Copyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.
I awoke in my own bed without the first idea how I had got there. I was wearing a nightdress and my green ball gown was hanging on the back of the door, so I suspected that Sharon might have had something to do with it.
A cold, hard weight pressed own on me and a clear, stark memory of the last moments of last night stood in the way of any thought or feeling. I lay in bed, numb, immobile, uncaring, staring at the wall. Behind me I heard the door open and quiet footsteps cross to the bed. I was vaguely aware of Sharon peering anxiously over me, but it hurt too much to respond. The bed shifted a little as she sat down.
“Are you okay?”
Tears blurred my vision and it took all my self-control to prevent myself breaking down completely, irretrievably. I curled into the pillow. Please, just go away.
“If you’re going to church I’ll be leaving in thirty minutes.”
God, that was the last thing I wanted right now. It was easier to control the anger than the pain though so I held on to it and was grateful. When I still didn’t respond she reached out a hand and touched me gently on the shoulder. She withdrew it just as quickly. I didn’t blame her, even I had felt the trembling where she touched me.
“Can I get you anything? A coffee? Some toast?”
Go away. I can’t stand your compassion. Please just leave me alone. The tears were fighting for control again. Oh Sharon can’t you see what you’re doing to me, please just leave.
The bed moved again as she stood. No footsteps though. Why are you still here?
“I wish you’d speak to me.”
And say what exactly? The last time I opened my mouth I destroyed the best thing in my life and hurt the one person I care about more than any other. Do you really want me to risk doing that to you?
Anger again, tears subsiding, tide ebbing.
“Well, I’ll be back to check in on you later, if you’re sure I can’t’ get you anything.”
Pause, soft footsteps, quiet click as the door closes. I’m alone again; so alone, so lonely. The tears are coming again, this time I can’t stop them. There is no noise just an endless flood.
It’s later and the tears must have run out because I can see the wall and Jenny Doll sitting on a chair next to the bed. I pull her into my embrace. She’s cold and hard like me now, and brittle, so easy to break. We lie together in silence Jenny Doll and me. I don’t mind her being there because she doesn’t ask me to speak, doesn’t expect anything more of me than I expect of her. The tears are gone, the reservoir emptied. I am hollow now, a void that has no desire to be filled.
There is comfort in emptiness. Nothing good, but nothing bad either. I like it here, I think I will stay.
The front door shuts with a bang. Why won’t they leave me alone? The bedroom door opens and there are footsteps. Rapid, purposeful, not timid like Sharon’s. A face peers in close to me, concern written in every pore and wrinkle. What’s Karen doing here? She looks up over my shoulder.
“I think we should call a doctor.”
Not more people. Why does there have to be people? Why can’t there just be dolls? Like Jenny Doll and me. Empty and content. Safe from the hurt. We’ll be pretty for you, but don’t ask anything more of us, don’t ask us to feel.
Karen’s gone now and I’m on my own. I like being on my own. Empty room, empty Jenny Doll, empty me. Just leave us alone. Just don’t make us feel.
Voices murmuring in the background. The doctor has been. He shone a light in my eyes and I almost didn’t notice. Now they’re talking. I can hear what they’re saying if I try.
“How long has she been like this?”
“Since last night, about half past eleven I think. She was just sitting on a bench when I found her. I thought a good night’s sleep would help.”
“Well you were right to call me. We need to get her to hospital…”
Not interested. I hug Jenny Doll closer to me, pull my knees in tighter. Where was I? Ah yes emptiness, oblivion.
More noise. Strangers clattering about. They pull the bedclothes back, they try to take Jenny Doll. I cry out. It’s an ugly sound, harsh and raw, empty of meaning. Empty like me, like Jenny Doll. Give her back. I cry out again, louder this time and she’s back in my arms. They ease me gently off the bed onto their gurney. I try to curl up again. They want me to lie flat and straight, but it’s wrong. I cry out again. They leave me be.
Movement, noise. More lights and concerned faces. A sharp prick and slowly the world fades to black.
Beep, beep, beep…
The room is in darkness. Something has hold of my hand, but I can’t see what. I look around. Machines, pipes, tubing. Where’s Jenny Doll? Ah there she is in the shadows. I can’t reach her, but she looks well. The darkness deepens, the world blends into the shadows.
Beep, beep, beep…
Beep, beep, beep…
There are a lot of people, I can hear them moving about. I keep my eyes shut and hope they’ll go away.
“I don’t understand, are you trying to tell me…”
The voice is old, a woman’s voice. I recognise it. It seeks out memories, flashes them before my eyes. They bring with them… feelings. No please, I am empty. It’s better to be empty. I seek refuge in the dark.
Beep, beep, beep…
Beep, beep, beep…
It’s light this time and there’s someone, a nurse at the end of my bed. She’s writing something on a clipboard. She looks up and gives a start at my silent stare. She recovers quickly.
“Hello. Awake at last then. Can I get you anything?”
I look at Jenny Doll then back at her, it’s as much meaning as I can convey, but she gets it. There’s tube in one arm and another up my nose. They’re uncomfortable, but Jenny Doll’s here now. Are you alright Jenny Doll? Of course you are. You’re always alright. I hug her to me and drift away again.
Beep, beep, beep…
Am I dead? No I’m still breathing, I can feel my chest rise and fall. Jenny Doll is gone again, but a quick search reveals that she is nearby, near enough to reach. She doesn’t need me though and right now I don’t need her. It’s light again and there’s something about the quality of the light that says late morning. I can’t move my hand. Something, someone is holding it. I look at the top of his head resting on my bed, on my arm. I recognise…
I flex my fingers gently and he jumps slightly. Slowly he raises his head, turns red, puffy eyes to greet mine. I know you.
The voice is rough and scratchy, barely a whisper. I can hardly believe that it belongs to me. He throws himself on me, crying deep, heartfelt sobs. Somewhere deep inside I feel the stirrings of… a memory, a feeling, a memory of a feeling. I raise my hand to stroke his hair.
“I thought I’d lost you.”
Muffled words, spoken into my shoulder. Feelings rising like a gentle flood. Jenny Doll looks on impassively. Not disapproving, she knows my weakness. These are good feelings. They hurt but in a good way, like hands before the fire after too long in the snow. The tears are there too, but they are cleansing tears, gentle tears, washing away the horror and the memory of that fathomless, dark chasm.
He sits back and gazes into my face. Those lovely warm grey eyes, that half smile tempered by all to recent anguish etched into every other line of his face. The flood is rising, filling me again and I feel… Is this too much, too soon? He drops his eyes to the hand he’s been holding, takes it in his own, looks back up at me.
“We need to talk, but not right now. You need some rest.”
We need to talk. Panic rises again. Too soon, too much. Where’s Jenny Doll? He senses my agitation. He bloody should, I’m almost screaming inside.
“Liz, no. Liz stay with me. I need to tell you something.”
The room is receding again. I am drowning as turbulent despair overwhelms calm hope.
“Liz I love you.”
The words are an anchor. Dark clouds falter on the horizon, a threatening storm grumbling in the distance.
“I love you.”
The waters calm, the darkness slides away and my arms are around his neck, sobbing loud, unrestrained sobs of sheerest relief. I’ve half-pulled the tube from my arm and a nurse has come running. She knows better though. Swift professional hands slide the cannula out of my arm then she stands back to let the healing happen.
It’s later. Around lunchtime. Mike has gone, reluctantly, to shop for his restaurant and Sharon and Phil are there. We’ve shared our own tears and something of the old me is returning. Not the same, never again the same, not now, but similar. My smile is a ghost of what it was, but it’s there and genuine. Sharon is using her voice to hold her own delicate emotions in check.
“I didn’t know what to do about you, so I asked Karen to come back with me and she insisted we call a doctor. Lucky she has a friend who’s a GP and knows she wouldn’t call him unless it was an emergency.
“You were unconscious by the time the paramedics brought you in. They’d given you a sedative, but you wouldn’t come round; not for days.
“We couldn’t find Mike until the evening when we called the restaurant. He closed it, cancelled all the bookings and came straight over. He’s hardly left your side since. We made him get some sleep, even to go back to work after the first three days. He didn’t want to but eventually he did. But he’s been here every moment the restaurant’s not been open. Hardly eats, hardly sleeps.
“Phil called your brother. We found his number on my phone bill which came through the other day. I’d never have thought to look there, but you know, guys have their uses sometimes.”
She looked up lovingly at her man.
“Anyway, Glen called your parents and they all came down. I explained as best I could, but they didn’t seem to get it. Your mum especially was confused. I think Glen and Lisa were beginning to come round towards the end. Something about how you’d sounded a lot like Ken when you called the other week. Oh not your voice silly, but the things you said, the words you used, that sort of thing.
“They didn’t stay. Glen and Lisa had to get back to work and the kids and your mum and dad couldn’t or wouldn’t believe that you could be their son. I’ve spoken to Glen again this afternoon and he and Lisa will be down later now that you’re awake.
“Oh Liz, you had us so worried. You were gone for more than a week and even the doctors were beginning to wonder if you’d wake up.”
Last time I’d heard her voice, all I’d wanted was for her to shut-up and go away. Now the familiar prattle washed over me like a balm. Phil didn’t say much, but his presence in the room was as welcome as Sharon’s. I still wasn’t ready to say much but the healing had begun and I was only sorry when the nurses shooed them out. I picked up Jenny Doll from the cabinet beside my bed and gave her a hug.
“Thank-you too for being there.”
I closed my eyes and drifted away once more, but this time it was to a peaceful, healing sleep.
“Is she’s asleep?”
My brother can be such a horse’s arse sometimes. The stage whisper was loud enough to wake half the ward.
“She was you dick, but she’s awake now so you might as well come in.”
My voice was still hoarse from disuse, but the calm that spread through me felt wonderful; like the freshness after a thunderstorm. I reached over to switch on a bedside light as he and Lisa came forward to sit with me.
“So how can you be my little brother?”
“Well the short answer is a can’t. Don’t have the bits to qualify anymore.”
I nodded towards the middle of the bed and Glen shuddered.
“Ooh don’t. I can’t understand how you can do that to yourself.”
“And yet again the short answer is I didn’t. If I’d known it was going to turn out like this though I would probably have volunteered a long time ago.”
His brow creased. Not often I saw my brother trying so hard to understand something.
“Does this have anything to do with that time when we were about, what was it, thirteen-fifteenish?”
“It comes into it yes.”
He was referring to the one time he had caught me dressed in our mother’s clothes. He’d come up the stairs quietly meaning to surprise me. I’m still not sure which of us was more shocked when he pounced into my room to find me parading in front of my mirror.
He’d been really good about it though, backed out of the room without saying a word. I’d changed back immediately of course then knocked quietly on his door. He told me he wouldn’t tell our parents or anyone else, but he hadn’t wanted to know more. As far as I knew he’d kept his word, at least until today, but then it was all pretty academic now.
“That wasn’t the only time was it?”
“You have no idea. I can’t even begin to count the number of times I snuck into mum and dad’s room when they were out. Hundreds, thousands maybe. It was kind of like a drug, always needing one more fix.”
“I still don’t get why you did it.”
“It made me feel normal if you can get the irony in that.”
“No it just sounds fucking weird.”
I turned to Lisa who was having trouble following a conversation with most of the relevant details missing.
“Lisa, as a woman why would you say you’re so into clothes and shoes and jewellery and cosmetics and stuff?”
The question took her by surprise, but she rose to it.
“A girl’s got to look her best.”
“Are you kidding? How are we ever going to get a guy interested in us if we don’t make ourselves interesting?”
“But we dress up all the time. We dress up for work, we dress up for a girl’s night out. We even go to the extreme of shopping for clothes even though blokes don’t understand it and hate to go with us. If it was just about attracting a mate then surely we’d be more inclined to do something they enjoy.”
“I see what you’re saying., I suppose it’s part of our nature.”
I turned back to Glen.
“And for blokes the nature is all about bulling up to each other. Competing as individuals and as groups. It may have started as something we chose to do to improve our chances with the opposite sex, but it’s become hard-wired into us.
“Me, I was standing in the wrong queue when they handed out brains. I’ve never been that good at or even that interested in sports or other things that blokes do, but girl stuff… It may sound kinky and weird, hell maybe it is, but I loved the way mum’s clothes felt and the way they looked on me. It was like most of my life I was pretending to be a boy because that’s what I looked like on the outside, then every now and again I would sneak off and let my true nature out.
“Now I don’t have to because I’m the same on the outside as I am on the inside.”
“And you have a boyfriend we’re told. I mean yuk man, what were you thinking? Are you gay or something.”
“Why does it always come back to that question? Homosexuality means being attracted to the same gender as yourself. As Ken I always tried to go out with girls – made a complete cock-up of it most of the time mind – now that I’m Liz I’m trying to go out with guys and finding it so much easier. I’d say I’m more heterosexual than anyone else I know.
“Your problem Glen is that you’re still looking at me as your little brother, only this time stuck inside a girl, when if anything I’ve always been your little sister but stuck inside a boy until this happened.”
“That’s going to take a lot of getting used to you know?”
“Yeah I know and I’ll give you all the space you need.”
“So how did it happen? I mean you must have found a pretty good surgeon.”
“You reckon a surgeon could lose me four inches in height, four shoe sizes and six stone in weight?”*
“Okay then, how?”
“You’ll never believe it, I don’t have anything you would call proof and I don’t have the energy to argue it with you at the moment.”
“Okay, forget the proof and the arguing, but at least try us on the rest.”
So with a long sigh I dived into my story for the umpteenth time. One advantage at least of having to explain the same thing over and over is that it became shorter and neater. It didn’t take anywhere near as long this time as it had with Sharon all those weeks ago and, to their credit, they sat through it without comment until I had brought everything up to date.
Glen sat for a while in silence shaking his head slowly and I was steeling myself for some facetious remark when he surprised me.
“It still seems too fantastic to believe, but there is no doubt in my mind that you are the kid I grew up with.”
Where had that come from? I mean I’d said I had no proof, and so far I had offered none.
“It’s the way you speak Ken, I mean Liz. I don’t know you as well as Glen does, but you have a very distinctive way of talking which I, for one, have never heard from another person’s lips.”
“You’re saying you believe me?”
They glanced at each other, then nodded at me in unison.
“I don’t know how we’re going to swing it with mum and dad, but we’re on your side. Gemma and Abby might find it a little odd too, but they’re young and haven’t learnt yet that guys don’t spontaneously turn into girls. We’ll find some way of telling them, but yes, mum and dad will be trickier.”
A nurse stuck her head in and gave us a stern look. Apparently they should have only stayed a half hour and it was already over an hour since they had woken me up. I felt the tiredness settle on me like a leaden blanket, weighing me down. Glen and Lisa stood up and gave me a quick hug each.
“Tell Gem I was sorry to hear about her tooth, and take a couple of balloons with you for them. Heaven knows I don’t need so many.”
I was asleep before they’d left the room.
Karen was sitting beside my bed when I next woke. She looked stressed and on edge and had her head bowed.
She gave a start then threw her arms around me.
“Oh thank God you’re alright. I’ve been so worried.”
“Yeah, everyone’s being saying pretty much the same, but I’m mending now.”
“Are you sure, you still look a bit pale.”
“That’s probably because I’ve been drip fed for a week and no-one’s brought me any food since I’ve woken up. I guess I keep sleeping through mealtimes.”
It was enough for Karen. Ever the organiser and doer, she charged out of the door and more or less physically accosted of one of the nurses to demand food from her. She came back in looking more relaxed and her old self. I guess there’s nothing like bossing someone about to relieve a bit of stress. I was on the verge of feeling sorry for her employees when I realised that I was one too.
“How’s the campaign to re-clothe the world coming along in my absence?”
“We’re doing alright, although your presence is sorely missed.”
“When’s the next event?”
She consulted her ever-present diary.
“Er, movie premier. That’s on Thursday.”
“Doesn’t sound too bad. I’ll have words with the doctor, but only if you promise to pick me out something I can wear in lower heels.”
“Done deal, but we listen to what the doctor says. I don’t want to risk you having a relapse.”
The food arrived then and she sat back to watch me eat. I’m ashamed to say I left half of it, possibly because my stomach had contract with disuse, but more likely because it was so awful. Even the jelly was bland and uninteresting.
“If you want me ready for Thursday someone is going to have to smuggle in some real food.”
She was back to looking distracted and I had a sudden flash of insight.
“You want to get out of here so you can turn your phone back on don’t you?”
She had the grace to look sheepish.
“Go on, get out of here. I think I need to go back to sleep again in any case. I’ll let you know about Thursday.”
By some miracle or chance I happened to be awake when the doctor did his rounds. He looked over my chart and flashed lights in my eyes, humming and hahing all the while. I waited for an opportune moment and brought up Thursday’s premier.
“I don’t see why not as long as you take things a little easy. In fact there are just a couple more tests I’d like to do and if everything is as I suspect there should be no reason why you can’t go home tomorrow morning.”
He chuckled at the newly kindled and poorly hidden hope in my voice.
“Anyone would think you didn’t like it here Ms Raeburn. No you’re right, this is a hospital and it’s full of sick people. As soon as I can confirm that you are no longer one of them it would seem prudent to let you go before you come in contact with something else that might necessitate a longer stay.”
I think it was intended as a joke, but either my sense of humour muscles had weakened with too much time in bed or it really wasn’t all that funny. I gave him a smile that was only slightly forced given the prospect of my imminent departure and thanked him.
Dinner was served shortly after the doctor left and again I picked my way through the bland and uninspiring fair, thinking all the while of Mike’s wonderful creations. I was becoming truly spoilt.
No sooner had I given up on the cardboard meal than Elizabeth and Cassie arrived bearing fresh fruit and chocolates. Oddly enough my appetite returned.
“Hey guys, it’s so good to see you. Cassie I am sorry about Saturday. We’ll go another day okay?”
She shrugged. There was something else going on here.
“Cassie what is it sweetie?”
“I was worried that maybe the reason you got sick had anything to do with the party, ‘cos then it would be my fault.”
Where had that come from? I reached out and took her hand.
“Cassie that party was one of the best things about Saturday and it had nothing whatsoever to do with why I’m here now. Why would you think such a thing?”
“I don’t know. It’s just that mum said you had an argument with Mike and I thought maybe he felt silly wearing those shorts.”
I was stunned. Elizabeth was too by the look on her face. I vaguely remembered something Mum had said once about the inventiveness of young minds in their pursuit to make everything about them, but I’d never suspected it would go this far. I pulled Cassie’s unresisting body into an embrace, awkward and uncomfortable with my position on the bed.
“Cassie, what happened between me and Mike and what ended up putting me here were entirely separate things from the party. In fact if I hadn’t enjoyed myself so much that afternoon it might have been even harder for me to recover.”
It was mainly the truth and it was the right thing to say. The light returned to Cassie’s eyes and the promise of a smile twitched at the corners of her mouth. A little bit more then to seal the deal.
“When I was younger I didn’t get to enjoy parties like that one, where I could dress up in a pretty dress and be just one of the girls. That’s why my friend Sharon had the mad idea in the first place, and it would not have been anywhere near as fun without your input. Saturday may have ended badly, but most of it was such a wonderful day with two things especially that will make it one of my treasured memories forever. One of those things was the party, so don’t you go thinking that anything you did that day did anything but make me really happy. The other thing was my first time on the back of a horse, and you have my solemn promise that I’m going to show how good that was real soon. Okay?”
She smiled and sniffed away a tear. Of relief though, no longer of recrimination and regret. She went back to her Mum’s arms. Her turn to be comforting.
“I had no idea you felt that way darling. I do wish you’d said something.”
I opened the chocolates and offered them round. Cassie couldn’t decide so I gave her a little help.
“Can I let you into a secret? With chocolates, the younger you are, the more you’re allowed so why don’t you take two?”
“Oh don’t tell her that, I’ll never hear the end of it.”
And we were laughing like the good friends we were. Cassie took her two chocolates before her Mum could object properly and popped the first in her mouth. I dug in the bag of fruit and pulled out the obligatory bunch of grapes and started chomping.
“So I thought you had two children. Why is it that I only every see Cassie?”
“Oh, Darren’s quite a bit older, has better things to do with his time than hang around with his Mum’s friends.”
“I shall have to come visit you guys one day and let him know what he’s been missing out on.”
“Please don’t do that. Life’s enough of a struggle without having a teenager moping about the house pining after one of my friends.”
The rest of the visit was similar, just two – no three – friends catching up. Half an hour went by too swiftly and it was with some regret but more tiredness that I allowed the nurse to chase them out.
Phil and Sharon came by later that evening for a short visit in which I shared the good news of my imminent escape. They promised to make arrangements. Otherwise I spent the evening browsing my way through some fashion magazines that one of the nurses had been kind enough to bring me. I was allowed out of bed for short excursions to the toilet and the lounge. Evening passed to night and the early hours of the morning found me sitting in a chair in the visitor’s lounge.
All was quiet except a few machines in distant rooms beeping out a steady rhythm and the occasional footsteps of the night duty nurse as she made her rounds. They came closer until they stopped at the entrance. I leaned out of my chair and looked over at her.
“Ah there you are. Can’t sleep?”
“I’m told I’ve been doing a lot of that recently. I also slept away most of today so I’m really not that tired.”
“I could give you something if you like.”
“No, I’m good.”
She came in and sat in the chair next to mine.
“I have to get back to my station in a couple of minutes, but if you want to talk…”
I wasn’t sure I did. I wasn’t sure I actually wanted to say what was on my mind. After a short pause, she made as if to stand.
“I don’t know what I should do.”
“All this, the reason why I’m here, I nearly lost myself in all that. I don’t know what to do.”
She settled back into her chair and waited.
“I have a secret, a pretty big one, and one that’s kind of hard to believe. One of those things you know you have to tell to the people you care about, but you don’t know when.
“It’s one of those catch 22 situations. If you tell someone when you first meet them, sooner or later you’re going to meet someone you totally misjudge and then your secret is out there for everyone to see and all the shame associated with it comes home to roost. If you meet a person and decide to wait ’til you know you can trust them before you tell them, when you get round to it you have to admit that you’ve been dishonest and that everything you’ve built your relationship on up to that point is a lie. Either way you’re damned.
“That’s what happened to me on Saturday. I have so fallen for this guy and I know he feels the same way about me. He even told me he loved me earlier this morning – yesterday morning, whatever. But on Saturday when I told him my secret, he didn’t believe me, he didn’t trust me. I’m not sure he does even now.
“And I don’t know what I should do.”
She leaned over and rubbed my hand in that cheerful way nurses have.
“I don’t have an answer luv, except that I know problems always look smaller in the morning once you’ve had a good night’s sleep. Why don’t you get your head down and see what tomorrow brings?”
I smiled a weak smile and climbed to my feet. For all that it was pretty naff, I wasn’t going to get any better advice at this time in the morning. I picked Jenny Doll off her perch and climbed into bed with her.
“What would you do eh? I’m guessing that you wouldn’t let yourself get drawn into a relationship in the first place would you?”
I held her close and stared at the wall, waiting for sleep
Bright sunlight and a bustling ward invaded my dreams and chased them away. I eased myself out of my bed and headed off in search of an unoccupied toilet. Suitably relieved, I returned to my room to await breakfast and other horrors. My doctor had told me he usually did his rounds about nine-thirty and promised to try and fit me in early. I still wasn’t expecting much so it came as a surprise when he interrupted me in the middle of a slice of toast. He only stayed long enough to give me the all clear which left me with a few forms to sign with the nurses and I’d be free to leave.
Except I didn’t have any clothes. The only people I’d told I would be leaving this morning were Phil and Sharon and I wasn’t sure how I’d left it with them. I didn’t even have any money for the payphone. I was still sitting on my bed ten minutes later, contemplating a future living in the basement and stealing inedible hospital food, when a very flustered Karen arrived.
“Sorry I’m late. Traffic was terrible and there weren’t any parking spaces when I got here. Here get dressed.”
She handed me a dress on a hanger and a carrier bag full of other necessities. The dress was one of the more expensive of the Elle-gance collection. I had loved modelling it for the sensuous feel of the soft fabric, but it was hopelessly impractical.
“I thought the premier was tomorrow night.”
“It is, but I thought you might appreciate something to help you feel special. If you don’t mind wearing the same thing twice in two days, it’ll do nicely for the premier as well.”
“Will I need a plus one again?”
“I’ve already arranged for Tarquin to be there.”
“As you like, but wouldn’t it be best to mix things up a bit. I don’t want the press thinking I’m seeing anyone exclusively when I’m not.”
She looked at me oddly for a second. I suppose there had been a slight hardness to my voice.
“I thought you and Mike…”
“Mike and I still have issues to work through.”
Again my response was terser than she deserved, but she took the hint and shut up.
We drew the curtains around the bed and I slipped out of the hospital gown and into proper clothes. It was like coming home and, as thought by magic, I was transformed from a sad little sick girl into a confident and beautiful woman.
Karen fussed with my hair for a while then spent a few minutes painting a bit of colour into my cheeks. By ten o’clock we were ready and I allowed myself to be subject to the nonsense that requires patients leaving hospital to travel by wheelchair.
The sun was shining out of a brilliant blue sky. A gentle breeze stirred delicate fabric against nylon clad thighs, sending a shiver up my spine. I took my first breath of fresh air in over a week and tasted its freshness and coolness with relish. How could I have wanted to run away from this?
“Do you mind if we make a stop on the way home? There are a few things I think I’m going to need.”
“Don’t worry about that, Sharon did a shop for you yesterday; The pantry is not bare.”
I hadn’t even thought about that. Doh!
“Actually I was thinking I could do with a computer, a printer, things like that.”
“Thinking of writing your memoires so soon?”
“Well I probably do have enough material for a book now, but no that wasn’t the intention. There are a few businessmen and politicians who need to feel the pointy end of these rather elegant shoes.”
“Liz the doctor did tell you to take it easy.”
“I know, but that doesn’t mean staring blankly at a wall all day. If I have something to do I’ll be far less likely drive myself crazy. Again.”
Karen gave me a worried glance.
“You were never crazy dear.”
“You weren’t inside my head last week.”
She spotted a mainstream retail outlet outlet and found a space to park up. Half an hour later I was the proud possessor of a new slim line, top of the range, ultra-light laptop in pink – I’d always wanted a pink one – and a decent wireless colour LaserJet printer scanner with enough paper and envelopes to mark me out as a danger to trees with any environmental agency. Karen carried the heavier packages back to the car, after all I was supposed to be taking it easy.
