I said. “Let’s say artificial enhancement is allowed for those who think they need it.”
More laughter as I drained my glass and stood up, grabbing my handbag off the floor as I did.
“I need the loo,” I announced for no other reason than to explain my movement.
“Yeah, me too,” Jean said climbing unsteadily onto her stilts. Well I guess shoes would have been what was written on the box, but six inch spike heels are more circus paraphernalia than footwear in my opinion.
I hadn’t expected this, I don’t know why but I hadn’t. She held on to my arm and leaned heavily enough on me that I staggered under her weight a few times. Heels and alcohol, not the best of combinations unless what you’re going for is a broken ankle. We made it to the back of the queue with the assistance of a couple of guys, one of whom was being chivalrous, the other merely taking the opportunity for a quick grope. Sad the way the bad experience overshadowed the good and I found my own opinion of my former gender slipping as a result.
The queue was inconveniently long and I ended up crossing my legs to hold off the impending dam burst. Given that Jean didn’t seem to be having the same problem, I had to assume that the half pint of beer was to blame. She kept me distracted with a constant stream of inconsequential chatter until we eventually made it to the front of the line, both of us staggering into the one cubical when it came free.
I scrambled to pull down my jeans and skippies – plain white boy-cuts – and sat to bring the rain. Seriously inefficient system compared to my former plumbing; maybe Ali hadn’t made such a trade down after all. I wiped myself dry and stood, pulling my clothes back on as I did so. Plumbing issues aside, not having to arrange the danglies felt good. Not having any danglies to arrange felt right somehow.
Jean took my place on the loo while I buckled up my belt and zipped up my flies. Her business wasn’t so desperate so she filled the silence while she waited for her body to get round to the business of waste disposal.
“I think I’m going to like the new you Ali. I hope you don’t mind me saying, but you have some amazing assets, and I never much liked the way them behind that cheapo, charity shop crap from the sixties.”
Sixties, seventies; what difference? Right era at least.
“Yeah, well I never cared for having those assets much.” I mean I would have if I’d had them, but it was easy to respond on Alison’s behalf in this instance. All it took was dredging up the way I’d felt about being Derek.
“What changed?” A hiss and a pungent smell indicated that her body had noticed where we were and what we were there for.
“I don’t know, it’s hard to say. I guess I started fighting because I couldn’t help it. I just felt wrong and I had to do something about it, but you can’t win a fight like that and eventually you reach a point where you realise that. If victory isn’t an option that means either you carry on fighting forever – and I am so heartily sick of fighting – or you surrender.
“In a way meeting Derek was what turned me around. I could see he’d been fighting stuff in his own life, and it was horrible seeing what it was doing to him. I guess he saw the same in me. I guess between us we figured out a way we could be happy with who we actually are.”
“Well I’m glad,” Jean wiped herself and stood up, arranging clothes and pulling the chain. “You do seem happier, and God knows it’s been a while since any of us have seen you smile.
We headed for the sinks where I washed my hands, and she did the same, then set about repairing her makeup. Not having any, I didn’t have much to do but wait. She noticed and pushed her bag over in my direction.
I pulled out a compact and looked at it uncertainly.
“I don’t think I’ve ever done this.”
“Course you have silly. Don’t you remember round at yours when we were ten?”
“As I recall we ended up looking like a couple of pandas who’d joined the circus as clowns.” It was a guess, but not a difficult one to educate.
Jean giggled at a memory I didn’t share. “We did look a mess didn’t we? Are you telling me you never tried it after that?”
“Mum did show me a few things,” again a guess, but this time I could make things up with some impunity, “but she didn’t much like me messing with her stuff so I didn’t really get into it. Then I started with the tomboy shit.”
Jean finished with her own face, then gave me a makeup one-oh-one. The colours were more suited to her complexion than mine, but the final result was an improvement even so. The first of a number of expenses loomed in front of me and I found myself hoping I had the means.
Fresh drink waited for us by the time we got back to the table. The girls noticed my efforts at visual enhancements, as girls so almost always do, and their compliments left me blushing.
“Come down to Debenhams tomorrow,” Ruth? Yeah Ruth said to me. “I’m on late lunch, so any time before two. I’ll sort you out with some colours that work better.”
Even a blonde would have been able to guess she worked at the makeup counter in Debbie’s. Useful to know. Staff discount for me, commission for her. At least I hope so. I’d have time after meeting Derek, or if I didn’t, I’d make time.
I’d made it over the hump. The girls had accepted the reinvented me and the rest of the evening faded into a pleasant blur. We didn’t have too much more to drink, but even so, we ended the night walking down the middle of the high street, arms around each other, staggering back and forth and laughing loud enough to annoy the neighbours.
I peeled off first as we reached Glad Rags. Mum was a Rod Stewart fan then? Could be worse, though I’d always thought he looked a bit scrawny, and a sex change and a skin full of gin hadn’t done anything to change that opinion.
I fumbled in my purse for my keys and found one that fit the front door on my third attempt. I waved to the girls and closed the door behind me, the customer bell jingling overhead. I’d never been in this shop; never dared as Derek, and now here I was. In the dim glow from the window display lights I could make out racks of dresses and the odd mannequin showing off some piece or other of Alison’s mother’s handiwork. My mother now I supposed, though it seemed odder to be trading families even than trading bodies.
“Is that you dear?” a nervously querulous voice came from up the stairs behind the counter.
Something in me wanted to stay and explore the clothes, but something else told me I was not in a state to appreciate them, and might easily ruin them if I tried. I made my way to the back of the shop and looked up the stairs.
“Hi Mum.” The anxious face of an attractive, older woman looked down at me. She was wrapped, defensively it seemed, in a light, floral print robe, a silky nightdress shimmering underneath.
“Are you wearing makeup?” she asked, her eyes narrowing to see better in the gloom.
“Jean let me use some of hers. I need to get some of my own tomorrow.” I answered her question but I could see the even bigger one beneath it. Part of being a girl I supposed, but part of being drunk meant that I could ignore the more awkward conversations. Probably better to do so until I was sober in any case.
“You look different.”
I was tempted to say something facetious about that being what makeup was for, but this was Alison’s Mum, it was late, and she had been worried.
“I feel different Mum. Something happened tonight, and I think things are going to be different from here on. Better different I hope.”
“Are you drunk?”
My slow and deliberate, if unsteady, progress up the stairs must have provided Miss Marple with that particular clue.
“Yeah, but that’s not what this is about. Maybe best to wait till tomorrow to talk about it, but don’t worry, Mum, this is a good thing.”
“Would you like a hot chocolate or something?”
“Thanks but no. I’ll just have a glass of water and get to bed.”
“Well, if you’re sure…”
“Yeah. We’ll talk in the morning. I don’t think you’d believe anything I said now.”
“Maybe you’re right.” She shrugged her robe into a more comfortable position and stepped back through into her bedroom, leaving me with three possible doorways. The one at the top of the stairs was open and led into a small living room and kitchen diner. I chose that as my first stop, found a large glass, filled it with tap water and drank and refilled three times until I was too bloated to continue.
Hangover prevention tip from younger days. A pint of milk before you go out to line your stomach and restrict the amount of alcohol that makes it into your bloodstream, then three pints of water when you get home to offset the dehydrating effects of the booze. Obviously I couldn’t do much about the milk at this end of the night, and the quantities had to be adjusted down to account for the lack of capacity in this new body, but the principle remained the same. It would be interesting how my newly downgraded plumbing would cope with the flushing I’d just given to my kidneys. Hopefully I’d wake in time to prevent any accidents.
The door at the far end of the hall had a frosted glass window to it that just screamed bathroom, which had to mean that the other one was…
Yup. My bedroom.
Very plain and utilitarian. No ornaments, no pretty colours, no flowers, no frills or flounces. I could have been standing in an army barracks for all the austerity of the place. One cheapo, flat-pack wardrobe, contents trousers, jeans, shirts, blouses. Nothing exciting or girly, just plain boring skin coverage type utilitarian clothes.
Actually no, what was this at the back, hidden behind everything?
I pulled out a breath-takingly stunning dress. Hand made by a very skilled craftsperson by the looks of it. Even in my drunken haze, I could appreciate the loving care and attention that had gone into its creation. In the bottom of the wardrobe, hiding amongst the trainers and the sneakers, I found a pair of open toed court shoes. Black ones. Black goes with everything right?
I was so tempted right then, but I was unsteady enough on my feet in just trainers. I hated to think what damage I could achieve wearing heels for the first time in my life with half a bottle of Gordon’s inside me.
Reluctantly I put the dress and shoes back in their home and turned towards the bed. There was always tomorrow right?
Boxers and a cami top sat on the pillow. Why was I not surprised? I undressed, struggling with the bra for a bit before I realised it had no catch. Sports bra. Unadorned like so much else of Alison’s life; pulls over your head like a shirt or vest. Label read Sloggy. Well that was another question answered.
Outside the restrictive support of the sports bra, my breasts hung free and swelled a little. Jean was in for a competition next night out. I’m no judge of size, though I’d guess mine were a little smaller than hers. Even so, with the right support and maybe a little bit of a helping hand, they would be properly eye-catching.
I slid into my nightwear dropped the evening’s attire in the laundry hamper by the door and made my unsteady way to the bathroom. I brushed my teeth while I sat on the pot. Yeah, not the most hygienic of things to do maybe, but you can invent some pretty disgusting habits when you’re drunk. The first glass and a half of water made their exit while I scrubbed my teeth clean, spat, rinsed, wiped washed hands and headed to bed. Something in me wanted to explore, but my brain was too fuzzy, so I closed my eyes and let the night have me.
Morning came early with all the sense of newness and difference a smaller, lighter, altogether far more female body than I was used to could bring. There was also an familiar sense of urgency driving me out from between the sheets.
Fortunately, Alison’s – my – mother did not seem to be such an early riser and the bathroom was free. I voided all hitherto unaccounted for fluid intake from my system and turned bleary eyes towards the mirror.
Fuck I’d forgotten about the makeup.
There was cold cream amongst the other stuff in the bathroom cabinet. I set too, getting rid of panda face, then climbed into the shower.
God, showers were never this good.
I might have stayed under all day had there not been a bang on the glass. By then I’d soaked and scrubbed every tingling inch of my body, and given my hair a good double lathering. I climbed out of the cubicle and wrapped a towel around my dripping body, opened the door and changed places with a slightly grumpy looking mother.
“You’d better not have used up all the hot water,” she told me as she closed the door on me.
I hoped so too.
I paddled my way back to my room and dried myself off. Talcum powder and stuff now locked in the bathroom with a disgruntled mum, I decided to make do without. Well it was nothing different from my usual routine.
The chest of draws revealed an almost exclusive selection of sports bras and plain white boy-cut knick-knacks. The one exception was a lacy bra and panty set that only chance and good fortune had left visible among the jumble of more boring stuff.
My first day as a girl and I was going to go all out. I slipped on the lacy material and immediately felt prettier, which by consequence meant I felt better about myself. The bra wasn’t as comfortable as last night’s, but it wasn’t the torture device I’d heard some girls banging on about.
Next came the dress and the shoes. Maybe a bit dressy for everyday wear, but there was no way I was going to start my new life as a girl in trouser; not if I could help it. I felt marvellous. The sway of the skirt around my thighs, the swell of my breasts – my breasts! – above the low cut neckline. I felt like spinning and nearly lost my balance in the two inch heels.
I decided I should have dried my hair before putting this lot on. I climbed out of the dress and shoes and hunted out the hair drier. With the help of a brush and a blast of warm air, and a fair bit of imagination, I managed to put some attractive waves into it. I guessed Ali had been something of a wash and let go kind of girl; the hair certainly didn’t look mistreated in the way a lot of girls did to get just the right look, so it ended up looking pretty spectacular, and with the dress and heels back on, I felt like the proverbial million dollars. Although with the recession and inflation, probably more like five.
Million that is.
Probably pounds as well given where we live.
I mean I looked and felt good.
Sheesh, sometimes you guys can be soooo dense.
I made my way into the kitchen while Mum did her own early morning renovations. Found the coffee and some sort of good-for-you-and-you-can-tell-by-the-lack-of-taste cereal. Skimmed milk – well duh – and a few pallets of fresh fruit. Blueberries. yum. Expensive in this part of the world, but yum none the less.
Mum appeared looking like her own expression of the contents of the Bank of England.
“Oh!” She did a double take, pausing halfway through hooking on an earring. “What’s the occasion?”
“No occasion. Just wanted to look fabulous and this was pretty much what I had to work with.”
“And whose fault is that?”
I get it. Daughter’s been a grumpy little shit for so long, mother’s fallen into the habit of being critical. Hope it’s not too late to turn things around.
“Mine. No argument there. But not anymore. This is a new day, and I’m a new me. I’m sorry I’ve been such an ungrateful grump, Mum. I’d like that to change, and I’d really like it if you’d help.”
I poured a coffee and slid it across the counter.
She picked it up and sipped at it black, grimaced and headed for one of the cupboards, where she retrieved a jar of honey and added a spoonful to her mug.
One spoon of honey in black coffee. Noted for future reference.
“Well, if you’re serious, we’d better start you off in something that’s a little bit less night on the town. Honestly, why didn’t you wear that last night when you went out with your friends?”
Still a critical edge, but softening a bit unless I miss my guess. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and I was no Joshua to bring Jericho tumbling down with a single blast of my trumpet.
“It wasn’t until I was out with my friends that I had this epiphany, Mum.”
“Oh. Well I can’t take you seriously in that thing; not this early in the morning. Wait there.”
She headed downstairs and came up a few minutes later with an equally spectacular dress. Russet coloured this time instead of the cheerful burnt yellow I was wearing. Longer skirt, reaching almost to my knees, and a slightly higher neckline. Cleavage would still show, but not as much as with the party dress.
“This comes out of your salary my dear.”
“Okay Mum, but staff rates though, yeah?”
“Who makes money on staff rates?”
“Who makes money off their kids?”
I tried to keep my tone light and cheerful, and was rewarded by a brief glimpse at the slightest chink in her armour. Her lips pursed, ever so briefly, in the vaguest hint of a smile.
I stripped off the party dress and climbed into the deep red one. It fit like a glove, and caressed me like a lover.
“So how many years of indentured servitude before I pay of this marvellous creation mother mine?”
I swirled gently on the spot, careful to keep my balance in those silly shoes.
Well I say silly. They were oddly comfortable and easy enough to balance on if I was careful, and they looked superb, which I guess makes them not silly at all.
I caught my mother smiling again out of the corner of my eye. She put it away before I stopped spinning though.
“It depends. I mean I can hardly pay you for your needlework, but if you’re prepared to go out in public looking like that, I could use you on the shop floor. At that rate you might pay of the debt in four, maybe five years.”
There was a twinkle in her eye which didn’t go unnoticed, despite the severity of her expression.
“Done. Cheap at twice the price.” I glided – yes, actually glided – across to her and planted a kiss on her cheek. Flattery will get you everywhere under the right circumstances and I could feel a distinctly motherly shape wrapping itself around my little finger.
“Accessories and makeup?”
“I don’t know what I’ve got,” easy enough to be honest there. “I told Ruth I’d meet her in Debenhams at lunchtime to sort out the war paint, but for the rest…”
“Don’t you have that gold necklace I gave you for Christmas? And those bangles? I’d suggest earrings, but you’ve let them grow over again haven’t you?”
I felt my earlobes. There was the grisly feel of old scar tissue, but no evidence of holes.
“I’ll get that sorted when I’m at Deb’s.” I’d always wanted pierced ears, but it’s not the sort of thing you allow yourself when you’re pretending to be a man.
