The Way You See Me

Copyright © 2012 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.

see me

I hated my doorbell.

It was one of those cheap two tone models, but so cheap that the manufacturers couldn’t even be bothered to tune it properly. How it’s possible to manage such a nerve grating discord with just two notes I’ll never know, but it made my teeth itch every time it went off. The thing is it was part of the flat – which was equally cheap and nasty – so I couldn’t really replace it.

It was Friday evening and a crappy end to a crappy day which was, in turn, the end of a crappy week. I had the TV on, but there was nothing worth watching. I’d tuned it into the least offensive thing I could find and was slouched on my sofa, trying to decide whether I could be bothered to get up and pop a cheap ready meal in the microwave or just pour myself another glass of wine, when the doorbell rang.

Well rang is too kind a word to describe the noise, but it went off all the same. With my mood on a definite downward swing, I had no desire at all for company, so I steeled myself to wait it out. After a few seconds the bell sounded a second time, then a third followed immediately by a sharp, double tap of knuckles against the loosely fitted frosted glass in the door.

Like I said the flat was cheap.

I let out a long sigh and heaved myself out of my seat. There was an impatience to the knocking that suggested the knocker wasn’t going away any time soon, and might possibly start shouting through letterbox if I left it much longer. I decided I’d rather face an unwelcome visitor than ignore an angry one, just as long as it wasn’t…

“Hey Jerry. Did I catch you at a bad time?”

…Ruth.

I stood aside and let her step into the flat. She managed not to wrinkle her nose at the piles of dirty laundry, unwashed plates and general clutter that were the current main features of my den. I knew I should feel shame, but I didn’t have the energy.

“We need to get you out of here, buddy. Come on, go get your shoes and coat.”

Well, at least she hadn’t start clearing the place up. Mind you the sink was full of crap, as was the kitchen counter, so had she been tempted to try, she wouldn’t have found anywhere to put anything.

“I really don’t feel like going out tonight, Ruth.”

“I don’t fucking care.” The words were harsh, but the voice gentle, almost cheerful. “I arranged to go round Sally and Siobhan’s this evening, and I’d rather not turn up on my own. Since you’re obviously not in a fit state to be left alone tonight, you can come with me. Come on, it’ll be fun.”

Fun! Fuck me, like I could give a ballistic turd for fun! I glowered at her, but she was having none of it.

“Come on you old git, get your coat I said.”

I hate confrontation, and I’m not sure I’ll ever have the willpower to say no to Ruth – not for long anyway. I headed for the broom closet that my landlord had once ambitiously described as a bedroom-study. Still beggars can’t be choosers, and I’d not been able to afford anything else at the time.

“And put some decent clothes on while you’re at it. You make the guys down at the shelter look positively overdressed.”

No argument there. The only positive feature possessed by my track suit bottoms was comfort. They were old, worn and scruffy, barely fit to wear around the house, and decidedly not warm enough to go out in. As for my tee-shirt, it bore evidence of at least two sloppily eaten meals. I picked a pair of jeans off the floor and decided they were neither too grubby nor too creased, added one grey polo shirt – stretched out of shape by one too many runs through the washer-drier, but clean at least – and a black cardigan – holes not too obvious – and declared myself ready.

I reappeared with coat and shoes in hand and she threw her hands heavenward.

“What the fuck is that?”

“My best clothes.” Sadly not so far from the truth.

She shook her head but accepted this was the best she was going to get out of me. She put up with a lot from me, and I hadn’t yet figured out why. I was beginning to think that perhaps she had adopted me as a sort of pet project, though I rather hoped I was wrong.

It took a moment to tie my laces and shrug my coat onto my shoulders. I retrieved my wallet and keys from the one tidy spot in the living room, and we were gone. I closed the door on my cesspit of a flat – so very much a mirror of my life – and followed her down the path and into the street.

-oOo-

Sally and Siobhan are lovers. They’re Ruth’s friends more than mine because she… well let’s just say she has more in common with them than one might think at first, and that of course is a major part of my problem with Ruth.

No, no. Not in that way; I’m not prejudiced or anything – can’t afford to be that hypocritical. It’s just that she’s one of those once in a lifetime women – perfect in every way imaginable. Actually I guess she’s not really, but that’s how she appears through my rose tinted view of her. I could wax lyrical about her delicate features, the colour of her hair, the depth of her eyes, and it wouldn’t come close to expressing how she makes me feel. It’s not just skin deep with her either. You peel back the surface and you find layer upon layer of exquisite beauty right the way through. Her personality, her passion, her… well, I think you get the picture.

And she’s gay.

Even if she weren’t, I’m under no illusions about how unlikely a candidate I would be for her affections. I could list a whole catalogue of reasons why she would never see me the way I’d like her to, so I’ve never told her how she makes me feel. Cowardice probably – that’s page seventy-six in the catalogue – but also a fair amount of self-preservation and pragmatism mixed in. I resolved, a long time ago, to sit on my feelings until they went away, but that might have happened a lot sooner if she hadn’t decided to be so bloody nice to me.

Sally and Siobhan only live a couple of streets away. I forget how Ruth first met them – some sort of gaydar thing probably – but since they befriended her, they’d become something of a semi-regular, occasional social event for Ruth and me. It was at the first of our get-togethers that I discovered that Ruth was batting for the home team and, very shortly after that, that I ruefully accepted my place in her life as ‘friend’. Before the revelation, the mere thought of walking alongside her had been intoxicating, but without hope, the spark gutters and eventually – so I’m told – dies. My spark for her was still dimly glowing deep inside me, but I knew there was no sense in trying to fan it into anything brighter. I ignored it and settled into a disconsolate trudge beside her.

I’ll say this for Ruth, among her other fine qualities is an atypically unfeminine capacity for companionable silence. She knew my moods and how best to respond to them. Quite often she could talk me out of a sulk with just a few words, but this evening was decidedly not one of those times. This evening she knew to keep her peace and managed, somehow, still to draw me out of my despondency, albeit much more slowly.

Each step I took further away from my hovel of a home saw a very slight lightening of my mood. There is something particularly self-destructive about wallowing in your own filth. You lose the will to help yourself and as things get worse, you spiral out of control. That’s why human beings need each other, why I needed Ruth.

You see, my parents died a few years ago, in a plane crash. Statistically one of the safest ways to travel, but stats have a habit of turning around to bite you in the arse1. A few months after the funeral, my brother headed off to Australia; something he’d been wanting to do for a long time, and I think Mum and Dad’s death kind of made him realise how easy it is to miss your opportunities in life. He’s doing pretty well for himself – got a good job and a girlfriend and everything. We Skype from time to time, but we’ve always been different so we don’t find much to talk about even when we do talk.

After he left, I kind of found myself completely on my own. I always was something of a misfit, so have never found it easy to make friends – close friends especially. I spent too much time in my own company, and was just about to disappear up my own sphincter when Ruth came along.

We met in the library, both reaching for the same book at the same time or some such cheesy cliché. We kind of laughed, she insisted I take the book, which isn’t the way things are supposed to go – you know, the guy’s supposed to be the gallant one? – and we parted company. The book wasn’t even that good, but then she was at the library again when I brought it back a couple of days later, and it gave me an excuse. I walked over to her and handed her the book, told her what I thought of it and, in an uncharacteristic surge of bravado, asked if she wanted a coffee.

We hit it off despite our differences – she’s ten, maybe twelve, years younger, bursting with enthusiasm and passion for life, and I’m kind of burned out and drifting aimlessly – and coffee became a regular thing. Liquid Esperanto I’ve heard it called; a place to go where all barriers of age, race, gender, class and creed break down; a reason to meet, to talk; somewhere to dangle your lips when there’s a lull in the conversation; harmless, hopeful; a place between acquaintance and something more.

Except there never was something more. I did suggest going out to Ruth a few times, but she always had some reason to say no. Never quite ‘I’m washing my hair’, but at times it seemed like that sort of thing. Then the day came. I was working up the courage to ask her out again when she asked me instead. She’d been invited around for a meal with a couple of friends and wanted to know if I’d care to be her plus-one. I mused briefly over ursine arboreal defecatory habits2 and papal religious preferences3, but only very briefly. I mean hell, yeah!

I even tried to smarten up for the evening, not that I had anything particularly smart to wear. I couldn’t use my work clothes, which consisted of shirt and trousers in corporate colours with corporate logo emblazoned all over them, and my general criteria for buying stuff otherwise consisted of blandness, cheapness and how well it fit, along with how fast I could pay for it and get out of the damned shop. I have always hated shopping for clothes.

The couple of friends in question were, yep you guessed it, Sally and Siobhan, and it was obvious from the outset they were a couple in every sense of the word, and very much at ease in their own home. What became increasingly obvious over the course of the evening, though, was that Ruth was similarly inclined. I’m not sure exactly what gave it away – a subconscious mimicking of their mannerisms, an occasional exchange of meaningful glances, I don’t know – but by the end of the evening any pathetic hopes I might have had regarding Ruth had crumbled to dust.

She walked me home afterwards. Yeah, I know, shouldn’t I have been the one to walk her home? Ruth doesn’t go for that kind of stuff. She doesn’t come across as delicate and on the one occasion I’d raised the matter, she’d opened her bag to show me a can of super-strength Mace and a fairly illegal looking cattle prod. She also had a personal alarm clipped to the outside of her handbag which, along with the self-defence classes she’d taken a few years before, pretty much settled the question of who’d be better able to handle an attempted mugging.

Anyway she walked me home, glancing across at me from time to time as I slid back and forth between despondency and outright pissed off. The whole purpose of the evening, it seemed, had been her way of telling me her interests lay elsewhere. In retrospect it can’t have been easy deciding to tell me at all, let alone coming up with a way to break the news, but I felt… well betrayed isn’t quite the word, although it does give a sense of the anger I felt. I felt let down as well, which is where the hopelessness fit in. We walked all the way to my flat in silence and might have ended our friendship on the doorstep, had she not asked to come in for a coffee. Just a coffee mind, don’t get any ideas.

Coffee has always been something of an event round my place. I can’t stand instant, and have become progressively more anal over the years in my preparation of the real stuff. I even tried that Kopi Luwak once to see if being shit out by a cat actually improves the flavour. It was different, and I’ll admit it was pretty good, but not sustainable on my salary and, in my opinion, not worth the overdraft. Still, grinding fresh beans and setting up the machine allowed me to settle my mind, and Ruth to choose her words. By the time we were both sitting down behind steaming mugs of Joe, we were both pretty much ready.

There wasn’t much to say on her part. How she’d never been attracted to men, how she’d felt that way as long as she could remember, how she’d struggled with it for a long time before finally accepting it as part of her, how she was sorry for the manner in which she’d let me know, but hadn’t been able to think of another way, how she hoped it wouldn’t change things between us.

Yeah right.

But her words did something to me – kind of prized open a chink in my armour – which led to me telling her about my own little peccadillo. I mean if she could trust me with her secret, then couldn’t I do the same with mine? It’s not something I’d ever talked about with anyone before. I mean I’m pretty sure Mum figured it out. I’d always tried to put things back the way I’d found them, but it doesn’t matter how careful you are, you always slip up somewhere, and she was pretty observant in any case. She never said anything directly, but there were a few times, after I left home and we met up for a coffee, when she’d guide the conversation around to the topic and kind of hint I might have something to say on the matter. I never did have the courage to respond though.

I regretted never telling her, especially after she died. Unshared secrets weigh heavily on the conscience, and after the funeral there literally was no-one I dared talk to about it. Until that evening with Ruth that is. Trust deserves to be returned, and the chances of there ever being anything more between us were pretty much nil. I figured here was at least something that could be salvaged from the wreckage.

She took it well; thanked me, even, for being so honest with her. I think that was kind of when she decided to adopt me as her good Samaritan project. It was hard telling her, just like it’s hard writing this – too hard to say anything more specific right now – and I think she got the idea of how much of a struggle I was going through. She’d faced a similar sort of thing herself, and I think she decided that I needed someone solid in my life to lean on. Not for every day, of course, not forever and not with the kind of closeness I wanted, but a good friend to hang on to – someone who wasn’t going to run away when things got tough, someone who wouldn’t let me slip away completely.

That’s the trouble with Superman though, isn’t it? He’s there when your life’s in danger, but not when you’re just struggling to get by. Then you’re supposed to be comforted by the promise that he’ll be there if things get too bad. You never see what happens to the people he saves the next day. Except for Lois of course, and for most of the story, she puts her life on hold for him, and he’s so self-reliant and strong he never seems to need her. That’s me: Lois Lane in the body of a fat old man, only my Superman is perfectly happy without me, and she probably still doesn’t quite get the way I feel about her.

So that was then, and this was now. A short walk took us to Sally and Siobhan’s, and it was the usual mix of good food, fun, laughter and silent pain. With Ruth and me both on Shanks’s pony, the booze was flowing pretty freely and we all started to relax. The good company and friendly banter was lifting me out of my black mood despite myself. Then Sally picked up an empty beer bottle and spun it on the table. Whether by luck or judgement, it ended up pointing towards Ruth.

“Truth or dare?” Sally asked.

“Dare.” Ruth always was one to face a challenge.

“Okay, I dare you to kiss Jerry, full on the lips,” she said. “A proper kiss mind, no half measures.”

God no!

Ruth leaned across and…

It was soft and sweet and oh so sensual – and I’d never experience anything like it again. Something inside me tore in that moment and it took all my self-control not to break down.

The bottle was spinning again, and hey, guess what?

“Truth or dare?” Ruth asked me.

“Er, truth.” I stammered. I couldn’t face a dare, not after that last one.

Ruth was kind, or at least she tried to be. “If you could be anyone in the world today, who would you be?”

The other two groaned and made rude noises over the pathetic question, but for me there couldn’t have been a worse one. There was only one answer in my mind, and it was something I dared not share. But I couldn’t see past it.

“Come on Jerry, spill,” Siobhan nudged me.

God, how much worse could this get? I looked across at Ruth, terror and regret flooding my eyes. If I started to answer, maybe something else would come to me.

“If I could be anyone in the world today…”

Panic froze my brain. All I could see was the answer in my mind, the answer I wanted so desperately to avoid.

A quizzical cast grew in Ruth’s eyes as I drew the pregnant pause out to a full and late gestation. Nothing would come, no alternative. I looked directly at the most beautiful girl in the world.

“…I would be the person you fall in love with.”

Our two hostesses whooped with delight at the revelation, but all I could see was the shock in Ruth’s eyes – the eyes I cared for more than anything. I couldn’t hold her gaze, turned away. Sally was talking. Any distraction to move past this moment.

“Even if it meant being a girl?” Ruth’s sexual preferences were as openly known and shared in our little group as Sally and Siobhan’s. Perhaps, if I could deflect this onto me, make it less about Ruth, things wouldn’t be so bad.

“Maybe especially if it meant being a girl.” More whoops, accompanied by raised eyebrows. I didn’t dare look at Ruth. “I mean girls have more fun, don’t they?” It was lame, but I was trying to make light of things. Sally, bless her, played along.

“We could make you an honorary girl in our little group if you like.”

I forced a smile. “You know, I actually would like that a lot. As long as it doesn’t bother anyone of course.” Adrenaline coursed through my veins. I didn’t know what had come over me; I’d just revealed the two biggest secrets in my life, all over a casually spinning bottle in a stupid game.

“We could probably find some clothes that would fit you,” Sally said.

“No that’s okay, I’d be happy with just the title.” The hole was already deep enough. No need to dig any further.

“Oh come on, dressing up’s one of the best bits about being a girl. You want to look good don’t you?”

“But that’s just the problem, isn’t it? I mean there’s no way anyone could make this look good.” I gestured at my scruffy, more than slightly flabby body.

“Challenge accepted. Come on Shiv, let’s see what we can dig out. I rather suspect these two have a few things to say to each other, and would appreciate a bit of alone time.” Sally stood, pulling her girlfriend to her feet, and before Ruth or I could say anything, they ducked through a door, revealing in passing the briefest of glimpses of the messy bedroom beyond.

Silence descended, became oppressive. I sat staring at my hands, picking at my nails. “I’m sorry,” I said. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

Ruth put her hand tentatively on mine. “It’s okay Jerry.” It sounded anything but. “I’m flattered, in a way.” Almost as dire as ‘you’re a wonderful man/woman but…’ “It came as a bit of a shock is all, but I suppose it’s good to know the truth.”

An opening. “Are you up for a bit more? Truth I mean.”

She shrugged. “Sure, why not?”

‘How much worse can this get’ you mean? She didn’t actually say it, but I could all but hear the words echoing around in her head. I took a deep breath.

“I never meant for you to know any of this. I mean I know you’re not interested in guys, so it would be pointless telling you, wouldn’t it? I just couldn’t think of anything else to say – I’m not expecting you to respond at all. In a way it feels good to get it off my chest at last, but I know that no matter how much I might want to be a girl, no matter how much I might feel like one on the inside sometimes, I don’t expect there’s enough of a girl in me to interest you.”

“That’s not what this is about is it? Your whole ‘want to be a girl thing’ isn’t because of your feelings for me?”

“God no. I’ve been this way since long before I met you. It’s just kind of ironic that the one person I fall for could only love me back if I were what I always wanted, but never could be.

“If this situation counts for anything at all, it’s kind of my version of the carol singing scene in Love Actually. You know, when the best man bloke calls on Keira Knightly, plays carols from a boom box, and shows her all those cards telling her how he feels?”

“I love that bit.”

“Me too. I cry almost every time.”

“Almost?”

“Okay, you got me.”

Silence grew between us again, but I was too immersed in self-recrimination and regret to notice. Ruth caved in first.

“So you really want to be a girl?”

It took a second or two for me to resurface, then another to replay her question. “Yeah. No. I mean… it’s complicated, but on the whole yes I think I’d be better off with an inny than an outy.”

She ducked her head, fighting the smile. If I could still make her laugh then this wasn’t quite the disaster I’d feared.

“I don’t get it,” she said. “I mean why?”

I gave her question the consideration it was due. I did have an answer, sort of.

“I didn’t get it myself at first. I’m not sure I do even now, not completely. I was always miserable as a kid; lonely, out of place, always feeling like I didn’t quite fit. Then one day, I found one of my mum’s skirts and put it on. I don’t remember why I did, just that once I did, everything felt different. Better somehow. More right.

“It started something that I was powerless to stop. I felt so good when I was dressed like a girl, I just had to take every opportunity I was given to climb into a dress, then afterwards I’d be overcome with guilt; I mean what business did I have pretending to be something I wasn’t? After a lot of years alternating between desperately wanting to feel girly and feeling miserably guilty about indulging something I felt deep inside was wrong, I finally figured a few things out.

“First is there’s nothing I can do to change the way I feel inside. I’ve tried – God knows I’ve tried – but this is a part of me, and it only eats away at me to suppress it, to pretend it’s not there. Second is the reason I ‘knew,’” yes I did the thing with the fingers4, so sue me, “it was wrong was because I was picking up on cues from people around me. The way my parents would react to some drag artist on TV, that sort of thing. The ‘wrongness’,” yes the fingers thing again, “turned out to be more in other people’s minds than any absolute truth of the universe.

“It’s all about getting my inside to match my outside. I’ve tried changing who I am inside, but nothing seems to work, so I’ve come to the conclusion that I’m kind of stuck with being me…”

“Not such a bad thing.”

“Thanks, I guess… But it still doesn’t help with the mismatch. There are bits about my insides that just aren’t normal for a guy. I find a lot of the things other guys talk about boring, I don’t find it funny when someone farts in public and I don’t know why everyone has to jeer when someone drops a tray down at the pub; I don’t really like beer, except as a means of obliterating my consciousness; I’d rather be asked out than do the asking; that sort of thing.

“If I were to behave on the outside the way I feel on the inside, I’d get called a wuss or a sissy by both men and women alike. I’m supposed to ‘man up’ to things, stop being pathetic. Just because I have testicles and a penis, I’m supposed to be able to get over it and get on with life, but there is no getting over this.

“I know some women can be bitchy and nasty, but most of the ones I know are supportive of one another, kindly, helpful, caring. It’s kind of the way I feel inside; the way I’d tend to behave if I had the freedom to do so without being judged.

“And that’s where the problem is, I think. Everyone wants to be the person they feel they are on the inside and to be accepted as such. For me there are consequences regardless of what I choose to be. I can be the me I am inside, in which case I have to deal with the way the rest of the world – both men and women – would reject me, just because I don’t fit into their tidy little definition of the way things should be. Or I can get up every day and struggle to squeeze myself into this miserable simulation of a guy, just because that’s what everyone expects of me.”

“I’m still not sure I follow.”

“Okay, let’s see if I can turn it around a little then. Since the day I met you, I’ve never seen you wearing a skirt or a dress. I’d be right in guessing you don’t like them much, wouldn’t I?”

“Seriously not interested.” She shook her head grinning at the image.

“The thing is you’re really beautiful.” I could say that now. The cat was out the bag, which meant I could swing it freely without fear of causing more harm. “I reckon you’d look exquisite in the right dress. Something summery with a floral print in pink and light blue. Cap sleeves, a gentle V neckline to show off a little cleavage, and a light swirly skirt coming down to just above the knee. Maybe a pair of light coloured tights and a low heel – an inch or an inch and a half, just to round off your calves. I bet you have spectacular legs.” She winced at each new detail and I decided to stop before her expression became too pained.

“But that’s not you is it?” I asked.

She looked up at me, the first glimmer of understanding showing in her eyes. I pulled out my phone and took a snapshot of her face.

“I’ll delete it when we’re done.” I said, showing her the photograph. “Pretend it’s not you. Pretend it’s just a girl who looks a bit like you. Can you see how pretty she is? The smooth skin, the exquisite bone structure, the gorgeous hair.

“A dress would complement those features, make them more delicate. Pastel colours would match her complexion best, don’t you think? Especially blues and pinks. A touch of eye-shadow to bring out her eyes and a pale pink lip gloss. She wouldn’t have to do much with the hair, maybe a hair band perhaps. Or if she were going out for the evening, an off the shoulder gown in midnight blue with her hair pinned up to show off that spectacular, long and slender neck.

“What do you think? She’d have all the boys, and maybe half the girls, drooling over her.

“That’s what most people see when they look at you, I reckon. They see this gorgeous young woman, and they wonder why she doesn’t make more of herself.

“But you don’t see yourself that way, do you? You could dress up to the nines and turn heads everywhere you went, but that’s not the you inside, and to do so would be kind of like lying. So you stick with jeans and trainers. You wear tee-shirts, sweatshirts and blouses that look more like men’s shirts than anything.”

“Is that what you think this is about? You think I want to be a man? You think I’m like you?”

“No! And yes… ish.” Shit this could get confusing fast. “No to thinking you want to be a man, yesish to thinking you’re a little like me.

I think you want to be accepted for the person you feel yourself to be inside, and not the person everyone tells you you are, or should be. I don’t know, maybe this all started as a way of discouraging guys from asking you out, but I suspect it’s deeper than that. I think you prefer your clothes to be practical and comfortable rather than decorative. You prefer a more active role in life – getting your hands dirty so to speak – you want to be recognised and appreciated for the things you can do rather than the way you look. Maybe you’d prefer to be more pro-active in romance, doing the asking rather than waiting to be asked. Belle of the ball is not you, despite how well other people think you could pull it off, so instead you choose you own way.

“And you’re lucky. As a girl in this modern world you can get away with that. Sure you have to do battle with male chauvinism and glass ceilings and all that, but where the rubber meets the road, you can still get away with behaving exactly the way you feel inside. Maybe a few people think you’re a bit odd, think you’re passing up the opportunity to land yourself the handsomest, wealthiest hunk you’re likely to meet, but it’s not as if dressing like you do has people calling you a sexual deviant.

“This whole thing has nothing to do with your sexual preferences – although I think gender and sexuality are more closely linked than the experts would have us believe. It has to do with the way you see yourself, the way the world sees you, and the way you present yourself to the world. You can dress the way you want because there is such a thing in our society as a tomboy, and has been for a very long time. You may actually overplay it a little to compensate for the way people keep trying to squash you into the pretty girl thing just because that’s how they think physically attractive women should behave, but overall you still get to be who you feel you are. You can get away without wearing dresses most of the time because dressed as you are you still look pretty amazing.