Back at the flat, she again helped me shift my burdens up the stairs and inside.
“I’d better not. I’ve been away from the office for too long.”
We exchanged hugs and she left me to my bare walls. My place was too neat, too stark. I unpacked my new toy while I waited for the coffee to brew then let myself into the friendly clutter of Sharon’s flat where his majesty king Toby the whatever and his entourage were eager to greet me.
I’d bought a 3G dongle as a quick way to get onto the Internet but when the wireless picked up a nearby commercial hotspot, I put in my card details and logged on. It was more expensive than the 3G, but considerably faster.
A couple of hours later, with one hand full of cat and the other scrolling through yet another page full of information on London’s down and outs, I vaguely heard my buzzer sound across the hallway. I closed up the computer and descended the stairs to see who it was.
I opened the door on a bunch of flowers with legs. Then Mike’s face peered around the side and the world became less surreal.
“I went to the hospital but they said you’d already left. These are for you.”
They were breathtakingly beautiful, also way too big. I began a mental inventory of anything and everything I could use as a vase. Sharon had a few, but even then I’d probably have to leave half in the sink.
“Mike these are incredible. Are you trying to give me my lifetime’s supply of flowers all in one go?”
“I brought lunch as well. I mean I’m not presuming or anything, but I was hoping…”
There were things we needed to talk about even if he wasn’t being so charming.
“Well you’re going to have to come up if only to help me figure out what to do with my deciduous forest here.”
He dashed to the car then followed me up the stairs carrying one of his ever welcome polystyrene boxes.
It took us half an hour to round up enough vases and assorted receptacles and to distribute the flowers between them. There were too many for my flat so, with Mike’s agreement, I took a couple of displays over to Sharon’s flat.
By the time I returned, Mike had laid out two plates of crab salad. I retrieved a bottle of Sauvignon Blanc from the fridge and we sat down to a very agreeable lunch. The crab salad, as with everything Mike had fed me so far, was delicious. Just one more thing I was going to miss. I couldn’t believe I was actually going to do this.
“You know what you said to me yesterday at the hospital?”
“I meant every word Liz. When I thought I’d lost you, it was like my whole world fell apart. I can’t imagine life without you, you have to believe me.”
“I do Mike, and I feel pretty much the same.”
I fought to find the next words to say. Mike noticed the silence.
“Why do I feel like there’s a but coming?”
“Because you’re very perceptive. Mike, what I told you Saturday before last?”
He stiffened but nodded, just once, reluctantly.
“You didn’t believe it then and I get the impression you still don’t.”
The shrug spoke more eloquently than any words he could have used.
“The thing is it is real and it’s a part of me. It’s going to keep coming up, and I don’t think I would survive another experience like the one I’ve just been through, at least not intact. If we’re going to be together, I need you to believe it.”
A flash of anger passed across his features.
“Why would you make an issue out of something as stupid as this?”
“Because what is stupid to you is very real to me. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen, and I need you backing me all the way with whatever fallout may come from it in the future. If you can’t do that, then…”
I couldn’t bring myself to say it. Neither could Mike.
“Will you at least talk to Phil and Sharon? I mean this isn’t just a delusion of mine.”
“I’ll think about it.”
He stood and walked to the door, paused, turned back to me.
“You know I really do love you.”
“And I you.”
He waited for more. I wasn’t going to give.
The door closed quietly behind him leaving me with tears running quietly down my face.
I allowed myself to indulge the pain for ten minutes, then put it away for some time in the future, like maybe when I had to cry myself to sleep. I tidied up the lunch things, refreshed my glass and headed back to Sharon’s flat and my interrupted research, the half empty bottle in my other hand.
“Hey girlfriend. What’ya doin’ over here? Oh wow, what’s with the flowers?”
“Oh Mike came for lunch. I think he bought out the entire stock of some flower shop somewhere on his way over. There were too many for my flat so I thought I’d share with someone who I knew would appreciate them.”
I offered her a brief smile over the top of the laptop then went back to reading.
“Refresh your glass?”
I held up my empty, only just now remembering the bottle I’d brought with me.
“Yeah sure, there should be half a bottle of Australian Sauvignon Blanc in the fridge.”
Ever the consummate hostess, Sharon brought back to glasses before pressing forward with the conversation.
“So are you and Mike sorting things out then?”
“Actually I think we split up this afternoon.”
I shook my head. I’d shed too many tears recently; time to be strong.
“I’m okay. One less distraction to get in the way of this.”
I wasn’t okay, but I’d be buggered if I’d let it show.
“Yeah I noticed the computer. Cute colour by the way. What are you doing?”
I shut the lid and turned my full attention to my friend.
“Well you remember my frustrating début the other week when I totally failed to impress any MPs or businessmen?”
“I remember you telling it little differently from that, but okay, yeah.”
“It’s time I set about impressing them. I’ve been putting together a plan of action that I’m hoping will mean they can’t ignore me.”
Sharon must have sensed something of my feelings about the Mike situation, but she was also wise enough to leave it alone until I let her know I was ready to talk. She started asking questions and, as I outlined my ideas, offered a few suggestions of her own. It would take a bit of time and a lot of work, but I needed something to keep me distracted.
The discussion led to a dinner invite with more discussion, then a lengthy planning session over Mr Pinkie. Yeah I know most people don’t name their computers, but then I’m not most people.
When I finally went to bed that night, I was tired enough that I fell asleep with barely a thought for Mike.
“Hi is that Bob? Hi it’s Liz Raeburn, you know the yuppie you found invading the homes of homeless people a few weeks back? Yeah I was wondering if you could do me a huge favour. I need to talk to as many different homeless people as I can, which means I would like to join you on as many soup runs as it will take to meet everyone you know, and I’d like to pick your brains about other organisations who do the same sort of thing… Yeah, not so much a head-count as a comprehensive list with names, signatures where possible and maybe something personal to suggest each one is slightly more than a statistic… Yeah, I’m planning on presenting it to every MP who’s even so much as tripped over a street-kid… It will be far more compelling proof than they’ve seen already that the problem isn’t getting better. They should be more open to listening to my proposals afterwards… Well if they don’t I’ll post it on the web and send the story through to a number of national and London newspapers. The old ‘any publicity is good publicity’ does not apply in politics… Tonight? No I have something work related I can’t get out of. How about Tomorrow?.. About six, okay I’ll see you then. Thanks.”
The rest of the morning was spent on the phone as well, calling around various commercial letting agencies in search of properties that could be converted to my purpose, and which hadn’t been occupied for a while. Lunch was a quick sandwich and a glass of water, then I spent the early afternoon calling the owners of the properties I’d identified and using my most persuasive manner to convince them to meet with me.
Mid-afternoon interrupted with the need to get ready for my public appearance, and for the first time I regretted the amount of time it took me to make myself beautiful. Karen had told me this evening would be a little different with the possibility that I might be asked to say a few words for radio or television, but once the film started the hard part would be over and I could enjoy a good bit of entertainment on the company. I’d even managed to wangle a couple of tickets for Sharon and Phil on the understanding that they’d be properly dressed – ie tux for him and Elle-gance dress for her. We’d all share the limo, but only I was expected to face the press.
Bath, hair wash and hair dry were mindless processes which I allowed my body to perform on autopilot while I thought my way through every question I could imagine and my answer. The dress Karen had brought for me the previous day had survived its time off the hangar so I wore it, as intended, for a second time. Makeup and jewellery were light – all the better to show off the dress – but as usual it took forever to brush my hair to the desired sheen. I found myself thinking of the time Mike did it for me and almost ended up in tears.
As before I was ready with time to spare, and spent half an hour chatting with Sharon and Phil before the limo pulled up outside. Tarquin was his usual relaxed self and made a favourable impression with the others. By the time we reached the cinema we were all enjoying a good laugh. As before I was first out of the car, then Tarquin and I led our small group up the steps towards the entrance.
“And here’s the new up and coming fashion model Elizabeth Raeburn with, if I’m not mistaken, the same escort we saw her with at the Elle-gance launch a couple of weeks ago. Ms Raeburn is it possible that we are seeing the beginnings of a burgeoning romance?”
After our enjoyable trip over, the laugh came easily.
“Not at all. Tarquin and I are close friends, but not that close. He is extremely eligible, ladies, if you’re interested.”
“It’s good to see you on your feet again Ms Raeburn. I understand you spent over a week in hospital recently.”
“It’s true, but I think the doctors were being overly cautious. I was chomping at the bit to be let out of there the last few days. If I may though, I’d like to take this opportunity to say thank-you to the doctors and nurses who looked after me. They did a wonderful job and here I am, as you can see, fully recovered and raring to go.”
“Ms Raeburn, there are a lot of people out there, myself included, who wonder what you do with your time between photo-shoots and catwalk appearances.”
“Well I do have to make quite a number of public appearances to promote the Elle-gance line, but it’s true I have a lot of time available for my own interests.”
“Such as young men perhaps?”
Again an easy laugh.
“Maybe, but not in the way you think. I have a deep concern for the people, mostly young men, who live rough on the streets of our city, and am committing most of my free time at the moment to seeing what I can do to help improve their situation.”
“Well it’s lovely to meet you Ms Raeburn, your dress tonight is quite spectacular. Would I be correct in assuming it’s an Elle-gance creation?”
“You would indeed, and one of my favourites. Not only spectacular to look at but one of the most comfortable in my wardrobe. Actually you’ll be surprised at how many women are catching on to the new Elle-gance line, this young lady for instance has one of our gowns on.”
I indicated Sharon and the camera swung round briefly to take her and Phil into shot. Behind them another limousine was pulling up and my interviewer was ready to move on.
“Thank-you for taking the time to talk to us tonight Ms Raeburn. I wish you well in your career and hope you enjoy the film tonight.”
Tarquin whisked me through the door and we were done working for the evening. The film itself was enjoyable, but I didn’t think I’d be spending money on the DVD when it came out. Meeting the stars afterwards was something of a treat, and the leading lady – I’m sorry I forget who it was – was so taken with my dress that I ended up giving her Karen’s number so she could – hopefully – place an order.
Back home Sharon and I chatted our way through the evening over hot chocolates. Tarquin had declined the offer of a nightcap and Phil had headed straight for his car as soon as we were dropped off. Work day tomorrow you understand.
Once again exhaustion overruled any tendency to think of Mike and I slept what my mother called the sleep of the just.
There followed a period of single minded focus. I hadn’t expected to need to again so soon, but I started by shopping for clothes, settling on a couple of pairs of distressed jeans, a number of cheap but serviceable tops and a second-hand leather jacket. Suitably attired, I made a daily thing of joining Bob’s soup run, working with the team to both prepare and distribute the food, marking each location on the map and speaking to every person who came forward. I wrote down the names of everyone I encountered, added some short statement about them – how long they’d been on the streets, how old they were, whether they had family, what they hoped for, that sort of thing – and asked them to sign next to it. It dragged out the distribution a bit, but most were content enough, as long as they got to stare at the pretty but crazy lady a little longer.
With Bob’s help I made contact with other organisations around the city, and through them still more, repeating my survey with each group. There were a number of individuals who drifted from one group to another and ended up on both lists, but by transferring the data to computer each evening I was able to spot most if not all of them and eliminate the duplicates.
Weeks passed. Karen kept me busy a lot of the time with more public appearances. Since my first time on camera hadn’t totally sucked, she found me a tutor who worked on improving my stage presence, then made sure I had more opportunity to use it. I gave speeches, quite often on topics of my choice which gave me a chance to tell people about what I was doing and what I was finding out; I appeared on TV where the interview would often turn to the focus of my passion. Slowly, without realising it, I became more and more the voice of the street.
My feelings for Mike were never far below the surface, but the distraction of work and planning for the next move in my campaign prevented them from broaching. I did take some time out. Cassie and I had our promised riding lesson together, then became regular partners riding the trails around Epping forest. I asked Katie to run interference and make sure that Mike and I never bumped into each other in one of those awkward moments, but it seemed there wasn’t much need as he didn’t seem to be coming round anymore.
The day I completed my survey was a watershed in my campaign. I contacted the press and informed them of my intention to go to Westminster to present my comprehensive list of homeless people to the committee responsible for resolving the homeless issue, along with my proposal for a solution, then I contacted parliament as well to let them know my intentions.
I turned up dressed in my Elle-gance best and waited outside closed doors for the newsmen to congregated. No-one from the government was prepared to greet me at first, so I turned to the cameras and microphones and, on live TV and radio, put my recent training to good use.
“In recent weeks I have accompanied most if not all of the charitable groups who work directly with people sleeping rough on the streets of London. I have taken the time to speak with those people and have listed their names in this document. The government tell us that the homeless situation is improving. In my hands I have proof that this is not so, that instead of dropping dramatically over the last ten years as we have been told, the street population of this city has been steadily rising. I am sure that those members of parliament who are most concerned with the homeless issue, who are working their hardest to resolve the matters, will want to receive this information, because these are not statistics we are talking about, but people. Let me give you a few examples of what some of the characters I’ve met over the past few weeks have been saying.”
As soon as it became evident that I was not going to go away, that I had an immense quantity of information and that I was prepared to stand out in public and read it to anyone interested enough to listen, the attitude within the ancient building behind me changed and before long the minister who chaired the committee on homelessness came out to greet me. I pounced, keeping him off balance.
“Minister, thank-you for joining us. As you probably know from recent interviews, I have a concern to match your own for the young people on our streets. I have spent much of the past few weeks going to where they are and interviewing them, and have compiled a list of names here that show the actual number of homeless to be far higher than your own statistics suggest. I’m hopeful that this information will spur you to new action, to consider fresh ideas and proposals for dealing with the matter.”
“Well yes of course. Thank-you Ms Raeburn for your efforts. We will have to review your findings, but if there is any truth in the matter I can assure you we will take whatever steps we consider appropriate to address the matter.”
“That’s good to know minister. Perhaps I can take this opportunity to present you with my own proposal in that respect. It’s a little unusual perhaps, but will only require a small amount of effort and expense from the government. Homelessness on London’s streets is London’s problem and I’m hoping that, with a few small concessions from the government, the issue can be addressed by the people who live here.”
I added my plan of action to the papers I’d already handed across. It was as well thought out and airtight as Sharon and I had been able to make it on the evenings we had worked on it together. Her legal and research skills had dovetailed nicely with the small but growing knowledge I had of business and it seemed we were on the verge of something radically new but quite doable.
The press threw out a few questions, mainly to the minister who stammered his way through them before offered me his thanks and withdrawing, dignity perhaps a little tarnished but still intact. I made a brief closing statement, voicing my support for the government and my faith that they would do the right thing then it was over.
I indulged myself with a taxi-ride home, emotionally exhausted from the morning’s efforts, and had barely given the driver directions when my mobile went off.
“Liz, what did you do darling? My phone’s been ringing solidly for the last half hour.”
It was Ann. I gave her a brief synopsis of my mornings activities, eliciting a low whistle.
“I wish you’d told me ahead of time sweetie. I really don’t like having to make things up.”
“I’m sorry I didn’t think.”
“Well perhaps you will next time then. Anyway I hope you don’t have plans for tonight because as of now you’re lined up for a mainstream talk show interview at nine. I’m not sure where at the moment as both ITV and the BBC are bidding for you, and I need to talk to Karen to find out how she wants to handle things.
“If I were you I’d clear my dairy for the rest of the week too, as I suspect there’ll be a few more offers in the pipeline. Wear something nice tonight won’t you dear? I’ll arrange for a car to pick you up at eight.”
*1 stone = 14 pounds so 6 stone = 84 pounds or 38 kg
“But for my first guest I would like to welcome a young lady who surprised everyone earlier today when she turned up on the steps in front of Westminster and more or less dared the government to ignore her. A remarkably young lady who has recently stepped into the fashion limelight as the new face of Elle-gance, and by her actions today has proved herself to be so very much more than just a pretty face, ladies and gentlemen please show your welcome for Miss Elizabeth Raeburn.”
The audience thundered their approval, but then with an introduction like that how could they not. I stepped out onto the stage, paused briefly to acknowledge the applause and walked the short distance to the waiting seats.
I had chosen to go with the black dress Sharon had worn for our last excursion to Mike’s restaurant. In my opinion it had looked better on her, but it was still a stunning dress and didn’t in any way put me to shame. The host of the show half rose out of his seat to give me a peck on the cheek then invited me to take a seat.
“Ooh, good ‘ere innit?”
Polite laughter. Almost everyone here had heard my speech in front of parliament and so knew I was no Eliza Dolittle.
“Miss Raeburn, Liz if you don’t mind, It’s a delight to have you on the show, and looking so lovely in what I can only assume is an Elle-gance dress? May I say you seem remarkably young for someone who’s made such an impact on parliament today.”
“That’s kind of you to say so David, every woman likes to be told that she’s too young. But no, there’s no prerequisite for age when addressing issues like this. All you need is to be passionate and not afraid of a bit of hard work. My Birth Certificate says I’m eighteen years old, and I’d like to throw that out to everyone from my generation. If you see something in this world or this country of ours that you know is wrong, then don’t let your age be the thing that tells you you can’t make a difference.”
“And it seems quite obvious that you are making something of a difference. I don’t know if you heard but shortly before the program began, the government made an announcement that they are reviewing their current policies on homelessness in London, based largely on the information you presented to them earlier today.”
We had to wait for the applause to die down before he could get to his point.
“I suppose the questions on everyone’s lips have to be what was that information and how did you come by it?”
“Before I answer that, may I say that I respect the government for the efforts they have been making to help the homeless in this city. The funds, time and effort they have thrown at the problem have gone a significant way towards keeping those people alive and helping many of them into a job and a future.
“In recent years though, the government has been trying to keep tabs on the situation by conducting spot surveys. Now it seems to me that there must be something wrong with their methodology because the numbers they have been working with haven’t matched the estimate from the charities who deal directly with the people in question. Up until now there hasn’t been a systematic way of comparing the two estimates and it seemed to me that if I wanted the government to take me seriously, I had to show reliable proof that they were wrong.
“For the past few weeks I’ve been tagging along with pretty much every charitable organisation in London that provides food, bedding or shelter to the homeless and I’ve been talking with the people they serve. I’ve written down individual names and collected signatures, then I compared all the data collected to make sure there weren’t any, or at least many, duplications. The evidence speaks for itself.”
“It sounds like a phenomenal amount of work.”
“Yes there was a fair bit of effort involved, but then I’m lucky in my job. When I’m not directly involved in a show or a photo-shoot, I have a fair amount of free time to devote to my own interests. Along with means and motive, that leaves me ideally situated to do something about it.”
“You mentioned in your speech in front of parliament that you had a few ideas that could help to resolve the homeless issue without costing the government a great deal. Would you care to expand on your ideas.”
“Well you’re putting me in danger of going off half-cocked here David. Just today I sent off copies of my proposals to MPs and leading businessmen, all of whose cooperation will be needed to pull this off, and I’m sure that most of them haven’t had time to review and ponder those suggestions.”
“A hint even?”
“Very well, in brief the main problem of the homeless is, unsurprisingly, that they don’t have a home; that is to say a permanent residence where they can be warm and fed well enough to focus their energies on something other than day to day survival. A permanent residence where they can receive correspondence necessary for them to register with the unemployment office, to provide return addresses for job applications, even to set up a bank account. Without that roof over their heads there is little or no hope of these young people ever digging themselves out of the hole they’re in.
“In certain parts of London there are a large number of good sized commercial buildings that are standing empty and slowly becoming derelict through neglect. So why can’t we put the homeless people into one of those empty buildings?
“There are two problems that need to be addressed. The first is that the government classifies business properties as non-residential so people are not permitted to live in them. This could easily be solved if parliament were to offer specific one off dispensations for certain buildings to be used for housing. The second problem is that many of the local businesses who own these properties are reticent about letting them be used for such purposes. There’s a fear that their tenants might abuse the property, leaving graffiti and damage to the extent that the buildings won’t be usable afterwards. On top of that, while the street kids are using the building, the business cannot use it for anything.
“So what we need is an incentive for businesses to allow their properties to be used. In the first case, the damage is being done by the erosion of time and the presence of squatters. It is highly likely that the buildings would be better looked after with young people using them as a home. In the second, the government already allows tax concessions for businesses donating money to charity, why not consider ways in which those same businesses can donate usage of a building or time in teaching skills as a tax concession?”
“Wow. That seems like a fairly massive undertaking for just one person.”
“It is, but then just one person managed to put together a fairly comprehensive survey of London’s down and outs in just a few weeks. Just one person managed to get the government to review their policies on the homeless. Now if just one person can persuade the government to make a few relatively small concessions then inspire enough people to take some responsibility for the problem we face, then we’ll be a long way to solving this problem. Street people are to a large extent just like you and me, the only difference being that their power to change their circumstances has been taken away from them. Give them something like this and within no time they will be organising their own sleeping arrangements, cooking their own food, earning their own money. With just a little nudge we can send this thing snowballing.”
“And what makes you so convinced that you can achieve this?”
“My passion. The fact that I care. This matters to me and I will see it through one way or another.”
“Just one last question then Liz, before we will have to move on. Why is it that you are so passionate. I mean we’ve all heard beauty pageant girls saying they support world peace to the extent that it’s become a joke. It’s quite obvious this is not the case with you, but where does the fire that drives your convictions come from?”
“Well David, it wasn’t that long ago that I first arrived in London. At the time things went badly wrong enough for me that I ended up out on the streets myself.
“Now I was fortunate in that I made friends who helped me back on my feet quite quickly, but I did spend enough time wandering around, freezing cold and miserable, to realise how helpless you are in those circumstances. It didn’t seem fair that I should get the lucky break after just a day or so when so many people, a great many of them youngsters about my age, are stuck for years with no way out. I decided that if I could help, I’d do just about anything to make it happen.
“And this starts today ladies and gentlemen. This is just the beginning.”
That earned me another round of applause and gave my host the natural break he needed to bring on his next guest. I did offer one or two comments through the rest of the show and offered my opinion when asked, but for the most part, that was it.
Early next morning Karen came round with an armful of clothes and the instruction that if I was going to appear in public it had to be in Elle-gance and she didn’t want me wearing the same thing twice. She was glad of the publicity but, like Ann, a little miffed that I hadn’t included her in my plans.
As predicted, the rest of the week left me with little free time to myself as I was ferried to breakfast television studios to radio studios to press releases to evening TV shows. It was a mad week, but thrilling from the point of view of raising the profile of the cause. It also incidentally put pressure on the government and by midweek they caved under impromptu protests outside Westminster and agreed to the concessions I wanted. After that I had businessmen contacting me to arrange meetings where we could discuss the sort of tax breaks they could get. It was a challenge squeezing those encounters into my already busy schedule but I was determined to strike while the iron was hot and somehow by the end of Friday I had the promise of one building, maybe two, and several firms agreeing to adapt, decorate and furnish them for me. I raised the idea of them offering the time of some of their skilled workers as trainers for similar tax concessions, so that the people coming into the centres could learn a profession and, whilst there was some interest, none took up the idea.
The limelight was fading, my moment in the spotlight coming to an end. My fear was that the public would lose interest before my plan was fully established, and in the last few interviews I was granted before the media circus moved on in search of new attractions, I thanked everyone involved for their generosity in pushing things through so quickly, then raised the new idea. The government were prepared to consider things other than money as charitable giving now. How many small businesses out there would be prepared to offer some of their time and skills training up the people in the new centre so that they had skills to offer an employer? It was too new an idea, no-one seemed prepared to be the first. Without it, I would only have provided half of what I wanted. Shelter and a place to start looking for a job was only half the battle here.
It was past eleven on Friday night and I was just stretching out on my sofa with a well-earned glass of wine, trying to attack the problem from different angles in my head, when my buzzer rang. Being late and dark I used the intercom.
“Er, it’s Geoff Miss, you know, the carpets? Sorry to disturb you so late but there’s somefing I fink you should see.”
I grabbed my coat and headed down to the front door. I was wearing the same pale yellow linen skirt and jacket with white silk blouse I’d put on for my most recent interview, but Geoff’s voice had sounded urgent so I followed him out to his van still dressed in silk and linen.
“So is this Mike’s idea?”
“No miss, I ain’t seen ‘im since I done your place. Is everyfing alright wiv you two?”
“Not particularly, no, but what is you want to show me?”
“I bin talking to some of me mates and they said they seen you.”
No surprise there, I mean I’d just spent several weeks talking to street people, and now this last week with my face on the TV, probably appearing in most of the electrical goods shop windows in London.
“What’s unusual about that?”
“No I mean they seen you on the streets.”
“I’ve spent several weeks on the streets.”
He let out a sigh of frustration.
“No miss. They seen you on the streets wiv them. Not just visiting.”
“Are you saying there’s someone living on the streets who looks like me?”
Another sigh, relief this time. But not for myself. A cold feeling was spreading through me.
“But that’s impossible.”
“Lot’s a things in the world are impossible miss. Doesn’t mean they don’t happen.”
We drove on into one of London’s seedier areas. I began to spot familiar areas and the sense of fear and urgency in me grew. Eventually Geoff pulled up by the side of the road. I jumped out of the van and started running. I knew this place and I had a definite destination in mind. To my knowledge I had never been here except in a dream, but I turned the corner and I was there. The mounds of filth, the stench of decay, the dim shadows, all as I remembered them.
For a moment all I could see in the dark alley was rubbish, then there was a movement and as if by magic, what I had taken for a pile of refuse resolved itself into the shape of a young girl cradling something in her lap and bent over it as though protecting it.
I ran over and knelt beside her; the ground was sticky and wet. I touched it briefly with my fingers and lifted them to my nose. In the shadows it was too dark to be sure by sight, but the faintly metallic smell was unmistakable. Blood, and so much of it.
The girl barely had strength enough to shiver with the cold. I took off my coat and wrapped it around her shoulders, squeezing them briefly. Looking into her lap I caught sight of what she was holding and for a moment was lost in a cascade of painful memories.
“It’s alright. It’ll be alright. I’ll take care of you now.”
I slipped off my linen jacket and folded it, offering a place for the small object she was cradling. She wouldn’t let it go, but it seemed right somehow that it should be treated with reverence. She placed the bloody remains of her child onto the jacket and took the whole bundle to hold.
All this blood, I had to do something. I pulled off my blouse. Silk was highly absorbent.
“I want to put this between your legs, try to stop the bleeding.”