I headed off to my room, taking my yellow dress to hang back up. A quick search of the bedside cabinet revealed both the necklace and the bangles, which I added to the ensemble. My watch was a plastic Minnie Mouse one, which didn’t go with the rest of the look, so I went without.
Coffee and fruit covered cardboard to start the day. Whatever happened to breakfast being the most important meal?
Mum talked business while I chewed my way through a bland and unsatisfying meal. By the time I was done, I’d taken in all the things she had to say about what was where and how I should greet the customers. I wasn’t going to do it exactly as she told me, but I wasn’t going to mess it up either. We were both down on the shop floor when she flipped the sign at precisely nine o’clock, then when we weren’t immediately inundated with eager customers, she withdrew to the workroom in the back, and after a minute or two, I could hear the careful, slow snips of her cutting out material for another piece of motherly magic.
We did have customers come into the shop. I mean it is a successful business after all. I greeted them cheerfully, rather than formally as mother wanted me to, and they responded in kind. By the time lunchtime loomed, I’d turned at least two disinterested browsers into definitely interested come-back-later-when-I’ve-been-to-the-bank customers.
It turned out I had something of a natural flare for this. Not so much the sales patois, but a natural eye to match up a person with one of Mum’s creations. I’d used the early part of the morning while no-one was in the shop to look through the whole inventory, so I had a really good idea of what there was and where to find it. I had my eye on a couple more dresses for myself and wondered just how much shop credit Mum might be prepared to advance me.
Twelve-thirty came round with my agreed date with Derek set for one. I popped my head through to the back where Mum already had the base of a new dress sewn up and hanging off a dressmaker’s dummy.
“Wow, you work fast. Mum, this is fabulous.”
“And since when have you been any kind of judge of what I do?”
“I’ve always thought what you did was amazing, Mum. It’s just that I never really got it for me before now. I love this dress.” I hugged at the bodice of my own covering and swung back and forth to feel the skirt swirling around my legs, “and I want to make up for all the time I’ve wasted.”
“If you mean that, you can help me hem this one.”
“I’d love to Mum, and I will, but can it wait till this afternoon? I promised I’d meet a friend for lunch at one o’clock.”
“Down the high street at Giuseppe’s.”
“Well that gives you twenty minutes before you need to leave.”
I bit my lip. Again, when you’re pretending to be a man, you don’t get to try out things like this.
“Do you have a piece of cloth I could practice on first? I don’t want to mess up your work.”
She eased back onto her ankles – quite spry for her age, my Mum – and gave me an appraising look.
“On my work table. Use that small scrap.”
I picked up a piece of the same material she’d used to make the skirt and squatted down beside her to watch her work. The stiches were small and precise, and after a minute I thought I had the technique; in my head at least. I folded one side of the material over, just a quarter of an inch – no big hems on Mum’s clothes. It’s harder and it takes more precision, but it looks better when it’s done.
I didn’t have a needle ready. I dropped the material back on the table and hunted around for the needed, snapped off a length of cotton, licked the tip and passed it through the eye of a needle I’d found in one of Mum’s pincushions with one precise stab. I’m not sure if it was beginner’s luck or my new body being more dextrous, but it was a satisfying start.
The sewing was fiddlier than I’d anticipated though. It took me a while to get started and my first inch was an unmitigated disaster. I picked up an odd shaped tool I remember my own mum – Derek’s mum that is – using to cut thread, and I sliced through the abortive work I’d done so far. Cleared off the bits of thread and started over. Second attempt was better but still a long way from Mum’s precise stitches. Third was almost there. I was about to cut it off and start over again when the shop bell jangled.
I dropped the needle and the piece of material and headed into the shop to see who I could help. It was one of my turn around customers form earlier come in to buy the dress I’d recommended. No slouch considering the price tag on the dress was three hundred and fifty. Sounds a lot, but anything hand-made is going to have a price tag. I called Mum through from the back room while the lady was trying it on. One of Mum’s things is that she will alter any dress she sells for perfect fit. Part of what keeps her customers coming back, because that perfect fit makes all the difference between looking good and looking amazing.
Mum took the measurements. Not much alteration needed, so she promised ready by the end of lunch. The lady paid and left and once more I was under the inscrutable parental gaze. Mum twitched her head towards the back room and I followed her through.
She picked up my practice piece and handed it to me.
“This is dreadful,” she said, her mouth pulled down into what I was recognising as its signature frown. “Having said that, it’s ten times better than anything you’ve done before and unless I miss my guess, you were about to unpick it and start over when Mrs Prentice came in.”
Yes new customer, but we always get the name, then it’s like they’re a part of the elite. High end couture is so much about playing up to the snobbery, and to be addressed by name by Mrs Turner was one of the uppest of one upmanships.
“There may be hope for you yet, girl. As for snagging Janet. A cold sale on your first morning in the shop!”
“Maybe two cold sales. There was a Mrs Higgs-Porter I think she said her name was.”
“What, Marjory from the bridge club?”
“I don’t know, I’m…”
“Enormous bosom, like a galleon under full sail, and a short perm, died such a vivid coppery red it looks like her head’s on fire.”
“That sounds like her.” I was having trouble keeping a straight face, but somehow I managed it. “She was interested in that silver-grey ball gown. Second tier at the back, over to the right.”
“I’ve only ever seen Marj wear blue. What possessed her to…”
“I suggested it. She wasn’t that sure to start with, but once she tried it on, she was all over it. It’s going to need quite a bit of alteration I’m afraid.”
“With her boobs I’m not surprised. Well, I’d say you’ve earned your lunch break today. Back by two okay?”
“I may be a few minutes late if you don’t mind. I was going to pop in to see Ruth about makeup on the way back.”
“Quarter past then, and while you’re in Debenhams, see if you can get a message to Mrs Faraday; tell her I’m ready for her next fitting.”
I hurried out of the shop before she added anything more to my to-do list. I wasn’t too happy about having my life organised for me, but today was too soon to make a bid for emancipation.
Derek was waiting by the time I arrived, coffees and a plate of chips and dips already there.
“I figured you might have a battle getting away from the ubergrupenfuhrer so I ordered for us. I always liked the dips when I was you, and I figured taste buds go with the body right?”
“Sounds good.” I added milk to my coffee and took a long swig of it. It only just occurred to me that neither Mum nor I had taken a drink break all morning. Right, that was one thing that was going to change.
“I see she has you in a frock already. How long did that take her?”
“My preference actually. Just because you wanted to be a guy all your life doesn’t mean that there’s something wrong with clothes like this, and your mum is amazing with a needle and thread. Doesn’t she ever use a sewing machine?”
Derek shook his head. “She’s your mum now, and no. She says she can sew as fast by hand and with greater precision. I’m not convinced about the speed, but she is good and quick when she gets started, and I’ve never seen stitching so fine from any machine.
“Do I take it you’re getting into the whole dress shop thing? I mean I’ve always admired her for what she can do, but I’ve never wanted to be like her.”
“I love it. She picked this out for me from the shop, and it’s fantastic. It feels like I’m wearing a hug, and she hasn’t even altered it yet.”
“She doesn’t have to. She made that for me for a wedding we went to a year or so back.”
“Why wasn’t it in your wardrobe then?”
“I didn’t go to the wedding. Refused to be paraded in front of all the friends and relations, all dolled up like her little princess. We had one stinker of a row over it. I went off to a concert with some friends, and because I’d only ever worn it for fittings – and under protest then too – it had never left the shop, so she put it on the racks. I thought we sold it some time back though…”
My stomach growled at me and I got the message. “So how was your first morning on the floor of Willis Hardware? Not too dull I hope.”
“Are you kidding? It’s like Aladdin’s cave in there. I spent all morning doing inventory. I think I got it about half done by the time lunchtime came around. Dad was gobsmacked.”
“Half! You did half in one morning? How the hell did you manage that?”
“Yeah, that was about Dad’s reaction. It turns out I’ve never managed more than a couple of shelves in a day before now,” was that a hint of disapproval in his voice, “but it’s an amazing way to find out what we’ve got and where it is. Plus I’m getting these ideas on some extra things we could add to the stock, maybe pull in a few more customers. I was telling Dad about them over coffee and he seems really interested.”
“Oh yeah, you get a coffee break don’t you?”
“Oh shit.” he was laughing which kind of ruined any chance he had of making the apology real. “Sorry, I should have told you. Mum gets so drawn into her work sometimes, she can forget to stop to eat or drink. You have to make sure it happens.”
We continued to chat over the food and coffee for a while longer. Frankly I was amazed that he found so much of interest in a shop full of screws and nails, tools and wood, plugs and plumbing, and he was just as amazed at how I much I loved the dress shop. We really had been living each other’s lives all these years, and right now we were both riding the high that follows any low.
“What’s the time?”
“Don’t you have your watch?”
“Minnie Mouse not such a great fashion statement alongside a dress like this.”
“I guess not, but then I wouldn’t care as much as you seem to.” He stretched out his hand and looked at his wrist. “It’s, er, twenty to two.”
“Shit. I gotta go. Listen, I’m glad you’re doing well. Give me a call some time and we’ll do this again.”
“Yeah. Hey, I’m so happy you’re okay with this, ‘cos this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me. It’s like I’m alive for the first time.”
“Same goes for me. Give Mum and Dad a hug from me won’t you?”
“Yeah same here, if the old bat will let you get close enough.”
So yeah, definitely issues to work through there.
Ruth was looking for me when I came bundling into Debenhams. We had fifteen minutes before her lunch break, and it took more like twenty for her to sort me out, which put her five minutes over. Her supervisor wasn’t happy about the disruption in his routine, but since I was a paying customer he let things slide. I walked away with more gunk than I thought I would ever need, and a lot lighter purse despite Ruth’s staff card. It turns out that I have warm autumn colours, which doesn’t come as too much of a surprise given the autumnal colours of two dresses I own. I’m not sure I get the whole seasons thing yet, but auburn hair, dark hazel eyes and a sort of golden colour to my skin makes the whole thing pretty unambiguous in my case. On the plus side, it’s hard to get it wrong, on the minus side, there are some colours that I just never would be able to pull off, some of which are kind of favourites.
Still, with a ton of stuff bought and paid for, and Ruth about to dash off for a sandwich in the canteen, I held her back for long enough to place a quick call up to Mrs Faraday on the shop’s telephone exchange, then, message delivered, I got her to show me where I could get my ears pierced. That wasn’t too big a deal since it was on the way to the canteen.
It hurt. It fucking hurt. I mean ice on the lobes, quick stab with the needle, all over, there that wasn’t so bad was it? Yes it fucking was. I guess my own – the former me in this case – fault as they had to go through all the scar tissue from the times in the past I’d had it done and let it grow over. Still it was done now, and wouldn’t be needed again. The gold plated studs I bought with the mini torture session had a little Teflon tubes which, I was told, helped reduce the risk of allergic response as well as ensuring that the holes stayed open even if I forgot to keep my suds in.
Considerably poorer, but enjoying the taste, smell and feel of makeup on my face as well as the slightly increased weight to my ears, I rushed back to the dress shop, making it through the door just as the shop’s clock clicked over to quarter past.
Mum looked at the clock, then at me and nodded. She’d made a lot of progress on the dress.
“Did you speak to Mrs Faraday?” she asked, her head already turned back to the task in hand.
“Yes. Did you have lunch yet?”
“I don’t have time for lunch.”
“Yes you do. I’ll make you a sandwich and a cup of tea. Any preference?”
“I’d prefer for you to be in the shop thank you very much. I’ve enough to do here without having to deal with customers as well.”
“Tuna it is then. It’ll only take five minutes. I’m sure you can manage for another five minutes.”
I rushed up stairs and set about buttering some bread. I only went for tuna because I’d seen it whilst rummaging about in the fridge earlier in the morning.
A couple of lettuce leaves, some slices of tomato and a healthy dollop of tuna mayo. By definition, a healthy dollop is smaller than a generous dollop, but larger than a stingy one. Bread sliced diagonally, because everyone knows triangular sandwiches taste better than rectangular ones, and everything was ready by the time the kettle boiled.
“How d’you want your tea?” I yelled down.
“Same as usual,” she yelled back.
“Earl grey, slice of lemon and a half spoon of honey. Did they drill out your brain when they were putting in those studs?”
So she had noticed.
While the kettle was hot, I made myself a cuppa too. I think I was upstairs a total of three minutes before coming back down with two steaming mugs and Mum’s plate of sandwiches. My return couldn’t have been timed better, as the shop bell jingled just as I reached the ground floor.
I put Mum’s lunch and the two mugs on the work table then stepped through into the shop, smiling brightly and radiating all the joy I felt.
The afternoon went by a little faster than the morning. There were quite a few established customers dropping in for fittings or consultations, and a few more first timers. Mrs Higgs-Porter came in with the full seven hundred pound price tag for the silver-grey ball gown. Mum cut seams, and pulled and twisted at the material in her own arcane and mysterious way and turned what was already a fantastic piece of dressmaking into a garment that suited the customer to perfection.
I know there’s this whole false, ‘it suits you, madam’ nonsense that goes with this business, but I couldn’t hide the admiration in my eyes as Mum took the – well come on, let’s be honest about it – awkwardly shaped Marjory Higgs-Porter and made her look, if not beautiful, at the very least regal. It was a kind of magic that was as mysterious to me as whatever had given me this new lease on life. I was speechless, breathless even, and it turned into a perfect moment as doubt turned to wonder in the older woman’s eyes, then to satisfaction.
“I have to admit, Marjory, I wouldn’t have thought to suggest this colour on you, but it is just right. Exactly the right colour and exactly the right cut for your figure. It’ll take me a couple of days to make the alterations. Is that alright?”
“Oh. Oh dear. I was hoping to have it for the party we’re throwing tomorrow night.”
I could see Mum’s jaw working as she bit down on the response she wanted to give. I agreed, if she wanted it for tomorrow, why the hell hadn’t she come in earlier? Then again, she’s probably intended to buy something off the rack somewhere else before I steered her towards this particular wonder.
“I’ll have to delay a few of my other regulars, but I can have it done by tomorrow a six. Would that be alright?”
“Six? No earlier?”
“I’m sorry Marjory, six is already promising miracles.”
“Six it is then. I shall see you tomorrow,” she turned towards me, “and thank you so much dear for suggesting this. I’m so excited, I don’t know quite what to say.”
We helped her out of the dress, avoiding the pins Mum had left in for guides and I saw her out of the shop while Mum took the garment into the back room and took out a second dressmaker’s dummy. It took a while to set it up for Marj’s unusual proportions, then she placed the projet du jour over it and straightening it out.
“You’d better keep practicing your stitching. I think I’m going to need your help if we’re to get this done by six tomorrow.” I’d been working at it all afternoon, but with all the interruptions, my fourth, fifth and sixth attempts didn’t see a lot of improvement. I had an uninterrupted run for the seventh, and for the first time thought it worth showing. Mum gave it a close look and a nod before passing it back and telling me to try again. By this time, the edge I’d been sewing was frayed and almost impossible to work with, so I switched sides.
Five o’clock came, and I closed the shop, checking the high street first to see if there might be anyone heading our way.
“Tea or coffee?” I asked on my way up the stairs.
“Oh a tea would be wonderful, love.”
Tiredness and stress. That’s all it took to wear away at the walls. For the first time I glimpsed the person underneath and she was as human as the rest of us. I smiled to myself as I climbed the stairs, made the tea and added a few chocolate biscuits to a plate.
“Are you trying to ruin my diet?” she said staring at the plate.
Okay so tiredness and stress only provide glimpses through the cracks. Still a way to go yet.
