You Meant it for Evil – Chapters 7 – 12

Copyright © 2011 Maeryn Lamonte – All Rights Reserved.  

Chapter 7

The receptionist smiled at me expectantly, so with some effort I pulled myself together.

“Could you tell me where the loos are please?”

She gave me directions and I set off for some essential King Canuting. It was there I discovered how inconvenient some fashions can be as squirming out of a pencil skirt in a tight cubicle would probably have put even Houdini’s skills to the test.

Still ten minutes later and feeling a fair bit fresher and more human, I stood in front of the bathroom mirror and checked my appearance. A quick brush through the hair restored some semblance of order to a naturally chaotic style. Ten more minutes with powders and brushes didn’t seem to make a particularly noticeable difference to my face, but I had to show willing if I was going to learn what most women my age had already been doing for several years.

I checked my watch. Eleven o’clock; two and a half hours to kill. One last check all over to make sure I had my blouse tucked in, my skirt straight and no embarrassing trail of toilet paper clinging stealthily to some part of my anatomy, and I headed back out to the reception.

Further directions from the receptionist led me out of the office and down the street towards the deli. It wasn’t going to take me two hours to buy a sandwich though, so I looked around for some other way to pass my time. I tried wandering around some clothes stores, but I was too nervous about what Sharon’s boss had in mind to focus, so in the end I bought a paper and found a coffee shop where I sat and worked through the sudoku and crossword over a drink or two, checking my watch every ten minutes or so until after an hour I was too agitated to sit still any longer.

I headed back to the deli and, from its disappointing selection of wares, bought a couple of sandwiches and a couple of bottles of spring water. I had to ask for a carrier bag, and it took them several minutes searching before they unearthed an old one from somewhere. Not a shop I planned on visiting again, quite possibly as much to their satisfaction as mine.

I still had an hour to wait and I spent it walking around the neighbourhood. The skirt hobbled me somewhat meaning that I couldn’t get anywhere fast, so I tottered around at random, making it as far as my old place of work before turning back. I saw one or two familiar faces stepping in and out through the front door but I didn’t approach the office myself. I mean what would be the point?

I was five minutes early returning to the law firm and, predictably, five minutes later a car pulled up just as Mr Anderton-Buckley walked out through the entrance. I think the car may have been a Jaguar or a Daimler, I’m not sure. I do remember it was large, black and shiny, and had light beige leather seats. My host held the door for me then headed round the other side to climb in himself.

As the car pulled away, I rummaged in my hard earned carrier bag and pulled out the drinks and sandwiches.

“The choice is tuna and sweetcorn or chicken salad, I’m afraid they didn’t have a great selection.”

He accepted the tuna and a bottle of water with thanks.

“I thought we’d start off by going to the nightclub where you say you met this unusual girl. What was its name?”

I told him and gave the driver the address, more or less, then sat back as we eased our way through the inevitably slow city traffic. My companion tore open his sandwich and started to eat so, feeling somewhat self-conscious about dropping crumbs in the spotless interior, I joined him. He didn’t say anything during the journey, his expression set and unreadable, and I didn’t feel it was my place to try and make small talk, so we passed the time in an uncomfortable silence, broken only by my sigh of relief when we arrived.

Mr A-B helped me out of the car then leaned in to talk to the driver.

“I expect we’ll be done in about three quarters of an hour or so. I’ll call when we need you.”

With that he turned towards the rather solidly closed doors of the club and knocked.

On the third and increasingly louder and more persistent try the door opened a crack.

“We’re closed. Come back at seven thirty.”

“Please inform your manager that there is a solicitor from the Home Office standing on his doorstep who would rather not wait until seven thirty.”

The door closed again and Mr A-B gave me an apologetic smile.

“There are certain advantages in holding my position. I try not to abuse the privilege, but sometimes the temptation is just too great.”

Sure enough, less than a minute later, the door opened again to reveal a rather worried face that I recognised. He looked at my companion then past him to me and he turned an even whiter shade of pale.

“I’m sorry, what is this about?”

“I just have a few questions for you, I hope it’s not inconvenient. May we come in?”

I don’t think the entire club’s quota of bouncers could have withstood Mr Anderton-Buckley’s brash, confident manner. The manager opened the door and bade us enter. He led us through the main room, turned shabby in the full light of day, to his office. Once the door was closed and we were all seated around his desk he marshalled enough courage to speak again.

“Look if this is about last Friday, we were within our rights…”

“Yes, last Friday. Perhaps you could tell me in your own words exactly what did happen.”

And he did; no further hint or suggestion needed. I stayed silent throughout, but from the way he kept glancing over at me, it was evident that my presence worried him to some degree. He told of Mary, the redhead with the astonishing green eyes. He told of the previous Friday when he had been informed of a disturbance in the club and had come down from his office to find Mary sitting with me, crying her eyes out. He told us of his instructions from the owner, reluctantly carried out, to see us to the door.

“And did this green eyed girl and my client leave together?”

“Yes. The other girl was very upset and your er client was holding her by the shoulder as they walked away from the club.”

“Do you remember if the other girl visited your club before last Friday?”

“I don’t come out of my office except on the rare occasion when there is something that the bouncers cannot handle by themselves, so I’m afraid I cannot say for certain. I do remember some of the staff talking about her after the incident through. It seems she was here the previous Friday as well. Left early and alone, but with some sad no-hoper chasing after her.”

“Do you think these bouncers would recognise the man who chased after her the previous Friday?”

He shrugged.

“It’s unlikely. The club is dark and there are many people who come here. Also the staff who work here are generally more interested in the girls who come in. I could ask, but I don’t hold out much hope.”

“Thank-you, I’ll have a driver bring a photograph around later when your evening staff are in. You’ve been most helpful Mr…?”

Mr A-B stood and extended his hand.

“Richards, Derek Richards.”

Mr Richards was on his feet and shaking hands with evident relief on his face, having decided that this was not about him or his club. I followed the two men in standing and allowed myself to be herded to the front door.

As he opened the door for us to leave, Mr Richards reached inside his jacket and drew out a couple of tickets.

“Miss, I’m so sorry for the way you were treated the other night. These are complimentary gold passes for you and your friend. Free entry and drinks, please accept them with my compliments.”

I could barely stammer out a thank-you as he thrust the gaudy pieces of card into my hand. Mr Anderton-Buckley tried and failed to suppress a smile as he led me away.

“If you ever decide to use those I’d keep an eye out for Mr Richards there; I think he’s rather smitten.”

“I’m sorry?”

“Well you are an attractive young girl you know. I’d watch him though, honest enough I would say, but I’d wager he’s more interested in you as a conquest than a companion.”

The smile grew as he considered my shocked expression.

“I’m a student of human nature my dear. That’s most of the reason why we’re out here checking out your ridiculous story; you’re don’t strike me as the sort to make things up, unbelievable as your tale is.

“Now this green eyed girl of yours, you said she lived nearby?”

“Yes, this way. It’s about ten minutes’ walk.”

It was closer to fifteen with my tight skirt, and everything looked so different in the daylight that I nearly missed it even so. Mr A-B rang for the building supervisor and pulled his bullish solicitor act to secure us entrance.

Yes the green eyed girl lived there, no the supervisor hadn’t seen her since Friday, but then that wasn’t unusual as he rarely saw the tenants unless there was a problem with an apartment, no we couldn’t go into the room unless we had a warrant. He didn’t reckon on Mr Anderton-Buckley’s astonishing powers of persuasion though. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to seed just enough doubt into the supervisors head that he agreed to take us up for a quick peek.

