Trick of the Mind – Chapters 27 – 50

trick_of_the_mind

Copyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.  

Chapter 27

“Can they do that?” I asked.

“It’s about the only thing they can do.” Mr T responded. “Since you are legally an adult, the only way in which your parents can claim any control over you is if they can prove you to be mentally incompetent. If they succeed in doing that, then your parents would become your legal guardians again with a right to decide what’s best for you.”

“We can’t let them Daddy, we have to fight this.”

“I’m sorry Jennifer, but right now we have no choice. Richard I’m going to have to ask you to pack your things. I’ll take an extra few days off and stay with you until a decision is reached.”

“Sir I can’t ask you to do that. You’ve been more than generous, these past two weeks, but this is my problem and I can’t ask you to disrupt your lives over something that doesn’t have anything to do with you.”

“Much as I appreciate your sense of responsibility young man, I can’t get out of this even if I wanted to. The injunction is addressed to me and I am responsible for getting you to the courthouse. Beyond that when you came to us two weeks ago asking for help we agreed to give you whatever you needed. It would be a poor show indeed if we pulled the plug on it now when your need was greatest. I wouldn’t be able to sleep nights if I did that, not least because my daughter wouldn’t let me.”

His smile was infectious.

“Now I’m not going to tell you everything’s going to work out alright, you’re big enough now to know that the good guy doesn’t always come out on top, but what I will guarantee you is that we will stand by you, wherever this goes.

“I suggest that you and Jennifer go and pack Richard’s things together. Rachael is welcome to leave her belongings here until she comes next time.”

We left Mr T making whatever calls he needed to to cover whatever he had been planning to do the next day, and lugged my bags up to my room. Once there, we packed up all my guy clothes, except the ones I’d be wearing the next day, into one bag. When we were done, we sat together on the bed disconsolately and held hands.

“It’s not fair!” Jen said to whoever would listen. Since that was pretty much me and I agreed with her it seemed like a bit of a waste of breath, but I nodded my agreement.

“No it isn’t, but then my Dad did tell me that life isn’t fair and you just have to suck it up and deal with it. A bit ironic that he happens to be the source of what’s unfair in my life.”

Jen laughed then burst into tears and buried her head in my shoulder.

I held her close and said, “You’d better not get mascara all over this dress.” At which point she really did laugh and pulled herself away wiping tears from her eyes.

“How can you be so strong?” She asked me.

“I guess I’m used to things going wrong in my life, especially where my family is concerned. Besides as long as you’re with me I’m strong enough for anything.”

Eventually I kissed her and told her I needed to sleep if I was to be up early the next morning. I brushed my teeth and changed into a nightdress determined to make the most of what I suspected would be my last good night’s sleep for a while.

I was nearly asleep when I heard the door open and close and a moment later Jen slid under the covers next to me.

All too early the next morning there was a loud rap on my door. I looked at my watch to see that it was five o’clock and I could still feel Jennifer huddled into my back.

“OK I’m up,” I called, in the hope of stopping anyone from sticking their head round the door.

I roused Jennifer and slipped out of bed heading for the bathroom where I met Mr T in the hallway.

“Have you seen Jennifer?” He asked.

I decided to bend the truth a little. “She snuck into my room earlier this morning. I guess we both had trouble sleeping.”

He thought for a second then made up his mind to accept my explanation without looking too much deeper into the matter.

“See you downstairs for breakfast in ten minutes; I’d like to be on the road by five thirty.” He said it loud enough that anyone listening on the other side of my door could hear.

I showered as quickly as I could making sure that any shape and body in my hair was washed out of it and made it downstairs with my bag and my laptop by six fifteen. I was wearing my chinos and a white long sleeved shirt, which my reprogrammed brain had turned into a silver grey pencil dress with a broad black belt.

Mr T nodded approvingly at me as I entered. “Not bad and on time too. Do you want to borrow a tie?”

“No thanks,” I said. “I never wear a tie if I can help it; it cuts off oxygen supply to the brain.”

He smiled and poured me a coffee. “I know what you mean,” he said indicating his own corporate noose. “I hate the things, but they go with the territory.”

The toaster popped and I spread butter liberally onto my breakfast before biting out a quarter of it in one mouthful. I notice Paul’s smile.

“What?” I asked.

“Just seems a bit odd after seeing you nibbling away daintily all this past week. I missed Richard on the boat.”

I smiled back and took another man sized bite out of the toast. I saw no point in spoiling the moment by mentioning the dress I still saw myself wearing.

He checked his watch and said in a loud voice, “Well I guess we have to be on our way.” And as if by magic the door burst open and Jen came in wearing jeans and a sweatshirt. Funny how silly things like that can make you envious sometimes.

“I’m coming too Dad,” she stated slinging a bag over her shoulder.

“I’m sorry Jenny, not this time.”

“Why not?” She sounded just a little petulant.

“Jennifer, don’t make this any harder than it already is. For one thing I need you to stay here and keep your mother company. For another, Richard is going to need his wits about him over the next few days and I’m worried that you’ll distract him. For yet another it’ll be a lot more difficult finding a place to stay if you come along as well.

“We’ll let you know what’s happening as soon we can.”

Jen looked at me and I said, “Your Dad’s right. This will be easier – no, make that less difficult – if I do it on my own.”

She threw her arms around me and kissed me hard. “You’d better come back Richard Baxter, or I’ll never speak to you again.”

“As soon as I can love.”

I picked up my bags and followed Mr T to the car. Jen was gazing out of the window as we backed off the drive just five minutes later than planned.

I must have been too used to driving with my Dad; we were only five minutes out and still driving through largely deserted streets when Mr T looked across at me.

“You’re a little quiet this morning.”

“I was thinking about what’s going to happen this afternoon.”

“Hush, Scout,” he said with an exaggerated American accent. “It ain’t time to worry yet. I’ll let you know when.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Harper Lee,” he explained, or rather didn’t. “To Kill a Mocking Bird? You’ve never read it?”

“Not really my thing.”

“You should try it sometime, it may surprise you. I must have ready it three or four times now. Enjoyed it as much the last time as I did the first.”

We drove on in silence for a few minutes.

“So what do you read Richard?”

“Oh you know. Physics books, science magazines, science fiction stories for inspiration.”

He laughed. “You don’t have to try so hard to impress all the time, we all like you already.”

“OK,” I said smiling ruefully, “I like sci-fi for the escapism, the concept of a different, better future. I’ve studied enough about science to know that it’s not going to give miraculous answers to the world’s problems, but in a good sci-fi story there’s a glimpse at what could be good in years to come.”

“It may help to define the future as well.” Mr T glanced across at the look of surprise on my face. Sci-fi was something of a guilty secret, like the whole dressing up as a girl thing, but here was a grown and sensible adult telling me it was OK.

“Arthur C Clarke wrote about satellites, space stations and shuttles decades before they were conceived in reality. What are the chances that some of the engineers who worked on those problems read his books?”

I nodded thoughtfully and looked out at the rather dull countryside zipping past.

“Jenny didn’t sleep in her bed last night.”

All of a sudden the passing scenery seemed worthy of deeper scrutiny.

“I know. She was with me.”

The silence deepened so I continued.

“I’m sorry sir; I took advantage of your hospitality and your trust.”

I looked across at Mt Talbot who was staring straight ahead with an unreadable expression on his face.

“If it makes any difference at all sir, all we did was sleep. Jen was upset; I was upset; we felt the need to be close.”

Jen’s Dad still didn’t say anything.

“I’m not trying to justify what we did sir, but you didn’t seem to mind that night last week after the meal out, when Jen and I ended up in the same bed.”

He seemed taken aback by that.

“Isn’t that strange?” He seemed to be talking to no-one in particular. “There didn’t seem to be anything wrong about Jenny sleeping in the same bed with Rachael.”

“Rachael only goes as deep as the clothes and the makeup sir.”

He shook his head. “No I think she goes a lot deeper than that Richard, but I do take your meaning.

“It looks like I owe you an apology in return Richard. I haven’t been clear in my expectations, nor have I been consistent in the way I’ve been treating you. What say we chalk this one up to experience and a father’s over-protectiveness towards his daughter eh?”

I couldn’t quite believe that Jen’s Dad was actually apologising to me after what I had done, but I wasn’t going to argue – gift horses and teeth and all that.

“I promise I won’t let anything like this happen again sir.”

He let out a short bark of a laugh. “Don’t make promises you can’t keep son. My daughter has something of a wilful head on her and I suspect that a good deal of what went on last night was her idea.”

I kept my peace, which Mr T seemed to take as confirmation of his suspicions.

The brittle mood faded and we drove on in silence for a while longer, though not too long. it seemed that Mr Talbot liked to talk while he was driving; certainly the trip to and from the boat hadn’t been made in silence.

He asked me what my plans were for the future, and I gave him the typical vague teenager response. He pressed me on the matter though, and after some thought and discussion, I surprised us both by suggesting technical or scientific journalism.

“You know, I can see you doing well at that,” he told me.

“How come?”

“Well you’re well-spoken for one thing. You give some thought to what you want to say and present your ideas with clarity. With a bit of practise anyone can write as well as they speak, so I would say that given your grasp of scientific matters and your ability to communicate, you will do a considerably better job than a lot of the people who are already doing that job.

“You may want to practice putting a few words down on paper though. It takes a bit of time to get into the swing of writing, and you’ll need to show you have some skills in that area before anyone will consider you for that sort of post.

“Are there any journals or magazines published by the student body at your university? If you had a go at writing for something like that it would help to build some skills as well as give you an idea as to whether or not you actually want to do something like that for a living.”

The conversations bounced about from one topic to the next. We discussed music, art, politics, just about everything as we drove, and the miles melted away. I fell back into a less talkative mood as we entered the familiar roads around my childhood home though. A knot formed in my stomach as apprehension about the impending proceedings grew.

Mr T left me to my brooding for the last half hour for which I was grateful, and apart from a giving him a few directions as we entered the city, we completed the journey in silence.

We found a multi-story car park close to the courthouse and made our way through the front entrance with fifteen minutes to spare.

-oOo-

Chapter 28

At the reception desk, Mr T handed over the letter he’d received and, after a brief consultation of ledgers and the like, the receptionist gave us directions which led us down oak panelled corridors to an unassuming door hidden amongst all the other woodwork.

“How do you find your way around in a place like this?” I asked.

Mr T smiled as he knocked on the door. “You get used to the environment.” The door was opened by an unfortunately plain looking woman in a wool skirt and plain white blouse. Mr T showed her the letter and we were ushered into a small but opulently appointed courtroom.

The woman took her seat behind a stenography machine in a quiet corner of the room and left us to find our own place.

Dad, Uncle Stan – Mum’s brother – and Dr Finster were sitting in a wooden cubicle near the front of the room. They stopped talking as we entered and looked over at us in silence, as though willing us to move on so they could continue their private conversation. Mr T nodded at my dad but received no acknowledgement so, keeping a placid expression, he guided me to a separate cubical where we sat and waited in a silence that was disturbed only be the continued low murmuring between my dad and the doctor.

Time crept by and eventually reached the appointed hour. In response to some unseen signal, the stenographer, who it seemed was also acting as court clerk, stood up.

“All rise, this court is now in session. The honourable Derek Priestly presiding.” We stood up as the judge entered through a hidden door behind his large desk. He wasn’t wearing a wig or robe and as such was easily recognisable as one of Dad’s golfing partners. My apprehension grew as we were all invited to reseat ourselves.

“The next matter is a closed civil proceeding between Mr Raymond Baxter and his son Richard regarding the state of the son’s mental health. This will be an informal hearing presenting preliminary arguments in order to decide whether a full enquiry is called for and what provisions need to be made for the welfare of the young man in question. Raymond Baxter please stand forward.”

My Dad stepped forward. Mr T also stood and addressed the judge.

“Your honour, may I ask if Richard has need of legal counsel for these proceedings?”

“Might I ask who you are sir?”

“Paul Talbot your honour, I’m a friend of Richard’s.”

“Mr Talbot these proceedings are closed; limited to those directly involved. I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

Paul looked at me as if trying to say something. I twigged.

“Your honour Mr Talbot is here at my request.”

The judge looked at me with distaste. “I see. Richard, are you aware of the reasons why you’ve been brought to this court?”

“I have a fair idea sir, and if it’s as I suspect, then Mr Talbot is already aware of those reasons.”

“We are here to ascertain whether you are competent to make decisions in your best interests Richard, until we are, I’m afraid I shall have to overrule you.”

Mr T spoke up again. “Your honour, doesn’t the law require such matters to be proven before such rulings apply?”

“There is a certain amount of leeway in mental health cases Mr Talbot.”

“And in the opinion of the court does Richard’s present state of mind or the nature of his request dictate that such discretion is appropriate in this case?”

The judge found himself off balance and obviously didn’t like it. He looked at my father who gave a little shrug.

“Very well Mr Talbot you may remain, but you will be required to stay silent during the proceedings, and you are instructed not to repeat anything that is said during these proceedings outside of this room.”

“As you wish your honour.”

Mr T sat down and gave me a nudge. I was a bit slow on the uptake so he had to nudge me again and tilt his head towards the judge.

I stood up, “Your honour, do I need legal representation for this hearing?”

I’d just interrupted my father as he was about to speak and both looked at me with irritation.

“Richard,” the judge said with exaggerated patience, “this is a preliminary hearing and all present have your best interests at heart. No-one is under oath here, and no-one is going to make any firm long term decisions at this point.”
I opened my mouth to speak again, the judge pre-empted me.

“So no you don’t need legal counsel for these proceedings.”

I sat down and whispered to Mr T, “What are you doing.”

“Trust me,” he said under his breath as the judge glared at us, daring any further outbursts.

“Mr Baxter, I believe you are concerned over the mental health of your son.”

“Yes your honour.”

“Please tell me your reason for these concerns.”

My Dad gave a somewhat biased account of what we had said on the way back from uni. Some of it was outright fabrication and I couldn’t sit and listen to it.

I jumped to my feet and yelled. “That’s a lie and you know it is.”

The judge’s baleful eye turned towards me again. “Sit down Richard. Your presence in this courtroom is not essential to the proceedings, and if you do not conduct yourself with the appropriate decorum, I will have you removed to a holding cell.”

I sat fuming and felt Mr Talbot’s hand on my forearm. I looked up at him and he shook his head very slightly.

My Dad went on to explain how he had set up a meeting with a psychiatrist to investigate the matter further.

“Is the psychiatrist in question here?”

“Yes,” Dad said and indicated Dr Finster who was sitting nearby.

Dr Finster gave his testimony next, listing a number of things I was sure my Dad had told him, because I knew I certainly hadn’t. Mr T’s hand on my arm was all that stopped me from another outburst. The doctor finished by saying how I had become aggressive towards the end of the session and had stormed out of his clinic.

“Your son is legally an adult is he not Mr Baxter?”

“Yes,” my father replied.

“Then surely this is a state matter since you are no longer his legal guardian?”

I felt a moment’s hope; maybe the law would see me through this.

“That is true your honour, however this is a matter that has been going on for some time now. We first discovered Richard cross-dressing some years ago when he was fifteen years old.

“We dealt with it as we saw fit at the time and thought the matter closed. It was only when Richard raised the subject again two weeks ago as I was driving him home from university that I realised the issue was still on-going.”

“I see, is there anyone here to corroborate this?”

My uncle Stan stood up next and described finding me parading about in his daughter’s bridesmaid’s dress.

“I was not parading,” I ground out from between gritted teeth. Mr T squeezed my arm and the comment went unnoticed.

“And what evidence do you have that the condition is still on-going.”

My father passed across what looked like my sister’s phone. There would be several photos of Rachael from the previous week’s holiday. The judge pressed a few buttons and looked over at me before handing the phone back.

“Dr Finster, in your opinion is Richard Baxter mentally competent?”

“No your honour, I believe he has a condition that requires treatment in an institution.”

“Do you consider that he should be remanded attending a fuller enquiry?”

“Yes your honour, he is in denial about his condition and the last time he was confronted with it he ran away.”

“Very well,” said the judge, “in light of the testimony I have received I recommend that a further enquiry be made into the mental health of Richard Baxter, hearing to be held in this courtroom at noon in two weeks’ time. In the meantime he will be remanded in the mental wing of Grace Hospital.”

It was too much. I jumped to my feet for a second time.

“Don’t I get a chance to defend myself?”

“Richard,” the judge tried to put a patient tone into his voice, but it was obvious that he was annoyed at my outburst, “you have not been accused of anything, so you don’t have anything to defend. The matter here is the question of your mental health, and your testimony would be inadmissible.

“Bailiff, take young Mr Baxter into custody until such time as arrangements can be made to move him to the hospital.”

I couldn’t believe it. In this day and age, a kangaroo court bouncing me into the purgatory of a lunatic asylum. If Dr Finster had his way, I’d be dosed up with drugs and so disoriented I wouldn’t know I had something to fight for. Even Mr T who I thought was a friend had betrayed me, telling me to keep quiet when I should have protested more. Was this his way at getting back at me for last night?

As the bailiff led me away I looked over at him. The expression in his face was unreadable but seemed to be hiding a sense of satisfaction.

The Bailiff shared certain physical characteristics with a side of beef. He kept a hand on my shoulder with just enough force to convince me that neither running nor fighting would be a good option, even if I were considering them; I mean in these shoes and this skirt? Get real. He led me down a flight of stairs to a short corridor lined with steel doors.

“You have to be kidding me,” I said. “I’m not a criminal.”

“I’m sorry son, but the judge designated you a flight risk. It won’t be for long.”

He opened a door and gave me his best Ross Kemp impression; chin in his chest, lips pressed into a thin, grim line, eyes wide and staring. There was no point objecting; everything had gone down the toilet anyway. My shoulders slumped and I stepped into a six by eight space with a small barred window. I turned to the guard who gave me a sympathetic nod, possibly appreciation for not causing trouble.

“Don’t you want my belt and shoe laces too?” I’m not sure what I would have done had he said yes, there being no indication to my eyes of laces on my patent leather heels. The belt would have been a problem too, seeming to me to be broad enough to reach from my hips to my ribs when I was sitting. As it was he laughed good naturedly and closed the door on me.

I sat helplessly, legs together – no other way in this skirt – and head in hands. I wanted to think, to examine my options and try and find some way out of this mess, but my mind was numb. There wasn’t time in any case.

Barely ten minutes after being locked up, the key turned again and I was led out of the cell and the courthouse, and handed up into the back of an ambulance, where I was made to lie down on the stretcher. A couple of burly male nurses sat in with me, intimidating enough to keep me in my place simply by looking at me, and we drove off for destination unknown. There was no urgency so we shuffled through the lunchtime traffic at the same frustratingly slow pace as everyone else.

-oOo-

Chapter 29

The ambulance turned through a gate and pulled up under a concrete awning. As soon as we were stationary, one of the nurses opened the doors, while the other all but lifted me bodily off the gurney and handed me out.

“Hey guys, I can walk,” I said indignantly. They ignored me and strong-armed me through a glass sliding door into a large reception area. One of my escorts exchanged a few brief words with a bored receptionist and they marched me past into the labyrinthine interior.

I was led down an endless succession of magnolia corridors, all the while struggling to keep up and cursing my subconscious for hobbling me with this skirt and these shoes. Eventually we reached another set of double doors – wooden this time, with bars over frosted glass and a keypad lock. On the other side I was led to a small, empty room and locked in.

I don’t know how long they left me there. Their brutal lack of anything approaching civilised behaviour had me off balance, and scared me so much that I didn’t even think to look at my watch, instead I hunkered down in a corner and sort of shrivelled up into myself. If this was the sort of treatment I could look forward to for the rest of my life, I wasn’t sure I would want to survive long. I thought of Jen, the one bright spark in my life, but even that was marred by what her father had done to me. How could he hate me so much that he was prepared to consign me to this?

“Take off your clothes.” There was a tinny quality to the voice as though it were reverberating around the insides of a metal box.

“Wha…?”

“Your clothes, Richard. Remove them.”

I caught a movement in the corner of my eye and looked up into the face of one of the nurses from the ambulance. He was standing behind a window staring in at me, a microphone on the desk in front of him.

I’m not sure why I did it, some sort of deep seated, instinctive recognition of an alpha male type or something, but I stripped. Shoes, tights, skirt, blouse, bra, everything until I stood, huddled and self-conscious, in a pair of lacy, powder blue knickers. I folded my Chinos and shirt, balled my socks and put them in my shoes. When I was done, I looked up at the window again, feeling, if anything, even more cowed and vulnerable.

“All of it Richard.” The voice was implacable, emotionless but insistent.

I slipped off the last of my underwear and folded my boxers before adding them to the pile.

“Jewellery as well, Richard. Watch and chain, take them off.”

I slipped the watch off, feeling neither sentimental attachment, nor pressing need for it, but the chain was my link to Jen. I felt the vague stirrings of rebellion.

“No, not this. You can have the rest but not this.”

“Richard, if you don’t take it off yourself, we’ll be forced to take it from you.”

“No!” I yelled.

The man behind the glass sighed, but the glint in his eye betrayed a malicious anticipation rather than any sense of regret. A moment later, he and his colleague entered the room. The later very rapidly putting me in a full nelson, straining my arms and neck painfully even though I knew better than to fight back. The former took hold of Jen’s pendant and yanked it hard, breaking the chain in two places. He dropped it with the rest of my things and picked up the bundle.

The one holding me let go, deliberately pushing me off balance so that I collapsed in a hopeless, helpless heap. The two of them marched out of the room, throwing a set of thick, white canvas pyjamas back into the room with me before slamming the heavy iron door home once more.

“Get dressed.”

The voice and the voyeur were back. I crawled over to the new clothes, catching the silvery glint of something as I went. I diverted just enough to scoop it up, then pulled on the pyjamas. The long, ankle length Victorian night gown seemed appropriate to the austerity of this place, with its high neckline and long sleeves. The elegant lace down the front of the bodice was beautiful, but it was an otherwise very practical, purposeful garment, leaving nothing exposed. I felt comforted , almost protected, by it as my two minders led me back out into the main ward.

I was given a quick orientation, which more or less consisted of showing me the main communal area, which doubled as the canteen, before pushing me into my room.

“The rules here are simple, Richard. You eat when we say you eat, you take your medicine when we say to take you medicine, and you don’t make any trouble. Break any of these rules and we get to show you how unhappy that makes us. You understand?”

I wanted to stare him in the eye, but something about the place, about my predicament, was getting to me and I could barely bring myself to raise my eyes from the floor. I nodded, defeated.

Mr Loquacious managed a laugh that was almost all sneer. “You’ll fit in just right here, Richard.” and with that, he shut the door, leaving me to the horror of my private thoughts and imaginings.

-oOo-

The next two weeks were a gradual descent into nightmare. The first day I was there, I was given a paper cup with an assortment of pills and a glass of water. I asked what they were and, for my troubles, ended up in an arm lock again while the medication was forced onto my tongue, and my mouth and nose held closed until I couldn’t help but swallow them.

“You take your medicine when we tell you to take your medicine,” one of the thugs said as he released me.

The drugs left me feeling nauseous and withdrawn, as though I had somehow retreated inside my head. I could barely even taste the residual foulness of the tablets on my tongue so far was I removed from reality.

The next day, I tried to hide the tablets under my tongue, but either I didn’t do it very well, or these guys were better trained than I expected at spotting such things. Strong fingers dug into my jaw, forcing my mouth open, and what felt like half a hand disappeared under my tongue, rough nails scratching my gums and scooping out the tablets. Yet again mouth and nose were clamped shut until I had no option but swallow. Yet again the rules were hissed into my ear.

I gave up then, turning into the meek little drone they wanted me to be, willing to do whatever I was told, whenever I was told. I gave into the drugs too, receding further into the depths of my mind until it seemed I was watching someone else play out their life in front of me.

Pyjamas were changed daily and, as I swapped one identical set of canvas whites for another, my mind went into overdrive. Floaty chiffon in a riot of colours turned me into a pastel rainbow one day, the next a bright pink Power Puff Girls tee-shirt, barely covering a pair of ruffled pink panties. No two outfits the same, no warning of what the next twenty four hours would bring. Outlandish or sensible, long or short, loud or subtle.

In the early days as I lost control, I would find myself flouncing and pirouetting down the corridors, giggling and grinning like I belonged. Then the paranoia set in and it seemed that everyone, inmates and staff alike, were glowering at me, staring into my heart and soul, seemingly unearthing my secret and radiating their disgust at me. That was when I took to cowering and whimpering in the corner of whatever room they led me to. The worst was yet to come though.

Before long the faces around me changed, blurred and lost their distinctness, then reformed into some caricature of my own. The bodies altered as well, as did the clothes, until I was surrounded by grotesque imitations of myself. Fat, thin, tall, short, young, old, hairy, bald, made all the more ludicrous by the endless stream of beautiful dresses they all wore. The parade continued, moving in to become more crowded, more frenetic, until I started screaming and wouldn’t stop until two bulky versions of myself – one in a pink tutu, the other in a long, white wedding dress – dragged me to my room and left me alternately giggling and weeping.

In my rare lucid moments, my mind turned to Mr T’s betrayal, and Jen’s desertion, just as painful as that of my family. I had no concept of the passage of time, but in however long I had been there, I had not had one visitor. Not my parents, not Alice, not Jen, no-one. I fell tumbling into a deep, dark pit of despair, where the anguish and terrible loneliness became so great, I almost welcomed my next cup of pills and their promised return to madness.

My one safe place in all this was in bed, in the few minutes before I fell asleep. The newly administered drugs would be prowling around the edges of my sanity like malignant smoke, probing, seeking a way in. I would wrap the small piece of chain I had rescued from my pendant around the fourth finger of my left hand and stare at it, directing every last iota of my will into believing in Jen, in hoping she was safe, that she was only being kept from me, that somehow she was still fighting for me. At times the silver chain would shimmer and transform into a golden band, separating and encircling a single sapphire, which glowed with an inner fire and the same deep, clear blue of Jen’s eyes. In my mind I held onto the image of her tear-streaked face the last time I saw her, and in my heart I refused to believe she would give up on me.

Then a day came when things were different. The drugs were different, less aggressive, more calming. I slept – for the first time in a lifetime it seemed – without nightmares and panic attacks. I woke feeling rested, though still apart from everything, as though I were floating above and behind myself. On the end of the bed were my Chinos and white shirt, my socks and shoes, my watch and the broken remains of my pendant.

After breakfast I was permitted to shower, then one of the nurses had me sit in front of a mirror while he carefully shaved off two weeks of stubble. Back in my room, I operated puppet strings to dress myself and watched my smart clothes shimmer and change into a beautiful brocade ball gown, silk stockings and comfortable flat shoes. I wanted to spend time on my hair and makeup, but the nurses insisted that it was time to leave, so I followed them out to a waiting ambulance, which my addled mind transformed into a silver carriage with four beautifully matched white horses at the front.

The journey to the courthouse was gentle and passed in silence, with two burly footmen riding inside the carriage with me. I allowed them to help me down then, hitching my long skirts, I swept up the stairs like a princess returning to her palace.

I was led into the same courtroom as before and directed to a seat in a box by myself – as only seemed befitting for a princess. There were other people already there talking, but their voices were muffled and distant. I think I recognised my father and one or two of his flunkies, but I couldn’t understand why they were wearing skirts and stilettos. It made me giggle, and the judge said something to me. His voice was blurred and indistinct and he looked so foolish in his platinum blonde wig and frilly pink dress, I giggled all over again. His voice sounded angry though, so I suppressed any further reaction and settled demurely where I was.

I couldn’t understand anything that was being said around me, the voices reduced to a deep, monotonous, indistinct noise and nothing made sense. Everyone seemed to smile at me though, so I sat quietly and was grateful for even the slightest respite from the… Where was it I had just come from?

The murmuring drone went on for a long while and I sat in silence and waited. At one stage they seemed to be asking me questions, and I tried to respond saying that I didn’t understand. My mouth seemed filled with cotton wool though and I couldn’t form the words. It didn’t take long before they gave up and the discussion took a different turn.

I was beginning to lose interest when the doors to the courtroom burst open and a large number of people charged in. Voices were raised on both sides, and the sudden change in mood struck my fragile mental state like a sledge hammer against a delicate porcelain vase. There was a loud scream, which I only later discovered to be me, and everything went black.

-oOo-

Chapter 30

The next thing I knew was a cool hand gently stroking my cheek, though I couldn’t figure out why it felt fuzzy. I opened my eyes and concentrated for a few seconds. Jen’s beautiful face swam into focus.

“Hey Jen, it’s so good to see you.”

Her eyes flooded and she threw her arms around me, snagging tubes and wires. It was actually quite painful and the monitors to the side of my bed beeped in protest.

“Oh Richard I was so scared! I thought I’d lost you.”

A nurse came running into the room and separated us, rearranged the medical paraphernalia and left after a few warning words to Jen.

The hug had kick started my brain a bit.

“Your Dad Jen, he sold us out.”

“What!”

“Yeah, at the first hearing. He kept telling me to keep my mouth shut. If I’d fought a bit harder and said my piece, they wouldn’t have been able to have me committed.”

Jen was too stunned to reply immediately so I filled the silence with a bit of repetition.

“It’s so good to see you Jen, I’m glad they’re allowing me visitors now.”

The last bit kind of faded out towards the end. I didn’t have a lot of strength.

“Richard you’ve got it wrong. Dad didn’t sell you out, he saved you.”

That roused me a bit. “What are you talking about?”

“He needed you to keep quiet to stop the judge from having you and him removed from the courtroom. He needed solid evidence to take to a high court judge, which meant he needed to be there when the judge pronounced.”

“I don’t understand.”

“It’s kind of complicated so I’ll let him explain it more fully when he gets here, but basically your dad had some pretty high up friends in the local courts. This judge was working the system to your dad’s benefit. Conducting the proceedings in a closed session meant that there would be pretty much no chance of anyone reading the court transcripts. They made sure they were assigned a clerk who was unlikely to spot anything unusual and less likely to do anything about if she did. Then they put on a show to make the transcripts look valid to a cursory glance. Apparently things like this happen far more often at county court level than people realise, although not usually with as serious an outcome as this.

“Your dad, the psychiatrist and the judge are currently having a hard time coming up with an explanation for what they were doing and why you had been committed to the mental wing of a private hospital where you were being given some fairly strong psychotropic drugs.

“When my dad’s guys invaded the courtroom and all hell broke loose, you had some kind of psychotic break and collapsed. You’ve been unconscious for the last four days and I’ve been sitting here waiting for you to wake up for the last three.”

“You must be exhausted.”

“I am a little tired, but I wouldn’t have slept anyway. When Dad reported back to us what happened a few weeks ago, I pretty much forced Mum to drive us over here. I’m just so relieved you’re OK.”

“As am I.”

I looked up to see Mr T standing in the doorway smiling at both of us.

“I understand I have you to thank for getting me out of this mess.”

He shrugged. “I’m only glad I could help, Richard. What your Dad and his friends had planned for you was unconscionable.”

“There was a time there when I thought you were in on it. I should apologise for that right out.”

“You have nothing to apologise for Richard. You’ve been through quite an ordeal and I’m only sorry I couldn’t end it sooner.

“I’m also sorry for what I’m about to ask of you. Not immediately, but soon, I’d like you to talk about what happened to you in another tribunal.”

I must have looked panicked because he raised his hands quickly.

“Richard don’t worry, it won’t be anything like what you been through. For one thing the law says you haven’t done anything wrong so there is no risk of reprisals towards you. For another thing the people I’d like you to talk to are sympathetic towards you and what you’ve been through; they would just like to hear about your experiences directly from you. Lastly, if you’re not up to it, there is another way we can do it, called a deposition. It’s not so effective in the courtroom, because there’s no option to cross-examine, but we can set up a camera in a private room somewhere and record the session to playback to the judge.

“I’m not going to ask anything more than you’re prepared to offer – God knows you’ve been through enough in the past two weeks – so please don’t worry.”

I found myself doing as he suggested and the heart monitor settled to a gentler rhythm.

He looked at us and smiled. “Right now I think the best thing both of you can do is sleep. Jen you look exhausted and Richard you look so much better than when we picked you up off that courtroom floor, but you still have a lot more mending to do.

“Don’t even think about what I said just now. You need to rest and get better. Young lady, follow me, we’re going to find you a proper bed.”

-oOo-

The next few days took on something of a routine. Jen came as soon as she could persuade her mother to bring her every morning and, since the nurses already knew how much of a fuss she was prepared to make, they let her stay with me through most of the day.