“You and I are similar – at least I think so – in that the image we have of ourselves isn’t one that other people naturally expect of us. Where things differ though, is that you get to show your true nature freely without major repercussions, whereas the constraints on me are rather stronger.”

“Does that mean you don’t really want to be a woman?”

“What does that even mean? Be a guy, be a girl? Once you get past the obvious physical nature of it, it’s all about conforming to the expectations of society. Fifty – sixty years ago, being a girl meant you would have grown up wearing a dress whether you wanted to or not. Your family, your friends, everyone you came across on a daily basis would have expected to see you looking like a girl, and if you hadn’t, if you’d gone around in jeans or overalls or some such, you’d have been seen as having the same kind of stigma that guys like me do today if we choose to express the feminine side of our nature – only you’d be less likely to be beaten up because you’re a girl and people don’t beat up girls.”

She ruminated on that for a while. I lapsed into silence and waited.

“So what are these constraints?” She asked at last. I had my answer ready.

“Public opinion would be one, but I’ve pretty much covered that. Like I say, we both want to be accepted for who and what we are and, whilst people will let you get away with that, even if they are a little disappointed that you don’t take advantage of your looks – the best I can hope for is to be laughed at. From my own side of the gender divide – physically speaking at least – I’d get a range of reactions from anger and violence at the extreme far end, to ridicule in the middle, right through to rejection. Guys have a strong independence thing going for them – they want to be seen as self-reliant, strong, intelligent, in control – better than all the rest. Any man who rejects that and wants to be more like a woman is seen as a sort of traitor and defector to the gender. Or worse, as a threat to every man’s sexuality – you know, the old story about the guy taking an attractive girl home only to find she has something unexpected between her legs. Things like that can seriously affect a guy’s street cred. Men have to conform, because so very much of it is about not losing face with your mates.

We even have new words appearing in the language to try and justify behaviour that’s at the edges of masculine behaviour. Two guys start feeling the sort of close friendship that almost every girl has with at least one other girl, and we call it a bromance – in part to make fun of it, in part to declare that, ‘hey this is like totally straight, yeah? We’re two straight guys and there’s nothing gay about us.’ Men don’t do handbags because they’re girly, instead they have to have manbags. Metrosexual’s another. It describes a man who insists he is straight, but has a concern about his appearance which is more stereotypically associated with homosexuals.

“I’m getting off the point. Girls don’t see people like me as much different though. They have their expectations of men, which aren’t far different from those that men have for themselves, only seen from the outside. They come across someone like me and they don’t know how to deal with it. To a large extent, they take their cues from the way other men react to us, which means they consider us to be perverts and a potential threat to children, and therefore to be avoided.

In all cases there are likely to be people – both men and women – who don’t get stuck up on the unwritten rules of society and who’d be supportive, but I’m not sure any of them would really understand or be able to respond.”

“Wow, you’ve really thought about this.”

I laughed, but there wasn’t much humour there. “When something affects you this much, sometimes there’s nothing else you can think about.

“There’s more. I suffer from what I’ve heard other guys like me call testosterone poisoning.” She looked confused, or at least slightly more so. “What is it that counts towards beauty in women? Smooth skin, large eyes, full lips, small slender figure? Mostly things we associate with children – and before you say anything, I don’t think women want to stay as children, other than in wanting to hang on to some of their physical characteristics.

“The way I see it, this is kind of evolution at work. In more brutal times, physically weaker women looked to men for protection, and what’s more likely to draw out the protective instincts in an adult of either sex than the image of a child in danger, so natural selection had a tendency to favour women who retained youthful features. It’s kind of a primal need which may go some way to explaining why so many women chase after any and every means possible to fend off the effects of ageing, and why they’re so concerned about growing old; at least until it after it’s happened.

“Men don’t have that, and for most it’s an advantage. Testosterone boosts physical development and makes guys tougher and more rugged. That’s alright for most, but when, on the inside, you feel a need to look delicate and pretty, well do I need to say more? I look ridiculous in a dress. I know it and it’s not what I want to be. It’s not how I feel on the inside.

“I could probably make a half decent looking guy. Diet and a bit of exercise and I’d have reasonable muscles and a flatter – well okay, less circular – belly. A change of wardrobe and I could probably pass for halfway near handsome, but it wouldn’t be me. Everyone would see this guy and respond to me as though I were a normal bloke, and I’d have to keep pretending to be a normal bloke, and that would just eat away at me until there was nothing left but gristle.”

“Oh come on, it can’t be that bad can it?”

“Imagine yourself living in the fifties. Imagine waking up every morning wearing a nightdress covered in pink ribbons and lace. Imagine the first decision of the day, being whether to wear the pink dress with the flowers or the peach one with the big bow. Imagine all your friends only ever wanting to talk about clothes or boys. Imagine a life where you’re expected to wait until someone asks you out, where all have to look forward to in life is looking after your husband, your home and your children; no way to express yourself professionally.”

“Are you saying you’d want all of that?”

“No, of course not. No self-respecting human would want to be limited in that way. But you’re missing the point. Right now I don’t have access to any of those things in the same way you wouldn’t have had access to the aspects of your life that make you so different. I feel like I’m being limited in who and what I can be. I don’t know if I want to be a woman – not altogether, not completely, not all the time – but I do want the freedom women have now.

“I can’t be who I want to be because no-one would understand or accept me on those terms, and I can’t be who they expect me to be because I can only pretend to be someone else for so long before something gives – and it has given already. So instead I sort of exist. I am this badly dressed, amorphous blob of a person you’ve decided to make your friend because I can see no alternative, nothing that I can strive to become would be better.”

I stopped talking. I’d run out of words, but even if I’d had more to say, I was horribly aware of having stepped quite a long way over the line, of having exposed my vulnerabilities in a way that I never should have in front of someone whose respect I wanted. Then again that boat had long since sailed and was merrily burning on the horizon. I started picking at my nails again, refusing to look at Ruth.

The bedroom door opened – timing suspiciously convenient; almost tantamount to an admittance of eavesdropping – and Sally poked her head through the door.

“Hey Jerry, come on, Let’s see what we can do with you.”

I stood and glanced over at Ruth, who was lost in thought. I didn’t much feel like doing this now, but I’d put something of a dampener on an otherwise enjoyable evening, and I figured I owed it to everyone to make an effort. Too little too late perhaps, but worth a try. I stepped into the newly, and somewhat hastily, tidied bedroom. The door closed behind me cutting off any danger of me making things worse between Ruth and myself – at least for now.

“You won’t know this,” Sally said in a mock-conspiratorial stage whisper, “but neither Siobhan nor I were always the svelte, lissom figures you see before you today. When we first met, we were both a little broader in the beam, and we decided back then to keep a few of our old things as a reminder and a warning, should we ever be tempted back into more crapulous ways. We have a few things we think will look good on you, but you have to trust us and let us do the business before you peek, okay?”

I shrugged and let them lead me through to their en-suite where a florally scented bubble bath was waiting for me. I was only permitted ten minutes to soak and wash my hair, but it was enough to settle some of the emotional murk my recent conversation had churned up. By the time I was done, a set of used but thoroughly laundered – so I was told – underwear awaited me. The knickers – Marks & Sparks finest, which meant enough frills and lace to give me a gooey soft feeling – were generous enough to fit my ample rear end as well as my not so optional extras up front. I’d never got the hang of tucking, so let them sit in there as best they could. With my figure, or lack of it, I decided that one more unsightly bulge wasn’t going to make that much difference.

Even with an extender, the bra was a little snug around my chest. I adjusted the shoulder straps, but the cups still gaped, at least until a hand appeared through the doorway offering me a couple of rice filled knee highs. I have a fair amount of surplus flesh up top, and so was able to tuck the makeshift padding sufficiently under my own moobs to give a halfway believable cleavage.

Which was just as well, because when I emerged from the bathroom, I found a close approximation of the dress with which I had threatened Ruth earlier. It was more blue than pink – which suited my colouring better – and the skirt was shorter, falling to just mid-thigh at a guess. What was most noticeable though, was that the neckline plunged rather deeper than made me feel comfortable.

“Ooh, smooth skin. That will help.” Sally rubbed an appreciative hand up and down my arm. One of the few concessions I made to my feminine alter ego was keeping my body hair at bay. I’d tried shaving, but that was expensive in razors and didn’t last particularly long, plus it made my chest itch, so I’d switched to hair remover. It was working okay, but I did have some skin sensitivity issues and was considering giving waxing a try.

Siobhan offered me a dressing gown, which I gratefully wrapped around myself, and led me to a stool in front of a large dressing table. The girls had draped a towel over the mirror, leaving me totally at their mercy, especially once they had painted my nails a subtle but very pretty shade of pink. I sat very still, fingers and toes splayed out as best I could manage, and opened and closed my eyes when told. The mix of gentle perfumes was heady and the soft touch of brushes on my face loosened the aching knot I had been carrying inside me for so much of my life. Loosened, mind, not released. It had been there too long to be undone in just one sitting, especially after those words I’d shared with Ruth. Still it was good to feel the softening.

My hair was longish, more through neglect than intent, and apparently long enough for Sally to use her curling tongs on it. It felt strange by the time she’d finished; oddly mobile.

Finally they declared the renovation work complete and offered me a pair of tights which were, well, tight, but at least they were long enough that I didn’t end up with saggy crotch syndrome. I suspected they belonged to Siobhan who was particularly well endowed in the ambulatory department. A familiar cool wave washed over me as I slid the soft material up my legs, and I was glad of the tightness helping to hide the growing bulge between my legs.

They stood me up and held out the dress for me to step into. It was tight in the bodice, but intentionally so, flattening out most of the unsightly rolls of fat around my midriff. I smoothed down the front of the dress and felt like I had come home. I don’t know how else to explain it, and I know most people wouldn’t get it. Even my efforts with Ruth so far hadn’t seemed to have taken firm root, and she was sympathetic. There was something inside my mind – or perhaps deeper, in my soul – which felt so right when I was dressed like this, and so wrong at other times. All the analogies about being a square peg in a round hole, or wearing shoes on the wrong feet, they all fell short of reality. It was like being bent out of shape for most of my life, and only in these very occasional, very private moments, being allowed to relax into something like my normal form. I almost cried from the sheer relief of the moment.

Long legs don’t necessarily mean large feet, but Siobhan’s shoe size was only one less than mine. She offered me a choice of a pair of flat, strappy sandals or a pair of open toed sling backs with kitten heels. I went for the sling backs which, with straps loosened, fit me tolerably well. My toes reached over the edge a little, and I wouldn’t have wanted to walk very far in them, but they were a necessary part of all this effort. As were the necklace, the bangles, the clip on earrings, the small clutch purse, the sprays of perfume onto my neck and wrists. By the time they were done, I felt more completely me than ever before.

The girls declared me fit for purpose, and with a flourish, Sally pulled the towel off the mirror to show me my reflection. I prepared myself for the familiar heavy hearted feeling of disappointment and looked.

A plump, middle-aged woman in an ambitiously short dress looked back at me. She wasn’t likely ever to win any beauty contests, but that didn’t matter. For the first time in pretty much forever, I both looked and felt right.

That was when I realised just how much I had been holding back all my life; how much, even when dressed, I still felt bent out of shape. I was used to looking stupid in a dress – heavy brows, rough skin, strong features, all betraying the presence of a heavy-set male trying to be something that he evidently was not. I’d never bothered with hair or makeup before, because had no skill an those areas, and because I’d never believed such fine touches could soften the course lines and achieve the sort of results I saw in front of me now. For the first time in my life I looked in the mirror and the girl I had always known was there looked back.

“What do you think?” Sally asked.

I shook my head, causing my curls and earrings to dance. “I could cry.”

“Oh come on, it’s not that bad.”

“No. No it’s not. It’s perfect. Thank you.” I pulled her into a hug, which she didn’t resist until Siobhan coughed gently beside us. I wasn’t sure if Shiv was warning me off her girlfriend or just feeling left out. I hugged her too.

“Shall we seek an impartial third opinion?” Sally asked.

My overworked adrenal gland dug into its emergency reserves and filled my veins with liquid ice. The stunted little girl in me still dreamed of a happily ever after, in which she captured the heart of her princess charming. The rest of me, more experienced, more callused, less optimistic, was not so naïve, but my fairy – hopefully the use of the term wasn’t too derogatory in this case – godmothers had dressed me for the ball, and I couldn’t help rising on wings of desperate hope.

I bit my lip and tugged nervously at my borrowed dress. I could scarcely breath as the door opened and I stepped through, looking straight into her eyes.

-oOo-

“Damn girl, looking good!”

The realist in me was clamouring for attention and it acted like a sort of paranoia. Her words seemed a little forced to me and I found myself searching deep in her eyes, looking for… There. The slight creasing around the edges. She was trying to hide it, but underneath she was laughing at me. It mattered so much to me how she saw me now, but despite my words earlier, despite all I’d tried to explain, she still saw me as a sad old man playing at dress-up. I couldn’t stand it. I ran for the door.

“Jerry!”

I must have taken them by surprise, because I was halfway down the stairs by the time Ruth called to me from the doorway of the flat. I couldn’t stop, couldn’t face her. I raced on, the heels clattering loudly on the bare concrete stairs. I was outside and halfway down the street before the cool evening air, swirling around my legs, made me aware of what I had done.

I almost turned back, but I couldn’t face any of them just then. It was dark, I reasoned, the streets were empty and the girls had done a pretty good job on me. Besides, terrified as I was, this was the fulfilment of yet another dream I’d always been too afraid to realise. I was outside and wearing a dress, and for once I figured I could pull it off. Going back right now was not an option – too much pain, too many awkward questions to face – but this I could do. I took a deep breath, straightened my skirts and walked swiftly down the street and round the nearest bend before the awkward question had a chance to come chasing after me.

I was halfway home before I realised I didn’t have my keys or my wallet. They were in my trousers, which currently lay in an untidy heap in Sally and Shiv’s bathroom. Fortunately it wasn’t too cold an evening, so I decided to walk around for a while, let my emotions settle a little. When I felt calmer, braver, I’d head back and apologise.

I walked down random streets, avoiding the darkness where I could. I was beginning to regret my choice of shoes, although I’m not sure the sandals would have been that much more comfortable. I suspected I was stretching the leather and would owe Siobhan a new pair by the end of the evening. My racing pulse slowed and steadied, speeding up again briefly the first couple of times I passed other pedestrians, but I needn’t have worried. They smiled and nodded in a friendly manner as I passed, and I began to settle into the feeling of being truly out and accepted. I was actually beginning to enjoy myself when three figures detach themselves from the darkness as I passed.

At first I wondered if they might be my friends out looking for me, but the clothes were unfamiliar, and as the figures emerged into the light, it became obvious that they were all young lads on the prowl, and I was their latest prey. I started walking faster. My inexperience in heels, even such low ones as these, forced me to take short steps, and the speed of my footsteps left no question that I was trying to get away.

“Hey sweet cheeks, what’s the hurry?” a voice called from behind me. It didn’t sound that friendly.

“Yeah, we don’t mean you no harm.” A second voice, but the hint of malicious humour left me with little doubt as to the lie.

“Wow, that is some piece of ass,” a third voice ventured.

“Yeah, one sweet MILF. I wouldn’t mind a piece of that action.” I was losing track of who was speaking, but it didn’t matter. Their words were cruel, designed to intimidate. I didn’t dare look behind me, but their footsteps sounded closer. I increased my pace a little, feeling a cold sweat trickle down my back.

“Hey come on lady, where you going?”

“Yeah, we only having a bit of fun.” the footsteps behind me sped up, and I responded by doing the same. With my short steps, I was almost running now. There was no-one around and nowhere to go. This wasn’t going to end well.

“You know, I think she don’t like us guys. I think she being rude.” The voice was too close for comfort. I turned a corner and saw a pub sign not twenty yards ahead. I broke into a run, almost turning an ankle when one of my heels landed awkwardly.

“Shit, where you going?” I’d taken them by surprise, but my advantage was short lived. I could hear them running behind me. I increased my pace, still not daring to look back.

I barged through the pub door and stopped as a sudden silence fell over the room and every eye turned my way. I brushed out my dress and settled my skirt neatly around my legs, took a deep breath and only then looked back at the door. I could see moving shapes past the mottled glass panels and wondered if I was safer facing the group outside or the disgruntled crowd in here. Safety in numbers perhaps, but if they suspected who – or rather what – I was, things could turn just as ugly in here as out there.

“What can I get you?” the voice was friendly enough and came from a large, long haired man standing behind the bar. He wore a black tee-shirt with some heavy metal logo on the front and sported tattoos down both his arms. The rest of the locals turned back to their own business, having decided I was not that interesting.

“Er,” I softened my voice and fumbled with my purse for a moment. “I, er, I seem to have brought the wrong bag with me. I, er, I don’t have any money.”

The bartender was looking past me at the movement outside. “Them three arseholes again.” He nodded at the door. “Did they chase you in here?”

I ducked me head and nodded. I actually had to fight back the tears. It seemed feeling like a girl went deeper than just the clothes.

“Don’t worry love, this one’s on the house.”

I looked up at him gratefully. “Are you sure?”

“Don’t make insist,” he glared at me with mock severity and I smiled back gratefully.

“Vodka orange then please, and thank you.” I’ve mentioned how I don’t like beer much haven’t I? This felt so natural.

He handed me my drink and nodded to a quiet corner of the bar. “Have a seat love. If they’re still there in ten minutes, I’ll call the police.”

Yes, yes, I did the whole smooth the skirts out under me as I sat down thing. It’s not an essential part of wearing dresses; most women I know don’t seem to bother, but it seemed right given the shortness of my skirts. I looked round the pub and noticed a few curious glances aimed in my direction. I didn’t think any of them suspected me, but I felt horribly vulnerable even so. I was the only girl in the room, or at least, well you know what I mean don’t you? I mean this was a working man’s pub, and not a place to bring the missus. I was out of place here, even before taking into account that as a bloke in a dress I would have been out of place pretty much anywhere.

After the first look around, I kept my eyes averted and sipped at my drink. The lipstick marks on the glass left me worried I might be smearing my makeup, since I had no means of repairing it. No skill either for that matter.

My shattered nerves were beginning to reassemble themselves when the door squeaked open and in came Larry, Curly and Mo, or at least their younger, hoody wearing equivalents. It seemed they’d mustered the courage to pursue their quarry into the bar as, after a brief look around, they caught sight of me and headed over in my direction.

“Hey, sweet-cheeks,” the first of them said as he sat down opposite me, “why d’you run off like that? We only wanted to talk to you?”

I didn’t know what to do. I looked wildly around for the barman, but he was nowhere in sight. The other two took seats either side of me and I was left with nowhere to look except down at the table. I took a stiff gulp of my drink and set it back down with an unsteady hand.

“Why you so nervous, precious?” the one on my right leaned in towards me causing me to recoil. Where was the barkeeper?

“Hey what’s that?” the one on my left said suddenly. “Oh my God, the chick’s a dude.” He raised his voice, standing and looking around the bar “Hey man, look at this, the chick’s a dude.”

“Right you lot, I’ve had enough of you. Get the fuck out of my pub.” The barman appeared from nowhere, towered over the table looking menacing. The three youngsters jumped to their feet and scampered for the door. I made to follow, but a large heavy hand settled on my shoulder. “No, not you. I meant these pillocks.” There was a hardness to his voice, and I felt my insides melt with trepidation.

My three tormentors ran for the door. “The chick’s a dude,” the last of them yelled gleefully as the door closed shut behind them. The barman stood towering over me as the rest of the customers in the bar looked my way, curiosity and the threat of something more sinister in most of their eyes. I looked up with some consternation into the face of my erstwhile protector.

His features were impassive, unreadable, as he examined my face. His hand still rested on my shoulder, and after a moment I could hold his gaze no longer.

“Are you alright love?” He said it just loud enough for the rest of the bar to hear. “Those three can be real twats, but we don’t have many ladies come in here and most of my customers can handle themselves, so I don’t usually bother with them much.”

I looked up into his eyes, my own wide with surprise. This close there was no way he couldn’t see through the makeup. He raised his eyebrows, daring me to make something of it.

“I, I’m fine,” I stammered, careful to keep my voice soft and in the upper register. “At least I will be. Thank you.”

“It’s no problem. Look I’m going to call you a taxi.” I made to protest but he pushed me down with his strong hand. “No. I can’t leave the pub, and I don’t want you going outside with those three tossers in the neighbourhood, so no argument.”

I found I didn’t want to argue, but I did anyway. “I already told you, I don’t have any money on me.”

“I don’t give a shit. I’m not letting you back out on the street with those arseholes, just for the sake of a few quid. Now stop bloody arguing.” he spoke with a quiet, gentle tone which belied the roughness of his words. I settled back into my chair and he took his arm off me.

“Why?” I asked softly, grateful tears brimming in my eyes. “Why would you help me?”

“Something my dad told me once. Be the person you’d like to meet, be the change you’d like to see. Made a lot of sense at the time and at least as much now.”

“Thank you. Thank you so much. I could kiss you, but I suspect you’d rather I didn’t?”

He grinned good naturedly. “I’ll just call that cab.”

-oOo

He held the door for me and I climbed in and gave the driver my address, or at least the street between my flat and Sally and Shiv’s. I figured there was no harm in being careful, and this way I had a choice where to go when I got to the other end.

It wasn’t far and the barman – Gary he’d told me his name was – handed a fiver through to the cabbie.

“That’s the fare and your tip mate. If I hear she didn’t get home safe, I’ll come looking for you.” The threat wasn’t necessary, but it hardly seemed the time to argue. I thanked Gary one more time and we drove off.

As it happened, the driver chose a route that went past my flat, and I noticed the lights on as we passed. I called for him to stop, and with a bored shrug he pulled into the side. The ride had been short and the meter showed Gary’s five pounds had ended up being more tip than fare, but it felt good to be home and safe. At least I hoped I was safe.

There were signs of movement through the front window. The main lights were on, which meant whoever was in there wasn’t trying to hide – not likely to be burglars then. My front door had a Yale lock, so it was unlikely to be open. I gritted my teeth and pressed the doorbell, cringing as the dissonant chimes scraped fingernails down the blackboard of my soul.

I had barely recovered from my wince when the door flew open and Ruth wrapped her arms around me.

“Jerry, thank God, where the fuck have you been.” I didn’t have time to respond to the hug or the questions before she pushed herself away and slapped me hard across the cheek. “You fucking arsehole,” she said, her tone a lot harsher. “Don’t you ever try anything so fucking stupid again, you bastard.” She dragged me into the flat and slammed the door closed behind me. I stared, bemused, at her retreating form as she stalked back into the living room and grabbed her phone.

“Yeah, he’s back… No he’s fine, just turned up on the doorstep… No, I haven’t asked him yet… No, I’m fine too. No don’t worry… Yeah, thanks for this evening, and sorry about… Yeah alright. See you tomorrow then… Yeah thanks. Bye.”

I barely recognised the flat. All the dirty cups and plates were washed and draining beside the kitchen sink, the rubbish was in the bin, with two bin bags filled to overflowing sitting beside it, and she’d managed to find a laundry hamper from somewhere and had piled all my dirty clothing into it. It also was overflowing, piled high with twice the contents it had been designed to carry, but it was a vast improvement on how I had left the place.

“Oh, that’s what colour the carpet is.”

“Don’t you get flippant with me you fucking bastard,” Ruth’s eyes blazed with a rage I had never suspected they could contain. “Do you know how worried we’ve been? Sally and Siobhan go out of their way to do something special for you, and you storm off like that. Fuck me but you’ve definitely got the unpredictable, emotional mess of being a girl down pat haven’t you? I mean what the fuck were you thinking?”

I retreated from her salvo with widening eyes, until the wall prevented any further movement. Her fury robbed me of words and I stood, mouth opening and closing like a fish out of water. She waited, arms folded, and bored into me with those burning eyes. I wasn’t going to escape without giving her some sort of answer.

“I, er, you, er, you were laughing at me.” It came out in a jumble of incoherence.

“What?” It was short and sharp, like a punch in the gut.