“You’ve had a small bowl of muesli and a tuna sandwich all day, and as far as I can see you haven’t stopped. I hardly think a chocolate biscuit or two’s going bust your corset. Besides you could do with a bit of energy to keep you going till dinner.” I managed to sound just about as waspish as she did. Not something I wanted to cultivate, but sometimes the only way to stand your ground was to fight like with like.
She gave me an exasperated sigh and bit into a biscuit. “Satisfied?” she said around a mouthful of crumbs.
“Not until I see you blow up like a blimp,” I said, planting my hands on my waist, “now eat it all up.”
It took a few seconds, but the cracks really did start to show. It was the strangest noise to start with and it took me a while to recognise it for what it was. Then I couldn’t help but join in as the laughter built and built until we were leaning on each other for need of support.
“Oh my word, Alison. Do I really sound like that?”
“Only most of the time Mum.” I shifted my arms and the whole leaning thing turned into a hug. “You know I love you, right?”
It was a funny thing to say to someone I’d not met before the previous night, but ever since Derek and I had switched minds, or was it Alison and I had switched bodies, I’d felt like I was slipping deeper and deeper into this alternate life, accepting the things that came with it, which included this rather unusual relationship with the cantankerous, self-righteous, opinionated, hard-working wonderful woman I’d inherited as a parent.
“I do now,” she said softly, and it was the loveliest thing anyone had ever said to me. “But come on, this dress isn’t going to finish itself. Get back to your practice. I want to see two perfect lines before I let you loose on this, and I’m going to need to let you loose on it if we’re going to have half a chance of finishing.”
So I went back to my piece. Attempt eight had already been an improvement on seven, and nine an improvement on eight. My tenth attempt earned me a brief smile and a nod and my eleventh broke the barrier.
“One more like that,” she said, and went back to the sleeve she’d been working on.
My twelfth piece was my graduation piece. Mum passed me some silver thread and showed me the side seam on the left side. It was a part of the dress that would remain hidden a lot of the time. But it was still part of a seven-hundred pound dress. I was nervous like I’ve never been before, and I missed the eye of the needle three times before Mum put her hand on mine.
“Take a break, sweetheart.” The smile reached to her eyes as she looked at me, and I couldn’t help responding in kind.
I glanced at the shop clock, surprised to see it reading quarter past eight.
“Shit, I need to get some dinner cooked.”
“Language please Alison, and we don’t have time for cooking tonight. We’re going to be late enough working in this as it is.”
“We have to eat.”
“I know. Why don’t you call through to Mr Tongs? He can sort us out something and bring it round.”
I knew Mr Tongs. I’d walked past the restaurant so many times over the years, but I’d only been in there once. Last week it had been, while my parents were away. On the Wednesday I’d been so down I couldn’t even summon up the will power to heat a tin of beans, so instead I’d headed down the High Street and walked in the first place I’d noticed – Mr Tongs.
It was a seedy enough dive, but the food was good. When I’d finished, the proprietor had come up to where I was sitting on my own with a jug of rice wine and a couple of glasses. He’d poured and lifted his glass in toast. It would have been rude to ignore him so I’d followed suit and we’d downed a glass or two.
“You like? Food. You like?” He’d asked me in his broken English.
“Yes, very much. It was very good, thank you.” I’d bowed from my seated position. I don’t know enough about Chinese culture, so I hadn’t been sure if I was being polite or hideously inappropriate, but Mr Tong seemed to appreciate it. He poured out another couple of glasses of the rice wine and pushed one my way.
“We friends now. You come back again, we friends.”
He raised his glass and I followed suit. The wine was strong with a strange after taste. I probably wouldn’t have bothered if left to myself, but I’d been raised to be polite, so I drank with the funny old man, and nodded and smiled at his barely comprehensible remarks. After the second drink, he withdrew and I went home.
Returning from my reminiscences, I hunted through the yellow pages for the number, found it and dialled.
“Hello, Mr Tong? Yeah, hi, it’s Alison here form Glad Rags. Mum asked if you could put us something together and bring it round.”
There was some negotiation of exactly what and when we wanted to eat, but whether or not he would deliver was never an issue, and he didn’t mention cost either. I put a pot of coffee on in the hope that the caffeine would keep us going, and by the time I reappeared with two coffees – one white, no sugar, one black with a spoonful of honey – there was a knock on the door and Mr Tong himself stood there with two covered plates.
“You bring me back tomorrow, okay?” He bowed and smiled. This was a neighbours thing. Something my old mum and dad complained never happened these days, but it only happens as much as you invest in it yourself. My new mum seemed to have cultivated a relationship with our nearby neighbourhood Chinese restaurant – possibly a last minute repair of a ceremonial robe at Chinese New Year or something – and now we had a tit for tat thing. We scratch your back when you itch, you do the same for us.
Duck in plum sauce, chicken with cashews and horse chestnuts and special fried rice. Enough to fill us both up with as much left over. That could go in the freezer later. Food and coffee over, we set to with the job in hand. I worked slowly and carefully, seeming to do only a tenth of what Mum managed, but she was encouraging and approving of the painstaking effort I was taking.
I finished the second side seam by ten o’clock, then worked on the darts Mum wanted put in for the next hour. Midnight loomed as I approached the end of resewing the seam for the left sleeve. Mum had been whizzing about like dervish, repositioning so much of the finer decoration. I rethreaded my needle, stretched to get the kinks out of my back and settled down beside the right sleeve.
“How much more is there to do?” I asked.
Mum looked up at the clock, just as it chimed midnight.
“Not that much. Not so much it can’t wait till morning.”
“But still enough that it’s going to keep us going till six?”
“Not us dear, me.”
“Have you ever seen a painter painting, or a sculptor sculpting? First they rough out what they want to do, then they smooth it out, putting in more detail, then they go over it again. The more they work on it, the smaller the changes become, but the most time of all is spent on those final small changes. This evening we remodelled the basic shape of what this is going to become, and we’ve modified that, and I’ve modified even that. Most of the essential ground work has been completed, and I wouldn’t have been able to do it without your help.”
“Oh I don’t know about that. You seemed to be doing so much more than me.”
“But what you were doing were the painstaking slow bits. I wouldn’t have been able to do those much faster than you, so you freed me up to get on with other things. Plus you’ve been quite an inspiration in your own way.”
“Oh yes. Usually when I’m working on my own, I reach a point where I just want to down tools and give up for a bit. Every time I felt those feelings coming on, I looked at you and you were plodding on. It gave me what I needed to keep going.”
“But I was only plodding on because you were.”
“Which means we kept each other going. I never could have hoped for this much to be done by now. As it is, I think I may even be finished by four, or even three tomorrow afternoon.
“Now though, I think we could both do with a good night’s sleep. We don’t need to open the shop tomorrow, but we’ll need to start again on this by nine if we want to keep on schedule.”
She stood up, creaking and groaning as her old joints protested, and headed for the stairs.
I followed carrying the leftovers of our meal, which I set about putting in Tupperware and then the freezer.
Mum headed for the bathroom.
“Do you want a hot chocolate before bed?”
“You really do want to turn me into a blimp, don’t you?”
“I’ll take that as a no then?”
“Thank you dear, but no.”
I slipped out of my clothes and into my nightwear, hanging the dress in pride of place next to my yellow one. All the blouses and trousers were bunched up at the other end and I wondered if I’d ever want to wear any of them again. My lacy underwear added to the washing pile, and I stopped to check and see if I could get away with a sports bra under the red dress. The neckline wasn’t so open, and with little bit of adjustment I reckoned I could hide the bra straps with a minimum of tugging.
Mum was done in the bathroom, I got my ablutions and tooth brushing out of the way, and eventually hit the sack at twelve thirty.
Morning was heralded by the smell of coffee and bacon. I wandered into the living room, hair all over the place and a definite zomboid quality to my movements.
“Morning darling.” She handed me a cup of coffee. “Bathroom’s free and breakfast will be ready in ten minutes.”
“Whatever happened to blowing up like a blimp?”
“It’s Sunday, sweetie.”
As if that explained everything.
Whatever. I headed for the bathroom, evacuated everything that needed evacuating and climbed into the shower.
I’m sure I heard her chuckle as I squealed at the lack of hot water. Still it meant I was awake by the time I made it to the breakfast table. Russet red dress again, but this time with more utilitarian underwear. Only one set of fancies and being a girl, I found, made me more sensitive about reusing stuff. I guess I could have hand washed them if I hadn’t been so damned tired last night.
“No makeup today dear?”
“Didn’t think it was worth it if we were staying in and working.”
“Probably a good idea. Always best to let your skin breath every now and again.”
I’m not sure if chipper mum was an improvement on yesterday’s Mrs Grinch.
She eyed my dress sadly.
“We’re going to have to get you some more clothes, aren’t we?”
“Don’t I have to pay this one off first?” The comment was half facetious. I wasn’t sure how serious she’d been about that.
“Oh I think your commission from your sales yesterday will just about cover that. Maybe leave you with a little left over.”
Now she was being facetious, and enjoying it far too much. I decided to join in.
“Well you know that staff discount does bring the price down quite a way.”
The bacon and eggs were wonderful. What would life be without bacon? I mean sure there’d be chocolate, but you’d need a lot of that to make up for no bacon.
So glad I’m not vegetarian.
Food and caffeine. Enough of both to kick start the motors. Before long we were working together like the same well-oiled machine we’d been the previous night. I finished the right sleeve, which meant I’d done pretty much all I could do. Mum looked over my handiwork and nodded her head in approval over it all.
“Tight, neat, regular. I couldn’t’ have done this better myself.”
The praise felt fantastic. All the more for knowing it was hard won.
“What can I do now?”
“Well you can make us a cup of tea if you don’t mind, then watch a bit of television or whatever you like.”
“It wouldn’t feel right with you working down here.”
“That never stopped you before.”
“Well it’s stopping me now. I’ll make the drinks, but you can sort out something new for me to do.”
“If that’s what you want.”
By the time I returned with the tea, she’d set up another dummy with a different dress on it.
“What about that one?” I said pointing to the dress she’d been working on before Mrs Higgs-Porter barged in and disrupted the flow of things.
“No!” She barked it like the retort of a rifle, then more softly. “No, not that one. Besides, these are the alterations that I’ve had to put on hold to accommodate dear old Marjory. They’re next in the priority list, and if we can get them finished for tonight, all the better.”
The message was unspoken, but clear enough. Not good enough for the new dress. I found myself holding back tears. Strange that. Never cried a drop in all those years as Derek, and now something as stupid as this threatens to open the sluices.
I let Mum walk me through the alterations she had in mind for the dress in front of me and set to without another word, working away until lunchtime. It all seemed easier somehow. My stitching was faster, and more naturally regular. I didn’t have to think about it so much and it began to feel like something I could learn to do and enjoy.
Every now and again, Mum or I would look up at what the other was doing, but apart from that we didn’t communicate; just worked on in silence. Lunchtime came and I stopped long enough to fix us a sandwich each, and a fresh pot of coffee.
Mum stopped to eat, and there were a few times it looked like she wanted to say something. After her rebuff this morning though, I didn’t want to hear it, whatever it was, and she must have read it in my body language. We finished eating in silence and went back to work.
Mid-afternoon there was a rap on the shop door. I’d pretty much finished everything Mum had asked me to do, so I didn’t feel bad about going to answer it.
“Hey beautiful.” It was Derek. “Fancy coming out to play?”
I looked at Mum who arched an eyebrow.
“I’ve done pretty much everything you said. The only thing that’s left is the appliqué on the left breast.”
She nodded. “If it could be done by six I’d appreciate it, but there’s no reason you shouldn’t go out for a bit. It is Sunday after all, and I did say you could do what you like.”
“Give me a few minutes.” This to Derek.
I ran upstairs and did a quick once over on my face. Foundation, a little eye shadow, some lippy. Not Leonardo’s Mona Lisa, but then neither was it Picasso’s Dora Maar. It would do. I grabbed my bag, and a cardigan since it had turned cold and blustery, and ran back down to join him.
“Have fun kids,” was Mum’s parting remark as I closed the door behind me.
“Trouble in paradise?” was Derek’s opening gambit.
I stormed on ahead without dignifying the remark with an answer. Derek had to catch up with me and steer me round.
“I thought me might have a quick drink down at the pub.”
“Tempting providence, or have you got sick of all the DIY crap? You want to try and switch back don’t you?”
“Not on your life. The way I see it, this is the way I was meant to be, and I think you feel the same, it’s just that the storks fucked up and we ended in different places.”
“Storks deliver babies dickhead. If they messed up, you would have grown up in the hardware store as a girl and I would have probably ended up as a dress maker’s dummy until your Mum decided she couldn’t ignore that I was a boy anymore.”
“Something’s really got to you hasn’t it? What is it? What did the old bat do now?”
“Yeah like nothing, and now I’m a dickhead because I make a joke about storks.”
“Oh it’s… It’s just that I worked like bloody stink last night, and today when I’d finished everything to her high and almightiness’s impossible standard, I asked about working on a different dress and she bit my head off. I mean if I’m good enough to work on Mrs Higgs-Porter’s seven hundred quid ball gown till gone midnight, I should be good enough for anything right?”
“Did she say anything about this dress you’re so interested in?”
“Well no, but…”
“But diddlyfuck. You don’t know why she said no, best you not invent reasons. It’s hard enough to get on with some people without inventing reasons to hate them.”
“When did you get so fucking Confucius all of a sudden?”
“Oh, not a dickhead any more, eh?”
“Don’t push it.””
“I lived with her for a lot of years remember. Most of what fell apart between us was because we didn’t understand each other, and we each made up reasons for why the other was being so unreasonable, which meant we couldn’t dig our way out of the hole. By the time we tried it was too deep.”
“So is that why you want things to work between me and her? Make up for all your shit?”
“Don’t push your luck.”
We arrived at the pub and he held the door open for me. A silly little thing, but he got a kick out of doing it because it was something that was okay for him to do now, and I got a kick out of having it done for me. As I say, a silly gesture, but it made us feel special.
“Vodka orange, please,” I said as he dug out his wallet, “although I feel like I should be paying. I think I’m earning more than you.”
“And spending it if what you were doing in Debenhams was anything to go by.”
“Are you spying on me?”
“Not intentionally, but we’re bound to end up in the same part of town at the same time every now and again.”
“Yeah right, like you have a reason to be in the makeup department of Debenhams.”
“Pharmacy’s right across the street, and Dad still needs his pills.”
“And a pint of Marsden’s and a packet of cheese and onion crisps. D’you want anything to eat?”
“No thank you, and if you want to lose that gut, you’d better go a little lighter on the beer and crisps.”
We took our drinks back through to the garden and stood beside the pond as we had before. It looked different in the light. I mean of course it would, but with the dim shadows and silhouettes of the night it had seemed larger. There were quite a few large fish in there just under the surface. One in particular seemed to be watching us, flapping its gills and working its mouth like a little motor pump.
“What do you think happened here last night?” It was me that voiced the question, but it was a question that loomed large for both of us. I mean what was so special about this place?
While we were standing there, drinks in hand, the landlord came up and started tossing food into the water. Most of the fish were on it like a heat rash in high summer, but the big one that had been watching us moved lazily forward. I touched the landlord on the arm.
“What are they?”
“Chinese carp. I got them from Mr Tong. He swears one of them is a dragon. He wanted them in his restaurant, but health and safety won’t allow it for some reason, so he was looking for somewhere to keep them, and I was putting this pond in, so we struck a deal. They live here, he gives me food for them, all is good. Anytime he feels like moving on, the fish go with him.”