We didn’t talk much, but each of us was glad of the other’s presence. I kept drifting in and out of consciousness, but it was normal sleep and much needed as my body purged itself of the drugs and my mind rebuilt itself. Jen sat and read for the most part, every now and again reaching out to touch me as if needing the reassurance that I was still there.

Every now and then a nurse would take me off to a different part of the hospital for tests, at which point I found myself grateful for the hypnotic suggestion that had apparently survived the battlefield that was my mind. Jen had told me that I was wearing one of those ridiculous doesn’t quite do up at the back hospital gowns which did nothing to hide my modesty from behind. From my point of view, the white lace full length nightdress that I found myself wearing most days was far less draughty and less embarrassing.

I thought through what Mr T had asked and on one of his visits agreed to the court appearance.

“I never pegged you for a lawyer.” I told him.

“Barrister please. Lawyers have such a bad name.”

“Tell me about that first court appearance.”

He took a breath and thought for a few seconds.

“Most legal practice in this country is open to public review; it helps to keep it honest. There are times however when individuals involved in a court case need to be protected, either their identities kept secret or sensitive information that might affect them in matters not related to the case kept from the public. In those cases the judge can use his discretion to hold a closed hearing where only those parties directly involved in the court case hear the matters discussed.

“The high court has its own means for auditing closed cases, but county courts are a different matter. County court judges are given the same discretion to hold closed sessions, but there is no process of accountability in such cases. Many county courts do audit their closed sessions, but a great many more simply trust their judges to behave honourably. Unfortunately, while most judges do behave honourably, there are those who find reasons to justify circumventing due process. Usually they are greedy people working alongside corrupt businessmen in order to line their own pockets at the public’s expense. Only very rarely do you find situations like this one.

“I suspected something of what they intended when they sent that letter instructing me to bring you to the courthouse. I needed you to remain calm in there so they would have no reason to remove us, which would have prevented me from putting together the necessary evidence to take it to higher authority.

“They denied you your right to legal counsel, even telling you that you had no need in the preliminary hearing. They ignored existing legal precedent that recognises your mental condition as having no need for intervention. They remanded you in custody in a psychiatric institution despite your being neither mentally ill nor a flight risk. Worst of all they treated you with powerful psychotropic drugs and in doing so risked your mental well-being.

“I didn’t anticipate that last one. If I’d had any idea that they intended such a thing, I would have acted far sooner. I thought they would simply keep you locked away until the trial proper, but they seemed to think the trial was a rubber stamp on a decision they had already made, so Dr Finster decided not to wait before starting your treatment .”

“So why did it take so long? What were you doing while I was in that place?”

He shrugged. “Digging out the transcript of the preliminary to present as evidence, talking to high court judges, presenting them with enough testimony to persuade them that it was worth their while auditing this particular hearing, organising a group of bailiffs to enter the courtroom during the secondary hearing so we could catch them in the act and arrest as many co-conspirators as possible.”

“Why did they do it?” I had an idea but I didn’t want it to be true.

“We’re still waiting for the whole picture, but we think the main driving force was your father’s concern of how public knowledge of your unusual lifestyle preferences might affect his reputation and the mental health of your mother. The latter is a more laudable reason, but in no way justifies what was done to you.”

“They’d have left me in that place for the rest of my life?”

“Ignorance is bliss Richard. Your father might never have visited you there but would have accepted his doctor friend’s assurance that you were receiving appropriate medical care. He would have massaged his conscience with the thought that you were in good hands and then gone on to live a contented life without the worry of what might one day come out of your closet.”

“How’re my mum and Alice?”

“Your mother had a breakdown when your father was arrested. The doctors think that she already had a fragile state of mind and this was the final straw. Apparently she sits in a chair all day staring out the window, telling anyone who will listen how she can’t believe this is happening again.

“Your sister Alice does send her apologies. She will come and see you as soon as she can, but she feels a duty towards your mother right now.”

“I caused her breakdown. This is my fault.”

“Now let’s not go down that route or I shall have to slap you, hospital or no hospital. You are the way you are and no amount of wanting to be otherwise will make you different. You were dealing with your condition in the most responsible manner possible. You’ve already explained it well enough to me, and I’ve found corroborating evidence to support your story.

“Since you can’t do anything about that side of yourself, your decision to indulge yourself as little as you could bear and in private was the most sensible course of action. That things have been exacerbated by this hypnotic trance you are currently under is not your fault. That your father reacted to your confession the way he did and initiated the course of events that led to our current circumstances, again is not your fault. That your mother has been unable to come to terms with your preferences are her own problem and may stem from whoever Stanley is or was.”

“Uncle Stan? What about him?”

“Was he the one who found you out when you were fifteen? Your mother keeps saying that all this is just like Stanley. I think I may have to spend a little more time looking into him.”

I was tiring again and Mr T backed out of the room taking Jen with him as the end of the day was fast approaching.

“Thanks again for agreeing to give your testimony. I’ll schedule you for an appearance on Thursday if that’s OK?”

“I’m guessing there is going to be a defence council with a bunch of nasty questions for me?”

“Yes there will be Richard but there is no jury to convince, just a judge. CfD may try a few nasty tricks – make out that you were behaving shamefully and threatening your dad’s business, that sort of thing – but as long as you’re as open and honest as you were with Sharon and myself, you should be able to tie him up in knots.”

I slept well again that night and in the morning was pestering the nurses and doctors about when I might actually leave. They told me that whilst this was a sure sign I was recovering there were still quite a few tests and observations they wanted to do to ensure I was going to be OK before they let me loose on the world again.

-oOo-

Chapter 31

Thursday came round soon enough. Mr T and Jen turned up early with real clothes. They offered me a choice between my chinos and white shirt or my coral dress. Jen thought I’d be more comfortable in the dress, but I figured if this court was asking for Richard Baxter to give evidence, it would be better if Richard turned up to give it and Rachael stayed in the background for the time being. Mr T smiled his approval.

It didn’t make a great deal of difference to me in any case. The moment I was dressed I felt the familiar blurring of reality and looked down to find myself wearing a dark floral print dress with high neckline and long sleeves. The collar and cuffs were trimmed with lace and the hem dropped to mid-calf. My shoes had transformed into knee high boots and I could feel cool nylon against my legs even if I couldn’t see it. The dress was close fitting and made of a stretchy fabric that clung to my frame like a whole body hug. It felt good, comforting, safe.

I sat in a wheelchair with a porter pushing me towards the front entrance and Jen chatting away at my side. It’s just as well that she can hold both sides of the conversation when needed because a tightening knot in my stomach had robbed me of the desire to speak.

Mr T was quiet as well, lost in his own thoughts as he walked along beside us. We reached the front entrance and Mr T thanked the porter as I climbed to my feet and walked the short distance to the waiting car.

“Hi Mrs T,” I said as Jen settled in beside me.

“Now Richard you remember what we agreed.”

“Alright, OK already. Hello Sharon. I’m sorry but it still feels a little odd addressing my girlfriend’s parents by their first names. My parents would never approve.”

“Does it matter to you that much, Richard? What your parents think I mean?” She asked.

“They are still my parents. For better or for worse they are the role models I have to work with. I am probably going to have to question a lot of what they taught me, but when it comes to basic courtesy, I think they had it right.”

“Well if it makes you feel any better to call me Mrs T, I think I should be able to live with that.”

We made our way from the hospital to the courthouse and the high courts. The sun was shining and I leaned against the window and soaked it up. When we arrived Mr T and I climbed out of the car and Jen gave me a wistful smile of encouragement before she drove off with her mother.

I gave Mr T a questioning look.

“We thought it best to keep today’s proceedings inside the courthouse as much as possible.”

“I don’t have anything to hide from Jen.”

“No, you’ve already shown laudable honesty with my daughter and with Sharon and myself. That’s one of the things I like and respect about you, but you will be cross examined today by both me and defence counsel, and you may well be surprised at the questions you’ll be called on to answer.

“Whilst I have no doubt that you and Jennifer share a great deal of honesty in your relationship, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least if you are called upon to give testimony to some things today which you would far rather share with her in your own way and in your own time. Believe me when I say that it is better this way.”

I was disappointed not to have Jen’s supportive presence, but so far Mr T hadn’t steered me wrong, and I still felt a little guilty about the accusing him of betraying me.

“OK,” I said and we started up the steps to the courthouse together.

The high court was not much different from the county court except in size. Sunlight streamed in through large high windows only to be absorbed by dark wood panelled walls and desks, bringing a heavy solemnity to the room even on a bright and cheerful day such as this. The judge sat behind a high desk overlooking the dock, lawyers’ desks and witness box, with the jury box over to one side. The public gallery was separated from the rest of the courthouse by a low wooden barrier and held sufficient benches to seat a hundred people. Today only three of the places were filled.

Just inside the main entrance, sitting sullenly on the back row and glancing around for any pretext for escape, sat my Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie. By total contrast, Alice was sitting at the front, just behind the Mr Talbot’s desk on the right. She gave me a weary smile when Mr Talbot and I made our entrance, and stood up to embrace me as we walked up to the business end of the courtroom.

The place seemed oddly deserted. Apart from the judge and the clerk, the only other people in the courtroom were my father and his two friends along with their respective council.

The judge looked at us over his glasses. “Ah, Mr Talbot and Mr Baxter. Good we can get started.”

“My apologies your honour,” said Mr T. “It took longer than expected to have Richard released from the hospital.”

“Not a problem.” He gave me an encouraging smile and a steady apprising look. “Now since we’re all here, and since you seem to be up to it, I’d like to start with your testimony if you don’t mind, Richard.”

“Yes your honour,” I allowed Mr T to lead me forward to the witness box.

I stepped into the box and turned toward the clerk as he approached with a New Testament in one hand and a card in the other.

“Do you wish to take the oath or affirm?”

I looked up at the judge, and my confusion must have been evident.

“In a modern court of law Mr Baxter, you may choose either to swear an oath on the holy book of your choice, or simply make an affirmation that you will tell the truth. Whatever you choose it will make no difference to the proceedings; you are still bound by the law to tell the truth”

I turned back to the clerk. “I’ll take the oath, thank you.”

“Can you please take the testament in your right hand and read the oath off the card?”

I did as requested. “I swear by Almighty God that the evidence I shall give shall be the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

The judge looked down at me. “You may be seated Richard.”

I thanked him and lowered myself onto the seat. I managed to stop myself from sweeping the skirts of my dress underneath me, but still took a fistful of fabric in either hand and pulled it tight before I sat down.

The judge gave me an odd look, so I wiped my hands up and down my thighs as though nervous. He gave me an encouraging smile.

“Mr Baxter, you will notice that this is a little unusual in so far as court proceedings go. There is no jury and only the minimum number of court officials, the accused and the few people who will be asked to give evidence in this case are present. Because of the delicacy of some of the matters we are about to discuss, both court’s counsel – that’s Mr Talbot – and defence counsel have agreed to this being a closed session. Apart from the review of the court transcript by other high court judges, what is said within these walls will remain within these walls.

“I should make it clear that you are not on trial here. In matters relating to this case you have done nothing wrong under the law. Instead you are here as a witness to the events that took place in this courthouse approximately four weeks ago, and what occurred before and immediately after.

“I would urge you to speak freely and truthfully as I would like to understand the motivations as well as the actions of all involved before making my ruling.

“I do understand that you have recently gone through a traumatic experience and, on your doctor’s advice, I intend to make sure that this experience does not add unnecessarily to your distress. However I need to be fair to all parties here present,” he looked over to the defence table at this, “and as such I must warn you that some of the questions asked of you will not be easy for you to face.

“I won’t allow anyone in this room to bully you, and I will allow you as much time to collect yourself as I feel you need, however you will be required to answer all the questions put to you completely and truthfully. Can you do that?”

I gave the question a few second’s serious consideration. “Yes your honour.”

The judge nodded at Mr Talbot. “Please proceed.”

Mr T stood up from his desk and walked around it towards me. “Please state your name for the record.”

“Richard Ian Baxter.”

“And do you currently reside at…” He reached across the desk for a sheet of paper and readout my parent’s address.

“Erm, that is my registered address yes, but I live away from home at university for most of the year.”

Mr T gave me a look and I remembered one of our recent conversations where he had told me not to volunteer information.

“Well that neatly answers the next question I was going to ask you, but perhaps you could tell the court what it is you are studying at university.”

“Objection, relevance.” The words came from one of the suits on the other side of the courtroom.

“Goes to show character of the witness your honour, specifically his ability to think logically and objectively.”

“I’ll allow it this time.” The judge turned to the defence table. “Mr Simmons, I’d like to keep proceedings relatively informal today if you don’t mind. In my experience the truth of a matter is reached far more quickly and reliably if evidence is allowed to be given without constant interruptions. Please take a leaf out of your own book and check your own objections for relevance before making them.”

He turned to me. “Please answer the question Richard.”

“Yes your honour, I’m studying physics.”

“OK, slight change of tack here,” Mr T went on. “How would you describe your relationship with your parents?”

I looked over at my father who stared fixedly at the table in front of him. “Er, not brilliant at the moment sir.”

“Can you be a little more specific Richard?”

I took a breath. “Things have been difficult for the past four years. Something happened back then which changed the way my mother in particular behaved towards me, and since then she has been consistently disapproving and critical of me.

“My father has tried to act as mediator through most of that time, but that changed about seven weeks ago. He came to pick me up from university and one of the things we talked about on the way home upset him.”

“Do you know what it was that caused this change?”

“Objection, hearsay. How can the witness know what my client was thinking?” Mr Simmons again. At least I knew he was the one defending my dad.

“Actually your honour both my parents have been quite explicit in the reason for their change of attitude towards me.”

“Then by all means tell the court,” the judge said, “but limit yourself to facts rather than your opinions.”

“Yes sir.” I gave out another long sigh and collected my thoughts. This wasn’t going to be easy.

-oOo-

Chapter 32

“Four years ago on August the third, I went with my parents and my sister to my cousin Susan’s wedding. After the ceremony and the reception we all went back to my uncle’s house to change and rest before heading home.

“We all took it in turns to change and I went last. When I was upstairs I saw my younger cousin Emily’s bridesmaid’s dress lying on her bed with all the other things she had been wearing with it. I thought the dress was exquisitely beautiful and couldn’t help myself. Before I knew what I was doing, I had stepped into my cousin’s room and started to change out of my things and into hers.”

“Pervert!”

My uncle had spoken under his breath, but the acoustics in large room carried his voice clearly across to the rest of us.

“Mr Hanson, your presence in this court is subject to my rulings and I will not have comments like that bandied about. If you speak out in a similar manner again I will have you held in contempt and you will sit in a prison cell until you are called to give testimony. Am I clear?”

My uncle looked as though he was about to explode, but my aunt’s hand on his knee calmed him and he subsided into sullen brooding. He gave the judge a nod.

The judge turned to me. “Let me get this straight Richard. You put your cousin’s dress on?”

Another deep sigh, I was beginning to see what Mr T meant about things coming out in a way you would rather avoid. “Yes sir. Not just the dress either, all the underwear that went with it, the stockings, the shoes everything.”

“May I ask why?”

“It’s hard to explain your honour. I’d spent most of the day admiring the dress, and I had an urge to know what it felt like to wear it, to see how I would look in it. It wasn’t the first time I’ve felt the desire to dress as a girl, nor was it the first time I gave in to my feelings.

“Anyway I took too long. My uncle came up the stairs wondering where I was and came into Emily’s room to find me admiring myself in the mirror.

“He didn’t say anything, just grabbed me by the arm and dragged me downstairs. Pulled me into the middle of everyone and asked my parents to explain.

“Everything went mad. My cousin screamed and ran out the room, my parents and my uncle and aunt were shouting and I was in the middle of it. In the end my dad dragged me upstairs and told me to change back into my clothes.

“As soon as I had done so, I was marched back downstairs where my father emptied his wallet onto the table, telling my uncle that it was to pay for dry cleaning the dress and replacement of anything they felt they had to throw away. He then faced me and announced to everyone there that I would pay him back out of my pocket money and I was grounded until I had done so. He then hauled me out to the car and drove us home.

“Both my Mum and my Dad continued haranguing me for most of the way home, yelling over the back seat, asking me why I would do such a thing to them, then carrying on with the brow-beating without waiting for an answer. I just sat in the back and cried.

“I remember my sister Alice gave my hand a squeeze when neither of my parents were looking. Apart from that there was no comfort, no forgiveness. I was sent to bed as soon as we got home and pretty much told to stay there any time I wasn’t at school for the next month.

“Every time my mother came up into my room over those days she would start lecturing me about how much I had shamed and disgusted both her and my dad. My dad mellowed sooner, but the punishment stood, and by the time I had paid off my debt to him and was allowed to leave my room, my mother’s tirades had subsided into constant sniping and criticism whenever we were in the same room, and nothing has changed since.”

“So that was your mother,” Mr T prompted me gently. “How did things change with your father more recently?”

I described the conversation we had shared in the car on the way back from university, and how it had swiftly degenerated from my wanting to put things right with my mum down to my admittance of cross dressing at university and my dad’s ultimatum. I went on to detail what he had done over the following week from throwing away the girl clothes he found in my possession, to waking me early every morning to go for a run, to giving me an unending list of tedious and dirty jobs to do around the house.

“What do you think caused his change of attitude?” Mr T asked.

“Objection, speculative.” Mr Simmons again.

“That one I will sustain,” the judge said, “although from your testimony Richard, I think I can guess what you would infer from it all.”

Mr T glanced at his notes; more a pause for effect than a need to decide what was coming next. “Richard, would you please tell us what happened on the second Tuesday after you returned home?”

“My dad had arranged for me to see a psychiatrist friend of his, a Dr Finster.”

“Is he in the room today?”

“Yes,” I pointed at the defence table, “he’s sitting on my father’s left over there.”

“What happened in this meeting?”

“Well from the outset it felt like a setup.”

“Why do you say that?”

“Dr Finster had this sort of knowing grin on his face and there were a lot of exchanged glances between him and my dad. I asked the doctor if my father had to be present, and he did his best to persuade me it was in my best interests. In the end my dad left, but I had a sneaky feeling that anything I discussed with the doctor would get back to my dad anyway.”

“Your honour,” Mr Simmons had found his voice again. “The witness is speculating, he cannot know what was going on the doctor’s or my client’s minds.”

“I agree Mr Simmons. Please restrict yourself to the facts Richard.”

“Sorry sir, I was just trying to convey my impressions. Anyway, after Dad left, I confronted the doctor about confidentiality and my ability to trust him given the impression he had just made. He didn’t answer me so I went on to ask him how long he had been practising, what his views on gender dysphoria were and whether they matched the current thinking in his profession. Again he didn’t have a satisfactory answer so I told him what I thought of him and my dad, and stormed out of his office.

“Later that day when I had made my own way home on the bus, Dad and I had a massive row in which he accused me of insulting one of his friends and I accused him of trying to set me up. It ended up with me walking out of the house and him telling me that I was no longer welcome.”

“So what did you do?”

“My girlfriend’s parents had offered me an opportunity to visit at some point in the holidays, so I called her to explain what had just happened and ask if I could spring a surprise visit on her. She checked with her folks and they were very accommodating.

“I stayed with them for a couple of weeks, even took a short holiday with them on a canal boat. I would have been happy to stay longer, and I think they would have let me, but Mr Talbot received an injunction requiring him to bring me to attend a county court hearing back here.”

“Your honour,” Mr T turned to the judge, “I should clarify for the record that Richard’s girlfriend is my daughter Jennifer. Richard stayed with us for the two weeks in question, and as such it was me that received the injunction.”

The judge nodded and was about to wave for him to proceed when Mr Simmons started to raise his hand.

“Mr Simmons, I was aware of Mr Talbot’s involvement in this case before he brought it to the court’s attention just now. It was his close association with Richard that brought the initial evidence of possible misconduct to light, and after due consideration, I have deemed that there is no conflict of interest here, rather it is something of a fortunate happenstance. Mr Talbot has in the past investigated similar cases to this one and, because of both his past experience and his unique position as witness in this case, he is my first choice for court’s council.”

He looked at Mr T who turned to face me.

“Tell us about the court appearance please Richard.”

“It was in a smaller courtroom than this. The only people present were my father, Dr Finster, and Judge Priestly, sitting over there on my dad’s right, a clerk who’s not present today, Mr Talbot and myself.

“I seem to remember the judge opened by declaring it a closed hearing.”

I looked at today’s presiding judge uncertainly, and he was bright enough to pick up on my concerns.

“Richard, this is a closed high court investigation into those exact proceedings, and as such relieves you of any obligation under the law to remain silent.”

I nodded then tried to focus my brittle mind on the task in hand. Four very strange weeks separated me from those events, and I wasn’t sure how clear my recollection would be.

“He said it was to determine whether an investigation into the state of my mental health and my fitness to make competent decisions for myself were necessary. He spoke to Dr Finster who gave my cross dressing as an example of this incompetence. My father was then called on to describe the events that happened following my cousin’s wedding showing that I was still a minor when my condition had first manifested itself, and so allowing my father uncontested right as legal guardian.

“I wanted to speak out for myself, but Mr Talbot advised me not to. The judge decided that a further hearing was necessary, and that I should be held at a private health institute recommended by Dr Finster to await the full hearing which would take place in two weeks.”

“What happened then?”

I was becoming edgy; the nightmarish memories of my two weeks as a mental patient still a little too raw to recall easily. I did my best to describe what I had experienced, and became so caught up in reliving those events, that I missed the reactions around me. Mr T and the judge already had access to the blood panels that had been done on me after my rescue, so they already had some indication that I had been given psychotropic drugs. My evidence supported this and turned their faces grim. The defence barristers, especially the one representing Dr Finster, looked shocked to the point of horror. Even my dad looked across at the doctor with disbelief, giving some support to Mr T’s theory that he was relying on ignorance to sooth his conscience.

The judge noticed my distress and told me I could stop. He looked around for a moment, taking in the varied reactions around the courtroom.

“Mr Talbot, how much longer will you need with this witness?”

“I think I have covered as much as I need for now your honour.”

“Then I think we all need a recess. May I remind everyone here that you are not to talk about these proceedings with anyone or in the hearing of anyone who is not currently present? Mr Baxter you may step down from the witness stand for now, but when we reconvene you will once more be under oath.”

I nodded my understanding.

“Your honour?” It was the defence barrister representing the doctor. He was invited to approach the bench and a murmured discussion took place between the two men, ending with the judge sitting back with a look of profound displeasure.

“It seems we may need a longer recess. Dr Finster I will see you and your council in my chambers immediately. The rest of you, we will reconvene in two hours, at which time I will know whether or not this latest development is going to delay matters further.

The judge banged his gavel and left, followed by Dr Finster and his attorney.

-oOo-

Chapter 33

Alice ran to me and threw her arms around me.

“Richard, I’m so sorry,” she sobbed into my shoulder as I held her. “I had no idea. If I had…”

“…you still wouldn’t have been able to anything.” I drew her into a tight hug which felt so good. Along with my close fitting dress and boots, it was like a hug within a hug.

I looked across the room to where my father and his friend the judge were being led into a private room with their attorneys. He looked at me briefly, eyes hooded with shame, before turning to follow.

“How are you holding up?” Mr T asked me prompting a weary grin. “You’re doing really well up there, and I know that last bit was rough. I’m afraid the unpleasantness is only about to start though.”

I pulled out of the hug with Alice, but kept a reassuring arm around her shoulder. She leaned into my chest in a way she hadn’t done since she was very little, but she was OK, finding the comfort she needed, so I turned my attention to what Mr T had to say.

“When we come back, it will be the opposition’s turn to cross-examine you. Given your recent trials, the judge has set some restrictions. For one thing the defence attorneys have been instructed to direct their questions through one representative as much as possible and, as I understand it, have nominated Mr Simmons as their primary spokesman. For another, they will be under constant, close scrutiny from the judge to ensure they don’t undermine your recovery. Despite that, they still have considerable leeway, and I’m sure Gerard – Simmons that is – won’t pull any punches.

“Your best bet will be to answer calmly and truthfully as you have been doing so far. Remember none of what is discussed here can be shared outside the courtroom, not even by your father or your uncle and aunt.”

“I should be able to do that,” I said, feeling the exact opposite.

“I’m certain you will,” Mr T chose to ignore any signs of misgiving in my voice or manner. “Alice, would you like to join us for lunch? My treat, although as Jen’s going to be there I don’t know how much time you’ll get with your brother.”

Alice’s eyes lit up.

“Do you mean I get to meet her at last?” The twinkle in her eye was a sure warning sign, but it was so good to see something of the old Alice, I just smiled and guided her after Mr T. Whatever plot she and Jen ended up hatching, I was sure I’d cope somehow.

On the way out of the courtroom, we passed my uncle and aunt. I caught my Uncle Stanley’s eye briefly, and for the first time in four years there was something there other than anger.

-oOo-

Mr T had his mobile to his ear as we walked down the courthouse steps. Their use was banned within the confines of the building, and we’d all had ours turned off during the mornings proceedings. I took my cue from him and turned mine on. He’d finished his call by the time mine had fully fired up and connected to the nearest tower.

“Sharon and Jen are waiting for us at a bistro round the corner,” he said and strode off ahead. My phone woke up and chimed insistently, announcing a long stream of messages from Jen. The tight fitting dress allowed me remarkable freedom of movement, which was just as well, given the way Alice pulled me into the oncoming throng of pedestrians.

Jen saw us coming and charged at us – well OK me – while we were still fifty yards out. I still wasn’t too steady on my feet and, if it hadn’t been for Alice holding my hand, she would have knocked me off my feet. I held her close for a few seconds, needing the contact as much as she did, then introduced her to Alice.

Suddenly I was surplus to requirements as the two of them did the girly bonding bit. It gave me a chance to read through the string of texts, and to find a seat before my legs gave out under me. I watched Jen and Alice, my two favourite women in all the world, chatting like they’d been friends forever. It was enough to make anyone smile.

Mr T told us this was his treat and we should order whatever we wanted. The girls and Mrs T predictably went for something that involved more vegetation than protein, enough to prompt an exasperated look from Jen’s dad. I wasn’t ready to join the rabbit warren, so I chose a six ounce burger with Stilton and mushroom sauce, along with fries and onion rings. It came with a salad garnish as an offering to the vitamin fairy, so it didn’t completely undermine the diet the hospital had me on, and it provided Mr T with all the incentive he needed to order a steak.

While we waited for the food, I sat quietly watching Alice and Jen chatting and gesticulating, and it seemed strange to think that all they had in common was me and, in particular, dressing me up as a girl. I wondered why that should be. Was it a secret and shameful desire like my own desire to dress up, that they dreamed of turning men into women? Or was it that they saw a genuine need in me and responded to it as any kind, compassionate person would?

My pondering had me leaning toward the latter explanation, but with insufficient data to reach a firm conclusion, when the food arrived. Jen did her usual thing of spearing something off my plate – one of my onion rings this time – and smiling into my eyes as she bit into it

“Jen, you don’t do that sort of thing,” Mr T said, genuinely shocked at her behaviour. “If you wanted onion rings, all you had to do was ask. I would’ve been quite happy to order some for you.”

She dropped her head in uncharacteristic shame, evidently unused to incurring her dad’s displeasure. Time for Richard to come to the rescue.

“It’s alright Mr T… Paul I mean. This isn’t about being cheeky and stealing food form my plate, well not completely anyway. It’s more about sharing and reassurance. It’s sort of her way of asking how much I care for her. I let her take what she wants without complaining and it’s a way of showing her how much I care. She takes something every now and again and it’s her way of telling me she cares enough to want to know how much I care for her.

“Besides, it’s onion rings. It would hardly be fair for me to expect any moments of intimacy if only one of us has onion breath.”

Four pairs of eyes stared at me, some of them glistening slightly. I paused with my mammoth burger halfway to my mouth.

“What?”

“I think we’re all wondering how you ended up with such a wise head on such young shoulders,” Jen’s Mum responded, reaching over to impale a couple of chips from her husband’s plate and looking into his eyes with an impish gaze.

From there, the conversation passed onto more mundane matters, all talk of the trial and the immediate future of the Baxter family carefully avoided. It was pleasant to sit out in the sunshine and ignore the big things in my life for a while.

As it happened, one of the big things in my life was sitting on the plate in front of me. My stomach had shrunk during the days I was unconscious, and the hospital meals were hardly of a size to encourage it to stretch again. I did manage to put away most of the burger and the remaining onion rings, but I was grateful for Jen’s help in minimising the debris. Not many things more embarrassing than having your girlfriend’s father buy you lunch then leaving half of it.

The garnish went untouched – sorry vitamin fairy.

All good things come to an end, as our lunch did when Mr T glanced at his watch and declared it time for three of us at least to return to the courthouse.

“See you later,” Jen murmured in my ear as she tried to crush me in a fierce hug. “I’m really proud of you for doing this; it can’t be easy.”

I smiled and kissed her, unsure what words might make an adequate response.

The walk back to the courthouse seemed to take longer. Perhaps it was slightly uphill, but mainly it was in a direction I didn’t want to go. Alice sensed my reservations and took hold of my arm.

“You know you’re doing the right thing don’t you?” she asked me. “I mean even if it is Dad, there’s no knowing how many other people have had their lives messed up by the doctor and probably the judge.”

Her comment found a sensitive spot and, although I flinched a little, I did feel better for her affirmation. I gave her smile and a brotherly kiss on the cheek as we separated on the courtroom steps.

-oOo-

Chapter 34

Dad and Judge Priestly were already sitting at their table, deep in discussion with their lawyers, when we walked in. Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie were in their earlier seats, favouring us – me in particular – with renewed frosty expressions. I checked the clock; we still had five minutes to spare. I guessed Mr T was used to maximising his time in situations such as this. We’d no sooner sat in our respective places when the clerk came in and called for us all to rise.

The judge took his seat and motioned for us to do so too.

“Thank you for returning so promptly,” he started, not that we had much of a choice. “Before we proceed, I should like to share some developments.

“It appears that Dr Finster was less than forthcoming with his counsel and, following the disclosure of several salient facts this morning, many of which the gentleman in question was not aware, he felt that he was unable to provide effective representation under such circumstances, and asked to step down.

“This precipitated a lengthy discussion between the doctor and myself in which I left him in no uncertainty as to where he stood in regards to the law and its implications with respect to the charges levelled against him. He took a little convincing, but eventually agreed to change his plea. He has been remanded elsewhere and will be charged separately after a full investigation has recent medical practice.

“With just Mr Raymond Baxter and Judge Priestly to consider in this case, I hope that the remainder of these proceedings will pass swiftly and succinctly. Richard, would you please take the stand and may I remind you that you are still under oath?”

I took my seat in the witness box and glanced over nervously as Mr Simmons approached. Not without cause either.

“Mr Baxter, exactly how long have you been cross-dressing?”

Ding ding, straight in with an uppercut.

“Your honour,” Mr T stood to protest. “I fail to see the relevance.”

“Your honour,” Mr Simmons countered, “I intend to show that the nature of the relationship between my client and his son contributed to the, er, poor decisions he made in dealing with the situation.”

“I’ll allow it, but you’re on a short leash Mr Simmons.” The judge nodded at me, indicating I should answer.

“That’s a difficult question to answer exactly sir,” the courtesy seemed appropriate. “I suppose I would have been twelve the first time.”

“And why exactly did you decide to dress up that first time?”

“Some months earlier, I’d been invited to a neighbour’s birthday party. It was a fancy dress thing, and the neighbour, who’s birthday it was, was wearing an Alice in Wonderland costume that was all blue satin and lace. It was really lovely and for some reason I couldn’t get out of my head how much I wanted to put it on.

“The feeling stayed with me for a long while after that. I couldn’t explain it, and it actually scared me a little. Then one weekend, Mum and Dad took Alice, my sister,” I indicated her in the front row of the courthouse, “into town to buy some new clothes. They thought I was grown up enough to stay by myself at home, especially since our neighbours were in giving me somewhere to go if there was an emergency.

“A short while after they left me, I realised I could do anything I wanted, including slipping into Mum and Dad’s bedroom and trying on some of my mum’s things. The feeling was intoxicating – sort of exciting – at least as much because of the forbidden nature of what I was considering as because of the fascination it held.