The look on his face when he opened the door was priceless. The apartment was bare except for scorch marks on the carpet where I remember Mary’s tormentor disappearing; of Mary’s furniture there was no trace.

“There is no way anyone could have shifted this lot without my knowing.”

Mr A-B clapped him on the shoulder.

“Never mind old chap, you have her deposit and her outstanding rent to make repairs and a flat like this will go in no time.”

We left the man still gawping at the empty rooms and headed back down the stairs. A quick phone call on the way down had the car pulling up outside as we exited the building.

“Two for two my dear. Now I wonder if you’d mind if we had a look at your, that is to say Ken’s, apartment.”

I gave the driver the address in Docklands and we eased back into the slow London traffic.

Getting past the supervisor at my old place was just as straightforward. A preliminary investigation into the suspected disappearance of Mr Stanton to decide whether or not to involve the police. No, no warrant, but your co-operation would be greatly appreciated, thank-you. Like I said, Clive Anderton-Buckley was a force of nature and not readily withstood by mere mortals. The supervisor led us up several flights of stairs, part of the reason why I as Ken had managed to keep relatively fit, and sorted through a large bunch of keys as we approached a familiar door.

“Tim’s not the tidiest of people so I’m afraid you’ll have to take the place as you find it.”

I tried to keep my voice low so that the supervisor couldn’t hear, but he gave me an odd look as he finally found the correct key and let us in.

Tim, it seemed, had taken full advantage of my absence over the last week and a half. Washing up was piled high in and around the sink and the living room was strewn with discarded clothes. I led the way through the mess to my old room and eased the door open. The familiarity of the place was oddly disorienting, as though I were remembering someone else’s life.

The room was as I had left it. Almost. The bed was not as neat and one drawer and a cupboard door were very slightly open.

“It looks like someone’s been in here.”

Mr Anderton-Buckley stepped past me and looked around.

“Okay, what can you tell me.”

I started to describe the room – what I kept in which drawer and cupboard – all the while opening each one to show him. Someone had rummaged through all my clothes, but since I had little of value and none of it left here, there was nothing missing.

“Your laptop?”

Mr A-B indicated a rather decrepit machine sitting on a desk.

“Yes, it takes an age to boot up so if you want to see what’s on there, you’d better turn it on now. The battery’s kaput too so make sure it’s plugged into the mains. Password’s butterfly with a three instead of an e when you get that far.”

He turned the machine on and turned back to the room while the valves warmed up.

“Anything else worth mentioning?”

There was something I was reluctant to admit to, but now of all times was a time for full disclosure.

“On top of the wardrobe over there. There’s a suitcase.”

He reached up and lifted it down with far less effort than I had ever managed. I dialled the combination into the padlock and stood back for him to inspect the contents.

“My guilty secret.”

He opened the case and looked in on my stash. Silk and satin, chiffon and lace. Two pairs of heels, now several sizes too large for me. It was a respectable collection, courtesy of eBay and several charity shops far enough away from here that the likelihood of my returning was remote. Mr Anderton-Buckley raised an eyebrow in my direction and I felt my face burn itself a particularly vivid shade of lobster.

“For as long as I can remember I’ve wanted to be a girl. Most of my life I’ve tried to tow the party line and be one of the lads, but there have been times when it’s all been too much and I’ve needed to let her out. I fitted a bolt to the door so that I wouldn’t be disturbed while I dressed. It was always a very private thing, something that I was ashamed of. Sharon doesn’t know anything about it and I’d appreciate it if things could stay that way.”

He held up a dress which was evidently several sizes too big for me but would have been ideal for Ken, then folded it back into the case, closed it and relocked the padlock. The computer had creaked its way to full consciousness and was awaiting instructions.

“What did you say the password was?”

“B-U-T-T-3-R-F-L-Y. Old hacker trick to disguise words from simple text recognition; makes the password slightly more secure without making the password any harder to remember.”

“Interesting choice; symbol of transition.”

He typed it in and waited as the desktop came into existence one icon at a time. He opened the web browser and started hunting through the bookmarks.

“You could log onto your bank and transfer your funds to another account.”

It was a strange offer coming from him. Was he testing me? It didn’t matter anyway. I pulled open a drawer and dropped what looked like a calculator onto the desk.

“It’s a card reader. To log onto my bank account I need to stick my debit card in the top, type in the PIN and then type the code that gives me into the website. Mary took my wallet which had my debit card in so I’ve no way past the security. It doesn’t matter much anyway. I’m down to my last couple of hundred quid until pay day which isn’t due till next week.”

“Anything else on here that might help me believe your story?”

So for the next ten minutes I gave him the penny ha’penny tour of the contents of my aged digital companion. There wasn’t much to show since I’ve usually had enough of computers by the time I’ve finished a day’s work and the geriatric slowness of this particular fossil didn’t encourage me to develop much of an interest at home. Pretty much all it contained was financial records, a few personal letters and a directory full of photographs. Not even any music. Mr A-B pulled a memory stick out of his pocket and copied one or two photos of Ken onto it, presumably for use with the club later.

He nodded his head thoughtfully then shut the machine down. He offered me an apologetic shrug then lifted the suitcase back onto the wardrobe before ushering me to the door.

We walked down to the main entrance in silence. There he thanked the supervisor profusely and led me out to the car-park and the waiting car

“One last call to make.”

He gave the driver the address of my former employer and we sat back to watch the traffic. I checked my watch and was shocked to find that it was already nearly three o’clock. I looked at my fellow passenger with pang of guilt.

“You’re giving me an awful lot of your time…”

“The price of thoroughness my dear. I find that generally it is worthwhile.”

It took twenty minutes to cross the city again during which time he offered no conversation and I felt anything I might say would be pointless and an invasion of his privacy. His deeply thoughtful expression was playing havoc with my nerves and I longed for some indication of what was going through his mind.

We stopped outside my old office and he thanked our driver, telling him to take the car back and that we would walk from here. He strode purposefully towards the front entrance with me dancing a nervous two step to keep up. He held the door for me – a gesture that I greatly appreciated – then guided me gently to the main reception.

“Could you tell Mr Patterson that Clive Anderton-Buckley is making one of his unannounced visits please?”

The receptionist put the call through and in less than a minute the familiar bulk of my former boss stepped into the reception area, arms held wide in welcome and a delighted smile on his face.

“Clive! To what do we owe this unexpected pleasure?”

“Richard, so good to see you.”

For a moment it seemed that the two were going to embrace, but at the last second British decorum overruled and they brought their hands together in a firm double-handed handshake instead.

“Sorry to drop in on you out of the blue like this old chap but I have a favour to ask. Could we step into your office for a few moments and I’ll explain?”

Mr Patterson led us through to his office and buzzed through for a pot of tea. His dislike of coffee was legendary; so intense that he wouldn’t offer it to his guests. He even refused to allow it to be brewed or consumed in the public areas of the office. Anyone who was so set on drinking coffee was relegated to a poky storeroom at the back of the building at break times along with the smokers.

The two men exchanged pleasantries, asking after one another’s families until the tea arrived at which point Mr Patterson reached for the pot.

“Shall I be mother? How do you take it my dear?”

He was looking at me as he said this. I remembered this test.

I sniffed gently. Assam tea has a distinct perfume and I knew Mr Patterson held the firm opinion that it should be drunk with lemon and not milk. As Ken I had never much cared for citrus in my tea, but aware of the change in my palette since my transformation I thought it worthwhile experimenting.