“Yeah, some Chinese myth about Carp jumping up a waterfall or something. If they succeed, they get transformed.” He pointed at big fat Mr Lazy. “He says he was at Dragon’s Gate when he saw that one leap the falls. It made the jump, but landed on the path rather than in the river. Mr Tong helped it into the river above the falls, but it didn’t transform like it’s supposed to. The fish followed Mr Tong down the river and when he bought a bucket and put it in the river, the damn thing swam right into it. Pardon the language miss.”
“Can I have some of the food please?”
He offered the bucket and I reached in for a scoop of whatever it was. I threw it directly over where the big guy was lolling about. He snapped up a few mouthfuls before the other’s moved in and polished off the rest.
“Thank you,” I whispered to him.
“What was that about?”
“Something amazing happened to us here a couple of nights ago. Maybe it was the dragon, maybe that’s a good old fisherman’s tale, Chinese style. Either way it pays to be safe don’t you think?”
He shrugged. “I don’t know. I just feed the fish. If they brought you good fortune then I’m pleased for you.”
He walked away and I looked at Derek. “What do you think?”
“What, dragons? Please. About as likely as…”
“Two people swapping bodies who really needed to? Isn’t it good to have an explanation for something?”
“Yeah, but I’d prefer one I could believe in.”
“Well I choose to believe it.” I turned to the pond where Mr Big was still sculling about gently in the deepest part. “And we’re grateful. We both are, even if he doesn’t quite believe in you yet.”
I swear the fish winked.
We finished our drinks and headed back through the bar, back out onto the main street and back towards the shop. We walked in silence until we approached the door, then Derek broke it, reaching out a hand to stop me, to turn me towards him.
“Listen, about Mum. Be gentle with her okay? I gave her crap for so long, she doesn’t always know how to respond when I – that is you now – get all bent out of shape.”
“Okay,” I said softly. Yeah she probably had her reasons about the dress and they might easily have nothing to do with how good I was with a needle. I hated not knowing though.
I reached up and planted a kiss on his cheek.
“Oooh, me likey.” He reached up and touched the place my lips had touched him.
“Give getting rid of this a go,” I punched him in his – formerly my – substantial gut, “and maybe you’ll find someone who’ll do that on a regular basis.” I opened the door. “Thanks for the drink.”
Mum was still working on Mrs Higgs-Porter’s dress. Not much had changed, but in a subtle way it was not much that added up to a whole lot. She really had a master artist’s touch when it came to the finer details.
I ran upstairs and put the kettle on, changed my shoes for a pair of flats, since my ankles were killing me, dropped the cardigan on the bed and washed what remained of the fish food off my hands.
Cups of tea and biscuits in hand, I made my way back down to the work room. I kissed Mum on the cheek and sat back to chomp on my biscuit.
“What was that for?”
She paused in her work and picked up her cup, her expression offering enough thanks that I didn’t need to hear them.
“For putting up with me. For being amazing. For listening when I say I love you.”
She gave me an I-have-no-idea-what-just-happened-but-I’m-glad sort of smile and sipped at her tea.
When I’d finished eating and drinking, I set to with the final bit of appliqué. It didn’t take long and the dress was done. I looked it over carefully, critically. Yes my needlework was good enough, but there was something… not quite…
“Mmm?” through a mouth full of pins.
“What if I shifted this over here and dropped this down a bit?” It’s hard to explain what I was trying to say without showing you the dress, but it’s gone now and I don’t have any photographs.
Mum’s eye’s sparkled and she nodded, smiling as much as she dared with her load of pins.
It meant another hour’s work, but I got on with it cheerfully enough in the knowledge that this would make the dress so much better. Cutting stiches without snagging the material was painstaking, and I pricked myself a couple of times while resewing as I had to do at least part of it blind. It was five o’clock by the time I’d finished, and for the first time it looked finished.
Mum came over and looked it over, smiling freely now without the threat of perforated gums.
“I was always sure you had this in you, Alison. I am so proud of you.”
I smiled, enjoying the satisfaction of a job well done doubled with the satisfaction of praise well earned.
“I ought to get those plates back to Mr Tong and pay him for last night’s meal.”
“My purse is on my bed. Twenty should cover it.”
I went upstairs and set to. First the plates and covers needed washing, since they’d just been left to soak last night and today, then I had to find the money and finally change my shoes back. I needed more than one pair of heels. One pair on its own was ridiculous. Still I could get by for now.
I carried the plates down to Mr Tongs. It was only three shops over so not exactly a hike. I went round back since this was tradesman’s business rather than customer. A middle aged Chinese lady opened the door to me.
“Mr Tong?” I asked
“Oh yes. Mr Tong. I fetch. You wait.” Lots of nodding and smiling, and off she went, leaving me on the doorstep with two heavy plates. Well alright they weren’t that heavy, but I wouldn’t have minded putting them down.
There was a general clattering and swearing from inside, then Mr Tong appeared at the door. I offered him the plates and a sweet smile.
“Oh, yes. Plate. I take. Thank you so much. Thank you so much.”
I know it sounds cliché, but he really did speak like that. Both him and his wife.
“My mother wanted to pay as well.” I held up the banknote.
“No, no. Is a no pay. Thank you so much. You no pay. I pay. My pleasure.”
“I think my Mum would insist.”
“No I insist. I pay. Is old Chinese proverb say: to attract good fortune, spend new coin on old friend, share old pleasure with new friend, and lift up heart of true friend by writing name on wings of dragon.
“I do these things. I write your name, Alison. Is your name I write. Good fortune yes?”
“This hasn’t got anything to do with the fish down at the pub has it?”
“Yes, yes, special fish. Very special fish. One fish, he is dragon. I save him in China and now he stay with me. I write your name for good fortune. Lift up your heart. You sad, you angry. I write name lift you up. Now you happy, yes?”
He was nodding and bowing, smiling and twitching with eagerness to communicate. I’m not sure I fully understood what he was talking about, but I could respond to that last at least.
“I am happy Mr Tong, thank you. Thank you for the food, and for… whatever else you did. I think you did a very good thing Mr Tong. You deserve good fortune.”
The smile broadened, he bowed again and stepped back into his kitchen, closing the door and leaving me dumbfounded and still holding Mum’s money. I slipped it back in my handbag and headed back to the dress shop, thoughts buzzing in my head. Had this really all been Mr Tong’s doing?
Mrs Higgs-Porter arrived shortly before me, and Mum was bustling about, fitting her into the dress. As usual there were a few additional minor adjustments to be made. People can change size and shape considerably in the course of a few days, especially women. It might have been the measuring, but Mum seems pretty hot on that. Measure twice, cut once, very much a watch word of hers.
With the party just three quarters of an hour away, it took both of us fussing around Mrs Higgs-Porter to get her ready in time. We managed our bit in fifteen, which meant she had half an hour to get back to it. Enough time that she spent five minutes admiring herself in the mirror.
“You are simply a genius, Christine. I never wore a dress that fit me better nor made me look so fine. I shall be sure to mention your name to everyone who asks tonight. And next time I need a dress…”
“…please try and give us a few days to make the alterations. Alison and I were up quite late last night to make sure this was ready in time, and I’d rather not do that too often.”
“Well of course my dear. If I’d know I was coming to you, I’d have certainly done so sooner, and I shall next time. Just one thing. With the stitching, did your daughter…”
“My daughter’s stitching is as fine as my own. I defy you to distinguish between her work and mine. If you can, I will return half the price of the dress.”
Mum ushered her to the door and followed her out to her car. They chatted for a while and Mum waved her off as she drove to her big social event.
“This could be very good for business,” she said closing the door. “If Marj is true to her word, and she usually is once she’s got over being scatter brained and a little bit pretentious, she’ll spread the word among her friends and we’ll have a growing influx of well-heeled ladies coming to see us.”
“But you already work all the hours the day offers.”
“Yes, but you don’t.”
“Me? But I’ve barely started. I’ve still got so much to learn.”
“How do you think I felt when I started? Alison, you have a talent, same as me. It’s always been inside you, it just needed a little nudge to bring it out.
“What I just said to Marjory about your stitching, I meant that. You are as good as me, and after only one day of really trying. What that means for the future, well I’m sure I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.”
“But Mum, this is more than just stitching two pieces of cloth together.”
“Yes I know, and you have the ‘more than’ covered as well.”
The door jingled again and in came a severe faced older woman with silver grey hair and wrinkles enough to challenge a walnut. Mum smiled at her and stepped through to the back of the shop, reappearing a few moments later with the dress I’d been working on. The minute she saw it, the old woman’s face lit up like Christmas. She took the dress in her hands and let her gaze devour it.
“Oh Christine, you’ve outdone yourself this time.”
“You approve then Lady Aster?”
“How could I not. I love the way it sweeps down just here. So very elegant.”
Mum flashed me the briefest smile in recognition of the changes I’d suggested.
“If I can make one request your ladyship.”
“And what would that be?”
“That you don’t stand too close to Marjory Higgs-Porter?”
She laughed; a delightful sound that drained years from her.
“Was that why you asked me to come later today? How on Earth did you manage to get two dresses finished in the time?”
Mum waved a hand in my direction. “My daughter, Lady Aster.”
“Oh? And which dress did she work on?”
“Both of them, your ladyship. The change you just commented on was Alison’s idea.”
“Well my dear,” she said turning to me with a smile so wide it doubled the lines in her face, “I can see where your talent comes from, and I am quite delighted with your work. You shall have to watch out Christine, I may find myself changing allegiance.”
“I hope you won’t do that too quickly your ladyship.” I don’t know what possessed me, but I actually bobbed a little curtsy. “I’m still only learning.”
“Modest with it too.” She looked me in the eye and her face turned serious. “My dear, please don’t ever do that to me again. I’ve done nothing deserving of respect beyond marrying a rich man with a title, whereas you have a skill I could never hope to match. And all joking aside, I think I shall have to insist that you have some input into the work your mother does for me in the future. I hope you won’t object.”
I shook my head. Despite her comments on worthiness, she had a commanding presence.
“Ladies, it’s getting late. Would you mind if I changed here?”
I showed her to the changing room, then followed her beckoning finger inside with her. I’d never seen an old woman undress before then. Come to think of it, the first and only woman’s body I’d seen naked was the one I currently inhabited. There was a part of me that wanted to be embarrassed and to keep my eyes averted, but Lady Aster kept chatting to me as though this were the most normal thing in the world, and it was amazing how she managed put me at my ease.
Even with me assisting, it took a while to help her out of one frock and into the other. I was itching to return to what Mum had been saying before Lady Aster’s arrival had interrupted us, but the only speeds the old lady seemed able to manage were ahead slow and all stop, the latter being employed whenever she opened her mouth. Still we managed to get her dressed and looking amazing before my impatience surfaced enough to be visible.
The door closed on Lady Aster and Mum just stood there looking at me. I have to admit that having someone appreciate your work is quite an amazing feeling, and it felt good to know that not only the mechanics, but also some of the artistry on that dress was mine. I couldn’t help smiling, and Mum couldn’t help smiling in response. She cocked an eyebrow at me.
“You’re assuming this is what I want,” I said. “Working in this shop, sewing dresses for rich people all day.”
“Yes I am. There has to be some reason why you’re suddenly putting in all this time and effort, and don’t tell me it’s just to make me feel better, because that hasn’t been high on your agenda for a very long time. Besides, I saw the look in your eye just now.”
“Are we done for today?” I asked, looking at the clock and deftly avoiding her last remark.
Mum glanced up too and nodded. “Seven forty-five is late enough for a Sunday. Besides I’m hungry.”
“What do you fancy?”
“I fancy going out to celebrate that we have next month’s rent sitting in the cash register, courtesy of the last two days’ work.”
“Not Mr Tongs tonight though.”
“I thought you liked his food.”
“I do, but not twice in a row. Besides we don’t need to go out. Really Mum, I’m happy to put something together.” Again I don’t know where that came from. I’ve never had aspirations in the kitchen. Then again I didn’t really have any aspirations at all while I was struggling with my mixed-up identity.
“Absolutely not! You’ve done quite enough these past two days. We both have, and we deserve a treat.”
“And what was last night’s take-out?”
“That was a business expense. A means to free up our hands for work. Enough arguing. If not Mr Tong’s, then where? The pub sound good to you?”
“Yeah, why not? They have a nice selection of jacket potatoes on the menu, and the weather’s cleared enough, we could eat in the gardens.”
I’d intended to suggest steak when I first opened my mouth, but I realised part way through the first phrase that I didn’t really fancy it. It was one of the few things that had been almost guaranteed to raise my sprits as Derek, but now the thought of all that red meat sitting heavy in my stomach didn’t appeal so much. I’d never been much of a vegiphile, but the mere thought of potato skins and coleslaw all but had my mouth watering.
“The pub it is then. I’ll just fetch my coat.”
She waltzed off with a spring in her step and a smile on her face.
It struck me how much more animated she was than when I’d first met her. It didn’t take much cognitive processing to figure out that I was most likely the cause. Her rebellious tomboy of a daughter had turned overnight into someone so much closer to her ideal.
It worried me more than a little. I was allowing myself to be trapped, guided into a role that wasn’t entirely of my choosing. But then again there was something attractive about it too. I’d been so lonely as Derek, even with two parents and a bunch of friends around, I’d never been able to fit in. A flash of comprehension streaked through my mind as I realised that this was the way I’d always wanted to be seen. This was the real me, the me that had always been, but as Derek I’d never had a way to show it.
Guys my age were supposed to be independent and filled with their own dreams, striking out on their own, or at least straining to. What I had here with my newly adopted mother was so much closer to the way I saw myself: dependence, relationship, working together towards a common goal. Maybe dressmaking hadn’t been at the top of my list of things to learn to do, but the repressed part of me that had always wanted but not been allowed to enjoy women’s fashion found an outlet in it, and all my pent up frustration was now spilling over the dam, ready to flow in a flood of creativity.
Mum reappeared and I hooked my arm into the crook of her elbow and smiled at her.
“What?” she asked suspiciously.
“It’s great to see you smile,” I said, which was also true. “Thank you for not giving up on me.”
“Oh Alison, I have missed you.”
“What do you mean? I’ve always been here.”
“I know, but once upon a time you were my little girl, then I lost you for the longest time, and I really was beginning to wonder if you’d gone for good.”
“Well I’m back now, whatever that means, and I have no plans to go away again.”
It took a while to get to the pub. Mum guided us along a meandering track from one shop to the next. Late Sunday it may have been, but there were displays, and Mum seemed determined to sort out my wardrobe now it seemed I’d decided I liked skirts and dresses again. It was cheap mass produced stuff most of it, but even with a master seamstress for a mother, and some mean skills in that area developing myself as well, I didn’t mean either of us could afford to go around in hand stitched clothes all the time. We just weren’t that rich.
Between us we picked out about a dozen new outfits that we both agreed would look good on me, and Mum declared that our shop would open late the next day to give us time to go out and buy a few things. I tried to protest, but she said we didn’t have anything too urgent on, besides which she wasn’t prepared for me to be seen in public wearing the same dress three days in a row.
She wouldn’t budge, so I did what any dutiful daughter who’s been offered the chance to shop and buy and wardrobe full of clothes would do. I agreed.
We weren’t the only ones in the garden. It seemed like Derek’s parents felt there was something to celebrate too, and they were already sitting at a table near to the pond when we walked through, drinks in hand and food order placed. Derek waved at me as we approached.
“Isn’t that the boy you went out with earlier?” Mum murmured in my ear.
“Yeah, but we’re just friends.”
“If you say so.”
“Mum! It’s not like that.”