“It took me a long while – nearly an hour I think – to muster up the courage to do anything, but eventually I did. I didn’t do anything more than strip down to my underpants and put a dress on – a really pretty, floaty red one as I recall. Then I lost my nerve after about five or ten minutes. I made sure everything went back where I’d found it, and I shut myself in my room with my computer until Mum and Dad came back.”

“You say ‘forbidden nature’. So you knew what you were doing was wrong?”

“I was brought up to believe all sorts of things were wrong and, whilst I don’t actually recall this particular one ever being brought up in a family discussion, I do remember my parent’s response to films and shows where a guy dresses up as a girl. They even spoke of pantomimes as being sordid because of the cross-dressing element.

“In a way, yes I had reason to believe that what I was doing was wrong, and I’ve spent a long while dealing with the sense of guilt that belief brought. However, even back then, I couldn’t figure out exactly why it was wrong. It’s taken me a long time to address that issue as well.”

Go on ask me, I willed him, but he was too good a lawyer. Never ask a question to which you don’t know the answer, and he didn’t know how I had addressed that the issue. He was bright enough to figure out that whatever I might say wasn’t in his client’s best interests, so he turned back to his script.

“How about after that first time, Richard?” Mr Simmons seemed to think he had earned first name privileges. I wasn’t so sure, but I let it slide.

“It took me a long time to muster up the courage to do anything like it again, but the desire remained with me. Eventually, I think about eight months later, on one of those Saturdays when Mum took Alice shopping and Dad had to work, I was left alone in the house again, and again the temptation became too great.”

“Interesting word to use, Richard. Temptation tends to indicate that there was a tempter?”

“My parents would probably agree with you and suggest that it was the devil whispering in my ear. To me it was just a feeling – a powerful desire.”

“Thank you, please go on.”

“Your honour,” Mt T stood up. “I’m not entirely sure what the point is of listing each and every occasion when Richard put on a dress.”

“I’m inclined to sustain Mr Talbot’s objection, Mr Simmons. The law does not recognise Richard’s actions as being illegal, and neither does the medical profession regard them as indicative of an illness.”

“Your honour, I’m trying to establish the events that contributed to my client’s state of mind when he decided on the course of action for which he is being tried.”

“Then perhaps I can save some time your honour.” Mr T gave me a warning look to remind me of what he had said about volunteering information, but I didn’t want to dredge my memory for every time I’d put on a pair of knickers.

“How so, Richard?” the judge asked. Oh well too late now.

“To my certain knowledge, neither of my parents knew about my activities until I was fifteen and we attended my cousin Susan’s wedding.”

“How can you be sure?” The judge again.

“Because of the way they reacted when I was caught in my other cousin’s bridesmaid’s dress. If the intensity of their disapproval at that time was anything to go by, there is no way they would have ignored even a vague suspicion of my doing something similar before then.”

“That seems reasonable, don’t you agree Mr Simmons?”

“Yes your honour. But if I may clarify one or two things?”

“Keep it short Mr Simmons.”

“Richard, roughly how often would you say you were cross-dressing in the time leading up to your cousin’s wedding?”

“It’d difficult to say exactly, but probably only once every few months.”

“Why so infrequently?”

“Well, for one thing, my parents didn’t leave me alone in the house all that often. For another, I was struggling with my guilty feelings.”

“And after the wedding? Earlier, you described your parents reaction to finding you in flagrante dilecto. Did that stop you from dressing up?”

“For a long while, yes. If Mum and Dad were going to freak out about my putting on my cousin’s clothes, I had no desire to find out what they’d do if they knew I was wearing my mum’s.”

“But you didn’t stop did you?”

“No sir. My sister, Alice was sympathetic. She was kind and understanding at a time when I could really have done with a bit of gentleness from my parents.”

“You blame your parents for their reaction?”

“I was a child, Mr Simmons. I was upset, and not entirely sure what I had done wrong…”

“Despite the sense of guilt you felt over dressing?”

“I felt a lot of things at the time Mr Simmons. Yes, I felt guilty. I also felt confused. I didn’t understand why I had this desire to put on a dress. I couldn’t talk to my parents about it because I knew they would just tell me it was wrong and not to do it. I felt euphoric every time I had a chance to dress, kind of like a build-up of months of tension being lifted away, and that on top of the sensuous feeling of the soft material.”

“You were saying about your sister.”

“She came into my bedroom the evening I was caught. She always seemed to know how to make me feel better. She helped me to cry out my frustration and she made me laugh. She told me she liked the idea of having a sister, although at the time, I suspect that was what she thought what I wanted to hear.

“Over the months that followed, it became increasingly obvious that my mum wasn’t going to let the issue drop, and my dad found a sort of middle ground where he would try to support me, but would also try to take Mum’s point of view as well. In the midst of all that, I decided never to put on a dress again, but I didn’t reckon on my own desires.

“One afternoon, about a year later, Mum and Dad left us home together for a few hours. No sooner had they left the house than Alice ran upstairs and brought down some things she’d bought for me.”

“What things?”

“A dress, shoes, underwear, tights – in my size too, and young person’s clothes, not my Mum’s more mature fashions. It was like lancing a boil – painful yet wonderful at the same time. I couldn’t help thinking of how Mum and Dad would react if they knew, but then all the stress and pent up frustration of the past year just evaporated. I remember laughing and crying at the same time, and I remember Alice joining in.

“After that she helped me to buy stuff and then hid it in her closet, washed it with her things. She would engineer situations where Mum and Dad would go out together and leave us at home so we could ‘pretend to be sisters’ as she called it. If anything I dressed up more after that than I had before, and I’m pretty sure Mum and Dad never suspected a thing, right up until the end of the summer term.”

“And all this time your parents had no idea this was going on?”

“Not to my knowledge. Alice and I were very careful to make sure they didn’t find out.”

“Why is that, Richard?”

“Because we were afraid – probably more I was afraid – of how they’d react. They can be quite unbending sometimes.”

“Did you feel it was right to keep secrets from your parents?”

“I hated doing it, but I didn’t have a choice.”

“We always have a choice, Richard.”

“OK, my choice was between concealing the truth or confronting them with it, and they had already given me a clear indication of how well confrontation could have worked out.”

“You could have chosen to abstain, Richard.”

“Which shows that you know very little about the situation sir. If the previous year had shown me anything, it was that the longer I denied the desire to dress up, the more stressed I would get, until it started to show in other ways.”

“What ways?” It was more declaration of disbelief than question, but it was still a question.

“I became depressed, withdrawn, miserable, lethargic, apathetic”

“And simply putting on a dress changed this?” He sounded incredulous.

“Yes Mr Simmons, it did, it does. It’s… It’s like there’s a piece of my mind that can only express itself in this manner, and if I neglect it, it becomes more insistent until I either give into it or crack up under the strain.”

“It sounds like a drug to me. You get high on it, then you go without for a few days and you get withdrawal symptoms. Couldn’t you have gone cold turkey and overcome it?”

“I went cold turkey, Mr Simmons. As I said earlier, after the wedding fiasco I didn’t dress up for about a year, by which time the desire to put on a dress was stronger than ever, not receding. Just how long a time would you think is reasonable to get over something like this?

“Drugs are different. You take a drug and it replaces part of your body’s natural function. The more you take it, the more your body gives up. Going through withdrawal means denying yourself the artificial drug and forcing your body to start manufacturing the natural ingredients again. I don’t have any artificial drug replacing part of my natural function. I have an additional natural function which will wither and complain whenever it’s ignored.”

“Coming back to your discussion with your father in the car, Richard,” Mr Simmons tried to regain control of his cross-examination. “Why did you tell your father you were still wearing women’s clothes?” He couldn’t quite keep his distaste out of the last three words.

“I never meant to. It started out with me asking how I could fix things with Mum. Somehow that led my girlfriend, and why it was a bad idea that I had told her about what happened at my cousin’s wedding, then he just out and asked if I was still dressing as a woman.”

“Tell me about his reaction.”

“He was angry that I was sharing it with people outside the family, that I wasn’t thinking about how it would affect him and Mum if things got out. He suggested I see a doctor, to which I said there wasn’t much doctors could do. I told him about gender dysphoria as explained to me by one of Jen’s professors, and he dismissed it as quackery. He wanted to know exactly who knew, so I told him. As well as Jen and one of her profs, there was my sister Alice.

“That shocked him so deeply we had to stop driving for a while. When he got over the shock, he was all grim and business like. When we got home he made me go through my things and throw out all my female clothing, although I should say I’d asked my sister to go through it first and rescue a lot of it. He grounded Alice for helping me in what he called my perversion. He then settled into a routine of searching my room every morning, dragging me out on a half hour run, then giving me a list of grubby, unpleasant jobs to do.

“That lasted for ten days, by which time he had arranged my visit to his friend Dr Finster.”

“Which was when you ran off to your girlfriend’s house.”

I nodded.

“And did you continue to dress up at your girlfriend’s parent’s house?”

“Before I left, Alice gave me back the clothing she’d been…”

“A simple yes or no will suffice, Richard.”

“I’m sorry Mr Simmons, but a plain yes or no won’t be the whole truth in this circumstance, and since I swore to tell the whole truth…”

Mr Simmons looked a little bewildered. The judge tried hard to suppress a smile.

“Go ahead Richard, answer it your way, but keep it short.”

“Thank you your honour. As I was saying, Alice gave me back the clothes she’d been hiding and I packed them on top of everything else I was taking. When I reached my girlfriend’s house, I dumped my bags in my room, and Mrs Talbot unpacked them while I was eating. She discovered my stash of dresses, which left me with pretty much no alternative but to explain what it was all about. I told them all about it and they were very understanding; certainly more so than my own parents.

“Yes I did dress as a woman during some of the time I stayed with them, but with their understanding and their blessing.”

“Thank you Richard, I think that’s all I need for now.”

“Additional questions?” the judge asked Judge Priestley’s brief.

“Not at this time, your honour.”

“Rebuttal?” the judge asked Mr T, who declined.

With the judge’s permission, I stood down.

-oOo-

Alice took the stand next and did a creditable job of describing our family life since Cousin Susan’s wedding, and explained why she had helped me afterwards.

“It was like he was dying a little inside every day. I didn’t understand why, but I could see he needed to dress up, so I helped him. He becomes a different person when he’s wearing a dress, and I used to really enjoy spending time with him as Rachael.

“Mum and Dad couldn’t see it. They were so caught up in the ‘wrongness’,” she did the thing with her fingers to indicate the quote marks, “of a boy wearing a dress, that they couldn’t see Richard’s need – the way he was so miserable when he couldn’t dress.”

Under cross-examination she admitted to knowingly helping me and hiding my secret against her parent’s wishes, explaining that she felt my need was greater, but there wasn’t much else to ask.

After Alice came Uncle Stanley. Mr T let Mr Simmons go first, and it seemed that whatever spark of sympathy I had seen earlier, he had managed to squash completely out of existence. Uncle Stan could barely contain his righteous anger as he delivered an impassioned account of how I had defiled their home, betrayed their trust and brought untold anguish on all of them. It was seriously over the top, and I kept wondering why Mr T didn’t object, until it was his turn to cross.

He stood up slowly, staring intently at a sheet of paper on the table in front of him, then approached the witness box, his expression unreadable.

“So Mr Hanson. Tell us about the last time you wore women’s clothing.”

-oOo-

Chapter 35

Even with only ten of us in the courtroom – eleven if you counted the clerk – the judge had to bang his gavel down to get everyone’s attention.

“Mr Talbot, I hope you have an explanation for this.”

“Your honour,” Mr T returned to the table and picked up the sheet of paper he’d been examining. He saw Alice and me craning our necks to look at it, so he held it up just long enough for us to see what it was. “Your honour, I’d like to enter this into evidence.” He handed the sheet up for the judge’s perusal, who then passed it down to the clerk, who passed it to defence counsel before passing it back to Mr T. He turned back to Uncle Stan.

“This, Mr Hanson, is a copy of the front page of a local newspaper, dated some forty eight years ago. Would you please read the caption underneath the photograph?”

Uncle Stan’s stared at the sheet of paper in disbelief.

“Mr Hanson? The caption?”

He shook himself out of his trance. “Er, it reads, ‘Local boy, Stanley Hanson, wows the crowd with his enchanting performance in the title role of his school Christmas panto, Cinderella.’”

“And the photograph?”

“Is of me yes, but this is different. It was a school play, I was doing my bit for the school.”

“Playing the lead female role?”

“It was a boy’s school, there were other boys who had to take female parts.”

“Yes, I can see them standing to one side of this picture of the full cast. The evil step-mother, the ugly sisters, the fairy godmother, the queen. They all look nervous and uncomfortable, whereas you look… How would you describe the way you look here Mr Hanson?”

“The play had gone well; I was pleased.”

“Yes it did go well according to the review, and you can see in the eyes of the boys who played the other parts – the king, the prince, the herald, the mice and other animals – they all look pleased, satisfied. I’m sorry Mr Hanson, but you look… enraptured, delighted, enchanted…”

“Men dressing in women’s clothes is wrong,” Uncle Stan’s outburst took us all by surprise. “It’s evil, it’s an abomination and it’s against God.”

“Who told you that Mr Hanson?”

“My parents. My parents taught me what’s right as the church teaches it.”

“You didn’t tell them did you? You said you were in the play, but you didn’t tell them what part.”

Uncle Stan’s anger collapsed. “I thought they’d be pleased. I thought they’d be proud. But they dragged me home and told me that what I had done was evil. And it is. They showed me that. It’s wrong to do what you’re doing, Richard, it’s an abomination…”

“Do you really believe that Mr Hanson?”

My Uncle looked up at Mr T, tears streaming down his face, pleading with his eyes.

“Mr Hanson, have you worn women’s clothing on any other occasion than this play?”

Uncle Stan shook his head, but from his expression it wasn’t so much denial as begging Mr T not to make him answer.

“Mr Hanson, please answer the question.”

He looked across the courtroom at his wife, tears mirrored in both their eyes.

“I’m sorry Evie. I… I’m sorry.”

“Mr Hanson.” This time it was the judge pushing for the answer.

“Yes,” it was barely a whisper. He continued in a louder voice. “I tried not to, and I hated myself every time, but I wasn’t strong enough.”

“Do you still cross-dress today, Mr Hanson?” The question was more gently asked. Now that the fist admission had been made, the rest would come more easily.

“No. I stopped when I met Evie. I couldn’t see how she could love someone like me, so I made myself stop.”

“Do you still want to dress as a woman, Mr Hanson?”

“Objection, relevance.”

“Your honour, it goes to the attitudes and motivation of the witness, as well as his reaction to Richard’s dressing.”

“I’ll allow it. Mr Hanson?”

My uncle had his eyes tight closed. You could see the answer etched in every line of his face, but the court needed to hear him say it. The judge prompted him again.

“Yes, God help me. Every day I have to fight off the temptation, but it’s a cross I have to carry, and so do you Richard. This is wrong…”

“Mr Hanson, please address your remarks to the court and restrict them to answering the questions put to you.”

He broke down in tears, and Mr T looked a little ashamed at having been the cause. He turned to the defence counsel desks.

“You wondered if abstinence was an option Gerard. You’re looking at the product of decades of denial right here.

“I have no further questions for this witness, your honour.”

“Thank you Mr Hanson,” the judge said kindly. “You and your wife are free to go.”

We all watched in silence as Uncle Stan, shoulders slumped and back bowed, made his slow way to the back of the courtroom. Aunt Evie took him gently by the arm and they left together.

-oOo-

Next up was my father, still visibly reeling from Uncle Stan’s performance. Under Mr Simmons’s guiding questions, he talked about his reaction the time he’d first been confronted with me wearing a dress. He’d shared his wife’s outrage along with that of his brother in law and family. He’d felt I had been fairly punished at the time, and had learned my lesson.

He’d worried a little about the way his wife, as well as both Stan and Evie, had continued to hold the incident against me, but overall he felt that it was a good reminder to me that what I had done was wrong. Yes he had worried about how my actions might affect his reputation. His business relied on him remaining above reproach, and he worried about how he would provide for us as a family should it be found out that I was… well you know.

He spoke of his shock at my revelation on the trip home, that I was continuing to dress in private, and with the help of my sister. He realised that a situation he had thought resolved was becoming a growing threat to the family, and so he acted decisively. Alice and I were given our punishments to stop us from making things any worse, and he went to talk to his friend Dr Finster.

When the first meeting hadn’t gone to plan, the doctor had assured Dad that things could be dealt with quietly and without fuss before they went further out of hand, especially if they enlisted the help of Derek Priestly, another of Dad’s friends.

Yes they knew what they had done wasn’t strictly above board, but the doctor insisted it was in my best interests to receive treatment for my ailment, and if things could be arranged without being made public it would protect my dad’s business and keep my mum from finding out, which would only upset her further.

Under cross-examination, Mt T asked if he had looked into the sort of treatment Dr Finster was proposing, and he admitted he hadn’t.

“The doctor and I have been friends for a lot of years, and I know him to be respected in his profession,” Dad said.

“How do you know him to be respected in his profession, Mr Baxter?”

“Well, he has a successful practice, he has numerous qualifications, all displayed on the walls of his office, he has a full appointment book. If he weren’t respected surely none of these would be the case.”

“Are you aware of the current position of the medical profession regarding the transgendered condition Mr Baxter?”

“Well, no. But that’s why we have professionals in different areas of expertise. We trust them to know what’s right.”

“And if Dr Finster had recommended your son see a psychiatrist regarding his condition, and possibly try living full time as a woman? Would you have been so ready to accept that suggestion?”

“There are differences of opinion within the profession regarding how these people should be treated. I thought Dr Finster’s approach seemed to have merit.”

“It protected your business you mean?”

“Objection.”

“Withdrawn. Now that you’ve heard from your son’s own mouth what Dr Finster had in mind, do you still consider his approach to have merit?”

“If I’d had any idea what he intended, I wouldn’t have allowed him to go ahead.”

“But you did, Mr Baxter. Despite your son’s protest against Dr Finster, despite his wanting a second opinion, despite his choosing to leave your home due to the differences between you, you still conspired to have him committed to a private and, until now, unmonitored mental health facility, potentially for the rest of his life. That’s what you did, Mr Baxter.”

Dad’s head was hanging low in shame. He managed a nod but no more. His words had been faltering, and at the end failed him completely.

He stepped down from the stand to be replaced by Judge Priestly, who’s involvement had been purely as part of the Old Boys network, facilitating things as he saw fit. He hadn’t seen anything wrong in what they were doing, right up until I had given testimony regarding my treatment in the mental facility.

“Surely, Judge Priestly, you must have noticed a difference in Richard when he came back for the second hearing?”

“He did seem distant, but the doctor insisted that his condition was normal given his care.”

“It didn’t occur to you that Richard was being mistreated?”

“Ray and I have known the doctor for a long time. He was a nice chap. There was no way we would have suspected him of misconduct.”

“And because you were prepared to believe your personal judgement and forgo standard procedure, you very nearly committed a young and innocent man to… well the horrors have been adequately described don’t you think?”

Judge Priestly nodded, his earlier confidence gone, wilting like a flower in a drought.

All testimony heard and brief summaries made from all counsel, the judge called proceedings to a close, stating that he would review all the information at hand, and make his ruling the following day at about this time. I glanced over at the clock and was surprised to see it reading six o’clock.

We stood while the judge retreated and waited while my dad and Judge Priestly were led from the courtroom. Neither looked our way.

-oOo-

Outside the courtroom, Mr T did his thing with the mobile again, and a few minutes later, Mrs T and Jen turned up in their family car. Mr T offered Alice and me a lift out to our parent’s house, which we gratefully accepted.

Home seemed oddly quiet and deserted, even seemingly refusing to acknowledge our presence as Alice headed for the kitchen to put the kettle on. Mrs T followed to see if she could help while I showed Mr T and Jen into the living room.

“So what happens now?” I asked.

“That depends on the judge’s ruling.” Mr T settled himself wearily into an armchair.

“How do you think he will rule?”

“I’ve learned not to try and predict the outcomes of trials such as this, Richard, but if it’s that important to you, I would expect both your father and Judge Priestly to spend some time behind bars. The judge will almost certainly be dismissed, and your father’s business will suffer as a result of the trial and the prison sentence.”

“What will happen to Alice?”

“She’s… what, fifteen? She’s also remarkably mature for her age. As long as your father can make provision to pay the mortgage on this place while he’s being detained, there’s no reason why she can’t continue to live here under social services supervision.”

The subject of our conversation walked in then, followed by Mrs T, both of them carrying trays promising not only hot, stimulating beverages, but also bread and salad and pâté. The refreshments lifted everyone’s spirits, but not enough to make us want to prolong the evening. The Talbots had brought my clothes, both Rich and Rach, which implied that I was expected to stay here. Not a surprise or anything, just that I hadn’t planned this far ahead. I hadn’t planned at all, let’s face it.

Mr Talbot stood to his feet and reached over to help his wife up before turning to his daughter. “Come on Jennifer, I think these two have a lot to talk about. No I’m not going to hear it. You’ll get to see your beloved tomorrow, but for tonight let him and Alice have some space.”

She buried her pout long enough to give me a kiss intended to make me regret not having her stay.

“Come for breakfast?” I asked hopefully.

“Actually, I was hoping to visit Mum tomorrow morning,” Alice said from behind me. “I hoped you’d come.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Mr T said before I had a chance to respond. “Where is she staying?”

Alice wrote down the address and passed it across.

“Perhaps we can pick you up from there about lunchtime. We’ll feed you again, then we can spend some time together before we’re needed back at the courthouse.”

“You’ve already done so much for us though.” Alice’s voice, but my sentiments too, which I hoped were reflected in my eyes.

“Nonsense. What time do you think you should be finished with your mother? Twelve thirty? One o’clock?”

“Twelve thirty should be fine sir, and thank you again.”

After they’d gone, Alice and I returned to the living room and sat next to each other on the sofa. We didn’t have a lot to say to start with, so instead I pulled her into a hug and let her cry into my chest.

“Mr Talbot thinks Dad will go to prison.”

“He deserves it for letting you go to that horrible place.”

“He’s still our dad, Alice, and I think he was genuinely upset by what I went through. But no, I was thinking this is going to change things for us, a lot.”

She laughed through her tears. “You can say that again.”

“If Dad goes to prison, and Mum stays in care, where does that leave you? I’ll drop out of my course and come back if you need me to.”

“Don’t you bloody well dare. I heard what Mr T said, and I’ll be quite alright looking after myself, even if I have to have social services looking over my shoulder all the time.”

“So what will you do?”

“Are you kidding? I’ll be able to invite my friends over here for sleepovers all the time, and we’ll have wild parties and tear the place apart.”

She looked up at my expression and burst out laughing.

“Oh that was worth it. Come on Rich, what do you take me for? I have GCSEs next year, then who knows? We don’t know how long – or even if – Dad’s going to be behind bars yet. I’m going to want to stay here for as long as Mum needs me whatever happens, so I’ll just stay local and sign up for some sort of further education, maybe I’ll be able to get onto a nursing course, then I’ll be able to look after her full time and get paid for it. A lot depends on what the judge decides tomorrow.”

“I guess the sooner tomorrow comes, the better then. What time do you want to visit Mum tomorrow?”

“We’ll need to take a taxi. No it’s alright, there’s an emergency stash of money so we can afford it for now. I was thinking if we tried to get there for ten? That means we’ll have to leave here about half nine, is that OK?”

“Sounds like a plan.” I stood up and picked up my bags from the hall.

“Richard?”

“Yes?”

“You know it would be weird and all kinds of wrong for me to sleep with my brother? I mean, you know, even just sleep, nothing incestuous.”

“Yes.” I could feel what was coming.

“I don’t want to be alone tonight, and I have that kind of camp bed thing for when I have friends over. Do you think it would be alright if my sister slept in my room with me tonight?”

I hadn’t really wanted anything to do with Rachael tonight, but Alice wouldn’t have asked if she didn’t needed this.

“Sure,” I managed a relatively sincere smile, “Give me a few minutes to go unpack her.”

The camp bed was uncomfortable and squeaky, so in the end Alice managed to persuade me to get into bed with her. I suspect it was what she had in mind all along. She spooned up close to me and it felt good to have that kind of contact. Sexual? Not at all. There had been times when we were very young when we had shared a bed, and this was like going back to one of those times. For one night, it felt like everything was the way it had once been, all innocence and peace.

-oOo-

Chapter 36

Alice’s alarm was loud and intrusive, shattering the tranquillity of a gentle dream and almost sending me back to the horrors of the asylum. She hit it with a stuffed rabbit though, and it fell to the floor in a sulk. She twisted round to face me and I managed to compose my features before she realised anything had been wrong.

“Hey sis,” she said sleepily. “Thanks for staying. It made all the difference.”

“Yeah, to me too.”

I climbed out of bed, but Alice was quicker, reaching the bathroom door before I had managed to untwist my knickers.

“Hey, I was going to the loo.”

“You’ve got better plumbing than me; you can hold it. Besides, you shouldn’t be so slow.”

She wasn’t long and made up for her cheek by putting together a couple of coffees while I abluted. Of course that meant that I had to make the breakfast while she was washing. She came down wearing a smart grey skirt and jacket over a lacy white blouse.

“So what are you wearing today?”

“You remember that floaty red dress of Mum’s?”

“What, the one you said you wore the first time?”

“Yeah. Mum had a pair of red two inch heels that went with it. I guess talking about it yesterday must have reminded me and passed on the information to my subconscious.”

“It was a great dress. I think it would suit you.”

“It does,” I said looking in the mirror.

Breakfast was just a couple of bowls of processed cardboard. One each that is. For one, who’d eat more than one bowl of the stuff if they didn’t have to? For two, we were both watching our figures. Alice phoned for the taxi while I replied to Jen’s texts from the previous evening, and we were ready when it arrived at nine thirty.

Traffic wasn’t that bad and we arrived in a secluded driveway, in front of a large stone built mansion, ten minutes earlier than intended. Alice handed the driver enough cash to keep me fed for a week at uni, and we stepped out of the cab.

“There has to be a cheaper way to get here,” I said as we approached the main entrance.

“There is,” she replied. “There’s a friends group that runs a regular minibus. I just haven’t got round to signing up yet.”

A nurse on the front desk recognised Alice and called for someone to take us to Mum’s room while she signed us in. Minutes later we were standing outside her door, me feeling my usual reticence and nervousness. Alice didn’t give me a chance to fall apart; she knocked gently on the door and stepped through without waiting for a reply.

“Hello Alice dear, and Stanley, hello dear. That’s a nice dress you’re wearing.”

In happier days, Mum had told me I looked a lot like Uncle Stan. There was no way she could see through my hypnotised eyes though, so the dress thing had to be some other oddness with her mind.

“It’s not Uncle Stan, Mum. It’s me, Richard.”

“Oh, Richard. Such a wicked boy.” The gentleness of her voice was at odds with her words. “The way he put on poor Emily’s dress like that, it must have been so hard for you Stanley. He looked so pretty in it, just like you did as Cinderella.”

“No Mum. I’m Richard. Uncle Stan’s not here.”

“Richard? It is you. Why are you wearing that dress? I thought we told you not to. You know it’s wrong.”

“I’m not wearing a dress Mum.”

“Just like Stanley. It’s such a shame, he made such a pretty Cinderella. I would have liked a sister, you know.”

Abruptly her tone changed – became harsh. “Richard, take that dress off this instant. Do you want to disgrace us all?”

It was heart rending, and certainly more than I could take at that moment. Not to mention the way it was messing with my mind. I deliberately didn’t wear a dress because I didn’t want to upset her, only for her to get upset because she thought I was wearing a dress, and that leaving me feeling hypocritical about denying it because I felt like I was wearing a dress anyway. I lasted ten minutes, by which time Mum was getting seriously agitated. I told Alice I was going to take a walk around the grounds and that I’d meet her in the canteen sometime after twelve.

The grounds were quite beautiful, if a little sun scorched. And lonely. Lonely like I’d never felt before. There were other people – patients who kept their distance for the most part – but whether they came near or kept their distance, they seemed disconnected, as though they were part of some other reality, someone else’s reality.

I wandered aimlessly, under trees, by flowerbeds and ponds, alone with my feelings since thoughts eluded me. I felt like I was losing myself. Mum in this place and lost to me, Dad most likely going to jail, my mind in some pink fantasy. Even Alice was changing with the pressures on our family. The only rock in my world that wasn’t seriously wobbling at the moment was Jen, and she’d only been in my life for half a year.

A distant bell rang out. I glanced at my watch to find that it was already midday. Alice would be waiting. I turned and hurried towards the main building, heels clacking, skirts swirling. A delicious feeling, but still jarring with the part of my brain that knew what was real.

Alice was waiting by the time I reached the cafeteria, sitting at a table nursing a mug of coffee. I bought one of my own and joined her.

“How was she after I left?”

“Better, but I think you already suspected that. You see why there’s no point in your dropping out? You can’t do anything for Mum until she’s worked this through, you can’t do anything for Dad while he’s in prison, and…”

“What? I can’t do anything for you? You’re my little sister Alice. You’re fifteen for heaven’s sake. You shouldn’t have to carry this. Especially since we wouldn’t be in this mess if it hadn’t been for me.”

“Hadn’t been for you what Richard? Are you telling me you could get by without dressing up? Are you saying that you wouldn’t end up like Uncle Stan if you rejected that part of you? You know if one of us has to make a sacrifice, I’d much rather look after Mum and Dad than do what I want and watch you turn into an uptight, sour faced, joyless saddo like him.

“No you have nothing to blame yourself for, and since you can’t do anything to help the situation here, go back to uni, get your degree, make a name for yourself in the career of your choice, make a life with Jen if that seems like the right thing to do. Make such a bloody success of your life that Mum and Dad won’t have any choice but to be proud of you. Hell, even if they can’t bring themselves to do that, you’ll have such a great life you won’t care.”

She laughed a wry laugh and I joined in. There wasn’t much else to say so we turned to our coffee to hide the lack of words. Fortunately the Talbots rescued us soon after as it was pretty much undrinkable and quite possibly toxic.

Mrs T had performed a miracle and put together a picnic, despite staying in a hotel. She suggested finding somewhere on or near the institute grounds to eat, but I’d spent enough time in the oppressive silence of the place and begged a different location. I suggested a park closer to the centre of town that had its own parking and was within a gentle hike of the courthouse. This met with everyone’s approval and we set off.

The picnic was of the same high quality I had learned to expect from Jen’s mum, and we polished it off in short measure. I did draw a few odd looks from passers-by because of the way I was sitting, but then any way that would have looked more comfortable for a man would have felt obscene to me in that dress.

Alice remained quiet throughout lunch. I knew there was nothing more I could offer her so, as soon as we were done, I pulled Jen to her feet and dragged her off for a short walk. I’d benefited from the gentle wisdom of this family and hoped that, given the chance to talk to her alone, Mr and Mrs T might just be able to help.

It was good spending time with Jen again. Mr T had been right, Alice and I had needed the previous evening and this morning to reconnect, but Jenny and I seemed to click into place whenever we were together these days. We fed the ducks and sat watching the world go by, lost in the timelessness of each other’s company. Eventually Alice and the elder Talbots came looking for us. Alice looked more at peace with the world, so I assumed that words of wisdom had been imparted.

“Hey kids,” Mr T greeted us as he approached. “We should get going. You said it was about a half hour walk Richard?” I nodded. “Well we have forty five minutes until the judge pronounces, and we want to get there ahead of time.”

Half an hour turned out to be a good estimate, even in two inch heels. Jen and her mother had taken the remains of the picnic back to the car, so I was obliged to struggle on as best I could. Yeah girls, I know two inches is nothing, but two miles over rough paving slabs when you’re not used to it…

At one stage I took the opportunity to broach a subject that had been bothering me.

“Paul?” remembering to call him by his first name despite how unnatural it felt. “I never spoke about the hypnotism in the courtroom.”

“You didn’t talk about it to your father, Dr Finster or Judge Priestly either. What they did to you was based purely on your cross-dressing and had nothing to do with the hypnotic suggestion you’re under, so it had no relevance to the case. I deliberately kept it out as it might have changed the judge’s opinion of your mental health had he known.”

“But the oath, the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“You did tell the whole truth as pertained to this case. This falls very firmly under the category of information not to be volunteered.”

We arrived at the courthouse, found our way to the correct room and entered with ten minutes to spare, just as my father and Judge Priestly were being led in, attorneys in tow. None of them would meet my gaze and we all settled into silence, listening to the slow, steady tick of the courtroom clock, until it reached the top of the hour and we were instructed to rise as the judge entered his domain.