“I said you were laughing at me,” I managed a little more clearly, allowing some of the hurt I had felt to resurface.

“I heard what you said, but just how do you figure I was laughing at you?”

“When I came out of Sally and Shiv’s bedroom, I could see it in your eyes. Maybe you tried to hide it, but you still couldn’t see the girl in me could you? To you I was just a sad old man in a dress. Still am. Always will be.”

“Oh, you stupid fucking idiot.” The rage vanished as though it had never been, replaced by exasperation and concern. Binary emotions. I’m not sure if they’re specifically a girl thing or just something Ruth does, but I’ve never seen a mood switch so fast. She pulled me into a hug again then pushed me away and grabbed my shoulders, staring deep into my eyes. “I was happy for you, you pillock. I thought you looked amazing, and with Sal and Shiv and me, I thought you could be yourself for once. Oh God, I’m sorry,” I she pulled me back into a hug and buried herself in my false cleavage. “Did I really look like I was laughing? I would never laugh at you. Not about this.”

I settled my arms uncertainly around her, returning the hug. This was so hard. If I let my defences down, I’d never want her to leave, but the hug was so much what I needed right now, especially from her.

“I may have been looking for it too hard. I’d have probably seen it no matter how you reacted.”

I held on to her and let the silence wrapped us in its gentle embrace. The walls were crumbling inside. In a minute I’d say something I’d regret. I searched for something less disastrous and found it. “Were you really that worried?”

She pushed me away and play hit me between my pseudo-boobs. “What, out on the streets on your own dressed like that? No money, no phone, no keys? Of course we were worried.”

We.

Of course Sally and Siobhan would have been worried too, I mean it was Sally’s idea and the two of them had played Dr Frankenstein on me, bringing to life a part of me that was all but dead. ‘We’ was a depersonalisation though. It wasn’t Ruth who was worried, but Ruth and her friends. I shored up my flagging defences and pushed myself away from the wall. “Would you like a coffee?” I asked.

“Well, now that you have some clean cups to drink out of, I don’t mind if I do.”

I wandered through to the kitchen and reached for my paraphernalia. “Yeah, I noticed all the hard work. Thank you.”

“I had to do something while I was waiting. I could hardly sit still.”

She. She could hardly sit still. Conversation was interrupted briefly while my grinder went to work on some fresh beans, screaming loudly as it did so. I went into auto-drive, coffee in here, water in there, plug in, switch on, hunt out mugs, milk, spoons. It’s as well my hands knew what to do because my mind was lost in an inner turmoil. I turned towards where she stood in the doorway.

“It’s not enough, is it?” She looked at me quizzically. “This,” I indicated the dress, the hair, the makeup, the extras. “It’s not enough to interest you, only I thought… I hoped… I…” I trailed off. The tears that had threatened all evening but never quite fallen, broke through the barrier and started to stream down my face, cutting deep runnels in the makeup Sally and Siobhan had so painstakingly applied.

Ruth pulled me into her arms. She didn’t need words to answer. The expression on her face was enough.

So much for fairy tales.

-oOo-

Love has to go both ways, otherwise it’s not so much love as selfish infatuation. While there’s a hope – even the faintest glimmer of one – that your feelings might be returned, it can survive. Mine had just died its last death.

By the time the coffeenator finished its asthmatic wheezing, I had cried myself out. It would probably take a while yet, but now I knew without a shadow of doubt that Ruth would only ever be my girl friend rather than my girlfriend. I would be jealous as hell when she finally found someone, but I cared for her enough to know that I wanted her to be happy, and if I wasn’t going to be able to make her so, then what love I had for her would have to stand back and be satisfied when she found someone who could.

We separated and I discovered the way Ruth genuinely looked when trying to suppress laughter. My reflection in the kitchen window revealed the most hideous pair of panda eyes I’ve ever seen. I dashed for the bathroom, leaving Ruth in charge of pouring out the coffee.

One minute and two clogged flannels later, I was spitting my full extended vocabulary at a mirror, which showed pretty much the same clown face I had seen reflected in the kitchen window. The bathroom door opened a crack and a hand reached through offering me a small plastic squeeze tube with a pink lid.

“Cold cream,” she explained through the mostly closed door. “Good for the complexion, but also useful for removing the gunk you have all over your face.”

I thanked her and took it, removed the lid and squeezed a generous glob of the stuff into my hand. It was unsurprisingly cold as I applied it to my face, making sure to rub it into my eyelids and other difficult to reach places. I grabbed a fresh flannel, moistened it, and within seconds my face was more or less clean. I allowed myself a fresh glob of the stuff and rubbed it into my skin, leaving it feeling soft and smooth, but filling me with an aching regret that I wasn’t permitted to enjoy such things on a daily basis.

With the makeup gone, the old me stared back. Curly hair and earrings notwithstanding, I was a bloke in a dress once more. I took the flannels, and the towel I’d draped over my shoulders to protect the dress, and dropped them with the rest of the washing. Ruth was sitting in my recliner. I wondered if she was making a point that she didn’t want me sitting next to her, but I reminded myself how much trouble I’d already made for myself by over-thinking a situation, and gave her the benefit of the doubt. I proffered the tube of cold cream but she shook her head.

“A gift from Sally and Siobhan.” She nodded at a bag sitting on the coffee table. “They asked me to drop off your clothes, and I think they added one or two extra things as well.”

I picked up the bag. “I should get changed.”

“Well if you want to be more comfortable, I think Sally put one of her old nightdresses in there for you, but don’t feel you need to change for my sake. Don’t let your coffee get cold.”

I examined her eyes, her face, her voice, for any hint of distaste or ridicule. Found none. Decided to fish for it. “You must think I’m ridiculous.”

“After everything you said earlier? I don’t think anyone’s ever come closer to understanding me than you, Jerry. I owe you at least as much consideration. Sit down and drink your coffee.”

“But I look like…”

“You look like my friend, Jerry, and if you can accept me dressing the way I like, then I can do the same for you, now sit the fuck down.”

I settled onto the sofa, tried tucking my legs under me the way I’d seen so many women do, but decided I didn’t have the anatomy to do it comfortably. I wiggled around until I found a position that worked and settled back.

The coffee was perfect, but then it pretty much always is round my place – anal retentive, remember, and no I’m not talking about the Kopi Luwak.

“So what happened to you tonight?” Ruth asked before sipping at her coffee.

So I told her. About how I’d felt too distraught to return. About how I’d wanted to just walk, despite the shoes. About the three yobbos, which prompted a knowing look – yeah, yeah, it’s dangerous walking as a woman alone at night without any form of protection. About the pub and Gary, which had her raising her eyebrows at me suggestively and asking if I might be interested.

“Not a chance,” I told her. “Gary struck me as a straight arrow, just amazingly kind with it. Besides, you know who I’m interested in.” Way to go Jerry. Way to trip up a perfectly good friendly conversation. “There’s something Eddie Izzard said on a talk show once.” I tried to push through the mistake. “He said he was a sort of male lesbian. That describes me too.”

“Not even a little tempted? I mean big, strong, kind hearted. You could do a lot worse.”

“No, no and no.” There was a little nervous laughter in my response. She was teasing me and I guess we both knew it.

“The lady doth protest too much, methinks.”

“The lady maketh no protestation, but merely stateth the facth. Anyway, he kicked the little dicks out of the pub after one of them started yelling, ‘the chick’s a dude’ at the top of his voice, then he insisted on paying for a taxi to take me home, so that I couldn’t get into any more trouble.”

“Are you sure he’s not interested in you?”

“I’m sure. It’s too easy to mistake kindness for affection. I did that with you, remember?”

She let off the attack and settled back behind her coffee. Silence settled over us again, but this time it was companionable, restful. My eyes kept returning to the bag of clothes I’d put back on the table. Ruth noticed. Smiled. Reached for it. Pulled out a white bundle and threw it across to me.

It was a Victorian style, cotton nightdress with lace and pink ribbons around the bodice.

“Sally said she thought it would fit you better than it does her now.”

I put my mug down and stood, holding the garment against me. It was gorgeous, and looked just about my size.

“Do you mind if I put it on?”

Her smile broadened. “You might want this as well then.” She pulled another bundle out of the bag, this time a silk dressing gown, covered in pale pink flowers.

I took it from her and dashed for my tiny bedroom.

I took my time, putting the dress on a hanger and placing the shoes and borrowed jewellery carefully out of the way. So much of the enjoyment in any experience is the anticipation. Eventually I re-emerged. I’d kept on the underwear, complete with artificial endowments, just to give everything the right shape.

“Wow all over again,” Ruth said. “It’s amazing the way you come alive like this. You literally glow, you know that?”

“Let’s turn the lights out and see.” Her expression froze. Shit did it sound like I was coming on to her? “I didn’t mean anything by that Ruth. Shit this is so difficult. I’ll take the compliment. Thank you.”

She stood, picked my mug up and carried it, with hers, through to the kitchen. I followed her, picking up a tea towel as she rinsed them quickly under the tap.

“I was planning on going out with Sally, Shiv tomorrow night,” she said. “There’s a gay nightclub, not too far away, that we go to sometimes. Do you fancy coming with us? In girl mode, I mean. I’m sure there are a few girls down there progressive enough to be interested in a weirdo like you.”

Evidently I hadn’t wrung out all my emotions. A rush of unexpected excitement flooded through me at the thought and I felt oddly faint. Ruth rescued the mug from my hands and helped me to a chair before I collapsed.

“God, will you stop acting like such a girl!” She said, causing us both to collapse into giggles.

I recovered enough to accept Ruth’s invitation. “If you’re sure you’re okay with it, I mean. If you think I can pull it off.”

“You can pull it off. You managed it tonight, except for those cretins who chased you. Besides, the girls down at the club won’t mind as long as you’re up front and honest with them. Sally and Shiv will be happy to help you get ready again, if you promise not to run off this time.”

Ruth noticed the kitchen clock. It was getting late enough to be early. “I’d better go,” she said. “You’ll be alright now, won’t you?”

“I’ll be fine,” I nodded, “but I don’t like the idea of you walking home at this time. You can crash here. I have a spare toothbrush, and I’m happy to take the sofa. I don’t mind.”

“Well, okay, but I’ll take the couch. I’m used to roughing it, and besides, you’ll need your beauty sleep for tomorrow night.”

I stuck out my tongue at her, and we collapsed in a heap of giggles once more.

I dug out a spare duvet, a sheet and a pillow for her before heading to the bathroom to brush my teeth. I took the opportunity to rub some more of the cold cream into my face and hands. It wouldn’t last long at this rate.

I changed the bedding on my own bed, already some weeks overdue. This felt like a new leaf being turned, and it deserved to have all the old habits, especially the more gross ones, discarded with the rest of the dross. Eventually I settled down in my bed and lay on my back facing the ceiling. I was still wearing the bra and makeshift falsies, but on purpose as I wanted to continue feeling as girly as I could.

I felt oddly at peace. It had only been a few hours since Ruth had dragged my reluctant and dejectedly sorry arse from this same miserable excuse for a flat, but so much had changed in those few hours. I was too tired to think about it. I turned onto my side and curled up into as small a shape as I could manage, luxuriating in the feel of crisp white cotton against my skin. I was asleep an instant later.

-oOo-

I woke to the sounds of singing and cascading water. My poky little flat offered not the least bit of privacy, and Ruth wasn’t trying to be quiet in any case.

I groggily climbed out of bed, momentarily confused by the tight feeling around my chest and the odd way my pyjamas felt – until I remembered they weren’t pyjamas.

The load had shifted during the night and a mutant stared back at me out of the mirror, one breast impossibly higher than the other. I adjusted my straps a little and, once satisfied, slipped my arms into my silk dressing gown. I retrieved a fresh towel from the storage cupboard before padding, a little inelegantly, out of my room.

I knocked on the bathroom door. “Fresh towel on the floor out here,” I called, and received a mumbled thanks.

I was used to feeling the weight of the world slowly descend on me early in the morning. It usually started with first sight of my bomb site of a home, but the lounge and kitchen were tidier than usual, and I still held onto that unusual calm from the previous evening. Even so, my brain wasn’t firing on all cylinders and it might well have been cognitive dysfunction that was interfering with the usual. I needed my fix, so followed my autopilot to the kitchen and the promise of caffeine.

We’d washed the cups up last night, but not the coffee machine. Autopilot mode was advanced enough to cope and I did my version of the soldier dismantling and cleaning his weapon in the dark. By the time Ruth stepped out of the shower, wrapped in one towel and drying her hair with another, the coffee was brewed. She came through, making noises of appreciation as I handed her a steaming mug.

“Mmm. You know, I could pretend to be in love with you just for the coffee.”

“Don’t joke,” I said, my voice weighed down by a sudden ache in my chest.

“Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. Are you alright?”

“I will be.” I managed a brave smile and drowned the lie in a gulp of steaming liquid. It was too hot and burned the roof of my mouth, which gave me the distraction it needed.

The kitchen clock read half nine.

“Would you like some breakfast before you head for home?”

“Thanks. What have you got?”

Plastic white bread, seriously-bad-for-you cheapo margarine, half a carton of eggs of questionable age and a packet of bacon in serious need of using up. I showed her.

“Not my usual breakfast fare, but yeah, why not.”

I didn’t have an apron and I was conscious of not wanting to splash hot fat over my nightdress. I looked around for alternatives.

“Why don’t we both get dressed first?” Ruth suggested, not exactly ready for breakfast herself.

“Okay,” I agreed, grateful for the short reprieve. “I’ll just be a minute”

I was ten in the end, and by the time I reappeared wearing my jeans and a slightly more presentable shirt than the previous evening, Ruth was dressed and tending a sizzling pan.

“Oh!” she exclaimed looking at me with some surprise.

“I didn’t want to risk Sally’s dress with the greasy food either,” I explained. “Besides, it’s a bit dressy for breakfast.”

“Don’t you have anything else? I mean, I thought from what you said about it, you’d have a few bits and pieces of your own.”

“Nothing I’d care to wear in public,” I said. “I’m kind of restricted to eBay for the things I can get, and I’ve never been able to justify spending much. It’s all pretty cheap and nasty.”

“Well I guess we’ll have to change that, won’t we?” She shifted the bacon onto a piece of kitchen roll to soak up the excess fat, and reached for the eggs. Testing them in a jug of water before cracking them into the pan.

“What’s that about?” I asked pointing at the jug as I reached past her for the loaf of bread.

“My dad used to test eggs this way. If they float they’re likely to be bad.”

“Live and learn.” I dropped a couple of slices of bread in the toaster and hunted plates, knives and forks out of the pile on the draining board. “More coffee?”

“Mmm, please.”

I poured out two fresh cups, buttered – or marged rather – the toast after it kerchunked. It all felt very domesticated and… wonderful.

“You know, I could get used to this.”

“I wish I could say it was going to happen, Jerry.” My turn to overstep, hers to react. She finished frying the eggs and served them, with the bacon, onto the two plates. “I wish I could feel about you the way you want, you’re such a great guy. Just…”

“…I’m not your type, I know. Give me time, Ruth. I’ll get the hang of this. We both will”

We sat together at my small kitchen table and tucked into our breakfast of grease and fat with a side order of cholesterol. It wasn’t half bad.

“So what are your plans for today?” she asked.

“I don’t know. I guess I have some washing I need to get out of the way.” I glanced over at the overflowing hamper. “I also thought I might go back to that pub at lunchtime, you know the place I ended up yesterday?”

“Are you sure that’s wise? What if someone recognises you from last night?”

“Then I shall have to be my own brother for a bit. I want to say thank you to Gary at least.”

“If he was on last night, he probably won’t be there this lunchtime.”

“I know, but I’m going out tonight, aren’t I? I can always leave him a note.”

“Well get your arse back here by two o’clock will you?”

“Why, what do you have in mind?”

“Shopping trip, and don’t even thing about arguing. Don’t worry, we’ll take you far enough away from here there won’t be anyone to recognise you.”

Icy cold trepidation trickled into my veins. “Shopping trip?”

“Yeah. Sort out your wardrobe a bit. I mean I’m rubbish at all this frilly stuff, so we’ll have to ask Sally and Shiv to lend you the clothes and do the makeup and sort out your hair again, and give you all the advice you need when we’re in the shops.”

“I can’t.” The reaction was instinctive.

“Why not? You did yesterday.”

“I was probably half pissed, and it was dark. People are sure to spot me in daylight.”

“Let Sally and Siobhan work their magic on you before you make up your mind. Actually, I ought to check first…” She grabbed her phone. “Hey Sally, it’s Ruth. Yeah, I was wondering if I could drag Jerry round this afternoon… Shopping trip… Yeah, you got it. Great, around two then? Brilliant. See you then.” She turned back to me. “Sally and Siobhan’s at two, and don’t be late.” She scrambled to her feet and reached across to give me a hug. “I’ll see you later. Two o’clock and no excuses.” And just like that, she was gone.

I looked around my unusually tidy flat. My keys and wallet were in their usual place, courtesy of Ruth. I wasn’t sure how things were going to go from here, but I felt better about, well everything. I picked up the breakfast mugs and plates, and dropped them into the sink. It took only a few minutes to wash them and the relevant bits of the coffee contraption. It felt odd to want to stay on top of things for a change. I headed for my washing hamper and started sorting clothes into bags to take down to the laundrette.

-oOo-

It was twelve-thirty by the time I made it back with the washing, and I was beginning to feel hungry again. I dropped my freshly laundered clothes by the door and ducked back out again. I recalled the taxi ride from the night before and retraced the route, arriving outside the pub by ten to one.

The young woman behind the bar was petite and very pretty. Business was slow and she smiled at me as I stepped through the door.

“Er, I don’t suppose Gary’s in, is he?” I asked quietly.

“He’s just having some lunch, love.” She leaned through the doorway at the back of the bar. “Gary? Someone asking for you.”

“Oh! I, er… I didn’t mean… It’s not urgent.”

“Don’t worry, he’s about finished anyway.”

A familiar face appeared behind her. He looked at me curiously for a second, then, “Vodka orange wasn’t it mate?”

Rabbit in the headlights. How the hell did he figure it out so quick?

He shrugged, guessing what I was thinking. “I wasn’t sure till I spotted your nails. I’d try not to show them off too much in here, mate.”

Shit. Shit, double shit and triple shit. How could I have forgotten those? I folded my arms, hiding the offending digits under my armpits.

“Thanks. Yeah, vodka orange would be good. I don’t suppose you do lunches as well do you?”

“I could sort you out a few sandwiches if you like,” the woman said cheerfully, pulling one of my hands out from its hiding place and examining my nails critically. “Cheese and pickle alright? These are really good. Did you do them yourself?”

“Er, no. Some friends did them for me.” I drew my hand gently out of her grasp and hid it self-consciously back under my armpit. “And cheese and pickle’s great, thanks.”

“Just be a minute then, love.” She favoured me with one last smile, and disappeared through the door. Before I had a chance to draw breath, Gary placed my vodka orange in front of me.

“Thanks. I take it she’s not the hired help.”

“More like the boss, mate.”

“I heard that.” The voice was muffled and distant through the door.

“My wife, Michelle.” He raised his voice slightly, enunciating his words carefully. “And a more lovely woman you’ll never meet.”

A snort of derision floated through the doorway, accompanied by an appreciative snicker from the one or two locals who’d managed to escape their own ball and chain5 for a lunchtime bevi.

I offered Gary a twenty. “Can I buy you a drink, and maybe clear my tab from the other night?”

“I’ll join you in the drink, and thank you,” he said, taking the money, “but last night was last night, and you don’t owe me anything.”

He rang up a price on the till and gave me back way too much change. “But…”

“No buts,” he said, pulling himself a pint, “though if you feel that strongly about it, you could maybe pay it forward.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, one of these days you’re bound to bump into someone who up to his eyeballs in shit. Stop and help and you can consider the debt repaid.”

“Be the change you want to see?”

He winked back at me. “Be the person you’d like to meet.”

Michelle reappeared carrying a plate piled high with sandwiches. “There you go love,” she said, placing them on the counter in front of me, then turning to her husband. “What crap you spouting now love?”

He kissed her briefly. “Oh, you know, same old same old.”

“How much do I owe you for these,” I asked, still eager to repay some of my debt.

“Nah, don’t worry about it. We don’t have a license to sell food on the premises, so just tuck in and enjoy. I’m not sure it would be right selling the old girl’s kitchen offerings in any case.”

“Oy! I’m right here you lummox.” She jabbed him in the ribs. “Don’t mind him, he only behaves like an arsehole because that’s the way he thinks blokes should act.”

The pub’s main door opened and Gary detached himself from us to deal with the newcomers. Michelle leaned across conspiratorially.

“Would I be right in guessing you’re the damsel in distress from last night?”

My blood ran cold, and my over-active imagination conjured images of Gary and Michelle lying in bed laughing at me. I felt myself withdrawing, a sea anemone pulling in its fronds. Michelle noticed.

“It’s alright love. He was a little worried about you – to tell the truth we both were. I’m glad you popped in. It’s good to know you’re okay.”

I sipped at my drink, turning slightly to hide my manicured nails from the rest of the bar. “You don’t mind then? About… you know?”

“Are you kidding?” She rested a kindly hand on my own. “It makes a nice change, being able to talk to another woman in this place.”

That one took me by surprise. I searched her eyes, but could find no hint of mockery there.

“Is that how you see me then? As a woman in a man’s body? Or am I just a man who thinks he’s a woman in a man’s body?”

“You think I’m humouring you?”

“Aren’t you? I mean you have no idea what it’s like to be me?”

“You’re right, sweetie, I don’t. But I do have a few friends like you.”

“And you’re okay with people like me?”

“Well, some of them are a bit self-absorbed, but that goes with the territory doesn’t it? I think if I couldn’t be accepted for who I am inside, I’d be more than a little defensive. The thing is, once you get past that hurdle, they tend to be among the kindest, gentlest people you’re likely to meet, men or women.”

It was taking a bit of sinking in. “So you really wouldn’t mind me coming in here wearing a dress?”

“I wouldn’t, certainly, and neither would Gary. I can’t talk for some of our regulars though. Dyed in the wool, unimaginative, narrow minded bigots most of them, but good enough people within their own limited subset.

“No it might be as well if you come in disguise when you pop down here. It won’t stop us from having a good old gossip though will it?”

There it was again. I still struggled to see it, but she really was talking to the girl in me. An overwhelming sense of release washed though me with such force that I barely realised I was crying before Michelle handed me a tissue.

“It’s alright love, let it out.” She settled a hand on my shoulder and squeezed gently. “Quietly though, eh? We don’t want to give them lot a chance to demonstrate their ignorance.”

It took me a few moments and a couple of generous swigs on my vodka to regain composure. I wiped away my tears and took a deep breath.

“I could probably persuade some of my friends to come in with me.” It was a lame offering, but it was something to say at least. “I mean they’re real women. Not like…”

“Don’t put yourself down, love.” She slapped my hand with mock severity. “Real women in-bloody-deed. No, I’m not sure your friends would fit in down here. Most of our regulars sneak out to get away from her indoors6. I hate to think how they’d react if we had a sudden influx of girl power.”

“They seem to accept you alright.”

“Yeah, but I’m different. As far as they’re concerned, I’m Gary’s, so off limits. It gives them one over on him as well. They can escape the old trouble and strife7 whereas Gary’s stuck with me.”

I glanced at my watch. Time was moving on, but I had a few minutes yet. I offered her my glass. “One for the road, and one for yourself too?”

She did the honours, but declined my offer. “I wish I could love, but it would upset the old geezers here. I accept a drink from you and when I turn the next offer down, they take it personally. Downside of being a girl, I’m afraid – having to fit in with all these stupid blokes trying to show each other how far they can piss up the ladder.”

“Do you mind that much?”

She shook her head. “No, it’s a small enough concession, and worth the sacrifice to be able to spend all my time around this old lump.”

Gary had finished talking to a small group of customers down the other end of the bar and was heading our way. “What are you to blathering on about like a couple of old women?”

“Oy, less of the old if you don’t mind, and what do you mean like?” Shell defended my corner, which was just as well since I wasn’t sure I had much fight in me.