“Could I try it with a squeeze of lemon please?”

From the looks, one of surprise and delight, the other more measured and appraising, I felt I had scored a point. Mr Patterson offered me a cup, the dark liquid already turning pale from the effects of the lemon, and turned to his friend.

“I see you are travelling in more discerning company these days. I don’t suppose she has persuaded you to abandon your Philistine ways? No? Oh well milk it is then and another perfectly decent cup of tea ruined. Now my dear fellow, it’s about time you told me what this is about.”

I sipped at my drink, which was surprisingly flavoursome if a little bitter. I added a half teaspoon of sugar and tried again. Much better. Mr Anderton-Buckley meanwhile was marshalling his thoughts before directing them into the fray.

“It’s in regard to an employee of yours; a Mr Kenneth Stanton.”

“Oh yes Ken, we’re quite worried about him. It seems that no-one has seen him in over a week. I was considering approaching the police on the matter.”

“Well it turns out that one of my employees is a friend of Ken’s and has prevailed upon me to investigate the matter as a precursor to doing just that. She has proven to be a level headed young woman in the past so I’m inclined to take her seriously. She introduced me to this young lady who has made some quite remarkable claims, which I would appreciate your humouring me in testing.

“Now, notwithstanding her awareness of your peculiar aberration in the way you take your tea, can I ask whether or not you know my companion, if she has ever worked in this building. If in fact she has ever been in this building to your knowledge?”

Mr Patterson perched a pair of half-moon spectacles on his nose and subjected me to a close scrutiny.

“I shall say quite categorically that I have never seen this young lady before today.”

Mr A-B turned to me.

“And what can you tell me about my friend Mr Richard Patterson?”

“Apart from his penchant for Assam tea with lemon? It’s really very nice by the way, you should at least try it once.”

I thought hard and decided on a couple of idiosyncrasies that I remembered about the old man and which I was pretty sure he hadn’t demonstrated since we’d arrived. I shared them with both men looking at me as though I were some circus animal doing a particularly clever trick.

“Extraordinary! How could you possibly know that about me?”

“The how will have to wait a while old friend, but I wonder if you would be good enough to lend me a few of your staff. Anyone who worked with Ken or who was friends with him, if we could speak with each one individually, only for a couple of minutes each.”

So for the next half hour I continued my performing monkey act as, one after another, my former friends and colleagues were brought before me, asked whether or not they recognised me, then asked to confirm whatever small details of their lives I was able to tell them. In most cases verbal confirmation was unnecessary as the expressions on their faces spoke more loudly and truthfully than any voice.

“Well I must say! I hope you’re going to explain all this now Clive.”

Clive glanced at me and I shook my head very slightly. He got the message.

“I’m sorry Richard, there’s a degree of attorney-client privilege involved here. What I will say is that you can stop worrying about Ken. I’m afraid he won’t be returning to you., but I can tell you that he is alive and well. He regrets leaving you so abruptly and without notice, but circumstances have left him with little choice in the matter.

“Your help has been invaluable this afternoon, and I greatly appreciate it. If ever there’s a time I can tell you more I will, but for now we have to be getting back to the office. I suddenly have an awful lot of paperwork to do.”

The two men stood and shook hands. I did likewise and allowed myself to be guided towards the door leaving a highly bemused accountant bobbing in our wake.

Mr Anderton-Buckley walked slowly, I like to think out of deference to me and my tight skirt and highish heels, but it could just as easily have been because he was so deeply lost in thought. The silence was palpable, the uncertainty an almost tangible agony. I endured it for five minutes before the cracks emerged.

“Mr Anderton-Buckley?”

“Clive please, that surname is so cumbersome.”

“Clive then. Dare I offer a penny for your thoughts?”

He looked up at me for a long surprised moment then twisted his mouth into a rueful half smile, snorting out a sort of brief half laugh.

“You know I have a daughter of about your age? At least your apparent age. If I needed any proof at all I should have found it in the way you speak. The last time I heard her talking with her friends I found myself wishing for subtitles.

“You’ll excuse me but I don’t think I can call you Ken; there never was a name less appropriate to the person, whatever its etymology. Which I must hasten to add does not mean I disbelieve your story; this afternoon’s little expedition into the unknown has quite thoroughly washed away the mountain of doubt your rather amazing story deposited in my mind this morning; but looking at you now I cannot see you as anything other than a young girl and Ken is hardly an appropriate name. You don’t by any chance have an alternative?”

“I’ve been thinking about it off and on between crises over the last few days. The old man I met in the park suggested a name to me which has been growing on me since. Elizabeth. It means…”

“Beloved of God. An interesting choice and, given who suggested it, wholly appropriate. Yes I can see you as an Elizabeth. And for a surname, because you will need one of those as well, may I suggest Raeburn? Less for its meaning than for what else it sounds like.”

“And middle name Mary. I’d like to remember the person who made this possible. Do I take it then that you will help me?”

He shook his head, but slowly; disbelief rather than disagreement.

“God help me, yes I will. It’s going to take some creative paperwork, but you will have your new identity. Birth certificate, passport, Nation Insurance number, all those sorts of thing. I’m going to have to come up with an explanation for Ken’s disappearance as well and that won’t be so easy. We don’t have such a thing as a witness relocation program in this country, but there is provision within the law for individuals to be given new identities in circumstances where their lives may be at risk otherwise. I think it best if I concoct a story that puts Ken in that position. That way I’ll be able to tell your family that you’re safe and well but cannot contact them. I should also be able to use it as a context to create your new identity and, since it will be essential to separate the two sets of paperwork so no-one can link you to your old life, it won’t be evident that your gender and age have changed.”

I felt a weight lift from my shoulders. I hadn’t been aware of it until that moment, so insidiously had it eased into place, so slowly had it grown, but now that it was gone I felt a new lightness suffuse me, as though I might float away on a giddy cloud of sudden and unexpected joy. There must have been something of it visible on my face because Clive smiled.

“And that just about makes it worth the effort. It also provides me with the last proof if I actually needed it to believe you because I don’t think anyone could fake what I’ve just seen in your face.”

We arrived back at the law firm and, as before, he held the door for me to step inside. Back in his office he asked his PA to call for Sharon and to bring us a fresh pot of tea. They both arrived at the same time, while we were going through a few of the details he needed to create my new fiction. From information I’d provided he had most of my life and accomplishments as Ken on his computer screen and was making notes and talking through them as he did so.

“Full driver’s license, alright we’ll give you one of those. GCSEs and A levels, I think we’ll mark you up a grade in most of them to take account of the dumbing down of the curriculum. I’m afraid there’s not much I can do about the degree; there’s no way anyone would believe you were twenty-one from your appearance, and there’s no reason to wish away three years of your life in any case. If you want those letters after your name, you’re going to have to go through it all again. Ah hello Sharon, I’d like you to meet a friend of yours: Elizabeth Raeburn.”

He broke off his ramble as realisation dawned in Sharon’s eyes and she let out an excited squeal and ran over to give me an exuberant hug; all bounce and lack of restraint. The child in me had receded in the previous week’s hardships and all I could do to join in was hug her back and wait for her to calm down. Eventually she regained something of her normal composure and turned to her boss.

“Thank-you sir. I knew you would recognise the truth when you heard it, even as unbelievable as this story is. Didn’t I tell you Liz? Liz, Lizzy, Beth, I like that name, it suits you so well. Now I don’t have to keep calling you sweetie or Ken. Oh Liz I’m so pleased.”