“Okay.” She raised her hands in surrender. “But if it ends up being more than just friends…”
Derek stood as we approached, as did his parents. It was odd meeting them like this, as though it were for the first time. Perhaps most peculiar was that even though they were familiar to me, they seemed like strangers. I guess I was a long way from the person who had been their son, in my mind as much as in my body.
They invited us to join them, and the vaguest hint of paranoia had me wondering if this had been orchestrated by the parents. Mum had evidently recognised Derek when he called round at lunchtime, and I’m sure my old Mum and Dad must have picked up on some of the things Derek had told them.
Derek and I exchanged slightly embarrassed looks and almost imperceptible shrugs. The fossils were apparently having difficulty with two plus two in this situation, but it would do no harm to let them have their moment of hope. I mean don’t get me wrong, I liked the old Alison, and all the more since she had taken on my life and given me hers, but the thought of having a relationship with my old self felt like it fell somewhere unhealthy between narcissism and incest.
We chatted easily enough even so. I found myself liking Derek all the more for the effort he was making in the store and the proud looks former Mum and Dad kept giving him. Dad even had a good stab at boring us all with Derek’s plans for their shop, and I felt my automatic objections to the thought of us two as an item crumbling a little as the evening went on.
The meals came and I was amused to watch Derek dig into a sizeable lump of cow, still bleeding in the middle, just the way I used to like it. The guilty look he threw my way when he saw the baked jacket and coleslaw land in front of me was almost too precious. I had fond memories of the times I’d enjoyed a juicy rare steak like that, but I really didn’t want one just then.
Derek’s dad, having suitably discomfited his son, yielded the floor to Mum, who then regaled our small company with stories of my hard work over the previous few days. Derek kept giving me odd looks as though he was incapable of believing I could find pleasure in what I’d been doing, which had me I twitching Spock-like eyebrows at him. I mean was it really so much harder to believe than him enjoying inventorying a hardware store? At least what I was learning had a creative element to it, but then I guess so did his with the new ideas for the shop and everything. Just a different type of creativity.
The evening passed quickly with the Olds monopolising the conversation. Derek and I hardly said a word all evening, not that there was sufficient space between the various parental anecdotes for such luxuries. We let them get on with it and endured all the cringe-worthy stories of when we were young. It was the oddest experience hearing all the things I’d done as a child used to embarrass Derek, and just as odd to find out all the things he’d done as a younger version of me.
Part way through the evening his hand reached across under the table and took hold of my own. My initial instinct was to pull away, but something in me held back. It felt exhilarating, knowing I could take control and refuse, but choosing to see where things led. I glanced up at him looking at me with a peculiarly intense stare, and allowed myself a smile. We weren’t communicating with any semblance of telepathy yet, but there was time. He was so much better in the man’s role than I’d ever been, and I felt myself fitting more and more comfortably into the woman’s.
It was late and getting chilly by the time we all parted. Mum and the Willis’s had forged firm friendships, even to the extent that Mum invited them over for a meal later in the week. We walked back to the Willis’s shop with the three of them taking the lead and Derek and me trailing far enough behind to afford us some privacy. Derek still held my hand, fingers entwined squeezing gently. I held the conjoined digits up for inspection and let them swing between us.
“You don’t mind then?” Derek asked.
“About this?” I held up our two hands again. “I’m getting used to it.”
“Way to boost a guy’s ego.”
I laughed. “Oh come on Derek, you know what’s weird about this. I’ve spent over twenty years of my life watching that face grow up. It’s just strange is all.”
“I know, but it’s not the face I’m falling for here. I mean there’s nothing wrong with your face, and I really like what you’ve done with your hair.”
“All I did was wash and blow dry and add a bit of a curl with a brush, it’s easy enough. It looked better yesterday.”
“Well it’s more than I could ever be bothered to do, and it makes you look really… lovely.”
My insides melted a bit and I leaned against him. “You could get us in trouble saying things like that.”
“It’s the kind of trouble I could get to enjoy. Am I the only one of us who feels this way. I mean that used to be my Mum, and I love her for all that we could never see eye to eye on anything. I love the way she talks about you, and after only a couple of days as well. I should be jealous, but I’m not. I’m just glad she’s happy, and grateful to you for making her so. Except grateful’s not really the word. It makes me look at you differently, like you always should have been Alison, and it just fills me up to see how you two are.”
“Yeah, I do know what you mean. Mum and Dad were so worried about me when I was Derek. I don’t remember the last time I saw them smile, and tonight they didn’t stop.”
“So would you be alright with us maybe dating?”
“Derek Willis, are you asking me out?” I stopped and swung him round to face me.
“I already took you out, at lunchtime, remember.”
“That wasn’t a date. That was a friendly drink. Not the same at all.”
“So what did you have in mind?”
“Oh no! That’s your department now. You get to decide, and I get to enjoy the surprise. And if it’s not a surprise I like, I get to sulk over it, so you’d better put some thought into it.”
“What the hell?”
“And you could do with working on this as well.” I reach my free hand across and patted his paunch.”
“Hey, no fair! That was your doing.”
“I know, and I’m sorry, but what’s done is done, and unfortunately you’re the only person who can undo it now.”
“How did you get to be so good at being a girl so quickly?”
“I think you’ll find I always was, except that it has been repressed for a lot of years, so I may be overcompensating right now. Don’t you feel the same?”
“I guess I do.” He leaned in for a kiss, but I evaded like an expert and pulled us into walking again.
“What kind of a girl do you think I am? Not even our first date and you’re trying to take advantage of me.”
“Yeah, but I thought…”
“Well think again. I never had this before, and neither did you, so no shortcuts, eh? We’ll only end up regretting it.”
“I’m not sure if I’m regretting it already.”
I pulled him down the road with me until we caught up with the ‘rents. They were waiting outside the Willis’s shop, and I reached up to give Derek a peck on the cheek.
“So call me and we’ll arrange something, yeah?”
He blushed a bit and mumbled his agreement. I said my goodbyes to Mr and Mrs Willis. So, so very weird, that, but then to them I was a stranger, and I was learning that a lot of my perception of myself was tied into the way other people saw me. In their eyes I wasn’t their son, or even their daughter, so even though I had the memories, the sense of familiarity wasn’t there.
It was with Mum though, even though I didn’t recall any of the things she’d done with Alison as a child, I still felt myself being drawn deeper into that mother daughter relationship. Yes, she was one of those people with strong expectations and ideas of how her child was going to turn out – so very difficult to deal with for Alison whose dreams lay outside the realm of dressmaking – but it worked for me. I was prepared to be guided in this, and I found a great deal of pleasure in trying to be the person Mum wanted me to be. I mean I wasn’t turning into her slave or anything, just following her ideas. I’d put my own in there soon enough, once I had a feel of how far I could push things, and having already worked to comply with what she wanted, I was confident I could steer things more my way with just a little finesse.
Mum gave me the third degree about Derek all the way home, and I allowed myself to be drawn on the subject, providing her with a modified version of the truth about how we’d met and talked. I pressed her gently about how convenient it was that Derek and his parents should be there tonight, and she caved and admitted to having arranged the whole thing.
We ended the evening upstairs in the lounge, chatting over hot chocolates and brushing each other’s hair. If I’d been more of an anthropologist, I might have wondered about social grooming rituals. As it was I just enjoyed it; both giving and receiving.
Monday morning started way too early with Mum beating me to both bathroom and kitchen again. This time she left me some hot water, and breakfast wasn’t such an indulgence.
Not daring to wear the deep red dress for a third day, I settled on the most feminine of the clothes Alison had left me, which is to say I was pretty much in tomboy mode once more. Making an effort with my hair and makeup went some way to offsetting the masculinity of my appearance, and since we were going shopping this morning, I hoped I wouldn’t have to look like this for long.
Mum put a note of apology in the window and we headed down the high street to capitalise on yesterday’s window shopping. It all went on Mum’s card, which I didn’t think was fair, especially when I started doing some mental maths and came up with an estimate of how much we were spending, but she insisted. I figured I’d find ways of paying her back in the shop, so accepted her generosity with good grace.
I won’t bore you with the details of where we went and what we tried, but suffice to say that three hours of intensive retail therapy ended up with us staggering back into the dress shop with as many bags as we could carry between us. I was wearing some of the new acquisitions in the form of a smart green skirt suit with a cream blouse, light tan tights and cream shoes to match. Very much the professional businesswoman and just the appearance our high-end establishment needed in a shop assistant.
I opened up and removed the sign from the window while mum took some of my new things upstairs and put the kettle on. Business was a little slow, so we spent a fair amount of time in the workshop working on things together.
We settled into a routine over the next few days with me looking after the shop for the most part and Mum staying in the work room unless she had need to spend time with one of our customers. Whenever the shop was empty, Mum would call me through to the back where she had a seemingly endless stream of things she wanted to show me. How different materials and combinations of materials achieved different effects in shape and texture, how to sew to achieve different patterns and ideas, how to sew on appliqué and lace to best effect, hiding the stitches. It was like being back at school again, except I was interested – passionately interested – in what I was learning.
She asked my advice on things as well. Sometimes asking me to choose between different effects she was trying to achieve, other times leaving it open ended to see what I might do under certain circumstances. Most times I felt her approval at my choices, and began to see them as a sort of on-going test to see how well I was adapting to my lessons.
We closed the shop at five-thirty most days, but stayed working till seven or eight, either creating new dresses or altering existing ones. Fittings could happen at any time of day and night, and some of our customers were quite peculiar with their preferences.
We took turns cooking, except for Wednesday night when the Willis’s came round and we both mucked in. Mum was a practiced hand in the kitchen and rarely stopped to consult recipes, whereas I would plod through things slowly and mechanically. Needless to say, Mum’s offerings were wonderful and mine more or less edible.
It was fun having company, even in our pokey little upstairs apartment. Once we’d eaten, I used the lack of space as an excuse for Derek and me to go out for a walk. The weather had turned cool again, which was especially troublesome for me since even thick tights don’t do a great job of keeping out the chill.
Derek, who’d been fidgeting a bit since we started our excursion, suggested we stop at Giuseppe’s for a coffee, and I was cold enough to agree.
“So, I was wondering if you might like to come to the cinema with me?” The reason for Derek’s nervousness became apparent.
“I wouldn’t mind,” I said, smiling at him coyly. “What were you thinking of seeing?”
This would be interesting. I never knew what his interests might have been as Alison, but at a guess I think she’d still have been into chick-flicks. The question was, what did he think I might like now? Geeky sci-fi and action adventure as per the old Derek, or something sweet and gooey as the newly created Alison.
Inevitably he sidestepped the issue by listing the things that were showing and asking what I wanted to see.
So of course I asked him what he fancied, and it turned into a game of ‘you decide, no you decide’ until the coffees appeared.
“Didn’t you ever date guys before… you know, all this?” I blew gently over my coffee to cool it. Giuseppe’s made wonderful coffee except for the fact that it was always too hot when they served it to you.
“Never,” Derek admitted.
“So you really don’t know how this game’s played?”
His face showed an odd mixture of frustration and embarrassment.
“It’s totally unfair. The guy – that’s you – gets to make all the decisions as to where to go, what to do etc, without any assistance from his date. Then he gets graded on how well he did and gossiped about afterwards. If he wimps out and pushes the choice back onto his date, he basically gets an F with no way of raising his grade. If he makes the choice then there’s still no guarantee that he’ll get it right every time, ‘cos girls tend to be capricious and what’s right one week won’t necessarily be right the next.”
“So how do you figure it out?”
“I have no idea. I get the way it works from this side of the gender divide, but that doesn’t mean I’d be able to figure it out from your end. I was never any good at dating; couldn’t even ask a girl out, so you’re one up on me already.
“If there’s any insight to be had, I guess it’s that we’re looking for you to be sensitive to our mood, and to try and adapt to it. I mean the date could end up being an absolute disaster, with the restaurant forgetting our reservation and the cinema being closed, but if I felt you’d made the effort to relate to me the way I was at the time, you’d still get your A-plus.”
Something very much like the dawn lit up his eyes from the inside and he smiled. “I guess we should wait till the night to decide then.”
I hid my own smile in my coffee.
We set the date for Saturday evening. We both expected to be putting in extra hours in the evenings and during the day on Saturday, so, with the exception of Friday when we’d both already agreed to go out with our respective mates, Saturday evening was likely to be the first opportunity.
The conversation turned to other things, and for an hour or so we filled each other in on the lives we had led up to the point where we had swapped. There had been a few awkward moments the previous Sunday when, at different times, we’d been unable to remember something that should have been obvious. We’d covered for each other well enough, but we’d both decided that having a better grasp of our respective pasts would help avoid the same thing in the future.
“Can I check in your bag?” Derek asked as we sauntered back.
“Why?” I was definitely girly enough that I didn’t want a guy poking around in the private corners of my everyday life.
“Just let me have a look. It was my bag until a few days ago and I suspect the contents haven’t changed that much.”
I passed it to him and he rummages about for a few seconds before pulling out what looked like a Vic’s inhaler.
“D’you know how to use one of these?”
Now there was an embarrassment waiting to happen.
“I, er… I was going to wait until I needed it, then try and figure it out.” Even under the orange glow of the street lamps I was sure he could make out the brilliance of my blush.
“Well, truth be told, there’s not a lot to it, but I’m not sure you’ll be able to explain how, after over ten years of using them, you’ve forgotten what to do with one.”
He went on to explain it in full graphic detail, covering the signs to look for, the point at which the cork needed to be stuck in the bottle, how frequently to change it, what to do about carrying spares, all the tiny little practical details I’d never have thought of.
“When am I due?”
“Well, unless I miss my guess, you’ll start to feel bloated and uncomfortable tomorrow or the next day, then a day or so after, you’ll have some gentle cramps and some spotting. That’s when you fish out your little friend here.”
“They’re not too bad. Have you ever had your blood pressure taken? It’s a bit like that. Just a gentle squeeze that increases for a while then eases. You’re one of the lucky ones, it’s just uncomfortable. Babs has them something rotten. Of course she started taking the pill just so she doesn’t have to suffer anymore.”
I was well out of my comfort zone and that was just a step too far. I took back the tampon and tucked it away back in my bag. We’d reached Glad Rags, so I fished out my keys and let myself in.
“Is that you Ali?” Mum called down. “If Derek’s with you, could you tell him his parents have gone home?”
“Okay Mum, thanks.” I turned to Derek. “I guess that’s our cue to say goodnight too.”
So we did. It didn’t take that long as I didn’t intend giving him his dues until he had properly wined and dined me. I wanted to take it slow because it still felt weird being with myself in a way. Slow was good though. We both knew the attraction we shared had more to do with each other’s inner person than the outer shell, and the more that grew, the less the rest of it mattered.
Mum had a hot chocolate waiting for me by the time I climbed the stairs. Actually it was more of a lukewarm chocolate suggesting it had taken me longer to say goodnight to Derek than I’d thought, but a few seconds on the microwave fixed that.
Mum wanted to hear about our little excursion, and I let her fish for it for a while. Only a short while mind. I’d missed out on the whole mother-daughter thing and I enjoyed it too much to deny either of us the pleasure. I mean I left out the more embarrassing and incriminating parts of our conversation, but there was still enough there to share.
“I can see why you like him,” Mum said, staring off out the window. “He has a gentle way about him. He reminds me of someone.”
“What do you mean?” I kept my voice calm, but inside me alarm bells were ringing.”
“He’s a bit like your dad was on a good day, except that with Derek, every day seems to be a good day,” she said with a sad wistfulness to voice.
“Do I remind you of Dad?” I asked, unable to help myself.
“You have no idea how much.” She turned to smile at me. Somehow I’d managed to divert her from her brooding, and I was glad. “Perhaps less so these last few days, but you can be as stubborn and pig headed as he was when you put your mind to it.”