I paid for my new drink and gulped down. “I’m going to have to scoot,” I said. “I’m meeting some friends in a while.”

“Yeah, well don’t be a stranger,” Michelle said, her smile as genuine as I’d seen. “We’re here pretty much all the time except for Saturday evenings. Gary hires in a couple of young lads to look after the place on a Saturday evening, so we can go out and let our hair down, so to speak. Any other time of the week, morning, noon or night and we’ll be around.”

“I’ll see you again soon then.” I lurched towards the door. The chat and that last drink had done wonders for my self-confidence, but perhaps had been less kind with my balance. I collided gently with the door frame and was chased out the pub by a few hearty chuckles. I didn’t care much for the locals, but I could get used to the company of Gary and Michelle. I made a mental note to drop in later in the week as I made my slightly meandering way down the road towards Sally and Siobhan’s.

-oOo-

I arrived at Sally and Siobhan’s about ten minutes early, but they didn’t seem to mind. I had stopped at my flat on the way to pick up the clothes they’d lent me, and at a local florists to buy some flowers by way of saying thank you and sorry.

“I also have a confession to make.” I pulled a pair of slightly worse for wear shoes out of the bag. ”All that walking last night pretty much wrecked them I’m afraid”.

“I wouldn’t worry Jerry,” Siobhan said. “I didn’t wear them that much anyway. Why don’t you hang on to them for now. They’re probably more use to you than they are to me.”

I wasn’t sure if I believed her completely.

“You should hang on to the clothes as well,” Sally chipped in. “As I said yesterday, we only keep those things to warn us of the dangers of the dark chocolate side.”

“Yeah, we’d rather they got used, and if they’re any good to you, we have a few other things you might be interested in.” There was the old genuine Siobhan. I decided not to comment further on the shoes.

Ruth arrived fifteen minutes later, by which time the bedroom looked like a bomb site. The bed was elbow deep in skirts, tops and dresses, all of which I had been squeezed into, and most of which had been put to one side for me to take away. There was also a fair selection of underwear and a few pairs of tights just to get me started.

“Wow!” she exclaimed, looking from the pile of clothes to my somewhat shell-shocked expression.

“Does this mean we don’t have to go shopping?” I asked hopefully.

“Oh, no,” Sally piped up, “you don’t get out of it that easily. This is a good start, but you need some new clothes as well, plus you don’t have any shoes or accessories, or makeup for that matter. Nope, we still have a lot to do, and we’re going to have to get started if we want to be done in time to go out tonight.”

I was bustled into the bathroom with instructions to wet my hair. Most of my curls had come out overnight, with the remainder succumbing to a concerted attack from my comb. Wetting my hair allowed Sally to put some style back into it.

The fashion parade hadn’t been a waste of time either, as it had allowed Sally and Shiv to pick out the right outfit for our little excursion. Not wanting to damage another pair of shoes, they had settled on a light turquoise summer dress that matched the ones I’d been wearing pretty well. It was a little longer than the previous night’s dress – for which I was grateful – but it was sleeveless, and my arms, whilst not overly developed, were still rather more manly than I felt comfortable putting on display. Fortunately it was a little chilly out, so I was able to hide them under thin, white cable knit cardigan.

Sally encouraged me to have a go at doing my own makeup, but after two bodged attempts, she took over and made it look easy. There was less to it for the normal daytime look, but the effect was just as marked. With my hair in wavy curls again and just a light make over, I was finding it just as hard to see the me I was used to seeing.

After the previous night’s adventures, I hadn’t been sure if I wanted to dress up again so soon – not and appear in public in any case – but sitting at the dressing table and seeing the girl in me look back through the mirror once more filled me with an exquisite sensation – one part fear, two parts excitement, three parts unmitigated delight. I looked amazing, and felt it.

Sally looked over my shoulder at my reflection in the mirror. “Perfect,” she said. “Now what are we going to call you? I mean you don’t look like a Geraldine to me.”

God no. Dawn French in a dog collar10? Definitely not me, even if I did have the girth to match. There was one name. One of my mother’s unsubtle and equally unsuccessful attempts to draw me out. ‘I always wanted a daughter, you know?’ she’d said to me once. ‘If you’d been a girl, we’d have called you…’

“Jennifer.” It came out in a whisper. I tried on the name for the first time and it fit like an old pair of shoes. Comfortable and… right.

“Jennifer. Jenny. Jen. Yeah, that works, I can see you as a Jenny.” Sally was ever the bubbly enthusiastic one of our group, but the others were nodding their approval. She grabbed my hands and hauled me to my feet. “Come on. You’re ready, and we have tons to do.”

Siobhan tucked my wallet, keys and phone into a white handbag and offered it to me. The panic must have shown in my face because she smiled encouragingly at me.

“You know you’ve nothing to worry about, don’t you?” she asked. “You look amazing, and whatever happens, we’ll look after you.”

Despite my misgivings, I let them lead me out of their flat. Sally and Siobhan linked arms on either side of me and chatted away as we walked down the road to their car. Ruth followed with a bemused and slightly amused expression on her face.

The first stop was Siobhan’s shoe man. He owned a little shop out in the sticks with a large sign over the door which read, ‘Magnaped – Making big feet beautiful.’ A bell rang as we stepped through the door and a small, unassuming man, dressed in overalls and smelling faintly of solvent appeared from the back.

“And how may I help you lovely ladies?” He spoke with a northern accent I couldn’t quite place.

“Hi Mike,” Siobhan stepped forward. “My friend Jenny needs your help.”

“Of course, madam, would you sit here please?” He indicated a low chair with a measuring stool beside it.

I sat and let him take my foot in his. He tutted sadly as he looked at the state of the shoes I was wearing, and I wondered if he might have supplied them.

It felt odd, having my stockinged feet manipulated by this man’s gently fingers, and if he suspected me of being other than I appeared, he made a heroic effort to conceal it. I blushed furiously as his deft measurements showed me to be a size ten.

“Please, there’s no need to be embarrassed,” he soothed me gently. “You’d be surprised at how many women have large feet. Enough, as you can see, for me to make an honest living out of it. Now what are you looking for?”

I hadn’t thought about it, and my blush deepened as I looked at Siobhan for help.

“I was thinking a pair of those black pumps you sold me last month, you know the three inch heels? And maybe a lower pump in white, a pair of wedges, if you have any more of these sling-backs in the same colour, but the right size of course, and those burgundy t-straps you showed me and a pair of those silver strappy sandals. And anything else you think might look good.”

Mike disappeared out the back and I looked up at Siobhan furiously. “What are you doing,” I hissed. “There’s no way I can afford all of that, especially if they’re hand made. They are , aren’t they?”

“No they’re not, at least not in this country. They come from somewhere in the far east, and they’re quite reasonably priced. Chill out, Jen. Just because you’re trying them on doesn’t mean you have to buy them. Come on, live a little. Relax and enjoy yourself.”

“But what if he figures out I’m a…” I couldn’t bring myself to finish.

“I hate to burst your bubble, but I suspect he knows already.” She sat down beside me and put an arm around my shoulder. “I would guess most of his regular clients are people like you. Don’t worry, he’s discrete.”

He was too. I wobbled on the three inch heels so much he offered his arm to steady me. I tried on pair of shoes after pair of shoes, until I was convinced I had tried everything in the shop, including a gorgeous pair of boots that would have cost more than a month’s rent. After what was only one hour, but seemed more like a week, I had selected, with the girls’ help of course, four pairs of shoes. It would have been five had Siobhan had her way with the wedges. They were comfortable enough, but I’ve never much liked them as a design so I put my foot down.

Sorry, no pun intended.

In fact, all the shoes I tried on in the shop were so much more comfortable than any women’s shoe I’d worn before – largely because they actually fit me properly. I handed my credit card over to pay for them, wondering how I was going to feed myself over the next few weeks. Fortunately the card only showed my first initial, not that Mike would have batted an eyelid if it had been otherwise.

Once the damage had been done, I held up the pair of shoes I had worn into the shop.

“Can you do anything with these?” I asked. “Siobhan lent them to me the other day, and I’m feeling rather guilty about ruining them.” All the more so now that I had just paid for a similar pair in my own size and knew how much they cost.

He gave them a once over. “Leave them with me,” he said. “I might be able to rescue them.”

We retreated to the car and headed on to the next stop. I was so busy marvelling at how comfortable a pair of heels could be – compared with what I was used to – that I didn’t realise where the girls were taking me. I looked up as we pulled into the car park of a large shopping centre and had yet another fit of paralysing terror.

“No.” I said emphatically. “No way. A small shop in the middle of nowhere maybe, but I am not ready to face a crowd.”

I might have been talking to the wind for all the effect it had – irresistible force met disappointingly easily moveable object. Before I could raise any further objections, we were through the main entrance and meandering from one shop to the next. Of course, once I managed to overcome my initial panic I really began to enjoy myself. Same as the previous night, none of the people we passed gave so much as a passing look in our direction. All my fears of showing up on someone’s weirdo detector amounted to nothing, and I started to relax and join in. There were a couple of times I thought I recognised someone in the crowd – I mean just because we were away from our neighbourhood didn’t mean we hadn’t strayed into the territory of someone else I knew. Each time it turned out to be a false alarm though, and after half an hour I stopped jumping at shadows.

I won’t bore you with the details, except to say the whole experience involved a lot of frills and lace. Again it seemed like I had to try on everything in sight, and again I spent so much money my credit card had friction burns.

Utterly incapable of saying no to my companions, I ended up with a couple of holes in my ears – plugged with a two delightfully sparkly cubic zirconium studs – and more new clothes than you could shake a stick at, including a heart meltingly gorgeous dress that might have bankrupted me completely had Sally not been friends with one of the shop assistants and persuaded her to wangle a staff discount. I wasn’t the only one spending money, but I was definitely way out in the lead. It was a kind of madness, but I was an all too willing participant now that I had stumbled into this new and undiscovered country.

We shopped ourselves out and made our way to a café at the back of one of the bigger department stores. More comfortable shoes or no, my dogs were barking8 as we sat down, and I let the others order for me. I mean, hell, they’d pretty much taken over making decisions for me today as it was. Not that I minded. Much.

Chicken salad and a cup of coffee. Not much of a last proper meal for a person condemned to abject poverty and a diet of bread and water for the next month. I thought about the cheese burger and fries I would have ordered under normal circumstances and realised I didn’t want that either.

“Penny for them?” Ruth had been kind of quiet all afternoon – probably blown away by the monster she had unleashed – but now that we had reached a pause, she responded to my pensive expression.

I smiled, more bravado than anything. “I was wondering how wise it was to buy all this stuff given that on the diet I’ll be able to afford, I’m likely to drop a couple of dress sizes by next month.”

“Yeah, I thought you were spending a bit freely. I should have said something – reined these two in a bit. I’m sorry.”

The other two looked more than a little guilty. “I guess we got carried away, Jen,” Sally said. “Are you going to be okay?”

“I should think so. I mean I’ve got a long way to go before I starve, don’t you think?”

“Actually,” Siobhan said, “I think it’s up to us to fix this. How do you feel about eating with us for the next few weeks? Until you pay off your card? I mean we’re going to be cooking whatever happens, and one or two more mouths to feed isn’t going to make much difference.”

“One condition though,” Sally chimed in. “It’s Jenny we’re inviting, not Jerry. You’re so much more fun this way. I mean I’m really fond of Jerry and all, but he was kind of hard work at times.”

“What do you say?” Shiv asked. “How about you too, Ruth? The more the merrier.”

“Wow, I have no idea how to respond.” I didn’t either. A month of Sally and Siobhan’s cooking was as tempting as it was generous.

“Then say yes,” Sally said, more an order than a suggestion. “You too Ruthie, I mean four’s a more manageable number.”

I looked across at Ruth, unsure just how much contact she’d want with me after yesterday’s histrionics. She shrugged so I nodded.

“Okay, but you have to let me provide the coffee.”

Ruth’s eyes lit up. “Yeah, I’ll second that. Make it a second condition in fact.”

Sally and Siobhan exchanged glances and shrugs. “Deal then. Starting Monday, we’ll expect the two of you round at the flat sometime after six. We usually eat around seven, so if you’re going to be later let us know, yeah? And just so we’re sure, it has to be you Jenny, not that Jeremy bloke, okay?”

I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I mean sure, wanting to dress as a girl, wanting to be a girl, wanting to be accepted as a girl had been something I’d yearned after so much for so long that it had driven me to the point of self-destruction, but now that I had it, it was almost as though I didn’t want it anymore.

No that’s not quite right. I knew that if I stopped dressing, suppressed all my feminine desires again, I’d end up back in the same old depressive state. The thing is, now that I’d arrived where I’d always thought I wanted to be, I realised that I’d left a part of me behind, back where I’d started. I belonged somewhere in the middle.

Still, early days yet. I had to be back at work on Monday morning, back in that hideous polyester uniform doing menial work for menial rewards. I wasn’t looking forward to it, but it would give me an excuse to climb back into Jerry mode for a few uninterrupted hours. Perhaps that would be enough. Perhaps the Princess Fiona solution would work for me – by night one way, by day another. Who knows, maybe true love’s kiss would set me into my true form if ever I was lucky enough to find it.

I took another dainty bite of the chicken salad. It tasted surprisingly good and, eaten slowly as I was doing, it actually filled me up so well that I couldn’t quite finish it. Now that was a first for me.

“Come on,” Ruth said, speaking up in earnest for pretty much the first time all afternoon. “If we’re going to get to the club at a respectable hour, we’re going to have to head home sometime soon.”

No-one argued, so we stacked our trays and headed back to the car.

-oOo-

I felt like the kid who had spent all December desperately wanting that perfect present, only to find, on Christmas day, that it wasn’t all I’d hoped.

Sally had helped with my makeup again. I was festooned with borrowed jewellery and steeped in perfume, standing in front of the girls’ bedroom mirror in my very expensive and thoroughly stunning party dress. I looked fantastic and I guess I still felt good, but the desire to look like this had receded. My earlier delight in being so transformed was diminished and had been replaced with mounting concerns of being discovered, and worry over what others would think of me when they did. Despite my success that afternoon, The previous night had come too close to going very badly wrong. What people thought of me mattered and, although this may have been closer to how I saw myself, it was still a giant stride away from the manner in which most people knew and accepted me.

I was less worried about Sally, Shiv and Ruth – they all seemed to accept me as just another one of the girls – but what about everyone else we were going to meet? All it would take was the wrong person in the wrong place and I could be up to my neck in shit. I hated to think what would happen if news of me wearing a dress made it back to my place of work. My landlord, too, would almost certainly take exception to what he would see as a pervert living in his property, and I couldn’t afford any of the other flats in the neighbourhood. Was this all worth it?

It was out of my hands though. I was filled with conflicting emotions, and unable to find the courage or the will to speak out. The Juggernaut was moving, and all I could do was hope to avoid its wheels as it rolled inexorably forward.

Sally and Siobhan both fussed about me, complimenting me on my choice of styles, and that odd look was back in Ruth’s eyes. When I offered her a shy and uncertain smile, she turned away, making as if she hadn’t been looking.

I took a last, long look in the mirror and managed to convince myself that, even if I met someone I knew, they wouldn’t be able to see Jerry through the war paint – not that anyone I knew was likely to be heading for our destination. I threw a metaphorical blanket over my stomach full of butterflies and joined the girls on their way out to the car. Parking was always difficult in this part of town, and we had a couple of hundred yards walk to get to our carriage, during which time we passed half a dozen people, none of whom gave us more than a passing glance. I began to relax as we all squeezed into the car.

It was Sally’s vehicle, and she insisted on sharing the front seats with her dearly beloved. That meant that Ruth and I had to clamber into the back – a tricky enough manoeuvre in a dress and heels when you’re not used to them, and almost impossible to do elegantly. It was a small car too, which meant that with my bulk, I ended up squashing Ruth into a corner. She seemed to be trying to avoid contact with me, which hurt my feelings a little, but I had to accept that I’d put a lot of strain on our friendship recently, and shuffled over to give her as much space as possible. She’d been a bit standoffish all afternoon, but now her attitude seemed magnified somehow.

The ride to the club was awkward, but fortunately short. Sally found a parking spot surprisingly easily and we all piled out. There wasn’t much of a queue outside the club, but that was only because most people seemed already to have arrived. Inside it was packed and heaving with gyrating bodies.

Ruth managed to ease her way through the crowd and find a table in a quiet corner where we set up camp. No sooner had we sat down than she was off again, heading for the bar to fill our standing drinks order. No need to ask, we all knew each other’s drink of choice through long association.

In the time it took her to fight her way there and back again, tray in hand, Sally and Siobhan had disappeared out onto the dance floor, leaving me to watch the handbags, and I’d been approached by three different women offering to buy me a drink.

The others had advised me to be open and honest about myself, so I told them straight out that I was transgendered. The first two had looked at me as though I’d dropped a turd in their drinks, demonstrating clearly that every group has its bigots. The third sat down beside me, devouring me with her eyes in a decidedly predatory manner.

“Yeah, but don’t you make the most gorgeous girl? That dress looks just fantastic on you.”

I backed away into the corner of the booth, and she slid into the space, smiling her hunter’s smile.

“Oh come on, don’t be shy. Let me buy you a drink.”

“I, I already have one coming thanks,” I stammered. Looking around wildly for an escape route, but I’d trapped myself quite successfully.

Fortunately Ruth turned up at that moment, putting the tray down loudly enough to be noticed.

“Hello Jane. How are things?” There was a dangerous undercurrent to her voice, unspoken feelings growling a warning.

“Oh hi Ruth. Is this one yours? She’s kind of cute.”

“She’s a friend, and not ready for the likes of you just yet.” Her tone was like a steel bar wrapped up in a fluffy blanket.

Jane’s face set in a mask of forced friendliness. “Well, I look forward to when she is. I’ll leave you two alone shall I?”

She slid out of the seat and slinked off into the crowd with feline grace and arrogance.

Ruth sat opposite me and cocked her head to one side. “You okay?” she asked. “Jane’s alright really, but she does come on a bit strong and you have to have your wits about you. Not recommended for a first night out in this place.”

“No, I agree.” I took a deep breath followed by a long swig of my vodka orange. “Thanks, I really had no idea what to do.”

She shook her head. “You do know that you’re about twice her size, don’t you? You could have easily held her off.”

No I couldn’t. Whatever I might have been on the outside, my insides were just so much jelly. If Jane had forced herself on me, I wouldn’t have had the will to resist. It was the oddest feeling, and one I knew Ruth would struggle to understand.

“So, if not Jane, then who?” I asked, trying to change the subject. After last night, Ruth had left me with no doubt that she wasn’t interested in me, so this was me trying to get past that, or at least show her that I was trying. I mean my preference was to be asked rather than do the asking, especially since I wasn’t run of the mill clientele here, but if she pointed out someone I liked, there were always ways I could arrange to be noticed.

She gave me an unreadable look for a long moment, then turned to the crowd. For a few moments we surveyed the room together, then I noticed something. Looked closer. It couldn’t be, could it?

“Bugger me.” I stood up from our booth and headed to the far side of the dance floor where two women, one petite, the other very large, were dancing together.

The tall girl was swirling and twirling, long hair flying everywhere. She had on a summer dress with thin shoulder straps that showed off large muscular arms, covered in tattoos. I hadn’t sure from the other side of the room, but then she caught me looking at her and stopped dead, the colour draining from her face.

“Oh fuck.”

It wasn’t the most ladylike comment, nor was the voice particularly feminine. The small woman with her spun around, eyes wild with alarm.

“Hey Michelle,” I said. “Who’s you’re friend?” I knew it was Gary, but I figured on an unspoken convention. I mean I was using a different name so why not him? Her?

Gary was quicker on the uptake than his wife, and quicker to recover from the shock.

“Never bothered with a girl name,” he yelled at me over the music. “Not much point given what I’ve got to work with. How come we’ve not seen you down here before?”

“My first time.” Conversation was all but impossible with the music blaring and thumping in our ears. One of the reasons I never usually bothered with clubs. “Came with friends. We have a table over there if you fancy joining us.”

I pointed out the table where Ruth was sitting watching me. Gary nodded.

“Be over in a minute. Ready for a rest. Dancing in heels is a fucking bitch.”

I nodded back at him, despite having no personal experience, and made my way back to an impatiently fidgeting Ruth.

“Who’s that?” she asked. There was something remarkable about the acoustics of the club that the music should be so deafening on the dance floor, yet little more than background here.

“That’s the pub landlord who helped me out the other night, and his wife. I invited them over.”

“He seems a bit… unconventional.”

“You work with what you’ve got. I thought I was badly off. He doesn’t look the type does he, but then what makes the type? If it’s in you, you have to let it out somehow.”

“I suppose. Do you know what they drink?”

“Gary was on pints down at the pub. Not sure if being here will be different for him. I don’t know about Michelle.”

That was as much as we had time for. Gary and Michelle made their way through to where we were sitting and I made introductions.

“Gary, Michelle, this is my friend Ruth. There are two more of us out dancing, but you’ll meet them later.”

Hands were shaken, then Ruth offered to buy drinks. Mine was getting low too, so she asked if I wanted a top up. Skint as I was, I accepted gratefully, resolving to pay her back in the future. Ruth headed barward, and Gary and Michelle sat down, Gary with a great sigh of relief. Why someone who was six foot plus would want to wear three inch heels was beyond me, as was how such flimsy footwear could support his bulk.

“That’s better,” he said, slipping his shoes off and wiggling his nylon clad toes. “So what do you think of the place?”

“Don’t tell me this is yours as well.”

“No, no. Strictly a punter tonight. Just curious to hear your take is all.”

“It’s alright, I suppose. I’ve never been too keen on nightclubs, but at least this one has quiet spots where a person can talk normally.”

There was a nervousness about him, like he was skirting around the subject he really wanted to talk about but didn’t know how to start. I made an intuitive guess.

“I’m not going to say anything to anyone Gary, and neither are my friends. I know you probably wouldn’t expect me to – I mean I owe you big for looking after me the other night – but just so that it’s said and you know, I wouldn’t say anything to cause you trouble.”

His shoulders drooped in unconscious relief, and even Shelly sighed out the breath she’d been holding.

Sally and Shiv joined us shortly after, prompting a new round of introductions and noises of gratitude from the girls for Gary’s heroism (heroinism?) then Ruth turned up with the drinks and we settled in for a gabfest. I pinky-swore everyone to secrecy regarding Gary’s alter-ego which, despite the ridiculous adolescent ritual, everyone took with appropriate seriousness.

All of a sudden I wasn’t the ugliest ducking in the room, and I found myself oddly becoming just another one of the girls, being kind and supportive to Gary in his awkwardness. It struck me that part of me had still thought the way my friends treated me was a sort of condescension, but now that I had joined them in encouraging Gary, I realised they just felt the same eagerness to be kind to a friend, to draw out the person inside and help her feel accepted and loved.

It’s an odd word, love. It doesn’t just apply to that hot, steamy, under the blankets kind of feeling. Quite apart from love between lovers, there’s love within families and love between friends, and this definitely fell into the latter category. I realised that, even having met him only a couple of times, I was developing a major affection for Gary that had nothing to do with sex or physical attraction. Now I knew he was like me underneath, I wanted him to find the acceptance that my friends had shown me, to believe in himself as a worthwhile and loveable, lovely person, whether he was wearing greasy jeans or a floral print dress.

The conversation stayed pretty light, and we mixed it up between taking turns on the dance floor and sitting around getting to know each other. After all my earlier worry, it turned out to be one of the best evenings I could remember, and largely because, for the first time in I can’t remember how long, I found myself wanting to give something back. This wasn’t just about me, it was about us. It was about being the solution to each other’s problems. Sally, Shiv and especially Ruth had carried me for such a long time, and now that I was beginning to believe in myself, I wanted to give something back.

‘Pay it forward,’ Gary had said earlier. This was kind of paying it back because I was trying to help him, but I realised I would have wanted to do the same for anyone in his position.

The evening passed, the drinks kept coming, I felt embarrassed that I didn’t have the means to buy a round, but no-one passed any comment. I felt loved and accepted, and I relished it.