“Sit down everyone. Alright, I’ve had time to review all the information and make my decisions. We are here this afternoon to pass judgement on Mr Raymond Baxter and Judge Derek Priestly in the matter relating to young Mr Richard Baxter. Would the defendants please rise.”

-oOo-

Chapter 37

“This hasn’t been an easy case to rule on,” the judge began. “Of your guilt in this matter, there is little question. The evidence, and even your own shamefaced admittance, leaves me in no doubt that you did conspire to have Richard admitted into Dr Finster’s care. The full degree of his culpability remains to be determined in an independent enquiry, but what remains uncertain is the extent to which you were aware of the doctors intentions.

“From your responses to Richard’s testimony, I am inclined to believe that you were ignorant of the danger Richard was in, which mitigates your guilt to some extent. However, you did knowingly conspire to pervert the course of justice, and you seemed content enough to solve your own personal problems by having Richard wrongfully incarcerated. For that I believe a sentence of one year in jail, and a further three years suspended should suffice to persuade each of you that you acted in the wrong.

“Mr Baxter, I imagine this will have a profound negative effect on your reputation and consequently your business, but frankly I find the irony that you should be so punished by your own intentions to safeguard you livelihood to be quite agreeable, and feel that justice is served in this manner. Mr Priestly, you will be dismissed of course, though I suspect that by the time you have completed your jail term, this will count as little more than an early retirement in any case.

“You have one hour to arrange your affairs through your attorneys, then you will be taken to a low security prison to commence your prison sentence.”

He banged his gavel and made to stand.

“Your honour?” I stood to my feet to interrupt him before he vanished.

“Yes Richard. Please be brief, I have other matters to attend to.”

“Yes sir, I was wondering if my sister and I might be allowed to speak with my dad.”

He glanced briefly between Alice, myself and my dad. “I don’t see why not. Speak with the bailiff on the front desk, I’ll see that it’s arranged.”

With that the courtroom emptied. The judge first, through his private door, then my dad and former judge Priestly, accompanied by their legal representation and two bailiffs. Mr T led Alice and me out the main entrance back to the reception, where I asked after my father.

It took thirty minutes to arrange, but before long Alice and I were led downstairs to some cells very much like the one I had so briefly inhabited four weeks ago. They were larger, so when the door was opened and Dad’s attorney had stepped out, there was room enough for both Alice and myself to join our father without feeling too cramped.

Alice ran straight to Dad and threw her arms around him. He returned her hug hesitantly, his face drawn and haggard. He looked up at me through hooded eyes, but couldn’t hold my gaze for more than a few seconds.

“Did you have to come?” The question was addressed to me.

“Do you still despise me so much?” The bitterness in my voice surprised even me.

“No, it’s not that, Richard. This is hard enough as it is. I can’t look at you now without feeling… shame.”

“Oh you made it clear a month ago, Dad. I know I make you ashamed.”

“Richard, it’s not you I’m ashamed of. It’s me.” He sat on the bunk, Alice settling beside him, holding his hand. “You have every right to be angry with me, son. I had no idea what Max had in mind for you, which I know doesn’t excuse me. I… I can’t believe I almost did that to you.”

He buried his face in his hands and wept loud, gasping sobs. Alice put an arm around his shoulders, but it made little difference.

“So what happens now?” There were so many other questions I could have asked, but somehow I didn’t want to ask them of this crumbling ruin of a man. The strong, bold, confident man who had been my father was gone, and I didn’t recognise the person sobbing on the bed.

It turned out to be the right question – or perhaps a right question – because it gave him something to focus on. He took a breath and straightened up. There were still ghosts drifting behind his eyes, but something of my dad returned.

“I have some shares that I’ve asked my lawyers to liquidate. They should cover the mortgage repayments and provide Alice with enough of an allowance to live on for a year. I’ve also asked that my partners be approached with a view to buying me out quietly before this hits the news. I doubt they’ll offer me a particularly good price, but there is no way I can continue in my line of business now, especially with a criminal record.

“I doubt I shall be able to subsidise you much over the next two years, Richard, but I will do what I can.”

“It’s alright Dad, I’ll get by.”

“I imagine you will.” There was a new tone in his voice, one that I hardly recognised. “I never realised how fine a young man you turned out to be, Richard. Your mother and I haven’t shown you a lot of kindness these past few years, yet here you are, someone I should really be proud of.”

“What about the dressing up, Dad?”

His shoulders sagged and he hung his head. When he spoke, his words were almost too mumbled to be intelligible.

“None of that really matters anymore does it? Your mother’s had the nervous collapse I was hoping to prevent, and you can hardly do more to damage my reputation than I’ve managed myself. I don’t understand it, Richard, and I don’t condone it, but it’s probably wrong of me to condemn it since I don’t understand it.”

There was a small book on the table beside the bed. Dad picked it up and waved it vaguely at me.

“You know, I always looked to this for guidance on how to live? I thought I was following it when I was trying to deal with your… er… your problem. I thought it was showing me how I could save you, instead I nearly lost you over it.”

“I don’t think it’s meant to be an instruction manual Daddy,” Alice said quietly. “It’s more like a guide book. You know, not a list of things you should or shouldn’t do, but directions to the guy who can show you and help you to change.”

Dad laughed and ugly, wheezing laugh. “Is that what they taught you on those camps we sent you to? I’ve a good mind to ask for my money back.”

“Perhaps you should listen to what they have to say before you judge them Daddy.” Alice’s gentle voice carried just a hint of reproach. “I’d have thought you’d’ve learned that from recent events, if nothing else.”

Dad visibly winced, then nodded and patted her hand. “You’re right sweetheart, I should do a lot more listening than I have been doing.”

A key turned in the lock and the door swung open to reveal two guards.

“I suppose it’ll have to wait ’til next time,” Dad said, as he climbed wearily to his feet. He gave Alice a hug and a kiss, then turned to me. “I’ve no right to expect you to listen to me, Richard, and I doubt you have any reason to respect or trust what I have to say, but this dressing up thing still worries me. Be careful.”

He stepped out of the cell into the guiding arms of his guards, and he was gone.

A minute later, the bailiff who’d led us down here came to collect us and took us back to the foyer and a patiently waiting Mr Talbot.

Jen and her mum must have been waiting nearby, because they drove up to the courthouse steps within seconds of Mr T’s phone call. Mr T overruled Alice’s and my protests and insisted on buying us all some Chinese. Other than that and the occasional direction, we completed the journey home in silence.

The meal passed in silence as well. We may have won, but the victory rung hollow, like a funeral bell. It seemed poor thanks after everything the Talbot’s had done for us, but neither Alice nor I felt much like talking or eating. Eventually we were done, washing up completed, leftovers in the freezer, rubbish in the bin, teas and coffees dutifully distributed.

Mr and Mrs T stood, breaking through our brooding.

“I’ve been away from the office for long enough,” Mr T announced. “Sharon and I will be heading home first thing tomorrow…”

“I’m staying,” Jen announced, interrupting her father rather abruptly.

“We thought you might feel that way, which is why your Mum put your things in the car this morning. Of course the decision lies with Richard and Alice as this is their home.”

No question, no consultation needed. Both Alice and I spoke up for the first time since the disagreement over who was to pay for dinner.

“That’s settled then. I don’t suppose we need to make any long term plans at this stage, but call us soon so we can discuss how the rest of your summer break is going to go.”

Jen exchanged hugs and kisses with her parents. And I followed Mr T out to the car to collect Jen’s stuff, while she said a proper goodbye to her mum.

“I don’t know how I’m going to be able to repay you for what you’ve done, sir.”

“No repayment necessary, Richard. Call it an investment – no, a speculation – in my daughter’s future.” He gave me that look that fathers reserve for their daughter’s boyfriends as he passed me Jen’s bags. “Look after her and… be safe. Do that and I’ll consider any debts paid in full.”

Hang on. Did he just…? No surely not.

“I’ll look after her sir.”

“I know you will Richard. And when you and Jen are ready, you’ll both be very welcome to visit again.” He held out his hand and we shook – a contract of sorts.

-oOo-

Chapter 38

There was a weirdness about the place after Mr and Mrs Talbot left. Depending on how you looked at it, there was either Jen and me as boyfriend and girlfriend with Alice playing third wheel, or Alice and me as brother and sister and Jen as spare part, or Jen and Alice as girlfriends together with me as the awkward extra.

I think the girls twigged first. Not surprising since, to my eyes, I still had on Mum’s floaty, red dress on. After the mangled mess of the past few days though, we were all wary of setting each other off. The house seemed oddly empty and wrong without either of my parents there, and Alice and I especially were feeling their absence and some degree of responsibility for what had happened to them. Rachael had submerged completely in me with all the unpleasantness of the court case and seeing Mum so messed up in the head, and there was even a numbness to my thinking that distanced me from the effects of the hypnotism. Eventually, though, the sidelong glances from the girls, and the way they whispered together whenever they through I wasn’t watching, broke through my dense incomprehension.

“Would you prefer Rachael to join the party?” I asked.

“Would you mind?” Alice replied. “It would seem a little more natural if we were three girls.”

Natural? She had some odd definitions, my sister. I sighed and climbed to my feet. I had thought to leave Rachael where she was, while she was dormant, but I suppose when it came down to it, there was little difference from my perspective between thinking I was wearing a dress and actually doing so. If it helped Jen and Alice to cope better, who was I to say no?

I took my girl clothes up to my room and started putting them away as I dismissed them. The black dress from my first outing with the girls was too posh, the coral dress had seen a bit too much of the outside world recently – at least discounting the past month when I’d either been in Frankenfinster’s lair or recovering in the hospital. I still had quite a few things from the charity shop raid, and all the things Mrs T had bought me out of Jen’s allowance. I looked for a moment at the dress Dave had caught me wearing. I hadn’t worn it since that day, and I didn’t feel too much like dragging that particular memory up from the basement. For a change, I started going through my selection of tops and skirts.

I kicked off the heels and red dress – ok trainers, jeans and tee shirt – and slipped on a bra. The falsies went into the cups without glue, and I started holding up combinations of top and bottom to see which went best together and with the tights I was already wearing. In the end I settled on a dark pink roll neck sweater and dark floral skirt.

I spent a while brushing and pinning my hair into something a little less haphazard, and added a minimum of eye shadow and lipstick to finish the look.

It seemed odd to see Rachael in the mirror – as though she had withdrawn to give me some space, and been surprised that I wanted her around after all. What was weirder was thinking of Richard and Rachael as different people, when I knew they were actually different aspects of me. I guess there weren’t that many occasions when they two could manifest together, so because they only came out at separate times, there was a developing sense of difference between the two.

I made my way back downstairs to be greeted with smiles and hugs. What was left of the evening passed in a more relaxed manner, with me being more easily drawn into the conversation with the other two. I could feel the Richard in me sitting at the back of my mind, watching and enjoying the show as Rachael came to the fore. We both felt the relief of having our outfit stay the same after dressing. The stress had been there, hiding behind the numbness of the day after all.

After a while we snuggled up on the sofa – me in the middle – with mugs of hot chocolate and marshmallows, trying to watch some schmaltzy film on the box. We were all exhausted from the day, but evidently I was more so than the others. I woke to the sound of giggling and the gentle movement of two bodies leaning against me and shaking with laughter.

“What? What did I miss?”

“I’m sorry to have to tell you this Rachael,” Jen’s expression showed no regret whatsoever, “but you snore just like Richard.”

They were gone again, giggling into the combined hug they were giving me.

“Come on,” Jen said climbing to her feet. “The film’s rubbish anyway, and we would all benefit from a good night’s sleep.”

Doors locked, lights out and upstairs. I grabbed some bed linen and headed for the spare room to make up a bed for Jen. She tagged along to help, while Alice went first in the bathroom.

“Can I ask you a question, Jen?”

She paused from tucking the sheet in on her side, then decided against the obvious come back.

“Sure, what’s on your mind?”

“Who do you want me to be? I mean in the future, assuming – hoping – that we have one.”

“I want you to be you.” Cop out, much? Actually, no let’s be fair. That wasn’t all she said. “I want you to be the wonderful, weird, mixed up person you are. I want you to be Richard and Rachael, because the person I’ve fallen in love with is both.”

“Yeah but, how do you want me to be physically? I mean the older I get, the more I’ll look like a guy. There’ll come a time when the best I’ll look in a dress is Bride of Frankenstein.”

“So what’s the alternative?”

“I don’t know, I never thought about it before now. It’s just that you seem to like having Rachael around more these days than Richard.”

“The choice has to be yours Rach. I’m in this for the long haul, if you’ll have me. When I thought I’d lost you back in the hospital, it was only then that I realised how much you mean to me. I’ll take you any way you come.”

The bed was made. She wandered round to where I was standing and started rubbing the soft wool of my sweater. I couldn’t feel much through the false breasts, which is why it probably wasn’t quite as erotic as she intended it to be.

“So if I started taking hormones, chemically castrated myself and eventually had my meat and two veg surgically removed, you’d be ok with that?”

She stopped caressing me, an abruptly uncertain expression on her face. “Is that what you want?”

“Well, no. But it does make the point that this isn’t entirely my decision.”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean that we’re in a relationship. Anything that affects both of us ought to be discussed, even my body and what I do with it.”

“You mean… You mean if I did want you to change all the way, you’d do it?”

“Well not exactly, but I’d want to know what you wanted before I made any decisions. What you think matters to me and would definitely affect my decision. There was this quote I read on the Internet somewhere which I really liked. It said, ‘Love doesn’t consist of two people looking at each other, but looking together in the same direction. We each need to know where the other is looking so we can decide if we can adjust enough to find a common direction.”

“And if we can’t?”

“We face that if we come to it.” There was a cold stillness about us. I could see from Jen’s expression that she could feel it too.

“Well it’s your body. Why don’t you say what you want and I’ll tell you what I think.”

“Promise to be truthful?”

“Sure.” She lifted her eyes to mine. A threat of tears glistened, but there was an honest commitment in her gaze.

“I’m inclined to let nature take its course and make the best of whatever we get out of it.”

Her smile returned. “That sounds like a plan I could get behind.”

“What about the rest?”

“What do you mean?”

“I mean Richard or Rachael. Whether I’m one or the other, how often and how publicly is going to affect how other people look at us. You’ve already seen from what happened to me that there is bigotry in this world that will make life difficult, and if it’s this bad inside a family where there should be ties of affection, how much worse is it going to be in a world full of strangers.”

“So what do you think?”

“I haven’t worked it through yet. I wanted to know your thoughts before suggesting anything.”

“Well, unless or until we get this hypnotism thing sorted out, Rachael needs to stay around at least for your sake. As for after, I’d like her to stay around. I mean it’s so much easier to say and do some things with you in a dress, and I like the way you are when Rachael comes to the surface. Which doesn’t mean I don’t like Richard as well, I mean I do, but for different reasons.

“I’m making a mess of this. I guess if you’d asked me six months ago, would I go out with a guy who dresses up as a girl, the answer would have been ‘eeuw!’, but that would have been a knee jerk reaction, something you say because you think everyone else would say the same. Having had a chance to get to know you, I’ve come to the conclusion that you’re the best thing that happened to me. I like both of you, and I wouldn’t sacrifice either one for the other. I wouldn’t want to hide it either. Going shopping with Rachael is sooo much fun, and I’d hate the whole thing of having you rush to hide or get changed every time the doorbell went.

“I get that it’ll be difficult, that we’ll face prejudice, but I’ll face it with you whatever happens.”

“So how much Rachael are we talking about here?”

“That’s up to you, as long as she doesn’t go away completely. She completes you, you know? If you were to throw her away, I would guess you’d go back to being that shrivelled, nervous little mouse – no rabbit – that you were when Dave first introduced you to me. I suspect something similar would happen if you threw Richard out and became Rachael full time too. So all or nothing Richard/Rachael, I’m in love with both of you, and that’s that.”

The coldness had receded, leaving warmth and acceptance. We kissed, slow and soft, tasting each other’s lipstick.

“I love you, Jennifer Talbot,” I whispered into her ear, only to be rewarded with a suppressed giggle.

“See?” she said. “Richard would have taken forever to get around to saying that. It was much easier for Rachael wasn’t it?”

The sound of a door closing and my sister’s feet thumping down the corridor in a less than elegant manner indicated the bathroom was free.

“You go next,” I said, “I still have a few things to unpack.”

“Thanks. Richard?”

“Mmm?”

“Do I have to sleep here?”

No she didn’t. After the university beds, ordinary singles were generous. We’d found a way that worked at Jen’s parent’s house with one of us glued to the other’s back, and that worked for us now. I’d intended to sleep in the nude as I did at university, but with Jen in the bed, Rachael stayed around too. Again it was a comfort thing more than sexual, both of us feeling more relaxed in physical contact with the other.

-oOo-

My sister was up and dressed when we surfaced the next morning. I was wearing my tatty blue dressing gown over pink satin, and whilst my mind had transformed it into an elegant silk kimono for me, the others still saw my worn, tatty garment.

“Rachael, would you mind wearing one of my dressing gowns instead of that tatty thing?” Alice asked. “It kind of spoils the whole look.”

I obediently dashed upstairs. She’s quite a bit smaller than me, my sister, so I made do with her pink plush one, with the bunnies and flowers on the pocket. It was short in the sleeve and tight across the back, but it was oversize on Alice and stretched enough not to look ridiculous on me.

Back downstairs I found a glass of OJ and a bowl of Special Kardboard waiting for me, with a few strawberries scattered over it to make it less unappetising.

“So, what plans?” I asked, inhaling a spoonful of healthy nutrition.

“Well I was planning on going to see Mum again this morning. Jen I think has shopping plans with Rachael, if you’re up to it.”

I looked at Jen and she just pointed at the dressing gown I was wearing. “Something we forgot on our shopping spree with my mum. Alice is right, you can’t wear that blue thing, at least not if you’re being Rachael, and that is obviously too small. We also need to get some food in. Apparently supplies have dwindled a little since your dad was arrested and your mum collapsed.”

I looked to Alice, who shrugged. “There’s a supermarket a couple of miles away on the bus. They do clothes as well. Not the best quality, but sufficient to your needs. You should manage the shopping we need between you on the bus.”

“Have you looked into that friends thing yet?”

“No. I’ve got the paperwork over there though.”

I went and picked it up, read through the agreement. It was a pretty good deal, just asking for money up front to cover petrol for the runs you were going to take, changeable at any stage with refund where necessary. I filled in the details, asking where necessary, and had the forms and a cheque ready for Alice to take by the time the taxi arrived.

Jen and I washed and dressed. I was allowed first dibs on the bathroom, since I had to fit my boobs, and it still took me longer than her to make myself look convincing. By half eleven, we were ready to go, and stepped out the front door.

A curious head popped up over the fence. Mrs Taylor, neighbourhood gossip. I wasn’t ready to come clean with the whole Richard has a girly side thing just yet, especially considering the added strain it would put on Mum if – no, let’s face it, when – it got back to her. I put on my best cheerful face and bounced over to greet her.

“Hi, you must be one of Mr and Mrs Baxter’s neighbours. I’m Rachael and this is Jen; we’re friends of Alice. She asked us to come and stay for a while until things get sorted with her family.”

Nosy suspicion gave way to bewilderment, only to be replaced soon after with an excellent professional smile.

“Oh, hello,” she reached a hand over the fence and we both took it briefly, “I’m Betty. Yes I’ve lived here next door to Alice’s parents for fifteen years. Such a shame what happened to them. Do you know what will happen now?”

Yeah, fifteen years of casual spying without ever doing more than passing a few minutes gossip over the fence with my mum every few days. It always struck me as sad that we could live in such close proximity to someone and not know the first thing about them. Mind you Mum and Dad were no better. I think we sent them a Christmas card, but that was the extent of our involvement with the neighbours.

Of course it was convenient now. Fifteen years, and she still couldn’t see Richard under the face paint and the flowers.

“Yes it is a shame.” I kept the personality bubbling, but underneath I knew she was just fishing for gossip. “We’re not sure how things are going to work exactly, but as I understand it, Alice will be staying here on her own while her parents deal with their different issues.”

It was worth sowing the seed. I doubted Mrs Taylor would think to offer any help to the young girl living on her own next door, but I’d give her the benefit of the doubt for now, and the chance to prove me wrong.

“What about that brother of hers? Er, what was his name..?”

“Richard?”

“Yes Richard, that’s right. I’d have thought he would come home to help.”

“He’s been in contact, but things are difficult between him and his parents at the moment,” I didn’t mind her having that titbit. It might even give me the opening I needed to introduce Rachael into the family later. “Alice is fine with us helping for the moment. We were just off to the shops so we need to dash if we’re going to get the bus. Is there anything you need?”

“From the shops? No I don’t think so, thank-you.”

And with a wave we were away to the bus stop.

-oOo-

Chapter 39

The next few weeks passed in something of a routine. Following the conversation with Mrs Taylor, I’d pretty much committed myself to being Rachael while I stayed at home, which was good in a way since it looked like I would have to be Rachael a lot of the time once Jen and I went back to uni.

Alice visited Mum every other weekday and twice on weekends. The plan was that she would drop the weekday visits once she went back to school, and pick them up during half terms and holidays. She wasn’t improving that rapidly, which meant that any visit I made any time soon would upset her. I resolved to write to her at least once a week, with Jen resolving to keep me to it. Alice checked with Mum’s doctor and he agreed that it would be a good thing as long as I steered away from the subject that had brought on her crisis. That was something she had to deal with when she was ready. Any attempt to push it on my part would most likely result in backward steps.

We both of us wanted visit Dad, but the place he was being held was a long way out in the countryside. There was no public transport that went anywhere near and, even if Alice and I had been so much as vaguely athletic, it would have taken us hours by bicycle. I hadn’t considered the cost of driving lessons worthwhile and, with tuition fees and everything, it looked like it would be some time before I could afford the luxury of a car.

We sat around discussing options. Jen suggested her parents, but given that they lived the best part of half a day’s drive away, we quickly dismissed it as impractical. Alice and I tried to think of friends and family who lived reasonably close by, who might be prepared to help. I even tried calling Dad’s old partners, but they were reluctant to talk to me, and less so to help out. I guess it wasn’t personal, it was just business.

We’d pretty much run out of ideas and decided that the only way we would be able to keep in touch was by mail, when we received a surprise phone call. Alice was out visiting Mum at the time, so I picked up.

“Baxter residence, hello.”

A short pause, then, “Richard?”

I dropped my voice out of Rachael’s softer, slightly higher register. “Yes this is Richard.”

Another pause. “This is awkward. I was hoping Alice would answer.”

“Uncle Stan?” I couldn’t be sure. It had been a lot of years since he had spoken to me with a civil tone.

“Yes Richard. Er, I was wondering if Evie and I could pay you a visit. We – that is I in particular – we would like to straighten things out. To, er… Well, apologise seems like too small a word, but we…”

It was like a machine that had slipped a gear and was straining against itself, trying to tear itself apart. There was a part of me that took a vindictive pleasure in listening to this man who had caused me so many years of grief, a part that wanted to listen to him suffering as he struggled to find his inadequate words. There was another part, though, that remembered the broken man in the courtroom, admitting, as much to himself as to everyone else, that he was like me.

“When would you like to come?” Was that the Rachael in me who was so forgiving, so understanding? If Rachael could forgive this man for despising her, for driving her into hiding, then perhaps Richard should try too.

“Well, whenever it’s convenient, I suppose.” It seemed my question had eased his stuttering speech, and replaced it with surprised disbelief.

An idea occurred to me.

“Would this Saturday work?”

“I don’t see why not. What sort of time?” Banal details; so much less embarrassing to talk about.

“I don’t know. I was wondering if you might be able to help us out.”

“What did you have in mind?”

“Well, Alice and I haven’t been able to visit Dad since the end of the court case. I was wondering if you would mind driving us out to where he’s being held. Visiting times are usually between mid and late afternoon, so you could either come for lunch beforehand or dinner afterwards. If you’re agreeable that is.”

“I should think we could do that. How long does it take to get to the prison from where you are?”

“I think it’s about an hour’s drive.”

“Ok, shall we say we’ll call for you about three then stay for dinner afterwards?”

“Sure. Thank-you.”

“No Richard, it’s me who should be thanking you. You have every reason to resent us for the past four years. It’s very good of you to agree to seeing us.”

I hung up and looked over at a quizzical Jen. “Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie, looking to make peace. They’re taking us to see Dad on Saturday afternoon, then coming back here for a meal.”

She came over and hugged me.

“What’s that for?”

“For not harbouring a grudge.”

“There’s too much shit in life as it is without manufacturing and distributing your own.”

“Will you introduce them to Rachael?”

I smiled at the thought. “Not this time I don’t think. For one thing, I’m not sure Dad’s ready for me to turn up in a dress just yet, for another, you don’t rebuild bridges with a sledgehammer.”

She kissed me and held her head against my chest, or at least as close as she could get with two pieces of silicon rubber in the way. “Wise and gentle. Two things I love about you. If your uncle is anything to go by, two things you probably wouldn’t have if you were fighting Rachael.”

“Is that why you accept her so readily?”

“That and I love the way you smell whenever you dress up fully.” I was still experimenting with perfumes, trying something different every time I went shopping as Rachael, but I was getting closer to the scent I liked. Evidently Jen approved as well.

I called through to the prison and was told the visits could be arranged online. The web page they directed me to was helpful and fairly simple to follow. Date of visit, prisoner to visit, number of people visiting along with names and ages, request to extend the visit if an infrequent visitor, intended gifts for the prisoner – alongside a list of disallowed items. It was comprehensive, and I filled it in as best I could leaving blanks for Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie’s ages as well as the gifts slot. I couldn’t think of anything for the last, but Alice might.

She arrived back about an hour later. She took the news about Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie coming to visit with mixed feelings. On the one hand, she was glad of the chance to visit Dad. On the other she was less inclined to forgive than I had been. I guess she had her own right to be angry, having been stuck in the middle of as she had been. It took a while to get her onto my side, but eventually she agreed that if we could end the bitterness it would be best for everyone.

She called them back and suggested they could come earlier and visit Mum too, which committed us to providing lunch as well as dinner. Oh well. At least she was able to tell them to bring identification for the visit, as well as provide us with their ages for the visiting order. Alice suggested something we might take and I added it to the form before submitting it.

-oOo-

Saturday came round all too soon. I’d stopped with the scent a couple of days before and worked hard to wash any signs of body from my hair and makeup from my face. It wasn’t Sunday, but I figured a smart turnout would show willing, so had settled on a grey shirt and my usual chinos as a concession to neatness. My brain turned it all into a long, floral print hippy style dress with tiered skirt and sleeves. It reached to mid-calf, with boots that reached to just under my knees when I got round to putting my shoes on.

Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie arrived around mid-morning and whisked Alice off on her regular trip to Mum’s hospital. Jen and I put a lasagne together for dinner and prepared sandwiches for lunch. There was something niggling at my mind which I couldn’t quite get, enough that Jen noticed.

“Penny for them?”

“What?”

“You’re so quiet and thoughtful this morning, I was wondering what was going on in the head of yours.”

“I’m not sure. Something’s different, but I can’t put my finger on it.”

“Well it is the first time in a couple of weeks that you’ve not actually dressed as Rachael.”

“Yeah, it’s not that, or not entirely.”

“What are you wearing?”

I told her.

“Not your usual slinky, short skirts then?”

“That’s it! I mean it’s pretty enough, but it’s sort of safe. The same as when I went to court. Long close fitting knotted dress the first day and Mum’s red dress the second. I mean that was a little bit shorter in the hem, but still decidedly respectable.”

“Do you think your brain is reacting to your experiences? Now that you’ve been through… Well best not to think about it, but now that you’ve been through that, do you think that you’re more attracted to more subdued looks?”

“Well, I’d hardly call what I’m wearing breath taking, so I’d say something has changed.”

“So the original suggestion has been modified. Mysterio did say that it’s become a part of you, so maybe as you change through your experiences, especially the more traumatic ones, perhaps the suggestion changes to be more what you want it to be.”

“How does that help us?”

“I don’t know, but it’s something else to add to the pot.” She saw that the glint of hope in my eyes was dimming. “Patience Richard, the best stews take a while to cook. We’ll get there.”

Once we’d finished in the kitchen, we took a couple of mugs of tea into the lounge and tried to watch TV for a bit. It wasn’t that we were restless or distracted, but have you seen what there is to watch on a Saturday morning? In the end we snuggled down together on the sofa and enjoyed the peace and quiet.

“Don’t be angry,” Jen said after a few minutes.

“Why should I be angry?”

“It’s just that I’ve only just realised, I’ve missed Richard.”

She earned herself a good tickle for that.

-oOo-

Chapter 40

Lunch consisted of strained silences and studiously munched sandwiches. Alice tried to lighten things by describing Mum’s condition – improving, and better for having seen Stan and Evie (thank goodness she hadn’t imagined him in a dress) – asking after Susan – still happily married – and Emily – still unhappily single, and carrying a little more weight than she was happy with. All contributions from my uncle and aunt were short and stilted. They had, it seemed, decided that what they had come to say would wait until this evening, and until they got that off their chest, they couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable.

As it was, Alice and I climbed into the car with Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie at closer to two o’clock than the earlier planned three. Jen stayed behind to look after the house and make sure dinner was ready for when we got back. She was right to of course; visiting Dad was a family thing.

At first sight, the prison didn’t look too bad. There was a high brick wall around the outside with, no doubt, broken glass or some such cemented into the top, but inside it was spacious enough, with a fair amount of open space. We handed over the visiting order at the main entrance and allowed ourselves and our belongings to be subject to a cursory search. The proposed gift was inspected and approved, as were our passports, and we were duly shown through to the visiting room. Our early arrival caused a slight insertion of spanner into the bureaucratic machine, but only delayed us about fifteen minutes and earned us a gentle slap on the wrists for flaunting procedure. We got away with saying we had misjudged how long it would take us to get here.

Saturday afternoon was evidently a popular time for visitors. We were shown into a large room filled with tables, almost all of which had a prisoner and a group of visitors around it. The guard escorting us pointed out a lone figure reading a book in the far corner, and we approached slowly.

It was hard to believe this shrunken, shrivelled little man was my father. He’d always been larger than life before now, brash, brazen and always so confident. Sitting there in his grey prison overalls, he seemed to have collapsed in on himself. Poor foundations when the earthquake struck, I thought and a memory of a song drifted across my mind from Sunday School days. ‘The foolish man built his house upon the sand.’

He saw us before we reached the table and stood in time to be ready for Alice’s tearful embrace. Handshakes and tearful hugs all round and we settled into our seats. He seemed almost pathetically grateful for the visit, and his appreciation of Uncle Stan for bringing us. Alice pushed a large tome across the table.

“I thought you’d prefer your own,” she said.

It was true Dad enjoyed his own Bible. It was of a size to show off at church, and I think there was a degree of one-upmanship involved in his choosing it, but it was also well used and annotated; sort of a personal documentation of his personal journey into belief. He received it from Alice with genuine tears in his eyes.

“You couldn’t have brought me anything I would have treasured more, Alice. Thank-you.”

He was so different from the man I knew. Not so much a new person, but still the old person with all his pomp and pride punctured and deflated. There was an uncertainty about him that had never existed before, a deep seated doubt in himself and all he had trusted.

“I also brought you this,” Alice said sliding a few folded sheets of paper across the table. Prisoners had a letter allowance, so this passed without more than a cursory glance from a nearby guard. “It’s a list of verses I think you should read.”

“More of your summer camp heresy?” he asked, but there was gentleness and, surprisingly, humour in his words.

“Yes Daddy.” Alice smiled a very private smile. She always had been the one with the God-bothering bug. Mum and Dad were Sunday Christians – well perhaps a little more to be fair. Dad did read his Bible, and both my parents tried to live by what they believed to be its teachings, but they didn’t get involved in any of the church’s activities outside of the main Sunday morning service. Me, I went along to keep the peace, preferring a couple of hours’ boredom each week to an otherwise constant stream of remarks about my immortal soul and my future, should I be run over by a bus tomorrow. Why does it always have to be a bus? Why can’t it be something more interesting like a fire engine, or a tank transporter?

The visit was long enough that we ran out of things to say, but Dad begged us not to leave early. He was content to sit in silence with us nearby, and it seemed cruel to deny him something he seemed to so desperately need. After a while he called a guard over and asked if it would be possible to speak to us individually, and for the rest of us to wait somewhere while he did so. There were a few tables standing empty by this time, so the guard agreed for most of us to move to one, while Dad did his one on one thing.