I knew it was a waste of time even as I did it. The bleeding was internal and nothing I could do would stop it. I put my arm around her shoulders and reached gently under her skirt with the blouse. She shuddered slightly then turned towards me.
I heard footsteps behind me and a moment later felt a heavy jacket over my shoulders. I shrugged off my bag and turned to Geoff who was looking lost.
“Get my mobile, dial nine-nine-nine and hold it against my ear.
“Emergency, which service please?”
“Please hold the line while I connect you.”
Why do we have to be so damned polite in situations like this? I could hear the operator giving my number to someone further down the line, then a new voice was talking to me.
I gave her my location, remembered from the times I’d visited here in my dream, and explained the situation; young girl, late teens; miscarriage, not sure how far along, the foetus about the size of my hand; considerable blood loss, conscious but unresponsive.
The operator stayed on the line, told me that an ambulance had been dispatched and asked me to check a few other things. Breathing shallow and rapid; pulse, not sure I can feel it, oh yes there it is very weak and quite fast; skin cool and clammy, looks a bit pale but not easy to see in this light.
“Right the ambulance should be with you in just a couple of minutes. Lay her down and keep her warm if you can, and raise her legs a few inches. She’s resisting, no don’t force her if she’s that conscious.”
She was calm and efficient, keeping my own hysteria at bay. I could feel helpless tears welling up inside me, but her measured tones held them back. I held onto the girl, rocking her back and forth gently. Oh God, please let that be the ambulance sirens I hear. The sound drew closer and I heard the slam of doors round the corner. The alley was too narrow for the large vehicle.
I didn’t know if they needed me to call to them, but they came swiftly, eased me out of the way and I was standing helplessly to one side watching the two Day-Glo heroes about their very professional business. I was cold even under Geoff’s heavy duty coat and I hugged myself under my breasts, rubbing my arms and only then noticing I was still holding the mobile phone. It was making concerned noises as I held it up to my ear.
“They’re here. I’m sorry, they took over and I forgot I was talking to you. No I think everything’s going to be alright now. Thank-you.”
I absent-mindedly pressed the end call button and carried on watching as the paramedics very gently took away the tiny burden and lay it to one side still on the folded jacket, then replaced the silk blouse with a sterile pad before lifting the girl onto the stretcher and covering her with a blanket. They picked up the stretcher between them and I stepped forward to retrieve the remains of the girl’s baby and followed them. My coat lay discarded and forgotten on the ground.
One of the paramedics took the small bundle from my arms and placed it in the vehicle, then turned back to me.
“You the person who called it in?”
I nodded, only half hearing the question. He looked closely into my face, took my wrist and compared it to his watch.
“I think you’d better come too miss. Incidents like this can be quite traumatic for bystanders like yourself as much as for the patients.”
He looked over my shoulder at Geoff, still looking a bit lost.
“Are you alright sir?”
He nodded dumbly. I offered him back his jacket, exchanging it for my handbag and unwittingly revealing my bra and bare skin again. The paramedic swiftly wrapped a blanket around me and continued his conversation with Geoff.
“I take it that’s your van out on the road? When you’re okay to drive, you can come down to St Thomas’s A&E.”
He helped me up beside his colleague, slammed the door and walked swiftly round to the front. We drove off into the traffic, siren wailing. In just a few minutes, we were pulling into a hospital entrance, leaving a wake of vehicles up on the pavements giving us room to pass.
A gurney appeared at the back of the ambulance and the girl was lifted onto it and wheeled away. A nurse reverently took the small bundle and hurried after them. Lastly I was gently eased into a wheelchair and just as efficiently dispatched to the interior of the hospital. I didn’t even have a chance to thank the two ambulance men who had come so quickly.
The wheelchair ride ended beside a bed in a large and busy emergency ward, curtains already drawn around it. I was helped out of the chair and onto the bed, after which the porter gave me a cheerful wave and headed off. I didn’t have time to wonder what next to expect because a nurse stepped through the curtains then leaned immediately back out.
White coat, stethoscope, harried expression; yep he looked like a doctor.
“Where are you hurt?”
I gave him a blank look. He waved at me and repeated the question more urgently. I looked down to find my bare front and underwear covered in blood. Neurons fired, understanding dawned; I looked up.
“Oh no, this isn’t my blood. I found a young girl who’d had a miscarriage and called for an ambulance. The paramedics thought I was in shock or something.”
The doctor gave the nurse an impatient look and disappeared past her bowed head. She pulled on a pair of latex gloves and helped me to strip out of the rest of my clothes, explaining that I needed to have all the blood cleaned off me as quickly as possible. She didn’t actually use the term AIDS, but the implication hung heavily in the air.
She led me to a bathroom where I showered and washed thoroughly, hair included. By the time I was done, what had been left of my clothes were gone and one of those ghastly open backed hospital gowns lay waiting for me along with a pair of knickers that seemed to be made out of paper. The nurse came back with a porter in tow just as I finished dressing – if you can call it that – and between them they whisked me off to a patient lounge somewhere in the bowels of the ancient building.
I won’t bother with that dreadful joke about patients having to have patience, but suffice to say that I was left waiting for a long while. My handbag had disappeared with my clothes and none of the staff seemed to know or care anything about it, being altogether too busy about something else. I had more or less decided that this room was a place to put inconvenient people who didn’t fit anywhere else in the system, and was beginning to wonder if they had forgotten about me completely when I heard my name called.
I stood up and made my awkward way across the room, trying to keep the flap behind me closed from the jealous eyes of those who still had who knows how long to wait. I found a plump nurse with a clipboard looking anxiously around the room.
“I’m Liz Raeburn.”
“Oh, Miss Raeburn, thank-you. I can take you to see your sister now.”
My what? I know what Geoff had said, but were we really that much alike?
Again there was a wheelchair, litigation culture having robbed unaffiliated individuals of the right to walk around public buildings. I didn’t have any complaints in this case though, as long as I was seated I was able to hold onto some dignity.
“Can you tell me how she is?”
“If you don’t mind, it would be best to wait for the doctor to say.”
I guess she had a big butt to cover so was being extra cautious. I’m sorry but I wasn’t in a particularly charitable mood.
The doctor was in the room reading through her chart when I arrived and was allowed to climb out of my carriage. He turned as I came in a favoured me with a cautious grin and an open palm.
“Miss Raeburn, a pleasure. I’ve been following your exploits on television this week with a considerable amount of interest.”
“Thank-you. Doctor how is she?”
“It’s too early to tell I’m afraid. Surgery went well, but she lost an awful lot of blood. She’s stable for now, but we’ll have to wait and see how she is when she wakes up.
“Er, I was wondering if you could help us fill in some of the blanks on her form.”
“Do you mind if we do it later, I’d like to sit with her for a while.”
“Of course, and if there’s anything else we can do…”
“There are a couple of things. My handbag seems to have disappeared along with what was left of my clothes. Now I understand that anything that had her blood on it had to be taken away, but the bag has my purse, my phone, a lot of things I’d like to have back if possible. I also need to phone a few people. I know you won’t want me using my mobile so would it be possible to have a telephone brought in here?”
“I’ll see what can be done.”
He backed out of the room leaving me to look in wonder at my twin, sleeping peacefully in the bed. She was thinner than me to the point of being malnourished, but now that the mud and filth had been washed from her face, she looked almost exactly like me. Mary, why didn’t you tell me about this.
The phone arrived a while later along with the contents of my handbag, now jangling in the bottom of a carrier bag. I phoned through to Sharon’s flat which went to answer phone, then I tried her mobile. After a more than usual number of rings a sleepy voice answered, words wrapped around a drawn out yawn.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“No actually, my watch was taken from me. I guess it’s going to be late though and I’m sorry to wake you, but I need your help.”
She woke up as I gave her a précis of my evening.
“So if you would be wonderful, please would you dig out Clive’s home number for me then get me some proper clothes and come down and find me?”
Arrangements made and number copied down, I dialled the Anderton-Buckley residence. Yet again a sleepy voice answered the phone.
“This had better be good.”
“Clive, this is Liz Raeburn. I’m so sorry to call you this late, but it seems I have a twin sister.”
It worked like a gallon of ice water. Suddenly I was talking to a very alert and very capable man.”
And so for the second time in as many minutes I explained what had happened.
“I’m not sure what to do. I mean I’ve stalled the hospital for now, but they’re going to want names and addresses sometime soon, and if they don’t tie up with anything on the system, I suspect things are going to get sticky.
“There’s no way your resemblance to this girl could be passed off as coincidental?”
“I doubt it. The hospital staff here have made the assumption that we’re twins, and I can’t blame them. She is my clone Clive, it’s uncanny.”
“Okay, here’ s what we’ll do. Do you have a name for her?”
“Well she’s unconscious so I don’t know if she has a preference, but I was thinking Emily.”
“Very appropriate. Okay give them Emily as a name and your new date of birth as the same for her. Be vague about the rest. I’m afraid we’re going to have to approach your parents Liz.”
“I already have, about a week ago, and they refuse to believe that they had anything to do with bringing me into the world. I doubt they’ll be very co-operative about compounding the lie. If it helps, my older brother, Glen, knows and accepts what’s happened to me. I’m pretty sure he’d help.”
“Any port in a storm. Can you give me his number?”
“Right leave it in my hands. We’ll have to go with papers being lost while she was on the streets and I’ll make sure there’s some record of her in the system by the time anyone starts looking.”
“Thanks Clive, you’re a star. I hope you don’t regret helping me out.”
“Well that depends on just how many more clones of you there are out there doesn’t it? For now I don’t think anyone would believe us if we tried to tell them the truth and I for one don’t want to share a padded cell with you. No objection to the company of course, but I’ve never been a fan of quilted décor.”
We said our goodbyes and I settled in to wait.
It was several hours later. Sharon had dropped by with some clothes – chosen more for comfort and warmth than style for which I was grateful – and since the girl in the bed showed no signs of rousing, I had found a comfortable position on an easy chair tucked in the shadows behind the door. I had evidently dozed off and now woke muzzily to the sight of Mike advancing slowly towards the bed.
“Hi Mike, what are you doing here?”
He spun on his heels then did a double take thing that wouldn’t have been out of place in a cartoon.
“What? How? Who?”
“It’s a long story and if I’m going to tell it I’ll need coffee, plus it would be best if we don’t disturb her.”
I led him out of the room and down the corridor in search of a vending machine.
“So, at the risk of sounding repetitive, what are you doing here?”
“Oh, er Geoff came round to the restaurant. He wasn’t making a lot of sense but he did mention your name and St Thomas’s as well as something to do with ambulances and blood. I came over as soon as I could, then I had the devil’s own time getting past the interference at the desk. If anyone asks, we’re engaged alright? If only for tonight.”
It was more than a bit cheeky but I nodded.
We found a dispenser of beverages, which Mike fed with coins as we each chose a means of torturing our taste buds. There were some seats nearby, empty given the early hour, and I settled down for what I suspected was going to be a long and potentially frustrating explanation.
I mean I could understand Mike’s position. In all the time he had known me nothing miraculous had happened other than the natural wonder of our feelings for each other. There had been times late at night in recent weeks, when I hadn’t been sufficiently exhausted, that I’d played out the things I’d told Mike in my head. They were impossible, mad, ridiculous, unbelievable, so many adjectives to choose from and yet not enough to express fully how they must have seemed from Mike’s point of view. But they were real, and I was done with lies in any relationship I might have with this man.
Just having him near was making my legs go week and it took all my will power to stick to my resolve. I took a sip of coffee – surprisingly it wasn’t as bad as expected – tossed up a quick prayer and looked him in the eyes.
“So, where do you want to start?”
“How about why didn’t you tell me you had a twin sister?”
“Because up until tonight I had no idea. Geoff called round to say he’d heard some of his friends saying they’d spotted me on the streets; not just visiting them, living on them. He took me to the area his mates had indicated and that’s where we found her. How come Geoff has friends on the streets?”
“Because not that long ago he used to be one of them himself.”
There was a story here. No reason why I shouldn’t trade for my information. I waited for more and eventually he gave in with a long sigh.
“I first met him about a year ago rummaging through the bins behind the restaurant. Apparently they’re the places to find the choicest foods because we throw most stuff out that’s more than a day old. Anyway I invited him in, gave him a proper meal and talked to him. He seemed genuine and just down on his luck so I decided to help him. He’d been a carpet fitter so I set him up in business, you know second hand van and a little capital to advertise and buy some tools, and he hasn’t looked back since. He’s already paid me back the money I loaned him at the beginning and still insists he owes me. Quite honestly, seeing him back on his feet has been enough of a reward.”
He seemed a little embarrassed about it all, as though telling me were somehow wrong. He pulled the conversation back to the original topic
“So how come she looks so much like you? I mean any chance you were separated at birth and your parents never told you about it?”
“My parents don’t believe I’m their, er, child right now, and no they’re not the sort to keep a secret like that. When you do it eats away inside of you every day, and anyone who knows you, who has the least bit of discernment, sees there’s something wrong. You don’t get that with my folks, they’re at peace with a life that has been very ordinary and very honest up until now.”
“So how do you explain her?”
“Only with a story I’ve already told you, and that you’ve rejected.”
“So, what? You’re saying that she’s another man who’s been transformed by this green eyed witch of yours?”
“There is something I haven’t told you. It didn’t seem relevant at the time, and right now I’m not sure if it isn’t going to make things worse.”
Now it was his turn to wait me out. Oh well here goes nothing.
“About a week after this change happened to me, okay supposedly – I’m not going to try and persuade you all over again. Anyway it was a Sunday afternoon and I was still tired and disoriented after having spent all of Friday night wandering the streets. You remember, I told you Sharon kicked me out after I told her my unbelievable story? Anyway I had a dream, a nightmare that coincided with my first period. I know I won’t talk any more about that, I know it makes men squeamish.
Anyway in the dream I was back out on the streets and some guy who thought I was a whore forced himself on me. Then the dream kind of drifted through months of wandering about, realising I was pregnant, searching for food and trying to stay warm until one evening I felt this terrible pain and collapsed in an alley somewhere and miscarried.
“That’s when I woke up screaming. I haven’t thought much about it since then, not until Geoff took me out in his van. I began to recognise places I’d never been until he pulled up the van quite close to the alley I remembered from the dream. I ran straight there and found her sitting in a pool of her own blood.
“I can’t tell you what to make of that. As long as you’re not prepared to accept my miracle story, then I guess this just has to be something else I made up. And as long as you think I’m the sort of person who would make up a story like that, then we remain stuck where we are, don’t we?”
The silence stretched out. We were getting good at silence, only this time I was ready to accept his inevitable response. I wasn’t ready to wait for it though.
“Look it was kind of you to come down. I don’t want to leave her for long so I’m going back to the room. I’d be grateful for the company of you’d like to stay, but you know; your choice.”
I headed back down the corridor, throwing my empty polystyrene cup in a convenient bin on the way. I hadn’t taken ten paces before he fell into step beside me.
“Have you spoken to Sharon and Phil yet?”
“I’ve been trying to avoid thinking about it, and the restaurant’s keeping me busy.”
“Are you ahead on your VAT returns yet?”
He laughed quietly, just once.
“Yes I guess I am using work as an excuse not to face this, but Liz, I really don’t know how to deal with it.”
“I know, and I don’t think any less of you because of it. This is just you being honest with me and I’d rather that than you pretend to believe me. I just wish there was some way I could show you.”
“Why do you keep asking me to talk to Phil and Sharon?”
“Because you know them; Phil at least. Would you say he would go with this if it were a joke?”
“Not to this extent, no. He was always the first to stop a prank at school when the kid we were making fun of started getting upset.”
“Then you trust his opinion.
“He was Ken’s best friend for five years; enough time to get to know him well. We had the whole conversation about me trying to prove who I was with me answering questions only he and Ken should have known the answers to. Why don’t you ask him how it went?”
There wasn’t much else to say so we went back into the room and sat in silence and kept watch.
Sometime in the early hours of the morning a nurse poked her head into the room and coughed gently. Mike and I had both been drowsing in separate chairs and she wanted to know what he was doing here.
“It’s alright he’s with me.”
I didn’t want to give voice to the full cover story. Just too painful to say those words when they weren’t true.
The nurse nodded and left. Mike stretched out a few kinks then looked at me with his half smile.
“I was wondering if I’d ever get to spend the night with you. Coffee?”
He left me shaking my head at his gentle idiocy. I walked over to the bed and took the young girl’s hand in mine. She didn’t stir; perhaps as well. She looked so peaceful and she only had a mind full of horrors to wake to.
Mike came back with the coffee then stood behind me looking down at her. It may have been the smell of the drinks, I don’t know, but she started to move then. Little things at first, the twitch of a nose, the furrowing of a brow. I took her hand again and her eyes fluttered open. She startled back pulling the sheets in front of her mouth, eyes wide like a frightened child.
“It’s alright, you’re safe. You’re in hospital. Do you remember what happened to you?”
“My baby, where’s my baby?”
This had to be handled more delicately than I knew how. I asked Mike to fetch a doctor or a nurse. Being slightly more caffeinated than me he thought to press the call button. A few seconds later there was a nurse in the room shooing us out. Less than a minute later a doctor appeared and again the door shut on us. A few moments later there was a loud mournful cry from within the room, which faded a short while later. The doctor stepped out of the room.
“I’ve given her a sedative. She’s very fragile at the moment and needs not to be stressed.”
“You told her about the miscarriage?”
“She was getting agitated because we wouldn’t bring the baby to her, it was the lesser of two evils.
“If you wouldn’t mind staying with her. She’ll most likely be in and out of consciousness but will be calmer if she has a familiar face there when she’s awake.”
Mike and I returned to our vigil. She was unconscious again so not much to do right now.
“I’ve been watching you on the telly this week. You know how to make an impression don’t you?”
“At present all we have is another place for those guys to stay. Unless I can get a few businesses coming in and teaching them skills they can use to get jobs, it’ll probably fail like everything else.”
“You shouldn’t be so hard on yourself. What you’ve achieved in just a few weeks, especially the progress you’ve made this last week, is nothing less than miraculous.”
“Oh so you do believe in miracles then?”
“I believe we make our own miracles.
“Look I know we’re not exactly in a good place right now relationship-wise, but if there’s anything I can do…”
I wasn’t proud. Not that proud anyway.
“Once the centre is open, would you be prepared to take some time out during the day to come down and teach enough cookery to get whoever’s interested to sou-chef standard, or whatever the entry level is in a restaurant kitchen? If I can get at least one or two case studies to show that this can work, then I might be able to interest a few more businesses.”
“Well cooking is something they’ll benefit from learning even if they don’t earn a living at it. Yeah sure, my staff and I are yours for a couple of hours a day, say three days a week?”
That earned him a hug. I sniffed away a tear.
“I knew there was some reason why I hadn’t given up on you yet.”
A moan came from the bed and our priorities shifted.
“Hello again. Please relax, you’re amongst friends.”
“You look just like me. How is that?”
Her voice was slurred and indistinct.
“I was hoping that you might tell us.”
“What do you mean?”
“I suspect you didn’t always look like this.”
She turned her face away.
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
I sighed and looked up at Mike.
“My name used to be Ken.”
She was too drugged to snap her head around, but she did a good job of trying.
“You were a…”
“A man, yes.”
“Oh thank God. Everyone thinks I’m mad. Mind you she said they would. That letter.”
Mike’s brow furrowed and he leant forward.
“What do you mean she?”
I’d jiggled enough stones loose. The dam burst and a flood of tears and words poured out as she told her own story.
His name was Darren, he told us, and three months earlier he’d been out partying with some friends when he’s met this gorgeous green-eyed redhead. Okay she’d told him she was a lesbian, but he was enough of lady’s man that he figured he could change her mind on that. Besides she was too beautiful to waste on other girls.
She’d invited him back to her place, all the while saying that she only made out with girls, but leading him on. A real cock-tease he’d thought. Well she’d soon find out what happened when she teased his cock enough.
They’d kissed and this totally impossible, weird thing had happened to him. The world got bigger and he changed. She’d flirted with him a while longer saying something about if he wanted to make out with her he had to be a girl. He’d lost it then and run into the bathroom, locked the door, torn off what remained of his clothes and fainted at what he’d seen, or more precisely not seen.
When he came to, he was lying on the cold tiled floor and nothing had changed. That is to say the changes were still there. Somehow he’d been transformed into this girl. He’d screamed then. It hadn’t been intended as a scream as such, but that’s how it had sounded, and it seemed to feed on itself, taking on a life of its own, getting louder and louder until he had no breath left and he’d collapsed again.
The next time he’d come to his senses, he had managed to keep things enough under control that he’d unlocked the door and gone looking for answers, but the flat was deserted. Eventually he’d found the letter, from what I could tell an exact copy of the one I’d found. He’d felt totally humiliated putting on the girl clothes but his own clothes were gone, even the ones he’d torn off in the bathroom, and with the alternative being to walk around naked with bits he’d never had before jiggling all over the place, dressing had seemed the better choice.
He’d stayed in the apartment until gone midday when, as promised in the letter, the police had arrived and arrested him. He’d tried to tell them what had happened and for his troubles had then spent an uncomfortable day and night in a prison cell until a psychiatrist had come to evaluate him. He’d come to his senses enough to realise that he was looking at a future in a padded cell if he kept with his story, so had passed the whole thing off as a joke. Since no further complaint had been brought against him, he had been released a few hours later.
It was the same evening he’d met the creep who wouldn’t take no for an answer, and he’d been left torn and bleeding, hurting in both body and soul. The rest of his story was one of compounded miseries, foraging in the bins for food, sleeping on the cold hard ground with nothing but cardboard to keep him from freezing totally, the realisation that he was now pregnant and the confusing mix of horror and attachment that had come with the growing awareness of the life inside him. Most of the time he’d kept away from other people, distrusting their motives, but recently he’d suffered from painful cramps and only just escaped from the people who approached him.
Then – had it only been last night? – the pains had been the worst yet. He’d collapsed on the ground, surrounded by a sticky dampness, and felt something give inside him, come out of him. He’d known somehow what had happened and an anguish he’d never suspected could exist had consumed him. He had vague memories of someone coming, putting a coat around him, giving him something clean on which to place his tiny burden.
“That was you wasn’t it?”
I nodded. The dream memories his story had brought to the surface left me without a voice.
The telling of the story had taken everything he had. His hand slackened in mine and his head fell gently back onto the pillow. I nodded at the call button and Mike obliged. A nurse arrived.
“She was awake for a while, but she’s so weak. I don’t know.”
The nurse eased me out of the way and did some quick checks then ran out of the room. I turned to Mike whose face was a study in astonishment and incredulity.
“You were telling the truth all along?”
I nodded, but my heart was breaking for the poor soul on the bed. He looked like me, but from the way he told the story he was all man inside. I couldn’t begin to fathom how terrible these past months must have been for him. Mike took me in his arms and let me cry myself out onto his shoulder. Around us doctors and nurses were moving in on the bed, all efficiency and concern. Mike and I stepped out of the room to give them space to work.
It was some hours later that a doctor came and found us sitting near the vending machine. The expression on his face warned us ahead of time.
“I’m sorry Miss Raeburn. We did everything we could, but it just seemed like she gave up.”
I nodded. A fresh tear trickled down my cheek and I brushed it away. I thought I had run out of them.
“There’s another thing. The police are here. I’m afraid they want a word with you.”
Detective Inspector Chubb was a heavy-set man with a humourless face and blank eyes. Not the sort of man you’d want to play poker against although, with his manner, it was hard to imagine him doing much in the way of recreation. His suit was rumpled and his tie and collar loose; signs of a long day, with signs of many others etched into the lines of his face.
“Miss Elizabeth Raeburn.”
It was a statement rather than a questions, but then it wouldn’t take the greatest detective in the world to recognise me after the previous week. Still I nodded nervously in acknowledgement.
“It’s a pleasure to finally meet you. I’ve wanted a word for a while now, but until this moment lacked a pretext for approaching you. I wonder if you would be good enough to accompany me to the station. I believe you will be able to help in our enquiries.”
I’ve often wondered if the police are issued with a little book clichés when they join the force. I mean the stereotype is expected in TV programs and films, but when they start using them in real life? I suppose it may be tied in with the way the law works. Rigid, unbendable; as long as you stick to the same old words that have been used successfully in the past there’s no chance of anyone questioning your methods.
“I left some things in the room.”
He held up the carrier bag with the former contents of my purse. Just to show, not to return. Not yet anyway.
I shrugged. There was no reason to say no, although deep in the pit of my stomach a cold void was forming.
Mike made a move to accompany us but the detective inspector had other ideas. He raised an eyebrow at the man standing beside me
“And you are, sir?”
“Mike Paston. I’m er…”
“He’s my fiancé.”
I gave Mike a look with an apologetic smile. It had been his idea earlier and now it didn’t seem so daft.
“I don’t see a ring.”
“It’s kind of a recent thing. The ring’s being sized.”
Stop digging. Keep it simple. Why did you say that anyway? I mean lying to a police officer, what are you thinking?
“Well sir, perhaps you wouldn’t mind coming down to the station a little later. For now we would like to talk to your… fiancée… in private.”
“It’s alright love. I’ll be fine. I’ll call you when we’re done.”
I moved in for a long overdue kiss then, as he pulled me into a close hug, I whispered in his ear.
“Call Sharon. Tell Clive that Emily is dead.”
DI Chubb was frowning at us when we separated. He’d probably heard me whispering, but I was pretty sure he hadn’t heard what. I gave Mike one last kiss then let go his hand to follow the inspector.
Empty room, frosted glass, one table, two chairs. Paintwork a neutral grey-green. Not the décor to inspire comfortable reflection.
I’d been shown to the room as soon as we arrived at the police station and had spent the last fifteen minutes sitting in one of the chairs nervously playing with my finger nails
The door opened and DI Chubb stood in the entrance talking in quiet tones to someone just out of sight.
“Any chance of a cup of tea?”
DI Chubb glanced my way briefly then went back to his conversation. A minute later he walked all the way into the room, the door swinging shut behind him, and sat in the chair opposite. In his hands he had a thick manila folder and a Dictaphone. The latter he placed in the centre of the table and turned on. The former he placed on the table beside him before going through the process of dictating the date, time and associated details of our interview in a bored voice.
When he was done, he sat for a while looking at me with his blank expression, then he reached into the folder and pulled out a photograph which he slid across to me. It was of Darren/Emily lying peaceful in death on her hospital bed. He held his silence waiting for me to volunteer some information. It was a good technique.