Sally and Shiv were out on the dance floor for the umpteenth time when my body decided it had processed a significant proportion of the evening’s fluid intake and needed its sump cleared.

“I need the loo,” I announced to the world in general.

“Yeah, me too,” Gary said, taking my hand and hauling me out of my seat so fast, I barely had time to grab my handbag. “Come on, I’ll show you where they are.”

-oOo-

I wasn’t present for the conversation between Michelle and Ruth, but they’ve both shared bits of it with me at different times. This is sort of the gist of it as far as I can piece it together.

“He’s a great guy,” Michelle said into Ruth’s ear. “You’re lucky.”

“Who, Jerry?” Ruth looked startled. “No, it’s nothing like that. He’s.. We’re not, not together. He’s not my type.”

“Yeah, I know what you mean. I didn’t think I was into girls at first either, but Gary really is the best of both worlds. He’s kind and sensitive and empathic, and when I need him to, he can still get things off the top shelf and open jars of pickle where the lid’s been glued on. And in bed, I have to tell you, there’s something amazingly sensual about making love to someone wearing a satin nightdress.”

“You don’t think it’s a bit odd?”

“Of course it’s a bit bloody odd, but not in a bad way, not really.”

“And you don’t mind? I mean coming out with him looking like…”

“The Incredible Hulk in a dress you mean? No not really.”

Ruth shook her head, struggling to get her mind around the idea. Michelle thought for a moment, then tried to explain.

“Did you have a friend at school who was big boned?” Ruth nodded. Michelle continued. “For me it was a girl called Jacqueline Kachanski. Five foot thirteen was how she used to describe herself, and quite chunky with it, but she didn’t have a mean bone in her body. She was a bit shy and withdrawn, but who wouldn’t be under the circumstances?

“At our school leavers’ do she wore this absolutely gorgeous dress. It didn’t look right on her, but that didn’t matter, because her eyes were lit up like a Christmas tree, and she had a smile on her as wide as the moon. At least she did until James Caldwell and Louis Hammond started singing the lumberjack song at her. She lasted until that line – how does it go? Oh yeah – ‘I wish I was a girly, just like my dear papa’, then she ran off in floods of tears.

“I spent an hour in the loos with her, cuddling and consoling her. We had a couple of bitch queens in our year who thought the whole things was hysterically funny, but apart from them, every girl at the party ganged up on James and Louis until they apologised, and I mean really apologised.

“When it came down to it, the dress design was meant for a much smaller woman, to show off her slight and slender figure to best advantage. It did the exact opposite for Jackie, but despite that it made her feel good, so what right did any of us have to take that away from her? My dad always said that the worst thing anyone can do – the most evil thing – is to deliberately undermining another person’s self-respect.”

“So you’re saying…”

“I’m say that I know Gary doesn’t look that good in a frock. He’s a big lumbering hulk of a person with muscles and tattoos and everything, but look at his face when he comes back – his eyes and his smile. There’s something comes alive when he dresses up like this, and I can’t think of a single reason why it would be right to take that away from him, just because I feel a little uncomfortable about it.”

“You do feel uncomfortable about it then?”

“I did, but then I figured that was more me worrying about how people might react to us rather than there being anything particularly wrong about it. Gary wasn’t bothered, so why should I be? Once you realise why you feel awkward, your whole perspective changes; you don’t get so hung up on what seems wrong and you start to see all the ways it’s right.”

“Like the way it makes him feel?”

“Like the way it makes him feel. He gives up a lot during the week just to appear normal to unimaginative people. It’s a great feeling to know that he has times like these to help him cope. I mean can you imagine how miserable his life would be if he didn’t have this outlet.”

“I don’t have to,” Ruth muttered.

Michelle was about to ask, but Gary and I returned just then. I was laughing fit to burst, and if I hadn’t just been to the loo, I’d have been wearing a very damp pair of knickers.

“What?” Ruth asked, smiling – catching the laughter.

“It’s the loos,” I said. “You have to go look for yourself. The signs. You have the two normal ones, then there’s a third with a figure holding up a dress peeing into a urinal. It’s just…” I couldn’t finish, I was laughing so hard.

In time I calmed down and looked up into Ruth’s face. She had this curious smile playing around the corners of her mouth, and there was a softness to her eyes.

“What?” I smiled at her.

“Nothing,” she said, reaching over to squeeze my hand. “It’s just… I don’t know, I guess I’ve never really seen you – I mean really seen you, you know, like this. It’s like I’m actually meeting the real you for the first time.” She took a nervous sip of her drink. “Would you, er, would you like to dance?”

-oOo-

Sunday morning I woke uncharacteristically early, my mind filled with fog and questions and confusion. In just twenty-four hours and change I had gone from being a depressed loser to an outed – to my friends at least – transexual with an extensive wardrobe; I had been out en femme, I think the term is, for two evenings and an afternoon shopping spree; I had made friends with a transgendered pub landlord and I had… had I?

I climbed out of bed seeking the neural jump start from my usual morning caffeine fix, and stumbled about the kitchen on autopilot until I had a mug of steaming ambrosia in my hands. The smell of the coffee revived me and drew recent memories to the surface. Memories of slow dancing with Ruth, of kissing her.

Fuck a duckeluck!

We’d left the club in the early hours of the morning, Sally doing the designated driver bit. From Sally and Shiv’s place, Ruth had walked me home and we’d kissed on my doorstep. I’d invited her in for coffee but she’d declined, begging the need for some sleep in her own bed during the weekend. She’d kissed me one more time, long, slow and oh so sweet and I’d watched from the doorway as she headed for home.

Through the booze blurred memories I saw myself undressing and hanging my clothes up neatly, skippies9 into the washing basket. I’d spent fifteen minutes cleaning off the makeup, rubbing skin care products into my hands and face and brushing my teeth, then I’d headed for bed. The nightdress had beckoned from its place behind my bedroom door, but I’d had my fill of being Jenny, and I climbed under the duvet wearing nothing but my skin, slipping into unconsciousness almost as soon as my head touched the pillow.

Fragmented memories floated to the surface like the last bubbles in yesterday’s champagne. Sally and Siobhan announcing that they wouldn’t be around tomorrow – today that is. Ruth saying that she had some work she needed to get done before Monday. Gary and Michelle keeping quiet but somehow giving the impression that they wanted some alone time. I suspected they needed to process some of the changes last night had brought. I knew sure as hell that I did.

I opened my wardrobe and looked through all the clothes the girls and I had bought the previous day. The party dress I’d worn the previous night was most prominent, and next to it a couple of Bohemian dresses. I’ve always liked the Bohemian style. Loose fitting enough to hide my odd shape and bulk, fussy details and patterns that made the clothes attractive regardless of who wore them. Light, floaty, frothy materials reflecting the softness I felt inside but could never quite bring to the surface. If I’d had my way, I’d have bought nothing but Bohemian styles, but fortunately for me the girls held me back and pushed me into trying a wider variety of things. Variety is the spice of life and I had a full spice rack in front of me here.

I pulled out a Bohemian maxi-dress – one hundred percent cotton, delicately patterned in greens and golds. It was soft and light in my hands. I was going to enjoy wearing it, but not today.

I hung it back up and grabbed some jeans and a tee-shirt – like I say, I was all Jenny-ed out – and noted how barely fit they were for their designated purpose. I set off in search of my ironing board and spent ten minutes making them look presentable before heading for the shower.

First thing was a shave while the mirror was still clear, and so I could sluice off any excess shaving foam when I was done. Stubbly as I was, I looked deep and still found Jennifer staring back. I mean sure, there was the hair and the nails – I’d have to do something about them both before Monday morning – but there was something else as well; something about the eyes that I didn’t recognise, that looked perhaps a little less like me – the old me at least.

I finished my ablutions, dressed and headed back into the kitchen for a second cup of coffee and breakfast. I didn’t feel much like my usual self-destructive cholesterol and grease and, after some rummaging, managed to dig out a dusty old packet of muesli I don’t even remember buying. Despite the soggy cardboard texture and taste, I actually enjoyed it more than I usually enjoyed breakfast. I’m not sure I can put my finger on exactly what had changed, but the familiar weight that accompanied my early morning routine was conspicuous by its absence.

The flat was still a mess. Ruth had made major inroads on Friday night while she had been waiting for me to turn up, but the damage had been done over several months and demanded more time than she’d had to give in one evening.

Enough was enough. Time to stop living like, well God knows what. All the washing up had already been washed up and put away, all the dirty clothes moved to the hamper and, from there, most to the laundrette and back again. Next was clearing up all the little things – the half-finished books and magazines, the CDs not in their cases, the flotsam and jetsam of everyday life. It all found its way into a bin or a cupboard over the next half hour. Then followed the dusting and polishing – I surprised myself when I found I actually had a duster and polish tucked away somewhere – then the hoovering. Moving tables and chairs uncovered unmentionable horrors, some sufficiently decayed to class as biohazards and necessitate the use of rubber gloves. I even found a bottle of bleach hiding at the back of the cupboard under the kitchen sink and gave the toilet and shower a good going over.

It was nearing lunchtime when I finally declared the place done. Grubby, back-aching and worn out, I stretched and surveyed my handiwork. This was probably the first time I’d cleaned the flat since I’d moved in. Definitely in fact, given that some of the older and less savoury discoveries had been remnants, I suspected, from the previous tenants’ occupancy.

Still, it felt good. Remarkably good in fact. For a moment I wondered why I’d never done this before, then I remembered that up until a day and half ago I’d not believed there was any point.

I headed for the kitchen and set up the caffeine enhancement technology for a much deserved break. With the machinery chugging and hissing in the corner, I scoured my cupboards for lunch.

There wasn’t much.

I had a few TV dinners in the freezer, but they didn’t appeal. The only bread I had in the place was old enough to have started growing patches of mould – less than a week, but then bread doesn’t last long these days – and I had nothing to put on it in any case. I was trying to decide between dry toast and muesli when the doorbell sounded its jarring dissonance, setting my face into an involuntary spasm.

“Oh!” Ruth exclaimed gently, looking me up and down.

Memories of last night drifted into focus and I melted inside. I opened the door wide enough for her to come in.

“Excellent timing,” I told her. “I’ve just put the gloppitta gloppitta machine on.” It was a reference to an old, old film – How to murder your wife, I think, with Jack Lemmon – but also a pet name I used for the coffee machine.

“Yeah, great.” Ruth kept looking at me, confused. “I’d have thought, after yesterday’s shopping expedition, you’d have wanted to wear something… newer.”

Ah.

I could have gone into a long explanation about how I didn’t feel so bent out of shape now, how she, Sally and Siobhan’s acceptance of me had left me without any pressing need to dress up. I could have talked about how I was now in danger of being twisted the other way by being Jenny too much. There were a lot of things I could have gone into, but I was tired after all the cleaning, and besides I felt a sudden urge to look pretty for Ruth.

“I was cleaning,” I said, taking the easy way out. “I didn’t want to get any of my new things dirty. I’ll change.”

“No it’s alright,” she called after me, but I was already gone.

It didn’t take me long to strip off and change into that bohemian maxi dress. What added to the time was brushing my hair into some semblance of style and adding just a touch of lipstick and eye shadow. Not too much – certainly not so much that I was in danger of going beyond my meagre skills – and ten minutes later I was back, looking and feeling prettier.

In my absence, Ruth had finished making the coffee and was seated by the coffee table where two steaming mugs of the aforementioned sat alongside a selection of breads and spreads.

She smiled at me, but her eyes slipped away from mine. I felt my heart slowly sinking.

“It was lunchtime, and I thought you might appreciate some company and some decent food,” she said. So far so good. “Besides,” she looked around the room – anywhere but at me, “we have some things to talk about.”

I perched on the edge of the sofa, legs together, hands clasped anxiously, and looked at her, my appetite gone.

“Last night,” she continued hesitantly, “we were both kind of drunk.”

My heart sank low enough it had to decide which fork to take. ‘Here it comes,’ I thought.

“Listen Jerry – Jenny, I mean – we’re such good friends, and I don’t want to risk that friendship. Last night, after talking to Michelle, I saw something in you – something in your eyes – I’ve never seen before. It’s there again now, kind of. I don’t know how I feel about it.

“Look, I’m making a God-awful mess of this. What I’m trying to say is that I’m totally confused right now, and I don’t, under any circumstances, want to hurt you. I… I think…”

I reached out and put a hand on her arm. I had to slip off the chair and kneel beside her in order to reach, but the contact was necessary. “You want to go back to being just friends and see what happens.” I managed to make my voice neutral, friendly and cheerful even, but inside I felt twisted and torn. I’d never been you’re-a-wonderful-woman-butted before, and it was all the worse for being done by Ruth, but like her, I didn’t want to risk our friendship either. I kept my brave face and smiled.

The old gag about getting in at two with a ten, then waking up at ten with a two echoed in the back of my mind. I’d never much cared for the way some guys talk about girls, and being the two at ten brought the sting home with extra poison.

I hid behind my coffee cup and waited for the weirdness to dissipate.

“I like that dress,” Ruth told me. “If I were ever to wear one, I think I’d choose one like that. It looks good on you.”

Scraps for the dog under the table. A way of saying sorry for having kicked it, accidentally or otherwise. Just as pathetically as the poor, proverbial mutt in question, I snapped it up and savoured it for its unsatisfyingly brief moment of flavour. “Thank you.” There was less gratitude in the words than I wanted to put there, but possibly more than was deserved.

We sat – or kneeled in my case – in awkward silence, neither of us able to think of a way through this until it occurred to me that our choices were either through or around. It was too late to go around, so… deep breath…

“We reached this point on Friday night, didn’t we?” She looked up. I wasn’t quite ready to meet her eyes, so I distracted myself by transferring some food onto a plate. I wasn’t hungry, but it gave me something to do. I spread a bit of pâté on a cracker and took a delicate nibble. Not trying to be especially ladylike, but rather going through the motions of eating whilst adding as little as possible to the turbulence in my stomach. “I asked if there was any way that you could be interested in me as a girl, and you said no.”

“Yeah, but then I led you on last night. I imagine I gave you something to hope for. It was unfair of me.”

“Yes it was.” She winced, but then she deserved it didn’t she? “I suppose this situation is more than a little unusual though.” My turn to feed scraps to the dog. “I’m not sure how often it might have come up in the past – whether or not a lesbian could be attracted to a transgendered person; whether the part of another person that attracts you is physical, mental or both. I guess it’s just something we’re going to have to work out between us.”

“You’re very gracious.”

“Hardly,” I laughed a little forcedly. “As long as there’s still some faint hope that something might come out of this, it’s not in my best interest to alienate you is it? No,” I forestalled her interruption, “I have no expectations. Like you, I value our friendship too much to want to risk it, and I don’t want to put pressure on you to decide one way or another. Just know that the window is open either way and I don’t intend to press you for an answer. Not too hard anyway. A girl can only hang on without knowing for so long, but for now, don’t rush it. For now let’s just assume friendship, and know that I would love to love you, but it has to be a two way street for it to work. If you make up your mind that you’d like to give it a go, ask me out. If you decide otherwise, let me know.”

Enough was enough. Time to change the subject. “So what did you think of Gary and Michelle?”

A wry smile twitched into existence on Ruth’s face. “They were amazing. The way he looks in a dress though. Makes me realise how good a job Sally and Shiv did on you.” I twitched a reproving eyebrow at her. “Not that you aren’t much prettier than Gary.”

I didn’t let her squirm too long, but allowed a smile of my own to reach my lips. “Do you think Sally and Shiv could help Gary? I mean he has a major disadvantage in his height and size, and those tattoos, but even so.”

“We could ask them tomorrow.”

“I guess so. Any chance you could give me a hand carrying my machinery over to theirs tomorrow evening? I’m going to miss having it here for the morning, but it makes more sense to keep it at their place if I’m going to be making coffees for everyone for the rest of the month.”

“You could always make it here and carry it over in a thermos.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the same. You don’t quite get the full experience without the smell of freshly ground beans or the sound of it doing its thing. I’ll take a thermos for my early morning kick up the arse, but the equipment needs to be where it’s going to be most used.”

“Fine. I’ll come round about, what, sixish?”

“Six will be fine. I should be back by half five tomorrow, and it’ll take me that half hour to get ready.”

She finally relaxed enough to spread some taramasalata on a piece of toast and bite into it.

“Listen,” she said, “I need to get back to work. Thanks for being so understanding, and I’ll give you an answer as soon as I can.”

I smiled and turned my cheek to her as she stooped to kiss me. I would rather have had a proper kiss, but it wouldn’t have seemed right under the circumstances, plus I didn’t want to get used to something I might not have in the future.

Ruth gave me a quick, apologetic smile and left.

-oOo-

I spent the rest of the afternoon in a dress, enjoying the feel of the material and the sense of being attractive. The television didn’t hold its usual appeal, so I hunted through my bookshelf for a book to read. Some time in the dim and distant past, I had bought a copy of Anne of Green Gables in a charity shop. I remembered the odd look the shop assistant had given me, and my stammered explanation that it was a gift for a niece. I don’t know if she believed me, but it hardly mattered now as I’d never been back there. I also remembered there being a pretty dress in about my size on one of the hangers, and I wished I’d had the courage to buy it and bugger the consequences. I hadn’t of course, and the book had sat on my shelf since then, me never quite finding the right mood to start it.

I read through the afternoon and into the evening. It was a slow start, and unlike any other book I’d read before, but I found myself associating more and more with Anne – and even Marilla to an extent – as the story developed. I remembered trying to watch the film a long time ago and being too annoyed with the Anne’s effusive bubbliness. Either it was different reading it, or me no longer suppressing my feminine side allowed me to empathise more with her character. On the whole, I found myself agreeing more with Anne than Marilla, probably because she stood so innocently and steadfastly for her open and unfettered view of the world. I’d lived too long squeezing myself into other peoples’ ideas of what was right, and whole-heartedly supported Anne’s intensity and abandon.

I’d reached the part where Matthew gives Anne a dress for Christmas, and was gazing into space imagining the puff sleeves and lace collar, when I caught sight of the clock. It was getting on for nine o’clock and I hadn’t eaten dinner yet. I had work first thing the next morning and I still had some curls to wash out of my hair and pink varnish to remove from my fingernails.

I grabbed a meal at random out of the freezer, stabbed the lid and chucked it into the microwave. While it was humming, I ducked into the bathroom, undressed and gave my hair a thorough soaking and towelling down.

The bohemian dress – don’t you think they’re just so romantic? – went back on its hanger in my wardrobe, and I slipped my cotton nightie over my head. Ruth’s visit had left me in need of comfort, and Jennifer was the person I most needed to be just then.

The microwave had finished by the time I made my way back to the living room with a bottle of nail varnish remover and some cotton balls that I’d bought as part of my extravaganza the previous day.

The meal wasn’t dreadful. Even so, I was going to have to start shopping for, and eating proper food if Jennifer was going to continue to be a part of my life. Despite all the money I’d just spent on clothes, I did want to drop a few dress sizes, and I wasn’t going to do that on plastic, mono-sodium glutamate enhanced TV dinners.

I gave my nails a reluctant last look – they really were a very pretty shade of pink – and started working on them with acetone soaked cotton wool. It took longer than I’d anticipated, the hardest part being getting to the few splashes of varnish that had managed to sneak their way under my cuticles. I persevered though and reached a point where I was pretty sure no-one at work would notice the bits I couldn’t reach.

My hair had almost dried into an untidy shambles by the time I was done with my nails. A little work with a hair-drier and a brush semi-tamed it, and by the time I’d finished brushing my teeth, I had managed to alter my expression so that Jeremy rather than Jenny looked back at me, despite the nightdress.

-oOo-

“What do you think you look like?” Mr Pendleton could usually rub me up the wrong way without even trying, and today was no exception.

“I’m sorry sir?” The honorific stuck in my throat. If anyone was less deserving of it… Well there was my landlord when you thought about it. But even so…

“Your hair, Jeremy. It’s a mess. And what are those things in your ears?”

“They’re studs, sir.” I just about managed not to grind my teeth.

“You mean like earrings? I thought those were for women. They look idiotic on you, Jeremy”

What century was this guy from? I mean he wasn’t much older than me. I kept my peace, not wanting to aggravate him. A few of my colleagues, standing in a nearby aisle, snickered at his poor attempt at humour. I couldn’t be too angry at them; they were just trying to avoid becoming his exalted highness’s next target.

“Everyone’s entitled to an opinion.” I’d sirred him enough. He noticed though; his whole posture stiffened and his face became pinched with disapproval.

“Well I’m fed up with seeing you wandering around looking like an untidy haystack. It doesn’t give a good impression to the customers. Get it cut by the end of the week or I’ll have to let you go.”

I wasn’t sure if the little tin pot dictator had the authority to actually dismiss me over something like that. Long hair or not, I usually ended up helping more customers than pretty much any two of my colleagues. It wasn’t worth mentioning that to Mr P though. He’d most likely want to know how many more people I could help if I looked presentable. Still it smarted. I’d just found a reason for wanting to grow my hair long, and here I was being pressured into having it cut.

Apart from his early morning inspection of the troops, Mr Pendleton preferred to stay off the shop floor, so it was lunchtime when I next encountered him.

“I thought I told you to get rid of those ridiculous earrings.”

“No sir, you didn’t.”

“I think you’re wrong,” he said with the most ridiculous sing song voice, as though he were talking to a child.

“You told me to get me haircut,” I only got half an hour for lunch and I did not want to spend it fighting Mr Pedantic, even so I couldn’t help myself. “You mentioned that you thought they looked idiotic, but that was it.”

“Well remove them now.”

“If I do, the holes will heal up.”

“Surely that would be a good thing.”

“Not if I want my to keep my ears pierced.”

“Are you refusing to do as I say, Jeremy?” Why he insisted on using my full first name, I have no idea.

“Lindsey and Maddy are both wearing studs in their ears. Lindsey has a nose stud too. I don’t hear you insisting they remove theirs.”

“That’s because they’re women, Jeremy.”

“I know quite a lot of men with pierced ears.”

“And none of them work here.”

We locked gazes, neither of us prepared to back down. Being the subordinate, I could only resort to regulations.

“My contract was quite specific about dress code. I have to wear the uniform, but I don’t remember there being any other stipulations. If you can show me where it says men and not women aren’t allowed to wear jewellery, I’ll take them off.”

He continued to glower at me. Even he wasn’t so dense as to miss the not so subtle equality hint. What works one way should work the other though. “Next you’ll be wanting to come to work in a dress.” He had picked up on it.

“Only if the girls are allowed to wear one as well.” I refused to be drawn. “If it’s all the same with you, I’d like to finish my lunch now.”

He stormed out of the break room, and I didn’t see him for the rest of the day.

I punched out mere seconds after knocking off time, and made it home by half five. Once in my flat, I stripped off the hated, cheap uniform and headed straight for the shower. Less than half an hour later, I emerged as Jennifer, wearing a pastel green summer dress. My hair was styled as well as I could manage with my limited resources, and my makeup was more or less respectable. I’d decided to try a clear nail varnish to see if I could get away with it for work, and was feeling pretty pleased with the results when the unholy dissonance of my doorbell tore its way into my reverie.

“You know, you could buy one of those wireless doorbells,” Ruth said matter of factly as I opened the door to let her in. “The button part sticks on the door frame with a couple of those sticky pad things, and you can put the receiver anywhere you like inside. Tape over this one and remove the batteries from the bit inside and voilà.”

“You tell me this just a couple of days after I empty my bank account buying clothes?”

“Maybe I’ll buy you one as a present one of these days.”

I clasped my hands together beside my cheek. “That’s so romantic,” I breathed in my best impression of what I thought Anne Shirley sounded like.

“What?”

“Sorry. Anne of Green Gables. I started reading it yesterday, and it’s messing with my mind.”

“You don’t have to read it you know?”

“Yeah, but I’m actually enjoying it.”

She shook her head at the notion. “Where’s this coffee machine of yours then?”

I dismantled Bertha as far as I could, and separated her into two roughly equal sized boxes. I took the heavier one because, however much Ruth might want to take on the macho role, I still had better developed muscles, if only from carrying about my considerable bulk on a daily basis. The usual, short trip to Sally and Shiv’s had us there in good time, and I put Bertha back together while the girls finished cooking and served up.

