Copyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.
This was not going to work.
I mean don’t get me wrong, the idea had merits, not least of which was the good intentions that gave it birth. But it wasn’t going to work.
Phil had been my best mate for most of the past five years. A bit of an eye for the ladies, but now happily involved and about to become engaged, or so he had recently confided to me. The last few months whenever we’d gone out it had been with his significant other, Sharon. She’d done her best to introduce me to one or another of her friends, but none of those attempts had ended well, and we were all getting frustrated with my continued role as third wheel.
I had become too much of a liability to Sharon’s social life, as each disaster, subsequently discussed amongst her friends, made it progressively harder for her to persuade anyone else to give me a spin, so she and Phil had decided that I was to find my own girlfriend by my own merits. At their suggestion and combined urging I had agreed to try flying solo tonight at the latest and hottest place in Soho: a singles club named, rather unpromisingly, the ‘Meet Market.’
Twenty quid handed over at the door gave me free passage into a dimly lit bar with loud, pulsating music and swirling, flashing lights. I hated it already, and was sure I’d hate it even more when I found out what the bar prices were.
I stood at the entrance and surveyed the scene. Even at this early hour it seemed that most of the eligible clientele had paired off and were either gyrating on the dance floor or sitting in loud groups, pouring drinks down each other’s throats. By contrast, the solitary figures of the homely and hopeful sat scattered around smaller tables near the entrance, awaiting the arrival of the more desperate or less discerning.
I felt a twinge of compassion mixed with guilt. Secretly I was all too familiar with that quiet desperate hope of being able to transform an ugly duckling body with the swan’s feathers of a new and beautiful dress. I wanted them to find their Prince Charmings, because no-one deserves to be rejected for something they cannot help or change in themselves. I wasn’t prepared to take on that role myself though, so moved further into the room, avoiding eye contact as I passed them.
And then there she was; long, wavy, strawberry-blonde hair cascading down the back of a short but elegant green dress, slender and with exquisite long legs. I couldn’t understand why she was sitting alone at the bar in a place like this and, cautious of unexpected surprises, I approached her.
She turned as I settled onto the stool next to her, and I felt the breath go out of me. Small, slightly upturned nose, high cheekbones, large green eyes; how could she possibly be on her own?
Somehow I managed to cage the panic welling up inside of me, I mean so what If she blew me off? I had to at least try. I leaned towards her and raised my voice above the music.
“Can I buy you a drink?” Hardly original I know.
She gave me an appraising look. Not so much a once over as a deep gaze into my eyes. There was an odd sadness in hers which left me wanting to help somehow.
“I should warn you,” she yelled back, “I only make out with girls.”
It was a surprise, but I managed to hide my response.
“If that’s your preference, why aren’t you at the Kitty-Kat Klub round the corner?”
She shook her head and went back to nursing the remains of her drink. Well as odd a comeback as it had been, it wasn’t exactly a rejection, and no-one else in the bar seemed remotely as interesting. Even if this didn’t go anywhere, we could at least enjoy each other’s company for a while.
The barkeeper approached and I ordered a beer and another of whatever she was drinking. She looked up at me quizzically.
I leaned over to her and spoke into her ear.
“This is my first time. Here I mean, in this club. How about you?”
Quizzical turned to incredulous.
“Seriously? You buy me a drink then ask, ‘Do you come here often?’”
“Original never works for me. I was going for open and earnest.”
She was polite enough to laugh and that was sufficient encouragement for me to press on.
“My name’s Ken.”
“So that’s usually an invitation for you to tell me your name.”
“I don’t think so Ken, but thanks for the drink.”
She turned her back on me which hurt. Ordinarily I would have slunk off then with my tail between my legs, but something took over. Maybe it was the look in her eyes, maybe a new determination not to allow this evening to turn into the usual Friday night fiasco, but I reached over and touched her on the shoulder.
She turned to me impatiently and cocked an eyebrow.
“Look I get it, I’m not your type, but you’re not going to meet any girls here. You’re much more likely to get hit on by one drunken bore after another, so why don’t we just find a quiet corner somewhere we can actually hear ourselves think, and see if we can’t have an enjoyable conversation. No expectations, no strings attached. You never know, we might both end up having a good time. I’ll even buy the drinks.”
The last was probably a bit much, but she sighed and shrugged then nodded, almost reluctantly, and we took our drinks and went off in search of a refuge from the noise.
The rest of the evening passed in a bubble of suspended time. We talked much and drank little, somewhat to the bartender’s disgust and my wallet’s relief. Before long she was actually laughing at my jokes and smiling. Everything seemed to be going so well then a clock tower somewhere must have struck midnight or something. She excused herself to go freshen up, and I watched her pick her way across the dance floor towards the rest rooms, then right past and out the entrance.
For a moment I couldn’t believe it. Had I said something or maybe farted without realising? I jumped to my feet and ran after her; there was no way I was letting her get away if I could help it. I caught her at the door checking out her coat and moved up beside her.
“Hey did I miss something? Unless I totally misread things, we were getting on pretty well. I haven’t enjoyed an evening with someone like this in, well let’s just say the best part of forever, and it seems to me that you weren’t having such a bad time either.”
She wouldn’t look at me but walked out into the night as soon as the attendant had passed her things to her. I offered my own ticket and pointed at my overcoat, then headed out after her. She hadn’t gone more than a fifty yards and a short sprint had me beside her.
“At least let me walk you home.”
At my touch she stopped and rounded on me, looking into my eyes with a strangely conflicted expression.
“I have to warn you, I only make out with girls.”
I really didn’t understand.
“Yeah, you said that once already this evening but like I said, all I wanted was to offer you a little company. There was no reason to walk out on me without an explanation, especially when things were going so well between us.”
Her shoulders sagged and she looked at me with something close to exasperation. There was that sadness in her eyes again, a sort of regret.
“I don’t live that far away, just a half mile or so.”
It was all the invitation I needed and we walked along the glistening, damp streets, continuing our conversation in the cool quiet of the London evening.
She stopped outside a block of flats, looked up at it then back at me.
“Well, this is me…”
I didn’t want the evening to end, but I’d offered to accompany her home, nothing more. Anything else now would be stalkerish.
“I guess I should let you go in then, I’m… I’m a little further on.”
I pointed a thumb in a direction that was more or less back the way we’d come. She laughed and I took courage in her smiling face.
“Listen, I had a great time tonight. I know I’m not what you’re looking for in a partner, but I was wondering if maybe I might fit into the category of friend? You know, if ever you want someone to share breakfast with, or lunch or dinner, or if ever you have need of a pretend boyfriend to go to some family party or something…”
I trailed off as became aware of how much I was rambling. Fortunately for me she was still smiling.
“You know a friend does sound good right now, nothing more mind. I hope I’m not going to regret this, but would you like to come up for a coffee?”
My face was a study of amazement, so much so that she laughed again.
“Come on before I change my mind, but I have to warn you…”
“I know, you only make out with girls.”
A sadness rose at the back of her eyes and for a moment she really did look as though she would change her mind, so I placed my hand on her back and guided her towards the door.
Her apartment was large for a single bedroom, and well appointed. She headed for the kitchen and started rattling around, putting a couple of mugs and a cafetiere onto a tray and setting the kettle heating. I looked around at her furnishings, trying to dig a little deeper into her life. Oddly there were no photographs anywhere. Instead a wide assortment of ornaments and paintings from around the world created their own unusual balance; mysterious but elegant.
“How do you take it?”
“White no sugar please. People say I’m sweet enough.”
It was an old joke, one I think my Mum heard from her grandmother, but the classics have their place.
I was examining a small but expensive music centre when she came back into the room carrying two steaming mugs.
“See anything you like?”
I looked up at her and an immediate answer sprang to mind. I managed not to say anything; too cliché, and not appropriate given our peculiar relationship.
“I mean music-wise.”
To be honest I hadn’t recognised a lot of it, but I pulled down an easy listening compilation CD that was heavy on saxophone and offered it to her. She smiled as she took it.
“Good choice, one of my favourites.”
She slid the disk into the machine then went to sit on the sofa as the strains of Judy Tzuke’s Stay With Me ‘Til Dawn filled the room.
I joined her on the sofa, but at the opposite end. The room seemed to be closing in around us, the atmosphere too charged for further conversation, and I was filled with a confusion of emotions. The words of the song were tempting me down a route I knew wouldn’t be welcomed, but I was finding it oddly difficult to resist.
She half-turned towards me and sipped at her drink. I put mine down and took hers from her hands. It was like I was on some sort of autopilot, standing to one side watching myself do things that I ordinarily wouldn’t dare, knowing this wasn’t what she wanted, not what I intended, but unable to stop myself even so.
I managed to regain control and stopped, but her breath was deep and excited as though she were anticipating something. I moved closer to her.
She stood up and walked to the window.
“This was a mistake,” she said. “I’m sorry.”
I stood up and walked over to her, put my hands on her shoulders and murmured softly in her ear.
“Do you want me to go?”
She turned to me, head down, unable to answer. Eventually she shook her head, just a fraction but enough.
“I have to warn you that I only make out with girls.”
The words were an almost unintelligible mumble. I cupped her chin in my hands and lifted it towards me.
“That’s not what your body is saying.”
She was quivering but otherwise making no move at all. She didn’t push me away, nor did she resist as I turned her face towards mine.
But it wasn’t me doing this. I never would have had the courage to act so boldly without being sure of what she wanted, and she had been quite clear that this wasn’t it. Was it? I could have stopped myself, but she wasn’t resisting or protesting. Was there really any harm in this?
Our lips met, softly, gently caressing. She responded slowly to my kiss, her lips and tongue moving to match mine. It was the gentlest of touches, but electric in a way a kiss has never been for me.
The strangest sensation passed through me, a tingling sweetness that seemed to settle between my legs and oddly on my chest. The room started to spin and I pulled away, disoriented.
“What the hell?”
“I’m sorry. I never wanted this to happen to you.”
Somehow she seemed to be growing. I clung to her as the room continued to whirl, but somehow I was reaching up to her shoulders rather than down.
“I did try to warn you, over and over again, but you wouldn’t listen.”
I registered a deep regret in her words as my clothes loosened. My belt was no longer tight enough and both my trousers and pants fell to my ankles. My shirt seemed somehow longer, falling to mid -thigh.
“You see I really do only make out with girls.”
There was a tickle around my neck and I felt a weight of hair hanging down my back.
“And since you insisted on making out with me…”
The bulge that had been growing between my legs suddenly imploded just as my chest bulged out. My legs were suddenly weak and I stepped back out of my trousers and oversized shoes. She held on to me and followed.
“…the only way that could happen was for you to become a girl.”
My body was filled with strange new sensations. Not just the void between my legs or the soft mounds on my chest, but a moist warmth spreading out from my middle as I stared up into those impossibly green eyes. She was too beautiful to resist and I surrendered to her tender lips as she bent down to kiss me.
Her hands rose to hold me and caress my breasts, straining against a shirt too tight to hold them. A shock of sensation washed through me and I took another step backwards, then another. She guided me, kissing me and caressing me with every step and I surrendered to her, eager for her to do whatever was coming next.
Somehow there was a bed behind me and she lowered me down onto a soft duvet, her hands moving over my body, eliciting responses that had never been there before. Somewhere in the turmoil of my mind a small voice called out.
“This is wrong. This can’t be happening. I’m a man, I…”
The voice faded, drowned in the flood of new emotions and sensations that consumed me utterly. She began to undo my buttons and I fumbled with hers in return, unsteadily, hungrily. In minutes our clothes were on the floor and she was on top of me, caressing me in places and in ways that I had never suspected could exist. Her gently probing fingers and tongue building up tension upon tension in my new body, sending shivers of cold and floods of warmth coursing through me until, having long passed the limit of my endurance, I was overcome by shuddering waves of pleasure charging through me, over and over again.
Eventually we lay quiet; her body spooned gently against my back, the softness of her breasts squashed against me and a gentle hand stroking my narrow waist, brushing long wavy hair off my neck.
My heart had almost slowed to normal when she spoke. There was genuine regret in her tone.
“I tried to warn you.”
The animal passions were subsiding and something of who I had been drifted back to the surface.
“How is this possible?”
“I didn’t want this to happen to you. You were kind to me; you don’t deserve this.”
I wasn’t fully recovered yet, but her words needed a response. I squirmed around until I was facing her.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
I still hadn’t fully grasped what had happened, but somehow a secret and impossible wish of mine, something I had carried and denied for so long, had come true. She needed to know.
“Showing you I’m grateful.”
And with that I started to do for her what she had so recently done for me. They say that the best way to learn something is to do it yourself, and for the next half hour I learned all over her body. I must have been doing something right because she started to moan and writhe about under my gentle caress.
She was not passive by any means, and before long we were sharing each other’s bodies in ways that brought us spiralling up into climax after shuddering climax. I lost track of time and even the world around us seemed to withdraw leaving us together in that unimaginably perfect slice of eternity.
Eventually we lay utterly spent and glistening with perspiration. Neither of us had the energy to move or even speak so we lay staring at the ceiling, lost in the memory of what had just shared, until sleep finally took us both.
I awoke in an empty bed. The curtains had been drawn back and bright sunlight was shining in through the window. I turned to the emptiness beside me and stroked the place where she had been, revelling for a dreamy moment in my memories of the previous evening. The movement reminded me of the differences in my body. I looked down at the perfect breasts standing proud on my chest, the smooth, hairless skin that covered my body, the curves around my waist and hips, the cleft between my legs. I let me fingers explore and felt a tingling buzz run through me as the sensation resonated with my memories.
A sudden and urgent need took me and I climbed out of bed in search of a bathroom. Sitting to urinate wasn’t so unusual as it was how I preferred to go in any case, but the sensation was quite different, leaving me with more need to wipe myself dry afterwards. I washed my hands and walked back into the bedroom, luxuriating in the natural sway of my hips and feeling a growing excitement inside me as I pulled open one of the wardrobes in search of a full length mirror.
I was gorgeous. I mean I’d been pretty good looking as a bloke, but the girl looking back out from the mirror was every young man’s wet dream. Long wavy auburn hair hung halfway down my back and framed a slender heart shaped face with high cheekbones and large hazel eyes. My nose was slim and delicate and my mouth neither too small nor too large with plump, sensuous lips. I was shorter than I had been, by about five inches I guessed. I also appeared to be younger, perhaps seventeen or eighteen. Wow, I had gained back about a decade. Beyond that, the curves and proportions of my body were perfect, from the smooth, gentle lines of my hips and legs to the flat stomach, narrow waist and firm, round breasts.
I pinched myself hard enough to bruise and it hurt. This was really me, not a dream at all. How was it possible? How was it that something so incredible, such an impossible dream for so much of my life, should actually happen?
I looked around the room for my clothes, some clothes, any clothes, and caught sight of an envelope on the pillow. It had no name or address on it, but it had been lying next to where I had woken up. I picked it up and flipped it open. There was a single sheet of paper in it, thick good quality writing paper, slightly off-white with a note printed in a cursive script; elegant but impersonal. I sat down to read.
“For every homely girl you ever walked past without giving a thought for her pain. For every lonely girl you ever seduced with insincere words of kindness and the offer of a drink. For every girl who’s vulnerability you exploited to get your own way, then left with no thought to the consequences; her pain, her anguish, her loss when she thought maybe, just maybe you might stay and be kind. For all of these and more here is revenge.
“You like a pretty face and soft curves, then you may have them. Your old life is gone. Who you were is gone and, should you look for it, try to convince your friends, your family that you were once that person, all you will receive for your efforts is a lifelong committal to an institution for the mentally disturbed.
“You have no name, no money, no home, no friends, no family, nothing. You may take whatever you want from the wardrobe and dresser, but anything else and the theft will be reported to the police and you will be caught. See how well you survive in a world filled with men just like you were, wanting just one thing from you and all too ready to discard you when they’re done. Your sentence is to give it to them; sooner or later, willingly or not, for free or for a fee. In the end it is the only thing you have to offer, and each time you surrender it you will feel, as so many women have felt, a loss of your self-respect, an erosion of your humanity, a fading of your soul.
“You are no longer welcome here. Remain beyond midday and a security alarm will be triggered. The police will come looking for burglars and will arrest whoever they find. Go. Go lose yourself in the ugly and friendless world men like you were have created for young women like you have now become and repent without hope of forgiveness for however long you choose to survive.”
The letter chilled me to the bone. This was so different from the way things had felt last night and I couldn’t understand what had changed. Did she really think of me in that way, as a user and abuser of women? Did I really deserve the vitriolic hate poured out in this letter?
I could see how a certain type of man would find these physical changes to be the worst kind of punishment, but to me this was a gift and one I was certain I would never regret receiving.
“Oh well, if you really feel that way about me, I’m sorry.”
I was speaking to an empty room, but I was too busy enjoying the newfound softness of my voice to care.
I wandered naked through the apartment looking for any clue as to who my hostess and benefactress might be; any clues that might help me seek her out and offer my gratitude again. I found nothing, not even my clothes and wallet from the previous evening. A clock in the kitchen put the time at a little after ten. Time was running out and I turned my attention to making myself presentable to the world.
With my clothes gone, I had no money, no keys, nothing. The letter had been clear about what I could take and of the consequences of taking anything more, so I went through the dresser and wardrobe to see what was available to me.
The search was short, unsurprising and of little help. The top drawer of the dresser contained several sets of matching bras and panties in different colours and styles, albeit limited to silky, lacy and frilly. The second drawer held tights of different colours styles and thicknesses and a several camisoles. The bottom drawer was empty.
In the bottom of the wardrobe I found several pairs of shoes and boots, all with uncomfortably high heels. There was a large canvas shoulder bag as well. The hangers were filled with skimpy and revealing tops and some very short skirts. Not a lot to work with.
I showered and washed my hair, unsure of when I would have an opportunity to do it again. In retrospect this turned out to be something of a mistake as it took me over half an hour to dry it and brush it out afterwards.
It took me a while to settle on what to wear. There wasn’t a coat in the wardrobe and, despite the clear sunny weather outside, I knew I wasn’t going to be warm. Bra and knickers were all much of a muchness, so I picked out a matching pair and slipped them on along with one of the camis. I then searched out the thickest pair of tights I could find, black with a diamond pattern down the side, and pulled them up my legs. With a little thoughtful consideration of the available tops, I ended up putting together three that seemed to match and cover my assets reasonably well. They were skin tight so didn’t leave much to the imagination and, despite offering multiple layers, wouldn’t do much to keep out the cold, but they did more or less matched the tights. All of the skirts were short and so revealing as to be indecent, but I needed something down there and eventually settled on an iridescent blue ruched skirt that only just kept me on the right side of the law.
I checked myself out in the mirror and the words cheap and slutty shouted back at me. A few piercings, some Goth makeup, maybe a little bit of ink here and there would finish off the look, but even without them I would fit right in on the back streets of Soho. In exasperation I checked through the wardrobe again, but there wasn’t anything better.
The clock showed twenty to twelve so, with time running out, I stuffed as many of the remaining things as I could into the shoulder bag. All the underwear, three pairs of shoes and as many of the skirts and tops as I could fit in. With minutes to spare, I pulled on a pair of boots, slung the bag over my shoulder and marched out to meet my future.
Outside in the cold, the world suddenly seemed a lot less friendly. I thought longingly of my shared flat in docklands, but there was no way I was going to persuade anyone that I had a right to be there. Too young to be a girlfriend, too slutty to be anything but a prostitute, the best I could hope for was to be arrested and, knowing my flat-mate, I was likely to get far less than the best.
I needed somewhere to sleep and something to eat, so set about searching for a phone box with a directory in it. With luck I’d be able to look up the addresses of the local YWCA and maybe one or two churches that ran soup kitchens or drop in centres for the down-and-out.
Before long I had way too much first-hand knowledge of how inefficient even thick tights are when they are the one and only line of defence against the cold. I sought refuge from the wintery weather in a shopping mall and eventually found what I was looking for. Having memorised a few addresses I headed for a newsagents where I started browsing a London A-Z for locations and routes. It didn’t take long for the shop keeper to approach me.
“Are you going to buy that or are you going stand there and read it all day.”
“I know your type, and I’d much rather you didn’t hang around in my shop. Now either buy it or put it back on the shelf and leave.”
Despite the way I was dressed, I hadn’t been ready for the man’s attitude and, feeling a little numb with the shock, I put the map book back where I had found I and walked out of the shop. The shopkeeper’s angry mutterings followed me out, but I had most of what I needed to know and set off on my quest.
I headed for the YWCA only to receive the first of a series of disappointments. They were full and turned me away without so much as a suggestion of where I might find lodging for the night. Most of the soup kitchens had closed down due to lack of funding and when I did eventually find one that was still operating, the line of homeless people was so long and intimidating that I turned away without even trying.
By then I’d been walking around for nearly an hour and a half and the combination of cold, hunger and fatigue was taking its toll. Despondency settled in and I sat down where I was, leaning against the window of a shop and careless of how little the skirt was hiding my modesty.
The paving slabs were icy and uncomfortable through the minimal protection of my tights and underwear but for the moment I couldn’t care less. People walked by without noticing or occasionally muttering some comment of disgust, and I might have given in completely to my misery had it not been for one of the homeless people walking back warm and fed from the nearby church.
“Oy, that’s my spot.”
He ran towards me and in a panic I struggled to my feet.
“Find your own patch.”
He waved at me violently and I staggered away as he settled down in the place I had just vacated and put his hat down on the pavement in front of him.
I wandered aimlessly for a while, eventually coming across one of London’s many small hidden parks, and made my way in, thinking to find a bench and sit a while. The park was empty except for a young man in a business suit munching his way through a sandwich. He checked his watch as I appeared and, with a start, jumped to his feet and hurried off, dropping his half eaten lunch into a bin as he went.
I looked in the bin. I couldn’t be that hungry could I? My stomach growled its answer and, with a quick, shame-faced glance around, I reached in after my prize. I sat down on the recently vacated bench, feeling the warmth of its previous occupant, and brushed a few unidentifiable somethings off the half-sandwich before biting into it.
I wish I could say it was the most delicious thing I had ever tasted, but the bread was dry, as was the chicken, and the lettuce was limp and bitter. Even so I savoured every mouthful, taking progressively small bites so it would last longer. I had all but finished when I was joined in the park by a middle-aged man. His shirt buttons strained against his bulging belly as he sat down a little too close to me, and he turned a lascivious expression in my direction.
Given the way I was dressed I shouldn’t have been shocked, but I couldn’t help showing my revulsion at what he was implying. He must have been twice my age, and I mean my real age, not my apparent seventeen or eighteen. Beyond that the combination of fleshy features and unsuccessful comb-over caused my stomach to lurch unpleasantly. I jumped to my feet and backed away.
“I’m sorry mister, but I think you’ve got the wrong idea.”
His face contorted with anger.
“You filthy slut. What makes my money any worse than the next man’s?”
He lurched to his feet and started following me, the look on his face predatory and dangerous.
“I think you’re mistaken sir, I’m not a… a…”
I couldn’t bring myself to say it.
“What, dressed like that and you expect me to believe you’re some innocent schoolgirl?”
I turned and fled, not daring to slow down or to look behind me until I was back on the crowded streets. When I did look, he was nowhere to be seen. I leaned against a wall and let out a long breath, the jelly in my legs taking a long while to settle. It amazed me that I hadn’t broken an ankle trying to run with three inch heels, but somehow I’d managed it.
As the afternoon wore on, I changed tactics. I made a mental list of things I urgently needed: Something to drink, somewhere to go to the loo, warmer and more decent clothes, shelter. The last I could probably find in a tube station or one of the larger railway stations, but the rest would all need money, which meant a job. I started asking in shops if there was any chance of some casual work and was met with one refusal after another until, with clouds building and the light fading, I finally admitted defeat.
I had more or less resigned myself to spending the night cold, hungry and thirsty when I came across an open air market. In the gathering gloom, the stall holders had decided they would do no further business that day and were closing up. I hunted around until I found a clothing stall and approached the man feeling nervous and vulnerable in the dark.
“Excuse me mister.”
He looked me over making it obvious in his expression what he thought of me.
“What d’ya want sweetheart?”
“I was wondering if I could sell you some clothes. They haven’t been worn.”
He was sceptical.
“I’d ‘a’ thought if you ‘ad any more clothes you’d be wearin’ ‘em.”