There was something in the way she said it. “You still miss him don’t you?”
She sighed. “Parts of him.” This wasn’t the time for lewd jokes so I sat in patient silence. “He could be so charming, you know? A lot like your Derek, except I don’t see any sign of your Dad’s other side there.”
“You didn’t see it in Dad either.” Maybe not the most diplomatic of things to say, but sometimes the mouth gets there ahead of the brain.
“Not at first, but you don’t when you’re in love. Looking back, the signs were there, but you make all sorts of excuses when you’re in love. I know what to look for now, and Derek isn’t like that.”
“You don’t think it matters that he’s a bit… you know…”
“Cuddly? Not in the slightest. What matters in a man is what’s on the inside. I’m happy for you sweetheart, he’s a catch.”
We headed off to bed shortly after that, but I couldn’t sleep. I lay staring at the ceiling and thinking about Mum’s words. Having been brought up in a fully functioning family, it was hard to imagine what Ali’s life had been after her Dad had run off. I could sense that the betrayal still stung Mum, and she found it hard to trust even now.
On the plus side, it was good that she approved of Derek, though I wondered how much of what she saw and liked in him was Alison. Still she was good with him, and I was growing to trust her instincts.
I had a catch.
I woke the next morning with an uncomfortable bloated feeling, and a desire to bury myself in my bedclothes and never emerge. It must have been something of a regular thing though because Mum was all sweetness and light as she stole my duvet and sang out for me to rise and shine.
By the time I had grumped my way through the shower and emerged in as unimaginative and frumpy a selection of clothes as I could make from my new wardrobe, Mum had breakfast ready for me. I did a dull, disbelieving double take. Dry burnt toast and peppermint tea from the smell of it.
“I know it doesn’t look very appetising, but it’ll help. Besides, I doubt you feel that much like eating right now.”
I grunted and sat down, picked up the toast started to nibble at its edge, rodent like. To my surprise it did actually help, and by the time I’d gnawed my way through half of it – as much as I felt I could manage – and started on the tea, I actually felt some semblance of humanity shimmering in the depths..
“I’d like you to run some errands for me today,” Mum said.
I raised an eyebrow, unable even to manage a monosyllabic grunt in query.
“I need some supplies; material, thread, needles, that sort of thing. I’ve made a list,” she passed a sheet of paper in my direction, “and you should be able to get most if not all of it of it down at the market.”
I managed a you-cannot-be-serious expression when I counted out the items.
“The walk will do you good,” she continued cheerfully, oblivious to my misery, “and it shouldn’t take you more than the morning. I think a hundred pounds should cover it, and we have at least that much in the till.”
I gave her a sullen look that would have been more at home on a teenager’s face, which she returned with a bright smile.
“Don’t worry about me dear. I’ve enjoyed working with you these past few days, but I’m used to running the shop by myself. In fact I’d better go down and open up. I’ll see you when you get back.”
She reached across the counter and kissed me on the top of my head before disappearing.
I finished my tea, then fished out a couple of large, net shopping bags, enough I hoped to carry all but the most bulky of the purchases Mum had ordered. Coat, shoes, handbag, downstairs and ring up no sale on the till. Count out five twenties and add them to my purse – the stall vendors in the market could curse me all they wanted for the lack of change, there wasn’t anything smaller in there; one downside of selling to the well off.
Outside the sun was shining, and the air had that crisp, clean quality that makes you want to suck down great gulps of it. It was no magical cure for what ailed me, but I felt my spirits rising out of the murk. I even managed a smile for Mr Tong as I passed his place and found him outside, cleaning the windows.
The market was about half a mile away from the shop, at the bottom of a long hill. I’d been there once or twice as Derek on long lazy Saturday afternoons when I was bored and at a loss for something to do. This visit was different. I had a list of things to get and barely a clue as to what some of them were.
I started off with the obvious things. Thread – I knew which brands Mum liked – in a broad rainbow of colours, needles, buttons, zips, hooks and eyes, elastic, press studs, shoulder pads and other bits of padding. More esoteric items, like boning and interfacing, I had to ask about, but once show, I remembered the same sort of stuff going into some of the work Mum had done, and I recalled the quality she’d used, so did my best to match it.
Next were things like lace edging, sequins, beading, appliqué patches. Things that even in my role as an ignorant man – in such matters as this in any case – I’d know what was what. What I hadn’t known though, was the immense variety of colours and styles. Here I didn’t just need an eye for quality, but also a sense of what would work in the clothes Mum and I would be making.
This really piqued my interest and drew me out of myself. I found myself searching stalls for choice pieces and asking after things that were close but not quite what I was looking for. Most stall owners had a greater variety of stock than they were able to display, so the right questions usually led to my being shown more or less exactly what I was after.
I didn’t just stick to the stalls selling news stuff either. Quite a few of the ‘antiques’ stalls had bits of what they described as antique lace on display – pieces of intricate decoration that had been cut off old clothing, too stained or moth eaten to be worth keeping.
I know you may think I’m a mug, and you probably right. A lot of the owners of these stalls aren’t the most upright of characters and it was quite possible that much of what they had on display was stolen. It was almost certain that everything they had to say about their wares was a lie.
Even so, I tried to ignore their sales patter and concentrate on evaluating each item by its own merits. Most of what I found was damaged and unusable, but there were a few really nice pieces of lace trim and a couple of matching lace collar and cuff sets that I was able to pick up for less than a pound.
I also found this tiny figurine of a Chinese dragon. It was a translucent green and intricately carved. When it first caught my eye, I thought it was made out of plastic or carved from soap or something, but it was cold to the touch, like some sort of stone. I thought about it as a sort of thank you gift to Mr Tong for his kindness and asked how much.
Fifteen pounds seemed a little steep so I put it back down and was about to move away when the stall owner offered it me for ten. Sensing a bargain I put on my best not-interested face and picked it up to look it over again. There was a tiny chip on one of its hind claws which I showed to the stall owner and started to haggle.
Ten minutes later, I’d parted with seven quid of my own cash and the little figurine was tucked away, wrapped in pieces of lace in the middle of one of my bags. I’d probably paid a lot more than it was worth, but it was affordable and I still thought it was worth the money as the gift I intended, despite the slight damage. Besides, it had cost me less than the money Mr Tong had refused to pay for the meal he’d brought us.
Back to the shopping list, I went beyond the stuff Mum had asked me to get as ideas of my own vied for attention against the things I knew Mum had in mind. I allowed myself some freedom of expression, but inevitably had to rein myself in or risk spending more than my available funds.
The last items on the list, deliberately left till now because of their bulk and weight, were bolts of cloth.
Mum had described the materials and colours she wanted in a vague manner, and had left me to decide on the specifics. Again it took discerning eyes and fingers to look and feel for the quality we wanted – and our customers expected – but that become second nature after a while. The choice of patterns and specific colours was a whole different thing though, but I found my sensibilities were heightened more than the new usual I had enjoyed since becoming Alison.
It took a long time to hunt through the stalls and all the bolts of cloth they had on offer, but it didn’t matter because I was so fascinated, so taken by the whole process, that I completely forgot the grotty feeling that had been with me since I woke up.
One downside of being female successfully dealt with, another came to the fore. I had bought three bolts of cloth and was really feeling the physical limitations of my body. I needed at least two more, preferably four, and I was struggling to think how I’d get everything home when I spotted a familiar face in the crowd.
“Hey beautiful,” Derek said as he came close. I’m utterly convinced he gets this real kick out of doing the gallant dude thing. How is it possible that he enjoys being who I was so much when there’s so much pleasure to be had in being who she used to be?
“What are you doing here?”
“Well there’s a cheerful greeting for you.” He turned and started walking away. “I guess, if you don’t want me, I could just…”
“No! No, I was just surprised is all. I mean the Derek I knew almost never came down to the market.”
“New Derek, new expectations. Actually I came round to see if you wanted to have lunch together and your Mum told me you were down here.”
“Lunch? What time is it?”
“Oh, about twelve-thirty.”
“What!” I’d been down here for four hours. How had so much time slid by without me noticing?
“I heard what you said. Here grab these and give me five minutes.”
I dumped my morning’s shopping into his arms, nearly burying him. He made a good recovery and adjusted his grasp on things until he looked more comfortable. I turned to the stall I’d been looking at and, unencumbered, managed a swift and effective examination of the four bolts I’d been interested in. One had a tiny flaw in the printing, which was a shame because the pattern was quite lovely. I took a photograph of the material to discuss with Mum in case she thought the flaw was minor enough that it might be worth overlooking. The other three were very much up to my standards, and I handed over the last of the money I’d taken from the till buying them.
“So,” I said turning back to Derek, who was already adjusting his load in preparation for the extra. “No,” I laughed. “I can manage these.” I could too, just about. Besides there was no way I was going to let a guy – who happened to be an ex-girl – beat me in this.
“So what?” He said, the relief at not being given more to carry briefly evident in his features.
“So what what?”
“You said, ‘So’, so I said ‘so what’. What’s your so about?”
“Oh. Yeah. So, how long do you have for lunch?”
“Dad told me to take as long as I needed. Either he thinks I’ve put in enough hours over the past few days to have earned it, or he really likes you.”
“Well,” I gave him a coquettish glance, “what’s not to like?”
“Very true. Personally I think it’s a bit of both, but I’m happy to go with the second explanation if you find it more pleasing.”
“Okay, help me take this back to Mum and we’ll grab a bite.”
“Where d’you want to go?”
“Upstairs? At home? I mean I don’t want to sound ungrateful or anything, but I’m pretty much eating-out-outed.”
It took him several times through to make sense of my tortured version of the English language, but then his eyebrows went up in a sort of aaaah moment. “Fine. What are you going to feed me?”
“Coleslaw and celery.” It was too easy. The look of alarm in his eyes. “No, relax. We have the means to put together a BLT or two.”
“Well I guess it’s closer to man food, if you add extra B and leave out the L and the T.”
“Oh come on, you’re telling me you don’t miss the salad even a little.”
“About as much as you miss the steak. A guy’s gotta listen to his body.”
“Yeah, I did that a lot, which is why I ended up with that unsightly bulge hanging over my belt.”
“Hey, don’t dis the dude who’s helping you carry half the market home.”
“I know, I’m sorry.” Amazing how easily it was to overlay the apology with insincerity.
He chuckled good naturedly. “Feed me, wench, and I’ll forgive you.”
“Hey, less of that, or I shall feed you gruel and stale bread with weevils.”
The rest of the trip home was just as filled with inanities and sweet nothings. We laughed our way up the high street, and still I was distracted from my body’s attempt at ruining my day.
“It’s about time,” Mum said as we bundled though the door, “and by the looks of it, it’s as well the search party found you.”
We carried the purchases in the workroom and headed upstairs, leaving Mum to decide whether or not she’d ever let me loose with her money again.
“I’m going to fix Derek some lunch, Mum. I was going to do him a BLT or two and cottage cheese and salad for me. Do you want anything?” In truth I didn’t feel hungry, despite the morning’s activities, but I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to get away with nothing from either of them.
“The BLT sounds nice dear, and a cup of tea to go with it.”
Mum can be full of surprises sometimes.
We continued our mindless chatter while the bacon sizzled and the kettle boiled. Derek buttered buns while I sliced tomatoes and shredded lettuce. Derek took the first fruits of my efforts down to Mum with a cuppa while I continued to fry thin slices of pig.
Bacon is one of those heavenly foods, which always strikes me as ironic that it should be disallowed in at least two of the major religions. The smell of the stuff frying always brought about a Pavlovian response in me, at least it had never failed to do so before. Then and there it had the exact opposite effect on me, and I was glad when Derek’s lunch was on the table and the skillet was in the sink and under water.
I picked at my salad and envied him his appetite as he wolfed down the two sizeable rolls of pig flesh and salad. Half way through the second one, he stopped eating and put it down on his plate.
“It’s started then?”
“I can handle it.”
“It’s going to get worse before it gets better.”
“Yeah, a lot of things do that. If this is you angling for your body back, you can forget it. I like things just the way they are right now, even feeling like this.”
“What if we don’t have a choice?”
I looked up at him sharply. “Do you know something I don’t?”
“No, I’m just saying… It’s been less than a week, Ali, and we still have no idea what caused this, and what can change one way can just as easily change the other.”
“What about the dragon fish theory?”
“Oh come on, that’s such a stupid idea.”
I discovered I didn’t like being called stupid. Fortunately Derek was quick enough at spotting his mistake and apologised before I had a chance to react. To my advantage, it put him on the defensive so he sat quietly and listened as I describe my encounter with Mr Tong and his strange proverb. Derek didn’t seem convinced.
“So you’re trying to say one of the fish in the pond down at the pub is actually a dragon and because Mr Tong, what, wrote your name on its ‘wings’, whatever the hell that means that it made this happen?”
“There’s more to it as well, more things in the proverb. Spend a new coin on an old friend. We ordered take out from Mr Tong last week and he delivered it himself. He refused to take payment when I brought him his plates back.
“There was something else as well. Yeah, share an old pleasure with a new friend, or something like that. Last week before all this happened, I went in there for a meal; sort of cheer myself up while my folks were away. I was pretty much the only customer there, and after I’d eaten Mr Tong came and sat at my table and poured out a couple of glasses of this sort of orangey liquid from a stone jug. It was odd, but had a really nice after taste, so I was happy when he refilled my glass. He kept telling me, ‘no charge, no charge’ and asking me how I enjoyed my meal. I was polite of course, I mean the food was good so I didn’t have to lie or anything.
“Then he took the bottle and glasses away and said something weird like, ‘we’re friends now, you come back’. I thought it was his polite way of shooing me out of the restaurant so he could close up early. I didn’t really have any reason to stay, so I took the hint and left.”
“So what about this writing your name on the wings of a dragon rubbish?”
“I don’t know, but he insisted it was my name he’d written, or yours since it was yours when he wrote it. He said you’d been sad and angry and he wanted you to be happy.”
“Well if there’s anything to this crap, he got his wish definitely. The only thing that’s ruining all of this is that it’s too good to be true. Every evening I go to bed, I’m afraid I’ll wake up back in my old body and this will be over.”
“I try not to think about it. Every one of these past few days has been a gift, and I’m going to live every one I get as though I have a million more.”
“That’d make you thousands of years old, probably wrinkly and arthritic with a blue rinse…”
“Hey! I may be rubbish at maths, but you know what I mean. I want to be this way for the rest of my life, and I’m going to live believing that’s what I’m going to get.”
“How do you do that?”
“Hope is what you choose to believe. I choose to believe this happened for good, and that it’s not going to just change back.”
He finished his roll, now cold and greasy and a little disgusting to watch. Somehow I’d managed to eat my way through over half my salad while I was talking, but I didn’t want any more. I picked up the plates, scraped off the untouched bits and added them to the sink.
“I’d better be getting back,” he said as he stood and moved to take me in his arms. I looked up into his eyes and felt myself go weak at the knees. “Dad’s asked me to cover the shop all day for the next couple of days so I guess I’ll see you Saturday evening.”
“Unless we bump into each other in the pub tomorrow.”
“The girls don’t usually go into that place. Last week was a one off.”
“Well the guys do, and if I have any say in it, the girls will manage it as well.”
“Well if you do end up there, I’ll meet you by the fish pond.”
“Sounds good.” I reached up on tip toes rubbed noses with him and showed him out.
Back in the workshop, Mum had unpacked all my morning’s purchases. She wasn’t too sure about one of the bolts of material until I sketched out a few design ideas to show her. Her eyebrows went up, I think with some admiration, when she started to see the possibilities I’d seen.