It was like someone had dropped a machine gun with the safety off; all you could do was duck for cover and wait for the rapid fire to empty the magazine. When it finally did, Clive was the first to recover.

“Come and join us for a cup of tea and a chat. I still have one or two minor details that I need from Liz, then I think you two had better head off and leave me to it.”

“Sir it’s only four o’clock.”

“I know, but with the amount of time I’ve taken off from doing what I should today I can hardly lecture you on leaving early, besides I doubt you’ll be able to concentrate now. You’ll be nothing but a distraction to the rest of the office. I’ll let you make it up to me tomorrow if you like.”

So we sat and chatted through the day. Clive and Sharon compared notes on what it was that had convinced each of them to believe my story, and I gave the last few details Clive needed to get on with what he was going to do for me. Something occurred to me as we were leaving and I turned back to my benefactor.

“I er, I have a job interview on Thursday. I don’t suppose there’s any chance I’ll have an NI number by then?”

He laughed.

“You don’t ask much do you? I’ll see what I can do. I should be able to manage it by Friday if I can’t get it to you before the interview.”

He waved us off and we headed into town, arm in arm, Sharon exploring a range of different things we could do to celebrate. I hardly heard a word, being too busy running over my new name in my mind, trying all the different variations. Yet another step closer to becoming me and it felt sooooo good.

We spent the rest of the afternoon doing Sharon’s favourite thing in the world, which was also rapidly climbing the ratings on my list too. This part of London had a lot of different shops and we made a valiant effort to spend time in as many as we could before the blinds went down.

for_evil7Sharon bought herself a few little things and wanted to treat me too as a celebration of the day’s success. I was adamant that she was not going to spend another penny on me until we came across the cutest dress ever. It was short, but not too much so, with a loose bodice and flared double layered skirt, and it was in a gorgeous shimmering midnight blue that didn’t quite go with my shoes and handbag, but would pass until I could find something better. The meagre remains of my funds wouldn’t cover the price tag and in the end my resolve crumbled and I allowed her to buy it for me, agreeing all too readily to her stipulation that I wear it out of the shop. I’d had enough of the tight skirt I was wearing and sighed in relief at the freedom of movement my new clothes afforded me.

Sometime in the afternoon – I think maybe when I was in a changing room falling in love with a certain dress – Sharon had texted Phil with the news of my new identity and he agreed to meet us at a nearby watering hole for a celebratory drink. We bundled into the pub festooned with the ever-present carrier bags full of swag to find him sitting at a table with drinks already bought. He stood up to greet us, first kissing Sharon, then turning rather awkwardly towards me.

“Wow, you look…”

Words failed and so did actions as he stood there trying to decide what to do. I’m not sure if he was concerned about Sharon’s reaction, hung up on who I had once been or conscious that maybe I might still be uncomfortable with my new status. Whatever the reason he seemed lost so I put him out of his misery by leaning forward to give him a peck on the cheek.

“Thanks I think.”

Sharon dived in to stop general weirdness from taking hold.

“I was just saying to Liz that she should wear that to her interview on Thursday, don’t you think?”

I gave a little twirl and looked down at myself.

“I’m not sure, don’t you think it’s a bit informal? I mean job interview usually means smart for girls as much as for guys.”

“Listen girlfriend, this is a fashion catalogue and you are being invited to audition as a model. One, glamour is going to do you more favours than smart, and two, just how long do you think you are going to be wearing your own clothes after you get there anyway?”

“I’m still not sure, I mean what shoes would I wear with it?”

Phil had been watching from the side lines, his head going back and forth like he was watching his own private tennis match. He suddenly couldn’t take it anymore.

“I give up. I keep expecting to find something of my old friend in there, but I have never witnessed such a girly conversation in my life.”

Sharon and I collapsed in a fit of giggles and had to be helped to the table where our drinks were still waiting for us. We took pity on Phil after that and allowed him to steer the conversation towards a topic where he had half a chance of contributing. We only had the one drink with Phil being good and sticking to something fruity and harmless because, as he announced to us a short while later, he had brought his car. Sharon and I both groaned out our appreciation and soon enough we were settling into the soft leather seats and slipping grateful feet out of quite beautiful but otherwise ill-conceived shoes. Sharon sat up front to keep Phil company and I drifted away on a cloud of good feelings, still rolling my new name around inside my head.

The next day was a jeans and sweatshirt day. My monthly visitor was showing signs of packing up and going away which helped to lift my mood even higher as I threw myself into the housework. As Ken I’d always been aware of the cleanliness of my surroundings and had been prepared to make an effort to keep them looking good. My new incarnation seemed to have climbed to a new level in that regard and the attention to detail that came into my hoovering, cleaning and polishing put my earlier efforts to shame. By the time I was done, the kitchen and bathroom shone, everything that was made of wood, glass or plastic was dust free and glowing and the carpet was so empty of dirt and stains it might have been fresh off the roll. All that and done by lunchtime.

Soup and a roll with a cup of tea later I was on my feet once more, gathering up all the dirty clothes, separating them into different batches and using the washing machine as it had been intended. Yet again as Ken I had been content with a one setting washes all attitude, but with all manner of delicate fabrics and a keener sense of care towards my clothing and appearance I set about learning new skills with a will. Ironing was the same, slow at first as I spent time reading the labels and working every which way to avoid creases and make a neat job, but with growing confidence and speed as the afternoon wore on. If truth be told there wasn’t an excessive amount to do, but I did it with passion and dedication and was just hanging the last of the clothes in various bulging wardrobes when I heard a key in the lock.

“Wow!”

The word was drawn out as though taking in the wonders of Aladdin’s treasure cave for the first time. She stuck her head into the bedroom as I closed the wardrobe on last few things I’d put away.

“And the washing and ironing too. You know if my key hadn’t fit in the lock I’d have sworn I was in the wrong flat. I’d also ask if you’ve had a good day but the evidence speaks for itself.”

I smiled.

“You know I actually enjoyed doing the work, but it’s all the better for your appreciation. I thought you were going to work late today to make up for yesterday.”

“I was but Clive came and found me at five o’clock and literally shooed me out of the building.”

“You know, when I first met him at church I thought he was a bit of a stuffed shirt; all standoffish and officious. I really wondered why you introduced us, but after yesterday I can see why you enjoy working for him so much.”

“Oh he’s always like that. I think he finds it difficult to meet new people so he keeps everyone at arm’s length until he gets to know them. Once you get there though, you have a friend for life.”

Sharon was following her usual routine for the end of a working day and pouring out a couple of glasses of wine. She handed me one and we sat down on the sofa to talk through what we’d done. I’d never been a big conversationalist before, but this was different. What we talked about didn’t seem to matter so much as that we actually talked. Sharing things, even inconsequential things, was a way of climbing into each other’s lives, of making contact, of growing closer and I found that to be precious indeed.

As usual Sharon did her gourmet thing in the kitchen and I made the appropriate rapturous noises with each forkful. As usual we sat over empty plates and finished the last of the wine while the coffee machine experimented with a few new noises in the background.

“You know I’ve just realised something? I am going to have to sabotage your relationship with Phil sooner or later. Otherwise if you two ever do get married, I am going to have to go back to bland food and I don’t think I can do that.”

Sharon laughed and sipped at her wine.