“Yeah they’re not too good in the cold.”
I sniffed away a tear. It was a real one, but I figure he’d been played before by someone with more acting ability than honesty. He was still a bit cagey, but at least he was prepared to give me a chance.
“Alright, let’s have a look at what you got.”
So I opened my bag and let him rummage through what amounted to all my worldly possessions.
“Sorry luv, it’s not the sort of thing I usually sell, and I mean it’s all one-offs innit? I mean what if someone wants it in a bigger size? It’s not somefin’ I can shift.”
I stuffed the clothes back in the bag and shrugged it onto my shoulder.
“Oh well, thanks for taking the time to look anyway.”
I turned to go, hiding the tears that were running all too freely down my face, and walked off into the gloom. Everything seemed so hopeless.
I set my mind on finding somewhere to sleep the night. I made my way to one of the main railway stations that was nearby and headed for the toilets. I hadn’t had anything to drink all day which was probably why I hadn’t felt the need before now, but sometime soon I would have to find somewhere to go. Twenty pence to use the facilities. When I read that I couldn’t take it anymore, I just crouched where I was and burst into tears. I couldn’t even afford to go to the toilet in this place.
Fortunately there was an attendant who was kind enough to see past my attire take pity on me. He gave me a coin and let me through. I thanked him through my tears and found my way into a cubical.
Once I’d completed my business I hunted through my bag for some fresh knickers and I also pulled on a second pair of tights, thinner ones, to go underneath the thick black ones I was wearing, then added a few more tops. By this stage I didn’t really care too much what I looked like; I just wanted to be warm.
I took a long drink from a tap at the washbasins, trying my hardest not to dwell on how unhygienic that was, then waited a few minutes until the water had passed through and I needed to go again.
I splashed water in my face to try and reduce the puffiness in my eyes, then spent a long time with the hand dryer, blowing warm air over different bits of my body to warm up as best I could before the attendant came looking for me and told me I had to leave.
I thanked him again and went off in search of a reasonably warm place to sleep, or at least to rest; I was too cold and hungry to sleep.
I found a sheltered corner and was settling down for the night when one of the station guards prodded me and told me to move on. I didn’t really have a choice and before long I was out in the cold again. The clouds had decided to do their bit and even though it was only a light drizzle, I was wet enough to feel it by the time I found shelter in a shop doorway. Earlier someone had used it as a urinal which was probably why it wasn’t already occupied. I chose not to sit down but I leaned against the door instead and waited out the rain in the stench.
How far can you fall in just one day? Less than eight hours ago I had woken up feeling wonderful and looking forward to a miraculous new life, the one I’d always wanted to live. Now it had taken me just that long to realise how alone and powerless I was. The letter’s prediction was coming true, I could feel myself giving into inevitability.
The rain let up a little and I couldn’t stand the stench any longer. I left the shelter of the doorway and wandered listlessly down the darkened street.
I hadn’t been walking long when a car slowly drew alongside me. Silver grey, a mid-range BMW and quite new; I guess no sense in wondering what this guy wanted. I closed my eyes and squeezed out a tear. And why not? I had to eat, to buy warmer, smarter clothes. If this guy was prepared to pay me enough to do that, what was the harm of letting him poke about for a few minutes?
Somewhere deep inside I felt a part of me die.
“Hello sweet-cheeks. How about a little bit of action?”
Wait, what the hell? Phil?
I glanced over at the car, right into the face of my inanely grinning former best mate. I was not going to get jiggy with him.
“What the hell are you doing here?”
He turned belligerent.
“What the hell reason do you have to be asking me a question like that?”
Yeah Ken, what reason?
“Er, it’s just that erm, just that I saw you with someone a few nights back. Over at Café Emm I think it was.”
I’d eaten there with Phil and Sharon on Wednesday. As I said, the best lie is the truth.
“What makes you think she was my girlfriend?”
“Well she sure as hell wasn’t with the other guy.”
Phil laughed at that.
“You’re right there. Well what the ol’ girl don’t know won’t hurt her.”
How had I ever missed that he was this much of a douche-bag? Hang on maybe there was a way I could come out on top here.
“Maybe someone should tell her then.”
“Yeah, that would be more of a threat if you actually knew who she was, wouldn’t it you stupid cow?”
I stopped walking, forcing him to jam on his brakes and reverse up a little bit.
“Let me see what was it? Sharon I think I heard you call her, an’ I seen her comin’ out of them solicitors on Shaftsbury Avenue? I think I could find her easy enough.”
Phil was thinking furiously, going through his options. I needed to keep him off balance and push through to a deal before he came up with a plan of his own. I started walking again and it took him a moment or two to sort out his gears and pull alongside. I made a guesstimate as to how much he would be prepared to right off, swung nonchalantly around a lamppost and made my pitch.
“You know I get really forgetful after I’ve had a good meal and a night in a warm bed. If I had say a hundred quid I’d most likely wake up tomorrow with no idea I’d seen you tonight.”
“You’re off your rocker you are.”
“Not so much, I’m sure Sharon wouldn’t mind handing over a few bob to find out what you been up to. Only she probably wouldn’t pay quite as much as that, so what do you say?”
“You’d go and tell her anyway.”
“I’m sure I wouldn’t, but if you ain’t gonna believe me then there’s no point us talking is there?”
I walked on picking up speed. This street was still dark and deserted enough that he might decide to do something really stupid and I wanted to be in running distance of a more public place if he did come up with his own plan.
A stream of profanity poured from the car’s open window.
“All right, take your tossing money and make sure you keep your gob shut about this or I’ll come looking for you.”
He waved a handful of twenties at me and hit the accelerator as soon as I’d snatched them from him. By the time I’d counted the notes he had turned the corner and was gone.
I slipped the money where no gentlemen and few sleazebags would have the guts to look and pushed on towards the main street. The lights of a nearby mall were beckoning me and with luck I should be able to find a charity shop inside before they closed for the day. With some shops already putting up their shutters, my priority was to find somewhere I could buy a few less provocative clothes. After that I’d think about food and shelter.
I was lucky, there was a charity shop a short way into the mall and I managed to duck in just as the shopkeeper was reaching for the open/closed sign.
“I’m sorry dear, I was just going to close up.”
“Oh please missus, it’s flippin’ freezin’ out there. I got some money, I just need a few warm things. I won’t be ten minutes.”
I pulled the banknotes out of my bra to show her, which act of desperation, along with the pleading look in my eyes, was enough to persuade her.
I hunted through the racks at speed. There weren’t any jeans or trousers even nearly in my size, but I did find a knee length red dress in heavier material and a black jacket that went quite well with it. I ducked into a changing room to try them on and, took the opportunity to change underwear, still unsure of what my night’s accommodation would be. I was pleased with the fit and the look and decided to keep them on, although the boots didn’t look quite right so I swapped them for a pair of less warm but more comfortable pumps.
I stuffed the clothes I’d been wearing along with the boots into my shoulder bag, now bulging obscenely, and stepped out of the cubical. On my way to pay I also found a fairly non-descript black skirt – also knee length, a white silk blouse and a thick black cardigan which might do for work or interview clothes.
I’m not sure if the shopkeeper was being kind to me, but I ended up with change from twenty pound note and left the shop feeling very pleased with myself. I’d thought about asking for directions to a nearby eatery, but I wanted carbohydrates, protein and grease and wasn’t sure if I’d end up with the right advice. Instead I was studying one of the mall’s map displays for something Mac Kentucky Fried Burger Kingish when someone yelled in my general direction across the empty hallway.
“That’s her officer, that’s the girl who stole my money.”
It was Phil again with a couple of beat cops in tow. Obviously I had underestimated his threshold for belligerence. Running now would confirm my guilt so I kept on examining the map. My dim reflection in the glass surface was not wholly unpresentable; my hair was a bit of a rats nest after a day wandering around the grubbier parts of London, but the dress and jacket looked quite presentable. I turned towards the approaching men and took a couple of deep breaths to still my nerves.
“I’m sorry to bother you miss but I’m afraid I’m going to have to ask you a few questions.”
The older of the two policemen was taking the lead here with Phil standing behind them with the smuggest of grins plastered over his face. I stared him straight in the eyes and mustered what courage I had.
“Oh bollox not you again.”
“Sorry officer, not you. I was talking about him. He propositioned me a while back. Wouldn’t take no for an answer either.”
The policemen turned towards Phil with a look of suspicious enquiry.
“Oh come on, you’re going to take her word over mine? She has a hundred quid of mine, unless she already spent it.”
“And exactly how am I supposed to have got my hands on your money?”
“All right, all right.”
The older policeman was holding his hands up between us with the younger one moving to restrain whichever one of us made a first move.
“Look we’re not going to resolve this here and now so I’m going to have to ask both of you to come down to the station and answer a few questions.”
Oh shit. Mind you Phil didn’t seem any happier.
“On what grounds?”
“On the grounds, sir, that both you and the young lady have accused each other of committing a crime. Now come along you two, outside.”
Between them the two policemen ushered us towards the mall entrance, the older one talking into his radio to organise a pickup for us.
We waited outside for about five minutes before a police van drove alongside and we were invited to climb inside. The temperature had dropped considerably with the setting of the sun and I was glad of the new dress and jacket, even if my legs weren’t getting any benefit from them.
The trip to the police station was short and silent. Phil kept glowering at me as though this were my fault, but with two more of the Bill up front he was no more prepared to risk saying anything than I was. I spent the journey putting together a background story for myself, yet again looking to rely more on actual events than my imagination. I recalled a couple of my parent’s friends who had a daughter about my apparent age and who had moved away up North some years back. I’d have to become her for a few hours at least.
The police station was an old fashioned red brick building with steps leading up to old wooden double doors with flaking green paint. We were lead through them into a waiting area, walls painted a dingy shade of magnolia, exposed plumbing and a large wooden counter, oak at a guess. The sergeant behind the counter gave us each a clipboard with a form to fill in and a cheap pen then pointed us at the benches ranged around the walls.
“Is it alright if I call my fiancée?”
Phil held his mobile phone up to the sergeant who shrugged before turning back, without enthusiasm, to whatever he’d been doing before we arrived. Phil pressed a speed dial on his phone and wandered off to a quiet corner of the waiting room. I settled onto a bench close to a large ribbed radiator, picked up the form and set about writing a little fiction.
Sharon arrived just as I was checking over the details I’d written and committing them to memory. She gave me a dark look and went straight to Phil who, for the occasion, affected a air of affronted dignity and stoic endurance under this eivdently unjust persecution.
I handed my form over to the sergeant with an apologetic smile for the extra paperwork I was causing him.
“I don’t suppose there’s any chance of a cup of tea and a biscuit is there? I haven’t eaten since lunch and I’m starving.”
He gave me an appraising look and decided I wasn’t trying to wind him up.
“I don’t know about the biscuit, but I’ll see what I can do about drinks.”
He called over to Sharon and Phil, deep in some private conference, and offered them the same, then stuck his head through a door at the back to ask for the drinks to be sent through. I sat back down in my seat and, with nothing else to pass the time, settled into a depressing speculation of my current and future prospects.
Less than a day into this new life and I’d already been taken for a prostitute twice, I’d resorted to blackmailing my best friend and I’d been arrested. I had nowhere to stay, no means of income and I was starving, or at least hungrier than I had been in a lot of years. I huddled in close to the radiator, grateful to be able to feel my legs again, and nurtured my misery.
When the tea arrived, I added a couple of spoons of sugar and started to sip at it. It was too sweet for my tastes, but the sugar revived me somewhat and hot liquid warmed my insides. For the first time since I’d left the flat this morning, I felt human.
I thanked the sergeant with a smile and started to wander about the waiting room reading through the posters. There seemed to be quite a lot under missing persons with most of them being men in their twenties and thirties. Where there were photographs, they showed reasonably good looking young men having a laugh with their mates. Occasionally there would be a girlfriend in the picture looking a little neglected, and I found myself wondering just how many of these guys had met with my companion of the previous night. There wasn’t much I could do about it in any case; I mean just who would believe me?
Phil was called through to be interviewed first and after a while I wandered over to where Sharon was sitting. A diamond glistened on her left hand; the old so-and-so had proposed after all then. So just what the hell was he doing cruising the back streets for action when he was so recently engaged?
Sharon gave me an accusing look that seemed to be a little cracked around the edges and I felt for her. Phil may have paid me to keep quiet, but since he’d brought the cops in to try and get his money back I figured the deal was off. I sat down next to her but not too close.
“You probably think I’m a real bitch.”
“I don’t understand people like you. First you steal from him, then you accuse him of soliciting you as a prostitute. Why would you do such a thing?”
I looked her in the eyes. There had been something in her tone of voice and now in her eyes; she was having trouble believing her own words. Here goes nothing.
“I didn’t steal from him. I mean how am I supposed to nick his cash? Lift his wallet maybe? Yeah okay, maybe I could have done that, ‘cept you should ask him if he’s still got it on him.
“As for the other. The thing is I’ve seen you an’ him around a bit so I know you’re together, so when he pulls up next to me in his big, silver Beemer and asks for a bit of action I’m a bit shocked is all.”
“You’re lying. You’re just trying to get yourself out of trouble.”
I gave her the registration of Phil’s car.
“We was in the mall with a couple of coppers when we was picked up. How would I know what car he drives unless I’d met him in the streets with him goin’ slow enough for me to know it was him?
“Look I get what you see in him so I understand why you don’t want to believe me. He’s a bit old for me, but a bit of alright even so. I’m sorry to do this to you, but I’m not lying about what happened.”
She started to cry and I put my hand on hers until she flinched away. There was nothing else I could say so I stood up and walked back over to the other side of the room.
A few minutes later Phil came back into the waiting room looking pleased with himself. He re-joined Sharon as the DI who’d escorted him out indicated for me to follow him.
“All right love, bag on the table. Let’s see what you got in there.”
“Do you even have the right to do that? I mean am I being arrested or something? Do I need to ask for a lawyer?”
He let out a sigh of exasperation and rubbed his hand over his eyes. He leaned over the table at me.
“Look no-one’s been arrested yet alright? It’s just that things would go a lot quicker if you co-operated.”
“And I suppose he co-operated in the same way did he?”
I chucked my bag on the table with bad grace. The DI took it as consent and started rummaging about inside. He pulled out a pair of lacy panties and a bra and raised an eyebrow at me.
“What I wear under my clothes is my business.”
Next, without a great deal of surprise came the short skirts and skimpy tops I’d picked up from the flat.
“You’re Dad know you go around dressed like this?”
“My Dad couldn’t give a sh…”
“Less of that language young lady. Were you wearing this earlier today?”
I made a show of reluctance but picked out the things I’d been wearing earlier.
“Hardly surprising that someone would mistake you for a prostitute then.”
I gave him my best outraged teen look.
“What, so there’s a law against what I wear now is there?”
“Unfortunately no, but given that you were provocatively dressed I’m inclined to dismiss the charges you brought against the other gentleman, which means all we have to do is address his accusations against you.”
He folded his arms and leaned back in his chair, looking across the table at me with way to much satisfaction.
Having given me a good half minute to squirm, he reached out for the clipboard and read through what I had written.
“Your name is Catherine Sleighton?”
“That’s what I wrote.”
Amazing how a small twist of the words allowed me to answer truthfully and sound more convincingly like a stroppy teenager.
“Do you have any ID?”
“No my stuff was nicked last night.”
“Did you report it?”
“What’s the point?”
I had a good pout on by this stage. He sighed and leaned across at me.
“This attitude isn’t going to help you, you know?”
“And what attitude will? You’ve already decided I’m guilty so why bother with the questions?”
He glanced at the tape recorder that was committing our words to record.
“I haven’t decided anyone’s guilt. That’s what we’re here trying to find out.”
“But it’s okay for you to go through my stuff. I’ll bet you didn’t ask him to turn out his pockets. If you had you’d’ve seen he still had his wallet on him.”
“And how would you know that?”
“’Cause I could see a bulge in his jacket and I don’t think he’s James Bond.”
“Exactly what would it prove if he had his wallet on him?”
“Well he’s saying I nicked is cash yeah? How am I supposed to have done that and left his wallet on him?”
“Do you have any money on you or was that stolen last night too?”
“I’ve got a bit. I don’t keep my cash with my other stuff.”
“Can I see it?”
I reached into my bra and tossed the remaining notes onto the table. DI whoever picked them up and looked them over.
“He says the money you took from him was fresh bills. These look pretty fresh.”
“Show me a cash machine that doesn’t give you new notes these days. It’s hardly proof that those were his.”
“So you took these from a cash dispenser? I don’t suppose you have your card still do you?”
“I told you, my stuff was nicked.”
“I take it you at least reported the theft to your bank?”
“I’m not stupid am I?”
“So he says you stole a hundred pounds from him and here you are with eighty plus some change in your bag having just been in a charity shop. Seems a bit coincidental to me.”
“What, that I’ve got a bit less than he says I took? What the hell is this? You’ve got nothing on me and you know it.”
“Just what did you buy in the charity shop?”
“This dress and jacket, the blue skirt, silk blouse and cardigan.”
“Do you have a receipt?”
“No she didn’t give me one.”
“Do you remember how much it all cost?”
“What’s the point of that question? I could say anything and you couldn’t prove it.”
“No, point taken. In any case most likely more than fifteen quid.”
He was deflating rapidly and his eyes looked like he was doing a job of reassessing the facts. After a while he stood up and walked out of the room. He wasn’t gone long and when he came back his face was a mask of anger and embarrassment. He turned off the recorder.
“Alright you can go.”
“What just like that? You go through my stuff, more or less accuse me of stealing and now you just want me to go without so much as an apology?”
“If you want to hang around I’m sure I could find something to charge you with.”
I stood up and gathered my things, tucking the money back where it was best hidden.
“Do I get a lift back to where you picked me up?”
“There’s a tube station down the road.”
I gave him a dirty look and walked out muttering expletives as I went. In the waiting room Phil and Sharon were just finishing a blazing row and I arrived in time to see her storm out of the police station. I nodded to the sergeant and pushed my way through the doors after her. They hadn’t quite closed behind me when I heard the DI’s voice.
“Excuse me Mr Harris. I have a few more questions for you before you go thank-you.”
It served the toss-pot right. I allowed myself a quiet smile and turned down the road back the way I’d come. I had no idea where I was going to spend the night, but I figured I’d be better off back in the centre of the city.
I’d walked a couple of hundred yards and was beginning to realise how much my feet were going to hurt by the time I’d made it back where I wanted to be – I wasn’t ready to waste any of my meagre funds on public transport – when for the second time that evening a car pulled up beside me.
I bent down and looked in through the passenger window to see Sharon looking at me through ruined makeup.
“You need a lift? Because I sure as hell need some company right now.”
I slid in beside her feeling as much gratitude for the relief to my feet as concern for her state of mind.
“Where are you heading?”
She pulled back out into traffic without checking her mirrors, leaving a riot of squealing brakes and blaring horns behind her. I did my best not to cringe, knowing it would do nothing to improve the experience.
“I don’t really know. I was going to try the YWCA again; they were full earlier but I figured if I was to turn up this late, maybe they’d be able to squeeze me in somewhere.”
“You don’t have anywhere to stay?”
How she managed to keep the car going straight down the road while she was looking across at me like that I have no idea. I closed my eyes in the hope that the inevitable pileup wouldn’t hurt as much if I didn’t see it coming.
“Not really, but I’ll be okay. Just drop me off near the Y and I’ll sort something out.”
There was a long silence and I dared to open an eye. Sharon was looking at the road ahead again, deep in thought. After a while she glanced over at me and seemed to make up her mind.
“You could stay with me for a bit.”
“You hardly know me. Aren’t you afraid I might rip you off?”
A thin smile played briefly across her lips.
“I won’t deny it the thought did cross my mind, but I’m usually a reasonable judge of character and I don’t think you’d do that to me. Besides I could do with the company and I don’t think I’d sleep well tonight if I was worrying about you sleeping rough.”
Good judge of character? What like with Phil? I held my peace though; this was not the best time or place to bring something like that up.
“Well? What do you say? I mean you’d be sharing a sofa with a few cats, but somehow I don’t think that’s worse than what you’d end up with otherwise.”
I’d never given Sharon much time before. Somehow she’d given me a first impression of being rather shallow, but here she was offering to share her home with someone she didn’t know from Eve, and after I’d been largely responsible for ruining her future with Phil. The prospect of a warm bed and a roof over my head set my eyes swimming. She glanced over at me and I managed a nod.
“Okay then, if I remember right you said you hadn’t eaten since lunch so I’m guessing you’re hungry.”
That was when the events of the day really caught up with me and I sort of phased out. I don’t remember much of the short trip to her flat or of the conversation except that it was mercifully one sided and I didn’t have to contribute much more than the occasional generic grunt.
We found a parking spot close to her flat and I followed her in. The moment she slid the key into the lock there was a yowling from the other side, then we were in with three cats tangling themselves around our ankles and butting their heads against our shins. It was an odd sensation through thick woollen tights, but pleasant.
“Sit down and relax, you’ve had a tough day. Omelette okay? Nothing special but it’ll only take ten minutes.”
I dropped onto the sofa and kicked off my shoes. Flexing my toes was a delight and a moment later a tabby cat landed in my lap and started butting my chin for attention, only settling when I obediently started to scratch it under the chin.
Sharon popped her head around the door.
“Red or white?”
“Wine. Do you prefer red or white?”
As Ken I’d preferred red and I nearly answered as such, but something told me my new younger self wouldn’t have the experience.
“I’m sorry I don’t know a lot about wine…”
“Then we’ll start you off on white. I have a Pinot Grigio in the fridge which I think might be a good first taste. If you’re going to spend any time around here you’re going to have to learn to like it.”
She disappeared again and came back holding a narrow wine glass with condensation forming around the sides. I sipped at the glass and the troubles of the world melted away. His majesty, King Tabby, pushed his head under my free hand and insisted by royal decree that I should continue to minister to his needs and, with a tired smile, I acquiesced. At least until Sharon came back in with a plate and fork for each of us and shooed him off my lap.
“If you’re not careful he’ll inveigle you into his service. You just need to tell him when you’ve had enough.”
The omelette was astonishing. Just a little bit moist on the inside and filled with cheese and fresh chives and with a salad on the side. I’d never been much into rabbit food, but somehow these flavours were much brighter. I tried to eat everything slowly, but it tasted so good and I was so hungry.
Sharon had only taken a few bites of hers by the time I’d finished mine and I felt my face reddening at my poor manners. She never missed a beat.
“Well they say the best compliment you can give a chef is an empty plate. If you’re still hungry I can soon make you another.”
“Oh no, that was great thank-you. It’s just that I was really hungry. Not so much now.”
I hid my shame as best I could behind my wine glass and tried to join in the conversation as she picked her way slowly through her own meal.
She was a gracious host and didn’t keep me talking long after we’d both finished eating. She refused my offer to carry the plates and glasses out to the kitchen, then reappeared with a pile of bedding and slipped a sheet over the cushions on the sofa.
“Right. I’m going to withdraw and let you get your head down; I’m guessing you’re really tired. If there’s anything you need just let me know.”
I bit my lip and looked at my bag.
“Okay, out with it. What do you need? Mi casa es su casa while you’re here.”
This was embarrassing. I hadn’t even thought this far ahead.
“I don’t have any nightclothes. I wouldn’t have minded sleeping in my undies in the Y but it doesn’t seem polite here.”
She disappeared for a few seconds and came back with a tee-shirt nighty. Unsurprisingly there were cats on it.
“Anything else before I leave you in peace?”
“I don’t suppose you have a spare toothbrush?”
She showed me a cupboard in her bathroom where all the spares were kept. This included certain things I hadn’t thought about yet that I would almost certainly need within the next three weeks or so.
“Help yourself to what you need. I’ll probably have gone to church by the time you wake up tomorrow so hunt around and make yourself at home. I should be back by lunchtime and we’ll decide what to do with the rest of the day then, okay?”
Very okay. I thanked her again for her hospitality and just about managed to keep myself vertical for the time it took me to change and brush my teeth. Once I was snuggled under a warm duvet it didn’t take long for the cats to come and find places to settle themselves. I was glad of their company as the night gathered me into its velvet embrace.
I heard the door close quietly somewhere in the hazy depths of a dream and very slowly I rose to the surface. I rolled over, dislodging a couple of cats, and burrowed back under the covers looking for those ethereal moments between sleeping and waking where time expands and the world is soft, but something was off and I couldn’t settle.