“Her name’s Emily. She’s my twin sister.”
The silence dug deeper, clawing at me, demanding more.
“She, er, she ran away from home. I came to London looking for her.”
Where the hell had that come from? Come on Liz, lying to a police officer again? on record this time? This isn’t clever.
He reached over for the recorder, letting go of a long, drawn out sigh. The red light went out.
“I suppose under the circumstances I might try to make something up too.”
What? What was this?
Just then there was a gentle knock on the door and a WPC entered carrying two steaming mugs. She set them down on the table, nodded at the detective inspector and withdrew.
“You won’t know about me Miss Raeburn, but I have something of a reputation in the police. My own fault, sort of. Product of my own success. I’m the guy they go to when something really unusual crops up, and they give me quite a lot of leeway with my investigations. You know, get the results and we won’t ask to many questions as to how?”
That sounded ominous.
“I’m not sure what you’re trying to say detective inspector.”
He raised his arms to the room around us.
“Well take this interview for instance. SOP would dictate that there be two police officers present and, since you are a young lady, either one of them should be female or at least an additional WPC should be present. Because of the unusual nature of the investigations I am given, it usually works out best for all concerned if I decide what information goes into the official record. So this…”
He held up the Dictaphone and pressed one of the buttons on the side.
“This goes in the bin and you get to try again.”
He reached into the folder and retrieved a stack more photographs.
“I am most dreadfully sorry miss, but some of these are going to be rather unpleasant.”
He placed more photographs on the table, side by side next to the one already there. The second was similar to the first. Different surroundings, but a girl looking exactly like Emily and me. The third – the inspector winced as he put it down – was a photograph taken by the river. The face of the dead girl bloated and deformed by her time in the water, but still recognisable as my twin. There were two more like that, different locations, similar appearance to the body. One of them… No let’s just say she’d spent more time in the water than the others.
The next four were different again. Squalid rooms, emaciated, almost skeletal forms, but still recognisably like me. One of them, the syringe was still in her arm. I felt bile choking my throat and hot, acid tears stinging my eyes.
The last two photographs showed living people, living copies of me. One curled into a foetal position in the corner of a room, the other straight-jacketed and screaming.
He left them there for effect and I couldn’t tear my eyes away from them. When he noticed me shaking he gathered them swiftly together and tucked them away out of sight, then strode swiftly across to the door. A second later the WPC was beside me, her arms around me as I found voice for the horror I had seen and poured anguished tears into her shoulder.
It took a while for me to cry things out. The mug of tea was definitely off the boil by the time I retrieved it from the desk, but I gulped it down gratefully even so. When I felt settled again, the WPC drew her arms back from me and looked at me with kind eyes.
“I’ll be right outside if you need me love. Just holler.”
Again she withdrew leaving me alone with my interrogator, my torturer.
“I’m sorry about that Miss Raeburn, but there wasn’t a gentler way. You see you and – well for the moment we can call her Emily – are the eleventh and twelfth persons we have encountered looking like, well you.
“Now to my certain knowledge, the largest number of surviving multiple births is eight and, since those were as a result of IVF, not necessarily identical. It would ease my mind immensely if you were able to give me some explanation as to why there are twelve of you. At this stage you can see why I would be prepared to entertain, shall we say, unusual explanations. Off the record until we can decide what should be reported that won’t upset the status quo too much.”
My mug was empty. I put it down on the table and stared at it.
“I could do with something a bit stronger than that.”
He smile ruefully.
“Couldn’t we all love. I can offer you one with sugar in?”
I nodded and he went to the door to arrange it.
“I’m still not sure you would believe what I have to say on this matter.”
He sat back down opposite me. His face was as blank as it had ever been, but there was a glimmer of warm sympathy to his eyes.
“You let me worry about that Miss Raeburn. As I have already intimated, I have an unusual aspect to my job. A number of colleagues, who are to some degree in the know, already call me Mulder. The reason why I tend to end up with the unusual ones is that I don’t discount the impossible, at least until there is firm evidence.”
“His name was Darren.”
“The girl last night?”
I nodded and he reopened his folder full of horrors to withdraw another set of photographs.
Seeing me flinch he paused.
“Miss Raeburn, you have my word there will be no more photographs like the first. Three of the young girls were alive when we first found them. One, sadly, took her own life the night we took her into custody. The other two, well from the photographs you can see they are not well in mind. They did, however, all identify themselves by name as young men when they were first brought in.”
DI Chubb laid out a eleven photographs of young men in their twenties and early thirties, most of them from parties, showing smiling, laughing individuals. He indicated three photographs as being those of the survivors, then pointed at a fourth.
“This is Darren Smallwood. Disappeared about three months ago. Now please tell me how the girl lying in the mortuary is the same person.”
I checked the Dictaphone, still lying on the table, still off from the lack of red light.
“There was a girl. Mary, her name was, I’m sorry she didn’t tell me her surname…”
“So do I get my own padded cell now?”
DI Chubb had been sitting in thoughtful silence for ten minutes since I stopped talking. My second mug of tea had been sickeningly sweet but had gone a long way to calming my nerves. It stood empty beside the first.
“Perhaps I could use the bathroom? Freshen up?”
“What? Oh yes, I suppose so.”
He walked me to the door where the WPC was waiting patiently. It didn’t take long. The various cups of tea I’d been drinking through the night departed my body swiftly having long overstayed their welcome and without the contents of my handbag – still in police custody – there was only a limited amount I could do about my appearance. On the way back to the interview room I caught sight of a couple of familiar faces.
I broke away from my chaperone and ran to them, so grateful to see them. The WPC caught up with me and took my arm gently.
“I’m sorry Miss Raeburn, the Detective Inspector hasn’t finished yet. Your friends will be waiting when you’re finished.”
“Actually, I’m Miss Raeburn’s solicitor, and I rather think I would like to consult with my client in private, if you would be so kind.”
Oh Clive I could kiss you.
“Perhaps you’d better come along to then.”
Mike went back to waiting as Clive accompanied me back to the interview room. The WPC ducked her head in first.
“I’m sorry sir, Miss Raeburn’s solicitor is here. We bumped into him on the way back from the toilets.”
Clive preceded me into the room, his shoulders stiffening as he took note of the irregularities of the interview. DI Chubb rose to his feet and fired the first salvo.
“Before you say anything, may I point out that Miss Raeburn has not been accused of anything, nor is this an official interview. She has been most helpful in volunteering background information to an on-going investigation, all off the record but extremely useful.”
“So she is not being charged with anything? We can leave?”
“There are a few more questions I would still like to ask, but I have no authority to hold you if you wish to leave.”
Clive took me by the arm and made to guide me out, but I put a hand on his chest.
“Detective Inspector Chubb, I wonder if I might have a word with my solicitor alone?”
He thought for a moment then gathered his things.
“I’ll be right outside miss.”
I quickly brought Clive up to speed on what I’d told them, which hadn’t included anything about his involvement as yet, and on what they already knew.
“I think I’d rather get this cleared up completely. I trust this DI Chubb. I think he’s just doing the best he can with a very tricky situation. Besides there are two others like me who are still alive and in desperate need of help they’re not going to get unless I can get to them.”
“I’m not sure Liz.”
“Please Clive. You didn’t see the photos.”
“Okay, but I’m staying with you for the rest of the interviews.”
“If you do that, he’ll know you know the whole truth.”
“If I don’t I wouldn’t be doing my due diligence. It can’t be helped Liz.”
“If you’re sure.”
“I can be as stubborn as you in my own way.”
I gave him a grateful hug then went to the door.
In the end it was as well Clive stayed. I would have been far too open and trusting about giving out information. The DI wanted to know who I had been in case I came up in a missing person’s report, Clive told him that wouldn’t happen. How had I come by my new identity – through legal and acceptable means. How was it that I had coped so much better with the transition than the others. That at least was one I could answer.
“I think it’s because I’ve always been something of a girl inside.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Most of Mary’s victims were intentionally strongly male. I mean not just men, but men who displayed the strongest masculine characteristics. I’m different. I’ve never really been one of the lads because part of me, deep down, always wanted to be a girl.
“I’ve spent most of my life learning to be something I’m not, pretending to be something I’m not, fitting into a life I never wanted. It’s hard. What Mary gave me was a way out of, well not wishing to be dramatic but, hell. What she did to the others was effectively throw them, without warning or preparation, into a very similar, and possibly deeper, hell.
Imagine yourself as one of the lads – well you probably don’t have to – imagine that is – but I do. You’re sporty, fit, competitive. You enjoy everything about your life. You’re cocky, independent, I don’t know what else but you get the picture. Then without warning, after something as innocuous as a kiss, you’re changed into… this.”
I indicated my body.
“What for me was a coming home, so welcome that it has me feeling whole for the first time in my life, was for them more like being marooned on a harsh alien planet with no hope of rescue.”
Both Clive and the DI stared at me in stunned silence. It looked like the horror of the situation was sinking in. Time for the cherry.
“Now imagine being stuck like that, and surrounded by people who could and might help, only none of them believes you. Not one of them can bring him or herself to do so because your story is so fantastic.
“There’s not much can be done for those who are dead, except possibly tell their next of kin and keep the bodies hidden, but for the two who are still alive, at least to have someone who believes them, who’s ready to help them whatever it takes.”
“You want access to the two who are still alive?”
DI Chubb was quick. I nodded. He sighed.
“I suppose something can be arranged. Rather than twins, it seems you are triplets.”
“What about the rest of it? All that?”
I pointed at the folder.
“You’re sure there’ll be no more? I mean this Mary is gone?”
“She’s gone but the character who set it all up isn’t. Mind you the way things turned out with Mary I’m not sure he’ll be ready to try the same thing again soon.”
“Let’s hope so. Alright, I suppose that just leaves for me to clear up this mess.
“The official story is that you’ve been looking for your two sisters since you came to London. You received some information last night which led you to the girl you found. Sadly she wasn’t who you were looking for, even more sadly she died from complications following her miscarriage. I met you at the hospital and invited you down to the station to look at the two unknown girls, who you identified as your sisters. We’ll need paperwork for them.”
Clive coughed, apparently he’d decided to trust the detective inspector after all.
“There are already documents for an Emily Raeburn. No reason why by, say, Monday there couldn’t be additional documentation for…”
“How about Charlotte? At least one of them will be able to go with Charlie then.”
“Charlotte. Two Brontes out of the three then. I wonder what Anne did to get looked over.”
The light had been dawning in Chubb’s eyes.
“Would I be addressing the legal and acceptable means? No don’t answer that, I neither need nor want to know. Okay I’ll assume the documentation’s taken care of then. That leaves my paperwork over there which will go into a locked filing cabinet in a dark room somewhere, and I think we’re done.”
“And that’s it?”
“Well what else could there be? No good can come of telling your story to the world in general. It’s going to be hard enough for the mothers of those lads to find out their sons are dead without telling them they were turned into tarts first.”
He offered me my carrier bag of things back then stood, inviting us to follow suit, and led us back to the waiting room where Mike was wearing holes in the carpet.
“This has been a most unusual evening Miss Raeburn, but highly productive. I wish you every success with your venture and will be in touch soon with arrangements for you to visit Charlotte and er, Emily wasn’t it?”
“Thank-you detective inspector. You had me worried for a while at the beginning, but on the whole I’m glad I could be of help.”
Mike took me home, Clive having excused himself with urgent business to attend to. At silly o’clock on a Saturday morning that could only mean doing for Charlotte what he had already done for Emily. Mike wanted to know everything and I did try to humour hum, but I was just too tired after a long day and an even longer night. I was fast asleep long before we arrived back at the flat.
I did rouse long enough to hear Mike grumbling quietly about doing things back asswards as he carried me across my own threshold. I was asleep again before he lay me on my bed, or at least I assume so because I have no memory of the event.
I woke to an incessant ringing which I eventually identified as my phone. I checked my clock. Who rings anyone at ten thirty on a Saturday morning? I mean I thought we were supposed to be civilised.
I hauled myself off the bed, no shoes but otherwise fully clothed, and staggered over to the source of the disturbance, grabbing it from its stand and burying it in the bramble patch that passed for my hair first thing in the morning. This had better be good.
At least that had been the word I’d been going for. I think it came out more as “mweurgh.”
“Elizabeth Raeburn? This is Dr Chancery at St Thomas’s. We met briefly last night.”
My blood ran suddenly cold, bringing me to instant alert status. Calls from the hospital generally didn’t usually happen so quickly unless the news was bad.
“Yes doctor I remember.”
“I didn’t have the chance to offer my condolences on the passing of you sister. I’m really very sorry.”
Yes, yes, get to the point.
I wasn’t going to give him a chance to turn this into a conversation. He took the hint.
“Anyway, the blood work we did on Emily came back. There is no indication of AIDS or hepatitis or anything else you might be concerned about. You’ll receive a letter next week sometime once the wheels have a chance to turn, but I thought you’d like to know sooner. I er hope I didn’t worry you.”
Just nearly gave me a heart attack thanks.
“Not at all doctor, it was very kind of you to call.”
It was as well. I could feel muscles in my back unknot at the news. I hadn’t realised how worried I’d been ’til then.
“Well my shift just ended so I’m off to bed. After your night last night I’d recommend you do the same.”
I couldn’t help but laugh. I mean the guy wasn’t being in the least ironic, or if he was he was hiding it very well.
“Thank-you doctor, I may do just that.”
Having hung up the phone, I headed straight for the shower. It didn’t take long to wash last night’s grime off me. I padded back to my bedroom carrying the clothes I’d been wearing but otherwise naked, grabbed my nightdress and climbed into it and back into bed.
I woke to the sound and smell of shallots frying. It was gentle and welcoming and so much better than being jarred awake by the telephone. I did my shambling hedge impression as far as the kitchen where I found Mike cheerfully doing something wonderful with the aforementioned, some button mushroom s and scrambled eggs. He turned with a cheery smile and leaned over to give me a kiss. Time for a warning.
“Danger, bad breath.”
He didn’t care and kissed me anyway.
“There would be coffee as well, only I don’t understand your evil device.”
I set about showing him that it was simple enough I could even do it on auto-pilot.
“You know, you have a wonderful view from this flat of yours at times.”
The cogs whirred and clanked, knocking off the previous twenty four hours’ worth of rust and gunk. It eventually dawned on me what he was talking about and I felt a deep beetroot blush rise up my body.
“Oh shit, you were here?”
“Too tired to go back home. Figured you wouldn’t mind me crashing on the couch. If I’d known you were that comfortable in your skin, I might have risked undressing you a little further.”
“Well I’m grateful for your gentlemanly manners, and horribly embarrassed by my little display. If I’d had even the first idea you were there…”
“I know, I’m only teasing. What did the doctor say?”
“You were listening in on my telephone conversation?”
“Again I couldn’t help it, the telephone woke me up as well. Even so, ‘yes doctor, no doctor, thank-you doctor’ didn’t tell me much more than who you were talking to.”
“It was the doctor at St Thomas’s. They did a blood screen on Darren as part of the post mortem, and since I managed to get myself covered in his blood, he did me the courtesy of letting me know she tested negative for all the nasties.”
“That was thoughtful of him. Seems I may have another rival.”
It was a sentence to derail the conversation. We both knew that the last we’d talked about us, he’d walked out, if you didn’t count the half-hearted attempt at the hospital the previous night. It wasn’t something that could just be picked up again as though nothing had happened and we were suddenly both of us very aware of the fact. Fortunately Mike had more courage than me.
“Do you blame me for walking out last time? Do you hate me for not believing you?”
Hate you? Never in a million lifetimes Mike.
“No Mike, and no. I’ve never hated you. Got frustrated with your pig-headedness sometimes perhaps, but never anything remotely like hate. As for blaming you? Mine’s a crazy story that has no business existing in an otherwise normal world. So far I have six people who believe me. Two family and two close friends who know me well enough that they can see a little bit of who I used to be still, and two others whose minds are as brilliant as they are open, and them only because they hunted out enough evidence to convince them to accept the improbable.”
“And what if you could add a seventh now? Someone whose mind is probably as dull as it is closed off from the wonders of the world, but who’s seen enough now to be able to believe?”
He slid a plate of calories over to me. I could feel the tears scratching away at the backs of my eyes, like early morning cats at the door, eager to be outside. I fought them back. Not now, not this early. Not before coffee. I bit on a forkful of egg and mushrooms and started chewing deliberately, giving myself time to think.
“Mike, there were a number of reasons why I told you. The first and most important was that I didn’t want there to be any secrets between us. A relationship is built on trust and for as long as I was hiding something from you, there wasn’t complete trust. No hear me out please. The second reason was that I was, and still am, reasonably sure that this is going to come out at some awkward times in the future. You would have found out about it sooner or later and I wanted it to come from me. More than that, I need you to believe me so that whenever it does come out, you’re ready to stand beside me. I need your strength in this Mike.”
He reached across and took my hand in his. You can actually read love and acceptance in a person’s eyes. I know because I saw it in Mike’s then. There was one last thing to say though, probably the hardest.
“The last reason I wanted to tell you was so that you knew who I once was. I’ve been a man, sort of. I have an idea of how it might feel to find out that your girlfriend used to be a dude and I know it’s something that most men would find difficult to accept. I’m hoping that it counts for something that I’ve always been a girl on the inside, that I didn’t actually choose this change – regardless of how glad I am to have been given it – and that the change is complete. You know with hormones, mood swings, ovaries and the prospects of becoming a mother at some stage in the future?
“I know the whole story has been difficult to accept. I also know that my once having been a man is also likely to be difficult to accept. I’ll never blame you or hate you for walking away from this. Hell if I were still Ken and the girl I was dating told me this lot, I’m not sure I’d react much differently from you. What I do need though is someone who will stand by me no matter what, someone who will love me regardless of the impossible story I’ve told about my past, regardless of the fact that I used to have a dick between my legs.
“I’m not strong enough to go through another break up, so think carefully about what you want and what you’re prepared to give before you decide what you say to me next.”
My breakfast was getting cold. One major problem I’d noticed about myself since becoming a woman was that I just couldn’t shut up. I turned my attention to my food, partly to give Mike a chance to think. Mainly because I had to distract myself from what he might say, what a part of me was still afraid he would say.
The coffee machine, having mocked the seriousness of my words with its comically unpredictable noises, was silent. My next distraction once my plate was empty. Mike withdrew his hands from mine. Why was it every time I ate with this guy recently had felt like the condemned prisoner’s last meal?
Mike stood slowly. Was that a bad sign? It felt like a bad sign. God, please don’t let it be a bad sign. He walked over to the coffee machine and poured out two mugs. No fair, what was I going to do when I’d finished those last two mushrooms? One of the coffees appeared in front of my down-turned eyes.
“I’ve already done my thinking. Everything you’ve just mentioned has occurred to me and I’ve given it all the consideration it deserves. I had loads of time to do so down at the police station yesterday and again early this morning. I’ve come to a number of conclusions.
“One, I believe you. What I saw and heard in the hospital last night took away any doubts. I’m ashamed that it took something like that to convince me and I rather suspect that the next time you have something unusual to tell me, I might be a little more receptive.
“Two, whatever, whoever, you used to be, I have no problems accepting because it went towards making you who you are today, and I wouldn’t change a single thing about the beautiful, considerate and loving girl I see before me.
“Three, the way I’ve felt this past few weeks, I can’t imagine living any more of my life without you so, whilst I had a slightly more romantic setting in mind than your kitchen with you in your nightie and wild hair…”
He settled onto one knee and took my hand in his. One last thought occurred to me and I held up my other one to pause him.
“There is just one more thing I need to tell you. I have two identical twin sisters, both of them in the loony bin.”
Mike lost his balance and fell over backwards, dragging me on top of him and laughing helplessly.
“What? What did I say?”
Mike was too far gone so I was left to replay my words for myself. It didn’t take long for me to join him.
Mike got his romantic setting, but he made me wait two weeks for it, wondering nervously all the while if I’d mistaken his intentions. Still it was good enough that we were back together and so much better because of my new found certainty that he knew me for exactly who and what I was and still loved me. He did have his chat with Phil about me; by then it wasn’t necessary but it helped him solidify his new-found belief in the impossible.
That same day I had gone shopping with Sharon and we’d stopped by a jewellery shop where she had asked to check her ring finger size, confiding in me that she meant to drop hints with Phil sometime soon. She persuaded me to check mine too and somehow I didn’t think any more of it.
It seemed that Mike managed to conscript all my friends into his little plan. It was two weeks to the day and as evening came round, I was anticipating another Saturday evening on my own with Mike in his restaurant as usual. The first of the buildings for the new foundation was just about finished, thanks largely to Aaron and his friends who had pitched in enthusiastically with the redecoration and had already taken up residence. We had set a date for the inauguration for the following Friday with invitations being prepared for the individuals we felt would most benefit from being the first into the building. There was an enormous amount of work to do and I had decided that I was going to spend the evening with Mr Pinkie ploughing my way through it all. Sharon had other ideas. At half past five she breezed into my flat and closed the computer screen down on my fingers.
“You have spent far too much time on this pet project of yours. It is Saturday night and, Mike or no Mike, you and I are going out on the town.”
She grabbed me by the wrist and dragged me bodily into my room. I was accustomed to her taking liberties with my wardrobe, but this evening she chose for both of us. It had been nearly a week since my last public appearance and, after a week of jeans and sweatshirts, I found I was rather looking forward to having some fun. The paperwork could wait.
We did the whole helping each other get ready thing with Sharon insisting that I, at least, wear something completely new. For herself, she chose the same black dress she had borrowed from me before. I’d only worn it the once and still thought it looked better on her. I told her as much and, since my wardrobe was already bulging with the extra clothes Karen had brought me, I suggested she’d be doing me a favour by keeping it in hers. She didn’t take much persuading.
For me she laid out a light blue, high necked, sleeveless dress in some sparkly wonder-of-modern-science fabric. It looked very slightly oriental which, so Sharon told me, made me look mysterious and exotic; even more so when I picked out a pair of distinctive vari-coloured tights to go with it.
“Can we take your car?”
Earlier in the week, following Karen’s suggestion that I acquire a means of travelling around the country to the various shows and events she was lining up for me, I had splurged on a three year old Smart Roadster in yellow with black stripes. It was neither the fastest nor the most practical of cars, but it looked pant-wettingly good, had excellent fuel economy and, with retractable roof, lifting doors and a satisfying amount of sportiness given its seven hundred cc engine, it was a lot of fun to drive. Since I’d bought it a couple of days previously Sharon had been pestering me for a ride.
“Yeah, why not? Do you have anywhere in particular in mind?”
“You leave the navigating to me. I’ll try and find us a few fun roads between here and where we’re going.”
It was still too cold to drive with the roof down, especially now the sun had gone to bed, but that didn’t stop us from having a lot of fun. Sharon guided me away from the more built up neighbourhood and into a rural setting where we found some meandering roads with the speed limit set at an ambitious sixty and I drove my new toy to the point of feeling the rear wheels twitch in the corners. Odd how as Ken I would never have driven so aggressively and now, without so much as a drop of testosterone in my body, I was pushing things to the limit. Maybe it had more to do with peace of mind than aggression. I was at home in my own skin and reaching out more freely and with more abandon than I would have imagined possible as Ken.
Sharon was crafty with her directions, managing to turn me just once too often and leave me with no idea where I was almost right until we reached out destination.
“Hang on, isn’t this…”
We turned one last corner and there was Mike’s restaurant, the car park considerably less full than usual.
“Why don’t we pop in and say hello since we’re here.”
Sharon couldn’t pull off the little miss innocent with any amount of conviction, but if this was the plan, I’d hate to be the one to ruin it for everyone. One or two of the cars looked familiar, but I chose not to say anything. Just pulled up next to Phil’s BMW and climbed out pretending not to notice.
Sharon linked arms with me and led me through the entrance where we were greeted by cheerful cries of welcome from all my friends, some of my family and several people I didn’t recognise. The restaurant had been decorated with Chinese lanterns and most of the furniture pushed together to form one large banqueting table in the middle.
I was led to a vacant seat by the head of the table where Mike offered me a glass of champagne in greeting. As soon as I was seated, with Sharon opposite, next to Phil, Mike stood and indulged in the time honoured tradition of calling for silence by tapping his glass with a fork. The room fell silent and Mike started his address.
“Ladies and gentlemen, family and friends. Tonight marks a milestone in my life as this is possibly the first Saturday evening I have taken off in over three years.”
This brought a rousing cheer, loudest from those who had been here longest and enjoyed more of Mike’s wine than the rest of us.
“This does unfortunately mean that my long suffering assistants, Sandy and James, will be solely responsible for preparing the food we are all about to eat, so I shall be requiring you all to sign indemnity agreements declaring that you will not hold this restaurant or its proprietor responsible for any consequences that might arise from our celebration here tonight.”
This garnered a smattering of laughter and not a few cries of ‘shame’ and ‘boo’.
“This evening further marks my discovery that there can be nothing finer in this life than surrounding yourself with the ones you love and sharing with them some of your good fortune.”
And the cheers were back.
“Most significantly though, this evening marks the moment in which I fully realised the depth of my love for one person in particular and how very much I want to live the rest of my life with her. So, with all of you as my witnesses and because I am too terrified to wait another moment…”
He turned to me, settled onto one knee, dropped his voice to almost a whisper.
“Elizabeth Raeburn, would you do me the unmatchable honour of becoming my wife?”
The entire room fell into complete silence. Everyone waited with bated breath and, for a moment, even the cars stopped driving past. My own breath caught in my throat as I looked down at a ring perched on its cushion waiting for my answer. Had I any reservations this would have been an impossible situation, but Mike knew as well as I that, had I not so magnificently ruined that moment in the kitchen, I would have already said yes.
I wanted something witty to say, but my mind was shocked numb with the unexpectedness of the moment. Hot tears flooded my eyes and, before I lost the power of speech completely, I managed to squeak out a yes, nodding my head in case anyone, Mike especially, hadn’t heard me. The room erupted into a roar that receded into some distant part of my awareness as I fell into my fiancé’s embrace.
I could have stayed like that all night, but there were guests to feed and Mike’s knee probably wouldn’t appreciate to much longer on the hard, wooden floor. We withdrew from one another, eyes promising more later, and Mike deftly slid the ring onto my finger.