He spoke to Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie first. Not for long, though I could see that it took a lot out of my uncle and aunt to respond to Dad. Things seemed to end on a lighter note though, with smiles and nods, handshakes and hugs. Then it was my turn.

-oOo-

“Richard…”

I waited. There was a degree of resentment running under the surface that had me wanting to make things as difficult for him as I could. I mean I know he was my dad, but what he had tried to do to me, even without realising – probably more because he hadn’t cared enough to make sure I’d be safe – I found an anger simmering inside, threatening to boil over at the least provocation. I didn’t trust myself to say the right thing, so I waited to see if Dad would.

“I was wrong, Richard. I don’t know how or why yet, but I was wrong. When I think about what I nearly put you through, I feel the most crushing shame. I’m still trying to figure out why I did what I did, why I thought it was alright, but I do know that nothing justifies the way I treated you.

“I don’t expect you to forgive me now or any time soon. I hope that that day will come someday, and I want you to know that I will be waiting, and hoping and praying, until it does. Whatever happens, things are going to be different now, and not just because the law is protecting you.

“I’m glad you’re alright, and I’m proud of the way you’re dealing with this whole mess of a situation. Thank-you for coming to visit today. I can’t imagine how you feel about me right now, but I’m grateful that you were prepared to come.

“I know you’ll be going back to university soon, and it may be a few months before I we have a chance to see each other again, but I would appreciate it if we could keep in touch. I know I have no right to ask anything of you, but I shall still ask.”

His smile was hopeful. His words had poured oil on the troubled waters of my soul, and I found myself feeling angry that he had denied me my outburst. I still couldn’t believe that this apologetic little man in front of me was my dad. I swallowed down my feelings of resentment.

“I’ll try Dad. This year’s going to be quite busy though.”

“I’ll be glad of anything you send me, Richard. Would you consent to letting me have your address for next year, so I can write to you?”

“We could use e-mail if you have computer access here. It’ll be quicker and cheaper.”

“I’ll look into it. I’ll tell Alice if there are complications.”

“Dad,” I needed to say something, push him, get some reaction out of him other than this gentle, submissiveness. “Does it still bother you that I’m dressing as a girl?”

His eyes changed, became, if possible, even more hooded.

“If I’m honest, Richard, yes it does. I don’t even begin to understand it, even after talking to Stan just now. He assures me that it’s not something you can help entirely, and if the consequences of denying it are that you end up like he was, well I guess it’s something we’re just going to have to try and accept.”

“How would you feel if the next time I came to visit you, I wore a dress?” I was trying hurt him now. I wasn’t that proud of it, but I felt I was owed a little comeback.

He bowed his head for a moment. When he looked up at me again, his lips were pursed.

“I would be glad to see you, however you were dressed, Richard. I won’t pretend that I would feel comfortable seeing you dressed as a woman, but if you feel the need to, I think I could handle it. If my advice counts for anything with you anymore, then I would ask you to be careful. I know it seems hypocritical, given what I did, but I would hate to see you hurt.”

I couldn’t keep it up. Even after all he had done, I didn’t hate him. I scribbled my email address on a piece of paper, and slid it across the table to him.

“I’m sorry, Dad, I’m finding it hard not to be angry. Send me a message sometime and I’ll reply when I can. I guess we have to play it by ear for now.”

“I can’t expect any more. Thank-you son, for not shutting me out completely.”

I stood and turned away from him, not wishing to see the tears in his eyes, not wishing to show mine.

Alice went next and spent a lot of time with Dad, showing him different passages in his Bible and talking earnestly in a low voice. I didn’t pay much attention, lost as I was in a world of my own. Uncle Stan asked me something I didn’t quite hear, then chose not to repeat it when I didn’t respond. Alice was still talking when the guards told us our time was up.

-oOo-

On the way home, Uncle Stan announced that Dad had asked him to drive over once a month and take us, or Alice at least, on a prison visit. He’d agreed readily and negotiated a date for the next trip with my sister. I wasn’t sure I’d be around for that trip, but said I’d fit in with whatever they decided if I hadn’t already headed up to Jen’s place.

Which reminded me. I put a call through to Jen to say we were on our way back and to give her an ETA. Six o’clock was a bit early for dinner, so we agreed on six thirty in case there was any traffic to slow us down.

As it was we made it back home at the expected time, which gave me time to sort out drinks for everyone before Jen called us to the table. As with earlier in the day, there was a nervous awkwardness about my uncle and aunt, and we ate in silence for the first part of the meal. It was time to push the issue.

“Uncle Stan, you asked to visit us today. You said there was something you wanted to say.”

A look of panic swept over him, calmed only by Aunt Evie’s hand on his arm. It was something I always found laughably hypocritical about churches like the one my parents and my uncle and aunt attended. They made their declarations about the submissiveness of women, and the women dutifully kept quietly to the background, but when it came to important matters, the odd prod or poke was all that was necessary to see who was really in charge.

Uncle Stan calmed his nerves and collected his thoughts, before putting down his knife and fork, and looking across the table at me.

-oOo-

Chapter 41

“This isn’t easy for me to say, Richard. The past four years or so, we’ve been unfair to you in particular, and I need to offer you, on my part especially, an apology. I know it’s probably too little too late, but I thought perhaps an explanation of our reasons for reacting as we did might go some way towards fixing things.

“You see, when I was younger I was a lot like you are now; I liked to pretend I was a girl. Your mother and I would play together, and it was the happiest time I could remember. Then there came a time – I was eight I think, and your Mum four or five – when my parents told me it was time to grow up and put that kind of make believe behind me.

“I did so reluctantly, but respectfully. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with what I was doing, but in our generation you did as you were told. I was still a bit undersized for a boy, which was probably why my father sent me to board at an all boys school. It certainly didn’t seem to help, as I became the target of every bully there. I was utterly miserable for all of that first year, until the Christmas play came along. The drama teacher asked for volunteers to take on the female roles, and one of my tormentors pushed me forward.

“I doubt I would have had the courage to do so on my own, and I earned myself a lot of giggles and snickering from others in my class. The drama teacher, Mr Edwards I think his name was, picked out the loudest of the laughers to play the other roles, but for my apparent bravery, he gave me the lead.

“You can’t imagine how that changed my life – well perhaps you can. I was in seventh heaven and couldn’t wait for dress rehearsals. I loved every time I was taken out of class to be fitted for my costume, ignoring all the laughing behind my back, and I threw myself into the part. For the six weeks it took to prepare for the performance, I didn’t care about the bullying and ribbing and pushing about, because there would always be rehearsals when I could push away my miserable life and throw myself into the acting. I even asked Mr Edwards if I could wear a skirt for the rehearsals, to help get me into character, of course.

“Anyway the time came for the public performances. For whatever reason, my father had business dealings that prevented him from coming to the first showings, so he and my mother booked to come to the last performance.

“I was so certain they would be proud of me taking the lead role, I kept quiet about it intending to surprise them. I remember hearing Dad complain to Mum about having to go ‘just so they could see me skulking about the back of the stage in a mouse costume’ I think he said.

“Anyway, they were surprised alright. ‘Shocked and mortified’ were the words Mum used, especially about the scene at the end where I had to kiss my prince. Jason his name was, and he hated the idea of kissing a boy just as much as I did. We’d done this wooden, not-quite-kiss thing all through the rehearsals, only becoming a little more relaxed and natural during the actual play. I think he was as confused as I was. I mean living in a single sex environment, then playing opposite me looking and acting so naturally like a girl. That last night he threw caution to the wind and gave me a…” Uncle Stan faltered in his telling as embarrassment rose to overwhelm the enraptured memory. “He gave me a proper kiss, right on the lips. There was nothing I could do but respond to it.

“The stage faded to black and Jason still had his tongue in my throat. There was this stunned silence, followed by a few claps that built to a thundering applause. Luckily it brought Jason back to himself before the lights came back on, because I hate to think how much worse things would have been had we still been kissing when they did. We took our bows to a standing ovation, and I was breathless with excitement and delight.

“The press were there that night, and we had to stay on stage for cast photographs. I didn’t mind, I was floating on cloud nine, even if Jason and I shared a few uncomfortable looks. Eventually we were told to go and get changed and that’s where the dream shattered.”

Everyone sat in captivated silence. Even Aunt Evie, who’d evidently heard this before, waited for the continuation of the story. I could never remember my uncle being so animated about anything, and it seemed to me that for the first time in all the years I’d known him, he was letting go of his self-control and allowing the real person to rise to the surface.

“My parents were livid of course. They were waiting for me in my dressing room and started haranguing me the moment I stepped through the door. I was made to change and clean all the greasepaint off my face as quickly as I was able, then I was dragged home. The following day there were heated exchanges with the headmaster, which resulted in poor Mr Edwards receiving a severe reprimand. I wanted to tell him how sorry I was, but my parents wouldn’t allow me to speak to him again, calling him a pervert and worse.

“Needless to say I didn’t go back to that school after the Christmas break, which did let me off any awkward meetings with Jason in the new year. Also needless to say, that was the most uncomfortable Christmas I can remember. I was given daily lectures on how much I had humiliated my parents, and on Christmas morning I was told, in private, that the only reason I was to receive my presents, was because it would have been unfair on my sister.

“In January I was packed away to another all boys boarder, this time with a note to the headmaster that I was not to be indulged in my fantasies. This, the head took to mean that such nonsense was to be beaten out of me. You have to remember, back in those days corporal punishment was still permitted, so in addition to the bullying from the other boys, I was regularly punished for the least misdemeanour, with an added explanation that they were beating the girlishness out of me.

“Well it worked after a fashion. They didn’t beat it out of me, but they did bury it so deeply inside of me that even I came out on their side. I learned to despise the feelings I had inside of me every time I saw a pretty girl wearing a pretty dress and some treacherous part of me would wish I could be her. I clamped down on them and, in time, became the sort of person you grew up to know as your uncle.

“Finding you wearing Emily’s dress was more than I could take. It brought that part of me so much to the fore – if you could do it, why couldn’t I? – that I overreacted horribly. It was all I could do to crush the feelings inside of me, and the worst of it came out as an attack against you. I think Evie was shocked more than anything, but sided with me, and continued to do so right up until your girlfriend’s father’s cross-examination a few weeks back, when he uncovered my little secret.

“Evelyn and I have had some long and, for me, uncomfortable conversations these past weeks. She’s had the whole truth from me for the first time since we were married. I expected her to be angry with me for hiding such a thing, but she’s a very understanding woman, and better than I deserve, although this idea of coming here and explaining matters to you was her idea. Not that I disagree with her, mind. You’re owed an explanation, Richard.”

The silence stretched out for a few seconds, then evaporated as Alice spoke.

“So Mum…”

“Your mother was quite young at the time, and I don’t recall our parents saying anything in particular to her, but I’m sure she would have overheard my parents yelling at me, and I know we talked about my miserable time at school when, in the latter years, I began to accept the lessons that were being beaten into me. I think she absorbed them from me vicariously, drawing in the misery and reluctant acceptance I expressed.

“So have you..?” It was an impertinent question, and I only just managed to stop myself asking the whole thing. I think it was on Uncle Stan’s list of expected questions though.

“…put on a dress since the courthouse?” He give me a wry smile. “No, Richard. I’m afraid I’m too far gone with all the beatings and the many years of denial. I can’t bring myself to think that it’s right, and even thinking about putting on a dress fills me with a sense of overwhelming guilt. I do have an great sense of relief, though, at being able to share it. It’s like a part of me has been locked away in a dark, dank dungeon for most of my life and has been allowed out in the sunlight for the first time in too many years. It is enough to be able to acknowledge that part of me and to be accepted by people I care about.” He gave his wife a soft and genuine smile, which was returned wholeheartedly.

“Evie has encouraged me to join the local amateur dramatics society, which I suspect is her idea of therapy. I’ve agreed, but I doubt I’ll be taking on the pantomime dame role any time soon.”

“So how do you feel about Richard dressing up now?” Jen’s turn for a question.

“I don’t think I have any right to judge you, Richard, not after the mess I’ve made of my own experiences.”

“I don’t think you should judge yourself so harshly either dear,” Aunt Evie said, speaking for what seemed the first time all day.

“Either way, I know it’s a hard thing to come to face. I acknowledge that I haven’t made it particularly easy on you these past years, and that is going to stop as of now. I still haven’t reconciled it with my beliefs, but I’m not going to condemn you if you choose to put on a dress.

“Although I would appreciate it if you would stay away from Emily’s wardrobe. It was something of an embarrassment to her that you looked better in her clothes than she did.”

That earned him playful slap on the arm from his wife and broke the spell the telling of the story had cast over us all. Talk over the rest of the meal was free and friendly, and shortly after we’d eaten, Uncle Stan and Aunt Evie took their leave, promising to visit again soon

-oOo-

Chapter 42

Alice seemed to be setting into her new life. On the other hand, Jenny’s phone calls home were getting longer, and we could both see that she was missing her parents. They were close as a family, certainly closer than we were, and it was evident that Jen used her vacations to reaffirm her ties to her Mum and Dad. Alice was the first to comment on it.

“You should go home Jen, and take this bumbling oik of a brother of mine with you. He’ll be insufferable without you, and I’m pretty sure I can cope well enough on my own.”

We did the whole ‘are you sure’ thing with the expected response, and so with more gratitude than was quite appropriate, Jen and I packed for the trip. There were still several weeks before we were due to return to university; easily enough time to reconnect with her folks before we started the new term. I was pretty much recovered from the effects of the drugs I’d been given, but still living as Rachael full time.

Jen wanted to continue the charade, thinking it would be so much more fun riding the train with Rachael, but after I pointed out that my rail card was in Richard’s name, she agreed that it would avoid a lot of awkward questions. When we left, I had pretty much everything I intended to take back to university with me, and I did have my regrets during the journey. We shared the bags between us, with me taking the heavier ones. Despite this, it was Jen who was offered a hand by kindly gents here and there, leaving me to struggle alone under my burden.

My brain had put me in Cinderella’s ball gown, evidently affected by my uncle’s recent story, and informed by the only Cinderella film I knew. The full skirts, the puffed sleeves, the long, elegant gloves, the astonishingly uncomfortable glass slippers all got in the way as I hefted my excess of luggage; it was not an easy trip.

Mr T picked us up at the station, sharing a hug with Jen that spoke volumes of the affection they had for one another. I wondered how different my life could have been with such caring parents, then kicked myself for thinking such things. My parents did care. It was just that they were misguided and maybe not so free in the way they showed it.

Mr T took a fair load from both Jen’s and my arms, ignoring Jen’s complaints and earning the gratitude of my weary arms and aching feet. Our stuff pretty much filled the Talbot’s sizeable boot, and Jen and I climbed into the back seat, me struggling with my voluminous skirts, for the short trip home. The last time I’d made this journey, I’d been running away from home and, as I watched the familiar landscape whiz by, I was struck by how much had changed since my last visit, such a short time ago.

The next few days, somewhat to Jen’s disappointment, I stayed as Richard. My brain delved into some of the period dramas Jen and Alice had introduced me to over the previous weeks, and I found myself in a selection of Victorian, Edwardian, Elizabethan and similar costumes. All had long sleeves and ankle length skirts, most of which were very full and cumbersome. I found myself struggling with the clothing and getting frustrated with it all, the whole thing reaching a head when Mr T invited me to go fishing with him on the Saturday. It was my first experience with a bustle. Fortunately Mr T preferred fishing stools to camping chairs, so it was easier to sit down than I had feared.

We did catch a few, but I had to rely on Mr T to unhook them and put them back. I didn’t trust myself to keep my balance with two inch heels on my boots and the very full skirts. When he questioned me about it, I described how my subconscious was dressing me. He shook his head and laughed, but not without sympathy.

“You’re coping very well with it, Richard. I thought I’d noticed something a little unnatural about the way you were moving. If it’s easier for you to be Rachael, I’d understand – we all would.”

The rest of the day passed in agreeable silence. I enjoyed myself immensely, except that I did overheat somewhat in the high collar, the long, tight sleeves, and the dark material of the dress. It also made it difficult to relax completely with the feeling of whalebone digging into my sides and forcing me into an upright position. I’d never actually worn clothing like this for real, but the one scene in one of the TV programmes I’d watched had gone into the discomfort in some detail, and my imagination is pretty good.

When we got home, I went straight upstairs and ran a bath. By dinner time, Rachael was back, complete with boobs and wearing something shorter and decidedly less restrictive. Jen squealed her delight and ran over to hug me, while Mr T explained things to his wife.

I helped Jen finish laying the table and we sat down to the goulash Mrs T had prepared for us.

“We were wondering if you’d like to go to church with us tomorrow,” Mrs T said. “You missed out last time you were here because we were on the boat, but it’s a usual thing for us. Only…”

“You don’t think it would be right for Rachael to go. No that’s OK, I’d like to come, and I’ll be Richard tomorrow. That way, if God doesn’t want me to turn up in a dress, he can do something about this thing in my head.”

My parents would have considered that blasphemy and disrespectful, but the Talbots took it in their stride.

“It may be a little different from the sort of thing you’re used to, Richard,” Mr T said, “but I think you’ll enjoy it.”

That was a cue for Jen to clue me in on all the things that went on. Apparently there was a large and active youth group in the church. It was supposed to cater for up to eighteen year olds, but she still went along, more to help out now than to participate, although that was still a bonus.

After dinner, Jen and I washed up then went for a walk in the woods. After spending a hot day in a stuffy dress, it was a relief to feel the air swirling between my legs. Jen took my hand and we walked in silence until it became too dark to see clearly.

I was still sleeping as Rachael, since that didn’t seem to bother anyone, and it was easier for me to drop off without putting the added load on my subconscious, so Jen found me in pink satin when she brought me coffee and toast at nine the next morning.

Out of respect for where I was going, I decided against even wearing knickers and tights under my trousers. For the first time in some months, I dug out an old pair of boxers and climbed into them. By the time I had my usual chinos and long sleeved shirt on, it was evident that subconscious was going to trump God, as it seemed that Queen Elizabeth the First herself was going to attend church in my place. Full skirts, oversized lace ruff, puffed sleeves – this was going to be awkward.

We were all ready and in the car by half past. A fifteen minute drive took us to a community centre in the middle of town, and, yes, it was very different from my experience of church. Jen did her squealy, excited thing when she caught sight of a group of her friends and, after exchanging hugs, dragged me into the circle to introduce me. I felt self-conscious as my oversized dress seemed to get in everyone’s way, but managed
to hold things together.

The service itself took place in a large sports hall, with plastic chairs instead of pews. There was no organ, but a band consisting of an unusual assortment of electric guitars, violins, flutes, drums, you name it, took its place. They played a selection of short, somewhat repetitive, but upbeat songs. I recognised some of them, just, from the mangled attempts our organist had made of them on the occasional family service at my parents’ church.

The whole thing seemed to be only vaguely organised, with notices here, impromptu prayers there, the obligatory sermon in the middle, which didn’t do a lot for me I have to admit, and a couple of songs to end with. Then it was coffee and biscuits and a bunch more socialising.

Mr Talbot rescued me from Jenny’s friends to introduce me to Pastor Mike; sort of like the vicar where I came from, I was told, but less stuffy. He gave me an appraising look as he shook my hand.

“You seem a little uncomfortable here, Richard. I guess it can be a bit daunting if you don’t know what to expect, but I think there’s something more, isn’t there?”

It caught me by surprise. All this time amongst friends who accepted the hidden part of me, and now pretty much the first stranger I met saw through me. The rabbit saw the headlights and Pastor Mike spotted the rabbit.

“Yeah, I thought so. Look Richard, I’m not going to pry. It’s great to have you along, and I’d be pleased to see you back any time. If you want to talk about anything though, I promise you a confidential and sympathetic ear. Paul here knows how to get in touch with me.”

Just then, some busy little mouse of a woman started tugging on his sleeve, and he was swallowed back up into the throng. He gave an honest and endearing impression, and I found myself inclined to trust him. There were questions rattling around in my mind, and I wondered if he might be the person to steer me in the right direction.

Eventually the organised mayhem which was the Talbot’s church came to an end and we headed back to their home for lunch. With their blessing, I disappeared upstairs seeking release from my Tudor costume, returning not long after in one of the outfits that Jen’s allowance had bought me. Jen had come up to help fix my boobs in place as we’d decided that Rachael would be staying for a few days.

Following a roast lunch, the afternoon passed in quiet comfort, punctuated on occasions with cups of tea. Jen and I snuggled on the sofa, each of us buried in a book, trying to ease ourselves back into thinking about our respective courses. It was only a couple of weeks until we were due to start back, and we were both feeling the need to take up the strain.

Tea consisted of sandwiches and cake, except there seemed to be more than the four of us could manage. I looked at Jen quizzically just as the doorbell rang. Mr T looked across at me in startled realisation, but before he could say anything, Mrs T opened the door.

“Mike, Marilyn. It’s good to see you, please come in.”

Jen and I stood as Pastor Mike and his wife stepped into the living room.

-oOo-

Mrs T’s hand leapt to her mouth as she realised how I was dressed. It seemed we’d all become so comfortable with me being Rachael, no-one had thought how things would work out if we had visitors. I could see from Pastor Mike’s eyes that he recognised me, from the rabbit in the headlights expression if from nothing else, but he didn’t skip a beat.

“Evening Paul, Jennifer. And who’s your friend?”

Jen, to her credit, was the quickest of us all to recover. “Hi Mike,” the pastor obviously preferred informality. “This is Rachael. She’s a friend from university who’s staying with us for a few days before we go back.”

“And Richard?” The pastor’s wife seemed a little confused.

“He had to leave, I’m afraid.”

She didn’t offer any more information, and fortunately no more was asked. I was accepted as just another guest at the party, and even admonished by the pastor’s wife for being so shy. I eventually managed to emerge from my discomfort zone and join in and, apart from the odd glance from Pastor Mike, the evening settled into the strangest sort of normal.

At one stage, I had to escape from it all. There was this part of my brain that was screaming at me that this wasn’t normal. I was a guy in a dress and everyone was treating me like that was OK. I excused myself, saying I needed some air, and stepped out into the garden.

I don’t know what I was expecting, what I was hoping for, but it didn’t exactly come as a surprise when Mike stepped out into the garden a minute later.

“You’re very convincing you know?” he said. “If I hadn’t met you this morning, I would never have suspected. Marilyn, I think, may have figured it out, but only because of your collective reaction when we first arrived.

“It would seem there’s quite a story behind this, but of course that’s none of my business unless you choose to make it so. I imagine Marilyn and I will talk about this on the way home, but you don’t need to worry about us telling anyone else. I know people can react badly to people in your position, and I wouldn’t want to make trouble for you.”

“Thank you.” I didn’t know what else to say.

“The offer I made to you this morning is still open, regardless of whether it’s Richard or Rachael who comes to see me. As I say though, it’s just an offer, and I don’t mean to pry.”

He made to go back into the house. I turned to stop him.

“Actually I think I wouldn’t mind talking to you about a few things if you have the time.”

“Fine. How does Tuesday lunchtime sound? I could pick you up here and take you to this quiet little café I know that does the most amazing Camembert melt.”

“Sounds great. I assume that it will be less awkward for you if Richard comes rather than Rachael?”

“That’s thoughtful of you. I suppose in this day and age it’s best to be above reproach isn’t it?”

I followed him back inside and took my place next to Jen again. The visit didn’t last much longer, which was just as well since it was now Marilyn’s turn to give me the odd looks. Nobody else seemed to want to share my secret though, so we all kept our peace until they were gone.

“Pastor Mike figured it out Mr Talbot. I’m sorry if this is going to make things difficult for you.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t worry about that. Mike’s a very discrete and understanding person.”

“Yeah, I get that. He’s invited me out for lunch on Tuesday. No, no. As Richard, and because I asked.”

“Well,” Jen piped up. “I guess if Richard’s coming back on Tuesday, I should make the most of my girl time with Rachael tomorrow. Do you fancy going into town shopping?”

So that’s how we passed Monday. Bus into town, a lot of shops and a lot of clothes and shoes tried on with not much bought, given our meagre means. We did finally find just the right perfume for me, and Jen bought me a small bottle, just because she felt like it. In return I paid for us to go to the cinema in the afternoon, where we sat at the back and cried our way through all the tissues in Jen’s bag at what had to be the chickiest flick I’ve ever seen. I forget what it was called now, but the guy came back to the girl in the end, and everything was wonderful. It’s such a shame that real life can’t be like that.

Tuesday morning was spent in the bathroom with me using the last of the solvent to remove my breast forms. There was only just enough to get them off with very sparing application and more time and fiddling than I would normally have wanted. I also had to spend a fair while in the shower, scrubbing at my wrists and neck to get rid of the smell of my new perfume. I masked it with a liberal dose of deodorant, but I still didn’t smell quite right.

By the time I was dressed – back in knickers and tights underneath my clothes – I was wearing an ankle length green dress. It was sleeveless, with a plunging neckline, but the skirt was full, allowing me easy movement. My trainers turned in to flat sandals and, apart from the now familiar sense of wrongness, I felt more comfortable in my own clothes than I had all week.

Mrs T caught whiff of me as I came down the stairs and directed me to the kitchen, where she made up a past of bicarbonate of soda and told me to rub it on where I had applied my perfume. It washed off easily enough afterwards, and I was declared to be defeminised, at least in smell. Having been around it too long, I couldn’t smell anything, so had to take her word for it.

Pastor Mike turned up for me at the appointed hour. He noticed, but didn’t comment, as I swept my long skirt out of the maws of the car door. It looked like I was in for a longer conversation than I’d planned.

-oOo-

Chapter 43

It took longer to tell the story this time. I mean that’s hardly surprising, given the different things that had happened since the beginning of the summer holiday, but even so, we had finished lunch and were on our second coffee by the time I had finished sharing everything that had happened to me with the pastor.

He remained silent and attentive throughout, which helped keep me focused. I finished telling him how the previous evening had come about and stopped. The coffee was lukewarm but drinkable and I drank down half of it while I waited for my incredulous audience to gather his wits.

“So you mean to say… That right now…”

“I’m wearing a full length green dress with no sleeves, yes.”

“Well that explains your odd movements in the car. It also explains a few things that I’ve picked up from the Talbots in the past weeks.

“And church?”

“Queen Elizabeth the First. I’ve been watching a lot of period dramas with Jenny and my sister. My subconscious seems to take notice of what I spend my time looking at.”

“Well Richard, I have to say this is fascinating, but I don’t really understand why you shared it with me.”

“I have a few questions, and I thought it would be easier for you to answer them if you had the full picture. You seem a decent kind of guy, and the Talbots think highly of you, which is a great recommendation in my book, so I think I can trust you.”

“Yes, well you certainly can do that.” He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. I’ve never seen anyone actually do that before. Not outside of a film anyway. “I still don’t understand how I can help you. I mean I know nothing about hypnotism, and I’m no expert on transgendered issues, so…”

“No sir, it’s not that. It’s more… well more to do with religion. I mean my parents are Christians, have gone to church for as long as I remember and dragged my sister and me along as well. But then so are the Talbots. And you of course. I just don’t understand how two families who say they follow the same God can be so different.”

“Ah, one of the easy questions.” He smiled to make sure I knew he was joking. “At least it’s more familiar territory, and yes I think I can give you an answer. There’s a park across the road, I wonder if you’d mind taking a walk with me. I don’t think my bladder could survive another coffee, and I find walking clears my mind.”

He paid the bill and we crossed over into a moderately sized, tree-lined park. There were grey clouds on the horizon, threatening a violent end to our Indian summer, but it seemed that, for this afternoon at least, the weather would hold. We walked slowly, which was better for me. I could, most likely, have run in that dress, but it moved more freely and more comfortably with the small, slow steps we were taking. I had given Pastor Mike a lot to process, so I left him collecting his thoughts and took a moment to enjoy the warmth and the smell of the flowers.

“You have to realise that, since I have no direct experience of your parents’ church, what I am about to say is purely conjecture.”

It was a well-considered opening statement and it raised my hopes of a well-considered answer to my question. I waited for him to continue. It didn’t take long.

“I think what you are describing is what I would call the difference between religion and relationship.”

He looked at my blank expression and decided more details were called for.

“Religion is a manmade thing. It has existed almost as long as man’s ability to communicate and it has always been a way of providing an explanation, and at least the illusion of control, over the aspects of our lives that we cannot understand. Things like fire and lightning, drought and famine. The early explanations are as varied and as bizarre as man’s imagination could make them, and they almost always end up attributing powers to supernatural beings which we end up calling gods.

“Now men have always done things that either please or anger other men, so the natural extension to the thinking that created the gods was the belief that certain actions pleased or angered them too. Out of this, eventually, grew sets of rules, ways of living, which were intended to keep the gods appeased and ensure that none of the terrible things they could make happen did.

“The problem with rules though, is that they don’t work in all instances. Even the laws we have today, many of which have their roots in Christian teaching by the way, even those laws are open to abuse. A certain type of person finds ways of twisting them to his own ends so that his life is improved at the expense of others. From your experiences this summer, I would say that you have experienced that first hand.

“But it’s not just the twisted minds who twist the rules to their own benefit. There are exceptions to pretty much every rule if you give it serious consideration. One of the Ten Commandments states, ‘you shall not steal’, and yet there is such a thing in our world as a kleptomaniac, someone who cannot help but take things that don’t belong to him. Is such a person to be judged as harshly as someone who knowingly and deliberately steals without compulsion?

“No. Religions and the legal structures they form have always been flawed. Limited by their ability to define right and wrong only in its most primitive form, and vulnerable to abuse by genuinely evil people. Sorry that’s a bit of a religious word in itself. Good and evil, black and white. In reality, evil is rooted in selfishness and a conscious decision to choose one’s own welfare above that of others.

“What religion does provide, which is so attractive to many, is a structure for belief. If you’re unsure whether something is right or wrong, then you refer to your chosen religious text and accept the right or wrong that is written within its covers. It takes away the uncertainty of whether you are acting justly, because you are only doing what your particular god or gods tell you is right.

“Is this making any sense?”

“I think so, but I’m not sure yet where you’re going with it.”

“Patience, Richard, we’re getting there.

“Now imagine that in the midst of all this, there actually is a creator God who wants to have a relationship with his creation. Imagine that the most important gift he gave human beings is free will and the ability to choose their own way. He knows that leaving them to their own devices is going to result in a lot of selfish choices, which in turn will result in everyone turning against everyone else with destructive results. He also knows that providing a set of rules, while pushing them into more co-operative behaviour, is going to result in people following him because they are told to, not because they want to. So instead He comes up with a different plan. One that involves relationship with Him.

“Now it’s not my intention to proselytise, at least not until you’re prepared to listen of your own free will, but that is essentially what the Bible is about. Yes there are laws in there. There are the Ten Commandments I already mentioned, and there are all the Mosaic laws that follow in Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. There is the statement Jesus made in Matthew five that not the smallest letter, nor the least stroke of a pen, will disappear from the Law. But at the same time the Bible tells us that upholding the Law isn’t enough to make things right with God – Romans three, I think you’ll find.

“What the Bible does say throughout is that what God wants from us is for us to act justly, love mercy and walk humbly with Him. He wants to give us a new spirit, a new heart; to replace our hearts of stone with hearts of flesh, and with his Spirit in us we will want to do things His way. That’s loosely Micah six and Ezekiel thirty six, in case you’re interested. It may sound a little like brainwashing, but from my experience and that of others I’ve met, it actually isn’t.”

We found a bench facing a large boating lake and sat down.

“If you think about it – and I’m not sure how well you know the Bible, or even the Gospels – if you think about it, Jesus broke the law, allowing his disciples to pick and eat corn on the Sabbath. It may sound like a small thing, but it was actually one of the original big ten. His Justification? He asked if man was made to serve the Sabbath or the other way round. He also healed someone on the Sabbath, he allowed a prostitute to wash his feet with perfume and tears and dry them with her hair, he went to share meals in the houses of tax collectors, and they still have a lousy reputation today. He even told a criminal on the cross next to him that he would have a place in heaven, just because he recognised Jesus as God’s Son and asked to be remembered.

“If Jesus had anything against anyone, it was teachers of the law, who converted people to follow an increasingly convoluted and unfair set of rules which did nothing to help them get any nearer to God. Them and rich people, because wealth has a tendency to make people selfish.