I surrendered to the inevitable and sat up, pushing amass of hair out of my face and staring stupidly at the low table in front of me. Why was a sleeping on a sofa? Who’s sofa was I sleeping on? Where did all this hair come from? What the…?
The events of the past couple of days washed over me like a wave of cold water. I looked down at my pink nightie and the two soft bulges pushing out from my chest and remembered. I wasn’t sleepy anymore and nature was hollering for my attention. I just made it to the bathroom in time, wondering how I had managed to go almost the entire previous day without a disaster.
When I was done and washing my hands, I looked into the mirror in wonder and delight at the person looking back. My hair needed washing again after yesterday’s adventures, but despite the bedraggled look I was beautiful. I climbed into the shower and spent a luxurious half hour under the hot water washing myself clean in body and soul and lathering the filth out of my hair. When I had finished my skin was tingling all over and I spent a few moments exploring those places the mystery woman had shown me. A warm glow suffused me and I nearly lost myself to the sensation, but this was something to be shared and I managed by some strength of will to stop myself. I managed to wrap a towel around my body with enough security to feel comfortable walking around, but I couldn’t figure out how to gather up my hair in another so settled for towelling it dry as I headed for the kitchen and much needed sustenance.
I found a half full jug of coffee and a note – ‘Help yourself, I’ll be back around twelvish.’ – so I did. The coffee provided a welcome boost to the brain and after a little searching I settled my hunger with a bowl full of what tasted like soggy cardboard with half a banana sliced over it to make it bearable.
Immediate needs taken care of, I set out in search of a hair drier and, having searched everywhere else without success, eventually turned to Sharon’s bedroom door. It felt like a violation of privacy going in there but she had told me that her house was my house, so I decided to take her at her word. The first thing I noticed was the wastepaper basket brimming with used tissues and the smears of mascara on the pillow. I felt oddly guilty that I hadn’t been there for her last night and vowed to make it up to her.
The hair drier was hiding in plain sight on the dresser along with various other paraphernalia, most of which looked like medieval instruments of torture. I stuck to what I could recognise and set about untangling my hair with a hairbrush. I didn’t feel exactly comfortable using someone else’s, but it needed to be done and I could always clean it out afterwards.
It took the best part of an hour to dry and brush my hair and my stomach was growling at me by the time I was done. I took the hairbrush into the bathroom and teased out every hair I could find before putting it back where I’d found it. I was tempted to have a look through her wardrobe while I was there, but I’d invaded her privacy enough so turned back towards the lounge and my bag of meagre possessions.
I was oddly reluctant to wear the red dress two days in a row, so rummaged through the bag for what else I could find. The nice detective inspector from the other day had taken very little care with my things and the skirt and silk blouse I’d bought from the charity shop were in a crumpled ball in the bottom. Most of the rest of my clothes had survived reasonably well but I didn’t want to go back to the slutty look. I slipped on a fresh set of underwear and a pair of nude tights then dug the iron and ironing board out from where I had found them during my search for the hair drier. It didn’t take ten minutes to get rid of the creases and finally I was dressed and presentable to the world.
I poured myself another cup of coffee and, with nothing better to do, picked up the basket of ironing I’d noticed tucked away in the corner of the kitchen and set to work. Fortunately Sharon wasn’t a particularly frilly person so there was no delicate lace or awkward bows and flounces to work around and the pile dwindled quickly. I did duck into Sharon’s wardrobe in a brief hunt for coat hangers, but otherwise concentrated on working through the pile of clothes.
I was just putting the iron away when I heard the key in the door. The cats ran to give her their usual greeting and, no doubt, to complain about how badly I had neglected them. I hadn’t quite closed the door when she entered the room.
“Oh you didn’t have to do that. I was hoping I’d find you with your feet up in front of the television.”
“Well I had to iron a few of my own things and since I had the iron out I figured why not. How was church?”
She looked away.
“A little awkward. Everyone was asking where Phil was and I really didn’t want to talk about it.”
Feeling a little awkward myself I stepped forward to offer her a hug. She clung to me and burst into tears. I held on and stroked her hair and made soothing noises, hoping that she wasn’t doing the same thing to my blouse that she’d done to her pillowcase.
Eventually she pulled away and went in search of a tissue.
“Thanks I needed that.”
I was relieved to note that she had forgone makeup.
“There’s a little coffee left if you like. I wasn’t sure how the machine worked so it’s just what’s left over from this morning.”
“No let’s go out for lunch. There’s a pub not far from here that does a halfway decent carvary on Sundays and I don’t feel much like cooking today. My treat if you’re up for it?”
Breakfast was far enough in the past that I nodded and went in search of my pumps and my jacket.
“Where’s your handbag?”
I looked at her blankly for a moment then indicated my large shoulder bag.
“That’s all I brought with me and I don’t really want to carry all my stuff around today.”
“Never mind you can borrow one of mine.”
And with that she dived into her bedroom, resurfacing a few moments later with a small, black patent leather shoulder bag. I smiled my thanks and transferred my cash into it. It wasn’t quite empty, containing a packet of tissues and a certain item, the use of which I wasn’t yet ready to contemplate. I snapped it shut and followed her out of the flat.
Lunch was wonderful except that, still in in the habit of feeding Ken’s appetite, I piled my plate rather high and was left with an embarrassing amount of uneaten food at the end of it. That and the barman wanted to see my ID and refused to serve me anything more than a diet coke when I couldn’t produce it.
After we’d finished eating and were sitting quietly finishing our drinks, a couple of men sauntered over to us and asked if we might like some company. Sharon’s face went still and it was left to me to smile apologetically and tell them this wasn’t’ a good time.
They wandered off muttering to each other and laughing unpleasantly. One of their comments was just loud enough to hear and Sharon blinked back a sudden tear.
“Why do they have to be so unkind? I mean it’s not as if we were rude to them.”
A flash of insight.
“Being a guy is all about competition. Any time they take the risk of approaching a couple of women like us, they put their reputation on the line. If they get turned down they’ve got to bull it out as though it didn’t matter to them, or preferably because they’d just found something out about us that meant they changed their minds.”
She stared at me.
“How did you to get so wise in the ways of the world?”
I shrugged; time to make something up.
“Two older brothers.”
I stored that away in the fictional database of my new self.
“Were they mean to you?”
“Some of the time, I guess so, but they were also quite protective of me.”
I was projecting my own brother into the mix.
We finished up and headed for the door and set about an indirect road home through the deserted shopping precinct. When I recognised Sharon’s intentions I began to steel myself for the trials ahead, never having been particularly fond of shopping trips. True to form, our slow meandering took us from one shop window to the next and I was beginning to dread the rest of the afternoon when Sharon turned to me.
“That would look really good on you.”
With that she pulled me in front of the window so that my reflection in the mirror superimposed over the outfit on display. It consisted of a burnt ochre loose tunic top over a pair of thick burgundy leggings with lace trim at the ankles. A pair of socks to match the top and a pair of flats finished it off. It was casual, but it was surprisingly me.
A second flash of inspiration hit me and I saw that these shopping trips were not so much a commercial exercise as a social one. This wasn’t about looking for things to buy with all that money I didn’t have, but rather a way of bonding and encouraging one another. I allowed myself a smile as I imagined myself in the more colourful outfit.
“You know I think you’re right.”
And after that the whole afternoon picked up. Every display we looked at became an opportunity for one or the other of us to suggest a new look to the other, and every suggestion became an exploration in the way we saw each other. Every now and again we’d come across some example of extreme fashion and collapse in fits of laughter at the thought of either of us presenting in such an outfit and by the time we made it back to Sharon’s flat she had her arms wrapped around my elbow and was smiling freely, her whole face relaxed in a way I hadn’t seen since we’d met the previous night.
“You know I’m glad we met. Not so happy about the circumstances, but it’s not your fault that Phillip turned out to be such a dick, and I wouldn’t feel anywhere near this happy right now if you weren’t with me. It’s a strange thing but I feel like I’ve known you for ages.”
“It’s hardly likely; I mean I only arrived in London a few days ago. But I’m glad you stopped to pick me up too. It’s so good to feel warm and well fed.”
She gave me a squeeze and we waded into the flat; knee deep in moggies.
The answerphone light was flashing, showing half a dozen messages. Sharon played through them all, her face turning ever more stony as each one turned out to be a new message from Phil. He’d spent the night as a guest of the local constabulary and had been trying to call since he’d arrived home. He pleaded for a chance to talk to her, to explain. What story he had managed to concoct in the seclusion of his cell I had no idea, but I wasn’t about to let my new friend fall foul to the lies of my old one. Time for a bit more playacting.
“I had a boyfriend like him once. After I broke up with him he didn’t stop calling for about a week then he turned up on my doorstep with boat load of flowers and pile of crap excuses.”
“What did you do?”
“I let him have his say then I told him to bog off and if he didn’t leave me alone I’d get the police on him.”
“The thing is I really miss him.”
I sighed. Sharon gave me a sheepish look.
“I’m being an idiot aren’t I?”
“Well put it this way: When did he propose to you?”
Well that at least explained why Phil was so keen for me to fly solo on Friday.
“And less than twenty-four hours later he’s cruising down one of London’s dodgier streets asking what he thought was a teenage prostitute if she fancied some action. I’m sorry Sharon but the man you miss doesn’t exist; just a sleazebag pretending to be him. You get back together with him and you’re in for a whole world of hurt. There are better guys out there and you deserve one of them.”
She gave me a weak and unconvincing smile.
“At least give him a week to stew in his juices. You may find you feel differently about him by then.”
She nodded a bit more positively this time and we left the answerphone on to screen calls.
The remainder of the afternoon we shared a pot of coffee and a packet of tissues over a soppy film, punctuated unfortunately by Phil’s increasingly desperate phone calls, then I followed orders around the kitchen as Sharon did something special with feta cheese and salad. We cracked open a fresh bottle of wine and chatted long past the end of the meal.
We discussed my plans to hunt for a job and she offered a few suggestions as to where I should try and how I should go about it. Phil kept on calling, his tone passing from pleading through desperate and bottoming out at angry. His last call came through about eleven o’clock while Sharon was helping me make up my bed on the sofa. She went straight to the phone and pulled the plug out of the wall.
“Maybe you’re right, maybe I don’t miss him that much. Goodnight.”
The following days settled into something of a routine. We’d both wake early and I’d put the coffee on and make breakfast while Sharon washed and dressed. We’d share the first meal of the day then as soon as she left for work, I’d go about getting ready and head out in search of a job of my own.
At first it was fun. The shopkeepers and business managers didn’t look at me like I was something to be scraped off the bottom of their shoes any more, but the answer was still the same. Three days of trudging from one place to the next, asking to see the manager or HR manager or whoever might be responsible for hiring, only to be told that they weren’t looking for anyone at present. Around mid-afternoon I’d give up and head back to the flat where I’d tidy rooms, clean toilets, polish tables and chairs; anything to help me feel like I was being useful.
Sharon did her best to cheer me on through the dead patch. Phil had given up calling and she was in a better place for being apart from him. She’d try to distract me by asking what I would like to do if I had the chance and suggested that I might make a go of acting or modelling.
“Don’t be daft. I haven’t acted since I was about ten or eleven years old and I’m too fat to be a model.”
“You young lady are anything but fat.”
“Oh I know that, but have you seen models these days? For one thing they’re all a few inches taller than me. For another I’m pretty sure none of them would dare risk taking a shower for fear of slipping down the plughole. Me I like my food too much to do that to myself.”
“Well how about modelling for a clothes catalogue? I mean most of the women in those look normal and with your looks and complexion you’d be a shoe in.”
“Bit of a pipe dream that. I mean I can’t even get a job stacking shelves in a supermarket, what makes you think I’d have half a chance at a cushy number like that. Besides it’s not what you know these days so much as who you know, so unless you’re connected I’m stuffed.”
Still the days weren’t all bad. Sharon continued to cook incredible meals and I really enjoyed her company.
Thursday dawned and we went through our usual morning ritual. I left the flat around nineish and set out on a new route through the shopping area. Then on my last stop before lunch, my luck changed.
“Yes we do have an opening. Nothing special, just working on the shop floor, but we would be happy to consider you.”
I was given an application form and told to bring it back with proof of my current address and a couple of references. I thanked the manager and headed off to lunch.
I was halfway through filling in the application, chomping contentedly on a cheese burger, when I started to hit snags. National Insurance Number, proof of identity (passport, driver’s licence, birth certificate). I couldn’t use my old ones because they belonged to a man ten years my senior, I couldn’t get them from anywhere else. The only way I would be able to work again was if I did so illegally. This was a disaster.
I wandered back to the flat in a daze, let myself in and sat absent-mindedly stroking a cat until Sharon came home. I couldn’t see a way out. I would have to come clean with Sharon and she would either think I’d gone mad, or she’d believe me. In either case she wouldn’t want me around anymore. All this had been was a short stay of execution before my fate caught up with me.
“So how’d it go today?”
Sharon was her usual perky self as she shrugged off her coat and came into the living room. Her manner changed as soon as she saw me. She was across the room and sitting close beside me before I managed to surface from my reverie.
“What’s wrong sweetie?”
I stared at her blankly.
“I got offered a job today.”
“Isn’t that a good thing?”
I don’t know why some people equate comforting someone with talking to them as though they were ten years old.
“You don’t understand I can’t fill in the application form.”
“Well don’t worry about that sweetie, I’ll help you.”
“No I mean there are things I can’t fill in. Like my National Insurance number.”
“And I don’t have anything like a passport or birth certificate either.”
“Can’t you phone your parents and ask them to send them to you, or were they in the things you had stolen? There are ways to get those things replaced you know, all it takes is a few phone calls.”
I was crying tears of frustration.
“No! They weren’t stolen; that was just an excuse to stop people asking questions. I don’t have any ID. I never have because up until last Friday night I didn’t exist.”
Silence flooded in to fill the space around us. Sharon was looking at me as though I were insane. I closed my eyes feeling the all too ready tears escape and run down my cheeks. Here goes nothing, I might as well get this over with as quickly as possible.
I started to describe the dates; all those disastrous dates that Sharon had set me up with. One after the other I’d give her the time and date of the meeting, the location, the name of the girl and enough detail on what had gone wrong to leave no doubt that I had been there. It was painful revisiting so many unpleasant memories, painful to see the shocked disbelief fill Sharon’s eyes, her hands rising involuntarily to her cover her mouth, but I stuck to it until I had described every single disaster. Eventually I ran out of words and sat waiting.
She believed me.
“Kenny, is that really you?”
The tears were flowing again and I nodded unable to trust my voice.
I felt warm arms around me and I was pulled into a soft embrace. Until that moment I hadn’t realised how much strain it had been keeping my secret. Now that it was out all the walls crumbled and I cried out my relief and despair onto Sharon’s shoulder.
Eventually all the tears were shed and I was left with a barren calm inside. I pulled away and sat staring at my knees as Sharon rummaged around for some tissues. I accepted them with a weak but grateful smile and started dabbing at my puffy eyes.
“What happened to you?”
And so I told her. From the moment of my arrival at the Meet Market, to the encounter with the mystery woman and her unusual warning, to the way the evening had unfolded and how I’d ended up in her flat, to the kiss and the transformation. I glossed over the events that took place in the bedroom, but the redness of my cheeks almost certainly filled in where the words were lacking.
I went on to describe the unusual note I had found when I woke up, the deadline and the limited choice of clothes, the horrendous day trudging around cold, half-starved and fearful until Phil’s car had drawn alongside and he’d leaned out to make his indecent proposition.
I confessed to blackmailing him out of a hundred quid and explained what I was doing with it when Phil set the two police officers on me. I told her how I’d turned things around enough to have us both carted off to the nearest police station.
“And the rest you pretty much know. You’ve been so kind to me these past few days I really felt bad about lying, but this whole thing is so impossible I was afraid you wouldn’t believe me. To be honest I still have that f…”
I hadn’t dared look up all through all of my description, but now that I was done I looked up in to her eyes and the last word faltered on my lips. Her expression was stony and a slow anger burned behind her eyes. After a seemingly interminable pause she spoke in calm and measured tones.
“You must think me think me the most gullible person alive. What is this? I mean just how far were you going to go? Was it Phil and Ken who put you up to this? Did Ken tell you all those embarrassing stories so that you could convince me? What kind of sick, cruel joke are you trying to pull here?”
“Sharon it’s not like that…”
“You know the worst of it is that I actually liked you. I felt sorry for you at first, but then you turned out to be someone I thought I could call a friend. I trusted you and cared for you, you know that?”
She stood up and walked towards the kitchen keeping her back to me.
“I think I’d like you to leave now please. Just gather your things and get out.”
There was nothing left to say. She looked so alone and vulnerable I wanted to reach out to her, but that wasn’t going to happen now. With a slowness born of reluctance I gathered all my clothes and put them into my bag; it didn’t take long even so.
I put the door key on the coffee table and looked up at her stiff and unrelenting pose. It was already dark outside and cold enough that a wet snow was falling. I had no idea where I might find shelter at this time of the evening, but I had no more welcome here. I couldn’t blame her for that, I mean what had happened to me was farfetched. I gave the friendly tabby a last scratch behind his ears and headed for the door and who knew what.
I pulled the front door open to find Phil standing there with an arm full of flowers and his free hand raised to knock. He was just as surprised to see me.
“What the fuck are you doing here?”
Sharon spun round at his voice, her anger finally broaching the dam.
“As if you don’t fucking know you complete and utter shit.”
“And what’s that supposed to mean?”
Phil stepped into the room and I slipped past him into the corridor. I didn’t like to leave Sharon on her own with him but she had made it abundantly clear that my presence wasn’t welcome. Their raised voices followed me down the stairs.
“You and that tosspot friend of yours trying to yank my chain. I mean who is she anyway? Some bimbo off the streets you persuaded to help you in your sick little scheme?”
I winced at that and upped my pace to get away from the hurtful words.
“What the hell are you talking about woman? That’s the little bitch who accused me of soliciting and caused this row in the first place. And now I find she’s been staying with you! What kind of poison has she been dripping in your ears?”
“The kind that only you and Ken would have been able to tell her. The kind that leaves me wondering just what kind of sickos you two really are.”
“I have no idea what you’re going on about you silly cow. I haven’t seen Ken all week.”
I reached the main entrance and stepped out into the cold, glad to be away from the bickering. I had a long walk ahead of me and I could already feel winter’s icy fingers reaching up through the thin soles of my shoes. The snow wasn’t settling which meant it probably wasn’t too icy. I pulled my jacket close around me and set off walking fast to fend of the chill.
After about half a mile the snow turned to sleet then to rain. On the plus side that meant the night wasn’t going to be as cold as first promised, but on the minus my jacket wasn’t water-proof. I broke into a run looking for some protection from the elements, well one element in particular, and found it in the form of a bus shelter. Graffiti, cracked glass and the ever present smell of stale urine, but at least it was dry.
Time drags when you’re miserable and I spent the next hundred years hopping up and down blowing into my hands. My tights were soaked from the short run through the rain and my legs were suffering badly from cold by the time a double-decker appeared making its unhurried way down the road. I put out my hand and it pulled in alongside. The doors hissed open and I looked up hopefully at the driver.
“Are you going anywhere near Portland Place?”
My teeth were chattering so badly even I could hardly understand myself. Fortunately he was experienced in deciphering such incoherent babble, either that or he was used to young girls like me trying to get to the YWCA.
“Tottenham Court Road’s as near as I go love.”
“That’ll do, can you tell me when we get there?”
“One eighty then love. Sit yourself behind me and I’ll give you a yell when we arrive.”
The bus was about half full but the front row was empty. I sank gratefully into the indicated seat, all the more so when I realised one of the bus’s heaters was just next to me, blowing gentle warmth up my legs and skirt. I peered out of the grime encrusted window at the traffic going by, settling into a deep melancholy.
“We’re here sweetheart.”
The bus driver’s voice called me back to the real world; another minute and I’d have been fast asleep. I thanked him and stepped off the bus looking around for clues.
“Up that way to Goodge Street then it’s about half a mile down on your right.”
I thanked him again and started walking the way he’d pointed. The rain had eased to a light drizzle, but even so I was wet through and freezing by the time I arrived at the Y.
“I’m sorry dear but we really have no room.”
I couldn’t believe they would actually turn me away on a night like this.
“Look I don’t care about a room, just let me stay indoors. I’ll find a patch of floor in a corridor. I won’t be any bother.”
“Sorry dear, it’s not so much the space as the numbers. Fire regulations you know. They won’t let us go above the number of people we already have and they’d shut us down in a heartbeat if they knew we went over the limit.”
“So just because some bureaucratic jobsworth sets an arbitrary limit on the number of people who are allowed in this building, you’re going to send me back out into that to die of hypothermia?”
I was near tears, but I knew they wouldn’t help. British bureaucracy is the archetypal immovable object; you can bang your head against it ‘til its bloody and still see no result from your efforts apart from the bloody smear.
“I’m sorry dear.”
The smile was sympathetic, the rest of the face implacable. She gave me directions to a few other shelters that might be able to help and showed me the door.
A few hours later I found myself wondering if the main purpose of all the shelters was to keep people like me moving through the night so that they didn’t freeze. Each one was oversubscribed; all apologies and no help whatsoever. I eventually ran out of shelters and wandered aimlessly for an age until a bright, friendly light caught my eye.
It seemed to be coming from a building on a quiet back street and, like a moth drawn to a flame, I went to investigate. The sign read ‘Café – open twenty four hours’ so I leaned on the door and went inside. The place was grubby and empty apart from a bulky man in a shirt and trousers that may once have been white before time and neglect turned them a dingy grey. He heaved himself to his feet, the underside of his amply fed beer-gut showing in the gap above his belt, and stepped behind the counter.
The look he gave me, as I read through what he had on offer, left me feeling naked. With a growing sense of discomfort I pulled my jacket close around me and put on a far braver face than I thought possible given the feelings swirling around inside me.
“Mug of tea please.”
I paid and sat at a table near the door, warming my hands on the hot mug. I sipped at the brew and made a face. It was too strong and stewed, but it was hot and it bought me permission to be here. I added enough sugar to make it drinkable and eked it out as long as I could then bought another, then yet another. The café owner kept eyeing me over his newspaper, making me all the more nervous.
The words of a song drifted through my mind.
In the all night café
At a quarter past eleven,
Same old man is sitting there on his own
Looking at the world
Over the rim of his tea-cup,
Each tea last an hour
Then he wanders home alone
It described me perfectly, apart from the bit about being the same, being old, being a man, having a home to wander to, alone or otherwise.
A wild hysterical laugh rose abruptly from deep inside me and I only just managed to contain it. It scared me because I don’t think I’d have been able to stop laughing if I had started. Now it was the café owner’s turn to look at me nervously. I went up for my forth mug of tea.
“I think you’ve had enough.”
What the hell?
“It’s tea. I very much doubt that you can overdose on it.”
“Even so I think you’ve stayed here long enough, I think you should leave.”
“Why? Because you want to shut your twenty-four hour café? Or maybe because I’m disturbing the rest of your clientele?”
I waved an arm around at all the empty tables.
“No, because you’re disturbing me.”
I blinked back tears; I was not going to give this loathsome creature the satisfaction of seeing how easily he could upset me. This was quite possibly the most disgusting, sleazy, unwelcoming establishment I had ever been in and I was about to be thrown out of it by a greasy little wart of a man just because I was disturbing him? But it wasn’t worth fighting over. I shook my head, as much to clear it of my momentary anger as to indicate my disbelief.
“Fine. Do you mind if I use your loo before I go.”
“What so you can shoot yourself up and quite possibly leave me with a dead body to explain to the cops? I don’t think so.”
Anger flared again, this time I couldn’t hold my peace.
“No, so I can pee. In case you hadn’t noticed I’ve managed to drink my way through three mugs of what passes for tea in this establishment and I need to go. Now would you rather I did it in your facilities or on your doorstep?”
He weighed this for a second or two then relented.
“Okay, but you leave your bag here.”
“And if I need something from my bag?”
“There’s a dispenser in the toilet.”
I wasn’t in a position to argue. I dropped the bag beside the counter and followed his directions to a small and filthy bathroom. With some distaste I used some of the cheap toilet paper to wipe the seat down before sitting to relieve myself, then cleaned myself up and left as quickly as I could.