It was a simpler meal than they usually served, but that was probably for the best. I’m not sure if I could have survived eating their party fare on a daily basis for a month. The portions were smaller than I would normally have served for myself, but I was happy with that too, given my intention to lose weight.

“So how was your day?” Sally asked as we all tucked in. It may have been the polite thing to say, but I suspect she regretted asking by the time I was done. I’m afraid I monopolised the conversation, complaining about work and, in particular, the argument I’d had with my boss about hair and my ear studs.

“I have some smaller studs,” Sally said when she could get a word in edge ways. “I have a pair of silver hearts, some dolphins – although they’re larger – some rabbits – also large-ish – and a pair of gold starfish. They might be a little less conspicuous than those.”

Bertha gloppited in the background throughout, finishing more or less as we did. I performed my usual magic while Sally rummaged through her jewellery box, dropping a few select alternatives onto the table as I handed round four cups of my favourite blend.

“Wow, this is amazing,” Sally exclaimed, Siobhan nodding enthusiastic agreement beside her. “You know people would pay good money for coffee like this.”

“Hey,” Ruth piped up, “now there’s an idea. You hate your job, so why not give it up and start a coffee shop? You’d be brilliant at it, and as your own boss, you could decide for yourself when you wanted to get your hair cut.”

“Yeah, right.” I was too engrossed comparing the different studs to realise that they were actually being serious.

“Why not Jenny?” Siobhan was always the more sensible one of the group, so when she asked the question, I put down the earrings and paid attention.

“You seriously expect me to give up a paying job…”

“Yeah, but it doesn’t pay much does it?”

“And you don’t enjoy it, so why not take a chance?”

They were serious.

“Come on Jenny,” Ruth said, “at least look into it. I’ll help you put together a business plan if you like.”

They actually were serious.

I know I haven’t mentioned this before, but Ruth works for one of the high street banks as a small business advisor. I don’t know if she saw this as a way of trying to make things up to me for the way she’d behaved over the weekend, but either way it was a thought. Not to have to put up with his high and all-bloody-mighty excellency, the fuckwit emperor of the shop floor, now there was a dream worth dreaming.

“What would I use for start-up capital? After Saturday’s shopping spree I quite literally have nothing left. Most small businesses take a year or more before they start making money don’t they? How would I live in the meantime?”

“You leave that with me,” Ruth said. “Part of my job is helping small-time entrepreneurs, like you could be, arrange loans. If your business plan is good, and it will be by the time I’m done with it, you’ll be more likely to persuade the bank to lend you the money.”

“Even in this day and age? I thought they were all hiding in the back room licking their wounds. You can’t borrow money to buy a house these days, how do you think I’m going to get a loan to start up a business, especially when there are big chains to compete with?”

“Because you have something special to offer,” Siobhan said, ganging up with the rest. “This stuff is so much better than Costa Bucks, and that’s just with a little machine like that one. I would love to taste what you could achieve with a proper machine.”

“You’re all going to have to let me think about this,” I said backing away all but literally. “This is too much, too fast.”

“Okay,” Ruth said. “But we’re not letting it drop. You have the week to think it over, then we’re going to get back on your case until you either cave or give us a good reason to back down.”

Shit. Shit, shit shit. This was scary, but actually good scary; exciting scary. My three companions moved onto other more banal topics of conversation and I withdrew into my dreams, in which I stood behind the counter of a small coffee shop, wearing a frilly apron over a pretty dress. My hair hung down between my shoulder blades, and my customers smiled back at me as I passed across their orders. A chance to be my own boss. A chance to do things my way. Would it actually work? Could it actually work?

A song drifted across the years to the ears of my imagination. ‘Be yourself,’ the elephant sang to Tubby the Tuba, ‘and do the things that you know best. Be yourself, I think that you’d be happiest by being no-one else but you.’

“But all I know how to do is oompah.”

Three pairs of curious eyes turned my way. I’d actually spoken out loud.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was dreaming.”

“About coffee shops?” Sally asked.

“I thought you were going to let it go.”

“Sorry, you’re right. But do think about it won’t you? I think it would be so good for you.”

“And we agreed to back off,” Siobhan told her girlfriend.

I tried to join in the conversation, but my dreams beckoned. Before long I excused myself and picked up my coat. Ruth offered to walk me home, but I told her I needed some alone time. I ambled back home slowly. There was a slight chill in the air, and the wind had picked up a little. The cool feeling around my legs and under my skirt was distracting, but only in a way that fed my fantasies. I was vaguely aware of passing a few people on my way home, of one of them looking at me a little closely, a little oddly.

It was still early when I arrived back home. I thought about coffee, and realised I hadn’t filled up my Thermos as I’d planned. I made do with a cup of hot chocolate instead, and went to bed early. I tried picking up my book again, but my mind had wandered too far to be able to concentrate on the story, so I switched out the light and watched my ideas dance and swirl around the ballroom of my mind until sleep took me.

-oOo-

“The end of the week Jerry. Haircut or no job, I mean it.” Fuck me, talk about a broken record.

Some of the girls at work kept looking a little curiously at my hands, and in truth the clear varnish had left my nails a little more shiny than usual. I didn’t react to their stares though, and none of them had the courage to confront me.

The hair had almost been my undoing though. I’d been too deep in my day dream after I got home to remember to wash it out, and had received something of a shock when I took my first look in the mirror the following morning. Fortunately my hyper-activated mind had woken me early, so I had time to wash out the curls and dry it properly before running for the bus.

The day dragged by pretty much as usual. I dealt with as many customers as usual, which meant I was ahead of my colleagues, but Mr P wasn’t around to notice – also as usual. Once or twice, I caught a couple of my fellow workers whispering and pointing my way, but when I approached them they dispersed and refused to be drawn on what they had been discussing. It didn’t bother me. In all the time I’d worked there, none of them had made the effort to become friends with me. I guess I’d been just as standoffish so it wasn’t all their fault, but the end result was the same – I didn’t give a shit what any of them thought.

Home time came and I gratefully punched out and headed for the bus stop. Little niggles through the day had stopped me from thinking further about the coffee shop, but the idea resurfaced on the bus trip home, and right now, with the way I felt about work, it seemed increasingly attractive.

I spent most of the journey trying to come up with some sort of a plan, but I had too little information. Instead I put together a mental check-list of things I needed to find out. I was so absorbed with my thoughts I almost missed my stop.

It was raining as I stepped off the bus, and I sighed dejectedly as I walked the few hundred yards towards the grubby front door of my poky little flat. My life was so far down the crapper I couldn’t see daylight any more. Starting middle age, stuck in a dead end job and living in a hole in the ground so deep and dark I was beginning to feel like a cockroach. I had to do something about all this.

The smell of cigarette smoke tickled my nostrils as I stepped through the door. Warily I went further into the living room to find my landlord sitting in my chair watching my television.

“What the fuck are you doing here?” I asked him. I’d never had much time for him. He was a crook, his only saving grace being that he was a cheap one.

“Last time I check, I own this place,” he responded laconically, taking a draw from his roll-up. He was a greasy weasel of a man with an unpronounceable name. He had sallow, unhealthy looking skin and a couple of days’ grizzled stubble on his chin. His clothing was as shabby as mine at its worst, and his fingers were yellow from too much tobacco.

“Yes, but I’m renting it and that gives me certain rights.”

He Shrugged. “Is nothing in lease says I can’t come in.”

“There’s nothing in the lease says you can either. Unless you have reason to suspect I’m breaking the conditions of the lease, you have no right to be in here uninvited.”

“Ah, but I have reason,” he said, flipping the TV off and giving me an oily smile. “I see you last night. I not sure it was you at first, but then I see inside your closet…”

“You went into my bedroom?”

“I sure did, and I find your stash of girly-clothes. You disgust me, and I don’t want no sexual deviant living in my place. I give you till end of week to move out, and you can fucking forget about your deposit.”

This couldn’t be happening.

“On exactly what grounds are you evicting me? There’s nothing written down to say I can’t keep women’s clothing here, and nothing to stop me from dressing how I want.”

“I don’t give a shit. You a fucking gender bending poof-shit-fuck, and you get the hell out of my property or I tell your boss what you are.” He pointed at the logo on my shirt. “Not so hard to find out where you work I think, and I not so sure he gonna want bum fucker like you working for him, no?”

The more ignorant the person, the more opinionated, and the less likely to listen. It wasn’t worth the effort of arguing with a man like him.

“If you’ve said what you want to say, I’d like you to leave.” I could barely keep my temper.

“And what if I don’t? You call police? I don’t think you want them to know what kind of poof-fucker you are.” He ground out his cigarette on the table, damaging the varnish. “But I’m done. Out by Friday or I call your boss, yes?” With that he stalked out of the flat, leaving me seething in a white hot rage.

-oOo-

“Hey, I thought we said you come as Jennifer,” Sally said as she opened the door to me.

“Jennifer didn’t feel like coming out this evening.” I was dressed in my best jeans and a halfway decent shirt, and I was still simmering from my recent encounter. “And if you’re going to insist, that just makes you as bad as everyone else.”

“Jerry,” Siobhan came through from the kitchen, “what’s the matter? What are you talking about.”

“Most of my life, I’ve been told I should wear nothing but trousers, now you guys insist I wear nothing but skirts. I don’t see either of you wearing a dress. If you’re going to make it a condition of my coming here, then fuck off and thank you very much.” I turned to leave.

“Jerry, come in and talk to us.” Sally grabbed hold of my arm. I almost jerked it free, but something in her voice stopped me. “We thought being Jennifer was good for you. You’ve been so much happier since we put you in a dress, and we like you when you’re happy. We only insisted because we thought you might need an excuse to dress up every evening, we really don’t care how you come though. Please come in and talk to us. Something is obviously upsetting you.”

The angry part of me wanted to lash out and I was so tempted to do so, but deep down I knew I wasn’t angry at Sally and Siobhan, who had been nothing but supportive. Another part of me wanted to share the misery of my day, to let it out in a flood of tears instead of a blistering rant. The gentler side won, so I let them pull me inside and I told them what my weasel of a landlord had said to me. They were suitably outraged.

“He has no right,” Siobhan said. Did I remembered her telling me once that she worked for a solicitor who specialised in property law? If so I guessed she should know. “Get me a copy of the lease and I’ll see if I can get my boss to tie him up in legalese.”

“Alright, I’ll see if I can dig it out, but I’m pretty sure there’s nothing in there about right of access for the landlord. It’s not going to stop him from telling my boss either way though, is it?”

“It may do if you threaten to prosecute. Regardless of what it says in the lease, I’m pretty sure his coming into the flat today was illegal, and his poking about in your bedroom certainly was. He could end up in a lot of trouble, certainly more than is worth his while making your life miserable. So we can almost certainly get your deposit back for you, maybe a little more if we’re lucky. You can put it towards setting up the coffee shop.”

“I haven’t even had time to think about the coffee shop yet, and you promised not to push me.” I steered back to the subject in hand. “The thing is he can get over a fine. If he starts telling people about me, then it’s like letting the djinni out of the bottle. Once released, there’s no putting it back. I’ll have to live with people knowing.”

“I hate to point out the obvious here, but what’s to stop him from telling people anyway?”

“Eh?”

“Well, I’ve not met the man, but from what you say, he doesn’t sound like the most trustworthy of individuals. Even if you do give in to him and run away, what’s to stop him from talking about you? I mean maybe he won’t say anything to your boss, but I’m sure he’ll tell other people he knows.”

“God, what am I going to do?”

“Stand up to him. Maybe he’ll back down.”

“And maybe he’ll just get extra vindictive.”

We sat in silence. Sally and Siobhan were out of advice and I was too deep in my misery to say anything for the time being. Sally passed me a tissue, which I took gratefully and dabbed at my leaking eyes. My misery found another way out.

“What’s more, my boss at work is insisting I have a haircut or he’s going to sack me.”

There was a stifled giggle. I looked up to see Sally hiding her mouth behind her hand.

“Well he does kind of have a point,” she said.

Siobhan was fighting to keep a straight face as well.

“Is it really that bad?”

“Well, we have managed to style it well enough for you to pass in public a few times, so I can’t be too critical, but your split ends do have split ends.”

I grabbed a handful of hair and tried to pull it in front of my eyes. The fringe was the only bit long enough to allow me to do that, and that was too close for me to focus on it. I gave up.

“Well I guess there’s no escaping it then, I’ll have to get it cut. Do either of you know a decent hairdresser.”

“You could use mine,” Siobhan said. “You know the one just inside the old arcade – Cuts Both Ways? The guy who runs it is called Terry. He’s as queer as fish custard – not that I think that would bother you any – but what he can’t do with a pair of scissors hasn’t been discovered yet. He is absolutely magic with hair, Jerry.”

“Do you think he could squeeze me in this week?”

“Hang on.” She picked up her phone and punched a few buttons. “Terry? Hi, it’s Siobhan. Yes, that Siobhan silly. Yes, I have a friend. A bit of an emergency, any chance of this week? Tomorrow at five-thirty?” She looked at me and I nodded. “That’s fantastic Terry, you’re a real sweetheart.”

Ruth turned up as Siobhan was hanging up her phone.

“Oh. Hi Jerry, I thought…”

“Jenny’s taking the night off tonight,” Sally interrupted, worried that I might fly off into another tantrum. There was no danger. I was all cried out, my earlier rage having dissolved in the gentle flow of my tears.

The others updated Ruth on my news, and it was all the three of us could do to stop her from running off to give my landlord what for. Her anger helped. It felt good to know that I had a friend who could be so outraged on my behalf.

The rest of the evening was taken up with planning battle strategies. At least that’s what the girls did. I was caught up in my own thoughts. Worry over what I was going to do about my landlord and my boss mainly. I’d always been afraid that letting my girl side free would have unpleasant consequences and it did me no good to be proved right. As evenings went, it was not very productive and, despite everything the girls said and planned, I left feeling low and dispirited.

Ruth walked me home. As usual, she was sensitive to my mood and allowed me my silence. We arrived back at my front door, and I caught a glint of anger rising in her eyes.

“Don’t Ruth. It’ll only make things worse.” My landlord lived a few doors down the road. I’d pointed the place out to her once and I could see her glancing across at his front door.

“Jerry, you can’t let arseholes like that push you around.”

“I don’t see that I have much choice,” I said. “If I’m going to get through this, I have to put Jennifer away for a while.”

She looked down at the ground, biting off the words she wanted to say. “Well the choice has to be yours, but I shall miss Jenny if she goes. It’s been good to see you smile for a change. You have a lovely smile.”

I managed a weak one for her, but my heart wasn’t in it. “Thanks Ruth.”

“You want to thank me, give some serious thought to what you do next. You’ve been fucking miserable pretty much all the time I’ve known you, and then we find that letting you be a girl turns things totally around. This is crunch time Jerry. Now you’ve found something that makes you happy, you can’t just throw it away because some dickhead threatens to go public and embarrass you. Promise me you’ll really think this through before you do anything rash.”

“Alright,” I agreed, more to get her off my case than because I thought she was right. She stared me in the eyes until I was able to hold her gaze. We both knew I’d do as she asked, regardless of how little I wanted to do it.

“That’s my girl,” she said smiling and cupping my cheek. I felt an odd weakness pass through me – a softening and warming of my insides. Like I said, there are times when Ruth knows the exact right words to say.

Despite all my earlier intentions to put Jennifer away for a while, I spent ten minutes in front of the mirror rubbing skin lotions into my hands and face. I’d only been doing it for a few days so far, but I was convinced I could feel and see a difference. I pulled on my long white nightdress and snuggled into bed, warmed by the memory of Ruth’s parting words. I would miss feelings like this, and already sensed the old familiar weight resettling itself on my chest. I hugged a pillow tightly and let it soak up my despondent tears.

-oOo-

Next morning I showered and dressed for work as usual. I’d forgotten to bring back a Thermos of coffee again so had to make do with one of the plastic filter coffee things I kept for emergencies. It tasted pretty foul, but it was caffeine.

I tried brushing my hair into a neater state, but had to admit that Sally and Shiv had been right – it was pretty awful. How had I not noticed it before? I tried to make the most of my last look at myself with long hair, but the untidiness of it gave me no pleasure. I let out a sigh and headed out to catch the bus.

Work was a disaster from start to finish. My boss took every opportunity to remind me about my bird’s nest hair – which was all the more aggravating now that I knew he was right. My colleagues continued to whisper behind my back, lapsing into an awkward silence whenever I walked near to them. The customers I spoke to seemed okay with the service I provided, at least they did until my boss made an uncharacteristic appearance on the shop floor and started asking about their overall experience in the shop. In most cases it was positive until he asked how they would rate my appearance. Most tried to be kind, but even the vaguest of disparaging remarks had him cocking an eyebrow in my direction.

I’ve never experienced Chinese water torture, but after that longest of days, I can fully imagine what it must be like. Each incident of petty-minded micromanagement only served to wind me up just a little further until I felt ready to explode. It occurred to me that, even if I fixed my hair, he’d find something else to complain about. When I’d changed my studs for Sally’s silver hearts, which were by far the least conspicuous, he’d gone on about how girly they were. There was just no pleasing the man and I couldn’t see myself continuing in this place. It had been easier when I’d been depressed because then I’d had no concept of how much better life could be. The way things were going it seemed unlikely that both of us would survive the week, and it was touch and go which of us would make it. Either way, early death through aneurysm or life in prison for homicide – however justified – the outlook looked bleak for me.

I punched out on the dot of five o’clock and was followed out the door by some muttered comment about clock watching. I managed to ignore it, but only because I was done for the day. As I stepped on the bus, I felt my muscles unknotting. It wasn’t soon enough to spare me the headache, but it was still a much needed relief.

The shopping arcade was a couple of stops before my usual one and it was just gone quarter past five when the bus pulled into one of a number of bus stops lined up on either side of the main road. I climbed off the bus, along with most of the other passengers, and stopped to look around.

The recession had bitten hard here, and several shop fronts stood empty along the high street. One in particular caught my eye. From its looks, it had been a small café or restaurant. It had a full height glass frontage and space inside for at least a dozen tables, with a decent sized counter along the back that would serve perfectly for what I had in mind, and it was right next to the bus stops. I had never realised, until that moment, how much of a nexus this place was.

I looked around at bored shoppers standing, waiting for their rides home and an idea began to form in my mind. I saw a large TV screen in the window showing regularly updated information on the buses – where they would stop, where they were going, when they were next expected to arrive – all of it regularly updated as the day wore on – a second screen inside the shop showing the same information.

Every successful place has its gimmick, and this could work amazingly well as mine. It wouldn’t cost that much to set up and maintain, I was sure, and it would draw commuters to the shop entrance, if only to find out how long they had to wait for their next bus. Once at the doorway, the smell would do the rest. Coffee took seconds to buy and minutes to drink, and who, with tired feet and ten minutes or more to wait, wouldn’t be tempted by a decent cuppa? For the first time I began to see possibilities.

It would need a lick of paint, furniture, the large screens and a computer obviously, some decorations, a decent coffee machine… I wandered towards the arcade with ideas cascading through my mind.

-oOo

“I’m sorry, I don’t take walk ins.” The sibilant voice belonged to a small, dumpy looking man with tightly curled hair falling almost to his shoulders. It was an unconventional look, but it worked well on him.

“I, er, I have an appointment. I’m Siobhan’s friend.”

“Oh Gosh, I’m so sorry,” the S’s hissed like a merrily boiling kettle. “When she called I naturally assumed she was asking for a girl friend. Oh my, whatever happened to you?” He stepped away from his current customer, excusing himself for a brief moment, and examined my hair from all sides.

“Nothing,” I said. “But for an unfortunately long time.”

“Yes, I can see that. I should tell you though, that I don’t usually do men’s hair. There’s a men’s barbers down the high street that might be a little less expensive.”

I winced inwardly at the thought of additional drain on my already depleted financial reserves, but no, there were some things where you didn’t spare any expense.

“I’m not sure he’d be able to do what I have in mind. Shiv said you were a bit of a miracle worker, and that’s kind of what I need right now.”

“That’s very kind of her I’m sure,” he fingered my frayed tresses distractedly before coming to a decision. “Well I do like a challenge. Please take a seat. I’ll be with you in ten minutes. Help yourself to a coffee if you like.” He waved at a jug of filter coffee and a small stack of cups, then returned to his recently abandoned customer.

The coffee was bitter and stale, but it was hot and welcome for all that. I passed my time flipping through magazines, looking for hairstyles to inspire me, but nothing sprang out of the pages. It was more like twenty minutes before the happily chatting Terry escorted yet another smiling customer to the door. I’d seen how much money had exchanged hands at the end of the session and made an effort to persuade myself it was worth it. If he could produce the same sort of results with my hair as he had with the middle aged lady who’d just left, it would be worth it, It really would.

“Right, sorry about that. Took a little longer than anticipated.”

“It’s alright. You can’t rush perfection.”

He fairly beamed at me. “Well aren’t you sweet? I think I’m going to like you a lot. Now tell me what you have in mind.”

I didn’t have that clear an idea, but my day’s misery at work had set me against my original plan to have it all cropped short. I shared what vague new thoughts I’d had during my wait. He studied me critically for a few minutes then went over to a bookshelf and pulled off a selection of portfolio style books. I’d always assumed they were there to add ambiance to places like this, but it turned out they really had a purpose, which I discovered as Terry introduced me to hairstyle after hairstyle, talking through the ideas he had in mind. Eventually we settled on one we both liked and I surrendered myself to his magic fingers.

Half an hour stretched into an hour, and Terry kept a running banter through the whole thing. I found myself sharing things with him that I would have thought twice about saying to the girls, and it was most wonderfully cathartic. He was an amazing listener, with just the right level of sympathy and humour to lift my spirits. While his fingers washed and cut and did all sorts of unusual things to my hair, his words caressed a soothing balm into my soul until…

“There, all done.”

I had kept my eyes closed through most of the procedure, hardly daring to imagine what the final result would look like. Now was crunch time, and I opened my eyes to meet the new me.

“What do you think?”

I was speechless. My mouth moved, but words tripped over each other in my brain and couldn’t make it out. I shook my head trying to express some of the delight I was unable voice, and my new hairstyle jiggled, mirroring the joy I felt.

It was shorter – but then it had to be – by as much as an inch in order to tidy up those frayed ends. It still covered my ears though, and it fell almost to my shoulder at the back. It had a gentle wave to it, and highlights, all of which combined to produce an effect that would look spectacular on Jenny, but also looked passably male on Jerry. Dressed as I was now, I could see my male side looking out, albeit a very metrosexual me. I tried to imagine myself with the party dress I’d worn to the club on Saturday, and my mind’s eye could see nothing but Jennifer.

I finally loosened the knots in my larynx.

“It’s perfect.”

“You can’t rush perfection,” Terry parroted my words back at me, his face wearing an expression of replete smugness.

“I can’t believe how good it looks. Thank you. Thank you so much. How much do I owe you? Anything up to and including my first born.”

“Oh God, please don’t joke about such things.” He mentioned a figure which seemed considerably cheaper than the amount he’d charged the woman earlier. “First timer’s discount,” he explained to my wary expression. “When you come again, and please, please, do not let it get into that sort of state again. When you come again, Siobhan will have a discount for the referral.”

I handed over the money and surprised us both by giving him a delighted hug.

“Please, sweetie, I’m not into girls. I’d have thought Siobhan would have told you.”

Again that warm feeling. I was sure I hadn’t said anything to Terry, but evidently combining my request for this particular hairstyle with some of the things I’d shared, it hadn’t been that hard to guess. It still came as a delightful thrill though, when someone saw me as I was – when they recognised the girl inside of me.

I walked out of the arcade feeling like a million dollars – well probably more given the state of the economy. I held my head high and walked with a buoyant stride. I could feel my hair jiggling and swaying as I walked and I was aware of heads turning my way as I passed. Some were angry or unsure, but enough gave me a cheerful smile as I walked passed. Almost certainly some were laughing at me behind my back, but it still felt like the majority were admiring the way I looked.

I walked the half mile home, deciding to save the few pence it would have cost for the bus ride. I all but beat the bus too. It passed me less than half a minute before I reached the end of my road.