“Well as I see it we have two options. Either we find you a man who can cook, and believe me when you find a man who can cook you won’t think so highly of my efforts…”

“Hmm, is this man going to be rich, good looking and hung like a horse?”

The wine was speaking for me, but I didn’t care. Sharon’s spluttering and wholly unladylike response was worth the shame.

“Oh I very much doubt it. If such a man existed he probably wouldn’t survive the stampede.”

“What’s the ‘or’ then?”

“Or we teach you too cook.”

The idea hung in the air for a while as we both considered it. There didn’t seem to be a downside and to be honest, the prospect of being able to prepare a meal that could do to someone what Sharon’s cooking had so often done to me in recent days appealed.

“Okay, you’re on. That is if you’re sure you can stand to have a rank amateur faffing about in your kitchen.”

She looked around her at the surfaces, still sparkling from my earlier efforts.

“Anyone who looks after my kitchen like this, amateur or not, has my respect. Okay then lesson one. The secret of a good meal is proper ingredients, so tomorrow after I have finished work and you have done with your interview-stroke-audition, you and I are going shopping.”

I gave her a coy look and batted my eyelids at her.

“You sure know how to show a girl a good time don’t you?”

“Not that kind of shopping silly. No, meet me at Jan’s Diner at about half past five tomorrow. There are some decent shops down there, you know grocers, butchers and the like. Jan shops locally for the diner which is enough of an endorsement for me, and quite honestly I’ve never been disappointed with what I’ve bought there. Half the battle is finding decent shops, the other half is recognising the good stuff when you’re there, and that we’ll cover tomorrow.”

The wine bottle was empty and the coffee machine had uttered its final kaploch. We spent five minutes quickly washing up the dinner things then retired to the living room, each with a coffee in hand.

“So, have you decided what you’re going to wear tomorrow?”

“Yeah, I’ve been thinking. I like the idea of wearing my new dress, but I’m still not sure about what to wear with it.”

Sharon put her finger up, effectively putting me on pause, then hurried through to the bedroom. When she came back she was carrying my dress over one arm and a pair of deep burgundy shoes with matching bag in the other hand.

“What do you think?”

The colours complemented each other perfectly. I nodded my appreciation and slipped off my socks to try the shoes for size. Oh yes this was going to work.

We chatted on for a while, looking at where I needed to go and planning how I would get there. Since the timing more or less worked, we decided that I would accompany Sharon into the city centre then make my own way from there; a few stops on the tube then a short bus journey should get me within a ten minute walk of my destination by quarter past nine. That would mean I’d arrive half an hour early which would give me time to freshen up and relax before I had to do anything.

Pre interview nerves chose that moment to rear their ugly heads so Sharon picked out a feel-good movie from her DVD collection and we snuggled up to watch it. Suitably calmed, we then turned in for an early night.

I didn’t need an alarm the next day. I woke early with the room still dark and the worst case of jitters I can remember. I eased myself quietly out of bed and tiptoed out to the bathroom. By the time I had finished a leisurely shower and thorough hair wash, Sharon’s clock was blaring its nerve grating alarm. With the need to be quiet past, I put the coffee maker on then opened the bedroom curtains and sat down with the hair drier. Sharon stomped out to the bathroom and her own morning ablutions, returning a few minutes later with two cups of Joe and a huge yawn which lasted all the way across the room. She was dressed and making breakfast before my hair was dry enough to leave. I dressed and joined her feeling uneasy about my choice of wardrobe.

“You know this outfit isn’t doing anything for my confidence. I can’t help feeling that everyone in the world is going to spend the entire day looking at my legs.”

“And why shouldn’t they? You have a spectacular pair of pins my dear Lizzy. Go back into the bedroom, look at yourself in the mirror and tell yourself, ‘Damn I look good.’ Repeat it until you believe it. Go on, go and do it now. The eggs still have a couple of minutes to cook so you’ve nothing else to do. Go on shoo.”

I gave into her pestering but made up my own mantra. Surprisingly it worked and by the time she called me back to the kitchen I was walking taller and straighter and feeling oh so much better.

“There you go. You are going to knock them dead today Liz, and I am looking forward to hearing your fantastic news later today. Now come on eat up or we’ll miss the bus.”

Of course we didn’t; my nerve induced early morning insomnia had given us both a relaxed start to the day and still left us fifteen minutes to spare. We even had time to wash up the breakfast dishes before going out the door, rather than leaving them to soak as we usually did.

Sharon filled our journey with inane chatter which only vaguely distracted me. The bus was more than half full and I was acutely aware of almost every eye turning to look at me. Not in itself a good cure for the nerves.

After we stepped off the bus and walked the short distance to her workplace, she turned to me and looked me squarely in the eye. After a moment’s waiting I gave her my attention, which she returned with a smile.

“Elizabeth Mary Raeburn, you possess in your little finger more guts, calm and sense than pretty much anyone I know. You are, hand on heart, the most exquisitely beautiful woman I know and right now you are dressed fit to break the heart of every red blooded man you meet, I mean did you see how many people on the bus were checking you out? You are going to have a great day today. Believe in yourself girl, God knows you have reason enough to.”

Checking me out? I guess more than a handful of them had been drooling. Here was another adjustment I had to make. If that many people had been looking at me as Ken I’d have started to wonder if maybe I’d forgotten to do up my fly or perhaps even put my trousers on; attention for most guys was taken as a bad thing. As Liz, when people looked at me it was more likely to be because I had done something right. I took a deep breath, imagining myself drawing in all the confidence Sharon was sending my way. It seemed to work as I felt the butterflies in my stomach settle and a calm spread out through my body. I made an effort to stand straight again and let a smile playing around the edge of my lips.

“That’s my girl. Call me as soon as you hear the good news, because I know it’s going to be good news and I will want to hear it.”

We hugged and I turned towards the Underground and the first leg of my journey.

Everything went as planned and by nine-fifteen I was standing at the end of a long straight road that seemed to lead towards an old industrial complex. I checked the road name against the address on the card Karen had given me then shrugged and started walking. It seemed like an odd venue for a photo-shoot, but this was art and if there wasn’t something odd about it, it probably wouldn’t be.

The sun was shining intermittently between ragged clouds, occasionally painting the old buildings around me in brilliant hues and highlighting the cracked windows and graffitied walls. Most were empty with ‘to let’ signs skulking in dusty offices, declaring more clearly than the owners might like, just how long it had been since anyone set foot inside them. I mean don’t get me wrong, the buildings were, for the most part, ugly and functional, but it seemed a desperate waste that so many properties stood disused and discarded within walking distance, albeit a lengthy walk, of London’s living centre.

It had to be admitted that the neighbourhood was not one of the more salubrious, and I found myself fingering my handbag and thinking of the can of mace Sharon had put in there after she found out where I was going. I told myself that nine-fifteen was a bit early for druggies to be about and took comfort in the emptiness of the road. I did pick up my pace even so, and arrived at the address on the card after ten minutes rather than the fifteen a more leisurely stroll might have taken.

The place seemed deserted and long abandoned, and I wondered if I had the address wrong. I checked the card. Nope; right road, right building. Perhaps this was some kind of a joke? Behind me there was movement on the street and I glanced over my shoulder to see a few emaciated figures emerging from dark alleys. One or two of them seemed to be taking an interest in me and I seriously did not want to hang around outside any longer. I walked up to the front door and pressed the bell, then rapped on the glass door just in case it was in a similar state of disrepair as the rest of the building.