The zip on my bag wasn’t completely closed when I picked it up and the man behind the counter couldn’t quite hide a lascivious smirk. I gave him a dirty look, my patience with this guy at an end.
“Sniff anything you liked, pervert?”
His mood turned abruptly dark and I left hurriedly before the gathering storm broke.
The weather had turned cold and clear forcing me to tuck my hands under my arms to stop my fingers dropping off. Despite its questionable flavour, the tea had warmed and revived me, putting a spring back into my step. I picked a direction and started walking, keeping to the better lit streets and thankful for their emptiness. Around me the city murmured in its sleep, the sounds of the occasional street sweeper or police siren echoing confusingly down the narrow streets and alleys.
I don’t know how long I ambled along after that, but in time I found myself down by the river. On the opposite bank, the London Eye stood out against the skyline, tall and proud, waiting in silent stoicism for the next day.
I turned south towards the Houses of Parliament and the Westminster Clock Tower standing out from the surrounding shadows in the brilliant yellow glare of their spotlights. The shattered remains of a half-moon shimmied in the turbulent waters of the Thames and the great Westminster Clock chimed the hour, Big Ben doling out five deep well spaced chimes.
A peace settled over me as though the city wanted to share its relief in the quiet moments before dawn heralded the noise and chaos of another day, and I drifted slowly onward, embracing the ethereal otherness of the place. The path alongside the river ended at the parliament building and, wishing to avoid the added cold of crossing Westminster bridge, I turned west, away from the river and towards St James’s Park.
There was a rustle of dried bushes and furtive movements in the shadows. I desperately hoped who or whatever was there was as shy of being noticed as me, and I hurried on past keeping my eyes to the ground, listening hard with growing dread for sounds of pursuit. Thankfully they didn’t come.
Thoughts of my father drifted into my mind; he’d never cared for London much.
“Too many people too wrapped up in their own needs to see those of others around them.”
His words echoed in my mind and for a moment I saw something of the place through his eyes. The thing is there were good people here – like the bus driver, like the sergeant the other day, like Sharon – but they faded into the background, overwhelmed by the all too frequent less pleasant encounters like my earlier experiences with the café owner, like my fears of whoever might come bounding out of the dark intent on robbery or worse.
I wandered down the road, still keeping close to the streetlights, until I came to a paved path leading into the park. The half-moon was high overhead, picking out enough detail in its silvery light that I could follow it quite clearly. The trees along the road were close and oppressive. I felt a growing need to be in the open so, steeling myself against whatever half imagined night terrors might be waiting, I crossed the empty street and entered the park.
My shoes clacked hollowly against the pavement, the bare trees around me breaking the sound up into confusing echoes. I almost faltered but pressed on, held by the promise of open parkland ahead. Less than a minute later the star spangled sky opened up above me and I breathed easier. A long lake stretched either side of the path, and in the east, the sky was stained pink, bringing the London Eye into stark silhouette. There was a bench and, captivated by the unfolding beauty, I sat down to watch
“Would you mind if I joined you?”
I sat up startled and turned saucer eyes to the man standing at the opposite end of the bench. His features were oddly clear in the dim light; black hair and beard streaked with grey, falling in unkempt waves; skin like deeply tanned leather, and deep dark eyes that seemed somehow to sparkle. His coat was old and patched, his trousers faded, his shoes scuffed. I sat transfixed, all too aware that I had no means of defending myself should he choose to force himself on me.
“Don’t be afraid.”
They were only words, but somehow they acted like a balm, washing away all my fears. I continued to stare it him for an age until he cocked an eyebrow with an easy smile and I realised with some embarrassment that he was still waiting for me to answer his original questions.
“Oh, not at all. Please sit. It’ll be nice to have some company.”
I was overcompensating and we both knew it. His smile deepened, the skin around his eyes falling into well-worn creases. He sat at the other end of the bench keeping enough of a distance to further ease my mind. We turned together to watch the sunrise.
The stars went out one by one as daylight gently spilled a pastel pink flood across the sky. Wisps of mist drifted slowly across the mirror smooth surface of the lake, bordered by frosted reeds, glistening as though sprinkled with diamond dust. Weeping willows, until recently hidden in the shadows, faded into view like inconsolable ghosts, their pale green branches contrasting with the dark, twisted fingers of the surrounding trees, deep in their winter slumber.
It was so beautiful it hurt, a fresh wonder revealed each time I wiped away a tear.
“I come here every time I need reminding.”
I looked over at the strange man sitting beside me.
“Reminding of what?”
“That God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.”
In the gathering dawn his face showed signs of long exposure to the harsh elements. I wondered what his life must have been like. The only hardship I’d ever known had been in the previous week, and of that I had only suffered the scorn and disdain of the people around me for less than twenty four hours. How many years had he seen his own worth diminished in the eyes of those he met every day?
“You shouldn’t judge people too harshly you know? Most don’t know any better than to live by the limited standards they were taught. It’s a rare person indeed who is able to look past the surface and into the soul of a man.”
He was looking directly at me as he spoke and in his gaze it seemed that he could see my every thought, my every feeling. He smiled his reassuring smile.
“In a world where a man can be turned into a woman by a single kiss, are you still so easily amazed?”
Amazed yes, but oddly not frightened. It was as though his earlier words were still having a calming effect on me. What was going on here?
“What is going on here is very unusual; incredibly rare. You see it’s not often that the enemy acts so overtly, and in your case it has given us the unique opportunity to set a few things right. Of course there can be no birth, or even rebirth for that matter, without pain but your ordeal is very nearly over. You only have a few more things to do, and if you carry on the way you’ve been going, you should have no trouble with those.”
I found my voice. This talking in my head was getting a bit too weird.
“I don’t understand. What you’re saying doesn’t make sense.”
“Perhaps not at the moment, but in time when you look back on this it will. When everything’s over you might like to find yourself a Bible and look up Genesis chapter 50 and verse 20. Just the one verse, but it might help to make things clearer.”
Hang on a minute, I thought the Bible had a major hang-up with people like me, as much as the people who read it did.
He smiled and waited, allowing me the opportunity to voice my concerns, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to hear what he had to say on this particular topic so kept quiet. He looked at me with sad eyes for a moment then spoke anyway.
“The Bible is a marvellous book. Inspired by God, but written by men with all their shortcomings and failings. A lot of people have trouble understanding that; religious people you might call them. They like to have their truth handed to them in black and white so they prefer think of the Bible as infallible. It saves them having to think for themselves, and following rules is so much easier than thinking. The irony is that the Bible is filled with warnings against people who do just that, as well as numerous examples of what God is really looking for.”
What was this guy saying?
“I’m saying that God looks at the heart. He knows what you’ve been through, how hard you tried to fit in, to be ‘one of the lads’. He knows how hard you struggled with your differences. More importantly he knows how you care about others. He knows you have a kind and gentle soul, that you put yourself in other people’s shoes before deciding how you should act, and when you act you try to do so with other people’s best interests at heart at least as much as your own. You understand and exercise love as an act of will and when you get that right, how can God help but love you back?”
The man stood up and stretched his back.
“Wait. What, that’s it? You just came here to give me a pep talk?”
He smiled his wrinkly smile.
“You needed encouragement.”
“And what about these things I still have to do? Can’t you give me any help there?”
“What’s the point in having free will if you don’t get to use it? Look, don’t worry. Just do what comes naturally and things will work out alright.”
“And you’re not going to give me any hints whatsoever?”
“Well I suppose there is one thing. Sometime soon you’re going to have to choose a new name for yourself, and if I might make a suggestion…”
He leaned forward and whispered in my ear, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening. When he’d done, he stood up straight again.
“And now I think you have a friend who needs you over in that direction.”
I turned to look where his finger was pointing, across the lake behind us at nothing obvious. A little confused I turned back to ask for clarification and… well it’s a bit cliché, but it sent shivers up and down my spine all the same. I mean there was no-where he could have gone in those brief seconds.
I stood up and walked out of the park heading north, glad of the movement to ease the stiffness in my legs. I had no idea specifically where he might have been pointing and decided that my only hope of finding it would be to zigzag back and forth in that general direction.
I had that early-morning-after-an-all-nighter feeling. You know where everything seems a little detached, like your body isn’t quite your own and it’s almost as though you are watching yourself from the outside. I don’t know if it was the lack of sleep or my strange encounter with the mystery man. Whatever it was, I knew I wasn’t firing on all cylinders. I meandered up and down deserted streets, breathing in the early morning freshness of the air and looking for something to give me my next clue.
I almost missed it. My mind was so preoccupied with all the things the old man had said – trying to remember them, trying to believe them – that I walked right past Sharon’s car. Fortunately my subconscious was a little more awake than the rest of me and a nagging feeling pulled me up short. I turned, but even then stared blankly down the length of the road for several seconds before realisation dawned and I walked back to check the registration.
The introduction of congestion charging in London saw an end to the shortage of parking spaces in most parts of the City, but not to the need to pay for them. My brain was now working overtime to make up for its earlier mistake and in short order I noticed that her parking metre had expired and that there was a traffic warden ambling slowly down the road towards me.
I rummaged in one of the pockets of my bag and pulled out a fifty pence piece, which I then deposited in the metre. The warden gave me a black look, my having reduced his morning quota, and I offered him a sweet smile in return before casting around for my friend. I spotted a café on the other side of the road and crossed to look.
She was there, the solitary customer sitting with her back to the window and looking utterly miserable with her hands cupped round a steaming mug and her shoulders hunched. I eased the door open and walked up quietly behind her.
I must have been in her light or something because she turned to look at me, then an instant later launched herself out of the chair and threw her arms around me.
“Oh, Ken I was so worried. I’ve been looking for you all night. I’ve been such an idiot and I’m so very sorry. Can you ever forgive me?”
The words were bubbling out as fast as her tears and I held her gently, stroking her hair and making soothing noises. There was nothing to forgive. I would probably have done the same thing had I been in her position, but she needed something more, something to help her believe it.
I let her babble for a while then eased her away from me, looked her calmly and directly in the eyes.
“I don’t blame you for what you did; you had every reason to be upset. As much as you need me to forgive you, I forgive you. I’m only sorry that I hurt you too.”
And she was crying on my shoulder again. The café owner was looking at us oddly and I gave him a reassuring smile.
Sharon was suddenly all nervous energy.
“You must be starving. Do you want anything to eat or a drink maybe? Sit down I’ll get you a coffee and, and…”
“Some toast would be nice?”
I said it as much to the café owner as to Sharon and he nodded and set to work. In just few minutes I could feel life flooding back into me. The coffee was strong and fresh, the toast dripping with hot butter. I could afford the calories having missed dinner the other day.
I smiled at the odd thought, strangely alien for Ken yet just as strangely right for who I was becoming. I looked across at Sharon, still unsure, still eager for any sign of acceptance.
“So what changed your mind? About me I mean.”
“Oh, that was Phil. He may be a class A tosspot but he’s never been very good at lying. It took me a while to notice, being so angry with him and you and Ken – well you know what I mean, but eventually it registered that he was speaking the truth. He hadn’t seen Ken and he didn’t know you.
“He wasn’t a lot of help to be honest; all he wanted to talk about was how things were between him and me. When I pressed him about your disappearance, I mean Ken’s, shit this is confusing, he said you could look after yourself and couldn’t we talk about us. Well he used slightly stronger language than that, but you know what I mean.
“In the end I kicked him out, threatened him with the police if he didn’t leave, but not before I bullied him onto giving me your, Ken’s, phone number. I spoke to your flatmate and he said he hadn’t seen you since Friday. He figured you’d finally ‘hooked up with some hot babe’ and didn’t have a reason to come home yet.
“I asked him if he knew where you worked, which he surprisingly did, and I phoned them. They hadn’t seen you all week and were getting worried.
“I mean what you told me yesterday is unbelievable, but everything else checks out and, as Sherlock Holmes once said, ‘When you’ve eliminated the impossible…’”
Silence settled between us again, punctuated only by the occasional crunch as I made short work of the toast. Eventually, with both of us staring into our coffees as though looking for the answer to some deep mystery, I broached the next question.
“So… Where do we go from here?”
She wouldn’t look at me, too afraid of my response.
“Well, you’re still welcome to come and stay with me until you figure out the next move. I’ll help as much as I can…”
I reached out a hand to squeeze hers and she raised moist but hopeful eyes towards me.
“You don’t think this’ll be a bit weird now that you know who I am?”
She gave me a weak smile and shook her head.
“Whoever you are and whoever you were, you’re not the Ken I knew. I don’t know maybe you are, I mean – don’t take this the wrong way or anything, but you really are Ken still. It’s just that you seem to fit so much better into that body.”
Uncertainty gave way to confusion, to curiosity and she cocked her head, urging me to go on.
“I’ve always felt different; never just one of the lads. I don’t know how to describe it. It’s like when we go out for a few beers, they’re all swilling down pints like it’s a competition and all I want is to drink and have a conversation. They’re all talking about sports and I’m bored out of my mind. There’s a game on and they’re all cheering together and I can’t see the point. A pretty girl walks past and while they’re all saying things like, ‘look at the jugs on that!’ all I can think about is that’s a pretty top she’s wearing, and I like how she’s done her hair.
“When I’m around girls I feel nervous, like there’s something I’m supposed to do but I don’t know what, or I don’t have the nerve. There’s a part of me that wants to sit and wait for a complement. In my mind I know it’s supposed to be me who makes the first move, but I can’t face the risk of rejection; I can’t shrug it off like other guys. There’s other stuff as well but it all adds up to the way I feel on the inside: it’s like I’ve never really been a man at all…”
I petered out under Sharon’s intense stare.
“Like you were a girl inside all along?”
I nodded. It still seemed a shameful thing to admit even now that I was a girl on the outside too.
“Well girlfriend, what do you want to do now?”
I looked up into her smile. It was so sudden and bright, I couldn’t help matching it.
“Right now what I would really like to do is take a hot shower and go to bed.”
Sharon paid our bill and we went back to the car. The metre still had a couple of minutes to run, though she didn’t notice. I thought I spotted the traffic warden peeking round the corner as we climbed in. I didn’t say anything; the warm glow of satisfaction was enough.
The drive back to Sharon’s was quiet and uneventful, her driving far more sedate than usual. As soon as we were in through the door she pushed me towards the bathroom and I gratefully stripped off and stepped into the stream of steaming water. The previous night’s experiences, both good and bad, receded as I settled back into the familiarity of the place. I managed to keep my hair more or less dry and stepped back into the living room wrapped in a towel.
“I called in to tell my boss I had a family emergency. I’m owed a few days off for overtime so they really can’t complain.”
“You didn’t need to do that for me. I get the feeling I’m going to spend at least all of the morning sleeping in any case.”
“Yeah, me too. In case you forgot, I was out all night as well.”
She went suddenly shy.
“I er, I changed the sheets in my bed. It’s, I mean I’m not that way inclined at all, but then we’re friends and friends can share a bed without things getting awkward, and my bed’s big enough for two and the couch isn’t really all that comfortable so I was wondering if…”
It was a wonderful gesture. I wanted to hug her, but in light of what she had just said I didn’t want to give her the wrong signals.
She looked up uncertainly, but assumed that I had accepted her offer.
“S-so er, so which side do you usually sleep?”
From my hunt for the hair drier I remembered the nightstand on the right being filled with her stuff.
“I don’t think I have a preference. I should be okay on the left.”
She nodded and eased past me into the bathroom. I headed for the bedroom where I found a fresh nightie laid out for me; bunnies this time. I changed into it and slid beneath the crisp clean sheets. The feeling was exquisite against my smooth skin and I snuggled down with a warm glow of belonging growing in my chest. I was asleep before Sharon came to join me.
I awoke to the sound of clattering plates just before something soft and heavy landed on me and wriggled itself into a comfortable position. Somewhat blearily I pushed the duvet out of the way and stared uncomprehendingly at the world through a tangle of hair. I mean don’t get me wrong, I love my hair, I love the way it looks, the way it feels, the weight of it hanging down my back, but right now if I had a pair of scissors or even a razor…
A sing-song voice came through the door, followed closely by Sharon with a tray full of food.
“Hello sleepy-head. Oh come on Toby, shift your carcase. You know you’re not supposed to be in here.”
The somewhat affronted tabby jumped from his recently acquired perch and stalked out of the room twitching his tail at us with disdain.
“Winter vegetable soup with sage and chestnuts and a slice of tomato bread: Just the sort of lunch to set you up for an afternoon’s shopping.”
I managed to claw the hair out of my eyes and rake it into a slightly more manageable shape before taking the offered tray and breathing in the delightful smells with a genuine look of rapture on my face. The soup was hot but oh so tasty. My brain slowly caught up with my body.
“Where are we going shopping?”
“I thought we might head back to the precinct we went through on Sunday and have a look around while the shops are open just for a change.”
I thought about my meagre funds, now further depleted by a week’s job hunting and last night’s adventures. My face must have told a story.
“This’ll be my treat. You know, to make up for me being such a bitch yesterday.”
I swallowed another mouthful of soup and looked over at her with a determined look.
“You don’t have to do that and you weren’t any sort of bitch yesterday. I told you I would probably have done the same if the situations had been reversed, I mean I did give you a lot to chew on.”
“It was still no excuse to throw you out onto the street, especially on a night like last night. Besides if you’re going to hang out with me you’ll need a little more in your wardrobe than a couple of dresses from a charity shop.”
She was trying, with limited success, to hide a grin and there was just a hint of mischief in her eyes. Okay, I’ll play along. I picked up her pillow and threw it at her, making her squeal.
“Alright, now you’re being a bitch.”
“So you’ll let me treat you then?”
I didn’t know what I was letting myself in for otherwise I probably wouldn’t have nodded.
“Aren’t you eating anything?”
“I already did. You were so far gone I thought I’d give you another half hour, but if we’re going to make anything of today we’re going to have to move pretty soon.”
“Why the sudden rush?”
The tomato bread was fantastic and the soup was just too good to hurry.
“Well I’ve been doing some thinking since I woke up. I have a few ideas on what we can do next to help you out, but first I think it’s kind of important for you to confront the person who did this to you, to try and understand exactly what happened and why.”
I wasn’t too keen on the idea, I mean that last note had been pretty nasty. The reluctance was written all over me and Sharon was reading it.
“Okay look, it’s my turn to do the tough love thing. You were right about Phil and I’m pretty sure I’m right about this.”
“And what has this got to do with buying clothes?”
“Well for one you’ll feel a lot better about yourself if you look good; no trust me I’m right about this. For two, I don’t suppose you could find the flat she took you to could you?”
I had a vague idea where it was, but I remembered there being a lot of buildings that looked similar. I shook my head.
“Which means that our best bet for catching up with her is to go back to the place you first met, and since it’s Friday today, what do you think are the chances that she’ll be at the Meet Market tonight?”
“You’re not just a pretty face are you?”
“Nope, but you’ll need a little bit more than yours if you want them to let you in tonight. So a new outfit and a makeover, what do you say?”
I downed the last of my soup and handed her back the tray.
“I say lead on MacDuff.”
“It’s actually ‘Lay on MacDuff.’”
“The quote is actually ‘Lay on MacDuff’. The other is a misquote and I’m a bit protective of my Shakespeare.”
“I stand corrected.”
And I climbed out of bed to put truth to at least half the phrase.
It was two o’clock by the time I had taken my second shower of the day and put on my red dress. Looking in the mirror I could see that it was a little old fashioned and had distinct signs of wear that would have me withering beneath the scorn of any woman I was likely to come across at the nightclub.
I picked up my borrowed purse, adding my remaining cash to it, grabbed my jacket and followed her out through the door.
The early morning sky was making good on its warning and dark clouds were looming as we hurried down the road towards the nearby shopping precinct. Sharon looked at my jacket speculatively.
“It looks like we’re going to have to get you a coat better suited to the weather as well.”
I started to protest but Sharon held up a hand to stop me.
“If it bothers you that much, you can pay me back when you’re rich and famous, but right now this is my money and I know what I want to do with it.”
With no open avenue to pursue on that particular topic we walked on in silence until something she had said earlier tickled my memory.
“You said you had a few ideas on what to do next. Would you care to explain?”
That nervous look crept over her again and she gave me a sidelong glance before replying.
“I have a couple of friends I’d like you to meet, people who might be able to help. They’ll be at church on Sunday if you don’t mind coming along. I mean I could invite them to lunch afterwards if you’d prefer, it’s just that they may be busy.”
This had happened to me before; a friend inviting me to church and looking that nervous. It was almost as if they were embarrassed to be doing so. I mean okay, church doesn’t exactly sound like a party, but I doubt there’s anything to be ashamed of. Time to be reassuring again.
“No, I’d like to come. It’ll give me a chance to say thank-you to him upstairs for finding me such a good friend.”
Her expression was unreadable after that and I left her to her thoughts.
This shopping trip was a little like the previous Sunday’s – same shops, same displays – but there the similarity ended. Sharon moved around the shops like a tornado, picking up skirts and dresses seemingly at random and dragging me into a changing room where I soon disappeared beneath a maelstrom of clothing. I tried to push some things on her, but she had become an elemental force bent on the sole purpose of filling the vacuum that was my wardrobe. I got really worried when the bill topped triple figures and carried on climbing and I tried to get her to stop, but she gave me the same ‘it’s my money’ routine before pulling me into a boutique to have my ears pierced.
She even dragged me into one of the high end fashion shops we’d been laughing at on Sunday and had me try on several outfits, getting me to pose while she took shots with the camera on her phone. That lasted until the manageress decided that she was unlikely to make any commission from us and asked us to leave.
The afternoon was a blast. We ended up with so many bags that our only hope of making it home with all our spoils intact was to call for a taxi, and even then they were piled so high in the back with us that the driver could hardly see through his rear view mirror. Eventually we fell, almost literally, into Sharon’s apartment, laughing and exhausted.
I recovered first and made my way to the kitchen and the coffee machine, stopping only briefly on the way.
“You know there is one question that springs to mind?”
Sharon was preoccupied keeping Toby and co out of all the new purchases.
“Oh what’s that?”
“Where are we going to put all this stuff?”
Sharon followed me through the door with a double arm full of tabby who, for the moment, seemed content enough to be carried and stroked.
“We’ll sort something out. I have way too many clothes anyway, so if you help me thin out my wardrobe a little tomorrow, I may let you use some of the space we free up.”
I handed her a coffee and Toby made a break for it; seeking further adventure in the living room.
“So what are you going to wear tonight?”
“I hadn’t really decided yet. It has to be something with trousers or leggings though. I mean don’t get me wrong I’m a sucker for a pretty dress, but these past few days I have had my fill of cold legs.”
She cocked her head and looked at me, her eyebrows knitting together a little.
“You know I’m amazed I didn’t see it before, but you are such a girl. I mean looking back on it the signs were there before you changed, but you are so natural I find it so strange to think that you ever were a man.”
“Whatever I was physically I always struggled to fit into the mental and emotional patterns of a man. I’ve read that gender has a lot more to do with how your brain develops than anything else and the suggestion is that my brain developed a more feminine structure than masculine. I’m not entirely sure how I feel about that, but I suppose there has to be some truth in it. After my transformation it felt like I was waking from a bad dream, that I was fully able to be me for the first time ever. Even in the worst moments of the past week, I still felt more right. It’s so much easier to be me now, does that make sense?”
Sharon’s thoughtful face involved a rather comical pout and I couldn’t keep a straight face for more than a few seconds as she tried to wrap her mind around my rambling, and before long we were laughing again.
“Okay so back to the original question. How about that first outfit I suggested to you last Sunday?”
“I think it’ll do fine, I mean it’s only a nightclub, not a black tie and ball gowns kind of thing. Come on we don’t have forever, you need to shower and wash your hair while I dig out some clothes for both of us and make us something to eat. We’ve only got a couple of hours so we should get cracking.”
She shooed me into the bathroom, intent on turning me into a prune, while I was still pondering the concept of needing two hours to get ready.
In the end it wasn’t far short. I mean the clothes didn’t take much arranging, but my masses of hair took forever to dry and brush out as usual and after we’d each bolted down a quick sandwich Sharon insisted on sitting me down in front of her dressing table to learn how to use the new makeup kit she’d bought me. It was a steep learning curve which proved too steep for the available time. After watching my bodged attempts for ten minutes, Sharon took control and gave my face a serviceable going over.