It was getting on for quarter to seven by the time I made it home. I gave Sally and Shiv a call to let them know I was running a bit late and that I’d be with them by about quarter past, then I dived into my bedroom and opened my wardrobe.

-oOo-

I prefer dresses to skirts usually, but this evening needed something to show off my new hair to best advantage. All my earlier plans to pack Jennifer away were gone. Ruth had been right, I was happier this way, and if today had shown me anything it was that I couldn’t go back to being Jerry full time.

My life was inevitably going to have people in it who would to try to make me miserable, and they would do so whether I tried to appease them or not. That being the case, I was determined to be who I was inside and the hell with them. After a quick check to make sure I was suitably hairless in all the right places, I slipped on the sexiest underwear I had. It didn’t matter that only I knew I was wearing it, that was at least half the point. It made me feel good, so it achieved its purpose, even without being seen by anyone but me.

The rice stocking breasts tucked away under my chest flab – I would have to do something about them as soon as I could afford to – and gave me the usual passable cleavage. I slipped on a pair of the sheerest tights I owned and added a cream silk blouse Siobhan had all but forced me to buy. She’d picked out a pencil skirt to wear with it, but my arse was way too big to stuff into something so slinky. Instead I’d bought a flowing skirt with black, white and brown feather patterns on it. I finished off with a light brown three quarter length sleeve cardigan.

Jewellery, including dangly earrings, a spritz of perfume and fuck ’em if they smelt it at work tomorrow, a light touch of lipstick and mascara, and Jerry was nowhere to be seen. I felt light enough to fly as I closed the door and turned to walk down the street, only to find Mr Weasel standing at the end of my garden path looking at me with an odd mixture of triumph and disgust.

I couldn’t let him pass unchallenged, and I could only think of one thing to say.

“You’ll be hearing form my solicitor by the end of the week. Whatever it says in the lease, I have certain rights under the law, and you breached them when you came into the flat without due cause, and especially when you went through my things.”

“Heh. You bluffing. You get out by end of week or else.”

“Without just cause for eviction, I have until the end of the lease, which I believe was due for renewal in a couple of months. I’ll accept your intrusion on my privacy yesterday as your giving me notice that the lease won’t be renewed, so I’ll leave before then, assuming I receive my deposit back.”

“I said no deposit, or I tell your boss about you.”

“You’re probably going to do that anyway, so fuck off.” I winced. If there were points to be scored here, I’d lost some by being the first to resort to vulgarity. “If you’ll excuse me, I have somewhere to be.” I raised my chin and strode past him, towering over him in my two inch heels.

“Fucking queer,” he muttered as I passed. I held my tongue in an effort to regain some of my lost dignity.

-oOo-

“Jenny!” Sally yanked the door open and wrapped her arms around me. “Wow, you look amazing.”

My pseudo-boobs crushed her real ones and we pulled apart after a brief embrace. “We’re going to have to do something about those,” she said, mirroring my earlier thoughts as she looked down at my slightly misshapen chest.

“They may have to wait. I’m probably going to be short on cash for a quite a while.” I rearranged myself and smiled cheerfully despite my words.

“What do you mean?”

Siobhan and Ruth pushed into the crowded entrance hall and interrupted us long enough to insist I give them a twirl. I complied and smiled radiantly at their enthusiastic compliments.

“I met my landlord again on the way over,” I picked up from the point of interruption. “I promised him a letter from my solicitor by the end of the week Shiv. Any chance your boss can help?”

“I’ll ask first thing tomorrow. Did you bring the lease?”

I rummaged through my handbag and pulled out a thin sheaf of papers, which I handed over. “I’m not sure what you’ll find in there, it all looks pretty basic. Anyway, my boss is likely to get a call from him tomorrow at which point the brown and smelly is going to hit the rotating ventilator.”

“It might be worth recording your conversations with him tomorrow then. Do you have a voice recorder?”

“I don’t think so.”

“I have one on my phone that’s halfway decent,” Ruth said. “We’re on the same network right? Why don’t we swap SIMs for the day? You can borrow my phone and I’ll use yours.”

“Er, you’ll have to show me how it works. Why do I need to do this?”

“Because,” Siobhan said, “if the shit-storm’s going to start tomorrow, you’re going to need a record of it. I’m not sure if that sort of evidence is admissible in court if you do it without declaring it first though, so when he comes up to you tomorrow, be sure to tell him you’re recording your conversations. At the very least it should stop him from being an utter arsehole.”

Dinner was ready; they’d just been waiting for me. We sat down and tucked in, the mood cheerful, and the conversation light hearted to match. I noticed Ruth was having difficulty keeping her eyes off me and I allowed myself a quiet smile.

“Do you like it?” I said, touching my hair.

“It looks amazing. You look amazing.”

Was it enough I wanted to ask, but courage failed me. I didn’t want to come across as too pushy in any case. She’d let me know sooner or later – sooner I hoped. I chose a different topic.

“I might need some business advice later. I found a great spot for a coffee shop down near the arcade, and my head’s been full of ideas pretty much ever since. I need to put some numbers down on paper to see if there’s any chance you can help me get it off the ground.”

“For real?” Sally squealed. “You’re going ahead with the coffee shop?”

“I’m not sure yet, but I’d at least like to see what’s possible. I’m kind of broke, as you all know, and it’s nigh on impossible borrowing money these days.”

“Well like I said, that’s where I come in,” Ruth said. “Tell me about this place and what you need.”

The rest of the meal centred around my ideas. Ruth jotted down notes occasionally, and as the meal ended and I did my usual thing with the coffee, we went into full blown planning mode, writing down lists of things I would need and putting prices to them when we could.

Sally dragged out her laptop and took us on a virtual window shopping trip across the Internet. She has was the nearest thing our little group had to an internet guru and computer whiz, and seemed to know exactly where to go for all the best stuff. We used up quite a lot of the evening searching through different coffee machines, crockery, furniture, general décor, IT equipment, and in fact pretty much everything I’d need to set up the shop. The bill grew alarmingly until I had such a case of cold feet, I was sure they’d turned blue. The others seemed oblivious.

“I have no idea how to do it myself,” Sally said, jotting down the price of a fifty inch LCD TV, “but I do know a couple of guys in the IT department at work who could put together the software you’d need to make the display work. I doubt they’d be averse to a little moonlighting, and if you bat your eyelashes at them, they may not even charge you.”

She was joking of course, wasn’t she?

It was late when Ruth and I left, but we had the beginnings of a business plan and tired as we were, it was a good tired.

I wanted to slip my arm into the crook of her elbow, but I was afraid it would have looked stupid. Not for the first time I more than half wished we could swap bodies – it would have made things so much simpler for both of us, except that Ruth would have ended up with the bum end of the deal, especially as she was so adamant that she didn’t want to be a man. I brushed her hand in a not quite accidental manner. She took the hint and took my hand in hers, interlocking fingers.

“So are you going to wear a skirt to work tomorrow?”

“I don’t really have the choice,” I said. “The uniform’s the same for men and women – polyester trousers and that hideous polo shirt with the company logo – sweatshirt in the same colour for cold days. I did think about wearing a bra and my, er, enhancements, but I don’t want to push it.”

She smiled her agreement and we lapsed into our usual friendly silence, enjoying the night and each other’s company. When we reached my front door, she turned me to face her and disengaged our hands.

“I’m proud of you, you know that?” She stroked my cheek once and leaned in to kiss me. It was brief, but it was on the lips. She glanced away a little too quickly afterwards, still unsure.

“Good night,” I whispered, biting back my disappointment.

“Good night Jenny.” Her smile was vague and uncertain, then she turned and walked away.

-oOo-

“What the hell do you call that!”

“It’s my haircut,” I said innocently. “Do you like it? Oh and I’m recording our conversation.” As soon as I’d seen him making a beeline in my direction, I’d taken out Ruth’s phone and turned on the voice recorder. The phone was in my trouser pocket, where I hoped it would work well enough.

Mr Pendleton, it turned out, did not like it. Right in front of my eyes he turned an alarming shade of purple, building up enough of a head of steam to pop rivets. “It’s your fucking what? I told you to get it cut, not permed. Do you have any idea what you look like?”

“Actually I rather like it. It’s certainly smarter than it was yesterday, and I do owe you an apology for that. I didn’t realise how far it had gone – I really did look a bit scruffy. This though. I think this looks good, and most of my friends agree.”

“You look like a fucking bimbo.” He was incandescent in his rage. It seemed he’d missed the comment about the recording, as much as he’d ignored my attempt at an apology, but then that was his problem.

“That’s a bit unfair. It’s not much different from Kathy’s and I don’t hear you yelling and screaming at her.”

“But you’re a, you’re a…”

“I’m a what, sir?” It almost physically hurt to be respectful, but I managed it.

“I don’t know what the fuck you are, but this is too much. You are fucking well fired.”

“On what grounds, sir? You told me to get a haircut, and I did. I don’t remember you being in any way specific about what it should look like.”

“I shouldn’t need to. You look like a tart, and I’m not prepared to let you out in public representing the shop in that state.” I bridled at his words. I was prepared to admit that I looked a little unconventional, but without makeup and with Sally’s small silver heart ear studs, I looked a whole lot more normal than some of the people we’d had working in the store.

“I look better than I did yesterday, and you didn’t fire me then.”

“You looked bad enough to warrant a warning. And this, this is insubordination, and I won’t tolerate it.”

“I’m not being insubordinate, sir. You told me to get a haircut and I did. I don’t understand the problem.”

“The problem is that you look like a fucking drag act. Get out of my shop. Return your uniforms by the end of the week and you’ll get the money that’s owed you.”

I was sorely tempted. To walk away from this joke of a dead end job, to be done with the incessant aggravation from this petty minded excuse of a man, and the constant whispering from my colleagues, it was so much what I wanted right here and now, but I needed the money. If this was going to end, it had to end right.

“Sir, just to be clear, would you please show me where I have breached my contract severely enough to warrant immediate dismissal?”

He fumed at me, further enraged by my calm. “Come to my office.”

I followed him to the neat little cubicle we all called his throne room behind his back. The desk was clean and clear of clutter, the pencils lined up in a neat little row, the paperwork sitting in neat stacks in his in and out trays. A tidy desk is the sign of a sick mind, I remembered reading somewhere, and here was abundant proof.

He searched through his filing cabinet until he found his copy of my contract, then he started leafing through it. After a while he found the section he wanted and sat down to study it in greater detail. He flipped backwards and forwards over the same few pages several times, his frustration building by the minute.

The phone rang, making us both jump. He answered it.

“Hello? Yes that’s correct. Yes, I am he. Yes, he does work for me.” He glanced briefly my way. “He did, did he? Mhm, he did? Yes, I can quite believe it. Yes, yes, thank you.” He jotted something onto a postit. “Okay, I have that. You’ve been most helpful. Goodbye.”

He couldn’t keep from gloating as he looked up at me. “That was your landlord. He just told me what you’ve been doing in your spare time, and I think that settles matters. We don’t employ perverts and sexual deviants here. You can go.” He placed my contract neatly in his out tray and turned to his computer. It took him a moment to realise that I hadn’t left.

“What?” he asked impatiently.

“I just wanted to get a few last things straight. Firstly, what exactly was it my landlord told you?”

“Oh, I think you know.”

“I have my suspicions, but for the record it would be good to know what I’m being accused of.”

“He told me that you have a closet full of women’s clothing at home, and that you flounce about like a girl when you think you’re alone. He even said you go outside dressed like a woman. You’re not going to deny it are you?”

“Those were the words he used?”

“Pretty much, yes.”

“And what proof did he give? For that matter, what proof did he give that he was my landlord?”

“He gave me his name and address;” he showed me the postit, “that should be easy enough to verify. As for his proof, I’m not sure I need a great deal. You come into work with manicured nails, hair all poofed up like that, and bloody earrings in your ears. It’s pretty obvious something’s up, and I don’t need to be told twice when I hear the truth.”

“Ah, so you’re dismissing me because I’m transgendered?”

“I’m dismissing you because you’re a fucking freak of nature who doesn’t deserve to live in decent society, and I certainly don’t want your kind working in my shop.”

“Well that leaves me with just one more question then. Would you please give me the name and address of your immediate boss? My solicitor is going to need them and it would save me having to look them up.”

“You don’t want to dispute this.”

“Oh?”

“If this goes to court, a lot of things will be made public. I think you have a lot more to lose than we do.”

“I guess we’ll have to see about that.” It amazed me how calm I felt. Just the other day I’d been terrified at the prospect of other people knowing about me, but right now I could quite honestly say I didn’t care. “Will you give me the details I’ve asked for, or are you refusing to cooperate even that much?”

That succeeded in wiping the smug grin off his face. He glowered at me for a moment then scribbled on a second post-it note. “There.” He handed me the scrap of paper. “Now get out of my store.”

I turned and left, tucking the small piece of paper into my wallet for future use. The sensation, as I punched out for the last time, is difficult to describe. Yes there was fear about my uncertain future, but it was all but swept away by the intense rush of joyful release that exploded out of me. I was almost shaking with emotion as I walked out the store for the last time.

I pulled out Ruth’s phone and texted Siobhan. “Just bin fired. Gonna need ur help.” I wasn’t sure if Shiv kept her phone on at work, or if she’d get in trouble for answering it while on the clock. I had my answer when the brick in my hand started to ring.

“Jerry, what the hell?” Her voice was a sort of stage whisper. Making of personal calls during work hours not approved then.

“Kind of like I expected but worse. He took exception to my haircut. Then while he was trolling through my contract to see if he could fire me for it, my toad of a landlord called and told him about Jenny. Apparently that was enough for him to fire me on the spot.”

“Did you record it?”

“Oh shit.” I fiddled with the phone for a few seconds, stopping and saving the recording. Somehow she was still on the line when I tried talking into the thing again. “Yep. All safe and secure. I don’t know what it’ll sound like though. I had the phone in my pocket.”

“Where are you right now?”

I told her. She gave me the address of her boss’s firm and told me to come straight away. I hung up and did as instructed.

-oOo-

It took me ten minutes to reach Siobhan’s place of work, by which time she was waiting for me at reception. She led me straight upstairs to a large, well appointed conference room where two smartly and expensively dressed middle-aged gentlemen were waiting for us. One she introduced as her boss, Mr Linden, and the other as his partner, Mr Keys.

“You must be Jeremy,” Mr Linden said as he pumped my hand vigorously. “Siobhan mentioned that you have a spot of bother and she thinks we might be able to help.”,

“Er, yes,” I said, feeling suddenly nervous and a little intimidated.

“Please don’t be alarmed. Siobhan mentioned that there was a degree of sensitivity over the matter. She didn’t say what, but rest assured that whatever you say here will be dealt with in the utmost confidence, and I doubt there is anything much you can say that will shock either Mr Keys or myself. Siobhan can stay or leave as you wish.”

“Er, no that’s okay. She already knows most of it. Er, where to start…”

But it wasn’t that hard, and once started I went through it all. I even managed to figure out how to play back the recording I’d made on Ruth’s phone. The quality wasn’t brilliant, but you could make out the words without too much difficulty. In all, it didn’t take more than about fifteen minutes to cover everything.

Mr Linden steepled his fingers and pursed his lips for a moment. “I’m sorry,” he said after a moment’s thought. My heart sank. He was going to tell me he couldn’t help. “No-one deserves to be treated in this manner. Fortunately for you, the law is very much able to do something about it in this case.

“With regards to your domestic dispute, Siobhan gave me your rental lease to look through earlier and, whilst it is a little vague as such documents go, the law is quite clear on your rights, even when they are not clearly written down, as in this case. Your landlord – Mr Nazlije? – quite clearly acted illegally when he entered your flat without your permission, and especially when he went through your things. I was a little worried that it was going to be your word against his, but since he was rash enough to follow through with his threat to call your employer, and unfortunate enough to do so while you were making a predeclared recording of your conversation with him, we have admissible proof of his actions.

“As things stand, you have done nothing to warrant immediate eviction, something he would have to apply to the courts in order to enforce in any case, so you are entitled to remain until the end of present contract. I suspect, with relations being strained as they are, that you would prefer to move earlier, however I imagine it will take you more than a week to make alternate arrangements. If you like, I would be pleased to report his activities to the proper authorities, and to write to the gentleman in question, informing him of his legal obligations and of my actions on your behalf. He will almost certainly receive a sizeable fine, but unfortunately, the legislation being as it is, little else will be done.

“It may be possible to claim further compensation from him since his intentions in speaking to your employer were blatantly and flagrantly vindictive, and since we have evidence to indicate that they contributed to your losing your job. We would have to explore that in a separate small claims law suit, something which falls outside of my purview I’m afraid, but I could ask another of my associates to look into it if you like.

“As to your employer’s actions in dismissing you, Mr Keys is your man.”

“Yes indeed,” Mr Keys rubbed his hands together enthusiastically. “Firstly sir, may I ask if you have a copy of your contract of employment?”

“Yes, I believe so. It’s at home somewhere, but I think I can find it.”

“Excellent. If you can get that to me sometime, I shall look through it to see what we’re dealing with here. I am quite convinced, however, that you have a good case for compensation. There are laws protecting the rights of people such as yourself, and I strongly suspect that the company can be persuaded to settle out of court and quite swiftly. How soon can you let me have your copy of the contract?”

“Er, well I don’t have a lot to do right now. I could probably get it to you by the end of the day.”

“That would be exceptional, but it might make things a little easier on all concerned if you perhaps let Siobhan bring it in with her tomorrow morning? It would save you the additional trip, and I doubt I’d be able to get much done with it this afternoon in any case.”

“Er, tomorrow then. I’ll see what I can do.”

“Marvellous. That seems to be our business concluded for the moment then, unless there’s anything else?”

“Er, I’m not sure how I feel about suing people like this. I’ve never been a big fan of litigation culture.”

“And rightly so,” Mr Linton said. “Trivial law suits undermine our society, but this isn’t like that advert where the man sues for injuries because the employer supplied him with the ‘wrong ladder’. As far as I’m aware, you have acted responsibly within the confines of permissible behaviour, and your landlord and manager have both responded unreasonably towards you. You are entitled to some compensation Jerry, please don’t think otherwise, and they should be punished if only to make them less likely to act in the same way in the future.”

“Well I suppose.” I still wasn’t sure, I mean some people will tell you any kind of shit in order to make a sale. Mind you these were Siobhan’s employers, and she had nothing but good things to say about them. “There is the matter of your fee. I’m afraid I don’t have a great deal of money right now.”

“Don’t concern yourself young man. My letters to your landlord and the authorities are a trifling matter, which I will happily do pro bono. Your friend Siobhan has been a tireless and invaluable member of our little team, and I am glad to have this opportunity to show her some gratitude. As for your claim for unfair dismissal, our fee will be a small proportion of your settlement. Is that acceptable?”

“What if there is no settlement?”

“Oh, I’m pretty certain there will be,” Mr Keys interjected, “and our fee probably won’t amount to as much as five percent of what you’ll receive. If we can’t win this one, we don’t deserve to be paid.”

That seemed to settle matter. The two solicitors shook hands with me and marched out of the conference room leaving Siobhan to lead me back to the entrance.

“They really wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t believe it was right, Jerry,” she said as we reached the entrance. “Mr Linden is as straight an arrow as I’ve met, and he’s a strong proponent of the LGBT community. I don’t think he’s one of us, but I first met him a couple of years ago when the council were trying to shut down the club we went to last Saturday. He helped us fight back, and without him we probably wouldn’t have won. It’s why I applied to work for him in the first place; he’s a lawyer who’s in it for the law.”

“And Mr Keys?”

“I get the impression he enjoys his bonus at the end of the year. Mr Linden’s the senior partner though, and I doubt he’d have allowed Mr Keys to go ahead if this were just a money making exercise.”

“Thanks Shiv. You’re an amazing friend.”

“You’re not so bad yourself Jerry. Why don’t you go treat yourself to an afternoon off? Have a bubble bath or something. I’ll see you later okay?”

-oOo-

Treat myself is just what I did. My poky little flat only had a shower, so a bath was out of the question, but I did spend some of my dwindling assets on a shower cap, a home waxing kit and several other girly, bath related goodies. There were smirks in the at the counter as I paid for everything, but I raised an eyebrow at the shop girl, daring her to make something of it, and left with my head held high.

Back home, I stripped naked and examined myself. I’d noticed a few hairs reappearing since my last depilatory session and I was due a bit of a going over. As I think I may have mentioned earlier, I hadn’t been too happy with the way the cream had left my skin feeling raw and sensitive the last time, which is why the waxing kit.

It didn’t turn out to be as painful as I’d expected, but I suspected that was because I was already fairly hairless. I used up pretty much the whole kit clearing all the undergrowth I could reach then, hiding my new hairdo under its plastic protection, I stepped under the cascade of hot water, my skin tingling with renewed sensitivity, and gave myself a thorough exfoliation.

By the time I’d finished with a delightfully floral shower gel and several equally sweet scented skin creams, I felt and smelt, every inch, like a girl. Well okay, not every inch; there were a few inches that could never fall under that category, but they tucked neatly away inside a pair of my ample knickers. I was also conscious, as always, of my makeshift prosthetics, but by the time I had a dress on and a pair of tights, the rest of it faded into a minor annoyance.

I went for one of my Bohemian dresses. Layers of light, floaty, floral print chiffon, calf length with long sleeves. I worked hard on getting my makeup to match, going quite heavy on the mascara and eye liner, and painting my lips with quite a bold pink. There may have been some degree of mutton dressed up as lamb about the final result, but overall I was pleased. I may have been too old and fat to do the look real justice, but it hid the Jerry in me, and that was the main purpose of the exercise.

The rest of the afternoon, I spent curled up on the sofa with Anne Shirley for company. I realised I hadn’t turned the TV on since Jenny’s first appearance, and decided that if I was going to have to cut back on my expenditure, that would be a good place to start. With Bertha round at Sally and Siobhan’s I had to resort to cheap and nasty plastic coffee, but that was a small enough sacrifice.

That evening we had a great deal to talk about over dinner, with me very much the centre of attention. Everyone approved of the efforts I’d made with my appearance, and there was a lot of speculation as to how much Jenny would feature in my life now that I didn’t need to be Jeremy for work. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that. I needed the freedom to go either way and, round peg that I was, I didn’t want to escape the square hole just to be squeezed into a triangular one.

I offered Ruth her phone back, but she refused to swap, insisting that I keep hold of hers until both my legal matters were resolved and I had no further need of the recording. Between her and Sally, they managed to copy the sound file onto Sally’s laptop. Sally, who as I say is a bit of a computer whiz, made a second copy which she then managed to clean up considerably, then recorded both the original and the improved version onto several CDs for me, so I had copies to use as needed.

Over coffee, we all discussed my next move, which focused largely on the coffee shop. It was early days yet though, and I didn’t want to jinx matters by counting chickens. I still had to sort out how I was going to finance it before I made any firm plans.

Ruth took hold of my hand again on the walk home, but there was something that felt a bit forced about it.

“If you feel awkward about it,” I said to her, “don’t.”

She let go and I felt a twinge of regret. This was the hardest thing of all – hiding the way I felt about her and waiting for her to make up her mind. She didn’t kiss me goodnight at my door that evening either. I felt more than a little adrift just then. The future was more scary than exciting, and in the midst of it all I had this painful hole that I so wanted Ruth to fill. It had to be on her terms though, and no matter how much I could have done with some closeness just then, I didn’t want to push her.

-oOo-

The next morning, I treated myself to a lie-in, or at least I tried to. At about half past nine, my infernal doorbell sounded over and over, accompanied by a pounding on the front door that threatened to dislodge the loose glass.

On the advice of my friends, I’d decided to let Jen sit in the background until the inevitable storms blew over. I hadn’t expected the first rumble of thunder this early, but I was glad I’d done as they suggested, as the last thing I needed right now was to be answering the door to some angry so-and-so wearing my nightdress. I threw a towelling dressing gown over my PJs and made my way muggily to the door.

“What the fuck is this,” my landlord yelled into my face. He held up a letter with a logo which read ‘Linden, Keys and Masters, Solicitors’. I didn’t need to read it, but I took great delight in doing so, and it showed in my growing smile.