-oOo-

 Chapter 8

The door moved slightly and further investigation revealed it to be unlocked. I stepped gingerly inside and immediately heard the sound of someone talking in a loud, flamboyant manner echoing down the empty corridor. The more or less continuous click-whirr of an expensive camera acted as counterpoint to the chatter and, with growing confidence that maybe I was in the right place after all, I followed the noise to its source.

The voice led me to a large open plan office, empty of furniture but with some low tables linked together to form a raised stage and screens of elegantly flowing material forming a backdrop for the photographer who proved to be as animated in his movements as he was in his speech.

Curious eyes looked up at me from the stage as I appeared in the doorway, followed by more scattered around the room until only the photographer seemed unaware of my presence. He finally noticed that his subject was no longer responding to his words and followed the collective gaze of everyone else in the room until he found me. A suitably indignant expression formed at the sight of me.

“I was erm, looking for Karen. I’m afraid I’m a bit early.”

My apologetic laugh died in my throat as no-one else seemed inclined to join in.

“She stepped out to make a phone call or two, the reception here is lousy. Never mind, we’re already behind schedule, so if you don’t mind starting early.”

“Oh, I’m not sure if you understand, I’m only here to…”

“Look, I’m not interested in excuses, time is money. Are you going to get up on the stage or not?”

“Er, yeah… sure.”

“Well get changed and let’s get started then. Third screen over there.”

He pointed over to one side of the stage where a number of what looked a little like hospital screens stood next to row after row of portable racks on wheels with a riotous assembly of clothes, all wrapped in plastic.

Behind the indicated screen I found a chair and a mirror and a very efficient looking middle-aged woman. She gave me an appraising look as I entered then nodded her approval.

“No makeup, good. It never ceases to amaze me how many of you girls are too vain to come down to one of these things without putting a bit of slap on first.”

She stuck her head round the curtain and called to the photographer.

“Andrew! Autumn cloud to start with?”

He gave her an approving nod and before I knew it, I was being helped out of altogether too much of my clothing – yes underwear too, which was replaced with something so small and flimsy as to be almost non-existent – and then helped back into a dress made from layers of floating chiffon in all manner of Autumn colours; reds, browns, yellows, pale greens. Matching hosiery was added and a pair of bronze sandals, then I was pushed into the chair, a bib clipped into place and a very rapid and professional makeup job done on me. Last of all, my hair was teased into a subtly different style before the bib was pulled away.

“Right you’re done, go and earn your money.”

The dress felt wonderful; like wearing a cloud (hence the name perhaps?); and I was still reeling from the speed with which everything had been done. Carried by the twin sensations of wonder and delight, I danced up the steps and pirouetted onto the stage for my first performance in front of the camera, bubbling joy pushing a laugh out of my mouth as I did so. The camera was click-whirring away and photographer Andrew’s voice came not far behind.

“Okay, wonderful, but please no improvisations now. Okay, walk towards me, it is beautiful Spring day and you are filled with the joys of the season. Hold your arms out to your side. Good. Now look up at the sun and smile your beautiful smile. Perfection. Okay now dance a little, turn around slowly, no a little slower. Good, good, now let’s try something a little different…”

The voice droned on and I followed its lead. It seemed I was up there just a few seconds before he told me that was enough. Somewhat disappointed I climbed down the stairs thinking that somehow I had failed the audition, so it came as a surprise when my wardrobe assistant come bully grabbed me by the arm, undressed me and then eased me into another dress. The constant monologue continued from the other side of the screen for the second model as I was pushed back into the chair for a slight change to my makeup and hair style. The bib was whipped away just as Andrew dismissed my counterpart and I was chivvied back towards the steps for my second performance.

for_evil8This time the dress was more formal; a full length, sleeveless ball gown in shimmering emerald green. Feeling like a princess, I climbed the steps more regally and waited for instructions. They weren’t long in coming, and I allowed myself to be led by the incessant stream. Again the time on the stage seemed to last a moment before I was dismissed. As I descended back to my earthly hideaway for my next change, I felt the cold rush of adrenaline coursing through my veins and my heart raced so fast I thought it would burst.

I hardly had time to register what I was wearing; to enjoy the feel of the fabric, the look of the outfit. I fell into a rhythm – strip, dress, makeup, hair, steps, follow the voice, dismissed – over and over again it continued. At one point Karen put her head into the room and smiled as she recognised me up on the stage. She turned away almost immediately, punching numbers into her mobile phone as she walked back out the door.

I lost track of time but, unceasing as the routine was, I didn’t find myself running low on energy. At one point a bottle of some posh, overpriced bubbly water appeared on the dressing table, covered in a dew of condensation and chilled to perfection. I did my quick change routine and sat in the chair looking at it longingly while my personal tormentor dabbed away at my eyes and cheeks.

“Go on, that’s yours.”

I grabbed the bottle and gratefully chugged down a third of its contents while she teased my hair into some subtly new variation on the current theme, then the other girl was dismissed and I was on my feet and heading for the steps and the camera’s eye once more.

Eventually Andrew called out for everyone to take five and I stepped behind the screen to have my most recent outfit replaced with a warm, plush dressing gown. As the adrenaline subsided to be replaced by the first wave of fatigue and I wrapped eager lips around a second bottle of water, Karen’s voice drifted across from the other side of the screen.

“So Andrew, how did the audition go?”

“Karen! I’m sorry what?”

“The audition, the new girl. I saw her on the stage when I popped my head in about an hour ago. I presume she told you why she was here.”

“She said she was here to see you. I just assumed that you had hired her. You mean to say that she was only here for an audition?”

“Yes, where is she. I want to talk to her after you tell me how she got on.”

“Over there behind the third screen. But you mean to tell me that this was her first time?”

“Yes, what are you trying to say?”

“She has been working for me at full tilt for the last hour and a half. She and Lauren have worked through I think three racks between them.”

“What?”

Rapid footsteps approached and the screen was pulled aside. Karen’s face appeared over my shoulder in the mirror.

“My dear I’m so sorry, I only meant for you to spend ten or fifteen minutes out there. I’m afraid it hasn’t been a particularly good morning for me; someone let me down and I’ve been trying to find a replacement…”

“And I thought you were the replacement. If I had known this was your first time…”

They both seemed surprisingly contrite. I climbed shakily to my feet and smiled at them both.

“It’s alright really. It was great fun.”

Karen looked at me then over at Andrew, still not quite getting what was going on, mind you neither was I. Andrew took Karen’s arm and led her over to a different corner of the room where a number of computers were humming quietly to themselves.

“She is a natural, come see. I think she even has the cover photograph.”

Curiosity took the better of me and I followed behind them, padding softly in slippered feet. I peered over Karen’s shoulder – not easy since she is quite a bit taller than me – and there I was on the screen, twirling in that first dress, the layers of chiffon swirling elegantly around me and my face beaming out the sheer joy I had felt in that first moment.

Andrew scanned his way through the thumbnails, bringing up image after image of me in different clothes, different poses, all the while looking natural and genuine. Even uneducated as I was I could see they were great photos and, whilst the majority of the credit belonged quite rightly to Andrew as the master behind the apparatus, it was quite evident that a lot of what made them stand out was what I brought to the mix.

Karen turned to me with a thoughtful look on her face.

“Well my dear it seems we have a few things to discuss. Would you like to change back into your own clothes and we’ll go and find a quiet office.”

I did as I was bid, taking time to thank the woman who’d been helping me all morning. She gave me an odd look; surprise and gratitude mixed.