I transferred my money into my new purse which I then put in my new handbag, along with a few additional items Sharon suggested I needed, and slipped my new winter coat over my new outfit. The feel of the makeup on my face would take some getting used to, but the effect as I looked in the mirror was astonishing. This was me, this was right. A great bubble of wonder grew inside me until Sharon pushed past and burst it.
“Come on princess, time to give your adoring public the opportunity to admire you. If we hurry we’ll just make the seven o’clock bus.”
So we did, and we did.
It was the same bus driver as the previous night.
“Evening ladies. Evening miss, glad to see things have improved on last night.”
I felt an urge to lean over and kiss him, but managed to subdue it. I flashed him a brilliant smile instead and even that seemed almost too much for him.
“Thank-you for looking after me, you were very kind.”
“Oh it wasn’t nothing miss. As I say I’m glad to see a smile on your face tonight.”
He was actually blushing as we handed over our fare and Sharon quickly pulled me down to the back of the bus before steam started to appear from beneath his collar.
“You incorrigible flirt!”
She hissed out the exclamation but was struggling hard to supress a giggle.
“Why, what did I do?”
“I am in presence of a monster. Girl you need to learn to dial it down.”
“I still don’t know what you’re going on about.”
“Well if I can put it this way. You just gave that poor driver such a stiffy that I wouldn’t be surprised if he misses his next few gear changes.”
Realisation dawned and my face flushed.
“You have new and powerful weapons now sweetie. You can turn men into gibbering wrecks with that smile and you need to learn how not to do it to every one you meet, otherwise you are going to end up in serious trouble.”
Fortunately the driver managed to retain enough of his faculties to put his hands on the right stick and the bus rolled away smoothly into traffic. We chatted the rest of the way into the city, Sharon seemingly an unending reservoir of small-talk with me joining in as and when. I played with my hair absent-mindedly until I noticed most of the male passengers and even one or two of the female ones giving me sideways glances. I dropped my hands into my lap and studied my nails with a terrified intensity.
“See what I mean?”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
“Yes you did. You put on some pretty clothes, brushed your hair out and made an effort with your makeup. It’s kind of like putting a pair of antlers on your head and hanging up a sign saying open season.
“My advice? Don’t make eye contact, at least not until you find a guy who interests you.”
“Or a cute girl. Sorry I keep forgetting you used to be a guy. I hope you don’t turn out that way though; it would be such a waste with looks like yours.”
“Sharon, stop it. I… I’m not ready for this.”
She finally recognised that her teasing was scaring me and lay a sympathetic hand on my own.
“I’m sorry sweetie. Look you’ll be fine. I’ll stick with you and if anyone bothers us just let me do the talking okay?”
I nodded, but kept my head bowed and my face hidden behind my hair for the rest of the journey, her attempts at reassurance not quite sufficient to rebuild my self-confidence.
We hopped off the bus in Soho with me giving a somewhat toned down smile to the driver’s ‘you take care now’. The streets were crowded with people looking for amusement and we joined them. The night was turning cold again and I gave out a silent thanks to whoever was listening for the warmth of my new clothes. We reached the Meet Market and joined the line of customers waiting to go in. I hated the idea of forking out such a large chunk of my dwindling assets to get into the club, but after all Sharon had spent on me that afternoon it would have been churlish to refuse.
We hadn’t been waiting long when a guy in a tuxedo walked down the line and gestured at me.
“Perks of the new look sweetie.”
Sharon took hold of my arm and pulled me out of the queue. The man looked quizzically at Sharon and realisation finally dawned.
“She’s uh, she’s with me.”
He shrugged and waved us to the front of the line where another man, similarly attired, held the door open for us. Inside yet another man at the cashier’s desk waved us past with a smile and before I knew what was happening, we were checking our coats in at the desk. I turned to Sharon, only half comprehending.
“That hardly seems fair.”
“Whoever said life was fair? Look it’s worth it for these places. Once the stunningly beautiful – such as yourself – and the strikingly handsome learn that they can get in here for free, they will come in larger numbers, which means in turn that the ordinary population will line up around the corner for a chance to get in and try their luck, or just stand at the bar and drool over the lovelies.”
I was dumbstruck and she had to tug gently on my arm to get me moving.
“Just one more thing you’re going to have to get used to. Come on kiddo, let’s duck in here and freshen up before we make our big entrance.”
The ladies was nearly empty this early in the evening leaving us ample room to stand in front of the long mirror and work on our looks. I brushed my hair out – my own brush, one of the few things I’d succeeded in buying for myself that afternoon – and made a passable attempt at freshening my lipstick. Sharon fussed with her eyes a little then turned to me as the room emptied.
“On the ‘life’s not fair’ theme a word of advice, any time in the evening you get the urge to go, don’t wait. In another half hour there will be a queue for these facilities to rival the one outside the club and it will only get longer as the evening wears on. You will be busting to go by the time you get in here.”
We finished our repairs and, feeling more out of my depth than I had all week, I followed Sharon out onto the battlefield.
We emerged into the same loud music and flashing lights that I’d hated the previous week; something that being turned into a girl hadn’t changed much in me it seemed. We made our way past the tables of the hopeful to the dance floor and bar. The whole room was a swirling, gyrating mass of humanity and I looked around in the confusion for a familiar face. When I found it, the blood ran cold in my veins.
Sharon sensed my sudden stillness and leaned over to shout in my ear.
“Did you find her?”
I leaned back. This wasn’t going to be easy. I raised a finger to point.
“Yeah. Er, I er… She’s over there. Talking to Phil.”
Sharon took the lead and we made our way through the writhing bodies on the dance floor. Even with her running interference it was amazing how many hands ‘accidentally’ brushed and groped my breasts and backside. Some of them were hard enough to leave bruises and by the time we reached the other side I was shaking with shock and anger from the experience. I leaned over to Sharon.
“How do you cope with it?”
“All the… you know… groping.”
I indicated my breasts and bum and her face went ashen.
“Oh shit I didn’t think about that. They mainlygo for the really gorgeous girls, and I’m afraid that includes you now.”
“But you’re at least as attractive as I am.”
“Nice of you to say so sweetie, but I’m not in your class. Are you okay to do this?”
She waved over to where my mystery girl from the previous week sat by the bar. Phil had turned away, trying to attract the barman’s attention; this was my chance. I gave Sharon a quick nod and stepped up behind my target.
“I hear you only make out with girls.”
She stiffened then spun around on her stool. Her eyes were wide as saucers and her mouth hung open in disbelief. She grabbed my wrists and pulled me towards her.
“You’re still alive? Thank heavens, but how?”
Phil noticed the commotion and turned to see what was going on. When he saw me he exploded.
“You again! What the fuck are you doing here? Not just happy to balls things up between me and my ex, you feel the need to follow me around and sabotage everything else I do? I mean what did I ever do to you?”
What, apart from try to get me arrested for theft and prostitution? There were so many ways I could have answered that question, and none of them pretty, but that wasn’t why I was here. I managed to swallow my anger and disappointment in my friend and turned to the green-eyed girl next to me.
“Can we go somewhere and talk?”
Phil wasn’t having any of it though.
“No! You don’t just get to come in here and break this up. We were having a conversation and you have no right to interrupt. Now just back off, your presence isn’t welcome here.”
Sharon appeared at my shoulder and Phil turned to glower at her.
“Phil you need to listen…”
“No I don’t. You made it perfectly clear last night that you wanted nothing to do with me, so let me tell you I want nothing to do with you or your new friend, so you can just buggerr off back where you came from.”
He was making enough noise to get noticed. A number of large men in badly fitting tuxedos where edging their way towards us. I turned to the girl.
“I guess it’s up to you then. I mean I want to help, but I can’t unless you let me.”
Hope and despair were warring in her eyes; the outcome was as yet undecided.
“You don’t know what you’re asking.”
I took her hold of her hands and looked beseechingly into her eyes. The room seemed to be shrinking in around us and I could feel the importance of this moment. I glanced briefly at Phil and had a flash of his short and horrific future should he be transformed the same way I had been. He was too much of a bloke, and for him to change into a girl would be even more wrong than I had felt for all of my life.
“You’re right I don’t know what I’m asking, but whatever it is, is it so much worse than what you’re going through now? I do know that however much of a tosspot this guy is, he would be destroyed by what you have in mind for him. No-one deserves what he would have to face and I think you know that.”
“But I can’t go back there, back to being alone.”
“Then you won’t. I promise you that you won’t be alone because whatever you have to face, I’ll face it with you.”
Hope was winning. The agony under the surface was receding. She stared at me uncomprehending.
“You’d do that for me? After what I did to you? Why?”
“Because no-one should have to face suffering on their own.”
The bouncers had arrived and were looking at the four of us for some explanation. Phil was only too happy to provide one.
“Look, I was quite happy sharing a quiet drink with this lady here when she turns up. She is serious bad news; been screwing up my life since I first crossed her path a week ago. She got me arrested, turned my girlfriend against me and caused us to break up, and now she’s here along with my ex trying to mess with my life even more. I’d greatly appreciate it if you could have them leave us alone.”
The bouncers looked at me then turned to the woman next to me.
“Excuse me miss, is this true?”
I held her eyes, willing her with everything I had to make the right decision. Whatever was inside her was tearing her apart. It would be so easy to turn away from this, to go back to the way things had been, to choose SNAFU over FUBAR.
“Miss? I’m sorry are these people bothering you?”
She tore her eyes away from me, the anguish in their depths palpable even at this distance. A coldness spread through me; I hadn’t managed to get through to her. We were going to be thrown and there was nothing I could do for Phil.
“I’m afraid there’s been a bit of a mix up. You see this is a friend I’ve been waiting for. I tried to explain it to this gentleman, but I think he misunderstood me.”
The relief was so great my knees almost buckled under me. I let out a strangled sob which had the bouncers looking at me oddly for a moment, but for right now they were more interested in Phil.
“I’m sorry sir but I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Oh come on! Can’t you see she’s done it again? This isn’t right, this isn’t fair.”
Two of the heavies hooked an arm each under Phil’s armpits and started dragging him backwards toward the entrance. Sharon gave me an apologetic look and I waved for her to follow them. I didn’t really like the idea of her chasing after Phil, but maybe something good could come of it. I turned back to thank my companion, but now that she’d made her decision, the agonised tension had gone and what remained was a sorrow so deep and overwhelming that any words I might have had caught in my throat.
I led her to a quiet table right at the back of the club. A waitress approached us almost immediately and I ordered us a couple of coffees. They would be expensive and quite possibly undrinkable, but the club would insist on us having something on the table.
My mystery woman sat across from me in silent misery and I left her to her thoughts until the waitress returned. The coffee was strong and smelt burnt. I handed over a ten pound note and received far too little change. This was all incidental. I reached across and squeezed a hand.
She let out a long despairing sigh and nodded.
She looked across the dance floor to the entrance. With her chin she pointed out the less fortunate lonely hearts sitting ever hopeful just inside the door.
“I used to be one of them.”
I didn’t comment. If it were true it wouldn’t be the strangest thing that had happened this week.
“My Dad used to call me mighty maid. ‘Strong and sturdy,’ he would say. ‘You’ll make some farmer a good wife one day.’ He thought it was funny, but he never saw how much hurt it caused me, especially coming from him.
“I made it through school and got used to being ignored by both boys and girls. I was one of the quiet, dependable ones who no-one ever notices. Do you know how lonely that can be?”
I shook my head. I remembered loneliness but it wasn’t the same.
“I moved here a couple of years ago, took a clerical job with a firm of solicitors and became part of the wallpaper. On a Friday nights I’d go out clubbing and sit like all those hopeful Harriets over there waiting for the day when Prince Charming would come and sweep me off my feet.
“It didn’t happen of course. I tried to make friends with one or two of the others, but they saw that as giving up and I guess they were right in a way.”
She took a sip of her coffee and grimaced, then let out a desperate laugh.
“You know you’ve hit rock bottom when even the coffee tastes this bad.”
I smiled and waited for her to continue.
“One Friday evening, about a year ago I suppose, a group of guys came into the club where I was waiting. I was sitting on my own, minding my own business and sipping away at a drink I knew would only add to my sadness and loneliness.
“One of the lads broke away from the group and came over to me, offered to buy me a drink. I mean he wasn’t Brad Pitt or anything, but he was kind of cute. Kyle his name was and I couldn’t believe he was actually talking to me. For some reason he stuck with me through the evening. He bought me drinks, talked to me and made me laugh, listened to me when I could muster up courage enough to say anything, offered to dance with me. It was a magical evening and ever so very slowly I lowered my guard and started to believe that I might have found someone who actually cared for me.
“Then right at the end of the evening, all his mates came over and he stood up to join them. One of the group looked at me then over at my companion and said, ‘alright you win.’ Everyone in the group pulled out their wallets and handed over a twenty pound note. I looked up at Kyle and asked him what was going on.
“He told me it was a kind of bet. If he chatted up the ugliest girl in the place and made her believe he fancied her, they’d all pay him twenty quid each, and with over a dozen people in the group that was going to be the easiest few hundred quid he was going to make that week. No hard feelings he told me then disappeared with his mates, all of them laughing at the tops of their lungs. No hard feelings, what did he know?”
Her voice had dropped to a quiet murmur, her shoulders slumped. I rubbed her hand and squeezed it. A tear slid down my cheek and dripped into my coffee with a surprisingly loud gloop. She roused herself for the next bit.
“I ran out of the club as fast as I could; I don’t think I even picked up my coat. It was cold outside and it was raining, but I didn’t care I just kept running, trying to get away from the memory of that laughter. In all of even my miserable life I had never been so humiliated, never felt so totally, utterly without hope as I did then.
“Eventually I found myself on one of the bridges. I don’t remember which one, but the barrier along the side wasn’t that high. I stepped over it and looked down at the cold, black water and wondered if it wouldn’t be easier just to let the river have me. I doubted anyone would notice that I was gone, or if they did whether they would care.
“I was brought up a Catholic so I knew that what I was considering was a sin, but I didn’t care. Even death couldn’t be worse than what I was going through then and there. It felt like I had no-one to turn to, no-one who could possibly understand or sympathise. I was on my own and screaming inside.
“I’m not sure even now if it was a totally conscious decision, but I let go of the bridge and fell. No-one cried out, no-one noticed. Then I hit the water; fuck it was cold. I could barely breath, barely keep myself afloat. I drifted away from the bridge so fast I couldn’t believe it then I was being pulled every which way by the current. The cold gripped me so quick it seemed only seconds before I could barely move my arms and legs. I was foundering, water filling my mouth then my lungs. That was agony, but it didn’t last long. Soon there was no feeling at all, no pain, no cold, no nothing.”
Her voice had taken on a flat, unemotional monotone, but it seemed as if I relived every bit of her torment along with her. The coffee was cold and a waitress hovered momentarily before deciding, wisely, that we needed to be left alone and scurried off.
I waited. There was nothing I could do but wait. I’d told her that I would stay with her whatever and I wasn’t about to go back on my promise. Whatever hell she was reliving, it passed. She looked up at me with her impossibly green eyes. They were glassy and tinged with something like madness; quite frightening.
“It would have been a mercy if that had been the end of it. Do you know what hell was like for me? It was the same loneliness I had experienced in life, the same depths of despair, only now I was utterly alone. No-one to turn to, no hope of finding anyone, no hope of it ever ending. Time seems to run differently there; a hundred years, a million, a billion; it’s all the same. I was lost and alone and screaming and utterly insane for so long I can’t even think of the numbers to describe it.
“Then there was this voice. Half comforting, half mocking. ‘Poor Mary,’ it seemed to say, ‘so lost, so alone.’ I thought it was another symptom of my madness, that it wasn’t real, but it persisted and eventually I listened.
“‘It isn’t fair,’ the voice echoed my own sentiments. ‘Why should you suffer like this when those who did this to you are still wandering about laughing at you? Why should they escape this torment while you endure it alone?’
“‘What do you want?’ I screamed, over and over and the voice was silenced for a time. When it returned it spoke directly to me. No more taunting, but straight to the point.
“‘What would you say if there were a way to escape this? If you could return to the world and bring revenge against the sort of people who drove you here in the first place? Would you do it?’
“So help me I would have done anything to escape the misery at that moment, but to have an opportunity to pay back those monsters who had destroyed me so completely, so carelessly. ‘Yes,’ I cried out, ‘yes, yes, yes.’
“I remember the laugh. It was like the madness inside of me, but it wasn’t a part of me. It was a horrible laugh with no humour to it; nothing but malice. I didn’t care, that listless drifting through my own unfathomable misery was over, the anger in me was drawing me up into a deep impenetrable blackness, then everything was still and for a while I slept.
“When I awoke I was in the flat you came to last week. There was a man in my room sitting on the end of the bed. He was wearing a dark suit and a bowler hat and leaning on an umbrella. He allowed me a moment to gather my wits then he spoke in a clipped, precise voice.
“‘Once a week,’ he said, ‘on the evening before the Sabbath, you are to find a man deserving of your wrath and use those feminine charms of yours to lure him back here. One kiss will transform him into what you once were: Weak and powerless; helpless to change his fate. He will wake in the morning alone with a note beside him – they have already been prepared, in that cupboard over there – which will instruct him to on how he may dress and when he must leave. Let him discover for himself how fine a world he has helped to build, how well it protects pathetic little creatures like he has become.’
“I wanted to know how I would be able to tell who was deserving and he said that I had been given a beauty that would scare away all but the most arrogant, that if I were unsure I was permitted to warn people off, but only with the phrase, ‘I only make out with other girls.’ He said that only the most depraved would be turned on by that, only the most conceited would consider it a challenge to be met.
“He left me with a warning: Miss one week, walk away from one person before they decided to give up, use any warning but the one I had been given and the deal was off, my life would be forfeit, things would go back to the way they had just been and I would spend forever in loneliness and despair.”
“You tried to walk away from me.”
She managed a weak smile, but wouldn’t be side-tracked.
“That was thirteen weeks ago. I’m ashamed to admit I enjoyed it at first. To go from being helpless, invisible, weak to having that kind of power was a heady drug. My first victim had such an ego, he thought the world turned about him. He was so good looking, athletic and tall; so tall I could hardly reach to kiss him. And when he changed I was consumed with a vicious delight, laughing manically as he shrivelled into this pathetic little thing. Then realisation dawned and I was outraged. I wanted him to be ugly, to be unnoticeable, to go through the same loneliness I had endured all my life and here he was transformed into this perfect creature.
“A voice in my head told me to wait; it was better this way and so I did. I watched from a hidden place when he woke and first saw what he had become. He screamed then screamed again when he heard his voice for the first time. He found the note and read it all the time moaning, ‘No. No, no, no.’ he sat in the shower for an age, his perfect legs pulled in close against his body, his tears mingling with the stream of water that couldn’t wash away this nightmare.
“I remember his moan of despair when he opened the closet and saw the choice of clothes left for him. I was filled with a visceral delight in his misery and followed him as he left the flat, watched as he tried, without hope of success, to convince his incredulous friends of who he was and how he had become this nubile creature.
“Over days he wandered about looking for some way out; someone, anyone, who might help him. He found someone. A pimp in one of London’s seedier areas took him in. He was so pathetically grateful he didn’t realise his danger, not until the pimp started knocking him around, giving him drugs to make him more suggestible, controllable. I left him utterly crushed and hopeless and it felt wonderful.
“There were others, eleven more before you. Some took their own lives rather than become something they despised, others gave in to the inevitable and sold their bodies until they couldn’t stand to live with themselves anymore. They all took their lives in the end.
“At first I knew a deep sense of satisfaction that each of them was suffering the way I had for so long, I mean they deserved it didn’t they? It became harder to convince myself of that, but by then I was enjoying my new life too much. People looked at me differently; they actually saw me, appreciated me. I liked the way I looked and I wasn’t prepared to give this up even if I had doubts about what I was doing every Friday night.
“I so desperately wanted to find the guy who had been cruel to me; if anyone deserved what I could do to him it was that rat bastard, but he didn’t come back to the club where we’d met and the police were getting suspicious. I started to move around, trying different places for a couple of weeks before moving on, which is how I came to be here last week.”
She looked into my eyes, tears streaming from her own and managed a quavering half-smile.
“You were different; nervous, thoughtful, kind. I tried to scare you away but somehow you persisted, like a puppy who keeps on following even when it’s been shouted at and kicked. I only had the one warning and it didn’t seem to matter to you. You wanted to be friends for heaven’s sake!
“You don’t know how torn I was that night. I knew that you weren’t the type to take advantage of another person, that you didn’t deserve to be destroyed the way I had destroyed the others. You even seemed the kind of guy who would have taken time to talk to the old invisible me. Whatever I tried to do to turn you away without going outside the restrictions of my agreement didn’t make any difference. I sat there hoping some more eligible guy would decide that you were batting way outside of your league and come take me away from you, but it didn’t happen. In the end I couldn’t go through with it. Whatever the consequences to me I couldn’t put you through what I’d done to those others. I made as though I were going to the toilet and left the club.
“There was still the possibility that I might make it to another club, but you wouldn’t take the hint even then; chased me out of the club, offered to walk me home, did all that cute, awkward, slightly pathetic thing about wanting to see me again. I couldn’t help it, I was so lonely and you were just the kind of person I would have chosen for company. I had no intention of taking it further, just to have a coffee and share a bit more of your life.
“I don’t know if it was part of what I had become, but I was so drawn to you. I wanted to kiss you, wanted you to kiss me, but I didn’t want you to change. It was tearing me up. You asked if I wanted you to leave. Yes I wanted you to go, to be safe. No I wanted you to stay to make me feel wanted by someone who was worthwhile, someone who was kind and caring.
“In the end I had no control. The kiss happened despite everything and I was so glad that you would be with me for a while longer, so excruciatingly sad that there was a price you would have to pay for it. I wanted you. I wanted to feel your body against mine, wanted to give you something, anything, to make up in some way for what I had done to you. I wanted to say I was sorry. Then you turned to me and said…
“I couldn’t believe it; couldn’t stand it. Here I was completely destroying your life and you telling me you wanted to show me how grateful you were. It was so very sweet and so very, very bitter. When we were done I felt worse inside than I could ever remember, even my worst torment after I died wasn’t this bad.
“However much I might have wanted it otherwise, you had given me another week. The rest of what I had to do seemed no worse than what had already been done. In the early hours while you were still asleep I got up and put one of the notes on the bed. I couldn’t bear to follow you when you left, couldn’t bear to think about what you were going to go through or how your life might end.
“This whole week I’ve been unable to think of anything else. I’ve wrestled with whether or not I could do this again, whether I could risk meeting someone else like you. I nearly didn’t come out tonight, but I was too weak, too scared of going back.
“And now impossibly you’re here and I am so, so sorr…”
She broke down then, her face twisted in anguish. All the misery and torment that had been churning around in her for so long welled up then and spilled out in a primeval cry of desolation. I hurried round the table and threw my arms around her, holding her to me as she shuddered and moaned in abject wretchedness.
Around us the party crowd gave us worried looks and kept clear. The club’s heavy mob looked unsure of what to do and left us for the time being. She turned distraught eyes to mine.
“Why? Why do you care? Why would you be so kind after what I did to you?”
The words were a cry from the depths of her soul. I felt my eyes brimming, my heart twisting and tearing as I was caught up in her pain. I tried to answer her and the words tangled and tripped over the sobs that poured from within me.
“How… how could I leave you at a time like this? You’ve been through so much, I couldn’t, just can’t leave you on your own. Not anymore, not anymore.”
It was her pain and I was feeling just the tiniest fraction of it. How could she bear it? How could she even exist in the face of such agony. There were words rising up inside me, they weren’t mine to say, but somehow they needed to be said. I held her tight to me, shaking with my own tears.
“I love you.”
And the torrent of anguish was renewed. How could she contain so much? How could she…
All things have an end, even sorrow. I felt wrung out, drained of all emotion, all life, and she hung limp in my arms. There was a discreet cough and I turned to see a smartly dressed man with an apologetic air about him.
“I’m sorry ladies but I have been asked by management to escort you from the premises. I’m afraid you’re disturbing the rest of our customers.”
He must have been right at the bottom of the corporate food chain. From the look of him and the distaste he felt in his task, he would have delegated it if he possibly could. I nodded at him and eased – what had she said her name was? Mary? – to her feet. There was no fight left in her. Her eyes were blank and her face slack as she allowed me to lead her after the man. He took our tickets and collected our coats for us, helping us into them before holding the door open.