“Christianity is a powerful basis for religion and has been twisted by a great many people over the years. Most modern cults, in the West at least, derive from Christianity. There is no religion in the world that has so many denominations – slight differences in emphasis for the most part – because religious people want to twist it to their own preferred beliefs. There is no religion in the world that has been the cause of more terrible atrocities in God’s name, because people believe in it so strongly, but when they believe the structure, the laws, to be more important than the relationship with God himself, they become rigid, unthinking, unfeeling, and they apply what they believe the law tells them without considering the humanity they are destroying.

“Religious thinking is unbending. It forces people down rigid and uncompromising channels which result in the sort of action your father took against you. Ironically, I’m sure he felt that what he was doing was right at the time, that he had your best interests at heart, as well as his own, conveniently.”

“My sister said something to my dad when we last saw him. She said that the Bible wasn’t so much an instruction manual as a guide book.”

“That’s a very good way of putting it.”

“So do you think God would accept me as I am?”

“He’s accepted thieves, murderers, adulterers, all people who’ve broken those first ten laws he gave to Moses. How can you think that He would turn you away?”

I looked out over the water, lost in thought. Mike left my wandering mind to its drifting for a minute, then decided on adding something.

“There are some Christians who consider that God is an embodiment of both male and female. They argue that man was created in God’s image and then woman was taken from man, so the original man would have contained both male and female aspects. I’m pretty sure there aren’t many who’d see it this way, but if you consider yourself to be a mixture of man and woman in your mind, your spirit at least, then you could argue that makes you closer to God than most. I’m not so sure about that myself, but if it helps encourage you to answer the door when He comes knocking, then I’m not sure I care that much.

“You know the story of the prodigal son?”

I nodded.

“There’s that bit at the end of it where the son comes home, all covered in pig shit.” He smiled at my startled reaction. “The father doesn’t care. He comes running out to the son and throws his arms around him, leads him back home and puts his best robe on him.

“You acknowledge your need of God and come to Him, he will welcome you. He may want some changes from you, but none that you can’t manage with His help. If He doesn’t take away that bit of you that wants to be a girl, then I don’t know, I guess He doesn’t see it as that much of a problem. He may even have plans for you to use it, reach out to others like yourself. As I say, I don’t know. All I do know is that your sister is right. The Bible is little more than a guidebook to finding God, and what matters after that is your relationship with Him.”

“Isn’t there a bit where the Bible calls people like me abomination?”

“That’s actually how it refers to people with abnormal sexual practices. I believe the passage you’re thinking of says that God despises people who do what you do. It’s kind of harsh, and it doesn’t match up with God’s otherwise loving, forgiving and accepting nature which is mentioned far more than the one instance of the other thing. I like to think that Moses was having a really bad day when he put that to paper. It’s smacks more of a man’s reaction than that of the God I’ve come to know.

I couldn’t help the tears. I’d spent so much of my life thinking I was something disgusting because of this thing in me and the way my parents had made me feel about it. Could I believe this guy?

“I’ll tell you a story. I doubt it’s true, but it’s worth the telling for the point it makes.

“This missionary goes off to some distant land where he lives amongst a tribe of cannibals. One day the chief comes up to the missionary and asks what he can do to become a Christian. The missionary tells the chief, ‘You can’t become a Christian because you have eight wives. The Christian faith requires you to have just the one.’ So the chief goes away thoughtful, and declares a week of feasting. At the end of the week he comes back to the missionary and asks, ‘Can I become a Christian now?’ ‘I told you, you can have only one wife if you wish to become a Christian,’ the missionary replies, to which the chief asks, ‘What do you think the week of feasting was all about?’”

“Euw, that’s sick.” It really was.

“I know, but it makes the point. We all have our different cultural hang-ups. In this part of the world we have a tendency to get caught up on sexual immorality, and there is some good reason for that. The problem is we tend to go too far with it, chucking in anything that looks like sexual immorality into the same melting pot and despising it with all our strength. You say you can’t help the way you are, right?”

I nodded.

“Then at the worst that puts you in the same category as the kleptomaniac; someone who does something everyone else considers to be wrong, but can’t help it. It’s not even that bad, because what you do doesn’t directly affect other people, and the rejection is more from the way they refuse to accept you than because you are doing anything that causes them harm.

“Tell me, how would you feel if God were to take away your desire to put on women’s clothing, to express your feminine side?”

“I don’t know. I guess I would miss the feeling it gives me, but it would make life a lot less complicated.”

“So essentially, it’s something you’d be prepared to give up if He helped?”

“I suppose so.”

“Then you’ve nothing to lose from coming to meet Him properly sometime. And I now find myself having to apologise, because I’m overstepping the mark. It’s just that when you feel so strongly that there are answers in my faith to problems such as yours, you get a little eager to share.”

“No, it’s alright. You’ve given me a lot to think about, and you’ve answered my main question.”

“Enough for one day then?”

I nodded, and followed him back to the car. The trip home was silent, with me swimming around in all the new thoughts and ideas he had given me, and Pastor Mike allowing me the quiet to think.

-oOo-

Chapter 44

Jen was waiting for me when I got home, but suppressed her usual exuberant self when she saw my expression. I was comfortable enough in the green dress, so didn’t change back into Rachael. Instead we sat quietly on the sofa, Jen with her nose in a book, only glancing up occasionally to check if I was ready to talk yet. Me, I sat staring blankly at the wall, still very much feeling my way through all the new information I had. At least this explained why Mum and Dad had treated me the way they had. It probably didn’t excuse it, but it did make it easier to forgive them. It also fitted in with what Uncle Stan had said. There seemed to be such a truth ringing through everything the pastor had told me that afternoon, I was almost ready to give it a capital T. Almost.

The afternoon was coming to a close by the time I’d had enough chasing my thoughts. I looked down at Jen who smiled back, still not willing to break the silence. She rubbed my arms and hugged it to her, waiting for some reaction from me. I reached down and kissed her. We were still lip-locked when the door opened and Mr and Mrs T walked in laden with bags.

“I’d say get a room, but I’m afraid of what you two might do, tucked away by yourselves.” There was only humour in Mr T’s voice, but it broke the afternoon’s spell. Jen and I separated and went out to help unload the car and to fill the freezer.

Later, over dinner, Mrs T asked me what Pastor Mike and I had talked about, unless it was personal, of course. I told them, going over at least most of the things Mike had said. The three of them exchanged glances across the table, but apart from a few nondescript comments, they said nothing more. I guess they figured, like Mike had, that decisions and choices in this regard were mine alone.

The short silence was broken by Mrs T leaning over to a couple of bags that had been set aside from the rest of the shopping,

“I saw this and thought of Rachael,” she said pulling out a sparkly, green flapper dress, complete with feather headband. “We’ve been invited to a Charleston party on Friday. I know it’s a bit presumptuous of me, but since Jen’s coming, I assumed you’d want to as well. If you’d rather go as Richard, we can take this back and sort something else out, but it would go so well with your eyes, I couldn’t really resist.”

Well there’s a first. Not every day that your girlfriend’s mother buys you a dress.

Jen wanted me to try it on, and I have to admit that deep down, and even not so deep down, I wanted to as well. We’d just about finished eating, so Jen sat squirming excitedly until Mr T gave in and let us go upstairs.

If Thoroughly Modern Millie is anything to go by, the flapper era was marked, at least in part, by flat chested girls. Even so, Jen insisted that I needed my boobs, and properly stuck on given the lowish neckline. They were attached before I remembered that I’d used up the last of the solvent that morning. By then there was nothing to be done, and no-one to complain to since Jen had dashed off for her own costume.

It took a while to sort out my hair with the headband, and to find a pair of tights and shoes to match the dress, but by the time Jen returned for me, sparkling in her own very similar dress, I was all but ready. She helped me sort out a few last stray hairs then, giggling and jiggling, we headed downstairs.

Mr T put some period music on the stereo and for the next hour or so, they took me through some of the moves. In the end we collapsed, exhausted as much from the exercise as from the laughter.

“Do I take it that Rachael will be coming with us to the party then?” Mrs T’s enquiring mind wanted to know.

“I guess so. I didn’t remember until Jen had stuck my boobs on, that I’d run out of solvent.” Jen’s slightly guilty look suggested that she had.

“Well, do you know where we can order some more?”

“I guess there’ll be somewhere on the Internet, but I don’t know how long it’ll take to deliver.”

A little research on the family computer found us a place in Europe with a delivery time of three to five days. Mr T put in the order on his credit card and I promised to pay him back the next day. Three to five days wasn’t so bad, I’d been Rachael for longer on the boat.

It did mean that the outings that week, when we met up with Jen’s friends, it was Rachael who went along, Rachael who was introduced to everyone and Rachael who Jen said was going along to the party. It didn’t bother me that much, as I loved the dress and doing the Charleston seemed so much more fun as a girl than a guy. The same with most dancing to be honest, but maybe that’s just my opinion.

The dance was as good as expected, and I got to know Jen’s girl friends really well. Some of the guys tried it on with me but, with Jen as my wingm… er woman, they didn’t really stand a chance.

“Sorry guys, we’re both spoken for.” Which was truth enough.

The solvent had arrived on Thursday, but it hadn’t seemed worthwhile removing my enhancements, just to put them back on again a day and a half later. Besides, Jen had arranged to meet up with some of her friends Thursday afternoon to get in some last minute supplies for the party, and it would have raised questions had I gone as Richard one day then not turned up to the party the next.

Still enough was enough. It may well have been all the energetic dancing, but by the time we returned to the Talbot residence in the small hours of Saturday morning, I had a definite itch going on in places I couldn’t scratch. The solvent worked its charm in no time and I returned to the lounge, a considerably less well-endowed flapper, just in time for late night cocoa.

“Any chance Richard can be around to help tomorrow?” Mr T asked. “I’d like to get the garage cleared a little while I have some extra muscle around the place.”

“Sure. As long as we don’t have to start too early.”

“I hate to waste daylight, so I’ll be starting about eight. What say I knock on your door at, say, seven thirty?”

Everyone laughed at my heartfelt groan. Mr T waving his hands and shaking his head.

“No, it’s alright Richard, I doubt any of us will be up for much before ten. I’ll knock on your door then or thereabouts, if you’re sure you won’t be needing any more beauty sleep.”

I drained my mug.

“Well if that’s all I’m going to get, I guess I’ll have to start early this side of it all.”

I said my goodnights and headed up the stairs with Jen in close pursuit. She stopped me at my room.

“Thanks for tonight, and for all of this week; it’s been fun having Rachael around. I hope you can forgive me for the thing with the glue.”

“I just hope you haven’t been missing your boyfriend too much.”

“Well it has been a little odd having to sneak cuddles and kisses with you all week, but it’s not as if Rachael’s around now, is it?” She traced delicate patterns around my very flat bust.

I opened the door to my room and pulled her in. Bedtime was delayed briefly while we rediscovered how much more amorous kissing as Jen and Richard could be, even Richard in a dress. We were interrupted a few minutes later as Mr T banged on the door and shouted something about thinking I wanted to get to sleep. The suppressed laughter from the other side of the door suggested that they weren’t angry, but it was a definite hint that Jen and I should separate. I wiped a lipstick smear from her face and slipped her out into a now deserted corridor. She tried to sneak past her parents’ bedroom door, but got a ‘goodnight Jen’ as she passed even so.

-oOo-

I spent the last week at the Talbots as Richard. Helping Mr T on Saturday highlighted a bunch of DIY jobs that needed doing about the house, and it seemed that Paul was more of a thinker than a doer. It was mostly stuff I knew I could do, since I’d been doing similar things at home for years. It was how I’d started the summer after all.

Mr T had some great tools, and they were in perfect condition – probably because they had hardly ever been used. I threw myself into the jobs, doing as much as I could and as well as I could. It seemed a poor enough way to say thank you for everything these wonderful people had done for me, but it was something. I think they saw how grateful I was from the effort I put in, at least I hope they did.

The only downside was the ridiculous outfits I ended up doing it all in. At least the hems were on the rise again. They were still below the knee, but I would hardly have felt safe climbing a ladder in an ankle length dress of any sort. Not to say that I didn’t horribly feel exposed the day I cleaned out the gutters wearing a dirndl. Jen held the ladder for me and couldn’t stop giggling at the way I kept trying to smooth down the very full skirt all the time.

Eventually the weekend arrived. Mr T and I loaded up their car and trailer with all Jen’s stuff and everything of mine she and I had managed to haul up from my home. There was space in the car for all four of us, so we made a family trip of it.

Jen’s cover story was that, since I had lost my place in the house with Dave and co, I was starting off the term in temporary accommodation, and she and the girls had offered to look after my stuff until I got settled in. I didn’t like lying to the Talbots, but Jen persuaded me that it would be easier than explaining our plan for me to live with her and the girls as Rachael.

We didn’t carry of the subterfuge very well though. After we’d unloaded our stuff at the house, Mr and Mrs Talbot took us out for lunch. There was that stretched feeling of impending separation through the whole meal, which put a dampener the conversation. We were all a bit subdued, reluctant for the inevitable parting. Halfway through dessert, Mrs T spoke up.

“You know, it’s a shame Richard can’t stay with you and the girls. You know, as Rachael I mean. I’m sure he could carry it off.” Our faces must have told them all they needed to know. “Oh come on you two. Did you really think we wouldn’t work it out?”

“And you’re OK with it?” Jen was quietly incredulous.

“I would hardly say that, sweetheart,” Jen’s dad chipped in, “but you are an adult now. You’re both adults. You’ll do what you want regardless of what we say or want, and in a way that’s as it should be. Personally, I think it’s a mistake, what you’re doing, but it’s your mistake to make and your mess to clean up when it all goes horribly wrong.”

My face must have been a picture, because he visibly fought down a smile before continuing.

“Richard. My daughter has been at university for a year and has another two to go. She doesn’t have – neither, I hope, does she need – our supervision and guidance. Overall we think she’s a responsible and intelligent young woman. However, we do know the sort of trouble she could get herself into, and we do worry, which is why we are very happy that the two of you have linked lives.

“I doubt I need to tell you what I would prefer for my daughter, but when it comes down to it, the choice should be hers now. That’s not a free pass, but more a passing on of a responsibility. So share a house, live under the same roof, dress as a woman if you need to, and I can see how this arrangement would allow you to do that. All I ask is that you take the responsibility seriously, and always remember, if you do end up getting into a mess that’s too big for you to handle, we’re always on the other end of the phone. That goes for both of you.”

“You don’t mind that we lied to you?” From my point of view the cat was out of the bag, so no sense in pretending otherwise.

“A little disappointed, but I know how persuasive my daughter can be. She’d make a pretty good barrister, if only I could lure her over to the dark side. You never know, this psychology thing of hers might even be an asset.”

Jen gave her dad a look but, having been so recently busted, her heart wasn’t really in it. Nobody felt like coffee, so Mr T paid the bill and they dropped us off back at our place before heading home.

We watched the car disappear down the road and I gave Jen a hug.

“You OK?” I asked her.

“Yeah, you?”

“Better knowing we aren’t lying to your folks anymore.”

“Yeah. You needn’t have folded so neatly under Mum and Dad’s cross-examination though.”

-oOo-

Chapter 45

Living with the girls didn’t turn out to be the disaster Mr T had predicted, in fact if anything it was the best thing ever. Being the tail end Charlie signing up to the house share, I got stuck with the smallest room, but to compensate, Helen and Carla, who were sharing this house with us, agreed that Jen should have the biggest. Consequently, my room became a sort of storage room for all of Jen’s and my unwanted and rarely wanted stuff, and I slept with her. The beds were more generous than the ones in halls the previous year, and certainly no more cramped than my bed at home, which we had shared contentedly for several weeks.

By agreement with the girls, I was Rachael around the house pretty much all the time. This meant that Richard pretty much disappeared from the social scene, not that his absence was noticed now that Dave and I weren’t rubbing shoulders anymore. I got to know Helen and Carla’s boyfriends as Rachael – fortunately on different courses which kept them very much on a different part of the campus from me as Richard.

Mornings generally involved Jen doing an all clear of the common areas in the house before I, as Richard, would do a quick runner to get outside and on my way towards the university campus. The houses were convenient enough, only ten minutes’ walk from the campus itself and a maximum of twelve from any of the lecture halls and labs I used. Sometimes Jen would accompany me, but since her course had fewer lectures than mine, I still walked in on my own more often than not.

My mind continued to play tricks with me and I ended up spending most of my days at university wearing a dress. I still wore knickers and tights under my jeans, relying on Jen to make sure I wasn’t showing a visible panty line, and that helped with the ever present feeling of wrongness.

Since the eight of us had two houses next door to each other, we made one of them our afterhours meeting place, and since the one next door to ours had an open kitchen/diner/lounge, ours was generally empty whenever I came back in the evening. Usually Jen would come find me in the library and we’d walk home together. Helen or Carla would draw the curtains to show the coast was clear. If it wasn’t, or someone had forgotten the signal, we’d call the house phone and wait for the all clear. I’d then change into Rachael for the evening and life continued with no great complications.

During the week I avoided perfume, for obvious reasons, and only slipped the wobble twins into the cups of my bra, avoiding adhesive for equally obvious reasons. When the weekend came though, it was party time, and Rachael strutted her stuff with the rest of them. I saw Dave giving me disapproving looks from time to time when we crossed paths, and I’d simply shrug my shoulders at him in an apologetic way. I missed him as a friend, but if he couldn’t cut me some slack knowing what I was going through, then it was more his problem than mine.

The twisting of perspective during the day continued to bother me. If I hadn’t been able to spend every evening and night as Rachael, and blow off steam as one of the girls every weekend, I think I might easily have sunk back into a depression like the one Jen had rescued me from the previous term. I missed wearing trousers and, even though I did get to wear them on rare occasions, they were the ones Jen’s mum had bought me so were either so tight they felt like… well… tights, or so loose they felt like a skirt.

With the cold weather coming in, I really regretted the lack of adequate cover for my legs. My brain settled on a hemline that was just below the knee, which meant the only time I felt anywhere near warm from the waist down was when I was wearing a long dress or skirt for real. Still, overall it was a small enough price to pay and I managed to keep my mind together enough to keep well on top of my studies.

My dad kept his promise and e-mailed me twice a week. Often I was too busy with either my course or my social life to respond. I did write back as often as I could though. Sometimes he would tell me about the goings on at the prison, if there was anything unusual or interesting to say, which was rarely. More often, he’d tell me about what he had learnt from his study of the Bible. He was taking advantage of the free time he had behind bars to dig into it in detail. Alice had brought him some books and some study material which, he said, was opening his eyes to things he’d never seen in the Good Book before.

With little prospect of employment when he was released, he was also looking for other things he might do to put food on the table. Through the prison chaplain, he had made contact with a number of people who were helping him put something together. It would never be as lucrative as what he had done before, but it would earn a living wage, and for that he was grateful.

There was such a difference to the way he expressed himself. I’m not sure if humility covers it, because that implies a choice not to put yourself above others, even if you can. With Dad, it was like something had broken inside him. All the bravado he’d shown throughout his life was gone, and he was happy to curl up under the table and eat the scraps that were thrown to him. He was still in something of a dark place and I worried that he wouldn’t find his way out.

There wasn’t much I could do to help him, other than write about my life at university. I didn’t tell him about Rachael, because that would have only crushed him more. Instead I talked about how the course was going, and how I had joined the university student paper as a trainee journalist. There wasn’t much call for scientific reporting on the campus, but just writing about anything was helping me with my style, and forcing me to chip the rust off my poor grammar and spelling. I wrote a few reports on some of the research that was going on in the physics department, and tried sending them to scientific magazines like Focus and New Scientist, but none of them had been published. At least not yet.

I did tell him about Jennifer, and how well we were getting on. I was pretty sure that we were a long term – hopefully even a lifetime – item, but I was acknowledging the wisdom of my elders in taking it slow. We had two more years of university together, more if either of us decided to do a Master’s, so the whole engagement and marriage thing would have to wait. Since we were living together and sleeping together, albeit not in the carnal sense, we didn’t need things to rush ahead.

I kept in touch with Alice as well, calling her regularly and writing the odd letter. She has her odd ways, does my little sis, and a preference for pen and ink is one of them. One day in mid-November she sent me a clipping from the local rag at home. Dr Finster had made the front page. The headline read, somewhat unimaginatively as one sometimes finds with local newspapers, ‘Local Mental Health Scandal’. There was a photograph of the Grace Hospital, presumably the wing of it where I had spent the two worst weeks of my life, and another of a harried Dr Finster climbing into a car, trying to block the view of the camera as he did so. The article wasn’t that long.

“Following a High Court ordered review of the conditions and working practises within the mental wing of Grace Hospital, a local doctor has been arrested on multiple counts of wrongful incarceration and patient abuse.

“Dr Eric Finster, until recently a respected member of the medical community, has been found guilty of what one investigator called ‘Victorian attitudes’ and ‘barbaric practices that belong in the Dark Ages’. He faces a long prison sentence for the potentially harmful treatments he has prescribed for an alarming number of patients, and it is expected he will spend the rest of his life in prison.

“In addition to the criminal charges, a class action malpractice suit is being levelled against the privately run Grace Hospital on behalf of the abused patients. Anyone who has received mental health care at the Grace Hospital in the last fifteen years is invited to contact Richards, Peters and Talbot, the firm of solicitors who are heading up the class action, to see if they are eligible for compensation.

“Two mental health care nurses are also under investigation on charges of patient abuse as a result of the investigation.”

So. That was Dr Finster out of the way. I was briefly tempted to feel sorry for him, since he had on become involved in all this as a favour to my dad. It only lasted a moment though, as I reminded myself of what he had put me through, and that he had done the same to others. He had committed his atrocities regardless, and it was more fortuitous than otherwise that he had been found out and stopped.

My speculation as to whether or not it was Mr Talbot’s firm of solicitors that was bringing the class action suit was short lived when Helen passed me a second letter, this time in rich stationary. The letterhead read Richards, Peters and Talbot, Solicitors, and the letter outlined my involvement in the class action suit. Since Mr Talbot’s relationship to me was known, the actual lawsuit was being brought by one of his colleagues to avoid conflict of interest, but Paul had already completed most of the information needed on my behalf, leaving me to check it, correct a few minor details and add my signature.

-oOo-

It was a weekend in early December and, as usual, we were trying to save money on the heating bills by sticking to one house and huddling together under blankets on the sofas. As Rachael, the others treated me like just another one of the girls, which oddly meant that Jen was OK with me being in the middle of the scrum. The first time it had happened, I’d felt a little uncomfortable with the whole idea, but when the others, Jen included, had told me I was being daft, I’d shrugged shoulders and joined in. It wasn’t like I could take much advantage with everyone except me wrapped up in thick jeans and bulky sweaters. Being the only one in a dress, it was me that got felt up, and then mostly by Jen.

As usual for a Saturday afternoon, there wasn’t much on the TV, and we were all getting a bit restive. Riana suggested going to the university as the rugby team were playing at home today, and the rest of the girls agreed that, with nothing else to hold their interest, it would be worth a shot. Jen lent me some woollen tights to stop me from turning completely blue down below, and with a few misgivings on how Dave would react to me cheering from the side-lines, I pulled on a pair of boots and a duffle coat, and followed them out.

Our guys played a blinder and I yelled myself hoarse with the rest of the girls, cheering them on to an overwhelming victory. After the match, Riana led us to the pub where the team would be celebrating once they’d showered and changed. Again, I was nervous of Dave’s reaction, but at least the place was warm and I was getting some feeling back into my legs.

I needn’t have worried about Dave. He was so full of the victory that he didn’t even notice us sitting in the corner. Then when Riana sauntered up to him and planted a kiss right on his lips, it seemed unlikely that even my presence would dent his mood. He basked in the reaction of his team, telling anyone who would listen that they were just jealous, then after buying the first round, he let Riana guide him back to our table.

I gave him a sheepish smile, which he returned with a non-committal nod.

“So, what did you think, Rabbit?”

For a moment I worried that someone might remember who that nickname belonged to, but the only people within earshot knew who I was already.

“I thought you guys were awesome.”

“Too right they were,” Riana interjected, settling onto Dave’s lap and slinging an arm around his neck.

It shouldn’t have surprised me that Riana and Dave were into each other, I mean there had been clues. I felt glad for them both and let it show in my smile. It probably wouldn’t count for much, but I still hoped to find a way to help Dave and me reconcile our differences. If he was going to be coming round to our house more often, we might be in with a chance.

He did his extrovert thing, swooping Riana down to within inches of the floor, and she being equally outward going, joined in, laughing and squealing at the top of her voice. Suddenly our corner of the pub was the centre of attention and I desperately wanted a hole to hide in.

About half the rugby team approached and lined up behind Dave.

“Hey man, how come you’re hogging all the pretty girls?”

“Aw, get lost you losers. These ladies are well out of your league.”

“So what are you doing with them huh? Besides, unless you forgot, big man, we are currently at the top of the league.”

“Yeah, we are.” Dave and his mates broke into a wolf howl that had the landlord casting dirty looks our way. He wasn’t likely to chuck us out given the custom he was getting from the lads, but you could see he preferred a quieter atmosphere.

“So Dave,” one of the guys said, “why don’t you at least make some introductions. Just ‘cos it took you over a year to get together with your young lady, doesn’t mean that the rest of us are that slow.”

Dave looked us over, me included. Some of the girls were looking decidedly interested, even Carla and Helen. Riana whispered something in his ear and he did what most good men do when given a suggestion by their significant other. He gave in.

“Alright guys, if it’ll get you off my back. Riana you already know. This is Carla and Helen, Sandy and Becks, Amy and Jen, and the shy little mouse in the corner is er…”

“Rachael,” Jen finished for him.

“Yeah, Rachael.” Dave gave me a look filled with dire warnings. “You guys can look, but don’t touch. I know for a fact that some of these lovely ladies are spoken for, so if they’re not interested, you back off.”

The next few minutes were interesting from an anthropological behaviourist’s point of view, as the guys jockeyed for the attention of the seven of us. I was surprised at how much came my way, and I gave Jen a panicky look. She was already deep in conversation with one of the other lads though, and having seeming to enjoy herself.

Eventually my potential suitors readjusted their sights, leaving me with someone named Pete. At Dave’s size, he comfortably dwarfed me, and he was better looking than my friend. What was I thinking? He was a guy, I wasn’t interested in guys. I wanted to run, but Dave’s warning and the girls’ evident delight in what was going on backed me into a corner.

“What?” I asked, aware that Pete had just asked me a question.

“I asked what it was you were studying.” Typical if unimaginative getting to know you question.

Physics would seem unlikely for a girl. I knew there was only one in my year and, without wishing to be unkind, most of us just thought of her as another one of the lads. I chose something I thought was fairly gender neutral and not too far from my own interests.

“Er… Maths,” I said. His look of distaste told me that I had picked wisely. Evidently another Dave from the numeracy point of view. “What about you?”

“Business studies. There’s more maths in that than I care for. I don’t suppose you’d have time to help me go over a few bits.”

“Er… I’m… well I’ve kind of got a lot on my plate at the moment.”

“Hey, that’s OK. I don’t mean to be pushy.”

“Look, I hope you don’t mind, but I am already in a relationship, and this is making me feel a little uncomfortable.”

That earned me a kick from Jen. “C’mon Rach, he’s just trying to be nice. Just go with it.”

So I did. I let him do most of the talking, nodding and smiling where it seemed appropriate, but overall I was terrified that he would suss me out, and my brain wouldn’t focus on more than one word in ten.

Afternoon ran into evening and the guys bought us a pub meal. I wanted to refuse, but I got don’t you dare eyes from both Jen and Dave, so allowed a guy to buy me dinner, while another guy paid for my girlfriend’s.

Eventually Jen intervened, saying she needed the loo and looking at me pointedly until I got the message. She dragged me into the ladies and pulled me into a corner.

“Richard! Pull yourself together will you? This is just a bit of harmless fun. They know this isn’t going to amount to anything, except maybe for Dave and Riana. They just want to have a good time with some pretty girls, and they’re happy to pay for it. For heaven’s sake, you already told Pete you were with someone. Can’t you see he’s not going to try anything with you?”

“This is different Jen. These are guys I see around campus. I’m terrified they’re going to recognise me like Dave did last term. Can you imagine what it would be like for me if the whole rugby team found out who I was and that I had been leading one of their prop forwards on?

“Shit! I’m beginning to think this is what your Dad had in mind when he said my living with you lot as Rachael wasn’t such a good idea. You all just see me as another girl, at least in part, which means you expect me to be just like you when we go out. The thing is I’m not. I’m not comfortable with what’s going on tonight, and I really don’t know what I should be doing.”

“OK, OK. Calm down. For one thing, you’re doing fine. None of us see any sign of Richard out there, which is probably why we just assumed you’d be happy to join in. The thing is, if you continue to freak out like you’re doing, you’re more likely to be found out.

“You want a best result out of tonight, stop worrying. Try to join in. Pretend for just a few hours that you really are a girl. At best you’ll have an experience unlike anything you’ve enjoyed before. At worst, it’ll be over soon, and I promise you when we get home, we’ll discuss it. Make sure we don’t put you in this situation again.”

It was enough. Being as we were there, we took advantage of the facilities and freshened up – in my case minimising the chanced of being spotted – then headed back.

In our absence, drinks had been bought and I had a glass of wine sitting next to the remains of my spritzer. I thanked Pete and used it to take the edge off my fear. I took Jen’s advice and tried to relax, the result being that I did actually enjoy the rest of the evening. Pete turned out to be intelligent and articulate, and a pleasure to talk to.

In the end, Jen must have done some secret girl signal to the rest of the group, because suddenly all of them were agreeing that it was time to go. Even a reluctant Riana. The lads were disappointed, but accepted whatever the reason was that was given. Some of them offered to escort us home, but it wasn’t far and it was still early enough that a group of eight girls together should be safe, so we declined.

Pete took my hand and, for a moment, I thought he was going to kiss it. “I had a great time,” he said. “Maybe we can do it again sometime?”

“I’ll think about it. Goodnight Pete.” I took my hand back and followed the girls out onto the street.

They were full of it, exchanging stories and laughing at the way the evening had gone. I couldn’t join in, feeling like I had perpetrated the most heinous of frauds on Dave’s friend. It wasn’t that late when we got home, so Jen insisted we all go into one house to discuss what had happened. She described what I had told her in the toilets, and the whole room went quiet. I was surrounded by soft bodies with gentle hands reaching out to touch me.

“Sorry Richard.”

“Yeah, sorry.”

“We didn’t think.”

“It’s just that you’re so natural.”

“Yeah, we hardly think of you as a guy anymore… Sorry if that sounds insensitive.”

The comforting reassurance was exactly what I needed. It drew the tears out of me, and they joined in. Group hug, group cry. Somehow it made things better, closer, between all of us.

That night I slept in my own bed, in the nude. I knew Jen felt rejected, and I tried to tell her that it wasn’t her fault, just that it was something I felt I needed.

-oOo-

Chapter 46

Next morning was Sunday. We didn’t tend sleep in much with the heating on low, so it wasn’t an intrusion when Jen brought me coffee and toast at nine o’clock. For most of the day, the girls seemed to tiptoe around me, as though they were still unsure they had done enough to make up for the previous evening. As though they didn’t really understand what it was they had done to set me off. I guess I was still from Mars after all.

They brought me drinks, cooked lunch and cleaned up afterwards, pointedly refusing to ask me to join in, until I’d had enough. Things had been cleaned away, coffees and teas made and passed around, and everyone was in their usual huddle on the sofas when I spoke up.

“Can I just say something?”

The TV remote was poised to hunt for some programme slightly less ghastly than the rest. It was lowered slowly as seven pairs of eyes turned my way.

“This arrangement, with me staying here as Rachael. It’s mutually beneficial. I get somewhere to stay which I wouldn’t have otherwise, and you get your eighth lodger. For the most part, me staying here as Rachael works for me as much as for you too. The landlord doesn’t question whether or not the eighth tenant is a girl, so no hassle for you, and I get some relief from this mess in my head that leaves me thinking I’m wearing a dress whether I have one on or not. For the most part it’s a win-win situation.

“I understand why it’s easy for you to think of me as a girl. A lot of the time I actually feel like one, or at least how I imagine one would feel. There are things about this arrangement that I wouldn’t change for the world…”

“Like being able to sleep with Jen every night,” Riana said, hoping for a laugh. Instead she was shushed from six directions.