“We all do our part dear, and you were as much of a pleasure to work with. Was that really your first time?”

I nodded my head and she shook hers. She was kind enough to help me into my own clothes and gave me a quick hug before I turned back to Karen.

…who led me back down the corridor towards the entrance, to a small office with two plastic chairs and a collapsible table. She reached into an old fashioned, satchel style briefcase for a thick sheaf of papers and a pen, then sat behind the table indicating that I should take the other chair.

I scooped what little there was of my skirts beneath me and sat down, knees together, back straight, a confident expression on my face. I knew I had done well this morning; all that remained was to know how well.

For the first time, I noticed she had the shrewd eyes of a business woman, but set in an honest and friendly face; probably the secret of her success. She scrutinised me carefully for several minutes, all the while tapping her pen against the stack of papers in front of her. I held her gaze calmly, the morning’s hard work having drained me of all my nerves.

Eventually she unscrewed the lid from her pen, wrote something in a space left in the otherwise tightly worded top page and pushed the stack of papers across to me. I turned it round to read what she had written and felt the breath go out of me as though someone had punched me in the stomach, my calm seeming to hitch a ride on the departing air.

It was a number. A very big number. Several times bigger, in fact, than my annual salary as an accountancy clerk. I turned towards Karen with disbelieving eyes and a slack jaw. She smiled. A very genuine smile that extended deep into her eyes.

“Yes it is generous for a first-timer, but it’s like Andrew says, you’re a natural and the camera loves you. Not only that but you’re a hard worker. I’ve paid as much as this to a ten year veteran and not been as satisfied with the results. Elle-gance is a high end fashion catalogue that both deserves and can afford the kind of publicity you would bring to it.

“You should read though the contract before you decide whether or not to sign though, because we will get our money’s worth out of you. I’m sure you’ll check it for yourself in any event, but to give you an idea on what’s involved, in addition to four two week sessions spaced evenly throughout the year when you would be working on photo-shoots like the one we’ve been doing this morning, you will be signing away copyright and royalty privileges on the photographs we take, you will be expected to make appearances at a number of high profile celebrity functions throughout the year, wearing Elle-gance clothes of course, and you will be restricted from taking up similar work with any other clothing brand or endorsing their product for the duration of the contract. In fact Elle-gance retains the right to decide for you whether any job offer might be appropriate. Image is everything in this business and what you do while employed by the company reflects on them.”

I looked back down at the contract, still not quite able to make sense of the number. I shook my head slowly trying to take it all in.

“Oh yes, a couple of perks of the job. You get to choose and keep any outfits you wear for the publicity events, plus you get a sizeable discount on everything else – twenty five percent I think – which you can pass on to your friends.

“Of course I’m not expecting you to make a decision here and now. I suspect you don’t have an agent, and you really ought to have someone looking out for your interests before you put pen to paper. If I’m right and you don’t have representation, may I suggest this person.”

She retrieved a business card from her briefcase and handed it across to me.

“She is a friend of mine and we do try to help each other out as much as we can; she sends the best of her clients my way and I send any new talent I come across to her. That being the case I’ll understand if you suspect my motives and look elsewhere for an agent, however I do urge you, whatever you do be careful; there are an awful lot of sharks in this particular pool. I like Ann because she tries to be honest in a profession where most are greedy and unscrupulous and do not care for their clients’ well-being.”

She looked me straight in the eyes, her gaze steady and, to the fullest extent that I could tell, honest. I managed to close my mouth and give her my full attention.

“This is a good offer. I won’t beat about the bush, I was very impressed by what I saw down there this morning and I want you in this next catalogue, which is why I’m prepared to pay you what I think you’re worth rather than just give you a salary more appropriate to a beginner. You shouldn’t take my word for it though. Talk to Ann, talk to some other agents – you’ll find adverts all over the place in fashion magazines – take the time to do some research and thinking and to read through that pile of paperwork with a lawyer, then when you’re ready give me a call. If you can manage it before Monday then I’d like to get you into the next catalogue.”

She scribbled a number on the back of the agent’s card she’d just given me.

“That’s my private number. You can get me any time, even over the weekends. Oh yes and because you put in a full hour and a half’s work instead of the fifteen minute audition I had intended, I’m going to make a good faith gesture and pay you for your time.”

She pulled out a purse and counted out a handful of twenty pound notes.

“This doesn’t tie you to anything, it doesn’t even give us permission to use the photographs we took of you today. It’s just a way of saying thank-you and showing you that we value your time and effort.”

I put my hands up.

“I, I can’t accept that, I’m sorry. I came here for an audition and an interview. The fact that it took longer than you intended still doesn’t mean I should expect to be paid for it. If you don’t get anything of value out of this morning’s work then neither should I.”

She gave me that penetrating look of hers then gathered up the notes and put the money back into her purse.

“Alright then, if you’re sure? Any other questions? Fine. In that case I won’t keep you any longer. You have some serious thinking to do as well as some advice to seek and I still have a very busy afternoon ahead of me. It’s been a pleasure to meet you, er…”

“Liz. Elizabeth Raeburn”

“Liz. It’s been a pleasure and I rarely get to say that with as much genuine feeling as I do right now. I look forward to hearing from you in a few days.”

She held out a hand which I accepted, then she led me to the front door, barely giving me time to put the contract – still unread except for the astonishingly large number written on the front page – and the agent’s business card into my handbag. Before I realised it I was back on the street on my own again.

I walked back towards the bus stop lost in thought. The skies had cleared and a fresh, gusty wind was playing with my skirt. There were a few more would be zombies wandering the street or skulking in the shade, but they were all too locked into their own private hells to pose a threat. Out of the corner of my eye I thought I caught sight of an add looking pipe being passed around and fifty yards further on there was what looked like a hypodermic syringe hidden in the rubbish. Feeling like a coward, I pretended not to notice and walked on.

That big number on the contract was prominent in my mind, but then a random thread of thought strayed to the buildings around me and started niggling away at the beginnings of a totally unrelated idea. I left it to do its own thing and concentrated instead on planning how I was going to inform my decision on whether I should sign the papers in my bag.

The bus was a while in coming, so by the time I’d made my way back to Sharon’s place of work it was getting on for quarter to one. I asked at reception for her giving my name, and a few minutes later she appeared pulling her coat on. She told the receptionist that she was taking a slightly early lunch then took my arm and dragged me back out into the busy street.

“So? How did it go?”

I pulled the contract out and showed it to her. She stopped dead in her tracks and stared at the number just as I had done.

“No way!”

“Apparently yes way, but I have some work ahead of me to make sure there’s nothing sneaky in the contract.”

I went on to describe the morning and how much fun I’d had , then to repeat all the things Karen had told me. Sharon pulled me into a nearby café, ordered sandwiches and coffee for both of us then started reading through the contract. The single-mindedness of her concentration shut me out, and I looked around awkwardly for something to pass the time. When the sandwiches and coffees arrived I started on my own leaving Sharon to her private world and not daring to interrupt. I’d finished eating and had more or less emptied my cup of coffee by the time she surfaced and put the papers down.

“It’s a good contract; well written and fair. No hidden nasties, no loopholes and as far as I can see nothing left unaddressed. Just the sort of thing I’d expect from Karen.”

She looked at my slightly stunned expression and laughed.