“I really am sorry. I… this is wrong, but I have my instructions.”
I gave him as much of a smile as I could manage. I imagine it looked grotesque through my ruined makeup.
“It’s okay, we’ll be okay.”
He smiled back, not entirely convinced, as we stepped out into the cold.
We set off down the route we’d followed the previous week. Mary offered no help other than a willingness to be led, but by some trick of memory, each time I turned a corner I found myself reminded of the directions we needed to follow. We found a block of flats and I remembered her saying, ‘Well, this is me…’ in front of it. I reached into her purse and found a set of keys. The third one fit the lock and I led her in and up the stairs.
I took off her coat and eased her onto the sofa, then set off in search of the kitchen. I wasn’t even out of the room before she turned in my direction.
“Don’t leave me.”
It was a heart rending plea and it stopped me in my tracks.
“I was going to look for some coffee; something better than that club was serving.”
Was that a ghost of a smile? I offered her one back.
“I’m not going anywhere.”
I banged around in the kitchen making more noise than I normally would. I don’t know it seemed like a way to tell her I was still there. It didn’t take long to find everything I needed and while the coffee was brewing, I went back into the living room, over to the music centre and her CDs. After some browsing I pulled out Fauré’s Requiem. I wasn’t sure how appropriate it would be but the music fit the mood somehow. I went back into the kitchen to fetch the coffee and sat down beside her.
We sat in silence and I sipped at my drink, closing my eyes as the familiar flavour calmed and renewed my jangled nerves.
“That thing you said back in the club…”
She couldn’t look at me, but there was a hint of hope in her voice. I didn’t know where those words had come from, didn’t know what to do with them. I couldn’t lie, but neither could I deny them to her.
“Not in a sexual way, but I’m here for you for as long as you need.”
She managed a grateful smile and took a sip of her own drink. Some of the colour returned to her cheeks and she turned towards me, still hunched in close about her mug.
“Tell me what happened to you, how you survived.”
So I did. From the moment we met right through to earlier that evening when I had found her with Phil. I held nothing back, even though she winced at the hardships I’d gone through, they were all a part of it and mattered in the outcome. When I reached the part about my encounter in the park her eyes took on a faraway look and glistened softly.
I waited for her to finish but she couldn’t.
“Never mind, go on.”
There wasn’t much left to say. She actually laughed at my description of the shopping expedition and the madness of it all.
“She seems like a good friend this Sharon.”
“You have no idea.”
Her eyes dropped and misery flooded back in.
“No you’re right I don’t.”
I reached out a hand and squeezed her arm.
“Then let me show you.”
She smiled at me sadly.
She nodded at the clock on the wall; the minute hand was just catching up with its smaller companion, pointing heavenward.
An oppressive feeling entered the room and a man dressed in a dark suit with bowler hat and umbrella, just as she had described, followed it. The smile on his face was one of smug satisfaction.
“You broke your contract, I’m afraid this is an end to it.”
Mary stood up and set her coffee cup down. She stood straight and looked him in the eye.
“I know and I’m ready.”
She turned her eyes to mine, betraying a wistfulness in her expression.
“I only wish…”
The man brushed an invisible speck from his sleeve and, in a moment’s distracted impatience, responded.
“I only wish that I had the chance to say how sorry I am, for everything.”
If only I had words to express fully what happened next. The room seemed to become physically brighter, the sense of oppression receding, snuffed out as though it had never been, and there was someone else in the room.
The man in black stepped away, raising his hands as though the light hurt him.
“Hey, no fair, this one’s mine.”
“You know the rules, she reached out for forgiveness.”
“But she’s dead. She shut herself off from everyone around her then threw herself into my arms.”
“And you brought her back.”
With cry of frustrated rage, his face contorted with fury, the man in black disappeared in a blaze of flame leaving only an acrid smell behind. The newcomer turned to Mary.
“Come on dear heart, there’s someone I think you should meet.”
As he turned recognition dawned. He looked so different now but somehow he was the same man I’d met in the Park.
“I know you.”
He turned to me and smiled.
“Have a wonderful life beloved. I’ll see you again, but not for some time.”
With that the light flared brilliant white and suddenly I was sitting alone.
For the third time in a week I found myself wandering the streets of London alone. Mary’s flat had turned oppressive and unwelcoming once I was there on my own and I had left soon after.
This time it was different though; I was warm and I had somewhere to go. Even so, the inadvisability of wandering around after midnight in a quiet suburb, especially as an attractive teenage girl, nudged me to walk quickly and before long I was back amongst the Friday night crowd. I didn’t join them, but I was glad of their proximity. I found a bus stop and, before long, boarded a bus that would take me back to Sharon’s.
Everything had turned around so quickly it was unreal. So much of the evening had been filled with pain and anguish and it seemed as though it were going to end in the worst way possible, then without warning, just one simple wish and everything had turned around. Was it really that simple?
I let myself in but the flat was empty; of bipeds at least. I went into the kitchen and made myself a hot chocolate, putting down a few saucers of milk for Toby and co. I then set to waiting for Sharon. I had so much to tell her and in the aftermath the memories were fading and distorting too quickly.
I held on ‘til one o’clock, but by then the events of the previous day had caught up with me. I managed to stay awake long enough to shower and brush my teeth, but my head had hardly touched the pillow before I was asleep.
I woke with a warm peaceful feeling suffusing my body and something small and soft kneading my bladder through the bedclothes. I pushed the duvet back to find Toby quietly making his presence known and lifted him up before something unpleasant happened. He squirmed out of my arms and dropped to the floor looking back at me expectantly.
I clawed the inevitable tangle of hair out of my face and looked across Sharon’s un-slept-in side of the bed at her alarm clock. Seven o’clock. I groaned and swung my legs out of bed; all the while Toby twitching his tail at me.
“Yes your majesty, certainly your majesty. Would your majesty be kind enough to permit me the use of the bathroom before I tend to your needs?”
His majesty offered one more twitch, which I took as the generous dispensation I’d been looking for, and I ran past to take care of the business he had made all the more urgent.
“Dogs have owners but cats have staff, is that the way it is?”
There were three of them butting my bare legs with self-obsessed urgency as I opened a can of cat food and shared it between three bowls. I added a little of the dry mix, just as I’d seen Sharon do, then set the bowls down.
All urgent matters attended to, I looked around for anything that might tell me what had happened to Sharon. The answerphone showed no new messages and there were no notes anywhere. I shrugged; she was a big girl and it wasn’t’ time to worry yet.
The lounge was still cluttered up with bags from the previous day’s shopping trip, somewhat disturbed by various cats exercising their curiosity, so the first order of business had to be sorting them out. I didn’t have anywhere to hang them yet, but if I made the bed and started laying them out then, one we could use the living room for its designated purpose, two I wouldn’t have to worry about claws and mucky paws ruining anything before I had a chance to wear it and three (and possibly most importantly) I would be able to find something to wear today.
It didn’t take that long and I was relieved to discover that the cats’ investigations hadn’t resulted in any noticeable harm. I wasted a lot of time holding up dresses, skirts and blouses in front of the mirror, swirling about, remembering how they’d looked and felt when I tried them on then discarding them in favour of something else. The few times I had put on women’s clothing as Ken, I had always put on a skirt or dress. I loved the feel of nylons against my legs and the gentle caress of a skirt as I moved about, but I didn’t have anything to prove now and I could choose from absolutely anything. In the end I picked out a pair of close fitting jeans and an oversized stripy sweatshirt then headed off for my morning shower.
It was odd, this wasn’t too far from the clothing I would have worn on a weekend when I was a man but as I sat brushing out my hair, I felt just as girly as I had in anything I’d worn over the previous week. Maybe it was the bra I could feel underneath my sweatshirt, maybe that I could feel as well as see the differences in my body, but I felt like I was home. No more pretence, no more trying to fit into someone else’s idea of who and what I should be. This was me and I felt so good I could have hugged the world.
I checked the clock; half past eight and still no word from Sharon. Okay it was still early, but something didn’t seem right. She wouldn’t just disappear and leave it this long without telling me, and surely she’d have expected me to come back here to sleep.
I wandered over to the telephone and picked up the pad where Sharon had scrawled her mobile number earlier in the week. I picked up the phone and punched the relevant buttons.
“Hiya roomie, how’d it go last night?”
She sounded chipper enough, which put my growing fears to rest.
“You would not believe; I have so much to tell you. I wanted to say it all last night but then you didn’t come home. I was getting sort of concerned that you didn’t leave me a message or anything so I figured I’d call. Sorry if this is too early.”
“It’s no big, we were just having breakfast.”
“Yeah, Phil and I kind of made a night of it.”
“No not like that silly. We found ourselves an all-night café and talked out a few issues. We’re not that far away from the flat if you want to join us for breakfast.
“We’re at a little diner I know. It’s only three… no four stops down on the 7b. The café’s another hundred or so yards down on the opposite side. Called Jan’s diner. I think there’s a bus in about five minutes.”
I dropped the phone, jammed my feet in a new pair of boots, grabbed my coat and bag and was out the door in two.
I had to run, but the bus waited for me. I smiled my appreciation to the bus driver – a woman this time – and found a seat. After four stops the houses and flats gave way to a small industrial complex, most of which seemed to be bays for loading and unloading articulated lorries. At least that explained the need for an all-night diner.
I walked the extra hundred yards and there it was, Jan’s Diner. It was a little shabby on the outside but cheerful and welcoming once you stepped through the door. Sharon jumped up as soon as I entered and ran over to give me a quick hug and a peck on the cheek.
“Wow, that was quick. I wasn’t sure if you’d make it to the bus in time.”
“I would have been quicker if I could. Sharon what were you thinking?”
“Ken, I need you and Phil to talk; I mean really talk. Then you can say what you want to say. Not before though eh?”
I wasn’t happy, but I let her lead me to the table.
“Phil I’d like you to meet Ken.”
Crap she’d told him.
“Ken, I’ll order you a coffee and some toast. I’ll be over there talking to Jan if you need me.”
She pointed out the woman behind the counter and headed off leaving us with an awkward silence to overcome.
I settled into the chair next to him and we spent the next few minutes glancing at each other. I was still really angry with him for the way he’d behaved this past week and possibly more than a bit protective of Sharon, so I sat quietly and let him stew. He was nervous, like an overwound clock, fidgeting and unsure where to look.
My coffee and toast arrived and I thanked the waitress cheerfully – point made to Phil: ‘I’m only mad at you.’ I eyed the butter longingly but decided that I needed to develop new habits. Spreading marmalade directly onto the toast I took a small bite. This was probably going to be my hardest battle.
The crunch of the toast seemed to act as a signal to Phil. He shifted in his seat and glanced over at me, mind made up, bullet bit.
“So er, you got er… got changed into a woman then?”
“Er… er, how’s that working out for you?”
The cool thing would have been to shrug, but this was just too funny. I burst out laughing and almost choked on my mouthful of toast.
Phil was angry. I remembered that feeling. Someone laughs at you and you feel in danger of everyone else joining in; too much face lost, so you react. In the competitive world of being a man it’s not something you can let go easily. Sounds pathetic I know, but it’s part of the hardwiring. I was so glad I didn’t have to worry about that nonsense anymore and took pity on him.
“I’m sorry Phil, but you should replay the last thirty seconds. That was quite a conversation starter.”
He allowed himself a rueful smile and shook his head. The ice was broken.
I took a sip of my coffee – so much nicer than toast without butter – and waited for him to try again. Oh no sunshine, not letting you off the hook just yet. He shook his head and tried again.
“Well look at it from my point of view. This is hardly something you come across every day is it?”
We had other things to discuss, but this was at the foundation of all of them. If Phil didn’t know who I was then my words would carry next to no weight with him.
“No I’m told it’s actually extremely rare. Okay what will convince you?”
“Well I suppose you could tell me something only Ken and I would know.”
“What, you mean like that time you mother took you to visit her sister and your cousins, Anna and Jenny wasn’t it, persuaded you to dress up and play tea parties with them?”
Phil made hissing noises and waved his hands for me to shut up. I hadn’t raised my voice, but there were other people near enough to hear. That loss of face thing again.
“Okay now tell me that there isn’t a part of you that’s saying, ‘I can’t believe that Ken told her.’”
He sat staring at me.
“It doesn’t really matter what I tell you. What are you going to be most likely to believe, that I’m your friend Ken who’s been miraculously transformed into a beautiful teenage girl, or that for some reason you can’t fathom just yet, Ken has told me some of the intimate secrets you shared with him so that I can convince you I am him? If you apply Occam’s Razor this isn’t going to work is it?”
He shook his head.
“Okay what do you suggest?”
“We turn it around. Rather than let me spout off from what may well be a well-rehearsed script, why don’t you ask me questions until you’re happy. I mean if we consider the first premise for a moment, Ken might have told me a lot but he couldn’t have told me everything. If I can answer enough of your questions to satisfy you, we start moving into Sherlock Holmes territory.”
“Yeah, when you eliminate the impossible whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. You know you already sound a lot like Ken in the way you talk and reason things out.”
I melted enough to allow him a smile.
“I’ll take that as a complement. Okay do your worst.”
And he did. For the next half hour he grilled me with questions about the experiences we’d shared. Most were straightforward, some were hard and in the end there was only one that I couldn’t answer. I mean I’m not even sure I know the name of the football team he supports let alone the final score in the match we watched with his mates a fortnight back. I hate sports and the only reason I ever went along to those sorts of things was to try and blend in. We argued over that for about a minute before Phil conceded that my answer was more Ken-like than if I had actually known the answer.
He threw up his arms in surrender.
“Okay, okay I give in. I don’t know how but you are Ken. You sure as hell don’t look like him but there is no way anyone else could have known all that.”
It had been fun locking horns with Phil again but now that the foundation had been established there were some things that needed explaining. I reined in any feelings of affection I had for him; this next bit wasn’t going to be as fun.
“You’re sure? I mean I’d hate to go to all this effort then have you pull a uey on me halfway through the next conversation.”
To his credit he paused a moment to give it serious consideration then he shook his head.
“Nope. I mean however hard it is to accept that things like this happen, I can’t believe that anyone except Ken would have been able to answer all those questions. Especially when you factor in the way you answered them, which was not at all like a teenage girl would.”
I stared at him for a few seconds waiting to see if there were any ifs, buts or howevers. He met my gaze and I sighed. First hurdle out of the way.
“Good, because I have a few questions for you now. What the hell were you thinking trying to pick up a prostitute the night after you asked Sharon to marry you?”
I said it louder than I intended and every face in the diner turned our way. Phil ducked his head in shame while I bored into the top of his skull with a furious glare and waited for the rest of the world to lose interest. Eventually all but the most nosey turned back to their respective conversations and Phil murmured a short reply that I didn’t quite catch.
“I’m sorry, what?”
I had tempered my own volume enough that our conversation had gone back to being private. Phil raised his voice slightly, but it was enough to hear. He sounded bitter; regretful.
“I was high.”
“I’m sorry, you were what?”
“I met up with some of the gang from work on Saturday afternoon to celebrate my getting hitched. One of those dickheads must have slipped something into my drink.
“I mean I don’t do drugs, you know that, and I only had the one drink because I knew I’d be driving home at the end of the day. When I look back on it I should have figured from the way the rest of the guys were looking at me with breath bated. The weird thing is I didn’t really feel that much different. I could think clearly, talk sensible, walk in a straight line. I felt like the world was mine and I could do no wrong, but I figured that was just the euphoria speaking, I mean the girl I loved had just agreed to marry me.
“There was this bloke in the pub with a comb-over and you know how much of a joke I think those are? As we were leaving the pub I went over to him and ran my hands through his hair until the longer strands were hanging down by his ear. Then I patted him on the top of the head and said straight to his face, ‘baldness is a blessing.’ I couldn’t understand why my friends were laughing so loud.
“We went our separate ways after we left the pub as I had some work to catch up on that afternoon. Shit the things I wrote that afternoon. I mean think about what you would say to the people you work with if you suddenly had no inhibitions; that was me. I spent most of Monday chasing after memos I’d sent out. Didn’t quite get them all and had to spend the rest of the week bowing and scraping to make up for them.”
“So you’re telling me that you were under the influence of some drug when you suggested I might want some action?”
He gave me a helpless shrug.
“Do you think I’d have done it otherwise?”
I shook my head, more from disbelief than in response to his question.
“So if you had no inhibitions, how come you were so worried about my threat to tell Sharon?”
“Because, like I said, I could still think clearly. You don’t know what was going through my head just then. It was weird. On one level I couldn’t give a shit about the consequences, on another I knew Sharon’d go off the rails if she found out and there was a nagging feeling deep down that I really didn’t want that. In the end just handing over the money seemed the easiest way out, so I did.
“Then I changed my mind, I mean what right did you have to threaten me or to run off with my money, so I parked the car and came after you. When I found those policemen I thought I had you. All I had to do was tell them you’d nicked the money from me and you’d be locked up, I’d have my hundred quid back and be in the clear.”
“And that’s what counts for clear thinking inside that thick skull of yours?”
“Well maybe it was the drugs talking still. I mean you’re right it was a crap idea; maybe I only believed I could think clearly. Being hauled off to the nick wasn’t part of the plan and, even though I thought I’d done a good job of landing you in the shit when they interviewed me, I obviously wasn’t as convincing as I thought. The same with Sharon, I was certain what I told her would persuade her I was the victim, but she picked up on a few things in what I said and, well you know how that turned out.”
I was confused. I’d been so certain that Phil was the lowest form of pond scum, the way he’d treated Sharon, and now here was this remarkably plausible explanation. Part of me was still mad with the way he’d behaved, but there was another part that wanted to believe this, to be able to see my friend as something more than the loser I’d spent the last week believing he was. I tried to see in his eyes if there was any subterfuge, if this were nothing more than a fabrication designed to convince Sharon and now me that he was really one of the good guys. Nothing seemed obvious. He took a deep breath and picked up his story again.
“I think the cops suspected I was on something. They couldn’t prove it, but they decided I needed to sleep things off before they let me back out on the streets. They didn’t have any holding cells, but they left me in one of their interview rooms with a uniform standing outside for the rest of the night.
“My head was clearer when I left the next morning, but by the time I got back to where I’d left the car, it had been towed and, being Sunday, the impound yard was closed. I took the bus home and tried to call Sharon, not that she wanted anything to do with me and who could blame her.
“Monday I went in as early as I could to get hold of the memos I’d posted before anyone else saw them. I still wasn’t early enough and landed myself a real shit-storm with my boss. I did get out at lunchtime to collect the car and I won’t tell you how much that cost to get back, except to say that the hundred quid I gave you started to look like small change. The rest of the week I spent doing voluntary overtime and scraping and crawling to the senior partners to try and get back into their good graces, and I still have a long way to go with that. The mates I’d been out drinking with think it’s really funny and have been making jokes all week.”
There was something of his outrage at the injustice of it all in his features, which, if faked, was an impressive piece of acting. I forced myself to remain sceptical.
“So tell me about Thursday night.”
He shook his head at the memory.
“Shit, did I bollix that up. It was the first evening I managed to get away from work early enough to do something. Sharon still wasn’t taking my calls and I figured I’d better stop phoning if I didn’t want her throwing a restraining order at me. I had it all worked out what I was going to say, then you opened the bloody door.
“I guess there was something in me that blamed you for all my troubles. I mean if you hadn’t conned me out of that hundred quid then I’d never have chased after you with those coppers, never spent the night at the station, Sharon would never have found out, my car would never have been towed. I couldn’t believe you were there and I just blew it.
“Then Sharon started going on about where Ken was, I mean you, erm…”
I couldn’t help but smile.
“It’s okay I know it’s confusing.”
“Yeah, anyway I was trying to get things back on track with what I wanted to say to Sharon to patch things up between us and all she would talk about was how Ken was missing and I hadn’t even noticed. In the end she blew a fuse and told me to bugger off or she’d call the cops, and kicked me out of the flat.
“I didn’t go in to work the yesterday; called in sick and went on a bender. I thought I had blown everything with Sharon and I was a mess. By the time the two of you found me at the club talking to Miss Gorgeous Green-eyes I was more than half pissed.”
“You didn’t look that far gone.”
He scrunched up his nose in a dismissive gesture.
“You know how well I can hold my booze. Besides if you don’t believe me ask Sharon. She spent the first few hours of last night pouring coffee down my throat until I could think clearly enough to talk sensibly.”
We sat in silence for a while; him waiting, me thinking. I mean it seemed plausible.
“So what now? Do you expect things to go back to normal between you and Sharon as though nothing had happened?”
“Oh hell no! I expect to be boot licking and brown nosing for at least a year before she’ll even think about starting to trust me again. But it’ll be worth it.”
This was so much the Phil I had made friends with all those years ago. I wanted to believe this was real, to think he’d just had an amazingly bad week and was coming back from it. Was I an idiot for wanting to trust him? All the tension I’d felt at this confrontation, all the anger I’d felt towards him, all the outrage on behalf of my new friend and flat mate, it all evaporated. Phil must have seen the change because he relaxed as well.
“So this green-eyed girl yesterday, Sharon tells me that if she’d kissed me…”
“…you’d have ended up like this.”
“Well there are worse things.”
“Are you kidding? Remember that afternoon Phillipa spent with Anna and Jenny?”
“And think about what life would have been like. Even with Sharon and me around to believe you and help get you back on your feet, do you really think you could make the adjustment. All those beautiful girls you might meet who would only want to be friends; guys whose only interest in you would be to get you into bed; having periods…”
His expression fell with each new suggestion until he shuddered and threw his hands up in the air.
“Alright, alright, you’re right, maybe there is nothing worse. So how come you’re dealing with it so well.”
“That’s going to be difficult to explain.”
A waitress was passing and I asked if I could have a refill. Phil declined having already drunk his week’s allowance of caffeine earlier in the night.
“Have you ever heard of a condition called gender dysphoria?”
Phil thought for a moment then shook his head.
“It’s a recognised medical disorder where an individual identifies more strongly with the gender opposite the one to which they were born. Short version, boys who feel like they should have been girls and vice versa.”
“So kind of like wimpy guys who end up acting like girls and thinking they’re gay?”
I winced at the crude effort, but it wasn’t intended in any disparaging way; more an indicator on how hard it was for those who identified strongly with their physical gender to understand.
“Actually that comes over as a little insulting as well as a lot wrong. Gender dysphoria is being recognised more and more as a physiological condition rather than a psychological or sociological one. It isn’t that well understood yet, but there is strong evidence to show that in most cases the brain physically develops in a way that’s opposite to the body’s gender. One theory suggests that it might be down to hormone imbalances in the womb. Another study shows a certain gene that hinders the brains ability to absorb testosterone as being present in a significant number of male to female transsexuals. Suffice to say though that the condition exists in various degrees and it is not a matter of choice.”
“And you’re trying to say…”
“That since an early age I have struggled to some small degree with that aspect of my identity, yes.
“I mean I’m not like so many cases I’ve read about, feeling like I should have been a girl since I was four or five years old, but at the same time for as long as I can remember, I’ve been different from other guys.
“I don’t like being competitive, I don’t enjoy sports, especially team ones, either as a player or a spectator. I really do not get what you guys enjoy so much about watching a game of football on telly. I don’t like crude jokes or farting or burping in public. I hate that guys don’t share their problems and I really hate that it feels weird and awkward for guys to give each other a hug and cry on each other’s shoulders.
“It’s easier to admit to this now, but there were times when I would put on a dress or a skirt when I was Ken, just because it helped me to feel more feminine. It embarrassed the hell out of me and I usually felt guilty about it afterwards because I had a fair idea on how you guys would react, and I didn’t want to do that to you, but at the same time it was something I had to do from time to time, even if I could only do it behind closed doors with the curtains drawn.
“I guess as close to a parallel as I can get is if you think about the way you felt when you were playing with your cousins. Imagine that you would be expected to dress that way every day and go out in public. You’d hate it wouldn’t you?”
“Now imagine you found a pair of jeans and a sweatshirt tucked away somewhere. You knew you weren’t supposed to wear them and you knew everyone would cause you grief if they ever found out. Would you still take time out to dress like a guy so you could feel like a guy once in a while?”
He nodded thoughtfully.
“But you say you’re not one of these people whose felt that strongly since they were four or five?”