“It’s just what it says it is,” I replied, stifling a yawn. “I told you you’d be hearing from my solicitors, and after you phoned through to my boss at work yesterday, you left me no reason not to. My lawyer was kind enough to point out to me that you can only evict me with good reason and by application to the courts. Under the circumstances I think you’ll have a hard time kicking me out before the end of our agreed term.”

“Not that bit,” he yelled. “This!” and he pointed at the last two paragraphs.

“Oh yes. It turns out that even though our tenancy agreement doesn’t say anything specific on the matter, I still have the right to live in my flat undisturbed – you cannot enter freely whenever you want to, and you certainly have no right to go through my things. Mr Linden thought it best to report your invasion of my privacy to the proper authorities.”

“You can’t do that!”

“I already have, or at least my solicitor has on my behalf.”

“How you going to prove it?”

“Wait there.” It gave me way too much pleasure insisting he wait on the doorstep to his own property. I dug out my phone – Ruth’s phone – and pulled up the recording. I’d bookmarked the relevant time, so it was relatively easy to find the part where my boss told me what my landlord had said. “I have additional copies of this recording lodged with my solicitors,” a small lie in that I hadn’t yet arranged it, “and it’s sort of compelling proof that you did come into the flat and snoop about.”

“You bastard.”

“Nope, my parents were married when I was born. I have their marriage certificate if you want to see. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some sleep I’d like to catch up on.” I closed the door, leaving him to fume, and headed back to my bedroom.

The next news came at the end of the week when Mr Keys invited me into his office. He showed me a letter of apology from some high up official within my previous place of employment. I skimmed down to the relevant paragraph.

“We are deeply distressed about what has happened to you, and would like to assure you that your manager acted beyond the scope of his authority in dismissing you. We hope you will accept the accompanying cheque as a good will gesture on our behalf, and we wish you every success in your future endeavours.”

There was a cheque for ten thousand pounds, which equated to roughly six month’s wages. Not a great deal in the grand scheme of things, but better than a kick in the teeth.

“They don’t have a leg to stand on,” Mr Keys said, “and they know it. We could probably get a lot more out of them if we took it to court, but it would be public and unpleasant, and could drag out for months. If they can prove that your former boss was acting outside company policy, they might be able to shift the liability onto him rather than them, in which case it’s anyone’s guess what the settlement would be and whether and when you’d get paid. I imagine Mr Pendleton’s going to get a roasting over the matter either way.

“I suspect, after your comments about litigation culture the other day, that you’ll be inclined to accept this offer, and I can’t say that’s a bad idea. If you want to pursue matters further, I’d be glad to do so on your behalf, but in the end, the choice has to be yours. All of that’s yours by the way. It’s normal practice for companies to make out separate cheques to cover solicitor’s fees in these cases.”

“And what would be your cut in all this Mr Keys?” I probably didn’t have the right to ask, but I needed some reassurance.

“Five hundred pounds. Nowhere near as much as if we went to trial, but a good return for the work I’ve put into this so far.”

The choice was easy. I didn’t have any argument with the company, and it seemed that Mr P would be getting his comeuppance either way. Ten thousand quid was a healthy amount of capital to have floating about in my back pocket at this stage in the game too, so I signed the small stack of papers Mr Keys pushed across, agreeing not to pursue the matter further, and headed down to my bank to cash my windfall before I pinched myself to see find out if this was some bizarre dream. Once the money was in, I phoned Ruth.

“Hey. It looks like I have something to put into the coffee shop after all.”

We arranged to meet for lunch, and I spent the rest of the morning gathering intel. I dropped in on several different cafés and coffee emporia, checking their prices, and what they had on offer, and used it as a basis for putting together my own menu. Almost everywhere served a range of foods as well – sweet and savoury pastries for the most part – so I made a note to look around for a caterer who might be able to keep me supplied with cakes and sandwiches to sell.

I was early at the café, and just a tiny bit disappointed when Ruth turned up with someone in tow. He turned out to be a colleague of hers who had more experience financing small ventures like mine. He didn’t stay for the whole lunch period, but left as soon as he had all the relevant details. The rest of lunch become something of a celebration between Ruth and myself, in which we toasted my future success with, appropriately, coffee.

-oOo-

There followed several weeks filled with boring details. The business plan Ruth had drawn up for me succeeded in impressing someone with money, because she managed to find me the necessary loan to get the ball rolling. The shop I was interested in had a flat over the top, and I was able to arrange a very reasonable rent on both. It was quite a lot more than I was used to paying, but between my settlement cheque and my loan, I figured I had a little over year to start making a profit.

With ink still drying on my loan agreement, I made arrangements to meet with the property owner. Ruth came along with me and made sure all the necessary questions were asked and that a comprehensive lease agreement was put together. Once bitten and all that. I decided I didn’t want to enter into business under false pretences though, so I raised the question:

“Do you have any issues with transgendered or gay people?”

“I don’t know that I’ve ever given it much thought,” he admitted. “I suppose I might have some concern over damage to the property through hate crime, but as long as your insurance covers that and you pay your rent on time, I don’t see why I should.”

I moved out of my flat less than a month later. Mr Weasel still refused to pay me back my deposit, so I went to visit Mr Linden again, who put me in touch with Mr Masters, his other partner. That settlement took over a month, but in the end, the court ruled in my favour. Mr Nazlije was instructed to cover all legal costs and to pay me back my full deposit along with a small amount of compensation for both the invasion of my privacy and the attempt to cause trouble for me at work.

The flat above the shop was larger than the one I’d moved from, and it came unfurnished. Sally, Shiv and Ruth helped me decorate and fill it. In a way, you could say that Mr Weasel helped too, because it was his money that bought most of the furniture. Among my new acquisitions, and perhaps most treasured, was my new doorbell. It was a simple two tone device with long, hanging tubular chimes made out of brass. They weren’t that well-tuned, so I visited a music shop and bought two tubular bells which rang with a deep, rich and pleasing harmony. The new chimes were easy enough to fit, the originals hanging on simple loops of nylon cord. The final result was so delightful that started tapping them with my knuckle as I passed, just for the enjoyment of hearing them sound.

I finished Anne of Green Gables about the time I unpacked the last of my boxes. I slid it into its place on my new bookcase, the last of my possessions to find its new home. I’d thoroughly enjoyed it. On the surface it was a story about a young girl growing up. Given to extravagant excess and easy distraction, she learned through her mistakes and her fierce determination, to become more disciplined and self-controlled, and a better person as a result.

There was so much more to the story though. Anne’s actions, impetuous and un-thought out as they were for the most part, were usually guided by her kind nature and good heart. Even as she learned to tame the wild impulses inside her, so the people she met and grew to love were affected by her unbridled passion and love of life, and so they learned in their turn to loosen the strait-jacket restrictions they imposed upon their own lives. Anne changed, adapting to her surroundings as she needed to, but she also changed the people around her, and everyone was the better for it.

I related to Anne in the story, both of us misfits in society where we were unable to find a place among the unconscious restrictions and expectations people put on their lives and the lives of those around them. There were some differences though. Anne was so filled up with her strangeness that she was unable to stop it spilling out, whereas I had grown up in many ways more like Marilla and the other inhabitants of Avonlea, bottling up my peculiarity, and having to learn to let it out. Both of us had faced varying degrees of opposition to being different, and both of us had found a middle ground where we could be ourselves and still be accepted by the people around us.

More than anything though, both of us had found close friends, perhaps more by luck than judgement, who were able to see far enough past their usual blinkered view of life to realise that there were ways of being different that weren’t all that bad.

I knew I would reread the book. It had taught me it was okay to be different. It had taught me there were dangers to hiding your true self, just as there were dangers in allowing it free and unfettered reign. It had taught me that there would always be people who were too small minded to see past their own limitations, and they were best avoided. And it had taught me that most precious of all were the people who cared, who looked deep enough to see the real me, who embraced, accepted, even rejoiced over what they found there.

-oOo-

Sally’s IT guys were as good as she’d said they’d be. The program they came up with showed an attractive and very readable map of the bus stops and nearby shops, all in relation to my coffee shop. Each bus stop was linked to a text box that displayed a continuously updated list of buses due to arrive, showing the number of each bus, its estimated time of arrival and where it would be going. They even found enough space at the bottom of the display to put a ticker-tape news feed. The displayed information came from a database which I would have to keep up to date, they said, but they showed me what I had to do, and it seemed simple enough.

I invited someone from the local bus company to come take a look at it. He was politely impressed and offered to put me on the mailing list for any schedule or route changes, but it wasn’t something he felt the company was interested in investing in. I can’t say I was too upset as it allowed my shop to keep its uniqueness.

Sally’s friends also sorted out internet access for me, setting up a wi-fi connection I could share with my customers. In light of my landlord’s concerns, I asked if they could design some sort of security system as well, and they put together a combination of cameras and alarms, all of which were linked through to the computer that ran everything. The computer itself was locked away in a cupboard upstairs in the flat, which meant that it was relatively safe from thieves. They said it was a kind of a poor man’s solution, but with shock sensors on the windows and doors, and infra-red detectors throughout the ground floor, it seemed more than good enough to me. There was enough disc space to record a week’s worth of continuous video, before it began to overwrite the data, and if any of the alarms were tripped, it would send me a text message and link me to an internet address where I could see the most recent footage from the cameras.

Around the same time the courts were awarding me my win against my former landlord, the opening day for the new coffee shop finally arrived. I could not remember that last time I’d worked so hard, or such long days, but with the help and support of my friends, everything fell finally into place. I wore my best dress for the opening. It was a risk, but if I was to make this work at all, I had to find space for Jenny in it. I had a sign made up which I hung behind the counter. It read:

‘Yes I’m a man (at least physically). As human beings, we all have our idiosyncrasies. One of mine is that I have a need to let my inner girl up to the surface at times, another is my passion for coffee. If you’ll allow me the first, I’ll gladly share with you the second.’

I wish I could say that it worked. Well maybe it did with some, but there were still quite a few potential customers who took one look at me standing behind the counter and turned right around. Every such rejection stung like a slap in the face, and I was only too glad that they were fewer and further between than I’d expected. It did help that my friends took time out to celebrate the opening with me. Ruth took the whole day off work and claimed a small table close to the counter, offering up the odd word of encouragement whenever someone said something unpleasant. I spent what time I could with her, but the place was busy right from the word go. Sally and Siobhan came by towards the end of the day, and even Mr Linden dropped in to wish me well.

There was a lot of interest in the place. From day one, the number of people who crowded around the screen in the window astonished me. As hoped for, a lot of them came in for a drink while they waited for their bus. That first day, I would probably have been completely swamped if there hadn’t been those who decided I was a little too weird for their tastes.

My feet ached by the time I closed shop at the end of the day. I wasn’t wearing much of a heel, but I decided that flats would have to be the way to go when I was working. Sally, Siobhan and Ruth all stayed after I flipped the sign, and Ruth helped me balance my receipts against the contents of the till. I was astonished at how much business I’d done, and I had to place some quick phone calls to top up my already depleted stocks. If I could keep selling at that rate, I’d be able to pay my loan off before the end of the year rather than just reach the break-even point.

Gary and Michelle dropped by shortly after I closed up. They’d made special arrangements to have their pub covered so that they could attend my not-so-surprise opening party. The girls had managed to sneak in a few bottles of bubbles while I wasn’t looking, and had ordered in a couple of pizzas to go with. The king of foods to go with the queen of drinks.

We headed upstairs and Gary dived into the bathroom to change – yes I had a bath now; luxury – Sally, Siobhan and I had been helping him with his wardrobe, and he looked pretty amazing when he re-emerged ten minutes later wearing a brightly coloured dress with long loose sleeves that successfully hid his biker’s arms, and a short mobile skirt that showed of his surprisingly shapely legs to stunning effect. He still wasn’t getting on too well with his makeup, but with all eyes going south that didn’t matter so much.

Gary polished off pretty much all of one pizza on his own, while the girls and I were content to share the other. The distribution of the champagne was a little more even, and we were all pleasantly fuzzy by the time Ruth stood and waited for everyone to quieten down.

“We all know why we’re here, so I’m not going to waste any time with all that bollocks. I just want to say, on behalf of all of us here, Jen we’re massively proud of you, and may things only get better from today. Now, who wants to go first?”

Michelle was quickest off the mark, and before I knew it, I had a gaily – original meaning of the word – wrapped parcel, about the size of a shoe box, dropped on my lap. Everyone was grinning and looking at me expectantly. I hadn’t expected anything along these lines, and I guess my expression showed it.

“Go on,” Gary prompted. “Open it.”

I did as I was told, and lifted out two handfuls of, well, breast I suppose. I held them up in the appropriate place and grinned like a loon.

“There’s a couple of tubes of goo in there as well. One to hold them on and the other take them off. I got a pair too,” He thrust out his chest to show his own realistic enhancements. “Shell decided that it would be too cruel to me for us to buy you a pair and leave me without, so thank you.”

His were considerably larger than mine, but then mine would have been lost on his larger frame. I wasn’t into big boobs anyway. More than a handful’s a waste, as my Dad used to say.

“Can I just go and pop these in?” I was eager to get rid of my much over-used temporary measures.

“Why don’t you wait and see what else you have?” Ruth held out a gently restraining hand. “It’ll save time.”

Sally and Siobhan were next with a larger box, except that this one actually held shoes, or rather boots.

“You didn’t!” I breathed as I pulled them out. Siobhan had a fidgety, expectant look about her and kept shuffling her feet. I looked down and there was her pair of blue sling backs. “He fixed them!”

“Good as new, and he didn’t even charge me.”

“Well after all the money you spent on these…” I held up the boots I had so admired on my first visit to Magnaped so I could look at them more closely.

“Actually, he gave me a discount on them. They’ve been in the shop for quite a while and no-one’s been prepared to pay full price. I made him and offer and he took it.”

“Well, that makes me feel better. I remember how much he wanted for them.”

Ruth was last with a much smaller box. It was padded, with a sprung hinge, and opened to reveal the most gorgeous matching necklace and earrings. Gold and lapis lazuli. Trust her to come up with something totally new and unexpected – and perfect.

Of course I had to rush off and try everything on, and of course everyone had to have a look – and a feel when it came down to my new breasts. I may only have a few friends but they’re amazingly generous.

-oOo-

On my next visit to Terry’s, I provided the coffee. He was a little nonplussed until he tasted it, at which point he immediately asked if I could supply him every day. We agreed that I would have a large Thermos ready for him to pick up at half past silly in the morning, and he could pop in at lunchtime for a top up if he needed. It started as a favour to a friend, but before long word spread, and about a dozen businesses in the area asked if I could do the same thing for them. It meant I had to be up an hour earlier than I’d otherwise have preferred, but two dozen litres of coffee sold before seven thirty, even at bulk discount, is a good start to anyone’s day.

There were the inevitable arseholes during the first couple of weeks. In my case they amounted to one hooded monkey spray painting obscenities across the window, and one dick with a brick.

The first didn’t disturb the security system enough to trigger the alarm, but that just meant he carried on spraying until he’d completed his masterpiece, which in turn meant the cameras managed to take quite a few recognisable shots of his face. The police knew him and arrested him. At his arraignment, I asked for him to be assigned to me for his community service. I was tempted to make him waitress for me, but you don’t cure homophobia by ramming it down a person’s throat. Instead I worked him hard, fed him good coffee and doughnuts, and I talked to him. He was still something of an arsehole when he finished his time with me, but he didn’t try to graffiti my shop again.

The second incident proved the effectiveness of my security system quite nicely. I was upstairs in the flat when I heard the window smash, and my phone beeped to life even as I was reaching for it to call the police. I’m not sure if it was luck or good police work, but there happened to be a jam sandwich11 down the road, and they pretty much managed to catch the numpty12 as he fled the scene. He was a minor, so I ended up taking his parents to the small claims court to cover the cost of repairs. I didn’t make any friends with that particular incident, but word spread that I didn’t take any crap, and no-one else tried anything.

The initial surge of interest settled into a steady stream of customers, especially after the local LGBT community cottoned on. I was concerned their presence might discourage more conventional clients, but the shop was placed too conveniently for the buses, and my coffee was too good to miss in any case. If anything they brought me an additional surge, largely because a contingent of God botherers took it into their heads to target us.

No, nothing sinister or unpleasant about it. In actual fact I was rather impressed by their approach. They came in and bought their drinks along with the rest of my customers, then they sat down and started chatting to people. Not about God and stuff, but just generally getting to know the people they were talking to. The only time the G word was mentioned in a conversation was when one of my regulars brought it up.

I mean, it may be that they do have the answer to life, the universe and everything, who knows? All I know is that I’d be a lot more inclined to listen to them if they took the time to get to know me first – after they made an effort to understand the sort of struggles I have to deal with in my life. That’s what most people don’t seem to get these days: Religion isn’t about rules; it’s about relationships. In that respect there’s something quite religious about coffee.

We still get the odd numpty through the door. They’re fewer and further between these days, but there was one last week. He breezed into the shop looking like he owned the place and came right up to the counter. He placed his order, then, while I was putting it together, he decided to show his more obnoxious side.

“What’s with all the poofs and queers? Don’t you have a say over who comes into this place?”

His tone was jocular enough, but there were real barbs in his words. Enough to make me stiffen and stop what I was doing. I turned away from the coffee machine and rang up no sale on the register. I retrieved his money and passed it back across the counter.

“Actually, I do,” I said, “and it’s people like you I choose not to serve.”

“What? Normal people?” He wasn’t sure yet if I was joking.

“No sir. Bigots. This place is open to anyone who’s prepared to leave their prejudices at the door. I don’t like to turn away customers, but I’m afraid this is one area where I won’t compromise. I’m sorry sir.”

He stared daggers at me for a few seconds then, ignoring the money on the counter, stormed out. A smattering of applause drifted round the room and I became aware that every eye in the place was on me, every conversation suspended.

I found I was shaking and finished making the coffee I had started for him. I needed something to steady my nerves and those waiting in line gave me the time I needed to pull myself together. His money went in the charity box on the counter – I wanted none of it.

Positive, supportive comments came across from each waiting customer, and after a while I was back to my usual self. The rest of the day passed without incident.

It was a few days later, around the same time, the doorbell jangled and I looked up into the face of the same individual. It happened to be a dress day for me, and I was wearing a light blue, floral print, cotton summer dress, along with the earrings and necklace Ruth had given me, and a light amount of eye shadow and lippy.

Unconsciously, I stood up a little straighter, preparing for a confrontation, but keeping my face impassive, hoping to avoid one.

He walked up to the counter looking more than a little nervous. Quite a few customers had been present at the first incident, and silence washed through the place in a gentle wave.

“That’s er, that’s a pretty dress,” he stammered. “You look… erm… pretty.”

“Thank you.” I kept my tone neutral and waited. He had a way to go yet.

“I, er, I came by to apologise. I was really angry for pretty much the whole day after I left here earlier in the week. It’s taken me a while, but I realise you were right. I was being bigoted, and you had every right to refuse me. I er… Well I suppose that’s it really. Just sorry. Really sorry. Not just to you but to everyone who was here.”

He waited for a moment, the silence so deep I could almost hear him sweating, then he turned to leave.

“Excuse me sir.” He paused. I continued. “You forgot your coffee.”

“I beg your pardon?” He turned to look at me.

“Your coffee, sir.” I turned to my machine and started preparing his order from his previous visit. It only took a moment. I offered it to him with a smile. “It would be nice to see you come back.”

He looked around the room where his gaze was met, for the most part, by equally welcoming smiles.

“Thank you,” He said, taking the proffered cup and, still a little uncertain, headed for the door.

That was something else it took me a long time to understand. We all get it wrong from time to time, and there’s nothing wrong with that. What we need at such times is for someone to point out our mistakes before we begin to believe our own lies, and also to forgive us when we realise that we’ve fucked up and want to make things right. He hadn’t meant any harm by his attitude but if I hadn’t confronted him on it, he’d have carried on spreading his poison and the world – our world in particular – would have been the worse for it. What’s that phrase? ‘All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.’

-oOo-

Liquid Esperanto, I called my shop – it’s a place where barriers break down. I look around my establishment now where my customers – gay and straight, cis and transgendered – sit back to back and side by side, sharing the little events of their day. I didn’t set out to create this, not deliberately, but I’m glad I did. For a busy coffee shop on a bustling high street, there’s a remarkable sense of peace about the place, and right now there is no other place I’d rather spend my days.

Things took quite a while to settle into a routine, but they’re there now. It’s hard work, and usually requires me to be available at odd hours to take deliveries and the like. I’ve taken a leaf out of Gary and Michelle’s book and insist on giving myself at least one evening a week to go out and let my hair down – especially enjoyable now that I have enough hair to let down. I also take Sunday afternoons off just to relax. Sally, Siobhan, Ruth and I still meet up semi-regularly for meals and silliness, but since the shop opening, the venue has shifted to my place. The others don’t seem to mind the slightly longer trek, and it means I can deal with anything that needs doing work-wise.

Ruth should be here in a while. She’s fallen into the habit of stopping here on her way home most days, usually towards the end of the afternoon rush. She helps me keep my books straight, and I’ve started cooking for us. It’s something I never expected to enjoy, but having an appreciative guinea pig means that I’ve become quite adventurous in my culinary experiments. There were one or two disasters early on, but more recently everything I’ve put in front of her has met with approval and occasional eagerness. They say the way into a man’s heart is through his stomach. I’m not expecting the same to be true for Ruth, I mean she was quite clear about not being a man, but it can’t hurt to try, can it?

I have no expectations of our relationship, unless it’s that things should continue as they are. I’m usually Jen for her since she seems to prefer it, and on occasions we’ll snuggle up together in front of a film after we’ve eaten. It’s oddly platonic, both of us enjoying a deep and affectionate relationship somewhere closer to friends than lovers. I’m more interested in companionship and closeness in any case. If Ruth ever decides she wants more, that will be her choice. She’ll let me know in time, and in the meantime I’m content.

Other things have changed. I’ve become rather house-proud, which makes the girls laugh – especially Ruth after what she had to face that night in my old flat. The thing is I need to maintain certain hygiene standards for the shop, so it’s a small step to transfer those habits to my home as well. Ruth seems to like it, which is an added incentive. I’ve also dropped a dress size in the last month – also something that meets Ruth’s approval – which has necessitated me investing in a second-hand sewing machine and getting some lessons in its use from Siobhan. I’ve managed to alter most of my clothes to fit, as well as buy a few more. I have my eye on a little black dress in one of the shops in the arcade, but I have quite a way to go before I’d even dare trying it on.

I like who I am now, which is such a dramatic improvement on where things were a couple of months ago. I don’t fight to suppress the girl in me anymore, which I’m sure is why she doesn’t fight back. It’s strange not to feel the constant compulsion to put on a frock, but I guess that’s in large part because these days I dress when I want to rather waiting until I becomes a need. A lot of the time I dress like a normal bloke during the day – chinos and polo shirts as a normal choice – but most of my customers don’t seem the least bit bothered when I have a Jenny day. Oddly, the loudest protestations come on the days when I don’t wear a dress, but then that’s kind of a nice problem to have.

It’s also strange not to feel guilty about who I am, or to be afraid of what other people might think. I have my friends to thank for that. This whole Jennifer/Jeremy thing is who I am, not something that I do. I never realised that until I revealed my secret to Ruth, Sally and Siobhan and they not only refused to freak out, but actively encouraged me to embrace the whole me. We are essentially social animals, and it matters how other people react to us; that’s why I tied myself up in knots trying to be something I evidently was not for such a long time. Having just a few very good friends who see and accept the real me is enough for me to find peace.

-Fin-

  1. British English for posterior.
  2. Do bears shit in the woods?
  3. Is the Pope Catholic?
  4. You know, the ‘quotation marks in the air’ thing.
  5. wife
  6. wife
  7. wife
  8. My feet were aching
  9. Panties
  10. Not sure if the Vicar of Dibley has made it to America. For the unenlightened it’s a comedy series where the title role of Geraldine Granger is played by comedienne Dawn French – a somewhat larger than life individual in many senses of the word.
  11. Police car – so named for the red stripe down the middle.
  12. silly person