It was a perfect fit and I looked over at Sharon – decidedly the cat who got the cream – as realisation dawned on why she had suggested I have my finger measured. I gazed back down at the ring on my finger. A sapphire and two diamonds winked back at me. The tears wouldn’t stop and I had to bite my lip from moaning, the emotion too raw, too powerful to contain. Mike nodded a signal to his minions and, with everyone else distracted by the confusion of food coming to the table, took me in his arms once again. This time we didn’t come up for air for a very long time.
The evening was wonderful. So many people I knew were there. Clive and his wife Sandra, Pastor James and Marion, Karen, Andrew the photographer and Charlotte my comrade on the catwalk, Mary and Cassie, accompanied by Mary’s husband and Cassie’s brother, Mike’s cousin Katie, Geoff, Glen and Lisa had brought Gemma and Abby with them, evidently pre-warned and eager to meet their new aunt. Glen apologised for Mum and Dad’s absence, evidently they still couldn’t come to terms with the idea that they had an eighteen year old daughter now, and I couldn’t blame them. Any reconciliation with Mum and Dad would have to be slow for their sakes.
The rest of the guests, and there were quite a few of them, were Mike’s friends and family. Geoff did a great job of introducing me to a lot of them; apparently he hadn’t been the only person to benefit from Mike’s generosity.
The food was fantastic putting a lie to Mike’s earlier comments. He did grumble once or twice, but over small things and on the whole even he had to admit that it was close to the standard he strove to maintain.
“So now you have no excuse for not taking an evening off every now and again. I shall expect you on my arm the next time I have to attend something here in London; no, no objections or maybe I shall have to let Tarquin charm me into his arms.”
“You wouldn’t dare.”
“No I wouldn’t, but you never know what the newspapers will start saying if they see me in public with him again.”
He shook his head woefully.
“It’s going to be like this from here on isn’t it?”
“You’d better believe it. I still have to get you back for springing all this on me, and don’t think that’s going to be easily forgiven.”
“What do you mean? I thought you’d love this.”
“What if I’d had any doubts Mike? What if I’d needed to think about things.”
“But you didn’t did you? I’ve never been more sure of something in my life and two weeks ago I know I saw the same certainty in you.”
He was right. I wasn’t going to let him off though.
“I still don’t get to tell all my friends though, since you invited them all here.”
I managed a pout, but it wouldn’t stay on my face long enough to convince him.
The following week fell into something of a routine, Mike joining me for breakfast then the two of us going grocery shopping for the restaurant. About mid-morning we’d go down to the newly converted shelter and make sure everything was running smoothly. Aaron had proved to be a good choice in heading up the homeless people’s involvement as he was a natural leader and perhaps as determined as I was to see this succeed.
Friday’s inauguration was perfect, the press back in evidence and offering me a place in front of the cameras again. Yes I was excited to see things coming together. Yes it was pretty much as I’d planned, especially now that I had my first offer of someone to help train those who came along. Mike did his spiel about how cooking was a life skill from which anyone would benefit, even if they didn’t go on to make a living from it, so the training he would be giving these young people would serve more than one purpose. He finished with a plea for more small businesses to come forward and offer training.
The other charities made their presence and support known, cheering as I did the ceremonial thing with the giant scissors and ribbon, and several hundred young people officially moved into their new home. It was exciting and wonderful to see a dream turned to reality, even though I suspected it wouldn’t all be such plain sailing.
By the end of the afternoon, the media had packed up and gone home, Mike had gone to open up his eatery and I was left making a tired last round of the building, to ensure everyone was settled and everything in order, before heading home myself. I wasn’t long through the door when the phone started ringing.
“Miss Raeburn, this is detective inspector Chubb. I caught something of your official opening on the telly this afternoon and may I say it was a most impressive showing.”
“Thank-you detective inspector, it’s kind of you to say.”
“I only tell it as I see it Miss Raeburn. Speaking of which, I was over at the institute where your, er, sisters are being treated. I spent some time chatting to the doctors responsible for their care, suggested that you might be able to help. It seems they agree. They were wondering if you might be free to visit tomorrow.”
The place Emily and Charlotte were being held was just outside the M25 in roughly the four o’clock position, that is to say just into Kent. It consisted of a large, gabled redbrick building with tall chimneys in immaculately tended grounds. Some of the trees in front of the main building seemed older than history and the overall effect, even on such a dull, overcast day, was of serenity and calm.
I drove slowly up the drive, keeping my little motor’s usual throaty roar to a quite burbling growl and pulled into a free parking space. The doctor I had spoken to the previous day had said that both girls were usually a bit calmer and more receptive in the afternoon so Mike and I had spent a quiet, almost subdued, morning ambling through Epping’s forested trails on horseback before joining Katie for lunch at the riding school. Mike and Katie chatted away about family matters leaving me to my own thoughts, for which I was grateful, then Mike drove me back to my place.
“Are you sure you’ll be alright? I can ask James to hold the fort until I get there.”
My smile was distracted but genuine. This was Mike at his most supportive, giving me the space I needed whilst staying close, and I loved him for it.
“No, it’ll be fine. Just first time jitters.”
“Well it’s not every day you get to meet two complete strangers who look exactly like you, especially when they’re both completely Dagenham East.”
“Four stops on from Barking.*”
I managed a laugh and returned from the far country my mind had been wandering since yesterday’s call. He had his hand on the gear stick and I reached out my own to cover it briefly.
“You are so exactly what the doctor ordered sometimes Mike, but I should be fine. I’m kind of nervous because I don’t know if I’ll be able to help either of them, but I guess whatever I can do has to be better than what they have right?”
Mike shook his head with a smile.
“You know, if you weren’t drop dead gorgeous I think I’d still love you. I’ve never known anyone who cares so much for other people.”
“Now that sounds like permission to eat like a pig once we’re married. You don’t know how much I have missed chocolate.”
Mike looked at me nervously until I couldn’t keep it up anymore and let out a burst of giggles.
“It was exactly the right thing to say Mike and I shouldn’t punish you for that. I love you too much to do something like that to you.”
We pulled up outside my flat and I reached over to give him a long kiss. His face was a little scratchy, something I found I liked about him; a reminder that I was the girl in this relationship. I stroked his cheek gently as I withdrew and reconsidered. There was a definite early showing of five o’clock shadow and it is a woman’s prerogative to take control of the little details in her man’s life.
“You may want to shave before you get too involved with the cooking. I’ll give you a call later.”
One last kiss then I was out of the car and into the flat. Time was getting on and I didn’t have enough to change, but that was okay, this was a jeans and sweater day anyway; I didn’t want to freak out the two boy-come-girls by turning up looking like Princess Peach, or perhaps Daisy who was closer to my colouring. I just needed pick up a couple of bags of things I’d put aside for them. After that it was out on the A316, almost the opposite direction, as far as the M25 then around the south of the city towards my destination.
The nurse visibly blanched as I approached, reaching nervously under the counter for something. I gave her as cheerful a smile as I could manage given my state of mind.
“Good afternoon. I’m Liz Raeburn. I’m here to visit my sisters.”
Two male nurses appeared, followed soon after by a middle aged doctor. They looked at the nurse behind the reception and she nodded, still nervous, in my direction. Light dawned in the doctor’s eyes.
“Ah, mistaken identity. Understandable. Mike, Adam, it’s okay. Visitor, not patient. Jane it’s in the appointment book. Elizabeth Raeburn to visit her two sisters. Seems you haven’t been watching the television recently.”
The nurse looked embarrassed and mumbled an apology in my direction. The doctor wasn’t quite finished.
“No need Jane. Better safe than sorry and no harm done eh?”
He turned his head my way. His mannerisms were a little odd, short and jerky like his speech. Almost like I was talking to a sparrow or a blue tit. He thrust out a hand which I took, still a little off balance from odd reception.
“Doctor Marston. Let’s get you signed in. Jane I think we’ll need a safety word for Miss Raeburn.”
It was his longest sentence so far and just a little incongruous because of it. The nurse turned her attention towards me, still a little red from her mistake, but a little more confident now that she was following her training.
“I’m sorry for the mistake miss. We, er , we… because you look quite a lot like one, er, two of the patients here, we need a way of distinguishing between you and them. To do this we use a challenge response system. It will only happen if a member of staff is uncertain of your identity, and when you leave of course. When one of the doctors or nurses uses the challenge word, you are expected to respond with er, well, the response word. We try to keep the words unusual so that they aren’t likely to be used in everyday conversation, and unrelated so that there is no way of guessing the response from the challenge.
“In your case we’ll use the challenge word of ’embrasure’ and the response will be ‘phoenix’.”
“Good, good, now sign in and I’ll take you to meet your sisters. Imagine you’ll be glad to be reunited after all this time. Don’t expect much, please. Both very disturbed. Hoping you’ll be able to get through where we haven’t.”
While he was talking I signed details into the visitors’ book and attached the visitor’s badge to my leather jacket. He then walked off down the corridor that Mark and Adam had recently taken, indicating that I should follow. After what seemed a mile of maze we arrived outside a plain yuk-yellow painted door.
“This one’s the quieter of the two. I’ll come in with you to start with, make sure things are settled, then I’ll leave you to it. What’s in the bags?”
“Oh, just some clothes and pyjamas. I wasn’t sure what she would have to wear.”
“Just clothes? Nothing else? May I look?”
I handed the bag over and he rummaged through it before handing it back, evidently satisfied.
“Hands off, they’re mine.”
The voice was low and scratchy. I spun round to find an old man in wheelchair being wheeled past. Was it my imagination or was there a shadow in his eyes? Doctor Marston turned to see what had distracted me.
“Don’t mind Mr Langley. All bark, no bite.”
The doctor slid his key-card into a slot in the wall and pushed the door open, waving me in ahead of him.
“This is Paula. Quieter of your two sisters.”
“The name she gave when she first came here. You saying that’s not right?”
At a guess this would be Paul Bailey, one of the two names DI Chubb had given me. I walked through the door ignoring the question.
The room was tastefully decorated as long as you were a fan of pink. There was a bed, heavy wrought iron and bolted to the floor just visible under the valance, and a desk and chair, also bolted down. The windows were barred but tastefully draped with curtains. The floor was linoleum, but thick and soft. In the corner, curled up as I had first seen her (him?) the first time, sat a figure in a nightdress, rocking gently back and forth.
“Hello Paula. It’s Doctor Marston. I’ve brought someone to see you.”.
I walked over close to the traumatised figure and folded my legs under me, settling onto the floor beside him.
He looked up at me, eyes wide with denial.
“No, no, no, no, no, no…”
It went on and on, a continuous monotone. He hid his face in his knees.
“I’m a friend Paul, I want to help.”
“You’re, you’re, you’re… no, no, no, no, no…”
“I’m like you Paul. I met a young woman with green eyes and red hair, and now I’m like you.”
I reached out a hand to touch him gently on the arm. He shuddered slightly but didn’t withdraw.
I was conscious of Doctor Marston behind me. I didn’t want to give so much away in his presence that he would invite me to stay in one of the adjoining rooms. He’d heard enough to peak his curiosity though. He crouched down next to me.
“Who is this green eyed woman?”
“Please doctor, I’ll talk to you afterwards. For now would you mind giving us some privacy.”
He wasn’t happy but withdrew even so. Just as the door closed I heard it again, quiet, at the very edge of hearing.
I looked around and all I could see was a closed door. Overactive imagination. I turned my attention back to Paul who was rocking a little faster.
“That’s what happened wasn’t it Paul? You went to a bar and met a drop dead gorgeous green-eyed redhead who warned you that she only made out with girls.”
The rocking sped up if anything, trying to blot out my words and where they would take him.
“Then she took you back to her flat. About ten minutes’ walk away, sixth floor, filled with kind of primitive art from around the world, no photographs. She kept warning you, but her body language said something else so you kissed her, then the room spun around and seemed to get bigger and the next thing you knew you were as you are now.”
The rocking had stopped. He wouldn’t look at me, but he was listening, intently.
“When you woke up in the morning there was a nasty letter telling you to get dressed and leave by midday. It said you had no identity, that your only way of making money now was as a prostitute, that if you tried to tell someone about what had happened to you, you’d end up, well, in a place like this. The wardrobe was full of tarty clothes, but you had no choice but to get dressed and leave. After that the story is your own.”
I waited, so did he. I cracked first.
“Your name was Paul Bailey. Mine was Ken Stanton. I met Mary in the Meet Market, a club that opened in Soho a couple of months ago. I’m pretty sure of everything I told you, because it happened to me the same way. It’s what left me looking like this and, I’m pretty sure, you looking like that.”
I reached out a hand and rested it on his wrist. After an uncertain moment, he raised his eyes to mine.
“You’re not alone Paul.”
“Is… Is there a way out of this?”
“Out of the institute, perhaps. Out of being a girl, I don’ think so.”
He started rocking again.
“I can’t be a girl. I’m not a girl. I’m a guy. I can’t be a girl.”
I pulled him gently towards me and held him while the tears flowed. This was going to take time and I had to hold myself back from rushing ahead with all the things I wanted to say. Eventually he quieted and I eased him back away from me.
“I brought you some things.”
“Well I wasn’t sure what you got to wear in a place like this so I hedged a bit. There are some cotton pyjamas, a pair of jeans and some tee-shirts, socks and underwear.
“What do you mean underwear?”
I rummaged in one of the bags and pulled out some plain white cotton panties and a similar sports bra.
“That’s girl’s underwear.”
“I know and the jeans and tee-shirts are women’s cut too. You have to face the fact that you have a girl’s body now so it’s best to stick with clothes designed to fit it. On the plus side, as a girl you get to choose how you look. I didn’t think you’d have much time for frills and lace so everything’s plain, unadorned and in neutral colours.”
“Yeah and that’s a bra. How am going to feel like I’m not a girl wearing a bra?”
“Well you’ll definitely feel that you’re a girl if you don’t wear one. Look, it’s a sports bra. It could almost be a vest. Yes admittedly a very short vest, but work with me here. You won’t feel it that much and it’ll stop things from jiggling around.
“Try it, you won’t know until you do.”
He was on the fence and I didn’t have time to coax him off it. I glanced at my watch. Doctor Marston would be back any time.
“Listen Paul, I don’t have much time with you this visit so I’m not going to use it up persuading you to do this thing. I’ll leave the clothes with you and you can decide for yourself. If you’ll at least try then we’ll find out whether it helps or whether I have to think of something else. I know we don’t know each other, but as far as the rest of the world is concerned, there’s no way you can be anything except my identical twin sister. In some ways we do have a common experience holding us together, and for the life of me I am not giving up on you. I’m going to come back as often as I can and do whatever it takes to help you deal with this. If I can find a way out for you I will, but one way or another you don’t have to deal with this alone.
“My time today is almost up but there’s one thing I need to do before the doctor comes back. I have a friend who’s been able to come up with a couple of IDs for you and the other one here like you. I didn’t have much time to choose the names so you’re going to have to live with one or the other. Do you want to be Emily or Charlotte?”
“A name? An identity? With National Insurance Number, passport, driver’s license, all that sort of thing. You get to be a person again, but you have to be either Emily or Charlotte. Charlotte or Emily, which is it going to be?”
The electronic bolt in the door slide back with a clunk and I turned his face so he could see the urgency in my eyes.
“Emily. I’ll take Emily.”
“Astonished. Absolutely amazed. Been with us four weeks and all she did was sit in the corner and rock backwards and forwards. Half an hour with you and she’s calmer, more lucid. How did you do it?”
“Emily’s my twin, doctor. All I did was talk about some of the experiences we shared.”
“Still impressive for half an hour. What’s with the clothes?”
“Both of my sisters were a bit tomboyish – we all were when we were younger – so having slightly less frilly things is likely to help.”
We were walking back down the corridor towards reception. Apparently my other ‘twin’ was in a different wing. Mr Langley was heading back to his room, pushed by the same orderly. I nodded and smiled as they went past.
“I’m warning you, hands off.”
Again the low, gravelly voice. Again just at the divide between hearing and imagining. I turned to Doctor Marston but he was oblivious. Was I imagining things? Did I actually belong here?
“Something I don’t understand. Why Paula?”
“Oh, that was a game we used to play when we were younger. You know, let’s pretend? Em and Charley liked to pretend they were guys. Em used to call herself Paul; I guess you misheard her.”
“And your other sister?”
“She liked the name Jordan. Her real name’s Charlotte.”
“Ah. Explains a few things.”
We walked on in silence. From the picture DI Chubb had shown me, Jordan was going to be somewhat more of a handful than Paul and I was getting nervous. Doctor Marston was as well.
“Your other sister. Something of a different animal. Sorry not very PC, but she’s not so calm as Paula. Sorry Emily. Visit will need to be supervised I’m afraid. Your safety. Sorry no choice.”
Jordan’s room, or perhaps cell would be more appropriate, was down a long corridor, through several locked and barred gates and finally behind a thick steel door. A burly nurse stood with us outside the room as Doctor Marston made use of his key-card again.
This room was very different from Paul’s. No furniture, one small, barred window high up and the floor and all the walls were padded, quilted. I almost expected Jordan to be wearing a straightjacket as he had been in the police photograph, but instead he had on a white, cotton nightdress with lace collar and an embroidered bodice. He turned at the sound of the door opening, his face placid but calculating. The moment he saw me he flew into a rage and charged. I staggered back from hands reaching with murderous intent for my neck as the nurse barged past me and tackled him to the floor.
“What did you do to me you heartless bitch? What did you do to me? You change me back you fucking cow. You change me back now.”
He was struggling against the nurse and weeping desperate, bitter tears as he squirmed futilely in the big man’s grip.
I managed to recover from the shock of the attack enough to gather my scattered wits and find my voice.
“What makes you think I did this to you Jordan? What makes you think it was me? Didn’t she have green eyes?”
The thrashing stopped and he stared at me.
“What do you know about it?”
“More than I care to say, but I know what happened to you. It happened to me too, and I’m here to help.”
“Why would you?”
“Look at me Charlotte. You remember me? I’m Liz, you remember when you and Emily and I played together and you wanted to be called Jordan and Em wanted be called Paul? I’m your sister Charley, how could I not do everything in my power to help.”
I was gambling everything on the intelligence in his eyes. He wasn’t so much cracking up at what had happened to him as livid. The look he had given me was enough to melt steel.
It was command performance good. I could have believed he was my sister from the emotion he put into that one word. He added a couple more, equally convincing.
Keep it vague. The less you have to make up the less chance you have of tripping up.
“I don’t know Charley, I was hoping you or Em could tell me something. The two of you came down to London partying at some nightclub – I couldn’t, you remember? I had that thing at work. The next day your mobile phones were giving out of service messages. Eventually I managed to get a job here and found a lead or two as to what might have happened to you. That’s when the police contacted me and said they’d already picked you and Em up and that you were here.
“I want to help Charley. I brought you some things.”
“What sort of things?”
“Jeans, tee-shirts, pyjamas. Things you’ll feel more comfortable in.”
“Can I see?”
I put the bag down on the floor as near to him as I dared. The nurse released his hold enough for Jordan to pick the bag up and look through it. He had a very studied expression on his face when he came up.
“What happens now?”
“Well I’m going to keep on visiting as often as I can to see what I can do to help. You need to convince these guys that you’re safe to be around, that you won’t try and snap my head off, then I guess we get to talk. Depending on how well you do, well actually that’s not my call but maybe Doctor Marston?”
“Maybe. We’ll see. Long road ahead Jordan, or is it Charlotte now?”
“I prefer Charley.”
Doctor Marston nodded his head then turned to me.
“Best keep it short today. Miss Raeburn?”
He indicated the door.
“Keep it real Charley. Try and keep calm. I’ll be back to visit you as soon as I can. Just be patient.”
He nodded and I preceded the doctor and nurse out of the room.
“Word in my office Miss Raeburn?”
All the way back to Doctor Marston’s office I kept looking around like a spooked meerkat, all the while expecting that voice again, but it didn’t come. In no time I was sitting in a comfortable chair with a cup of half decent coffee in my hands. The doctor settled behind his desk and steepled his fingers.
“The green eyed lady. Explain.”
This was a question I’d been dreading. I’d had to come up with a bit of fiction here and I wasn’t sure how believable it would be.
“The police told me they’d both mentioned her. It was part of one of our let’s pretend games. We’d meet this witch and she’d magically turn my sisters into men. We always imagined her as having green eyes and red hair because Em read something somewhere about that being the Devil’s favourite. I just took a chance that it might help.”
“Anything else you can say, might help?”
“They’re both tomboys, always have been. If they can wear men’s pyjamas and anything else that’s not frilly it might help. That and Em’s room could be a little less girly.”
“Not happy with that. Current delusion is they think they were male. Give them a male environment will reinforce that notion.”
“Or make them feel more at home because they’re more used to plainer things instead of all this fru-fru stuff.”
“Try it for a week, if it doesn’t work then you can go back to your satin and lace idea.”
“You’ll visit again.”
“Absolutely, as often as I can. Next Saturday okay?”
“Once a week probably as much as we can allow for now. Thank-you Miss Raeburn. Worthwhile progress today.”
He stood up abruptly and held out a hand. Mannerisms to match his speech. I put down my half-finished coffee and shook his hand.
The nurse on reception noted down next week’s visit in the dairy then smiled at me.
It took a moment to register, but light dawned through the murk.
“Oh, er… Pheonix.”
“Thank-you Miss Raeburn. We’ll see you next week.”
And like that I was back in front of the magnificent building with my car keys in my hand. It was still light and I was at loss for something to do. I felt that the visits had gone well for a first time. I wondered if I could make it a hat-trick.
First to call Mike. The restaurant wouldn’t be open yet, though at a guess they would be whizzing around like amphetamine enhanced bluebottles trying to get things ready. Still Mike would spare me a couple of minutes. The phone answered on the second ring.
Despite the calm in the young voice, I could hear pots and pans crashing in the background. I’d better make this quick.
“Hi James, it’s Liz.”
“Hang on a mo.”
The sound muffled as a hand went over the receiver. I could still hear James’s raised voice clearly enough though.”
“Oh most highly exalted one. Thy queen wisheth to bendeth thine lug-hole.”
“Give that here you daft pillock and get back to your bouillabaisse. It’s a bit short on thyme.”
Mike’s voice suddenly came through loud and clear.
“Hi Liz, how did it go.”
“Really well. Surprisingly well. It’ll take time but it’s definitely not going to be wasted.”
“That’s great. So what are your plans now?”
“I thought I might head up to see my Mum and Dad, see if I can make any progress there.”
“Are you sure? I mean you don’t want to tempt fate or anything do you?”
“Fate’s been pretty kind to me recently. I don’t think this is stretching things too far.”
“Okay, well good luck with it and don’t drive tired. If it gets too late scrounge a bed with that brother of yours.”
“Will do. See you at church tomorrow?”
“Sure. We need to talk to Pastor James about dates and details anyway don’t we?”
“Yes we do. I love you, see you tomorrow.”
“I love you too.”
The phone went quiet. I chucked it on the seat next to me and started the car. In the burble of the exhaust the hint of a voice drifted through. Low and scratchy as before.
“I warned you to leave them be. They’re mine and now so are you.”
A chill spread through me. Either I was going insane or something very unpleasant had just turned its baleful eyes in my direction. I looked uneasily over at the empty seat next to me. I’m sure it was my imagination, but there seemed to be just the faintest hint of an outline of a man in a dark suit.
Getting back onto the M25 was easy and I sped north until about a mile before the Dartford crossing. They’d done a lot of work to improve the traffic flow through here, but at half past five, even on a Saturday, it started to clog up. Still the snarl moved through steadily if slowly and by six I was on the north side of the Thames heading round for the M11 and an hour’s drive north to my parents’ home. The little car sped along comfortably on the motorway – not its favourite type of road, but it handled it well enough – and by quarter to eight I found myself easing the low slung vehicle over sleeping policemen and into a familiar drive and the house I had grown up in.
I knocked on the door, nervous but determined. The bell hadn’t worked in twenty years and I doubted Dad would get around to it now. Unconsciously I had used the same shave-and-a-haircut rhythm I always used to use. It took a moment for my mother’s face to appear, and another for hope to fade into confusion in her eyes.
“Hello, can I help you?”
I so wanted to call her Mum or Mummy, but knew if I pushed this too fast I would ruin it, probably for good. I reigned in my galloping feelings and took a deep breath.
“My name’s Elizabeth Raeburn. You, er, visited me in hospital a few weeks back.”
“Oh yes that strange thing about my son Kenneth.”
I always hated the full version of my name and it did me no good to hear it now. I took a deep breath. Take it slow Lizzy.
“I wonder if I could come in and speak with you for a while. Is D… Is your husband in?”
“George is in the living room. I suppose… Yes I suppose it would be alright.”
She stood to one side and I stepped into the hall. I rubbed my hand absent-mindedly over a patch of wall where I had thrown a cricket ball in a fit of rage. It was smooth and painted over now, the event some eighteen years in the past, back when Dad knew a thing or two about decorating and wasn’t averse to trying.
Mum was giving me some odd looks as a walked ahead of her into the lounge.
“Who is it Olive?”
Dad’s voice was old and tired. I hadn’t noticed that about him the last time we’d spoken.
“Do you remember that young lady Glen insisted we go and see in London? Well she’s come to visit us. Would you like some tea? I just made a pot.”
“That would be lovely, thank-you.”
“How do you take it?”
“Milk no sugar please.”
Mum and Dad had always been PG tips fans so there was no question about this needing special treatment with lemon or similar.
I perched on a chair with my cup and saucer and wondered how I was going to do this. Memories flashed across my mind and in each one there seemed to be a hint of disappointment or distaste in their eyes. Was I deluding myself that they would welcome me now?
“Here, I know you. You’re that young girl on the telly. The one who’s doing work with the homeless. That’s good work that is. I’ll bet your folks are right proud of you.”
And I saw my way in.
“I certainly hope they might be. My dad used to say London is a place where there are too many people too wrapped up in their own needs to see those of others around them. I guess he taught me to see beyond those needs.”
“You use to say that didn’t you George? Funny that your dad said the same thing, don’t you think?”
First strike neatly blocked. I took a nervous sip of tea.
“So what is you wanted to see us about dear? You’ve come a long way so it must be important.”
“I er. It’s about Ken.”
“Our son Ken?”
Did I notice a slight down-turning of the mouth?
“He hasn’t phoned in several months now. Mind you he never was very good at keeping in touch.”
What do you mean? I used to phone through at least once a week. I couldn’t say that though, not spring it so quickly.
“Things have been a bit difficult for him lately.”