“No not really, although as I say I have felt different for all that time, just not specifically female.”
“So how does that work?”
I took a swig of my coffee while I thought that one over.
“I don’t know for sure. It’s something I’ve been trying to understand and I think it’s associated with social expectations.”
“What do you mean?”
“Okay bear with me on this, it might take a while to explain fully.
“Both genders have specific expectation placed on their behaviour. Men are supposed to be confident, self-reliant, competitive, possibly a bit crude, yes?”
“The competitive aspect starts to put restriction on behaviour, because everyone looks to start from the same common base. So, taking clothing for instance, guys, at least in our part of the world, will always wear some form of trousers, some sort of shirt, a pullover or cardigan if it’s cold and maybe a coat or jacket over the top. If I were to turn up wearing anything else, velvet suit, spotty bow tie, shirt with a flower pattern on it, kilt; anything outside the established norm, I’d get laughed at and the humiliation would push me back to toeing the party line.
“Women on the other hand tend to be more supportive of one another, more collaborative. A group of women will go shopping together and develop bonds of friendship suggesting things that might make each other look good. A woman who tries a new hairstyle or changes the style of her clothes is more likely to be met with encouragement than derision and even the fringe fashions, like the tomboy look, are more likely to be tolerated.
“There are reasons for these differences and I have ideas on them, but I don’t want to bore you with them now. I suppose what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t really feel that I fit into either group. I was never one of the lads because I never fit naturally into the sort of things that lad’s like to do together. I wasn’t one of the girls either because social convention dictates how a girl behaves in the presence of a guy and vice versa, so even if I might have wanted to join in as one of the girls, because they saw me as another one of the lads, they never would have let me.
“So I sat on the fringe, not wanting to be one thing, not permitted to be the other. I felt the dichotomy every day but not so strongly that I couldn’t just muddle through the way I was most of the time. I suppose I did always associate more strongly with the female way of life, but never so strongly that I was in danger of either having my body altered to appear more female, or choosing to live as a female full time.
“The long and short of it is that I am content with the transition. Being in this body the way it feels now is a lot like coming home; it feels good. The fact that I’m ten years younger than I was and a stone cold fox to boot is a bonus.”
We sat in silence for a while longer, things feeling a whole lot more companionable than they had when I first arrived. I finished my coffee and excused myself. On my way to the ladies, Sharon caught up with me. The door hadn’t fully closed behind us when she turned to me, all bubbles of excitement.
“So, what do you think?”
“Well he’s a bit old for me and not really my taste.”
“Oh you! You know what I mean.”
I grinned at her until she couldn’t hold her pout anymore.
“I think we’d all be in trouble if we weren’t prepared to give one another a second chance from time to time. I think the guy I’ve been talking to this morning is more like the Phil I remember than the douche we’ve been dealing with all week. I think he’s being sincere and, if you want to, he’s probably worth the effort.”
“You really think so?”
I couldn’t quite believe the hope in her eyes. She really missed the guy she’d lost and I found myself desperately hoping for her sake that he was the guy sitting out there in the diner.
“I also think it wouldn’t do either of you any harm for him to earn your trust back for a while, and if he shows any signs of reverting you drop him like a bad habit.”
She gave me a long, tight squeeze.
“Thank-you. I didn’t know if I was deluding myself. I feel so much better knowing you’re okay with it.”
I hugged her back, hoping like mad that I wasn’t giving bad advice, then had to break free as the bodily needs I’d come in here to take care of sought my attention.
Phil was sipping on a glass of water when we returned. He looked up as we approached and smiled.
“You know I’ve always wondered what it is you girls get up to when you go to the loo together. Maybe now’s my chance to find out.”
Sharon gave me a worried look; needlessly. I gave him my sweetest smile as I sat back down in my seat.
“You know Phil I could tell you, but then I’d have to turn you into a girl.”
He laughed, but nervously as though I might actually be able to do it. Sharon sat beside him and took hold of his hand. The look on his face was priceless and I couldn’t help laughing.
“What happened to letting him earn back your trust?”
“I sort of figured that, you know, if you’re going to forgive it ought to be all the way.”
And they were kissing. I looked on for a few seconds shaking my head and reached the conclusion that they weren’t going to break up anytime soon.
“I’m going for a walk. I’ll see you two lovebirds back at the flat later.”
And with that I picked up my handbag and headed for the door.
I discovered a few things on my way back to the flat: Four stops on the bus is a lot longer by foot, comfortable boots are worth the money, and it doesn’t matter how good a start to the day you have, if there are unresolved problems in your life they have a way of insinuating themselves back into your mind given a moment’s idleness.
My mind drifted as I walked. Starting with a vicarious pleasure in how I had left my two friends and a huge sense of relief at Phil’s explanations and returned status, my thoughts drifted over the events of the week until I reached Thursday. Was that really only two days ago? So much had happened in that short space of time.
It wasn’t so much the row I’d had with Sharon or the way she’d chucked me out; all that was water under the bridge: regretted, forgiven, forgotten. What came back to eat at me was the thought that I had no identity in this new life. No qualifications, no birth certificate, no passport, no driving license, no national insurance number.
That last one was the killer. Without an NI number I wouldn’t be able to find work, or at least legitimate work, and without any of the rest I wouldn’t be able to get an NI number.
I started thinking through scenarios of how I could fix things. I couldn’t say I’d lost it, because they’d want some of the other documentation of my life in order to issue me with another. If I said I was running away from abusive parents they’d want to investigate that and I’d have to produce the parents. If I said my documents had been stolen or lost in a fire, they’d want details of where I was born so they could recreate my life.
By the time I’d worried the issue to rags I was almost back at the flat and I had come up with two possible plans of action, and I liked neither of them. I could pretend to be an immigrant into the country whose papers had been stolen, but then I spoke no language other than English and I faced the risk of being deported back to whichever country my fictitious persona came from, or I could pretend to be an amnesiac victim of a mugging, at which point I would most likely face a long period of doctors doing whatever they could to help me regain my memory and police doing their best to find some family members who could tell me who I was. I wasn’t sure I could pull that off.
I let myself into the flat and collapsed onto the sofa in frustration. Toby came up to see what was wrong, or more likely to see about a good chin rub. I turned on the TV and began channel hopping in the hope of finding something to distract me and ended up watching some ancient rom-com from the nineteen-sixties and giving Toby enough attention that he deigned to remain in my lap and drool all over my jeans.
Morning drifted into afternoon, I made myself a salad for lunch and set about looking for something else to keep my mind off the unsolvable problem. I spent a lot of time looking through Sharon’s wardrobe for things that were too dated or worn or simply weren’t a good colour for her complexion. I worried that she might see it as an invasion of privacy, but we had discussed doing it together so I hoped she’d be okay with it. By late afternoon I’d managed to free up enough space for my things and was arranging the potential cast-offs as neatly as I could in the cramped surroundings when I heard a key in the door.
“Hi Ken, are you there?”
I stuck my head out of the bedroom by way of reply.
“We’ve been shopping.”
Sharon sounded very satisfied with herself and Phil looked like the cat who got the cream. Unfortunately one or two of my frayed nerves chose that moment to snap.
“Well I hope it wasn’t for clothes because there’s not a lot room in here.”
She came through to the bedroom and looked around at the results of my afternoon’s activities. A wave of guilt passed over me.
“I’m sorry I probably should have waited before going through your things.”
Sharon looked at the pile I’d set aside, not quite sure what to say.
“It… it’s just that I couldn’t sit around doing nothing. I’ve been so, so…”
She put her arms around me and held me close. Phil, still keeping to the background, gave me a look that was a complex mix of confusion, concern, envy, with possibly even a little jealously added to the mix. Eventually Sharon spoke.
“I’m sorry sweetie, we were just so caught up in getting back together I guess we didn’t think. Are you okay?”
Tears were flowing now, an outward sign of my frustration and embarrassment. I wiped them away angrily.
“Yeah I’m okay, I… I just don’t know what I’m going to do next. I mean you guys are back together and I’m glad for you, but I still can’t go back to my old life – wouldn’t want to if I could. But I still can’t do anything about my new life, I mean I don’t exist, at least not officially and it’s been driving me crazy that I can’t figure out how to sort this out.”
“Oh sweetie I had no idea.”
She enveloped me in her arms and indicated to Phil that he should come over as well. He was a little awkward to start with then put his arms round the both of us. I was surprised at how pleasant that felt, how comforting.
“Look, we bought you a few things. Sort of a way of saying thank-you.”
“Thank-you? For what? I didn’t do anything.”
Phil reached for a couple of the bags they’d brought in and handed them to me. Sharon was shaking her head.
“What do you mean didn’t do anything. You gave me something to hold onto when I was thinking the worst of Phil, you stopped him from being turned into a girl and you helped us get back together. That’s hardly not anything.”
Phil handed me the bags and I pulled out two smallish boxes with jeweller’s names on the top. Looking up uncertainly, it took a few nods of encouragement before I opened them.
The first was a watch. Not a chunky practical watch like I used to wear but slim and elegant. I slipped it onto my wrist and stared at it, enjoying the feel of it, the look of it.
“It’s nothing much, but I thought it was you. Phil picked the other one. Go on open it.”
The other box was a little smaller. I opened it to find a silver chain attached to the tips of two silver wings and a red stone of some sort where the wings met. My breath caught in my throat. Phil felt an explanation was needed.
“Because you’ve been our guardian angel this week. I know it’s a bit hokey but, you know, I wanted to say thanks. May I?”
I handed him the necklace and held my hair out of the way while he fastened it behind my neck.
“It’s beautiful, they’re both beautiful. Thank-you.”
Before I knew it I had given both Sharon and Phil a hug and a kiss on the cheek. Phil backed off looking uncomfortable.
“I guess it is a bit weird isn’t it?”
He shrugged and nodded. Sharon was already on to new things, looking through the pile of clothes I’d set aside. She came back with a couple of things in her hands.
“You know I think I should let you go through my clothes more often, I haven’t worn any of that stuff in ages and it seriously needs a new home. I don’t know about these though.”
She held up a couple of tops, both of which were in pretty good shape. I took hold of one of them and held it up against her, making a thoughtful face, head tilted to one side, mouth twisted to one side in a kind of pout.
“I didn’t think this was a good colour for you. Makes you look a bit sallow. The other one I wasn’t sure of. It may be just my own personal taste but it’s a bit shapeless; doesn’t do anything for you.”
She held them up against her one after the other and gave herself a critical look in the mirror before turning to Phil, who held up his hands and backed out of the room.
“Oh no, this is one of those moments where a guy can get himself into a lot of trouble, and I’ve had way too much of that recently.”
Sharon and I burst out laughing at the very genuine look of fear in his eyes. Sharon gave the two tops a second look over then smiled over at me.
“You know, I think I’m going to take your advice here. Come on let’s go do something about dinner.”
She dropped the clothes carelessly on top of the rest and left the room with me following in her wake.
As usual Sharon took over the kitchen and shooed Phil and me into the lounge with a glass of wine each. It was best to leave her be in these moods, she was happy and the meal usually benefitted from the absence of too many cooks.
Phil and sat at opposite ends of the sofa in silence, exchanging the odd glance. There seemed to be something bothering him. I waited ‘til he was ready. Eventually he couldn’t hold it any longer.
“I can’t do it. I’m sorry but it’s too weird to keep calling you Ken. I mean it… it’s strange enough to think you were him, but the name doesn’t suit who you are now. Can’t you do something about changing it?”
Was that all? I had to supress a smile.
“You know I really haven’t given it much thought. Pretty much you and Sharon have been the only people I’ve talked to this past few days and since you already knew me as Ken the name didn’t seem to matter. I mean I’ve had other things on my mind.”
“Well it’s about time you started thinking about it. If you don’t come up with something soon I might just start calling you Barbie.”
I groaned inwardly. Phil’s jokes weren’t good at the best of times.
“Well don’t rush me, it’s an important decision. A friend suggested one to me a couple of days ago and I’m trying to decide if I like it.”
We fumbled around the outside of a few conversation topics, none of which seemed to go anywhere. I remembered this was how I’d felt when Phil had left me alone with Sharon on occasions. Odd how just a physical appearance can change the way people see you and act around you. We were both grateful when Sharon called us to table.
The meal was up to Sharon’s usual standards and conversation was muted for a while as we concentrated on flavours and textures. Phil and I washed up with Sharon watching us from the kitchen table and holding the conversation together. We chatted the evening away, things feeling a lot like old times. Eventually Phil stood up and stretched.
“I guess I should be heading back home if I’m going to be up in time tomorrow.”
I looked quizzically at Sharon who smiled mysteriously.
“Phil’s coming to church with us tomorrow.”
I raised an eyebrow and he shrugged as he slipped his shoes on.
“It’s important to Sharon, it should be important to me.”
Once he’d left, Sharon carried the empty bottle and glasses through to the kitchen.
“You know we’d better get some sleep as well. Don’t want to be late do we?
I looked at my new watch. It was only half past ten but then an early night wouldn’t do either of us any harm. I allowed myself to be lead and drifted off into the arms of Morpheus with surprising ease.
Morning started with an early shower for both of us then a general scurrying about in our underwear. Sharon suggest a smart blue dress with short sleeves and a v-neckline with some light tights and a pair of matching blue shoes. I had to wear my angel wings necklace so she also lent me a red bag which helped to balance the colours. She wore a beige skirt suit with a plain cream blouse. I didn’t realise at the time but she was deliberately dressing in more subdued hues to help me stand out.
We were ready half an hour before we needed to leave and I sat nervously, tugging at me hair until Sharon decided she needed to say something.
“What’s the matter sweetie? It’s only church, I mean no-one’s going to bite your head off you know.”
“I know, it just feels… I don’t know. I mean I was born a boy and now I’m going to church in a dress; it feels disrespectful.”
“Well kiddo there is nothing of the boy left now. I think you should be grateful for the gift you’ve been given and embrace the new you. Personally I think it would be more disrespectful if you went pretending to be a man. I also think he’s happy that you’re going regardless of how you look or feel.”
The nerves subsided a bit.
“Yeah I suppose…”
“Besides if you want to be nervous about something, maybe you should think more about meeting with my friend. You remember the one I said might be able to help you with your job problems?”
“Oh sh… Now you’ve set me off again.”
She hugged me and gave me an encouraging smile.
“You’ll be fine. Just take a few deep breathes and be you when we get there. I can’t imagine a soul not falling instantly in love with you on sight.”
I thought about the shadier characters I’d encountered in my wanderings around the city but I kept those thoughts to myself.
Eventually it was time to leave and we headed out, me grateful to be doing something if only walking.
“Here we are.”
I looked around. Not a spire in sight. I gave Sharon an odd look.
“We use the community centre. Sorry I should have warned you, this is going to be a little different from your expectations.”
Phil was waiting for us at the entrance; wearing a suit and tie, top button done up, hair combed. He really looked handsome and a strange feeling came over me as I realised that I actually did fancy him a little.
This was so weird; I mean I’d never looked at men in that way before. But then again I felt differently about women now. I remembered Sharon’s worried comments when she suggested we share a bed. None of my reaction had even fantasised about us together under the duvet. And that first night with Mary. It had felt so right, so wonderful at the time, but then there was more of the old Ken in me back then. As I thought back on that night I felt a little uneasy about it and promised myself that I would never again do that.
So if I was going to be a heterosexual female for the rest of my life, I supposed I’d have to get comfortable with the idea of being with a man. Not Phil though. Even if he wasn’t spoken for it would be just a bit too weird, and not just because of the age difference.
He held the door for us; something else I was going to enjoy getting used to. Sharon locked arms with him and led us both towards the large sports hall which seemed to be the centre of a lot of activity. Chairs were laid out in front of a sort of stage area, people were milling about with and without musical instruments, and small groups of people were standing around chatting. As we stepped through the door one of a group of people handed me a sheet of and offered me a cheerful, welcoming smile. This was all so odd I was beginning to feel intimidated again. Then I looked down at the sheet.
“You have got to be kidding me.”
“What is it?”
Sharon looked over my shoulder with a mixture of concern and curiosity.
“The information sheet thingy… The sermon for today or whatever. Look at it.”
“Yeah, what? I don’t see it.”
“The verse, the Bible verse. That’s the same one the guy in the park mentioned, I’m sure of it. Did you say something to the vicar here?”
“Why would I do that?”
“I’m sorry, it’s just that it seemed a bit too much of a coincidence.”
She gave me an inscrutable look.
“Maybe it’s not a coincidence. Look, we should probably go and find some seats before the place gets too crowded.”
Crowded? A church?
I followed Sharon and Phil into the main hall where the number of people was rapidly approaching the number of chairs. We found three seats together a couple of rows back from the front and sidled past those sitting on the aisle to reach them.
I nervously scooped my skirt under me as I sat and squeezed my legs together, all the time looking around apprehensively as though someone in this crowd might suddenly point me out as a man come to church dressed as a woman. But I wasn’t. I felt the reassuring absence of anything between my legs, the weights on my chest and the hair down my back and allowed myself a self-indulgent smile. I was a woman now and properly attired. This was going to take some getting used to.
The milling about on and near the stage had ceased and the band started playing. They were actually quite good; not charts material but definitely good enough to do the pub circuit if they wanted. I didn’t recognise the tune, but it was modern and upbeat and already so much more enjoyable than the expected hymns.
The band leader invited us all to stand and sing as words appeared on a large projection screen at the back of the stage. I joined the rest of the masses in rising to my feet, but didn’t feel comfortable singing with them. I mean the tune was simple enough and it was easy to see where the words fitted, but it just felt so alien still.
Fortunately the musical part didn’t last too long and I gratefully sat down with everyone else in the hall. Gratitude perhaps a little premature as an elderly gentleman stood up in front of a microphone and started reeling of information about events and matters that didn’t mean a great deal to me in a long droning monotone. He was followed by another guy who invited us to bow our heads in prayer and launched into something that sounded so unlike a prayer it was unreal. I mean whatever happened to Our Father? The way this guy talked to God seemed very familiar, almost like a conversation except it was something of a monologue. To someone who’s only experience of church was the odd Christmas and Easter service in the sleepy and somewhat traditional local Anglican church near my parents’ house, it all came across as a bit odd.
I tried to keep still and wait out the weirdness and was rewarded a short while later, after a couple more short songs, by the pastor – not vicar – standing up to give his address.
“You meant it for evil, but God intended it for good.”
It seemed an odd way to start a sermon, but then why change the theme for the morning. I sat waiting for him to take it further. He did.
I don’t want to bore you with the details so long story short. The passage was about Joseph; you know as in Joseph and his Technicolor dream coat? The pastor summarised the story, focusing on all the betrayals and setbacks Joseph faced, and in particular how he responded to them. How he focused on God, focused on the good and made the best of each situation and how when all was said and done, when he had both opportunity and good reason to get his revenge, he was forgiving.
It was his closing remarks that stuck with me though. I don’t remember them exactly, but a half decent paraphrase would go something like this:
“Selfishness lies at the root of all evil. The Anglican prayer of penitence before taking communion goes, ‘Almighty God, our heavenly Father, we have sinned against you and against our neighbour in thought and word and deed, through negligence, through weakness, through our own deliberate fault.’
“Sins of negligence like those of Pharaoh’s cup bearer who was content to go back to his old life and forget about his friend suffering in prison. Sins of weakness like Potiphar’s wife who wanted a bit of action with the young and handsome Joseph and who was then afraid of being found out so falsely accused him of having seduced her. Deliberate sins, like those of the brothers who just wanted to get rid of Joseph and managed to make a bit of cash on the side.
“Deliberate sins like seeking revenge. Can you imagine how Joseph must have felt after he was made the second most powerful man in Egypt? He had the power to bring misery to pretty much everyone who had done the same to him. But Joseph didn’t. He is the first person mentioned in the Bible who really got what God was about. He tested his brothers, sure, to make sure that they had learnt a lesson or two in caring for others rather than themselves, but then he forgave them, just as he forgave every other person who harmed him. His words to his brothers, ‘You meant it for evil, but God intended it for good.’
“You know we get the message through the media every single day, ‘because you’re worth it’, ‘go on treat yourself’, ‘ you matter’, ‘you’re important’. It makes us feel good about ourselves so we buy more stuff, but the downside is that it teaches us to be selfish.
“The heroes of our world are the ones who overlook the harm done to them, who look to the needs of others, who care more about the suffering other people are going through than their own hardships. These are the kind of people that God uses; they are God’s opportunities to show Himself and turn selfish actions into something glorious. These are the kind of people that we should aspire to be.”
The sermon came to its climactic ending and as the band returned to their instrument, we stood to sing.
“That’s you that is.”
I jumped at the voice, then realised that it was only Sharon leaning over to whisper in my ear.
“What do you mean?”
“These past few days, the way you dealt with Mary, Phil and me, it’s just like he was saying.”
The music had started and there was no chance to respond, just to think on Sharon’s words and those of the pastor.
The last song went on for some time with quite a bit of, to my mind, unnecessary repetition, then the congregation began to break up into small groups. Chairs were pushed to the side and it seemed that everyone was rushing to talk to someone. Even Sharon made her excuses and dashed off into the throng, leaving me somewhat adrift in a sea of strange faces.
I turned my attention to a small group of youngsters, not too different from my apparent age, who were keeping their own company and looking a little different from the rest of the milling crowd. They closed ranks as I approached, but I wasn’t going to let that stop me.
One of them, a lad probably a couple of years older than I appeared and seemingly the leader of the group, turned to me, the others forming up loosely behind his shoulder.
“Look, I’m… This is my first time here, I was just looking for someone to talk to.”
“And you chose us?”
“Yeah? I mean okay you’re not exactly poshed up like most of the people here, but so what?”
“So what is we don’t exactly belong here. We’re not part of this God-Squad, just trying to get in out of the cold for a while. The people here don’t seem to mind too much, even share their tea and biscuits.”
“So, what? You live on the streets?”
He bridled a bit at that.
“We do all-right. Don’t pass judgement on what you don’t understand.”
With that he and his entourage turned their backs on me and headed for the table serving teas and coffees. I guess I deserved his rebuff; I hadn’t been exactly diplomatic.
A presence at my shoulder made me jump; even after more than a week I was still getting used to being several inches shorter, and this guy had some altitude on him.
“I’m sorry; I didn’t mean to startle you.”
“Oh it’s okay, I guess I’m a bit nervous is all. Your Pastor James aren’t you?”
“And you must be Sharon’s friend. It is so good to meet you.”
He held out a hand like a bunch of bananas; it completely enveloped my own with a firm grip.
“That was an interesting sermon you preached this morning. I’m intrigued as to where you get your ideas from.”
“Oh, usually I spend a while apart thinking and praying; most of the time something comes to me. This morning’s came very easily, almost as if God had something to say to someone.”
I could feel his scrutiny, but somehow he seemed to sense my own disquiet. He smiled.
“You’ll have to tell me about it sometime. When you’re ready.
“I see you’ve found our regular visiting non-members.”
He indicated the group of street kids I’d been speaking to.
“There has to be something that can be done for them.”
“Oh sure there is. Someone just has to care enough.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean we do what we can, we offer them shelter here during the times when we have the hall available, there are a number of families within the congregation with older kids who offer individuals a hot meal and a bath at their homes, that sort of thing. Only that’s just treating the symptoms, and while we can help to make things a little easier for them, it’s not solving the problem itself.”
“So what can change it? Can’t you write to local government or something?”
“Change like this can’t be made from the top down. We can send letters and petitions until someone takes notice, but then there’ll just be a government initiative that’s poorly managed and underfunded to provide us with more soup kitchens and drop in centres; just more Band-Aids to treat the broken leg.
“The problem isn’t about resources, no matter how much they would help. It’s about finding someone who will treat these youngsters like people, who’ll listen to them, who’ll help them work through the issues that got them on the street in the first place.
It took me a second to realise what he had actually asked. I spluttered a reply.
“Who me? That’s scary big.”
“How do you think Joseph felt? One day prisoner, next day second in command over all of Egypt, responsible for building storage facilities and rationing food even when there was quite literally twice as much as people needed. Some of God’s best work starts off with people who feel they are too little.”
He stood quietly by while I mulled over his words. The whole idea was too massive to contemplate and I was well on my way to being scared by it when I was interrupted by an arm on my elbow.
“There you are, I’ve been looking everywhere. Oh hi Pastor James, do you mind if I barge in here, only there are few people we need to talk to.”