“You need to practice your sketching,” she told me, “but I like the ideas. Okay, you can make those.”
“What by myself?”
“I don’t see why not. You need to start some time.”
“But I don’t have the first idea.”
“Yes you do, you just showed me the first idea. I’ll help you lay out the patterns for the first one or two if you really want, but I think you’d do well enough on your own.”
She commented on the antique lace collar and cuff sets without too much enthusiasm. I tried to defend my decision by telling her how little I’d paid for them, so she let me find out why it wasn’t the best of economies by letting me cut the lace free from the material to which it was attached. It was fiddly and took a much longer time than I’d thought it would, but I was determined to show her. One of my designs would look stunning finished off with at least one of the sets, so I was extra careful when I soaked them in gentle detergent to bring them back to as new condition.
She’d set the dragon figurine to one side without commenting on it, but placing it where it was obvious. I explained I’d bought it as a present for a friend, and that I’d paid for it out of my own money. That pretty much settled the matter, and she even found me an old box that it fitted nicely and padded it out with cotton wool. I’d spent enough time out of the shop for one day and decided to give it to Mr Tong the following day.
It had been a slow week in the shop. Mum had been disappointed, hoping that Marjory Higgs-Porter and Lady Aster might have gained us a little recognition among the upper strata of local society, but we’d seen no one new come through the door since the party. That afternoon was no different, and we spent the time drawing and cutting out patterns for one of my new designs. Then as I set to cutting out all the intricate shapes, Mum went back to that dress she hadn’t let me help with. It was tucked away behind a curtain in a corner of the room so I couldn’t even see how the work was progressing. I suppressed the disappointment I felt at not being part of this new creation of Mum’s and threw myself in to my own work.
By six, I had the basic outline stitched together and hanging from the tailor’s dummy we’d used for Lady Aster’s dress. Mum had kept an eye on my progress during the day, chipping in with a comment here and there when I was about to make a mistake or when she saw me doing something awkwardly and had some advice on how to make things easier for myself. I didn’t mind her interruptions in the slightest as each one was a lesson learned.
We knocked off early, and Mum cooked up something light for tea. It wasn’t until I stopped working that I realised I still felt a bit off inside. I wanted to ask her about it, but felt uncomfortable talking about the subject. It had been bad enough when Derek brought it up the other day, and that had been him talking from experience about what had been his body.
Mum noticed my discomfort and kept away from the subject. After we’d eaten and washed up, she announced she was going to get an early night, which I took as her subtle hint that I should probably do the same. I let her use the bathroom first, then took my turn to wash, brush teeth, etc. When I returned to my room, I found a tampon on my pillow. Way to be ultra-subtle Mum.
I woke early the next morning feeling not a lot different to the previous day, but perhaps a little better adapted to the feeling. The early night helped with the morning fug, and I managed to get up and dressed in reasonable time. Mum still beat me up, but that wasn’t entirely unexpected.
Coffee and toast later, I asked if she’d mind me running a quick errand before opening. She shrugged and said as long as I was back by nine she had no objection, so I grabbed my coat and bag and the little cardboard box with the dragon figurine, and dashed out.
Mr Tong’s was bustling, but then I figured it would be. Maybe it’s a little culture stereotypical and maybe even a bit racist in a way, but he had the whole Chinese work ethic thing going, which meant that he and his household had probably been up and working for a couple of hours already.
He greeted me with a smile and a bow and, not knowing really how to say and do it any better, I held out the box and smiled. “It’s a sort of present,” I said, “to say thank you for your kindness.”
He took it in both hands and bowed again. Something about his eyes said he wasn’t really expecting much from it, just I didn’t really intend much by it myself, just offering it as a token.
He opened the lid and his expression changed. His eyes went wide and he fell to his knees, making the most unlikely sound – somewhere between a scream and a yelp.
His wife came running and peered over his shoulder, her own face mirroring the shock on her husband’s. They started jabbering in excited Chinese. From the surprise shine in their eyes I guessed this was a good thing, which had me relaxing a little because I’d started to worry that I’d done something wrong.
“It’s alright isn’t it?” I asked. “It’s just something I picked up in the market, I thought you might like it.”
Mr Tong looked at me, smiling from every inch of his face. “This very good,” he said pointing at the figuring. “This very, very good. Good fortune. You bring very good fortune.”
They insisted I stay to celebrate their apparent good fortune, and I did for long enough to get my second taste of rice wine. It highlighted more than anything how different my taste buds were now as I really didn’t care much for it.
Try as I might, Mr and Mrs Tong were either unwilling or unable to explain anything further about why the little stone dragon was so special. I caught sight of the clock out of the corner of my eye and excused myself, rushing back to the shop ten minutes after opening time.
“Where have you been?” Mum asked as I stepped through the door. “Never mind, go and deal with Mrs Temple over there while I handle Mrs Peters.”
I shucked off my coat and gave my hair a quick claw through before heading over to see to my charge. Two customers in the first ten minutes was unheard of. The bell jingled while I was showing Mrs Temple a few things and I looked up as three more women walked into the shop.
I started juggling customers, pulling out a selection of dresses for one to look through then moving on to the next once she was occupied. During the morning we had an unprecedented two dozen or so women come through the shop and ended up with more than forty orders, most of the customers picking out more than one item, and only one going away not having found anything that appealed. Life’s irony obviously meant that she was the one who spent most time in the shop and monopolised my attention for the longest period. She was also the most critical, commenting on different things about each of the dresses she rejected as though they were big enough flaws in the design to turn them down.
I tried to be upbeat and positive with her, but I’d about worn out my smile by the time I showed her to the door. She thanked me in parting in a manner that was totally out of character compared to the previous three quarters of an hour.
I leaned on the door and let out a long sigh. Mum appeared with a much needed cup of tea and we sat down together to assess the morning’s business. Forty-two orders at an average of three hundred pounds per dress. That was over twelve hundred pounds. Even taking into account the tax man’s cut and the cost of making them, we had a tidy enough profit to expand our dreams for the business.
“I was thinking, if we have two of us working on making the clothes, we could probably expand the shop a bit.”
“How likely is this to be a one off?” I asked, not wanting to be devil’s advocate, but worried about overreaching.
“About as likely as it being the start of an avalanche,” Mum answered, seeming for all the world as though that was what she expected. What had I told Derek the other day? Hope is what you choose to believe? Why shouldn’t Mum dream big over this? Why shouldn’t it be our big break?
We worked out a timetable for the fittings on all the day’s sales. Most of the women wanted Mum’s personal attention, so it looked like she was going to be kept on her toes for a week at least. I hadn’t expected any fittings, after all it was Mum’s name that gave the shop its good reputation. Mine would come with time and hard work, and for now I didn’t begrudge Mum the attention she had earned. Besides it freed me up to work on my own projects, which gave me much needed practice and an opportunity to add some of my own creations to the shop’s inventory.
The afternoon was a lot quieter than the morning, which was probably as well given our shell-shocked state, but it did still hold one last surprise. About four-thirty, the phone rang. I was talking to a customer at the time so Mum answered. I didn’t think anything of it until the jingling bed announced the departure of yet happy individual, and another order to add to the pile.
Mum came through from the back with a bemused look on her face. I twitched my eyebrows in enquiry and she smiled a little weakly.
“That was Janet Miller on the phone. You know from Miller and Stone?” My look of blank incomprehension was enough to draw out an exasperated sigh. “Honestly! How can you be the daughter of a clothes designer and not have heard of Miller and Stone?”
I shrugged which obviously didn’t do much to raise my standing in her eyes.
“Miller and Stone run a group of large fashion shops in the region. It turns out that, following reports from Marjory’s party, Janet herself came into the shop this morning, and she liked what she saw. She was especially impressed with the young lady who showed her through more than half of the clothes we have in the place.”
There was only one person I’d shown that many clothes to: Ms Critical-Bitch. “Late thirties?” I asked. “Pinched face, sharp nose?”
Mum nodded and pulled out a magazine showing me the picture of my difficult customer from this morning.
“She wants to buy some of our designs.”
“Well she can go fish then can’t she? Don’t you have a promise that all the dresses we sell here are one-offs?”
“I do and that will continue to be true. Every dress bought from this shop will be hand-made and one of a kind. But there’s nothing to stop us from selling a range of designs specifically to be produced on a larger, more affordable scale. The ones Janet picked out from our selection here haven’t been sold yet. If Miller and Stone buy the design, then we’ll withdraw the original from out racks, so the promise is maintained.
“It would be worth doing. We would see a percentage of the profit on every dress sold, and with the size of their operation, that could end up being quite a lot of money.”
“How much is quite a lot?”
“She said it was difficult to gauge. It all depends on how popular they end up being, but she suspects we could see a profit of as much as ten or twenty thousand pounds on a season’s sales. She wants us to have our own section in the catalogue with maybe a dozen or so dresses to start with. If they’re as popular as she thinks they’ll be, she’ll look to double it for the next catalogue.”
“So two dozen designs every three months?”
“Yes. That’s not so much work though. We’d still have a lot of time free for this place, assuming you want to keep on with it of course.”
“And those two dozen designs would earn us ten to twenty thousand pounds? Every three months?”
She nodded. “Maybe a little more. The ten to twenty thousand was based on the initial twelve designs. Once we have two dozen available, that should increase quite a bit.”
My face said it all. I mean Mum’s shop had done good enough business with just her working in it to keep us both fed, sheltered and clothed. With both of us on it, especially with the kind of business that had come through the door that morning, we were already looking to be quite well off, but a regular, more or less guaranteed income on top…
“We just earned twelve thousand pounds this morning,” I said.
“That wasn’t just this morning. There are several days’ worth of work putting the dresses together first, then there are the fitting sessions to follow.”
“It would mean dropping the quality.”
“I know, cheaper materials and machine stitching, but then we can negotiate extras into the catalogue to advertise our top quality, hand sewn, bespoke merchandise as well. It would get our name around, get us some more business.”
“And when we get more business than we can manage?”
“Then we take on apprentices. If I can teach you, I’m sure I can teach keen young students fresh from college. Part of their training agreement would mean they work for us for at least a year after they finish, by which time we’ll hopefully be able to persuade them to stay on if they’re good enough.”
“You really want to do this then?”
“Not on my own. Not if you don’t want to.”
I had that excited tingly feeling inside me. I mean it wasn’t a surprise that Mum wanted to include me in her business plans; the whole of the last week had been about getting me more involved in things, but to hear her actually say it was a thrill.
I couldn’t find words for some time. Long enough that Mum felt the need to fill the silence.
“I’ve always wanted Glad Rags to be a mother daughter thing. I’d all but given up hope that I might have that until this past week. In a lot of ways it’s as though you’ve become a totally different person, but I like this you a lot more than last week’s you.
“I always loved you, don’t ever doubt that, and I always will love you. We don’t have much choice about who we love or how much, and love means you’ll care and do your best for someone even when you don’t feel like you’re getting anything back. Like is different though. Like is a two way street, and this past week I feel as though you’ve given back at least as much to me as I’ve given to you. I’ve appreciated the effort you’ve made, I’ve appreciated your ideas, I’ve appreciated your willingness to get on and do.
“This is a bit nerve racking for me, because I don’t know if I’m trying to push something too far, too fast, but I would like you to be a partner with me in Glad Rags; an equal partner. That means you have as much say about what we do and where we go with the business. If you want to keep it small and only make custom-made one-off dresses for wealthy women as I’ve been doing this past few years, then we stick with that and Miller and Stone can look for someone else to provide content for their catalogue. If you’re up for the idea of branching out and trying something new, maybe making a few quid on the way, then let’s go for it.”
“What do you want, Mum?”
“I want you to make up your own mind on this without being influenced by me.”
“I imagine it’ll mean a bit more work.”
“A little perhaps, but it’s more likely that we’ll have to change what we do and when. For instance, this might be a good time for you to start spending more time in the workshop making and designing and less time on the shop floor. We can look at taking on a sales assistant so you don’t have to spend so much out front.”
“It sounds challenging, but exciting too. I say let’s do it.”
She smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’ll call her back to let her know before starting dinner. She gave me a list of the dresses she was interested in, if you wouldn’t mind taking them off the racks.”
It was nearly five and my habitual glance up and down the high street reassured me that we weren’t likely to have any last minute walk ins. I flipped the sign and locked the door, then set about removing Ms Miller’s selection of dresses from display. Unsurprisingly she’d chosen some really nice stuff, and as I looked through it all, I realised they were the ones where she’d seemed most critical, or had asked most questions about the design. Some of my responses had been pure fiction, but in just one short week, I’d learnt a lot about how Mum thought when designing, so even the fiction apparently wasn’t too far from the fact.
I found a temporary rack and hung the dozen selected dresses on it, wheeling it back into the workshop before heading upstairs.
“A bit early for tea isn’t it?” I asked when I found Mum boiling some cauliflower and assorting veg while stirring a cheese sauce to go over it all.
“Not if you want to meet up with your friends at seven.”
When she’s right, she’s right. I grabbed plates, glasses and cutlery and set places on the diner. Orange juice was the drink of choice, at least partly from my point of view because a good dose of vitamin C goes some way towards preventing hangovers.
Cauliflower cheese. Not a meal of choice from the Derek part of my memory, but the smell of it had me salivating. It went down well with Mum and me exchanging ideas for how we could make better use of our time. A bigger premises would be useful because then we could set aside at least one room as a design room; a place that would be away from the noise and clutter of everyday shop life, and protected from some of the mess that inevitably accumulates when making and altering clothes. We discussed a number of nearby premises that we’d seen up for let, but none seemed quite right.
“It’s a pity Mr Tong’s not leaving,” Mum said. “I know his place is set out as a restaurant now, but it used to be a sewing factory of sorts. I think a lot of the old installation is still there, and the place is easily big enough.”
“Why would we want industrial sewing machines? I thought you were all about hand-made clothes, or are you slipping over into the dark side?”
“I suppose that’s Derek’s influence is it? Is he into that Star Trek thing then?”
Star Wars, Mum.
“Are you trying to avoid the question?”
“Not at all. I wouldn’t want to put the place back as it was, but Mr Tong showed me around just after he moved in and his basement is filled with old dress maker’s dummies. Can you imagine what we could do with another twenty or thirty of them?”
The crazy thing was that I could. My eyes glazed as an army or mannequins marched across the fields of my imagination, twirling and swirling with half-finished versions of the ideas that had been crowding my day dreams of late. Crazy to be so into it after just a week of this, but it was like I had been waiting my whole life to arrive right here.
“Earth to Alison.”
“I asked what you were thinking of wearing tonight.”
“I thought I might take my yellow dress out for a spin.”
“Yeah, anything wrong with that?”
“No, other than what you said about it when I gave it to you.”
Could Alison have really been such an ungrateful bitch? Was wearing a dress such a big deal to her that she’d go bat-shit crazy over it? I found it hard to believe given the person I knew now, but then I’d struggled with other people expecting me to be someone I wasn’t. None of them had such a strong personality as Mrs Turner though, and I could only imagine how facing off against her could build over time. I suspected that whatever had been said over the dress was the eruption following years of growing frustration.
“I think I might have said a lot of things that had more to do with expressing stuff I was working out than what the words I used actually meant. That dress is amazing Mum. Nobody I know has anything that comes even close, and I love it.”
There was a hint of moisture in Mum’s eyes.
“Well, you’d better start getting ready if you want to show your friends up.”
“Will you help me with my hair?”
“I’d love to.”
So the long haul to visual perfection started. A good long shower with exfoliating scrub and scented shower gel, and a decent hair wash. It was definitely getting to the point where it needed it.