“Oh I’ve heard about this. Glen told us a young lady called to say he was alright but he had to go into hiding. I mean I don’t know what he did to have to do that. I don’t suppose it was you that phoned through was it?”
“Yes it was, but I wasn’t calling to pass on a message from Ken.”
My mum and dad looked at each other, mystified.
“Then why dear? And how did you know all those things about our son.”
“Because… er… because… Oh b… I’m sorry, this is difficult.”
“Take your time dear. It’s not as if we’re going anywhere is it?”
She laughed. More to try and put me at ease I think than because she thought she was funny. She never really had a particularly sensitive funny bone my Mum. I was going to have to go for broke here.
“It’s because it’s me Mum, Dad. I’m Ken.”
I don’t know what I expected. You’d have thought that with my not so distant experiences with Mike, I’d learn to be a little more selective about what I said and when I said it. Dad leaned forward in his chair. Old age had slackened much of the skin on his face, hiding his expression, but his eyes were flinty and unforgiving.
“Is this some sort of a joke? Because I find it to be in very poor taste. There is no way you could be our son.”
“Not unless something miraculous happened. I mean I know I don’t look anything like him. I’m shorter, slimmer, quite apart from being female now, but inside this is still me. This is still Ken.”
I tapped my head and my chest for effect. I turned to my mother.
“That patch of wall in the hallway. Do you remember I threw a cricket ball at it when I was nine.”
“Oh no dear, that happened eighteen years ago. You wouldn’t have been born then. Or maybe only just.”
I closed my eyes in frustration.
“No Mum. I may look eighteen, but I’m really twenty-seven. I met a strange woman and she did this to me. I don’t know, call it magic or a miracle, even a curse though I don’t see it that way, but she changed me into this. Inside I’m still Ken. How could I know things otherwise.”
My dad heaved himself up out of his chair, a herculean effort with his bad knee, and stared across at me.
“Young lady, I don’t believe in such things. This seems to me to be a practical joke in disappointingly bad taste, and one you wouldn’t have been able to perpetrate without the help of my younger son.”
Was that another frown of disappointment as he referred to me? Did they find it so easy to believe that I was such a lost cause?
“I’m sorry my dear, but I’m not going to sit here and listen to any more of your nonsense. We’ve invited you in and you’ve paid us back in a very poor way for our hospitality. I think I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”
“Please wait Dad…”
“Don’t call me that. I never had a daughter and I’m not so senile that I don’t know that for a fact.”
“Will you please at least ask me some questions. Things that your son would know that he would never have thought to tell someone like the person you think I am.”
“No, I’m sorry. I have no time for this idiocy. I’ve asked you to leave and now I’m asking a second time. If you refuse, I shall be forced to call the police.”
No I couldn’t do this.
“That won’t be necessary. I’m sorry for disturbing you Mr and Mrs Stanton.”
I put down my cup of tea on the coaster then stood and walked to the door.
“I wish you could believe in the amazing just this once.”
“Hah. That sounds like some drivel Ken would say. I must say you play your part very well Miss Raeburn. Frankly I find it astonishing that a level headed and well-meaning girl such as yourself would allow herself to be lured into something like this. Please give Ken our regards when you see him, but next time he can call us himself.”
He shut the door on me and I found myself out in the cold.
“See how they disapprove of you? Were you always such a disappointment to them?”
The low scratchy voice was in my head now. Still quiet, but somehow clearer.
“You’re a failure and an abomination. How can anyone love you?”
I started to drive. There was no thought of going round Glen and Lisa’s, I couldn’t face them right now. Besides it wouldn’t take me that long to get home once I was on the road. How could anyone love me? I thought of Mike.
“Oh yes Mike. Didn’t he drop you at the first sign of trouble? Twice? You’re damaged goods Ken. Neither one thing nor the other. No wonder your parents shake their heads and frown their frowns when they think of you. You don’t belong in this world. You are just a sick, twisted mistake that mother nature spewed out and instantly forgot.”
I was crying now and the road was blurring through the tears. I tried to focus. My name isn’t Ken, it’s Elizabeth.
“And doesn’t that just show you for the miserable, warped mess you are? Not even holding onto the name you were given, that’s just ungrateful. You don’t deserve them. It’s as well they threw you out when they did. You deserve to be thrown out. Like the garbage you are.”
I was given the name Elizabeth.
“Oh yes, a few kind words by a tramp in a park. Very fitting that you should be given your new name by the filth from the streets.”
It was raining now. I had the windscreen wipers on, but it was hard to tell if my blurred vision was caused by raindrops on glass or the tears which continued to flood my eyes. Suddenly there were lights ahead of me. Red lights and the tall yellow back end of a lorry, too close. I jammed on my brakes. An ugly laughter drifted across my awareness and one last phrase.
* Barking and Dagenham East are both stops on the District Line of the London Underground. Barking is also a shortened form of barking mad, so if you are Dagenham East you are madder still.
The low bonnet of the roadster disappeared under the back of the lorry. I felt the ABS rattling against the bottom of my trainer. Any second the trailer would come through the windscreen. This was going to be messy, but at least it would be quick. An unnatural calm settled over me and seconds seemed to stretch out. My last thought was of Mike and how painful it would be for him to identify me from my bloody remains.
The car lurched and swerved. Somehow the tyres found brief purchase on a dry patch of road, enough to jerk the car out from underneath the instrument of my impending demise and swing it over onto the hard shoulder. The nearside wheels dropped off the tarmac and lost purchase again sending the car into a wild spin. There was a loud bang and my face and chest were struck by stiff white plastic. For a brief moment I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe, as the car went careening out of control and as quick as it had begun it was over. I sat dumbfound, my little yellow car sitting by the side of the road, facing the receding lights of the lorry, its driver oblivious to our close encounter.
The remains of the air-bag sat in my lap. The rush of adrenaline subsided and I surrendered to huge sobs of relief. My face and breasts stung, but nothing could diminish the glorious taste of fresh the air as I drew in lungful after grateful lungful. It looked like I would be staying with Glen and Lisa this evening after all. A hysterical giggle bubbled up inside me and I sat laughing at the sheer wonder of being alive.
The turbulent swirl of emotions subsided leaving me feeling a little nauseous. The car was leaning at an awkward angle, its hazard lights flashing their amber alert to an empty road. I reclaimed my handbag and mobile phone from the passenger’s side foot well and climbed out to relative safety away from my vehicle and the road. I dialled the number of the recovery service I used. Yes I did know that it would cost me to use a mobile phone even though it was an oh eight hundred number; just a little bit more for having to listen to that redundant bit of information thank-you very much. I gave my details, location, what had happened. Yes I was a woman travelling on my own. So grateful for that consideration, to be bumped to the top of the response list. Next I phoned Glen.
“Hi bro’, I wonder if you could come and pick me up. Slight accident. No I’m fine. Spun out but the car’s in a ditch and the airbag went off so I’m not going to be driving it again tonight.”
Again I gave him my location. Okay now bets as to which of them would make it to me first. At a guess Glen lived about ten or fifteen minutes from here so, add the time it would take him to put his shoes on. It would be close.
I checked my watch. Half eight. Right in the middle of Mike’s busy period so not a great time to call, but then I’d rather he heard from me than Glen or Lisa. I started punching in a text.
Had an accident but am ok. Car spun out so shaken and a little stirred. Glen coming to get me, will call later.
Okay so I don’t do text language, is that so bad?
I settled down to wait, glad of the jeans and leather jacket to ward off the cold. I hugged my arms in front of me then changed my mind as my bruised chest made its complaint. In the end Glen won the race, appearing five minutes ahead of the rescue service. By then the bruises had started to show and he insisted that I go to A&E to get checked out. From my description of the accident the recovery guys had sent one of their larger trucks. The driver agreed with Glen that I should have my injuries checked out, minor as I insisted they were, and I in my turn insisted that we sort the car out first. I think there must be something about a cute girl with panda eyes and a pout because they didn’t try very hard to argue, and in the end Glen led the way to his local garage where my car was left amongst the others outside the front.
A&E was insane as tends to be the case on Saturday evenings, or so I’m told. Because I came under the heading ‘RTA query concussion’, I was seen quite quickly. The young doctor shone a light in my eyes, asked a few questions then had a quick look at the bruises on my face and chest, eventually scribbling a few notes on my chart.
“Well Miss Raeburn, no signs of concussion but you will have some rather spectacular bruises for a few days. The best thing you can do is take a couple of paracetamol and get some rest. Not much we can do about the bruising. That will come and go in its own good time, but you may be able to help it along a little with some multi-vitamins.”
He gave me a cheerful if harried grin and dashed off looking for his next patient. I settled my sweater back in place and made my way gingerly back to the reception and my stoically patient brother.
“Paracetamols and an early night. Do you mind if I stay over with you and Lisa?”
“You know you don’t need to ask. I suspect Lisa’s already made up the spare room. Come on let’s get you home.”
Glen phoned ahead as we made our way back to his car, so there were mugs of hot chocolate waiting when we arrived. I managed to stay reasonably alert for the time it took me to drink mine down then allowed myself to be led up to the spare room. As Glen had predicted it was all ready for me with one of Lisa’s spare nighties lying across the bed. She tends to favour sort of floaty, chiffony, nylony things and I found myself appreciating her taste as the delicate fabric settled gently on my bruised body. There was a new toothbrush as well which, in my increasingly woozy state, became something of a challenge to open. I made it though, and with minty breath and the fairy caress of my borrowed nightclothes I snuggled into bed just as my mobile went off.
“Liz? Are you alright? What happened? I’m sorry, we’ve been rushed off our feet and I only just got round to checking my phone.”
“Hi Mike, I’m fine. I’m staying with Glen and Lisa for the night, and they’ve agreed to run me home tomorrow.”
“Do you want me to come up? Things are easing off here and James and Sandy should be able to handle the last few orders. I could be with you in a couple of hours.”
“I’ll be asleep Mike. It’s really sweet of you, but I’ll be home soon enough tomorrow morning and I’ll tell you about it then. I just hope you don’t get too much grief about it.”
“What do you mean?”
“The airbag gave me quite a whack. I’ve a couple of fairly impressive shiners, so expect a few wife – or fiancée – beating gags.”
“But you’re alright apart from that? You’re sure?”
The concern in his voice was oil on troubled waters. All the things I’d been thinking and feeling, that had been tearing me up inside found peace in his words. I sniffed away a rogue tear.
“Glen took me to accident and emergency. No concussion, just bruises. My poor car’s going to need a good going over though. Suspension, chassis, breaks, tyres, and I’ll have to pay for a new airbag to be put in.”
“Don’t worry about the car, we can get you a new one if needs be. What matters is you. Are you sure you don’t want me to come up?”
“The doctor recommended rest and if I weren’t talking to my most favouritest man in the whole wide world I’d be asleep already.”
“Oh, I’d better let you go then.”
“I love you.”
“I love you too Liz. God I feel so useless.”
“Well don’t, just hearing your voice has done me wonders.”
“Goodnight then. Dream of me.”
“It’ll be the best dream ever. I’ll see you tomorrow and don’t worry.”
The conversation dragged on for another minute or so, but it was saccharine sweet and enough to give you diabetes just listening to it so I’ll spare you the details. I put the phone on the night stand and was asleep a moment later.
I awoke to one of those delightful drowsy feelings that lasts forever as long as you don’t move. The bed was soft and the duvet warm and piled high over me. I snuggled deeper into the pillows, the only move permissible under such circumstances, and the ache in my chest awoke.
Grumbling gently under my breath, I opened my eyes to find Mike and his quirky smile looking down at me.
“What are you doing here? I told you Glen and Lisa would bring me back today.”
“I couldn’t sleep. And I figured you could do with a change of clothing, so I went over to your place, chucked a few things into a suitcase and came over.”
I roused enough to push the duvet away. My face joined in with the aching.
“What time is it?”
The door opened and Lisa came in with a breakfast tray and an altogether too bright disposition.
“It’s nine o’clock, but don’t let that fool you. He’s been here since eight.”
“But it’s a two hour drive from your place; longer from mine.”
“Like I said, I couldn’t sleep. I had to see you, and believe me it was worth the trouble.”
There was a hand mirror by the bed. He held it for me to look at myself.
“I look like a raccoon.”
The bruising had set in deep and dark around my eyes, giving me a burglar’s mask. My nose and close surroundings were also discoloured, although not to such a great extent.
“I hope you packed my makeup. I think I’m going to go through a month’s worth of foundation to hide this lot.”
Mike held up my small case of cosmetics then, after a dramatic pause, a pair of sunglasses.
Lisa offered the tray to me and I sat up gingerly in the bed to accept it. I winced at a twinge from under my borrowed nightdress and took a moment to look down my décolletage to inspect the rest of the damage.
“That is a most amazing mix of colours.”
Mike leaned forward, curiosity momentarily trumping good manners until I gave him a mock scowl and he withdrew looking so contrite. Lisa and I couldn’t help but burst out laughing.
“I’m a mean cow aren’t I? After you came all this way too. It’s just that I want you to see them at their best when you do see them for the first time.”
Mike was too much of gentleman to remind me he’d already enjoyed his time that night he’d stayed over at my flat. For which I was grateful I hated to think what a beet red blush would look like against my bruises.
The tray settled on my lap and I was suddenly so ravenous that I started on the toast without spreading anything on it. Mike buttered and jammed a second slice for me while I polished off the first and Lisa squatted briefly on the side of the bed.
“I was wondering if you’d like to come to church with us this morning. I mean you’re not going to get home in time for yours and I’m sure the girls would love to spend some time with their mad aunt. And future uncle.”
I glanced at Mike who shrugged. Lisa was right and a quiet afternoon with family seemed like such a good idea, and since Mike had made the effort to come all this way… I nodded.
“Great. The service starts at ten thirty and it’ll take us ten minutes to walk there, so you have just over an hour to get ready. You’ll stay for lunch afterwards and if you’re lucky we may let you go after tea.”
Mike looked a little uncomfortable and I knew he wouldn’t say anything, so I did. My family, my ‘splainin’.
“Sorry Lisa we’ll have to go sooner. Mike needs to be at the restaurant by five so three’s our deadline, two-thirty better still.”
“You open on a Sunday too?”
“It’s not our busiest night of the week, but usually we have enough reservations to make it worthwhile.”
I finished a third slice of toast and washed it all down with the glass of orange juice that had been sitting on the tray, This turned out to have consequences.
“Oops. Loo, loo. Emergency.”
Lisa grabbed the tray and I dashed for the door, making it to the bathroom just in time.
Mike had given some thought to his packing, bringing what looked to him like the most comfortable things in my closet. The dress was a bit of a sack; frills and bows to be sure, but not that attractive. It wasn’t one I’d ever chosen to wear before, but being part of the Elle-gance bundle that Karen had brought round for me, it had lived in my wardrobe even so. On the plus side it was loose around the bust and had a modest collar so the bruising to my chest was well hidden.
The underwear was plain and comfortable, the bra being a sports bra much like the ones I’d taken for Em and Charley. It was a little snug, but without underwiring or any of the other torturous design enhancements intended to make boobs perk and look bigger than they are, it was comfortable. The dressing didn’t take long, but the makeup was something of a herculean task. The sunglasses helped immensely, cutting down the amount of plaster necessary to cover the visible blemishes. I was ready with a couple of minutes to spare.
“Just no-one make me laugh, not unless you want to see the last half hour’s efforts gone to waste.”
They laughed even so, especially the girls, and I was hard pressed to keep my face still enough not to introduce cracks into the thickly applied foundation.
Glen and Lisa’s local church was old fashioned and Anglican, much like the one I’d grown up in. In a small village like this, if you didn’t come to church, you missed out on half the village life, so there wasn’t much option. Despite that, the vicar took his job seriously and what came from the pulpit was something more than meaningless homilies. I can’t say I took it all in, but there was one bit that made me sit up and take notice.
“In the eighth chapter of the Gospel of St John we come across Jesus’ description of the Devil as, ‘a murderer from the beginning, who does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. Whenever he speaks a lie, he speaks from his own nature; for he is a liar, and the father of lies.’
“Now whether you consider Satan to be an actual entity or the personification of the evil within our world, there are none here, I should think, who have not felt discouragement from time to time which we have been inclined to attribute to our own shortcomings, or indeed have begun to doubt their own calling and worth in the sight of God.
“Such oppressive thoughts are invariably false and, whether you consider them to be born from your own insecurity or whispered in your ear by the source of all evil, the result is the same. Discouragement, dejection, disillusionment.
“Consider the thoughts and words that bring you low. You will find that, although they contain a semblance of truth, there is no actual truth within them. The attitudes and opinions you believe your friends and family have towards you are often less than they are, and on the occasions where such thoughts are genuinely poor, it is almost always your accuser that is in the wrong rather than you.
“It is important that we each take on the responsibility of encouraging one another. Being British we find it difficult to accept complements of any kind, but without such rays of sunlight in our lives it is unlikely we will grow and flourish as we truly can.
“And take this as encouragement. If you are in Christ Jesus, the evil one has no power over you. As Romans eight verses thirty eight and thirty nine say, ‘neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ Furthermore, take to heart the words from Philippians one verse six which say, ‘he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.’
“Be confident. He has called you by name and you are His.”
I know they’re not words everyone believes or accepts, but to me at that moment in time they were just what I needed to hear. I thought of the things that voice had said to me the previous night. It wasn’t disapproval towards me or Ken my parents had shown, but rather a rejection of the idea their son could be transformed into a teenage girl, and who could blame them? Mike’s own rejection of me had the same source, as had Sharon’s come to think of it. That tramp in the park was so much more than just a homeless guy. Hadn’t he seen into my mind? Hadn’t he answered questions before I’d spoken them? Hadn’t he pointed out where I might find Sharon, in a random café in the middle of nowhere? Everything the voice had said was a lie, and I’d been so keen to believe it, because somewhere deep in my mind it was what I expected of those around me.
I leaned against Mike and felt his arm go around me. That wasn’t the reaction of a man who saw me as a freak. I blinked back grateful tears, conscious of the mess they would make of my plaster job. Mike kissed the top of my head and there was nothing I could do to stop them.
A packet of tissues and a handy compact helped repair most of the damage done to my disguise. The vicar looked at me oddly until I told him about my narrow escape and face full of airbag the previous day. I told him how much his words had meant to me and thanked him, then rushed away before my eyes started to leak again.
Back at Glen and Lisa’s we were greeted by the mouth-watering smell of a joint well on the way to being roasted. I offered to help Lisa, but she sent me to be entertained by my nieces while she conscripted Mike and Glen to kitchen duty. Gemma and Abby took their assigned task seriously and before long I was caught up in a game of connect four with the girls working together against me. They made a pretty good team as well, and ten minutes in we were at two games all and playing the decider when the door bell sounded. Lisa stuck her head out of the kitchen.
“That’ll be Gran and Grandpa Gem, would you let them in please?”
The older and wiser of my opponents dashed off to let in the new arrivals. A perfect chance to sneak in a move if I hadn’t been distracted by the new arrivals.
“We do this every couple of weeks Liz so no it’s isn’t something we arranged especially for you. You can get mad at us for not telling you, but we wanted you and Mike to stay for dinner as well and we didn’t know how you’d feel…”
My parents came into the lounge, my mum first, looking for Abby with a bright polished smile on her face, and my dad following with his old man’s shuffle. They saw me about the same time and turned in unison to Lisa for an explanation.
“Hi, Mum, Dad. We’ve a couple of friends joining us for lunch today, I hope you don’t mind. This is Liz whom I’m sure you’ve seen on the television in recent weeks, and this is her fiancé, Mike.
“Liz had a little car trouble yesterday so we offered her a spare bed for the night, and Mike came up this morning to collect her.”
“Aren’t you the young girl…?”
“Yes Mu… Mrs Stanton, I came to see you yesterday.”
“Whatever happened to your face dear?”
“Oh, I had a little excitement with the car as Lisa said and the airbag went off. They may save lives, but they’re rather painful when they hit you in the face and chest.”
“Are you alright? I mean if this had anything to do with us.”
I pushed out a laugh, trying to make it lighter and more real than it actually was.
“No Mrs Stanton, it was all my own silly fault. And I’m fine, a bit shaken last night, but nothing a good night’s sleep hasn’t helped.”
“Auntie Liz can we get back to our game now?”
I smiled apologetically at my parents.
“Please excuse me, we’re in the middle of a hard fought battle and I need all my wits about me.”
I’d hoped that would be it, but Mum continued to hover, looking over my shoulder at the game.
“Why do they call you Auntie Liz?”
“We all prefer it that way.”
Please shut up and go away. She didn’t
“So how do you know Glen and Lisa? You seem a little young.”
“Glen and I have known each other for a long time Mrs Stanton.”
Speak of the devil – actually given recent circumstances that’s not the best of clichés. Anyway, Glen chose that moment to come out of the kitchen with a handful of cutlery and place mats, with which he started to lay the table.
“Glen you never told me about Liz. When did you two meet?”
Stop fishing woman. Glen sensed my reluctance to pursue the conversation and tried to evade.
“Oh quite a while, certainly before I met Lisa.”
“But she’s so much younger than you.”
“Oh we were never like that, no that would be too weird. We’re friends, close friends. Like br…”
“Whose turn is it? Is it mine?”
I dropped my counter into a slot that would give them a line in two moves. Abby spotted it and pointed it out even as Gemma was moving to take advantage of my lapse. I dropped a counter to stop the immediate threat but opened up a new one and the girls placed their winning piece with gleeful squeals.
“You girls are too good for me today. No not another game please, why not something else?”
Abby ran off and came careening back with her latest plush toy.
“Tell us a story about Mr Sandbag.”
Mr Sandbag, or so I presume, was thrust onto my lap and the girls clambered either side of me. It was something I’d done for them as Ken, and it seemed my nieces had decided having a new identity and a new gender wasn’t enough of a reason for me to stop. Mum gave me an odd look, but at least I had managed to derail Glen. He had never been one for subtlety my brother.
Lisa had been earwigging and stuck her head round the corner.
“Make it quick, lunch is almost ready.”
It ended up being a story about how Mr Sandbag had come by his name. It involved a seaside village in the Netherlands that was in imminent danger of flooding from an unnaturally high summer tide. The villages kept piling sandbag after sandbag onto their makeshift dam, but no matter how high they built it, the sea rose higher still. Eventually the village ran out of sacks – or was it sand? – and were on the edge of despair when the scary monster who had been terrorising the countryside for months turned up, curious as to why everyone was running around. He saw the sea was about to broach the dam and climbed up on top where he lay down filling the gap and saving the village. The villagers gave him the name Mr Sandbag to remind them to be thankful for his kindness instead of scared of his appearance and everyone lived happily ever after, especially Mr Sandbag who had only ever wanted a friend.
Okay so what do you want for an off the top of your head story? The girls enjoyed it and it only took ten minutes to tell, which more or less coincided with the arrival of the feast.
Mum eased off her Rottweiler instincts and the conversation drifted on to easier topics, such as progress with the homeless work I was doing, what Mike did for a living, when we were planning to marry. I mean we remained the focus of interest, but at least I didn’t have to tiptoe around the truth whenever I answered.
As the meal came to an end I could see Mike looking nervously at the clock and made excuses for both of us. The girls groaned out their disappointment until I promised we’d come and see them again soon. We did a quick round of goodbye hugs then Mike went out to warm up the car while I fetched my few things from the bedroom. Mum followed me an intercepted me on the way back.
“You know my Kenneth used to tell stories like that to Gemma and Abby.”
“Mrs Stanton, I was a little selfish last night, thinking about what I want rather than considering your needs and… Mr Stanton’s. I’m not sure what is going to be easier for you to believe and to live with; the idea that your son has had to go into hiding and you may never see him again, or the idea that your son has been miraculously transformed into a young woman. I don’t want to bring you any more grief than you already carry, so I’ll let you decide which ‘truth’ you want to live with and do my best to abide by your wishes.
“I wish we had more time to speak, but my fiancé needs to get back to his restaurant so I’m afraid we must go. Perhaps we could meet for a cup of tea the next time I come this way?”
There was a quiver to the old woman’s lips and a stray teardrop trickled from one of her eyes.
“Yes. Yes I think I should like that very much. You know I am so very proud? My son? My… daughter?”
Sunglasses are useful for hiding blemishes and the odd tear, but they are a nuisance when the dam breaks. I threw my arms around my mother’s neck, careless of the pain in my chest, and threw the shades onto a nearby chair as I sobbed my relief onto her shoulder. Glen’s head appeared briefly wondering what was taking so much time, and then withdrew quickly when he saw what was going on. Eventually Mum pushed me gently away.
“Your young man is waiting and you have to go. Come visit soon, I think we have a great deal of catching up to do.”
I nodded and snivelled, collecting my discarded things.
“What about Dad?”
“I don’t know dear. He’s a stubborn old coot, but for all his ways, his heart’s in the right place. He may come round, but it’ll take time and careful handling.”
We hugged again, a much warmer goodbye than previously, and I hurried out to rejoin Mike who took one look at me and grunted.
“I don’t know why you bother with makeup you know. Bloody waste of money if you ask me.”
“How do you see me?”
It probably wasn’t fair of me to ask a serious question like that while we were on the motorway, but Mike did alright. He didn’t answer right away, giving due consideration to his words before speaking.
“I think I still mainly see the pretty, intelligent, vivacious young girl Sharon and Phil brought to my restaurant a few months back. Not quite perfect, but then I’m not sure I’d want you to be. I’m glad I managed to get that sorted out in my head early on, although I’m sorry for the grief it caused you.”
“What about Ken?”
“I never knew Ken.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
He glanced a question over at me. What did I mean?
“You know that I used to be a guy.”
“Up here I do.” He pointed to his head, then shifted his finger to his chest. “Down here all I feel when I look at you is a deep and abiding love for the woman you so obviously are.”
Words I so longed to hear. He wasn’t done though.
“I think I know what you mean though. I don’t consider myself an intolerant person but I can’t help feeling… uncomfortable around people who adopt alternative lifestyles where gender and sexuality are concerned. I see two guys holding hands or kissing and, while my mind is happily acknowledging their right to do so and respecting their choice to live that way because that’s the way they’re made, deep down in my gut there’s a sense that it… well it doesn’t feel right.