“No, go ahead. I think we’ve said as much as needs saying here.”
He gave me a wink – friendly not creepy – as I allowed Sharon to whisk me away.
She steered me towards an elderly gent with thinning hair, but looking smart and dignified in full suit and tie. She touched him lightly on the shoulder and he turned, smiling at Sharon who spoke to me.
“I’d like you to meet Clive Anderton-Buckley, he’s a partner at the law firm where I work. I’ve spoken to him about your problem and he seems to think maybe he can help. Clive this is my friend, you know the one I told you about?”
“Ah yes, the mystery girl.”
He reached out a hand which I took – yet again firm but not painfully so – a gentleman’s handshake.
“I’m pleased to meet you.”
I said the words and I supposed I ought to be, but I had no idea what this was about. I looked at Sharon for something of a clue.
“Clive deals with some interesting aspects of the law, one of them being working with the Home Office to arrange new identities for people who need them. You remember the Bulger case where the two lads involved where given new identities after they left prison?”
“Except I wasn’t involved in that particular case, and as I said to Sharon, it would take exceptional circumstances indeed for me to consider your own. Now I’m assured that your circumstances are indeed exceptional, so I’m prepare to listen to what you have to say. I’m not promising anything, mind, other than half an hour of my time at, shall we say nine-thirty on Tuesday morning?”
He had his diary out and was poised with a pencil to write something. I glanced briefly at Sharon who smiled encouragingly.
“That’s very kind of you sir, nine-thirty will be fine.”
He scribbled for a second then slipped the diary and pencil back into his pocket.
“Then I look forward to hearing your exceptional circumstances then.”
He nodded at Sharon and me then turned slightly away. It seemed we were dismissed and Sharon pulled me off in a different direction. I dug my heels in and hissed at her.
“What are you getting me into? Just exactly what am I expected to say to your boss on Tuesday? Do you expect him to believe the truth, or do you have some plausible lie in mind that will work?”
She gave me an infuriatingly trusting smile.
“Look sweetie, in my experience Clive has an uncanny ability to sniff out the truth, and you have an equally uncanny ability to persuade people that the impossible can happen. I mean in the last few days you’ve managed to convince both Phil and me of what happened.”
“Yes and if you remember you weren’t too keen on believing me from the outset. What makes you think that our boss is going to be any more understanding?”
“It’ll work out, you’ll see. Now shut up and let me introduce you to another of my friends.”
We were approaching a rather formidable looking middle-aged woman dressed in loose fitting but expensive clothing. Sharon leaned past her and into her field of view.
“Sharon, how lovely to see you. How are you keeping, and that nice young man of yours, Philip wasn’t it?”
“Karen, I’m fine thank-you, and yes so is Philip. He’s here with us today, over there chatting to Mike and the rest of the band.”
“Hoo hoo hoo, it must be serious if he’s allowed you to drag him along here. Any sign of wedding bells?”
Sharon managed a weak smile.
“I think we may still be waiting a while there, but you never know.
“Listen, you know you said I should come talk to you if I ever met someone I thought might interest you in your line of work? I’d like to introduce you to one of my friends.”
She pulled me into the circle and left me standing, demure and awkward under the scrutiny of the older woman.
“Well you certainly have the look, can you give me a slow twirl?”
I obliged as best I could.
“Have a look at these.”
Sharon pulled out her phone and passed it across. Karen flipped through the dozen or so photos that had been lined up.
“Small screen, but I think I see what you mean. Are these…”
“…Adele’s, yes. We were shopping in the area last week and I figured if she could look good in one of Adele’s creations…”
“…she could look good in pretty much anything, and she really does.”
She turned to me.
“All-right, I’ll give you a shot. We’re setting up a photo-shoot for a fashion catalogue next Thursday. If you can get to this address by ten, I’ll give you an audition.”
She handed me a card and a second later I recovered enough from the shock to thank her. She continued to chat with Sharon for a few minutes more then headed off in a flurry of air kisses.
Sharon turned to me.
“All-right then, who’s for some lunch?”
I looked over my shoulder at the group of street kids hoarding biscuits and felt a twinge of guilt.
Phil cooked for us – very palatable; definite signs of Sharon’s influence and a promising apprentice chef in the making – then after we’d eaten, he and Sharon sat down to the first of what I imagined was going to be many serious discussions. I excused myself, saying I still needed to get my sleep pattern settled.
In the bedroom, I slipped off my blue dress and hung it up. So odd that as Ken I would most likely have nose-dived straight onto the bed, but here I was taking care of my clothes. Maybe it was the cost; so much more than I had ever spent on clothing as a man. Maybe it was that Sharon had bought pretty much all I owned and I owed it to her to at least look after it all. I don’t know. The tights would probably be too hot under the high tog duvet as well, so I eased them off my legs and balled them up carefully.
I slipped under the covers and settled down, soothed by the gentle murmur of voices from the room next door.
“I’m sorry but that is the most ludicrous story anyone has ever told me. I thought Sharon was being serious when she introduced you to me, but there really is nothing I can do for you, except ask you to leave before I lose my temper…”
“I’m sorry but without a National Insurance number I cannot employ you, whether you’re any good or not…”
“I’m sorry, but we can’t afford to keep you around if you don’t have some source of income for yourself. We’ve packed up the things we think you’ll need, now if you’ll kindly leave…”
I was back on the streets, one bag of clothes; all thin layers and slinky clothing; no idea where to go, no idea what to do. Eventually I turned into a dark, dirty alley. I was half way down it when an unsavoury figure appeared at the far end.
“What do you say sweetheart? Twenty quid for a quick one up against the wall here?”
I panicked, looking behind me for an escape route. He saw my intent and made a sudden dash, lifting me off the ground with one hand and jamming the other over my mouth. I tried to fight him off, but he was too strong. Before I knew it he had me pinned against the wall with his body, reaching under my skirt, tearing my knickers away with one easy movement, then loosening his own belt. I tried to scream, but the sound was muffled by his hand. I tried to bite him but he pushed his hand further into my mouth until I couldn’t move my jaw.
“I love it when they fight back, go on deary, make my day.”
His trousers were down around his knees, he pushed my legs apart and thrust hard.
I screamed with all my strength as I felt a ripping inside me; again it was muffled to almost nothing against his hand. My eyes wide in terror, my insides feeling like they had been torn apart, I struggled for a while then went limp as the pain grew and grew, chasing me deeper and deeper into myself. I blotted the world out in an effort to escape the horror being done to me.
Eventually it was over and I lay staring blankly at the dim figure redressing himself. He threw a twenty pound note on the ground beside me.
“Wasn’t really worth the money, but a deal is a deal.”
He turned and walked away, discarding me like a broken toy.
I was bleeding, but managed to staunch the flow with the remains of my underwear. I don’t know how long I lay there in the filth, but eventually I hauled myself to my feet and staggered along until I found a quiet place to strip off my ruined clothes, clean myself up as best as I could and put on something clean, although the feeling went no deeper than my skin.
I’d held onto his money. I despised myself for doing do so, almost as though I were condoning his actions by accepting his payment, but I knew I’d need the money to survive. It went on burgers and hot dogs and bacon butties, anything with protein in to help replace to lost blood and mend the damage.
Days ran into weeks and the pain subsided a little. Weeks turned into months and the weather turned from cold to bitter then back to cold again. I subsisted on hand-outs from the soup kitchens and change begged from passers-by. I could feel life growing inside me and alternately loved it and hated it.
Then one day there was a pain, a sudden agony coursing through my abdomen. Something was wrong, terribly wrong. I staggered into a nearby alley and collapsed onto the rubbish strewn streets. This was too soon, but the pain returned again and again dragging screams of bitterness and agony from me, until finally, in an outpouring of blood, it came out of me and lay there between my legs amongst the detritus that no-one cared enough even to throw away properly.
Too small to live, just large enough to look human, I picked up the blood smeared remains and wept. I was bleeding again, but I didn’t care. I curled around the small defenceless thing and waited for the end.
“Sweetie? Sweetie? Wake up.”
There were gentle hands holding my shoulders shaking me awake. I reached out and clung to Sharon with all my strength. Her arms wrapped around me and started to rock me back and forth. Someone was saying no, no, no over and over again and I only dimly realised that it was me.
“You were screaming sweetie, was it a bad dream?”
Oh if only you knew. I felt a dampness under the duvet and pulled it back and screamed.
Phil was in the doorway in an instant looking worried and clueless. Sharon took control.
“It’s okay sweetheart everything’s going to be fine.
“Phil, could you fetch me a couple of towels from the bathroom please.
”You know when you turn into a girl you do it big time.”
Phil was back with the towels, one of which Sharon gave to me to put over the source of the mess I was making. The other went under the sheet to try and stop it spreading into the mattress.
“Give us some privacy would you love?”
Phil obediently ducked out of the bedroom and into the kitchen while Sharon lead me gently through to the bathroom, helped me to undress and stood me under the shower.
Somewhere en-route I found my sanity again.
“I thought this was supposed to start gently.”
“Under normal circumstances yes, your first period should be quite light, but you are a few years past that first experience even if you never had it. The sudden onset’s a little unusual, but the amount of blood looks more than it actually is.”
She went on to suggest possible symptoms I might have experienced earlier in the day and I admitted to a number of them.
“So there you are then. Welcome to the truly disgusting part of being a woman. If you can handle this bit then the rest should be pretty straightforward. Look have a good long shower, it’ll probably help with the cramps a little anyway. I’m going to change the bed and get you some fresh clothes, then we’ll talk about feminine hygiene in greater detail. I also need to find something for Phil to do to stop him freaking out. I’ll be back in about five minutes.”
She was true to her word and, after some detailed instructions in the use of something which is in fact pretty simple, I emerged from the bathroom wearing a pair of baggy trousers and a sweatshirt, feeling as lumpy and shapeless as I was sure I looked.
Phil’s make-work had apparently been the preparation of some hot chocolate.
“One of the few good things about this time of the month. You need to put the iron back into your system, and chocolate’s the preferred method of women almost everywhere.”
I smiled as I breathed in the aroma, but kept to myself through the remainder of the afternoon. Sharon got me to change my newest little friend after a couple of hours and seemed satisfied that I wasn’t haemorrhaging away all my lifeblood any faster than normal. It seemed that my little misadventure had put something of a damper on the afternoon’s mood, and Phil was surprisingly quick at taking the hint that maybe Sharon and I needed a little bit of girl time. He made his excuses and promised to call Sharon to arrange lunch during the week.
When we were alone Sharon left me sitting in silence for a couple of minutes before cracking first.
“Okay I’ll admit, it is pretty freaky the first time, and for you probably more so, but I think there’s something you’re not telling me.”
So I told her about the dream in all its lurid detail. By the time I’d finished it was hard to tell which of us was crying harder.
For once Sharon surprised me by not saying anything for a very long time. The hug was what I needed and it was there until I drew away. I wiped a tear out of each eye and looked at my friend.
“So is something like this going to happen every time?”
“No sweetie, I’m pretty sure the dream has nothing to do with what you’re going through. I mean okay, you’re a mess of hormones right now and dealing with something intense for the first time, so maybe a little, but I think the dream has more to do with something else that’s going on in your head.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean… well I think you’re going to have to work that out for yourself. In the meantime how do you feel about another hot chocolate and an early night?”
I felt good about both, then lay still in bed for hours, my thoughts whizzing through everything that had happened that day. Sleep didn’t come easily, but eventually with nothing resolved, I finally nodded off.
Monday was a miserable day, filled with cramps, a bloated uncomfortable feeling which I hid under baggy, shapeless clothes, and the stark memory of the dream, which brought on panic attacks simply when I remembered the worst parts of it. The regular visits to the bathroom to shore up the defences against my new found tendency to leak didn’t add much to the joy of the day either. I spent most of it pottering about, feeling sorry for myself and worrying away at what I would tell Sharon’s boss when I met with him the next day.
He seemed too intelligent an individual to be taken in by even the most elaborate lie I might concoct, and too pragmatic to so much as consider the truth for more than a moment. If he was my only hope to get a new identity then I was out of luck, unless I could come up with something totally out of the box which he could and would be prepared to accept.
Sharon found me sitting on the sofa with my legs drawn up tight and a cushion held in a tight death-grip in front of me. She took one look and headed straight for the kitchen, returning a few seconds later with a couple of chilled glasses of sauvignon blanc. I took one without comment and sipped at it as she eased my feet out of the way and sat at the opposite end of the couch.
“A few, nothing momentous.”
She threw a strip of tablets on the coffee table.
“I left those for you to take if you wanted.”
“I don’t like taking pills if I don’t need to.”
“Suit yourself, but this is going to happen every month now and you’re going to have to choose between cramps and pills The pills aren’t that bad.”
I shrugged. We sat in silence for a while then she tried again.
“How’d you get on with the um… you know the thingies.”
Her hands were fortunately more descriptive than her voice. I shrugged again.
“Three maybe four, none of them too far gone. I think maybe the flow has eased a bit.”
“Don’t get your hopes up. It usually peaks on the second day, but you shouldn’t feel so bad tomorrow. You kind of get used to it.”
The wine occupied our attention for a short while, then she looked directly at me. No more pussyfooting then.
“So if it isn’t the cramps and it isn’t the other, what is it?”
I really didn’t want to talk about the dream, so I picked the other the other object of my brooding.
“It’s tomorrow’s meeting with your boss. What am I going to tell him? I mean he looks like he’d see through pretty much any lie straight off, and I can’t see him accepting the truth in my case do you?
“You know I’m grateful for your arranging this, but I don’t see how this can possibly work out. Plus I’m more than a little worried about what he’ll think of you when he’s done with me.”
She reached out a hand to touch my leg and I shied away from it; really not feeling the least bit tactile. She let it hover for a moment then withdrew it.
“Look sweetie, I’ve known Clive for a long time and if I know anything about him it’s his ability to see the truth, no matter how bizarre. Don’t worry about me; we’ve known each other long enough to trust each other. Just say what you think is best and let him sort out the details.
“So are you hungry?”
To be honest I wasn’t, but this was Sharon’s cooking. Besides which if she was in the kitchen maybe she’d leave me alone. I nodded my head.
Sharon jumped to her feet and patted me on the ankle. She took my empty glass from my hand and headed for the kitchen, returning a minute later with a glass of water, which she put on the coffee table next to the strip of tablets she’d shown me earlier.
“Do us both a favour and take one of those will you? If it doesn’t work this time, or if you feel worse then I won’t suggest them again.”
She was being reasonable, which didn’t help my mood. Somewhat reluctantly I popped one of the tablets out of the wrapping and swallowed it with a sip of cool water.
Dinner didn’t take long; a simple carbonara with Parma ham and a mix of cheeses and herbs in the sauce that I couldn’t quite identify along with steamed broccoli and green beans. I wished my appetite could have done it justice, but it was delicious nonetheless. Somewhere between the easing of the cramps, which I’ll admit were a little worse than I’d said earlier, and the good food, my mood lifted and we enjoyed a more civilised a chat over the rest of the wine.
“So what are you going to wear tomorrow?”
Questions that had never bothered me up until the last week or two, but I had been thinking about it. I’d always wanted a life where my appearance made a difference, and now that I had one I was gradually getting used to the idea.
“Sounds just right.”
She burrowed into my side of the wardrobe and pulled out the suggested items to give them a once over. Having passed muster, she left them hanging on the door. She smiled at my curious look.
“Never does any harm to check ahead of time, especially before an important meeting. They might have been scrunched up and in need of an iron or, you never know, maybe a button coming loose or a hem unravelling. Easier to put right now when we’ve time than tomorrow morning when we’re panicking to get ready.”
“I wouldn’t have thought of that.”
“No reason why you should, but you’ll learn. So what say we head in together tomorrow? I mean you’ll be a little early but not that much.”
“That sound’s nice, thanks.”
It was still early and Sharon suggested I might like a long soak in the bath while she did a bit of ironing. The division of labour didn’t seem fair, but she offered me the chance to pay her back next time it was her on the rag and I was feeling as good as she was so I agreed.
Whoever is responsible for the invention of bath salts and oils, I found myself profoundly grateful to him or her that evening. With my hair wrapped up in a towel to keep it dry, I allowed myself to drift away on the luxuriant scents and sensations of so much decadence in a bath of water. Sharon had to knock on the door twice, the second time warning me that I didn’t want to turn into a prune, before I emerged.
A fresh nightgown, Victorian style – all ribbons and lace over crisp white cotton, and the best of friends, prepared to stand behind me and brush the knots out of my hair and in so doing ease so much of the stress that had built in my shoulders and neck, left me feeling more soothed and relaxed than I’d been all day. A shared hot chocolate to end the day and we were tucked up together in bed, each of us drowsing towards unconsciousness accompanied by our own thoughts.
Morning came too soon, even after an early night. Sharon was up and in the shower, having pushed me in the direction of the coffee maker. She was out before the machine had finished its cycle, so she left me to wash while she clattered about in the kitchen. I wasn’t long in the bathroom, but still long enough for Sharon to whip up a couple of eggs Benedict on toasted white muffins with the remains of yesterday’s Parma ham, and turn my half-baked efforts with the coffee maker into some of the most wonderful smelling and tasting coffee ever.
We ate in our nightclothes, which turned out to be just as well as I managed to spill egg yolk and Hollandaise sauce down my front. Sharon pulled the nightdress off me and headed for the bathroom to do whatever saves white cotton from egg stains, and I swallowed down my last delicious mouthful of breakfast in my undies before heading for the bedroom to get changed.
Despite the misadventure, we were both ready with time to spare. Sharon waved the ever-present pack of pills at me and, while I hated to admit she was right, since they had helped the previous day, I popped one in my mouth and washed it down with the last of my coffee.
We walked out the front door, two professional women off to meet the challenges of the day. If I let myself think about it, the bloated discomfort was still there, but having such a positive start to the day had pushed the feeling right to the far corner of my mind, and I found myself smiling as much as she was as we strode down to the bus-stop.
Of course the feeling didn’t last much past our arrival at Sharon’s place of work. We walked into the building just before half past eight and Sharon left me in a large waiting room with a cup of adequate but less appetising coffee to brood over for an hour.
Clive Anderton-Buckley was an early bird. Either that or he had a second entrance into his office because no-one entered or left the large room behind the receptionist’s desk in all the time I waited, yet on the stroke of half past nine I was startled out of my nervous brooding by the rude buzz of an intercom. The receptionist looked up at me and offered me a reassuring smile then stood to guide me to the double door entrance to his office.
Clive came round from his enormous desk as soon as I stepped into the office. Arms held wide in expansive welcome, he covered the distance between us in a few easy strides. His smile was disarming as he took my hand in his and used his other arm to guide me towards some comfortable seats to one side.
“Welcome, I understand you’ve been waiting a while.”
“I came in with Sharon this morning, so yes a little while.”
“Would you like a drink? Coffee or tea?”
“Mr Anderton-Buckley, please. I’m sorry to do this but I really think this is a mistake; my coming here I mean.”
He gave me a bemused look.
“I am dreadfully sorry but I’ve been trying to think what I might say to you for the past couple of days. What happened to me is too incredible for me to expect you to believe, and I won’t consider coming up with even a half-truth to make it seem more reasonable. I can’t imagine that there’s anything I could say here that you would consider to be other than a waste of your time, and I really don’t want Sharon to get in trouble for asking you to see me when I have nothing worth saying. Now I really do appreciate your willingness to see me, but I think it would be best if I just go.”
I tried to turn towards the door but his gently guiding hands had turned firm enough to hold me where I was. His expression turned stern.
“Young lady, I have put aside thirty minutes from an otherwise very busy schedule to talk to you this morning. The very least you can do is spend that time talking to me as originally agreed. You have your doubts about whether I will believe what you have to say. Be that as it may, I would appreciate the opportunity to decide that for myself. I already have a great deal of respect for your friend Sharon and believe me when I say that weighs very heavily in favour of whatever you have to tell me. Now I will ask this one more time, tea or coffee?”
I demurred and gratefully accepted the offer of tea, my nerves in very serious need of calming. I seated myself on the sofa while he placed the order with his assistant. We chatted over inconsequentialities until the tea came – how did I know Sharon, how long had we been friends, how had we met – and I answered as honestly as I could without going into any details of my life as Ken. Once we were settled with our drinks he turned to me.
“Okay then. From the beginning if you please.”
He had done a good job of settling my nerves, and with nothing in mind to tell him but the fantastic truth, started.
“Friday before last I was a twenty-seven year old man named Ken Stanton…”
I covered everything in detail from the way Phil and I met and made friends to his introducing me to Sharon and the resultant awkward threesome. From there I went on to describe the evening I went to the Meet Market on my own and my encounter with Mary and my ending on the streets dressed like a prostitute. I’d covered the incident with the police and Sharon generously picking me up and offering me somewhere to stay when he excused himself long enough to use the intercom on his desk to cancel his ten o’clock meeting and to request some more tea.
I picked up the pace a bit covering my abortive attempts to find a job and subsequent realisation that without identification I wasn’t going to get anywhere, my confession to Sharon about who I was, her disbelief and chucking me out, then our reconciliation after my night on the streets, and finally my confrontation with Mary in the nightclub.
The tea arrived with a few papers to be signed. I waited patiently for the details of the day to be sorted out and for his assistant to leave then shrugged my shoulders.
“So there you have it. An impossible, incredible story. I can give you all of Ken’s details, his National Insurance Number, his address in Docklands, the name of the accountancy firm where he works as a fairly minor clerk; it’s not three streets from here; his parent’s names and address, but all that will do is prove that I can memorise a lot of information. I could take you to the apartment where Mary lived, but I doubt there will be anything left to suggest she was ever there. The only evidence I can give you is circumstantial at best and won’t help prove anything I’ve said.
“You’ve been very kind to give me so much of your time, but as you can see, my story is unbelievable and really didn’t want to bother you with it.”
He sat back and steepled his fingers while I sipped gently at my second cup of tea. The silence went on for long enough to convince me that I had been right and to regret all over having agreed to meet with him, but in the end he let out a deep sigh. He reached for the intercom on his desk again.
“Can you ask Sharon to come to my office immediately please.”
There didn’t seem anything more I could say, so I kept quiet and as still as I could while he strode back and forth across his office. There was a knock on the door and Sharon’s worried face appeared.
“Come in and close the door. Are you aware of what your friend has just told me?”
“I suggested she tell you the truth and I hope she has.”
I nodded at her enquiring look.
“Do you believe it?”
“I’ve known Ken for a couple of years and my boyfriend has known him for a bit longer. I know the story’s pretty amazing, but neither Phil nor I have any doubts that this person was once Ken Stanton.”
“So now the two of you are expecting me to believe that a man can be transformed into a young girl?”
I wasn’t going to let that go.
“Sir if you recall I didn’t want to go through with this meeting, and largely for the reason that it is so hard to believe.”
“You could have told me a lie. Something like orphaned in a fire, all documents burned.”
“Except that I would at least know my own name, which would lead to a paper trail and records, which would either reveal the lie or force me to take on someone else’s identity, which in turn might lead to complications and unnecessary grief caused to relatives.”
“You could say you’d lost your memory.”
“And end up on the news with a ‘Does anybody know this girl?’ type appeal. That and go through extensive tests with doctors and psychiatrists who might well end up doubting my story.”
He rubbed his eyes and let out another long sigh.
“Alright Sharon thank-you, you’d better get back to work.”
She left and Clive turned to me once more.
“Are you prepared to go out searching for evidence to support your story?”
“Whatever it takes sir, though I can’t think of what you have in mind.”
“I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait a while. I have some things I have to attend to now, but if you’re up for it I’m prepared to give you some time over lunch to do some investigating, say one-thirty?”
I couldn’t read his features, but it didn’t take much brain power to see that he was having a hard time believing. I suspected that he might lose some, if not all, of his respect for Sharon if I backed out now. Oh well, in for a penny.
“One-thirty will be fine as long as you don’t feel I’m wasting too much of your time.”
“No I think that having started this little trip down the rabbit hole we should see it through to its end. I’ll have a car ready to pick us both up at the main entrance at one-thirty then. Until then, there’s a deli at the end of the road if wouldn’t mind getting us both a sandwich. Something with a bit of meat in for me if you would be so kind.”
He showed me to the door and I stepped out into the waiting area with an overwhelming sense of foreboding over how this was all going to turn out.