My fancy underwear had made it back into my drawer earlier in the week. I slipped into and thought about padding it a bit, but knowing Mum, the dress would be so perfectly tailored, even a couple of tissues would disturb the way it looked.
Mum joined me and I settled in front of my dressing table and let her loose with hairdryer and brush. It seemed to take ages, and quite possibly it did, but the final result was astounding. My hair was wavy and bouncy, shiny and mobile, enough to brighten my smile all by itself.
By the time I had added a sheer pair of nude tights, the yellow dress and the black shoes, I felt like perfection. I took out my makeup and sat staring at my refection for ages. It felt like anything I added would only serve to hide some of the beautiful feelings I knew were shining from inside me.
“Are you ready yet?”
“I’m not sure,” I called back.
Mum came back into my room and looked over my shoulder.
“Aren’t you supposed to be meeting your friends in fifteen minutes?”
“Yeah. I just can’t figure out what else needs doing.”
“Oh, that feeling,” she said cryptically. “Here turn around.”
I did so and closed my eyes, allowing her to brush on some of the sweet smelling powder.
She didn’t do much, nor did she take long about it, but the effect was marked. Just enough foundation to take the shine out of my cheeks and nose, just enough eye shadow to make them stand out, and a touch of lip gloss to finish off. She placed the bits I’d need for touch ups to my bag and handed it to me.
“You look perfect.” I ducked my head to hide the blush and the self-conscious smile. “It’s a shame Derek isn’t going to see you tonight.” Was there just a hint of question in that last statement? Whether imagined or genuine, I didn’t respond to it.
“Thanks Mum. I’d better be going.”
She held out a short fur coat which had me smiling all over again. I slipped my arms into it, luxuriating in the soft coolness of the lining and the luxurious feel of the fur.
According to Ruth, we were due to meet at Giuseppe’s. The short walk there was all pleasure. The feel of my clothing, the awareness of how good I looked, the way people turned their heads as I passed and smiled. The way I felt went beyond description. Even my time of the month couldn’t dampen the delight.
I was the last to arrive at the café, and the look on the girls’ faces was seriously the icing on the top of a very sweet cake. Jean’s cleavage was, as suspected, more spectacular than mine, but she was the first to hold her hands up in surrender.
“No way I can compete with that,” she said.
“What do you mean? Yours are definitely bigger than mine.”
“This evening isn’t about how much you’ve got so much as what you do with it, and I cannot hold a candle to what you have going on there.”
“Yeah, same goes for the rest of us. I’m not sure what’s worse, going out with last week’s grunge chick, or this week’s uber hotty.”
“Well, if you’re going to be like that, I’ll go home and put on some jeans.”
“Oh no. We said tonight we were going to have a cleavage competition, and it’s so on, even if we have a ringer in our midst.”
They rallied well, and we headed off to meet the mini-cab taxi they’d ordered. The club we were heading for was a few miles away in the next town. It took ten minutes and cost us each a couple of quid each to get there, but by then it was late enough that the queue to get in trailed down the road and round the corner.
The taxi dropped us outside the main entrance. We took a minute to regroup, check we had all our stuff and straighten ourselves out before setting off together for the back of the line.
A whistle from the door stopped us. We turned to see the bouncers checking us out. Then one waved us towards them while another held one the barrier tape so we could stoop beneath it.
A few grumbled words from the front ranks caused me to turn around. I smiled at the frowns and gave them a twiddly fingered wave.
“See you inside boys,” I parted with a wink and joined my friends going through the door, where we all burst into a fit of giggling.
“Did you see that big guy on the door?” Barbara asked through the laughter. “The way he was eyeing Ali up here. He had a bulge straining at his flies like I have never seen.”
Of course that had us all laughing again. Eventually we had our coats check and made it through to the main club area. Caught up in a party mood, we headed straight for the dance floor and camped around our bags.
I never got the appeal of dance clubs before. The few times I went as Derek, it was with a bunch of guys looking to pick up girls. Beyond that one thing, the places have always seemed a waste of time. Overpriced, watered down drinks, music so loud it was like a physical assault, hot sweaty bodies everywhere, being self-conscious about how the heat was making me smell, and then none of the girls were ever interested.
From the female side of the fence things were astonishingly different. For one thing, with more skin showing, what had seemed like oppressive heat to me as Derek was a lot more comfortable to me as Ali. For another thing, dancing was a lot more fun in a dress. It wasn’t just the swirl of the skirt around my legs, but the way I could just abandon myself to the dance. As Derek, there was always the worry of looking like a dick, but as Alison, it didn’t matter much what I did, I looked good and I knew it. For yet another thing, I found it wasn’t necessary to talk in order to communicate. Knowing looks and grins from the girls spoke more clearly than a million words, and just being part of a group who were enjoying being with me as much as I was enjoying being with them was amazing.
The down side came in the way the shoes hurt. I wouldn’t have chosen to wear anything else though because I loved the way they looked, and I loved the way they made me look. More down side was in the queues for the ladies’ loos. Honestly, in places that bend over backwards to let pretty girls in, you’d think they’d invest a little more in encouraging them to stay. I learnt early on to head for a comfort stop at the first sign that I might need some relief. I was always more than ready to go by the time I, and whoever I was with, made it to the stalls.
I guess that’s at least one of the reasons why girls go together; having someone to talk to takes your mind off the tedium of waiting in line for ten or fifteen minutes at a time.
The dance floor kept us entertained for a couple of hours or so, then we all needed to take the load off, so we went hunting for a table. We’d barely sat down before guys started coming over, offering to buy drinks. Some came in groups, others in pairs, and a few brave singletons. Unfortunately in the modern age of Rohypnol and associated horror stories, it’s generally considered not a good idea to accept a drink from a stranger at a club, but that didn’t stop us counting the offers. By the end of ten minutes, Jean and I were pretty much tied, and as our due, the others stumped up for a round between them.
We didn’t stay for more than one drink. I didn’t matter whether you were male or female in a place like this, the drinks were still overpriced and watered down. The night was still quite young when we collected our coats and headed outside to wait for our taxi home.
Being as it was still early, the others didn’t take much persuasion to end the evening in the local pub, and sure enough, there were the guys. Derek was with them, looking a lot happier than I ever had in his place. He looked up as we came in, and his eyes bugged out as he caught sight of me. I couldn’t tell you how the others reacted, ‘cos I only had eyes for him, and all I cared about was the way he only had eyes for me too.
I nodded in the direction of the garden and he nodded back.
“Anyone want I drink?” I asked, and took orders to the bar. Once served, I took the tray back to the girls’ table and took mine outside, explaining that I needed a breath of fresh air. Ruth offered to come with me, but told her no thanks. Babs whispered in her ear and I walked out to the sound of their giggles.
Derek was the only other person out there. It was cold, and I was glad of my furs. They didn’t help my legs much, but I could live with that.
“You look good enough to eat. I don’t think I ever realised how amazing a dress it was until I saw you wearing it just now.”
I felt so good, I reached up to kiss him. Only the second time our lips had touched, and then it had been the other way round. Maybe it was tempting providence to have our second kiss here where everything had changed a week ago, but I had to know.
By the time I returned from that magic place the kiss took me, I was still the one in the dress, he was still Derek, and all was as it should be. I twisted round in his arms and pulled him towards the pond. It may have been my imagination, but I’m sure I saw a movement under the surface.
“I don’t know if you really are a dragon,” I said to the pond in general, “I don’t know if you understand what I’m saying or even care, but if it makes any difference to you to know, this is the way we want things to stay. We’re grateful for the change, and if it’s possible we’d like to keep things the way they are right now.”
I looked back over my shoulder at Derek smiling and nodding his agreement, so I nearly missed the swirl on the surface of the water as a large shape disappeared into deeper water. Was that a sign, or just a Chinese carp making a late night meal of an unfortunate water boatman on the pond’s surface? It was as much of an answer as we were going to get, it seemed.
“You’re really good with this then, despite the monthly grottiness?”
“Well I know it’s only starting, so I don’t know how bad it’s going to get, but even if it ends up being ten times worse than it is at the moment, it’ll be a better day than I ever had as Derek. How about you? Miss your old life at all?”
“Bloody hell no! I mean I love Mum with everything I have, but we’d end up destroying each other if things went back the way they were. This life by comparison, the job, the family, the being me, it’s all perfect.”
“And this? Us I mean?”
“Do you really need to ask?”
“Well I wouldn’t if you’d tell me every once in a while.”
“God, you are such a girl!”
“Yeah, and you are such a guy.”
“This is perfect too.” He reached down to kiss me, and for the second time I lost myself completely in the kiss.
Yes I was still me when I surfaced. The real me that is, Alison.
Mum was in bed when Derek walked me to my door. We kissed for a while on the doorstep, but before things went too far, I disengaged myself from him and opened the door.
“Save some for tomorrow,” I told him.
“You are such a tease.”
I knew that. I had felt the bulge. I knew what it felt like from his side too, so I also had a pretty good idea what he’d be getting up to when he got home.
“I’ll pick you up from here at six-thirty tomorrow.”
“If you can bear to wear that for a second night in a row, you’ll do fine.”
I gave him his goodnight kiss and slipped inside. Shoes off and up the stairs, bathroom for teeth and other necessities as quietly as I could, then into my bedroom, where I cleaned off the makeup, hung up the clothes, climbed into bed, all quietly enough so as not to disturb Mum; at least not noticeably.
It wasn’t a surprise when she beat me up the following morning. The grots had me in their grip, and it was worse than the last couple of days. Perhaps not ten times worse, so hopefully the magical carp wouldn’t feel the need to change anything.
Mum was humming as she put breakfast together; same dry unappetising stuff I’d found the first morning I’d been here. It struck me that, apart from that first morning, I’d not beaten Mum up once.
“Morning sweetheart, have a look at the paper while I put the coffee on.”
She hadn’t beaten me by much then, given that the coffee machine was priority one for both of us this early.
Except she was humming.
Hang on, paper? Since when did we get the paper?
“Mr Tong brought it round, said he thought we’d be interested, and it does make good reading.”
I picked up the paper and stared blankly at the front page. Something hideously dull and depressing about the world financial crisis again. I gave Mum an odd look.
She slid a coffee across to me. “Page five dear.”
I turned the first two sheets and stared at the indicated page with dull incomprehension.
The picture was obviously Mr and Mrs Tong shaking hands with a smiling and very smartly dressed couple, also from the Far East.
The headline read, “Stolen Jade Figurine Returned. Chinese Ambassador delighted.”
A second look at the photograph showed the dragon statue I’d bought in the market the other day as an inset.
“I probably shouldn’t be promoting your caffeine habit, but take a swig of your coffee. It’ll make more sense.”
I did as suggested and the words and story swam into focus.
It turned out that the Chinese Ambassador had been visiting someone in one of the posh houses out in the country somewhere and a burglar had broken in and run off with a lot of valuable stuff, including a jade statuette of a dragon; a family heirloom belonging to the ambassador’s wife. She took it with her everywhere it seemed.
The theft had been reported earlier in the week, and had carried photographs of the figurine and the promise of a reward for the item’s return. Apparently the story had appeared on a busy day for news and had only merited a few column inches on page nine. Only really avid readers, like people trying to improve their English for instance, had made it that far through the paper and still been alert to register what the story was about.
Evidently the thief, or at least the fence, hadn’t read that far any more than had I, but then again we don’t take the paper, so I had an excuse for not recognising the value or provenance of my purchase.
Mr Tong had though, and had returned the piece to its rightful owner. The cash reward was modest, but would be appreciated by the Tongs. What they were most pleased with though, was the status and recognition they received for having returned it. Mr Tong had already been offered a post on the ambassador’s staff.
“The Tongs are moving?”
Well it also meant they had their good fortune, which was wonderful news.
“I already told him we’d be interested in taking on the property. You know I’ll really miss him and his wife. They may be difficult to understand a lot of the time, but we’ve been friends for a few years now, ever since they moved here. They had a particularly soft spot for you, you know?”
“Yes, he said something about that a few days ago, when I returned his plates.”
“Well there’s no doubt this is really good for them. Mr Tong never was a natural born restaurateur. I don’t think he ever really told me what he did before he came here, but from what he told me this morning, this jobs much more up his street.
“You know it’s strange, it seems like there’s a lot of good luck floating about right now. There’s us, the Willis’s, and now the Tongs. I’m glad it’s spreading about a bit.”
“Yeah.” My response was non-committal, but intentionally so, and easy enough to hide what I was really thinking behind the paper.
The morning was a slow one in the shop, but that was good as it meant both Mum and I had time to work in the back. Mum kept to herself behind her curtained off bit, and I made great strides in putting together my first project. It was nearly complete, and looking very much as I had envisaged it by the time we reached the end of the day. I still needed to put the collar on, but the vintage cuffs were attached and looking very much lie they belonged.
Mum looked it over, and her praise was high and quite genuinely so, both for the concept and the workmanship. I revelled in her words, not that I needed them as I already looked on it as a job well done.
“I wouldn’t have been able to do it at all without what you’ve taught me, Mum.”
“True enough, but don’t belittle your achievement. You’ve created something here that’s new and special, and pretty much to as high a standard as I can manage, and after just a week of trying.”
Mum flipped the sign and set the bolts on the door.
“What time did you say Derek was coming to pick you up?”
“I don’t think I did, but we agreed six-thirty.”
“And you’re eating out?”
“Did he give you any idea on where you were going? Jeans and tee shirt or…”
“He said if I were to wear my yellow dress again that would do just fine.”
“Oh no,” Mum said. “It wouldn’t do for a young lady trying to build a reputation in the fashion world to go out two evenings running in the same dress.”
There was something in her voice; a sort of underlying smugness. I bit back my immediate response and waited.
She walked slowly over to the curtained off part of the workshop and draw back the drapes to reveal what she’d been working on.
It was exquisite. All puff sleeves, frills and gathers, low cut enough without being slutty and a flowing skirt of the sort of length that shows off a good amount of leg without leaving you wanting to tug it down all the time. It was a rich amethyst colour with plummy undertones. The colour was perfect for my skin tone and the style perfect for my personality.
“You’d better try it on,” Mum said, “I may need to make a few minor alterations.”
I may have been rendered speechless by the revelation, but actions I could manage, and I had no need of a second invitation.
It fit like a glove, unsurprisingly, but also unsurprisingly my perfectionist mother wanted to make a few tweaks here and there. She sent me upstairs to shower and get ready, and by the time I was clean, styled and made up, she appeared in my bedroom with the dress in hand.
This time it fit like a second skin, and I couldn’t contain myself. “Mum, it’s perfect. It is so much better than perfect, it is divine.”
“Well, I wouldn’t go that far, but I’ll admit, I’m pleased with it.”
“I understand why you didn’t want me working on it now. But why? What’s the special occasion? I mean it’s not my birthday or anything.”
“Well, if I need an excuse, let’s say this is my way of celebrating getting my daughter back.”
She fussed at the edges a bit, pulling here and tweaking there. Then she had a light bulb moment and disappeared into her bedroom. When she reappeared she had a jewellery case in hand which she opened to reveal a set of matching gold and amethyst earrings and necklace. They finished things off perfectly.
And there she was staring back out of the mirror at me, eyes shining like starlight. Everything I had always been but had never found a way to express, everything that had remain buried and miserable for so many years, now all up on the surface and radiating into the world with a delight I hadn’t even been able to dream was possible. Nothing could dampen my spirits tonight.
The doorbell rang and I grabbed my bag and fur coat.
“One minute,” Mum said. “There’s a catch at the top here I didn’t close.”
She reached for the clasp above the zip at the back of my dress and…