“I can’t help that I feel that way – I don’t even want to feel that way – but it’s the way I’m made. I think it would be worse meeting a guy who was living as a girl, even if he was doing the whole hormones-stroke-surgery bit, because it would be difficult for me to see him as anything other than a guy whatever he did to his body, and by dressing as a woman it’d be like he was tricking my body into being attracted to him. Sort of like tricking me into being homosexual which I know I’m not. I even know that’s not his intent, but it feels that way deep down.
“If this whole magic thing hadn’t happened and you were Ken who’d decided to go through the transition as far as medical science can take you these days, I’m pretty sure we wouldn’t have the same relationship. I’d still like you because you’re an amazing person with a heart as big as the universe, a great mind and a fun sense of humour, but I wouldn’t feel the same way about you as I do now.”
“Well I most likely wouldn’t be as good looking, and I’d be taller than you.”
“There is that, but most of it would come from not being sure what you were. However much you looked like a woman, I don’t know that I could convince my heart that you really were.”
“I’d still be the same person inside.”
“I’m not totally sure you would be. From the way you and Phil talk, Ken was quiet, introverted, uncomfortable in his own skin. Liz is open, bouncy, full of energy, excited, exciting, unrestrained. You know who you are now and it feels so right to you. I’m not sure there wouldn’t be just that shadow of doubt if you went through a surgical change. I’m not sure you’d be as unrestrainedly joyful as you are now. You’d have to face the judgement of people who wouldn’t agree with your transition, whereas right now no-one questions who and what you are. Rather you’re more inclined to get questions and disbelief if you try to say that you used to be a man.
“What happened to you is a dream come true for someone with a mind like yours. Reality for most people like you is harder and sadly, with the intolerance of society, born to some degree from the way most of us are put together, ends up being a decision between two bad choices. Either hide who you are inside and pretend to fit in or make the change and live with the consequences.
“You say you’ve always been a woman inside. I can accept that and my very male mind has found it so easy to fall in love with your very female one. The thing is your body is also all female too, however it got to be that way, so it makes it easy for my base animal nature to accept you as such.
“As often as I come in contact with people on the fringe of society, I will try to understand, to respect, to treat them as the human beings they are, but it won’t be easy. In the same way that people like Ken struggle with the wrongness that has them looking like one thing and feeling like another, so a great many people, who are lucky enough to be the same inside and out, struggle with why others need to go to such lengths to change themselves.
“As with all things where there are wide differences of opinion and difficulties in understanding, it’s going to take commitment, gentleness and tolerance on both sides to resolve, and it won’t happen quickly.”
Silence filled the space between us as I pondered his words. Mike must have found it oppressive.
“Hey, you’re the one who wanted honesty in our relationship.”
“No it’s okay. Ken would have been grateful for your openness and honesty and would have accepted your commitment to friendship as perhaps enough. You’re right about how he would feel going through the transition. A major reason why I never seriously considered doing it was because I had a pretty good idea what it would do to my parents. I could never find happiness for myself if I brought them such grief.”
“What about you? I mean do you ever get the feeling the Ken is inside you looking out?”
“Not ever. Everything I feel right now, I feel as a woman.”
“Not even slightly attracted to pretty girls?”
“No. My interest there extends only in so far as how their look might possibly help me with my own. Men on the other hand. Mnhmm there are some good looking men out there, and just thinking of having them on top of me, inside of me. Whoa! Sends me hot and tingly just thinking about it.”
“Careful, you’re rousing the little green eyed monster in me.”
“Well tell him to bugger off. If you knew my favourite fantasy you wouldn’t be worried.”
I reached out a hand to stroke the inside of his thigh and became aware of an involuntary movement a little higher up.
“Liz, much as I’m going to regret asking you to stop, I don’t think it’s wise tempting a second accident in as many days.”
I reluctantly withdrew my hand and snuggled sideways into my seat, gazing at the man I loved, that I now felt free to love as I knew Ken never would have.
“I love you Mike Paston. With all your quirks and imperfections, you are still the kindest and most generous man I’ve ever known.”
He grinned his lopsided grin at me.
“And you Elizabeth Raeburn, soon to be Elizabeth Paston. I love you too, with all my heart, all my mind and everything in me.”
We spent the rest of the journey discussing wedding plans. Actually it was more me speaking and Mike nodding, but that’s normal right?
We set the date for early August when we’d have the best chance for good weather, as I wanted the ceremony outside. We’d already talked to Pastor James about his presiding and were aware that, since the wedding we were planning wasn’t taking place inside a licensed building, we’d need to go through the formalities at a registry office too. That didn’t bother me. I’d marry Mike as many times as it would take to bring us together.
The outside venue was to be the park area behind Mike’s restaurant with marquees enough to protect us from sun or rain, whatever the British summer would bring us.
We did disagree over the catering and guest lists though. I wanted to invite all the homeless people I knew, or at least all the ones staying in the shelter – possibly shelters by August – and Mike was adamant that the wedding itself should be for close friends and family rather than acquaintances. In the end we compromised and agreed to arrange for the shelters to have parties, with feast provided while we had our ceremony on the hill with those nearest and dearest to us.
Phil would be Mike’s best man – his choice I should say, I didn’t organise everything (quite) – and Sharon my maiden of honour. He would, as tradition dictated, take care of the honeymoon while I arranged everything else. It was the kind of fun I’d never imagined , sorting through all the little details and deciding who would do what, and as I nattered on I caught Mike shaking his head.
“And you were worried that there might be a bit of Ken showing through.”
He knows just the right things to say sometimes, my man.
Our slightly delayed departure, combined with heavier traffic than anticipated, put us behind time so we went straight to Mike’s restaurant. He offered me the keys to his car – no insignificant act considering what I had done to my own ride – and seemed relieved when I declined. I still wasn’t quite ready to climb back on the horse, besides if I hung around for a while I might be able to scrounge one of those cordon bleu meals this place was so famous for. He let me into his office where I set about a small amount of unfinished business.
First was a call to Karen to confess to my recent mishap and the effect it was going to have on my ability to look beautiful for a few days. Amazing how funny it is to listen to someone who’s trying to be sympathetic and angry at the same time. She wanted to see me, to see for herself how extensive the damage was. I told her I was a Mike’s but she said the next morning would be soon enough and she’d pop around then. I told her I’d most likely be back home by then, but to call me beforehand to make sure.
The second call was to Sharon – Phil was there too, no big surprise – to explain why we hadn’t made it to church that morning. Again the story came out and this time won me some quality comforting.
Third call to Pastor James to apologise as Mike and I had been due to spend time with him today. He unsurprisingly told me not to worry about it and suggested a few new dates for the meeting. We settled on an eleven o’clock appointment on Tuesday which would give Mike time enough to shop for his groceries and drive over to the pastor’s house before the meeting was due to start.
There was no-one else I needed to talk to, but I did put in a call to my parent’s house. Dad answered the phone and was quick enough to pass it across when he found out who it was.
“Hi Mum, it’s Liz. I thought I’d give you a quick call to let you know we got home safely.”
“Thank-you dear. It was lovely to meet you today, you are such a delightful young woman. Did you give any thought to what we talked about?”
“I expect I’ll have to come up sometime during the week to collect my car. I’ll let you know as soon as the garage tells me when it’ll be ready and see if we can arrange something about that time. Okay?”
“That sounds fine dear. I’ll look forward to it. Now you get some rest won’t you?”
“Yes Mum. I love you.”
“I er… well yes just the same. Goodbye dear.”
I suppose there would be no prizes for guessing Dad was nearby.
Mike’s office had a small two seater couch against one wall so, having dealt with all the essentials that had sprung to mind, I slipped my shoes off and tucked my legs up under my dress, intending to settle down and rest my eyes for just a few moments. The next I knew it was three hours later and Mike was standing in the doorway with a tary of something mouth-watering.
“You know you look ever so cute in that dress. I think I can imagine what our daughter will look like.”
“Well, all I care about is that it’s loose fitting and comfortable. Is that for me?”
“Us actually. We have a lull and the guys shooed my up here with some food. You know James is turning out to be quit an accomplished chef. I may have to look into opening a second restaurant for him to run if I don’t want to risk losing him altogether.”
“Now that sounds like a plan.” I patted the couch beside me. “Come sit over here and let’s talk about it over whatever’s under that dish.”
The last of the customers left shortly after ten which meant, after clearing up and closing, we were on our way back to my flat by eleven. I’d managed a few hours extra kip, surprising myself with how tired I was. Mike was tired too after all the driving and working, so we called it a night on the doorstep.
It felt good to be home, even after a day away, and I was heading for the shower when there came a knock at my door. Sharon had been waiting up for me and popped across as soon as she’d heard doors banging. She was in her night clothes so evidently not planning on staying long. She did make all the appropriate sympathy noises when she saw my bruises and that earned her a hot chocolate and a description of everything that had happened.
She was quite freaked out about the voice, but I’d heard nothing from it since the near accident so I wasn’t unduly worried. A little curious perhaps, I mean it didn’t seem likely that it would give up just like that after my narrow escape. I figured it was probably biding its time, waiting for a vulnerable moment to strike again, but I wasn’t feeling that vulnerable right now. I mean let’s face it, I had the affirmation of the man I loved, my mum knew who I was and wasn’t totally freaked out by it, plus I had the vicar’s words to encourage me. If this thing, whatever it was, needed its victims to be weak and vulnerable in order to slip its insinuating lies past my defences, it wasn’t likely to get through again. Not in a hurry anyway.
Sharon didn’t stay long, and once she’d gone I took my quick shower and snuggled into bed with Jenny Doll for company. Sleep wasn’t long in coming and what dreams it brought were peaceful.
I didn’t set an alarm, but was awake and feeling fresh by eight. I dressed casually in loose clothing, the bruises on and around my breasts still sensitive enough to cause me some discomfort, and set about making coffee and breakfast. Mr Pinkie presented me with an obscene number of e-mails given that I had only been away from technology for a day and half, and I spent the time until Karen arrived skimming through my inbox and replying to the important bits. I was less than halfway through when the bell went.
“Oh my, yes I see what you mean. No you’re right I can’t expect you to go out looking like that, even with a liberal amount of foundation over the top.
“Tell you what, here’s a card for someone who’s really good at these sorts of things. Tell her I referred you and she should be able to set you up an appointment for later today or tomorrow morning at the latest. I’m not promising anything, but she’s done wonders for other girls in the past. Whatever she says though, you do it. It works.”
I picked up the phone and dialled then and there. As promised, Karen’s name got me a three o’clock slot that afternoon.
Even with the miracle worker due to work on me, Karen told me she didn’t expect me to be sufficiently mended for couple of weeks and suggested I might want to concentrate on my homeless project. I was only too happy to accept.
After Karen left, seeking solace as usual in her mobile phone, I put a call through to Glen’s garage to see if they’d had a chance to look over my little baby. They hadn’t, but agreed to call me back after half an hour. When they did call back it was with reasonably good news. The could get hold of and fit a new airbag by Wednesday afternoon and a quick look over the underside of the car suggested that the that rest of it had survived my unorthodox manoeuvring relatively unscathed. They’d have to check properly of course and would let me know if there was going to be any additional expense, but the estimate for repairs was likely to be in the two to three hundred quid range which seemed very reasonable.
My next phone call was to Mum to make arrangements to do lunch on Wednesday. She suggested shopping afterwards which sounded pretty good to me. I booked a train ticket next then returned to my still bulging inbox.
Mike joined me for lunch, then drove me to my appointment with Karen’s wonder woman where my bruises were gently massaged – uncomfortable but not painful – and I was given a bottle of pills to take. Not prescription meds I hasten to say, but rather a mixture of vitamins and minerals. She arranged another appointment for Thursday after which there was nothing much she would be able to do.
I’m not sure if Mike was trying to cheer me up, but he said he thought he saw an improvement even in the short time I’d spent being poked and prodded. The time was rapidly approaching when duty would call him back to the restaurant so he drove me home and we shared a coffee and a cuddle before he went to work. I invited Sharon and Phil over for dinner that evening, feeling an acute need for company. Sharon and I cooked with Phil doing the menial tasks, then we let him settle in front of the TV watching some dismally tedious football match while Sharon and I talked wedding plans.
Tuesday was more of the same only less interesting, the first part of the morning spent on the phone chasing possible leads for trainers at the shelter and arranging meetings to arrange the use of a second building, the rest spent with Mike visiting Pastor James for our first pre-wedding chat, then sitting around enjoying one another’s company until he had to go. Sharon and Phil had other plans for the evening so I turned in early, eager to hasten the arrival of Wednesday morning with its promise of new adventure. Travelling alone on the train as a girl to meet my mother for lunch and a shopping trip may not seem massively exciting, but it comprised two new firsts for me.
The train journey was uneventful enough. I bought a book before boarding, something soppy with a pink cover and a picture of a girl dancing in a field of flowers, and hid behind it for most of the journey. There was one guy who tried to chat me up but he backed off when I gave him a gentle smile and flashed my sapphire and diamonds.
The book was an enjoyable, if not particularly challenging, read with well-defined if predictable characters and plot. I was halfway through and reluctant to put it down when the train pulled into my destination. Wandering the familiar streets of my childhood town as a different person was utterly strange. There were people I remembered, shopkeepers and the like, older and greyer but otherwise the same. Friends from the past, now turned strangers by my new appearance. I whiled away the rest of the morning revisiting old haunts and wallowing in melancholy nostalgia. So sad to go home and find you no longer belong. So sad to see how little it has change and how much you have.
Mum was already waiting at Luigi’s even when I arrived fifteen minutes early; I guess we were both keen to meet and get to know each other again. It felt wonderful to lose myself in her embrace. As Ken I wouldn’t have dared, but her warm welcome did a lot to lift my mood. The chat started innocently enough with me asking after Dad’s knees. March was just around the corner and his surgery couldn’t come soon enough. We wittered on about different things, mainly Mum getting me up to speed on everyone’s news from the neighbourhood, until our food arrived.
“So you’re getting married.”
There was just the vaguest hint of recrimination in her words, but I caught it.
“I’m sorry but that would have been a really strange conversation: ‘Hi Mum it’s Ken. I’m a girl now and I’ve met this really nice guy and we’re getting married in August.’”
“I suppose you’re right. He seems nice, if maybe a little old?”
I guess you don’t have to have a daughter long before you get all protective. I clamped down on the smile and tried to answer seriously.
“He’s twenty-seven Mum, the same as me.”
“I know it’s strange Mum. I know I look like I just finished college, but what’s inside is still largely the original.”
“Same person, same memories, mainly the same attitudes. Different moods thanks to different hormones, and happier – oh so much happier – because this is how I’ve always wanted to be.”
“I do remember my clothes being disturbed a few times when you were younger. Oh you were very careful, everything went back almost exactly as you found it, but you get to notice those sort of things. I wasn’t sure what to do about it, hoped you’d grow out of it you know? I suppose it’s just as good that you grew into it so to speak. Does Mike know about you?”
The segue almost took me by surprise. I’d forgotten Mum’s way of digging for answers by suddenly changing the subject.
“Yes he does. We nearly ended over it because he didn’t believe me, not because he was weirded out by it.”
“What changed his mind?”
“Well you remember I told you what happened to me? The young lady who changed me into this?”
This was thin ice. I could see how hard it was for her to accept my story even though she accepted that I was, or at least had been, her son. I decided to gloss over things, move away from this as soon as I could.
“It seems she did it to a few others and we all ended up looking exactly the same. I found someone who could have been my twin out on the streets and Mike was there when he told his story.”
“He? I thought you said he was changed to look like you.”
“It’s complicated Mum. I’ve learned to think of gender as having more to do with the way your mind works than the way your body looks. Yes he was female in every physical way, but in his mind he still saw himself as a man.”
“Oh how horrible. You say ‘was’. What happened to, er, him?”
“It wasn’t pleasant. He’s dead now.”
“And the others?”
“Mostly dead, but there are two survivors that I know about. I visited them before coming to see you on Saturday. Will you and Dad come to the wedding?”
I can change the subject too when I want to. Like mother like daughter. It worked too, Mum jerked herself away from her uneasy musing and let my impending nuptials take over.
“Wild horses wouldn’t keep me away dear, and I’ll bring your father if I can.”
“I’d really like him to give me away.”
“I’m sure you would sweetheart, but that me be asking a bit much. He’s stubborn old bugger, oops pardon my French. I’m pretty sure he won’t change his mind about you any time soon. I’ll work on him a little, but don’t expect much.”
Lunch was over so we paid and headed into town. It’s hard to explain how much a shopping expedition can draw you close to someone. Pointing out clothes you think would look good on the people you’re with goes a long way towards telling them how you see them, and pointing out your own choices tells them how you see yourself. The afternoon was a voyage of discovery and by the end we had a clearer feel for each other than we’d ever had before. I bought a few things Mum suggested for me towards the end of the afternoon, more as an affirmation of what we had shared than because I needed the clothes. I also bought her a dress I knew she really liked.
“This seems strange, I feel like I should be buying clothes for you dear.”
“You did that for long enough Mum, and I can afford this. Look I want to. Sort of a way of saying thank-you. Thank-you for seeing me as I am, for accepting me as I am.”
“That’s not difficult Elizabeth. I saw so much of Kenneth inside you on Sunday I couldn’t deny who you were, and now seeing you like this. I was proud enough of you when you went off to London to make your own life, how could I not be prouder knowing all that you’ve done in the last few months.”
She walked with me to the garage where my little yellow baby was waiting for me, a little scuffed under the sills, but otherwise in fine condition. I paid the bill, which was no more than the estimate, and we struggled to fit out purchases into the limited luggage space, and our selves, Mum especially, into the low seats.
“You know this really isn’t that dignified for a lady of my years.”
“I know and I’m sorry, but I’m really grateful for your coming along. This is my first time behind the wheel since I had my accident and I’m a little nervous. Having company helps.”
I drove her home and helped her out with much shared laughter at our joint struggle to raise her up to the vertical from such a low position, then she insisted I come in for a cup of tea. Dad was in his usual seat in the lounge and he gave me a disapproving look as I walked in.
“You remember Elizabeth from the weekend don’t you George? I invited her back for some tea before she drives home.”
There was a sternness in her voice that brooked no argument and Dad subsided back into his chair looking just a little hard done by. I settled myself gingerly into one of the vacant chairs feeling oddly out of place in my parent’s home.
“Olive tells me you’re having surgery on your knees soon.”
Old people love to talk about their ailments and my father is no exception. When it became apparent I wasn’t going to tell him any unbelievable stories like on my previous visit, he opened up and over the next hour I learnt everything there was to know about knees, or so it seemed.
Tea and sandwiches later, I made my excuses and headed for home.
I had half expected the accusing voice to resume where it had left off, but in the fading afternoon light the road looked very different, and I was filled with happier more confident thoughts. There was nothing it could tell me now that I would believe so it left me alone. I hoped it was gone for good, but rather suspected it was just skulking in the shadows waiting for a new opportunity.
The drive home was effortless and enjoyable. It was nearly opening time at the restaurant when I pulled up outside my flat, but time enough for a quick call to Mike. He answered on the second ring.
“Hi sweets, how’d it go?”
“Great, great and reasonably great. Mum’s totally on board, Dad less so but at least he’s talking to me and the car drives as well as it ever did. I just arrived home and wanted you to let you know.”
“Thanks love. Listen, things are about to get crazy here. Lunch tomorrow?”
“Anytime beloved. I’ll see you tomorrow. Love you.”
“Love you too, bye.”
The light on my answerphone flashed a greeting at me as I walked through the door. Just the one message. I dumped my bags on the sofa and pressed play.
“Miss Raeburn? Doctor Marston here. Your sisters. I wonder if you could take the time to come and visit tomorrow morning. Rather urgent.”
The answer was no. After one ring I was transferred to an answer-phone. Please call back between eight thirty in the morning and seven thirty in the evening. I slammed the phone back down in frustration. How was I going to sleep now? Still I did what I could, relaxing bath, quick text to Mike to postpone our lunch arrangements, a note to remind me to call the bruise specialist if I was delayed at the institute, and an early night with my alarm set for five thirty. Fortunately I was more tired than I first thought and dropped off almost immediately, completely oblivious to the world until my alarm went off the next morning.
Normal ablutions, breakfast of tasteless roughage and the essential cup of coffee, and pick out something to wear. Jeans was a given since I was visiting the twins, but I chose a light floaty top with spaghetti straps in bands of mauve to go with it. Definitely a bit girly but comfortable against my still bruised chest. A little foundation to cover the few blemishes that showed above my cleavage, and the same to hide the gradually subsiding marks around my nose and eyes. Jacket, handbag, keys and gone. Close the door quietly so as not to disturb Sharon and sneak down to the car.
“Mike, what are you doing here?”
“I thought you might like some company.”
“But it’s so early.”
“You think I don’t do early? Sandy and James offered to shop for the restaurant today which means I’m free to come with you as long as I get back by five. I’m guessing this won’t take longer than six hours, and if it does, you’ll most likely want to stay overnight anyway. If we take mine then I can leave on my own if need be.”
“Yeah okay, but how did you know I’d be leaving this early.”
“Oh, that’s easy. I called the institute and the voice message told me the opening times. I know it takes a little under two hours to get there from here so that put your most likely departure time between six and half past.”
“You’ve been waiting here for half an hour? Why didn’t you come up?”
“I want to catch you in the altogether again, besides it’s a lovely morning.”
I was surprised at how relieved I was to have him there and, Spanish Inquisition over, favoured him with a long, grateful kiss.
“You even shaved.”
I stroked his smooth chin and we parted long enough to climb into our respective sides of his car.
There was already a fair bit of traffic about, but not enough to slow us down. Mike took a slightly more southerly route to the M25, a more meandering path, but a little swifter with fewer cars than usual on the road. We made good time and by eight fifteen we were easing our way slowly down the tree lined path towards the large brick building.
The institute wasn’t all that strict on its opening times and five minutes later we were standing at the reception desk with Doctor Marston walking down the corridor, looking relieved and a little grim at the same time.
“Miss Raeburn. Good of you to come so quickly. And you are?”
He turned his abrupt manner on Mike.
“Er, I’m er, I’m Mike. Mike Paston, Liz’s fiancé.”
Doctor Marston continued to stare Mike down until the hint took hold.
“…and, if it’s alright with you, I shall take a stroll in the gardens while you two do what you need to.”
The doctor waved an arm towards a glass double door that led out to the garden and Mike flashed me an encouraging smile before stepping through it and out of sight.
“That was a little rude Doctor.”
“Was it? Some news for family only I’m afraid. It’s Emily. She tried to commit suicide yesterday.”
“What? I mean how? Wasn’t she on suicide watch?”
“Was. Improved so much after your visit, thought it was time to give her more freedom.”
“Yesterday she made a phone call. Private, no details. After, she asked to go to her room. Orderly found her a short while later. Tried to cut her wrists. Didn’t quite have the strength. Might have lost her otherwise.”
“May I see her?”
“Yes. Think that would be a good idea.”
He led me along the corridor to Emily’s room.
Paul/Emily was lying on a bed, ankles and wrists held in padded leather restraints and an orderly standing in the room with him. His skin was pale and dark shadows haunted his eyes.
“Hey Em, what the hell happened?”
I kept my voice calm and friendly, lessening any impact my words might have had. She smiled at me weakly.
“Hi Liz. Looks like I really screwed the pooch this time.”
Keep it light Liz, real but light.
“Maybe not the best way to persuade the good doctor that you’re safe to be turned loose from this place, I agree.”
I looked up at the orderly and the doctor standing in the doorway.
“Is there any chance we could have some privacy here?”
The orderly looked to Doctor Marston for direction. The doctor looked as though he wanted to stay. Time for a gentle push.
“Look she’s calm enough, and even if she wasn’t, she’s strapped down hand and foot. If I need any help you’re just a holler away, what could go wrong?”
Reluctantly the doctor nodded then indicated to the orderly to leave us alone. The door didn’t quite shut as they left so I cautioned Paul to keep his voice down.
“Tell me about it?”
“Oh Liz, things were going so well. I felt so much better after your visit, and those clothes you brought. Well they felt a bit weird, but they were so much better than the things I’d been wearing. And talking to you was such a relief as well, to know there was someone who believed me, who knew I was telling the truth, who knew what I’d been through.
“I found I didn’t need, didn’t want to curl up in the corner of the room. I stopped the rocking, at least stopped doing it so much. I started eating the food they brought me and even talked to the doctor when he came to see me. After a couple of days he let me wander more freely, you know the grounds, the common room, that sort of thing. There’s a phone in the common room. I mean the idea of calling anyone was daft; everyone in my life knew me as Paul, not this… this thing that I’ve become.”
I winced at the way he described himself but stayed quiet.
“But then I figured it might be worth trying my mother. I mean you believed my story, maybe I could persuade her. You know, mother’s instincts and all that? So I called her.
“She accused me of being sick and twisted; told me that she was having trouble sleeping as it was, wondering what had happened to her son, and now I call her up with this vicious, ludicrous story. Who would do such a thing?”
I put my arms around him and held his head to my shoulder. It was a bit awkward with the restraints, but we managed to find a comfortable enough position to help release his tears.
“She was crying when she put the phone down on me. My mum’s the only family I have left you know, and instead of reassuring her I stoked up the grief and sadness she was already feeling. I’m a freak and I’m all alone; even my mother doesn’t recognise me.”
“It’s okay Paul I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. You’re not alone.”
“But you don’t even know me.”
“Maybe better than you think, and even that’s improving with each day. And I do care about you. Look if it’s any consolation, I tried telling my parents last weekend and it didn’t go that well. I was so upset afterwards I nearly drove into the back of a truck.”
“You’re just saying that to make me feel better.”
I sat back and pulled the sunglasses off my face.
“Airbags can be a bitch you know.”
“Oh my G… Are you alright?”
I actually laughed.
“Yes Paul, I’m fine. But listen to yourself. If you can care enough about someone else to ask a question like that – someone who, in your own words, you don’t even know – then you can’t be that far gone. How come you can be so concerned about such a little thing in my life and still get so caught up in your own misery that you try to… er, well, I guess I should ask what exactly did you try to do?”
“It was stupid. I asked to be brought back here after the phone call and I asked to be left alone. It seemed like everything was going wrong, like I’d never be right again, like I was alone in the world and would never have anyone who would care for me, like…”
“Like there was a voice at the back of your head telling you that you were worthless and that you might as well end it there and then?”
“Yeah, exactly like that. How did you know?”
I pointed at my eyes.
“The same voice had me so messed up I did this. You should know it belongs to the same lying arsehole who set this whole thing with Mary in motion.”