“Yeah, I can’t say I don’t appreciate that, but it’s more than that. I love the way you accept me. Last night when you knew I was upset, I loved the way you gathered round and shared my tears. The closest a guy gets to that sort of contact is when he has a girlfriend, and then it’s only with one girl, and only as much as he’s prepared to lower his guard, which for most guys isn’t a lot. I’ve even appreciated the way you guys have been so attentive today.

“I guess what I’m trying to say is, I really do enjoy being Rachael with you lot, and I would hate for that to stop, but underneath it all I am still a guy. When I’m out there, I may be Rachael to you, and even to me, but to everyone I meet, I’m just a slip of the tongue away from being seen as a bloke in a dress. Most people are less tolerant of people like me than you guys, and I really need you to have my back when we go out.”

The other sofa emptied as all the girls made me the centre of a mass hug. We were still in the middle of the eight way bundle when the doorbell went.

Amy checked out the window. “It’s Dave,” she said to Riana. So while she went to greet the new man in her life, the rest of us put the living room back into some semblance of order, and put the kettle on.

-oOo-

The loud, wet slurping of a hugely enjoyed kiss drifted through from the hallway.

“Hey Dave,” Sandy yelled, trying to spare us all the cringe factor. “Tea or coffee?”

The slurping stopped long enough for Dave to ask for a coffee.

“How d’you take it?”

This time there was no response as tonsil tickling became the game of preference in the other room.

“Black with two sugars,” I said, “unless he’s changed in the past few months.”

It was enough to interrupt the grossly amorous display from next door. A moment later Riana led Dave into our midst, wearing a pout that would have threatened drowning had it been raining, and hamming up the histrionics.

“I thought you said you’d never been with another woman?”

Dave, ever the consummate actor, played along, falling to his knees in mock dismay.

“But baby, baby, it’s true. I never… I never…”

“Then how does she,” an imperious finger stabbed out in my direction, “know how you take your coffee.”

That was my cue to join in. I wasn’t certain how Dave might react, but rashly, in the heat of the moment, I threw myself at Riana’s leg.

“Oh, Riana,” I gasped, “please forgive him. You must know he never really loved me.”

The girls cracked up, and after a few second’s surprise, Dave’s deep belly laugh joined in. I hadn’t realised how much I had missed that laugh until then.

I regained my feet, and my composure, brushing dust from my dress, and looked up into Dave’s eyes. There was still uncertainty there, and pain, but there was a hint of welcome too.

“I guess I’m going to have to get used to you like this if I’m going to be coming round here much, aren’t I Rabbit?”

I shrugged. “If you’re going to call me by a nickname, would you mind choosing something different? Yesterday I was terrified people would remember who else you used that one on.”

A look of genuine horror passed across his face. He hadn’t even realised. So intent on me keeping my shameful secret, and not even aware how nearly he’d given the game away.

“You called me a shy little mouse yesterday. I could live with mouse.”

I smiled my best shy smile and dropped my head, returning to my place on the sofa, as Sandy passed him his coffee.

Dave spent the rest of the evening clowning with the girls. At one stage or another, they’d creep up on him and breathe sexily into his ear.

“Hey Dave, don’t you remember me?”

“Hiya Dave, I had a really good time last week.”

“Dave, how could you ever leave me?”

Every time, Riana would jump up and go off in a pretend huff, and every time Dave would have to go to greater lengths to win her heart back. It was great entertainment, even Jen joined in, sprawling across his lap and purring, “You know you want me.”

He played along as only Dave could, but right through it all, I kept noticing him looking at me with this strange expression on his face.

Eventually the horseplay came to an end and the girls jumped up to put together some sandwiches for tea. I made to join them, but Becky pushed me back down.

“No, you get to enjoy a whole day of being looked after. We owe it to you Rach.”

So that left Dave and me sitting uncomfortably opposite one another. Confrontation time.

“What’s on your mind Dave? You’ve been looking at me like I was from outer space all afternoon.”

“I don’t get it.”

“Don’t get what?”

“Any of it. I know you’re Richard, but all I see is a girl. I don’t get how you can be so convincing. Even yesterday in the pub I started thinking of you as Rachael. Plus I still don’t get why you do it. And,” he said raising his voice so everyone could hear, “I don’t get why everyone here accepts you as a girl. I mean I see the way you lot act around him. You lean into him, you touch him, you hug him. I’d be lucky to get that kind of attention from just one girl at a time.”

“Jealous, are you?” Riana slid onto his lap and kissed him. “Would it be worth your while putting on a dress to get this kind of action?”

“I might be tempted, if I didn’t only have eyes for you my sweet.”

He delivered the line as though he were reading, uncertainly, from a script. Riana gave him a playful slap and headed back into the kitchen area. The rest of the girls had thoughtful expressions on their faces as though they were considering things for the first time.

I dived into the silence.

“You know at least part of my answer. I still have this hypnotism thing going on up here, and it’s easier for me when I actually wear a dress than when I don’t. I also have something inside of me that likes being a girl, so combine the two and I have every incentive to try to be the most convincing girl I can.

“I’ve had to suppress it for so many years, I still haven’t stopped enjoying it, but it is getting to a point now where I miss being Richard.”

“But I’ve see you around campus as Richard?”

“Yeah, that’s what you see. I still get to walk around campus in a frilly dress, even though you see the jeans and tee shirt or sweatshirt. I also have to pretend, for my own safety, that I’m not dressed the way I feel. And when that cold wind lifts up my skirts and swirls around in my delicate region, it’s pretty tough not to do a Marilyn Monroe.”

“Shit, that must be weird.”

“You don’t know the half of it.”

“What about you girls? Why do you feed this obsession?”

They were drifting back into the living area with tea and coffee and a selection of sandwiches and cakes. Jen settled beside me and spoke first.

“For me, I guess I never really saw Richard for the great guy he was until I met Rachael. I mean it was just after Mysterio, and he was still wearing trousers, but there was something about him – the way he sat, the way he walked – that seemed a little different, and he had a lot more self-confidence. Suddenly the shy guy retreated and this outgoing, open, talkative person came out.

“From the way he moved, I kind of suspected that he had been hypnotised, and he admitted to it when I confronted him. It was weird and a little off putting at first, but then I realised that this guy, who I already thought was kind of cute, had stopped being so closed in on himself, and was actually just as pleasant to talk to as he was to look at.

“As I got to know him, and the hypnotism went from being a fun little oddity to something that was seriously affecting his mood, it didn’t seem too big a step to start experimenting with him dressed for real, and as you can see, he makes a pretty convincing woman.”

“Yeah,” Riana chipped in, spokesgirl for the rest of them. “It was kind of a gradual thing for us too. When Jen first suggested dolling Richard up and taking him out on the town, it was just a laugh to blow off steam. You know, sometimes you guys are so full of yourselves, it’s fun to help one of you defect, even if it’s only temporary.

“The thing is Richard was such a natural, and we had such a laugh, it was kind of like having an extra girl in the group, and having this humongous secret that only we knew. I guess we all had such a great time, we didn’t want it to end, so when Richard agreed to going on a shopping trip with us all after the exams, it was just too good a chance to pass up.

“Then, of course, you happened by, and I wasn’t interesting enough for you, even in my new pink dress. You had to come over and say hello.” Riana’s mock anger had just the slightest hint of truth to it. “You flipped your lid when you figured out who Richard was, and when you kicked him out of your house share, I was pretty sure I was never going to talk to you again.

“Then we had the idea of inviting Richard, or rather Rachael, to join us. We were still a body short and didn’t really want a non student in with us, so it seemed to answer everyone’s problems. And as you can see it has.”

Dave shook his head. “Well, I have to admit it hasn’t turned into the sick, pervy thing I was expecting. It still leaves me squirming more than a little, but that’s just me imagining taking a cute girl like you home, and finding out halfway through the fun bit of the evening that you were a guy all along.

“I noticed you with Pete yesterday. You were doing all you could to keep him at a distance, so I guess that’s not what you’re looking for. I still wouldn’t say I’m alright with it, but if I want to hang out with Riana and the rest of you girls, I suppose I’m going to have to get used to it.

“In a way it’s a relief, ‘cos there’s this really tough bit of maths on our course at the moment. Me and Pete could really do with some help.”

“As Richard or as Rachael.”

“Well, now that Pete’s seen Rachael, he might put two and two together if Richard turned up. I mean you look like a girl, don’t get me wrong, but you look like Richard might have turned out if he’d been born a girl. I don’t think you’d fool him for long, I mean he’s quite a bit more intelligent than me.”

“What’s the topic you’re having trouble with?”

“Great, I know you wouldn’t let me down. It’s a statistics module, and I just don’t get any of it.”

I made arrangements for them to drop by the following evening. As Richard, I had a passing acquaintance with some of both Dave’s and Pete’s house mates, and neither of us wanted the risk of me being spotted.

“There is one other ulterior motive to my visit.”

“I knew it!” Riana was pouting again. “You’re just using me.” She burst into pretend tears and ended up with the girls nearest her stroking her and making over the top sympathetic noises until she stopped.

“The rugby club is putting on a ‘Top Of The League’ ball next week to celebrate our success. The guys from yesterday were wondering if you’d like to be their dates for the evening. That kind of includes you and Pete, Rich… er I mean Rachael, if you’re up for it. What do you say?”

-oOo-

Chapter 47

“Go on, Rachael, please.”

“You can choose anything from my wardrobe.”

“Or mine.”

“Or mine.”

“Mine too.”

“Except that pink dress,” Dave chipped in, turning to Riana. “I was hoping you’d wear that for me again. Give me a chance too really appreciate you in it.”

It was tempting. I mean not the pink dress; way to revealing for me. But the chance to raid everyone else’s wardrobe, that was something few girls could resist, and even fewer mixed up guys like me. I looked at Jen for her blessing, and her eyes were shining with hope and anticipation too.

“Alright,” I said, agreement met with whoops of excitement, and the inevitable exuberant bundle of girls. Even Riana deserted her man to show her appreciation. It was almost certain that she would have gone with Dave in any case, but there’s added fun to be had when you get to go as a bunch of girls as well. Even I felt it.

Dave stayed on for a while longer, enjoying Riana’s company while he could. I had a nagging doubt following me around still.

“Do you think it’s fair of me to lead Pete on like this? I mean don’t you think he could handle the truth?”

“Don’t even think about it Rabbit. He’s too much like me. He wouldn’t take it well, and without all the months of friendship that we have, I doubt he would be half as restrained as I was.

“No, keep on playing the shy, quiet little mouse with a boyfriend back home. He’ll get over being rejected eventually.”

“What if he wants to kiss me though?”

“Well that’s entirely up to you, but if you do, you’d better not show up looking like Richard afterwards.”

Not exactly reassuring.

It was getting late, and some of us had lectures the following morning, including Dave. He waved goodbye to all of us and dragged Riana out into the hallway for a farewell snog.

-oOo-

The following evening I picked out a conservative dress from Helen’s wardrobe. Apparently the free access to everyone’s clothing started immediately and ran until the end of the party. Something to do with trying things out to find the best comfort and style for me.

This one was a navy blue, long sleeved jersey dress, with a high neckline and a calf length skirt. It looked just right on the hangar, if a little unexciting, but oddly enough, it stayed the same while I was wearing it. Jen had an evening thing doing a survey for a psychology practical, so she wasn’t around to talk to. Looking in the mirror, I would hardly have called it breath-taking, but it was pretty and elegant. It seemed that my mind was adapting the hypnotic suggestion, now if only I could convince it that guy clothes were ok.

I put on a pair of dark tan tights, a little bit of borrowed jewellery and a minimum of makeup. Richard definitely wasn’t present tonight, but neither was Rachael ‘putting out’.

The doorbell rang and I let the two hulking prop forwards into the otherwise deserted house. Everyone else was next door as usual, but there wouldn’t be a lot of peace and quiet there, and we would need that if I was to lead these two through the intricacies of standard deviation. Intricate by their standards I mean.

“Wow, you’re looking pretty sharp tonight,” Pete said, causing me to worry that I had put in a little too much effort. “Dave told me that you agreed to go to the ball with me. I am very grateful.”

“Yeah, well don’t go taking advantage.” I managed to make it sound at least part tease, for some reason not wanting to shut him out entirely. “Anyone want a drink before we get started?”

It took an hour and a half to go through everything. Pete was a quick study and understood what was going on long before Dave, but then between the two of us, we managed to carry him to the finish line. By the time we were done, we were all feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. Pete grabbed me in a hug and spun me round before remembering himself. It was exhilarating, but frightening too. I’d taken better care to tuck things away, but I lived with the constant worry that he would feel something he wasn’t expecting to be there.

“I’m popping next door to see Riana. You two want to come?”

“I think so,” I said before Pete could come up with some excuse to keep me here. “I’ve had enough maths for one night.”

So we went, and Jen was back from playing with her human guinea pigs, and she looked at me with just a hint of jealously as Pete kept close with a gentle hand in the small of my back. I broke away from him and went over to ask how her experiment had gone. It seemed cruel to keep my back to Pete, but I didn’t want to lead him on. Jen picked up pretty quickly, as she usually did, and before long she was telling me the funnier moments of the evening. Not that any stood out in particular, but the conversation served its purpose and Pete ended up chatting to Sandy and Becky until Dave decided they needed to be going and they ducked out with a final word of thanks to me.

“That dress suits you,” Helen said.

“Thanks, I was looking for something that was elegant but not flashy, you know, not too much skin showing.”

“It stayed the same?” Jen asked holding me back at arm’s length to look me up and down.

“Yes. I thought that was odd too.”

“I think it must have been all those psychotropic drugs you were on, kind of changed the emphasis of the suggestion.”

“Well the outfits it’s been dressing me up in since I got out of hospital have all been pretty conservative, certainly compared to the way things were before. I have a feeling that since the experience, it’s been responding to my desire for something safer if you know what I mean.”

“I guess so.”

Jen hadn’t told the girls everything about the hypnotism thing, and neither had I. Nor did they have any real idea what had happened to me over the summer. The few less than subtle hints we’d just dropped were enough to rouse more than a little bit of curiosity, so Jen and I spent the remainder of the evening telling my story to a fascinated audience. There were hugs of sympathy from the entire room at each of the unpleasant parts, especially the hospital where I was still a bit shaky recalling what I’d gone through, and by the time we were finished talking, I had six freshly committed friends who I knew would stand by me in pretty much any circumstance.

In bed that night, I snuggled close to Jen.

“It’s only you, you know?”

“What?”

“It’s only you I’m interested in. I’m not turning into a girl, although if I did, I could probably go for Pete. As it is, all I want is you.”

She shuffled round ’til she was facing me and gave me a long heartfelt kiss.

“That’s for being enough of a girl to notice, and for saying the right thing at the right time.”

She slotted herself into my armpit and rested her head against my chest. I didn’t wear the loblollies in bed, even when I was wearing my pink satin chemise as I was then. It was more comfortable for both of us, especially when we were lying like this.

“You know I could quite go for you now?” Jen murmured.

“Wouldn’t you rather wait?”

“A part of me would, but there are times like this when I just want to be as close to you as I can. When I want to feel you inside me.”

“I don’t have any…”

“No, me neither. I wasn’t suggesting anything, just wanted you to know how I felt.”

I get the sense that most guys would find that to be the most frustrating conversation they could have with a girlfriend, but it left me feeling warm inside.

We fell asleep like that, which meant my arm didn’t wake up with the rest of me the next morning. It was worth it though, even when I had to endure the mother of all pins and needles attacks.

-oOo-

The weekend came round too quick, but I’d made good use of the others’ selection of clothing, and in the end it was Helen’s wardrobe that clothed me for the ball. Of all of us, she was the one who liked to keep herself covered up. Most of the time, you wouldn’t know it, because she wore jeans and sweaters like the rest of the girls, but when she put on a dress, it almost always fell below the knee.

In any case, she had this amazing dark green evening dress. It was quite high over the bust, but with only one shoulder strap and nothing much covering the back, it still left a fair bit of skin exposed. What I loved most about it though, was the long, flowing, ankle length skirt. Everyone agreed it was perfect for me, and just the thing to make me look glamorous without seeming available. A white jacket from Jen’s wardrobe would keep me warmish on the way, and a matching white purse would hold my necessaries.

There wasn’t a lot we could do about the shoes. All the girls had smaller feet than me, and I didn’t have anything of my own to match the dress, so I settled in a pair of black pumps Jen’s mum had bought me out of her allowance. They had a three inch heel, which was as much as I was happy walking in. The girls gave me some practise dancing in them in them towards the end of the week, so I felt pretty confident by the time Saturday came round.

The guys went all out, renting a couple of limos and smart dinner suits. Dave and Pete went so far as to add bow ties, which I’ve always thought were a step too far for men or women. As it was, I was grateful it wasn’t me trussed up like a turkey with a strangle-noose around my neck. I was losing the sense of oddness and wrongness about wearing a dress, and just enjoying it while I could. I did make an effort to tuck my bits out of the way and tape them in place, and that was as much constriction as I could stand, but I suspected that Pete would want to get close tonight, and I wasn’t going to take any chances.

It was a truly wonderful evening, and I could see why the girls had been so keen for me to agree. The food was superb, and I would have loved to have eaten more. Still small bites and taking my time meant I probably tasted more of it than my date. I was half expecting the dancing to end up as a sort of disco scramble, but the rugby club had paid some of the third year music students to form a small orchestra. They serenaded us softly through dinner, then when the last of the plates had be cleared away, we were led onto the dance floor and introduced to a bit of genuine ballroom dancing.

It seemed that in preparation for the ball, the entire rugby team, including reserves, had taken some proper dancing lessons. There were still a few ungainly couples out there, but Pete had been paying attention and, even though I didn’t have the first idea of where to put my feet, he led perfectly and swept me round the room like a pro.

There is a unique exhilaration to feeling safe and out of control at the same time, and that’s what I experienced in Pete’s arms. The swirls and swoops, added to by the way my dress floated about me, left me giddy and drifting in a euphoric haze.

As the night wore on, the orchestra switched to some obligatory slow dances. By that time I was just glad to have someone strong and sturdy to hang onto. Pete pulled me close enough for me to feel the swelling down below, close enough for me to be thankful I’d taken more care than usual to hide my own bulge. I rested my head on his chest as we moved gently to some classical piece I recognised but couldn’t name. I slowly recovered my equilibrium and, after a few minutes, pulled myself away enough to look up at him.

“You’re quite a dancer.”

“My parents got me into it. Mum dragged Dad along first, much against his wishes, but after the first few sessions I could see how much he was enjoying it too, so I tagged along.”

“Well thank you. I certainly have something to write in my diary tonight.”

“I’d be quite happy to turn a paragraph into a chapter for you.”

I laughed. It wasn’t the usual seedy sort of chat up line, but it wasn’t that far off.

“Now, Pete. We had an agreement, remember?”

“I don’t know if I’m going to be able to keep to that.”

I stopped moving and pulled away.

“Don’t spoil things, Pete. This has been a perfect evening so far.”

“For you maybe, but I’ve always wanted more.”

I walked off the dance floor with Pete following close behind me. Dave and Riana noticed, and broke off their own dancing to come to my aid. The bar tab was being covered by the rugby club so I didn’t need to fiddle about for my purse. I ordered an orange juice, needing refreshment more than alcohol. Pete asked for a beer over my shoulder.

“I told you the first time we met, Pete. I’m spoken for, and happily so.”

“So why did you agree to go out tonight?”

“Because Dave said you wanted to. Because I like you. Because I thought, I hoped, it would be a bit of harmless fun.”

“Two beers please,” Dave called to the bartender as he and his date appeared beside us. Then to us, “Everything all right??”

I looked at Pete, offering him the chance to speak first. He didn’t take it.

“Pete’s looking for a little more out of this evening than just a dance. I was just telling him I wasn’t interested.”

“Seriously Pete? I was there when she told you she had someone else. You’re really telling me you’d try to muscle in like this?”

“All’s fair in love and war bro.”

“Yeah and how do you decide who wins and who loses? You looking to force yourself on her or something? Or will you just take her word for it? I know who she’s into, and in her shoes, I’d make the same choice.”

Pete bridled at that, and then Dave and he were squaring off, puffing out their chests at each other, Riana having to push her way in between them trying to stop it, while I looked for a quiet way to slip out.

I found my way to the cloakroom and checked out my coat. Jen caught up with me there as I was dialling for a taxi. She took the phone out of my hand and looked at me questioningly.

“It was a mistake to come after all, Jen. It turns out that Pete wants a little more than I’m prepared to give.” All truth, and nothing that would give away the underlying meaning.

Dave and Riana appeared a minute later. Pete was nursing his beer at the bar, angry at my rejection, the romantic mood of the evening tainted by his and Dave’s little pissing contest.

“Come on, the party was nearly over anyway,” Dave said. “Let’s get you girls home.”

Jen gave me my phone back and I finished dialling the taxi company.

“All of us, or just us four?”

“I think the others are trying to keep things going a while longer. Jen, what happened to Andy?”

Andy was Jen’s date for the evening. Apparently he’d gone to commiserate with Pete, having received a similar rejection from my beloved. It didn’t seem to matter how delicately such news was delivered, it wasn’t received well.

We ordered a taxi for four, and Dave escorted us home. I was in tears most of the way home. Jen led me into our house while Dave paid for the taxi. He wasn’t sure whether to stay around or not, so Riana made his mind up for him, dragging him into our house and heading for the kitchen and the kettle.

“You know you don’t have to continue this girl act, don’t you Rabbit? I mean it’s just us.”

“It’s not an act Dave,” I managed through snuffles and Jen’s comforting embrace. “This is the way I am. I guess when I’m Richard I bury it, but I don’t have to when I’m like this.” I buried my head back in Jen’s shoulders and let the tears take me. What had nearly happened between Pete and me had really shaken me, and the tears helped.

Riana brought in a pot of tea and enough mugs to go round. By the time it was poured, I had recovered enough of my composure to sit straight. A final sniff and a dab of a somewhat saturated tissue and I was back in control.

“I’m sorry Rabbit. I never expected Pete to be such an ignoramus.”

“No, me neither, though I guess we should both have figured it was a possibility. I mean we both have enough experience being guys, you’d have thought we’d spot the warning signs.”

“Still, apart from that last bit, it wasn’t such a bad evening was it?”

“No, apart from the last bit, it was a fantastic evening. That’s probably why it hit me so hard when things went bad. You don’t know what it’s like to be… you just don’t know.”

We all stared into our drinks, still a little hot to sip just yet, and let the silence build. Dave caved first.

“You know this is all a little unfair, the way you girls live. You expect Richard here to wear a dress around the place all the time, and you never give him anything back.”

“What do you mean?” Riana said. “We’re all wearing dresses tonight.”

“That’s not what I mean. You wear dresses yeah, and you wear your girly jeans and sweatshirts, with the pink trim and flowers. It’s not the same. If Rich has to live as a girl around here, you should try and see things from his point of view. Try living in his clothes, even for a day. See what it’s like pretending to be a guy and worrying all the time that someone’s going to come along and find out your secret.”

Riana and Jen looked at each other, then back at Dave and me, then back at each other again. I wasn’t sure what it would achieve myself, but Jen was looking all thoughtful.

We finished our drinks and Dave decided that it was late enough that he should get going. It had already passed midnight before we left the party, so we agreed it was time for bed. Riana looked ready to offer him a share of her bed for the night, but she thought better of it in light of the way things had ended. Dave lifted my chin and looked into my eyes. I don’t know what it must have taken for him to do that, to touch me, being a guy pretending to be a girl.

“You were a good sport tonight Rabbit, so don’t go thinking it was your fault things fell apart. Pete’s actually a good sort too, and I imagine he’ll be round tomorrow with flowers and an apology. I can’t even begin to understand what you’re going through, but I can see you were trying to do the right thing tonight, whatever right is in this situation. You and me, we’re still good, OK?”

I nodded, then ducked my head as the tears started again. Riana said goodnight as well and followed Dave out into the night.

There wasn’t much left to do but go to bed. I didn’t much feel like wearing the short satin chemise, so Jen lent me a long, white lacy nightgown, which felt a lot more comfortable. She had two of the same, so dressed to match me as she preferred when we slept together. Again she slotted herself under my arm, and again we fell asleep with her resting her head and her free arm on my chest. I’d glued Peggy and Sue into place for the dance, so there were a couple of bulges to negotiate, but she was pretty practised at that.

-oOo-

Chapter 48

Again I woke up with a dead arm. Jen had slipped out while I was still sleeping, and it had been the onset of pins and needles that had dragged me out of the arms of Morpheus. For some reason, my wardrobe door was slightly open.

There was a knock on the door and Carla popped her head through.

“Oops, morning Rachael. Just need to get something here.”

She stuck her head in my wardrobe and came out with a pair of my jeans and a sweatshirt. She disappeared before I could say anything.

Helen was next. Again a knock then in she came wearing her own long, flowing white nightdress.

“Love the nightie, Rach,” she said as she too stuck her head into my wardrobe and, after a moment’s thought, pulled out my chinos and a white button down shirt.

“What is this, Helen?” I asked before she escaped.

“Oh, we just through that since you’ve been helping yourself to our clothes all week, maybe it was time we tried some of yours.”

Riana was next, followed in quick succession by Sandy, Amy and Becky. Even if I’d wanted to, there weren’t enough guy clothes left for me. Becky’d had to resort to shorts, despite the winter weather and the poor central heating, so there was no chance there’d be anything left for me.

I climbed out of bed in search of the bathroom, only to find it full of squealing girls. I decided I could hold it for a while and took myself back to the warmth of the bed.

Some time, I’m not sure how long, later, the door opened a crack and Jen’s voice called through.

“We’re going next door. When you feel up to it, get dressed and came over.”

The background of whispers and giggles left me wary of what they were up to, but I’d learnt from past experience that it was best to face up to it rather than try to hide. Besides, I really needed the toilet now. I climbed out of bed and headed for the now deserted bathroom.

The whole house was empty, piquing my curiosity; I didn’t let it rush me though. Wary of Dave’s warning that Pete might show, I made a proper job of dressing. I settled on the coral dress as it was still a favourite and brought me happy memories of Alice and the first night she’d dressed me up in it. It was a bit thin for this weather, but I didn’t plan to go out, and it would be warm enough for inside wear.

Again minimum of makeup. Less is more, less is more. A little bit more effort sorting my hair out, and acknowledging to myself that I was getting pretty good at this sort of thing. Thick tights, shoes, handbag. I was ready. I shut and locked the door to our house and let myself in next door.

-oOo-

“Surprise!”

Everyone jumped out on me, all of them wearing something of mine.

Have I mentioned that all of my house mates are pretty good looking? Slim and pretty would go a long way towards covering it, with words like beautiful reserved for Jen alone since I am such a suck-up.

They’d gone to town with the eyebrow pencil, thickening up the brows and drawing on several variations of beard, moustache and stubble. They all had their hair pulled back into low ponytails, and they all looked totally ridiculous.

It was such a turn on though. In the strangest way, seeing these girls wearing my clothes and pretending to be guys had me feeling so hot and bothered, they couldn’t help but notice.

“Hands off, he’s mine,” Jen declared, pushing me down onto a sofa and climbing onto my lap. She’d drawn a little goatee and a swirling pencil moustache and looked absolutely adorable in my green Yoda tee shirt and a pair of jeans. The tee shirt did nothing to hide the fact that she was a woman, and the absence of bra did nothing to hide how turned on she was as well.

We managed to keep the raging hormones in check, and just for fun, they lounged around watching sport on the box, while I was made to wait on them hand and foot, making them cups of tea, getting the lunch, even doing the ironing.

Every now and again, one or another of them would walk past to the loo, squeezing my bum as she went. Every time it was a turn on, and I’d watch appreciatively as one or another pair of my trousers wiggled its way down the corridor.

Jen came to find me from time to time, pushing me away from whatever I was doing and backing me against the nearest wall. She took great delight in playing with my false boobs and pushed herself against me until I could feel the bulge in her trousers.

“What the…”

“They’re just socks, but they’re not bad are they?”

I couldn’t help myself. I was getting hotter and hotter, and not from the central heating either, but each time, she’d back off, leaving me frustrated and squirming.

About mid-afternoon the doorbell rang and the girls ran squealing upstairs, not wishing to be seen dressed as they were. I straightened myself up in the mirror then went to answer it.

Pete was standing there behind what looked like a significant portion of someone’s garden. In my confused state it was almost all I could do not to grab hold of him and drag him upstairs. I did manage to contain myself though, and waited patiently for him to speak.

“I need to say sorry, Rachael. I was a complete arsehole last night. I was hoping that you’d give me a second chance.”

“Second chance as a friend, I take it?”

“Yes. Look I don’t know who this guy is who’s so special to you, but I hope he knows how lucky he is.”

“He does.” I was thinking about a goatee and moustache. “You’re about to say if ever things don’t work out between us I should give you a call, aren’t you?”

He had the good grace to look sheepish.

I gave him a genuine smile and took the flowers from him.

“You can be sure I will. I had a great night last night, at least for the most part. You’re a fantastic guy Pete, but you shouldn’t wait for me. I sincerely doubt that I’m ever going to change my mind. A girl has this sense you know? When she finds the one. I’m pretty sure I’ve found mine.

“Still any time you and Dave need any more help with your maths, or you need someone to escort to a banquet or something, as long as you promise to behave.”

He nodded.

“I guess it’s as much as I could hope for.” He shuffled his feet nervously.

“I’d invite you in. It’s just that we’re in the middle of something, and some of the girls aren’t exactly dressed to receive visitors.”

“No that’s OK. I need to get going anyway. I was going to meet some guys down the pub. I don’t suppose…”

I shook my head.

“Not today, Pete. Like I said, we’re in the middle of something.”

He nodded and backed away. He wasn’t exactly hanging his head, but I could see he was more than a little disappointed. Still, not much I could do about it. I closed the door and walked back towards the lounge, inhaling a mix of heady fragrances.

I didn’t get more than three steps away from the door before Jen was in my arms, her lips firmly locked on mine. When she finally allowed me to breath, she took my head in her hands and stared me in the eyes.

“Did you mean that? A girl has this sense, you know that bit?”

I managed a nod, face squished as it was between her hands.

“Riana, please tell me that you got some supplies in case Dave stays over.”

She disappeared into her bedroom and returned a moment later with a small box.

“Excuse us ladies,” Jen said taking the whole box, “I have to show my boyfriend what my little girl sense is telling me.”

-oOo-

I’m not prepared to share details, but suffice to say that we went without dinner. We also owed Riana a whole box by the end of the evening, but oh, it was so good. My boobs did get in the way a little, but neither of us was prepared to wait long enough to go hunting for the solvent.

We were lying in bed, naked and utterly spent, when Carla and Helen came home. We lay there listening while they did their bits and bobs, then once the house was quiet again, we padded across to the bathroom, where Jen removed my appendages, while I worked on removing any signs of her beard. We then took a much needed shower together. Unfortunately, we were out of supplies by then, or we could have enjoyed another first.

Back in the bedroom, we put on our nightdresses and changed the bed, before snuggling back down under the covers. Silence returned, each of us drifting in our own world. This wasn’t quite togetherness.

“You alright?”

She squeezed me gently. “Mmmn. You?”

“Better than. No regrets?”

A sensuous wiggle against my side.

“None. You?”

“Would have preferred it without the boobs.” She snorted. “Mine I mean. Yours are perfect.” That earned me a laugh and another squirm closer, like she was trying to climb inside me. I squeezed her tight, but not painfully so. I wanted that closeness too.

“I love you,” I said. I wasn’t sure if I’d ever actually used those exact words before, but this was the first time I’d felt the full depth of their meaning.

“Mmn, I know,” she murmured sleepily into my chest. ”Like you know how I feel.”

“It’s still nice to hear it.”

She propped herself up on one elbow.

“You really are a girl, aren’t you?”

“A bit.”

She reached down and kissed me before settling back onto my chest. “I love you too,” she said stroking the soft lace of my nightdress.

Could things get any better than this?

-oOo-

Chapter 49

Monday morning. I can’t begin to tell you how much I hated Monday mornings.

Most of the students I knew had an easy start to the week, but the physics department had to show how serious they were by setting a nine o’clock lecture on Monday morning. Nothing else for the rest of the morning mind, so why on earth did they have to put the lecture first thing?