“You mean it’s real? I thought it was just me.”
I shook my head.
“It gets hard to figure out exactly what is real here, but this much I do know: That voice in the back of your head, the one that tells you you’re not worthwhile? Wherever it comes from, it lies. And if you stop listening to it, it goes away. Anyway, you were saying.”
“Well, there’s not much else to say. I don’t know if you saw my old bed, but the corners of the frame are quite sharp. I tried to tear my wrists open on one of them, but it hurt so much. I managed to go quite deep, but I don’t think I even got close to an artery. I think I must have cried out at the pain on about my third try, because a nurse heard me and came into the room, wrestled me to the floor. The next thing I knew I was strapped into this bed with my wrists bandaged up.”
“I’m sorry Paul, I…”
“Look can you not… I mean I know you’re doing it to be kind, but Paul is someone who I was. I have to get used to this now, don’t I?”
There was a deep bitterness in his voice, swirling just below the resignation. Maybe it would change in time, but it would take a lot of it.
I sucked in a deep breath. This was taking a chance and I wasn’t sure if I should. Still fools rush in, and I had been doing a fair amount of that recently. Mind you, having had so many recent near disasters from not thinking things through, maybe this wasn’t such a good idea. Except that they had worked out eventually, for the most part. Oh sod it, go for it girl.
“Em, would it be such a bad thing to be a girl?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I know you were one of the lads and enjoyed your old life, but in the short while I’ve known you there’s been a few things about you which don’t come across as… well as very manly.”
“Well you try having your fucking life turned on its head like mine was and see how you cope.”
The sudden burst of anger was startling, but there was something false about it. It was like he noticed his mask had slipped and he was trying to make up for it by the abrupt showing of bravado. Besides he obviously hadn’t thought too clearly about who he was talking to.
“Er, hello? Card carrying member of the magical genderfuck club, me. Remember there is a reason we look like each other.
“Besides, I didn’t mean to criticise; I like what I see in you. Everyone has a mix of female and male traits in their personality, it’s just that the way our bodies are put together and the expectations society puts on us push us into reinforcing one set or the other. Personally I think it’s actually a lot easier to be a woman than a man, and I wonder if you might too if you gave it a chance.”
“At the risk of repeating myself unnecessarily, what do you mean?”
“Well, it seems to me that there are a lot fewer restrictions to what you can do as a girl. Other girls seem to be supportive whatever you decide. I mean girls get to wear trousers, there are girls who work as mechanics and builders and stuff, there are girls’ football teams too.
“Put a guy in a skirt or even a kilt and everyone laughs at him. If a guy wants to do knitting or embroidery, or if he wants to play netball, he gets the piss taken out of him. Guys seem to be a lot quicker to put each other down if they catch each other doing anything that isn’t blokey.
“Sure you get guys who do go down that route, and you could argue that a lot of the best fashion designers and women’s hairdressers are men, but generally they tend to have something extremely effeminate about their nature, and they get treated differently by both men and women alike. No I’d say generally speaking, if you’re mixed up about your gender, if you’re anywhere in the in-between, it’s a lot easier to be a girl in this world.
“There are extremes I know. I mean take Charley. I don’t know if you’ve met him? The other one like us who got changed by Mary? He’s so much of a man inside I think he can cause testosterone to condense out of nothing. People who are so far over to one side have no choice but to reinvent themselves as a member of the opposite physical gender, but I think you and I are a bit in the middle.”
“I’m not mixed up about my gender. I’m a guy. I should be a guy on the outside too.”
I screwed up my face in frustration. Why is it some things are so hard to explain? Preconceptions too strongly held?
“No, listen. The way most people are on the inside is usually a bit of a mix of man and woman. I mean there are different traits that we regard to be more masculine or feminine aren’t there? You know aggression and anger are more commonly thought to be male characteristics whereas nurturing gentleness and timidity are thought of as more feminine. Everyone has a mix of feminine and masculine traits. You get girls who are so aggressive they scare the shit out of anyone they meet, and there are guys who shrink into themselves as soon as things get scary; I should know, I was one. I think you’re like that; on the inside you’re a bit of a mix of both.”
“Well when I first met you, you were huddled in the corner, scared and crying. Understandable given the transformation and possibly the new mix of hormones to get used to, but still not a particularly manly response. Men are supposed to be tough and face up to bad things, regardless of how they feel inside. I mean when I met Charley after being in to see you, he was swearing in my face and threatening me from the outset. All man.
“Please don’t take all this the wrong way; I’ve already told you I like the mix that makes you you, and regardless of what others think, we are the way we are, and we learn to live with it. In your case, you were brought up to believe in yourself as a boy, and you got on with it well enough for the most part; I don’t think Mary would have singled you out if you’d been withdrawn and shy. But below the outer show of confidence and being in control, I’m guessing there was a part of you that had to work at it. Am I right?”
He nodded. It wasn’t much of a nod, but it was a nod.
“You need the outer show as a guy because so much of what guys are about is competing with each other. Looking for any weakness to exploit, trying to show yourself as confident and invincible so you can rise higher up the pecking order, or at least not slip down it. You don’t have to do that anymore. Girls are more in it together. There’s almost nothing you can do that’s too weird or too wrong with the right group of girls. We look out for each other, share our problems, help each other be the best we can be.
“It’s different, there’s no doubt about that, but it’s a lot easier to fit, even if you still feel more like a bloke inside. You just have to be prepared to let go of who you were and embrace the change.”
“But being a girl is, is…”
“A step down from being a guy? That’s the man in you talking. Like I said, being a guy is all about being on top, so we convince ourselves that we are better than girls when there’s nothing to suggest that’s the truth. Nothing at all. At best guys are different and overall about equal to girls; better at some things, not so good at others. It evens out.”
“What about when guys hit on you? I mean I don’t think I could cope with that.”
I wiggled my left hand, in particular the stones on the fourth finger.
“Get one of these. There are a few creeps out there who won’t back down even if you say you’re engaged to someone, but for the most part you will get left alone, and other blokes will come to your defence against the real slime-balls. The ring doesn’t need to be real, it still sends the signal that you aren’t available.”
“And what about girls? How do I get around fancying girls?”
“I don’t know Emily. In my case it just happened. I think there’s a degree of choice in sexual preference, I mean maybe not for everyone. I certainly can’t speak for anyone else but me, but while I was a guy, I was happy enough to date women and I always felt attracted and even aroused by them. Now that I’m a girl and embracing my girlhood – ooh, not such a good word, sorry – I find that when I look at guys I see the attractive side of them. It’s all about accepting your rightful place in the world. As Ken I made myself squeeze into the role of young man well enough that it seemed natural – even to me – to look at girls as my love interest. Now I’m Liz, it seems natural to look at men in that place.
“It’s all about how much you’re prepared to let your place in society mould your personality. For me I guess it’s easy now because I got used to forcing myself in a way I didn’t want to go and now I have what I always wanted so I just go with the flow. I don’t know what would have happened if I’d stayed as Ken. Probably got married, had kids and muddled through life feeling I should have been someone else.
“If you find that, while being Emily on the outside, there’s still too much of Paul on the inside, then you will have to make your own decision as to how you work things out. It’s not really something I would do for myself, but right at the outset of this transition I did spend a night of hot steamy passion with another girl and, well let’s just say it’s an avenue that may be worth exploring.”
“Are you suggesting I become a lesbian?”
“No, I don’t think anyone sets out to ‘become’ a homosexual. Again I haven’t any personal experience for myself so I don’t know, but I get the impression it’s something you discover about yourself rather than make happen. So if you find out that you’re a lesbian, don’t be too hard on yourself about it. In a way you’re actually being true to the nature you were born with because inside there’s still that aspect of your guy self who fancies women.
“And hey, there are some red hot smoking lesbians out there.”
She lay there stunned. Yeah sorry about the whole pronoun thing, but the way things were changing in her mind and attitude, it seemed more likely that Emily would be embracing and developing the feminine side of her personality, so to think of her as a girl seemed more appropriate.
“So wadda-ya-say girlfriend? No more of this nonsense with sharp objects and stuff? You hear that voice in your head again or start to doubt yourself, you call me straight away. There aren’t many times of the day or night that I will be too busy to talk to you straight away, and you have my promise that even if I can’t take your call straight away, I will return it within as short a period of time as I can manage. And with me just a phone call away you should never feel alone or uncared for. Let’s get you well and out of here and see what kind of life we can make for you. It will be different from what you had planned as Paul, but I know we can figure something out that’ll work for you.”
“You really think so?”
“I know so. I mean I wouldn’t do this with Charley. He’s all guy no matter what he looks like on the outside, but with you I’m pretty certain we can make this work, even if you end up as a lesbian motor mechanic who plays soccer and rugby on the weekends, it’ll be a life you can embrace.”
I knocked gently on the door and Doctor Marston and the orderly came back into the room. I left them alone and after about half an hour Emily walked unsteadily out of the room with the orderly close by and the doctor following behind.
“Wish I knew what you said to her. Amazing the change you achieve in such a short time.”
“She just needs to know that she’s not alone and that there’s someone out there who loves her and will stick close no matter what. Doctor, I want her to be able to call me any hour of the day or night. I want her to know I care about her and will do anything, interrupt anything, to talk to her and help her find her way.”
“In the phone message you mentioned both my sisters. What’s up with Charley?”
“Come. Much easier to show than to explain.”
We found Charley sitting on a bench near a fish pond. His appearance was strikingly different from Emily’s and even from the last time I had seen him. He had company.
Mike saw us as we approached and he rose to greet us. His gaze switched back and forth between Charley and me and he shook his head in mute disbelief. He looked like he was going to say something but changed his mind at the last moment and walked past us back towards the main building and the car.
Charley had made a few changes to his appearance. His hair was short and parted in a very boyish style. It didn’t go far towards the intended effect as he just looked cuter, and more than a little pixie-like. He was wearing the clothes I had brought the previous weekend and was sitting with his arms folded and his legs spread. There seemed to be a bulge between them. He waved a greeting as we came closer and it seemed that his breasts were significantly smaller.
“Binds her breasts, puts socks down the front of her jeans. Worried.”
“It’s okay doctor, I don’t think there’s any reason to be. Charley was always the most tomboyish of the three of us. I kind of suspected that she had gender identity problems.
“I know, given her other symptoms, that you would feel uncomfortable treating her – or perhaps we should say him – as a gender dysphoric, but I think in Charley’s case it would be helpful. I think allowing him to explore his male side would help him deal with the other issues he’s faced recently.”
The doctor gave me a long hard look.
“Ever thought of studying medicine Miss Raeburn? You could do a lot of good here.”
I laughed and blushed at the compliment.
“Thank-you doctor, but I’m sure having a sense for what’s right for my sisters is a long way from making a decent doctor or psychiatrist. I have things to keep me occupied at the moment so I think I’ll decline if you don’t mind.”
“Shame. Still, your choice. I’ll leave you and, er, Charley to talk.”
The visit with Charley was a lot shorter than the one with Emily and only confirmed my suspicions. He had a very masculine confidence about him, a swagger that bulled through his obviously feminine appearance. The set of his jaw, the deliberate low growl he put into his voice, there was no doubt who or what I was talking to.
We discussed the idea I’d mentioned to Doctor Marston and Charley nodded in agreement. Not so much a solution discovered together as Emily’s had been, but an idea suggested, considered and accepted. Charley was in charge here.
He was less than happy with being stuck in female form, but when I asked him how he’d deal if he had an arm or a leg amputated, he shrugged and admitted he’d find a way to adapt. No different here then, except that there was a lot more that modern medicine could do to help him regain what he’d lost. He agreed, reluctantly, that initially there should be no talk of hormones or surgery until the doctor was completely satisfied that this was more than just acting out, but he wanted to change his appearance to seem more male as soon as he could. He listed the things he wanted, men’s cut clothes mainly, and something simpler than bandages to squash his breasts into submission, and I told him I’d bring the things he wanted that weekend.
He shook my hand when we parted, but I wasn’t going to let him get away with that and gave him a hug and a pack on the cheek.
“Just because you want to be my brother doesn’t mean that you get out of a hug and a kiss from me. I’ll see you on Saturday, and call me if you think of anything else you need.”
I made my arrangements to visit again on Saturday and made my way out to the car where Mike was waiting quietly. It was getting towards early lunchtime as we headed back towards home, and Mike suggested we stop for a bite. One of the advantages of being in the trade I suppose; he knew quite a few fellow restaurateurs he respected, and at least one had a place that wasn’t too far off our way home.
The meal was good; anyone who can make chicken salad appetising earns my respect and appreciation. The company on the other hand was a little off. Mike had driven to the restaurant in silence and, apart from placing the order, hadn’t said more than two words since we sat down.
“Something bothering you?”
He looked up, surprised at the interruption to his private musings, and earned himself another gentle prod from me.
“I was wondering why the long, brooding silence.”
“I was thinking about Charley. She looks so much like you, but she’s… she’s… she’s such a guy. I mean I look at you and see the woman I love, I look at her and it’s like there’s a man trapped inside.”
I left a short pause; in case there was anything he wanted to add. There wasn’t.
“In his case there is. Mary mainly targeted arrogant, masculine men. The sort who tend to be selfish and look on women as conquests rather than people. Charley was like that, and mentally still is more than a little. Hopefully he’ll learn a little from this that women are people too, but deep down he is and always has been completely male.”
“You call her he…”
“I know, it’s kind of confusing. Most people who don’t know anything about transgender issues tend to use the pronoun that matches the physical appearance of the person they’re talking to. If you have gender identity confusion, or if you meet many people who do, you figure out that they identify more with the gender they feel themselves to be inside. However much Charley may physically and genetically be female, it’s like you said, on the inside he is all guy.”
“And it’s the same the other way round? When a guy dresses as a girl, it’s because on the inside he, I mean she, feels like a girl?”
“Usually yes. There are people who cross dress because they’re aroused by the sensual feel of the clothes and the rush they get out of pretending to be something they’re not, and there it’s probably safe to say that you are dealing with a bloke in a dress. For most though, I think it comes down to having a need to express the stronger feminine side of their personality which they can’t do as a man. The clothes help to bring that femininity to the surface, help them to take on what is sort of traditionally a passive, decorative role.”
“It has nothing to do with being gay?”
“I think some gay couples do dress up on occasions with one of them in drag so they can appear straight, but for them underneath the clothes they both know they are the same gender and attracted to each other. To my knowledge and as far as my experience and imagination will take it, a physically male TG will feel like a girl when dressed as a girl and will consider any attraction to men to be heterosexual on their part.”
“I never realised.”
“No, I got that from what you said on Sunday.”
“You must think I’m a narrow minded shit.”
I reached out and put one of my hands on his.
“Uneducated perhaps, not narrow minded.”
“You didn’t say anything.”
“You were being honest. It didn’t seem the right time to criticise. There was going to be a chance to show you a different perspective and I knew you’d get it when you saw it.”
“Like today you mean?”
“Mike I see deeper than the surface with you, I guess that’s why I’ve had a tendency to share stuff with you that’s knocked you off balance. You are, in your heart, a really decent guy. You don’t judge people for being different, and you’re open to new ideas. I may have fallen for your smile in the first place, but what I’m growing to love more about you each day is the way you handle things that upset your view of the world. It takes you time sometimes, but you’re worth the patience.”
He offered me a weak smile; still enough of it there to pour molten silk into my veins.
“When was the last time I told you I loved you?”
“Not so long ago that I’ve forgotten, not so recently that I would object to your doing it again.”
For that I was rewarded with a laugh. He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it.
“Well my dearest, sweetest Liz, I do truly and utterly love you. And I sincerely doubt I deserve you.”
“I think you’ll be alright, as long as you never let me find out.”
Insert one of those gooey moments of doe eyed silence that are guaranteed to send any boy aged twelve or under running from the room making gagging noises.
“So what’s going to happen with them? Your, er, sisters I mean.”
“Well, for one thing let’s not er about it anymore. Regardless of how they or I came to be, they are my sisters, not my er-sisters.
“For the rest, I fully expect Charley to have HRT and surgery to return him to being as much of a guy as can be managed. It’s really early days yet, but I don’t think he’d accept any other course. By the time we get married I expect he’ll be in the middle of his RLT.”
“Real life test. Anyone who’s going to transition has to live as a member of the opposite gender for a year before they can have surgery.”
“How do you know so much about this?”
“Just because I wasn’t considering it doesn’t mean I didn’t read about it.”
“Oh. Okay. What about Emily?”
“I’m not sure. It’s very early days there, but I suspect she may just turn out to be something of a tomboy. Maybe a lesbian. I don’t think she’ll need the extent of change that Charley does, but in the end the decision is going to be hers. I’m going to open her eyes to a few possibilities and then let her choose.”
“You give her a female pronoun.”
“Yes, because I think there’s enough girl in there to make a go of things as a girl. If she can, she’ll have an easier time of things than Charley, which I think she’ll need; she’s nowhere near as tough.”
“Are you going to invite her to be one of your bridesmaids?”
“I’ll probably keep a dress to one side just in case, but we’ll have to see won’t we?”
Mike paid for lunch and we stepped out into the bright, clear daylight and from there into the comfort of his car. The rest of the trip home passed in silence too, but now Mike wasn’t brooding it was a peaceful, relaxing silence.
We made good time and arrived back at my flat by two thirty. Time enough for me to change before going to the bruise therapist. Mike decided he had left his subordinates in charge for long enough and hurried off to see what minor disasters he could discover to convince him of his indispensability. He was an exasperating nut in some ways, but he was my exasperating nut.
I’d had enough of trousers; they reminded me too much of my two doppelgängers and the troubles they carried with them. I was desperate for something girly so, careless of the bruises still adorning my chest, I picked out the frilliest underwear I had and changed into it. Yes there were wires trying to lift and separate my breasts and yes they did twinge a little, but I wanted to celebrate the beauty I had been given even if Emily and Charley didn’t.
I danced over to the wardrobe and shuffled through all the dresses hanging there, settling eventually on the short, midnight blue dress Sharon had bought me in the early days of my change. With all the Elle-gance stuff I had acquired recently it had been neglected a little, and as I slid it into place, I enjoyed an echo of the thrill I had felt the first time I had put it on.
A pair of silvery white tights with a hint of a sparkle in them showed my legs off to good effect, and the patent leather pumps and bag I had finally bought to match the deep blue of the dress finished everything off. I allowed myself five minutes in front of the mirror to hide the visible blemishes – no point going to town on pigments and powders as my therapist would want to see what was underneath in any case – then transferred my necessaries into the dark navy blue handbag and slipped out the door.
Fifteen minutes later I parked in the therapist’s car park and sauntered through the door with ten minutes to spare. As with most private clinics, the appointments happened at the given time, so ten minutes later I was sitting in a consulting room, cleaning off my hastily applied war paint with the pack of wet wipes that constituted part of my necessaries.
The very smart and professional looking therapist made appropriate humming and hawing noises as she examined my injuries. Personally I thought there was a large degree of quackery about what she was doing, but since Karen had put me up to this I had decided to see it through with an open mind.
“Yes, healing up nicely. Another massage isn’t going to help at this stage, but it seems you’ve been using the Arnica cream I gave you and taking those vitamins yes? Good. I think we’ll give you a little time under a sage tea compress today, maybe send you away with one or two more. Since you’re going to ask, I would say that the visible bruising should have largely subsided by the end of the weekend and certainly won’t be visible under makeup. You should be fit to work next week”
That would please Karen, though it did seem she was stating the obvious. Still the bruises had healed quicker than expected so maybe there was something to all this. I still had my doubts but I wasn’t about to say anything. Maybe later a quiet word in Karen’s ear. Still the compresses were soothing; warm and relaxing with a pleasant aroma. Whatever they did to my skin, I wasn’t about to object to what they did to my mood.
With the session over, I thanked my ‘healer’ and hastened off to the ladies to hide my bruises, then from there out to my little yellow car. It was still reasonably early in the afternoon and, with little else to do, I decided to pop in on the shelter to see how Aaron and the others were doing.
“Hi Aaron, how are things?”
The transformed office building looked no less wonderful than the day I’d seen it opened, and if anything, considerably more so. What had originally been a large, open reception area through the main entrance had been converted into a cheerfully painted lounge with comfortable chairs and low tables. The reception was manned by volunteers who dispensed hot drinks and information to anyone who came in. In the original plan there were to have been two receptionists, but now with the space filled to capacity with people off the streets, the main counter was just about holding its own with five volunteers rushing around. To see this common area so filled with people, and to see their eyes showing the signs of hope I hadn’t seen when I met them on the streets, was a real lift.
Aaron turned at my voice and grinned wide enough to tickle his own ears.
“Hi Miss Raeburn, isn’t this great?”
“Aaron, how many times do I have to tell you? It’s Liz.”
“To quote from Pirates, ‘At least once more, Miss Raeburn, as always.’”
“Are you going to show me around? Introduce me to some people?”
Achieving the impossible, Aaron stretched his grin just a little wider before extricating himself from behind the counter.
We did the rounds of the tables. Names offered and as soon forgotten in the sheer numbers of people who greeted me. I asked after the accommodation, the food and the facilities and received the same polite and positive response from all of them. You wouldn’t have thought that just a few weeks ago these people were living rough in the gutters and alleys of the city, many of them stinking for having no access to washing facilities for either themselves or their clothes. They had been surly and rude, reacting with bitterness against a society that had rejected them. Here they were a long way from being out of the woods, but at least this promised to be an easy path for a while and heading in the right direction.
“How are the training sessions going?”
“Still a bit slow. We could do with more trainers coming in, but they’re well received. All the sessions are over-filled and as far as I can tell, everyone who’s taking part is working as hard as they can. We’ve had a few lazy sods come along for the free ride, but we spot them pretty quick when they don’t muck in with the cooking and cleaning. A few of them changed their attitude when we turfed the first lot out, but there are always going to be arseholes and you just deal with them.”
“How about the accommodation?”
“Filled to capacity. We’re sleeping about a hundred down here as well. We could do with more space already.”
“Maybe in a couple of weeks. I’m working on another building a couple of streets over. Start planning your decorating crews.
“Any damage here? You know I need to report back to the owners in a week or two about how well their building is being looked after?”
“There’s been a bit. Some graffiti, but we caught the sod who was doing that and chucked him out on his ear. Then earlier today we had a bunch of guys kicking in some doors on the seventh floor.”
“What was that about?”
“Seventh is where all the poofs and fairies hang out. Some of the guys here don’t like sharing the building with people like that.”
Some of my anger must have leaked out in my expression because he flinched.
“Seventh floor isn’t bad. They keep to themselves for the most part so most here don’t worry too much. We more or less told the sods that did the damage that if they didn’t like who they were sharing with, they were free to leave. A couple of them did and the rest have been less trouble since. We’ve already bought in the wood and repairing the doors is going to feature in next Monday’s woodwork class.”
“What about the people on the seventh floor?”
“They’re a bit scared, but they’re up there still. They don’t socialise much which is why most of this lot leave them alone.”
“Would you take me to see them please?”
“Are you sure miss, they’re a bit… you know?”
“Probably better than you think Aaron. I don’t take kindly to you referring to them with such vulgarity either. They’re as human as the rest of us and probably quite a bit more vulnerable and easily hurt by careless language. You guys have to deal with the rejection of ninety five percent of people in this city on a daily basis. What do you think it’s like for them having to deal with your rejection as well?”
There was a dangerous edge to my voice which even I could hear. It put Aaron on the defensive.
“Well, they don’t have to dress like they do.”
“Are you sure of that? Come on, take me to them. It’s about time you learnt a bit about what they’ve been through and why.”
The smile was gone, but he still led me up the stairs. The door from the stairwell opened towards us, which meant that the barricade of furniture behind it was more an inconvenience than an obstacle. There was just space enough for us to pick our way through, the intent being to limit rather than prevent access. Curious, apprehensive faces peered out of doorways at our arrival.
There were about three dozen of them, sharing rooms, seeking comfort in company and safety in numbers. Once they’d worked out that Aaron and I were no threat they came all the way out, herding us down the corridor
One of the rooms on this floor had been designed as a conference room and had been converted into a common room rather than a large bedroom. There was no large table anymore and, with the little furniture in the room being limited to beanbags and throw cushions, it was just about possible to fit the full complement into the room without anyone feeling too much like a sardine.
We were crowded towards the centre of the room and scrutinised like some new oddity in a museum. I took the opportunity to do a bit of staring of my own, because there was no question these were an odd bunch.
Generally speaking there are very few women among street people and in small groups of less than a hundred it is common to find none at all. This group was typical in this respect, consisting of thirty to forty people, all of them male; physically at least. Beyond that, they fell into two categories. The smaller was made up of the gay couples. Most of them typically dressed for street people, but many taking advantage of the boxes of clothing supplied by local charities to clean themselves up and add a little colour to their appearances. They stood in obvious pairs, keeping close, and either holding hands or touching in some other way. If the body language hadn’t been so explicit I wouldn’t have been able to tell them from other people in the building.
The other group made up about two thirds of the whole and were much more distinctive. Some of the charity shops that had provided us with clothes to distribute hadn’t registered our request for specifically male clothing, and a number had sent in as many boxes of women’s clothing as men’s. They didn’t go to waste. More than two dozen of the people in the room with us were dressed as women, and with varying degrees of success. They were all reasonably young, in their teens and early twenties for the most part, and they hung back, the shyness of youth compounding their justifiable paranoia.
In the end it was a thirty something year old from the gay group who disentangled himself from his partner and stepped forward as representative. He didn’t say anything, but looked at us accusingly, as though we personally were responsible for the earlier attack. Glancing around, I could see anger and fear etched into drawn and tired faces all around me, and for the first time I began to wonder about the wisdom of coming up here without some kind of plan, or at least arranging for backup.
“Erm, hi. I’m Liz and this is Aaron. Aaron was telling me about what happened earlier today and I wanted to come up here to hear your side of things and to see how we can make sure nothing like it happens again.”
I hoped I didn’t sound as nervous as I felt. The representative took a step closer, standing head and shoulders taller than me and giving me a close up look of his broad chest and two arms that were bigger around than my thighs. I let out a shuddering breath. I was tempted to reason with him, but some instinct told me to hold off, that this would be better if the initiative came from him; from them. I swallowed down my growing fear and slowly looked up into hazel eyes and finely chiselled features. Come on Liz, something to break the ice. Could that work? I took a chance and forced a quavering smile.
“You know it’s a damn shame you’re not straight.”