Jen didn’t need to be in ’til about eleven on Monday, which I thought was reasonable. It gave you a chance to get over the hangover, to admit to yourself that the weekend was over for another five days, to let the decrepit central heating in your accommodation cough and wheeze itself into life. Not my Mondays though.

Jen usually roused with the sound of my radio alarm, even though I kept the volume down as low as I dared. I’ve mentioned she’s a morning person, right? Still that particular Monday she did little more than squirm in her sleep, leaving me to wriggle myself and my nightdress free from under her. Somehow I managed it without waking her, then almost spoiled it all as the cold bit and I cursed under my breath. Stuffing my feet up the backsides of a couple of fluffy pink bunnies, and wrapping a thick dressing gown around me, I looked out the windows. Grey and drizzling; my legs would be icicles by the time I made it to the lecture hall, assuming they didn’t shatter on the way.

I made my way across the hall to the bathroom and hoisted my nightie, sitting to go. Almost no chance of anyone leaving the toilet seat up in our houses given that I was the only guy and I preferred to sit anyway. The cold gnawed into my legs, but some things can’t be rushed. I flushed the toilet and set the shower running. The first run of the day usually took a minute or two to get going, and this early, even with just the hot tap on, the ancient contraption grumbling away downstairs could only just manage bearably tepid.

I stripped off and climbed into the bath, behind the shower curtain. Was it my imagination, or was there a hint of ice in the jets of water? I gritted my teeth and did what was needed as quickly as possible. Shower over, I grabbed a towel and rubbed myself vigorously before the wintry air could I succumbed to hypothermia. Feet back into the bunny slippers, dressing gown on, I grabbed the rest of my things and dashed back across to the bedroom.

No warmer in here. I clamped my teeth together to stop them from chattering and took a fresh pairs of knickers and tights out of my drawer. It was so natural, now, to put these on, when less than a year ago I would have been too terrified to even try. Socks over the tights in case anyone was bright enough to notice the gap between my shoes and my trousers. Shit it was cold!

I opened my wardrobe and memory jumped through the cold barrier. I didn’t have any of my Richard clothes; the girls had taken them all the previous day. I suppressed another expletive and looked around me on the floor. The jeans and tee shirt Jen had worn yesterday were lying in the jumble of clothes we’d been too impatient to hang up. I shook them out. Not too creased; they’d do.

I pulled them on, and went back to rummaging for a sweatshirt or something to give me that essential extra layer. It was several seconds before I realise that something was different. I caught sight of my reflection in the mirror inside the wardrobe door and Yoda stared back, telling me in reversed letters what I should do with my weapon.

“I’m back.” Then again, louder, because it merited it. “Jen, I’m back.”

“Mmn, ‘s nice. Where you bin?” She rolled onto her back, half lidded eyes unfocused.

“No, I mean my clothes. Jen, I’m not wearing a dress.”

“I know,” she murmured through her drowsy haze. “’S Monday. You gotta wear trousers.”

“But that’s what I’m saying. I’m wearing jeans, and they’re still jeans.”

It still took time, but the meaning of my jumbled words penetrated and was suddenly sat bolt upright.

“Oh, my.”

“Isn’t it great?”

“Yeah, except I was thinking about… I’m going to be walking like a cowboy today.” she looked down at her nether regions, stroking her hips and trying to push them back together.

“Are you alright?”

“A bit sore, but in a good way, don’t worry. You’re… You actually see yourself in your clothes?”

“Yeah, I mean how on earth?”

“Well, you did kind of get into yesterday didn’t you?” She pushed a mountain of hair out of her face. She didn’t look like she was fully functional yet, but her brain was already working better than mine.”

“You have no idea how yesterday affected me. Seeing you lot dressed in my clothes was… was…”

“Breathtaking?”

“Shit. You’re right.”

“Aren’t you cold?” she asked, looking at me. There were definite signs of goose pimples growing on my hairless arms.

“A bit. I was looking for a sweatshirt or something when I realised. Jen I’m actually wearing jeans!” I couldn’t help the excitement I felt and pulled her into a bear hug. “Can you even begin to imagine how good this feels after, what, nine, ten months?”

She hugged me back, but it was sleep deprived and half-hearted. I left her to her lie-in, eventually finding an old sweater in one of the dresser drawers.

I pulled it on and felt the familiar shimmer as reality shifted. The sweater was pink now, with cute little bobbles attached, and the jeans were gone, replaced by a short denim skirt and pink, woollen tights.

“Shit.” I slumped down onto the bed.

“You’re saying that a lot this morning.” There was a petulant edge to Jen’s voice, then again I wasn’t letting her go back to sleep.

“It all just changed. I put this sodding sweater on and now I’m wearing pink.”

“No more jeans?”

“Well, A denim miniskirt.”

“Ooh, you are going to freeze.” Was that an edge of satisfaction in her voice?

“No, I have pink woollen tights on.”

My despondent tone penetrated her haze. She sat up in the bed and put an arm around me.

“It’s a start, Rich. It may not be a giant leap, but it’s still a small step in the right direction. You can’t expect an instant cure you know?

“Look, you’ve got to go. We’ll talk about this more later, OK?”

“Yeah, I suppose so.” I gave her a kiss and grabbed my books. I had just enough time to toast and butter some bread before heading out.

I moped through the day. In part it was missing that first coffee of the morning, but most of it, I knew, was having my hopes raised like that then crushed just as quickly. The woollen tights weren’t a bad protection against the cold, but they still didn’t seem to keep me as warm as my jeans should have.

At the end of the day, Jen came and found me in the library as usual. I’d spent a couple of hours staring at the same page in a textbook. It wasn’t that my mind was wandering so much as it was stuck. One question sat at the front of my brain, and no answer presented itself. Not even the beginning of an answer.

Jen closed my book and put it into my bag. “Come on beautiful, let’s go do some experiments.”

How does Jen know how to push my buttons so well? Calling me beautiful drew Rachael to the surface, which helped me feel OK in the clothes, even if they weren’t real. It kicked me out of my fug enough that I noticed she was walking a little differently.

“Are you sure you’re OK? I mean I didn’t break anything last night did I?”

She leaned into my side, snaking an arm around my waist. “I’m fine, just a little sore is all.” She patted her bag. “I bought some more thingies in case you fancy trying again later.”

“When you’re ready,” I said worried about what I’d already done to her. She tightened her arm around me into an appreciative squeeze.

Back home the curtains were closed, so we went straight in and up to our room. Well technically her room, but you know what I mean? I undressed down to knickers and tights, strapped myself into a bra, suitably filled with silicone rubber, then slipped on a shortish jersey dress. Let’s face it, most of my wardrobe is shortish. I needed to go shopping with Helen sometime.

Jen undressed too, ignoring my curious look until she was down to her underwear, at which point she turned to me.

“So what do you plan to wear tomorrow?”

I shrugged, non-committal, more depressed than I had felt in a long time.

“Well the jeans should do you another day or two,” she said picking them off the floor where I’d dumped them and laying them on the bed. “How about your Rush tee shirt?”

I shrugged again, then managed a nod when she glowered at me in exasperation.

She pulled the Jeans and tee shirt on. “I think we’ll put this thing away.” She picked up the sweater that had precipitated the morning’s delayed change and stuffed it back in the drawer. “Carla was wearing one of your sweatshirts wasn’t she? That do you for tomorrow?”

I shrug/nodded again and Jen marched across to Carla’s room. She knocked and entered when there was no immediate answer.

Carla was something of a slob, so the mayhem wasn’t unexpected. We found my jeans and sweatshirt on top of one of her heaps of clothing. Jen threw the jeans at me and pulled the sweatshirt on. Yet again there was something seriously alluring about her wearing my clothing. She was a bit slimmer than me and no more than an inch shorter, and she looked amazing in my bulky bloke-wear. It didn’t take long for an unsightly bulge to push its way out the front of my dress.

“You’re going to have to wear something with a fuller skirt,” Jen said. “I think this has a better chance of working if we keep you wanting.”

I had no idea what she was talking about, but I followed her obediently back to our room. Nothing I had quite hid the bulge, so in the end I borrowed a flared skirt and blouse from her.

The rest of the girls were back in their own clothes, promising me my stuff back once they’d run it through the wash. They gave Jen ‘s choice of dress a few odd looks, but she wasn’t about to jinx things by explaining her plan before seeing if it worked. She kind of played up to me throughout the evening, and took me off to bed early, where she pushed me back onto the bed and climbed on top of me. Evidently she wasn’t that sore as she proceeded to take us both to new heights of delight.

She had never seemed more beautiful.

-oOo-

The next morning was a slow start for both of us. Jen had a lecture at ten, and I had practical starting at ten thirty. Usually we’d get ready and walk in together, and today was to be no different. We’d both slept the night through in our underwear, skin to skin and revelling in the closeness, at least until nine o’clock when Jen kicked me out of bed to get washed and dressed first.

As before, I put on a fresh pair of knickers and tights. As before I pulled on my clothes over the top. A hint of Jen’s scent in the sweatshirt left me feeling soft and squishy inside, and as before, nothing changed. Even when I pulled the sweatshirt on.

Jen came back from the bathroom and raised her eyebrows at me expectantly.

“You’re a genius Jen.”

She ran over and hugged me, smiling up into my face, and sharing my delight. Questions filled my brain.

“So, do you mean to say that all along, all we needed was to dress you up in my stuff?”

“No, I don’t think so.” She separated from me and set about climbing into her own clothes. “I think you had to be ready before this would work.”

“Ready? How?”

“Well… Think back to the when this all started. Imagine if I’d put on your jeans and tee shirt then, would you have found me as enticing?”

“No, I guess not.” This was confusing.

“You had to change Richard. Ironically, I think your time in the loony bin might have been what provided the push. I mean, you said yourself that afterwards your subconscious was a lot more subdued.”

“Yeah, I mean still pretty dresses, but nothing so sexy or revealing.”

“Your mind needed to feel safe so it chose long dresses over short, but it did more than that. Sexy, short dresses are more a man’s fantasy than a woman’s. I mean don’t get me wrong, they still make us feel deliciously desirable, but the first time any of us put on a dress like Riana’s pink number yesterday, we all felt a little uncomfortable. The short skirts and plunging necklines are mainly for the benefit of our male audience. I mean think about the first time you wore something short and slinky, remember how exposed it made you feel.

“After what Dr Finster did to you, you started seeing things more like a girl. His mistreatment made you feel powerless and vulnerable, so your mind started dressing you as a beautiful woman rather than a randy man’s sex object. And because we’re more influenced by the things that we wear than we’d like to admit, that started you feeling more like a woman too.”

“Yeah, I’m not convinced.”

“Well, think about the way you’ve been with us girls since we got back. Think about that thing down at the pub. You know we only accepted you as one of us girls because that’s what we saw. Not just because you make one hot chick, but because it showed in your mannerisms, the way you spoke, and more than anything, the way you acted. You’ve been more empathic, more emotional, more girly. I mean even that thing you said about going for Pete if you actually turned into a girl.”

“Shit, you’re right, aren’t you?”

“So now you’re thinking and feeling more like a girl – even if it is the girl inside the guy – you’re ready, just about, to see and appreciate what girls see in guys, and way more than ready to see what the girl in you sees in us girls dressing and acting as guys. The whole thing turns around and suddenly, to the girl inside you, the hottest thing another girl can be is like a man. That’s why you had that massive, er, reaction to us yesterday. That’s why you’re all hot for me now that I’m wearing your clothes. Hot enough to twist that hypnotic suggestion right round.”

She laughed at some new realisation.

“What?”

“Nothing. No, a couple of things. First, in order to get you back in men’s clothing, you’re going to have to keep that girly part of you near the surface. Become more of a woman in order to live like a man, I mean you gotta love the irony. It’s a good job I like Rachael as much as I love you.”

“And the other thing?”

“I was just thinking how far I’ve come through all this. You know I was shocked and a little upset when I first figured out that you were a cross dresser, and now you’ve gone and turned me into one too.”

-oOo-

For the first time in nearly a year, I walked around the university enjoying the feeling of trousers. I was Richard again, completely Richard. No brainfritz changing the way I looked, no dresses, no skirts. It was like the weight of the world had been lifted from my shoulders. I was back.

Jen warned me not to get my hopes too high, that we had found a dent in the armour of my rebel brain, but it might well find a way to fight back. She was right of course. Through the day, I managed to keep myself focused on my work, or upon Jen wearing her own sweatshirt and jeans, and that may have helped. As we walked home though, we passed a charity shop with a mannequin dressed in a short, fur-lined Miss Santa costume, complete with hat and short cape. Reality blurred and suddenly my legs were cold again.

Jen noticed the change. Not in the clothes of course, but in the way I stiffened, then stood very slightly differently. She gave me a sympathy hug then dragged me into the shop.

“How much for the Miss Santa costume?”

It was affordable, so Jen bought it. The tights it came with were quite thin, so I was preoccupied with my cold legs during the rest of the walk home, but once we were finally back in the warm, I asked her why she’d bought it.

“Well for one, I figured it would be one less thing to trigger your hypnotism if it wasn’t in the window any longer. For another, I just have to see what you look like in it.”

And with that, she dragged me upstairs to change.

-oOo-

Chapter 50

It wasn’t a miracle cure, but as time passed, it worked better. Sunday through Thursday, as soon as we got home, Jen would dress in the clothes I planned to wear the following day. Most days it worked for most or at least some of the day, right up until I caught sight of some girl looking particularly good. Other days nothing would turn me on as much as the memory of Jen in my clothes and I’d last the day out. Friday and Saturday evenings Jen refused to wear my clothes though, and if anything went to some lengths to look as feminine as she could.

It was largely about keeping me as Rachael when I was home. During the week , I quite often stayed out and met Jen in the student union, or some pub somewhere, all to extend the feeling of being me again, but she still seemed to want Rachael around, as did the girls. If nothing else, it avoided awkward questions from the landlord.

The Christmas break came a couple of weeks after the breakthrough and Jen and I headed our separate ways. We both wanted to spend Christmas together, but her parents were expecting her, plus her brother was going to be home, and I could hardly leave Alice on her own. Parting was painful, but at least I climbed onto the train wearing chinos and a shirt as much in my mind as in reality.

My bag held a mixture of his and hers clothes, including the Miss Santa costume, so that I could be Rachael or Richard to suit my whim – or my sister’s. I also had digital photos and several digital videos of Jen posing in all of my male clothing. We weren’t sure if they would work, but I had few alternatives with Jen at the opposite end of the country.

It was odd, not having Dad meet me at the station, but with both car and Dad locked away, I had no choice but to finish the journey home on the bus.

Alice met me at the front door.

“Hey, bro. You look different. Sort of less girly.”

I wrapped my arms around her. Trust her to pick up on things so quickly, or had Jen been texting her?

“That’s what not wearing a dress will do for you.” I replied dutifully, searching for any sign of a false reaction. Yeah Jen had told her, and yeah I was getting this woman’s intuition thing down pat. I gave her the official version of our discovery anyway and her eyes widened with reasonably convincing delight. She threw her arms around me crushed me in a renewed embrace.

“Does that mean I’m stuck with you for Christmas?”

“That’s up to you, and maybe a few other factors. If you want Rachael around, I don’t mind.”

“Well I’m not buying Christmas presents for both of you, so you’d better make your mind up who wants to be on the receiving end.”

“Surprise me.”

“I will then. Just as well, since I’ve already bought your presents.”

She helped me unpack, approving of the mix of clothes and pausing to hold the Miss Santa costume up against me.

“I think I know who I want to visit on Christmas day,” she said. “We’re not going to be able to get to Mum or Dad on the twenty fifth anyway – transport problems. Uncle Stan has offered to come over after Boxing Day to drive us around, but he can’t make it before due to commitments with the panto.”

“He’s not…”

“No. He’s playing Captain Hook, but you never know what might happen in the future.”

That evening, I spent an hour looking at pictures and videos of Jen wearing my chinos with a blue shirt. Trying to focus on how gorgeous she looked. I mean she looked stunning in anything, even that sack of a dress her Gran had given her, but that wasn’t the purpose of the exercise.

The next morning, I stood contentedly in front of the mirror, admiring myself in the exact same clothes I’d put on. This really was going to work.

It lasted until I made it downstairs. Alice was wearing a very mature and elegant wool dress in bright blue. She looked… well breath-taking. Enough so that my mind decided to see what I would look in the same thing.

“What?” Alice asked as she saw my expression droop.

I told her and she laughed.

“Go and get changed then. Be Rachael for the day; I want to spend time with her in any case. I promise I’ll wear jeans tomorrow.”

And so that’s what we did. Alice had control over how I saw myself, but she didn’t abuse it. I got to spend Christmas Eve with her in full Richard mode, then much to the delight and enjoyment of both of us, Rachael turned up for Christmas Day wearing the Miss Santa outfit. Just as well too, since the presents were for her and not Richard. Gold earrings and a matching chain, perfume and a wool dress to match the one she’d worn the day after I’d arrived. That of course decided what we both wore on Boxing Day.

My presents for her weren’t quite so lavish, but then she was getting a generous allowance from Dad, while I was struggling not to extend my student loan too much. The gift she loved most was a double frame I’d found in a charity shop. In it I’d put photographs of me as Richard and as Rachael. She kept staring at it throughout the day, shaking her head.

“Why do you keep doing that?” I asked her.

“Can’t you see it?”

My turn to shake my head.

“You can see they’re the same person, but one is definitely a man, while the other is definitely a woman. I don’t know how that can be.”

I looked more closely. Yeah, I guess I could see what she was saying.

“Neither do I.” I handed the frame back to her and picked up my glass of wine. “I suppose it’s that I’m both, but not at the same time. One has to submerge for the other to come to the surface.”

“And the clothes help?”

“Yeah, they sort of provide a handhold to help one or the other of me climb up into the daylight.”

“So the hypnotism thing is just getting in the way of Richard coming out.”

“It makes it harder. I have to keep telling myself I’m not really wearing a dress, that I’m really a guy. In a way it’s been good, because I really squashed the girl side of me before all this happened, and being forced into this mode has pushed the Richard in me to the back and given her space to grow and take her place in who I am. I just wish it would stop now though, because now it’s the Richard side of me that’s being crushed.”

“Hopefully not for much longer though, if this idea of Jen’s works.”

“Yeah, hopefully.” I didn’t want to think about it. Time to change the subject. “So how’s Mum getting on?”

-oOo-

It was late when we went to bed that night, which meant I didn’t get as long looking at pictures of Jen. Actually I fell asleep with one of the videos playing, and ended up in a dream where Jen and I were walking in the woods near her home, only she was dressed in my chinos and a smart shirt, and I was wearing the white dress I’d bought her at Easter. In the dream she sat me down on a bench in dappled sunlight, and went down on one knee. She pulled a small box from her trouser pocket and stared deep into my eyes.

“Rachael,” she said in an oddly gruff voice, “will you marry me?”

The ring was a simple band of gold, twisting apart slightly and wrapped around a sapphire the colour of her eyes. The sunlight sparkled on it so brightly that it woke me up. I looked over her pictures one more time, then shut the computer down and climbed into bed properly.

Next day my chinos and white shirt remained the same after I put them on and lasted through the day. I looked and felt like Richard when Uncle Stan took us to see Mum. She pursed her lips at the sight of me, but when my uncle put his arm on my shoulder and smiled, she relented somewhat. It takes time and effort to lose habits that you’ve built up over years, so I hadn’t expected major changes.

“At least you’re not wearing a dress this time,” she said to me, and actually let me kiss her cheek without flinching. Maybe last time she’d seen something in the way I had been standing. Maybe she really could see when I thought I was wearing women’s clothes.

The visit wasn’t the most enjoyable, Mum still managing to make me feel uncomfortable, but the change in her was noticeable and encouraging.

The afternoon visit to Dad was equally odd, but easier than my time with Mum. There was a look of genuine relief in his eyes when he greeted us in the visitors’ room.

“I was worried you might actually come in a dress after what you said last time.” He said as he shook my hand.

“You know I still do that, don’t you Dad?” It wasn’t, perhaps, the wisest opening gambit, but I wasn’t going to hide this anymore. If he still had trouble with it, then we as a family had to face up to the consequences, whatever they might be.

His eyes clouded a little, and he dropped his gaze. “I thought that might be the case. I suppose I’m just going to have to get used to it then aren’t I?” The smile was more than a little forced, but it was gesture. “I am still worried about your mother though.”

“Mum doesn’t need to know. Not unless or until she recovers. I don’t mean to ram this in your face, Dad; it’s not some ultimatum, ‘accept me like this or else’. It’s just that this is a part of me that I can’t deny, and I can’t live with you denying as well. Not for ever anyway.”

He nodded his head. “Then I suppose I shall have to meet this female side of you sometime. It worries me though, I mean if anyone here saw you and suspected you were a man…”

“You don’t need worry Dad,” Alice said leaning on my shoulder. “Rachael is all girl. No-one will see anything of Richard.”

“Maybe next time then, if you’re sure.” He still didn’t seem that comfortable with the idea.

“I’ll check with you before we come next time,” I said. “If you change your mind…”

“You have to understand how difficult this is for me, Richard. I’ve been reading through all the notes and books that Alice has sent me – well you know that anyway from my emails – and whilst I can see her point, I still feel that the Bible is more than just a guidebook. Jesus said the law wouldn’t pass away until it was fulfilled, which leads me to believe that what the Bible says gives us something to which we should aspire.

“I suppose I’m not comfortable enough with the idea of putting aside all the teaching and relying entirely on this relationship with God thing. The two going hand in hand I can accept, and even the idea that the law isn’t perfect, except in that it shows us where we all fall short of God’s standards.”

“You still think what I’m doing is wrong, don’t you?” I tried to keep my tone calm. My dad had been reasonable through all of this, but then I suppose I had my own habits and expectations. Dad had always been so bloody minded and mulish in the past and I still expected the same from him.

“There is that passage in Deuteronomy…”

“What, the one next to the bit about putting a parapet around the roof of your house and not wearing mixed fibres in clothing?” I’d done a bit of reading since my chat with Pastor Mike.

He sighed. “You’re right, we choose and ignore laws to suit our fancy, and it’s true that a lot of the old laws probably no longer apply. I should understand what it is I’m objecting to before I do so, but I can’t help feeling uncomfortable with it. I mean your mother doesn’t wear trousers, you can understand why we would rather you didn’t wear dresses.”

“And yet you allow Alice to wear jeans and trousers without passing judgement.”

“And again you’re right. Another double standard.” He shook his head sadly. He sagged a little each time. This wasn’t like my Dad to give in so easily. I hoped it was that he was better at seeing my point of view than that he’d lost his spirit to stand up for his beliefs. Then he straightened and managed a genuine, if weak, smile.

“If there is one thing I have learnt and wholeheartedly embraced since Alice started providing me with reading material, it’s that nothing is so important that we should ostracise you in the way we have been. I feel so wretched about the way we have treated you, Richard. Me especially. I think we owe you – certainly I owe you – the freedom to make your own decisions. You are an adult after all and, if present circumstance is any indicator, one who’s making a better show of things than his old man.

“Whatever happens, son, however you decided to live your life, you’ll always have a welcome at home.”

-oOo-

I was to head up to Jen’s just before New Year, which gave me a few days to hit the sales with Alice. She used up some of her allowance extending Rachael’s wardrobe, something I accepted with the best grace I could manage. I hated being given things with no way of giving back, especially by my younger sister. She proposed a Talbot’s inspired fashion show when we got home, which I agreed to even though it felt like it didn’t so much as scratch the surface of her gift. Still the trips into town did get me started on a new quest. I didn’t find what I was looking for, but I did find where it wasn’t.

New Year was a blast, even if I had to sleep on a camp bed in the spare room; even if I had to stay as Richard all the time. Jen’s brother, Justin, was a real neat guy, and welcomed me unreservedly, telling me that if Jen thought I was OK, then I must be. I managed to stay in full Richard mode for several days, right up until the New Year’s party when Jen turned up in something long and strapless made from midnight and sequins. Not having the same natural assets Jen had, I spent most of the two hours running up to the countdown with my arms clamped firmly to my sides.

Jen noticed and twigged what was going on. She pulled me out on the dance floor and held my arms up and away from the body. The dress stayed up; apparently my subconscious was in denial about the whole gravity thing. Somehow Jen had figured it all out, right down to my virtual dress staying up without support, and I spent the last ten minutes leading up to the New Year staring at her smug little grin. This kiss at midnight made up for it though.

She took pity on me and stayed in jeans for the rest of the holiday. I got a few odd looks from her friends when she introduced me to them. Most of them just accepted there was an uncanny resemblance between me and that girl who had visited over the summer, but we’d probably have to let them – at least some of them – in on the secret sometime, but not just yet.

We managed a bit more shopping before heading back to our studies. I even escaped from Jen for long enough to continue my search for what I wanted. Still no luck though.

Back at university, we settled into the routine of Jen wearing my clothes the evening before I needed them. The girls mixed things up by joining in from time to time, and I expanded my wardrobe of men’s clothes, choosing stuff, not only by what I thought would look good on me, but by what would look good on the girls, and Jen in particular.

I was still happy to be Rachael in the evenings and weekends, and it was as Rachael – temporarily separated from the rest of the girls during one of our weekend shopping sprees – that I finally found the shop I was looking for. I had to arrange to go back on my own for an unhurried look through his stock, then I was told what I wanted would take a month to put together. I also had to take out a significant extension on my student loan, but it was going to be worth it, I hoped.

-oOo-

It was Sunday morning. Jen was up and sorting out breakfast while I showered. I took me a bit longer than usual since, instead of putting on my usual Sunday frock, I went through all the rigmarole of removing and cleaning my boobs, then dressing in smart trousers and a jacket – no tie though, never a tie if I could help it.

“Oh!” Jen managed, somewhat surprised to see me down the stairs en homme. “What happened?”

“I was hoping we could go for a walk this morning.” It was crisp outside, frost so thick it looked like snow. “I thought it was a little cold for skirts.”

“OK, where were you thinking?”

“Down by the river?” It was kind of secluded. One part we avoided since the druggies used it and it was unpleasant, not to say dangerous, picking your way through the long grass, looking out for used syringes. The other part was lined with boats, some of which were inhabited all year round, making the place less attractive for nefarious goings on. There was a decent pub that way too. “I thought we might have lunch out.”

“Sounds good. I’ll tell the others, shall I?”

“Actually, I was hoping that we could do this with just the two of us.”

“Yeah, sure.” She was picking up the vibe, which was hardly surprising as I was quivering so much inside, something must have been humming.

We finished breakfast and headed out hand in hand. The river wasn’t too great a distance, and we turned down the boat-lined towpath.

“This makes a nice change;” Jen said grasping me by the elbow, “just the two of us. What made you think of it?”

There was a spot ahead with a bench sheltered by trees. We weren’t quite there yet.

“Oh, I don’t know. I enjoy being with the others and doing girl stuff together, but sometimes the Richard in me feels a little bit neglected.”

“Well, we don’t want that do we? I guess I feel the same sometimes. You know we pretty much only see each other on campus and in bed. This is nice. We should do it more often.”

Not this. I only ever want to do this the once. Bench in sight.

“Sit down a minute, please Jen. There’s something I want to say.”

“OK.” She gave me a nervous look as she settled onto the seat.

Heart hammering in my chest, mouth dry, knees turning to jelly so much so that I collapsed more than descended onto one of them. I pulled a small box out of my jacket pocket and looked down at a single oval sapphire embraced by a split band of gold.

“Jen,” I could hardly breathe. Still, too late now; have to see it through. “Will you marry me?”

-oOo-

Now that would have been a great cliff-hanger, had I been writing a book, but then I doubt the outcome would have been much of a surprise. Except it was to me in that Jen nearly launched us both into the river. Fortunately I managed to keep my balance and my hold on the ring.

It fit, of course, perfectly. One of the advantage of having a half dozen girl friends is that they are quite delighted to be inveigled into a secret plot such as this and, while the ring was still being made, they had dragged Jen and me into jewellery shop on one of our shopping expeditions, where we’d all taken advantage of the free finger measuring service. Just for a laugh you understand?.

Jen and I did have lunch out, but not before she had taken a photo of the ring on her finger and sent it to the girls back home. This resulted in a group phone call consisting of squeals designed to send the local dogs and bats scurrying for cover.

“It’s the exact colour of your eyes,” Becky remarked of the sapphire later, once we made it home. “Richard, you are such a soppy romantic.”

I managed to stay as Richard that evening, but a celebration was called for and, since the girls wanted to do it right, I had no choice but to go as Rachael. I mean I could have put on a suit, but with seven assorted posh frocks to choose, it wouldn’t have lasted to the front door.

Jen and I discussed matters, and both agreed that the wedding should be put off until after graduation. Mr and Mrs T were delighted, and even my Mum and Dad managed to show some pleasure. I don’t need to tell you how Alice reacted do I?

We set the date for early August after we finished at university, which gave the Talbots over a year and half to plan things. I wasn’t sure it would be fair on Jen to have one big day so soon after another, but she insisted it would be alright. Our finals would be finished by the end of May so she’d have two months to muck up her mum’s plans.

The year and a half went slowly. I remained Rachael on evenings and weekends, even in my third year when the girls – Jen included – insisted that we stay together through the final year. Oddly enough no-one suspected a thing through all that time. Richard’s was a face everyone knew around campus, but people just assumed I had become a recluse after Dave and I fell out. Rachael’s face was equally well known around town by shopkeepers, restaurateurs and pub landlords alike for the serious partying that our gang of eight indulged in. Somehow, God or fate or someone smiled on us and nobody connected the two.

At one stage, there was a rumour that Jen and I were lesbians, but that was more jealous spite from guys who wanted us to date them and couldn’t convince us. I maintained that I was happily involved with someone back home and unlikely to change my mind, while Jen just flashed her ring. Eventually the rumour subsided.

We both graduated with two-ones, but then firsts are for people who don’t have a social life. Actually, that’s unfair, firsts are for those who are prepared to put in that extra work and sacrifice their social lives. While Jen and I were serious about our studies, having fun featured high on the agenda too. On the plus side, the class action was successful and my pay-out easily cleared both Jen’s and my student loans. I offered to pay something towards the wedding, but Mr T would have none of it, suggesting it would be better used buying a house.

-oOo-

Which bring us up to date. And here I am standing at the front of a church wearing a penguin suit with starched collar and tie. Not my choice. Not Jen’s even, but rather an agreement between her parents and mine. I glance behind me at Mum and Dad who are both smiling proudly. The last couple of years have done both of them good. Dad’s new business is working out better than he expected, and Mum has even found a way to let go of her bitterness and resentment, largely thanks to Uncle Stan’s influence. He still hasn’t gone so far as to put on a dress himself, but this year they’re talking about doing Mother Goose, so who knows?

“Hold it together Rabbit,” Dave murmurs in my ear. “Only a couple more hours and you’ll be shackled for life.” His sense of humour hasn’t improved much, but he’s still a good friend and the only one I would consider for best man. He managed a two-two in his degree, which he attributes way too much to the help I gave him with his maths.

The organ hits a long chord, then starts into ‘here comes the bride, all fat and wide.’ Not the least bit appropriate in Jen’s case, but yet again, one of those compromises to please the more traditional family members.

I can’t help myself. I turn to see Mr Talbot, so swelled with pride he looks ready to explode, and on his arm…

We’ve become so good at the Jen wearing my clothes the evening before thing that it’s been over a year since I last felt reality shift. I still dress as Rachael, regularly and with Jen’s blessing – no, make that encouragement. “She’s a part of you,” she says, “so that makes her a part of us too.” I had hoped that the whole hypnotism ride was over, but the familiar blurring of awareness tells me otherwise. Not that I’m going to complain this time, though. My tie and collar fade to be replaced by a low and very open neckline. By the time Mr T hands Jen to my care, I’m wearing the twin of her dress. Embroidered silk feels so good, and I can even feel the pinch of garters against my stocking clad thighs.

Alice is a maiden of honour – no surprise there – along with two of Jen’s old friends from church as bridesmaids. We did consider inviting our six house mates into that role, but agreed it would be a poor show if there were more bridesmaids than congregation. Exaggeration, but point made I think. They’re all in the crowd somewhere, some with plus ones, others not currently entangled.

Jen gives me a knowing look, eyebrow raised Mr Spock style. I shrug and lean towards her.

“Everything but the bouquet,” I whisper to her, luxuriating in the feel of my virtual dress.

“Wait ’til tonight. I have something very special for us both to wear.”

Pastor Mike coughs politely and we turn towards him to seal the deal.

-Fin-