“Look Liz, this is what I do. Do you think high paid lawyers read through every bit of paper that crosses their desks? No of course not, they get people like me who specialise to do the grunt work, and my job for the last umpteen years has been to read and to write contracts. There are some specifics I don’t know because I’m not that familiar with the fashion industry or modelling in particular, but if you’ll let me hang on to this for the afternoon, I’ll make a few calls, do a bit of research, then give you a blow by blow of everything that’s in here when we get home this evening.”

We looked at each other, then at the contract in her lap as she finally picked up her sandwich and took a bite. She raised her gaze to mine with a twinkle in her eye and swallowed.

“Tell you what though, if you do end up taking this job, you’re flipping well buying the next lunch.”

We laughed and chatted for another fifteen minutes. I showed her the agent’s card and she passed me her mobile so I could call her.

“Hello? Ann Phillips please, oh hello, sorry. My name is Elizabeth Raeburn. Karen…”

I looked at Sharon questioningly and she whispered Karen’s surname back to me.

“…Blackheath gave me your name as a possible agent. I had an audition with her this morning for a modelling job. Oh she did, did she? No that’s fine. Tomorrow at ten o’clock. The address on the card. No that’ll be great. Yes I look forward to meeting you then. Okay thanks, bye.”

I handed the mobile back.

“I’m going to have to get me another one of those. My old one disappeared with my wallet during my first encounter with Mary.”

“Well tell you what, why don’t you hang on to this one for the afternoon?”

I made to protest but she shushed me.

“No, you want to make a few phone calls this afternoon, try out a few random agents and stuff, so your need is greater than mine. My friends know not to call me when I’m at work so it’s not as if I’m going to miss anything. If someone does phone with an emergency you’ll be able to call me on the office number which is in the phone book under AB Solicitors, so no problem.”

I couldn’t argue with logic like that so simply thanked her and slipped the phone into my bag. When she’d finished eating, I walked back to work with her, arranging to meet back there at five o’clock so we could do the planned food shop together on our way home. I then looked around for a nearby newsagent and, after a short period of browsing through the fashion magazines, I had a list of phone numbers to try.

The afternoon went quickly. First the two dozen or so phone calls which soaked up about an hour, then planning a route to get to all the ones who’d agreed to see me, then following the plan. As I’d been warned, there were quite a few crocodile teeth among the smiles and it didn’t take long before I realised how fortunate I’d been in meeting Karen as a first contact in the business.

I told them that I was looking to become a model and had been offered the chance to work with Karen Blackheath but that I needed an agent to negotiate the contract. After that the fun started. Most agencies I talked to tried to convince me that I needed a portfolio and offered their bargain price, once in a lifetime deal for about a thousand pounds to put one together. When I reminded them that I already had the offer of a job and only needed the contract negotiated, they started to pitch figures at me. They were all significantly lower than Karen had offered me; not so surprising since they all considered me to be a fresh face, but it made me realise just how much faith Karen was putting in me. It also made it difficult trying to decide just how fair they were being; there were quite a few whose offer was disgracefully low, suggesting they were looking to make a massive mark-up. By the time I’d made the rounds of the ones who had agreed to see me that day I felt grubby and used, but a fair amount wiser.

On the way back to meet up with Sharon a young man on the tube stood up to offer me his seat, which I gratefully accepted, thanking him with a smile not just for the seat but for the gesture which helped to rebuild some of my crumbling faith in human nature. The fact that his new vantage point gave him a better view of my breasts didn’t occur to me until some time later, but I’m not sure if that was just the cynic in me speaking louder after the afternoon’s waste of time.

I was five minutes late reaching the law firm, but then Sharon was fifteen minutes behind so it balanced out more or less. We were both tired after a long and busy day so decided to postpone ‘lesson one: grocery shopping’ to the following day and headed straight home. I did help peel the potatoes and chop the veg, but Sharon did all the clever stuff and we enjoyed our usual cordon bleu quality evening meal over the habitual bottle of wine.

I went first with the conversation, describing my experiences with the different agencies and the overall sense of disappointment with the whole thing. It wasn’t the most uplifting topic of conversation and it was just as well that we had the exquisite food to keep spirits from nose-diving. After we’d eaten and washed up, Sharon dug out my contract and several pages of notes she’d made in the course of the afternoon, then went into a detailed description of each paragraph in turn. As she’d said earlier, the document was fair and airtight, having addressed every issue that came to my mind as well as quite a few that would never have occurred to me. It certainly seemed that Karen was being straight as well as more than generous. Our discussion did raise quite a few questions for me to pose, first to Ann tomorrow then to Karen afterwards, so decision as yet deferred.

“Oh I almost forgot.”

Sharon jumped up in search of her handbag, coming back a few moments later with what looked like a credit card coloured red and pale blue.

“My NI number! Wow that was quick. Tell Clive a huge thanks from me.”

“Okay, will do. He says the rest of the paperwork will follow in about a week.”

I read the card then closed my eyes, repeating the letters and numbers over and over until I had committed them to memory. I juggled with several mnemonic tricks and eventually managed to settle it into what I hoped would become long term memory. The card went into my bedside cabinet and a piece of paper with the details on it into my handbag.

While I was running around organising myself, Sharon quietly picked up her night things and headed for the bathroom.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but I’m going to have soak.”

With that she closed the door leaving me alone and at a loss. I cast about for something to read, but Sharon isn’t a great book person. Eventually, with nothing more interesting in evidence, I picked up her Bible. It was worn and well used and stuffed full of bits of paper so with some care I opened it near the beginning and flipped my way through to Genesis 50. From there I worked my way back to the beginning of the Joseph story, surprised to discover that I had to go back fourteen chapters and fifteen pages to find it.

I settled in for a read, but stopped almost immediately. Dreams. The whole thing was about dreams. It started off with Joseph dreaming about his future and annoying his family with his predictions. It went on to telling other people’s futures from their dreams in prison and from there to interpreting Pharaoh’s dreams and saving most of the known world from drought. Was it possible that my dream from Sunday might be more than my mind messing with me?

In the dream it had definitely been me back on the streets, but all that had done was make it clearer how dangerous, how hard, how lonely it was to be stuck out there. I thought about the pastor’s words from Sunday as well, and the germs of thought that had sprouted this morning.

Those thoughts were disturbing and I pushed them to one side and focused on the story in front of me. It didn’t take long to read but left me with more questions than answers. The dreams in the story had all been highly symbolic and not at all like my own, then there were so many other things in the story that didn’t seem to fit or to make much sense. I closed the book with some frustration and padded through to the kitchen, my thoughts trailing after me and clamouring for my attention.

I made two mugs of hot chocolate and went to knock on the bathroom door.

“It’s open.”

I stepped in and put one of the mugs on the edge of the bath within easy reach of its occupant. The part of me that still hadn’t quite forgotten that I was no longer Ken started making a fuss about me sharing a bathroom with the naked girlfriend of my best friend, but Sharon’s lack of concern, coupled with the total lack of arousal at the sight of her sitting up in the bath overruled and I told myself to shut up.

I put the lid down on the toilet and perched there staring into my drink. Sharon wanted to know what was up so I told her about my reading and my confusion. She looked over at me an gave the matter some thought before answering.

“First I think you’re starting in the wrong place if you’re going to read that book. As a beginner you’ll be better off looking at one of the gospels; possibly Mark because its short. That’s kind of where the clues are to what God’s all about. Secondly, and I can understand why you have an interest in the Joseph story after what’s happened recently, you need to be a bit discerning about what you read out of it. Not all of what’s in that story is going to be relevant right now, so be ready to leave bits to one side if they don’t seem to fit. Also, just because it went that way for Joseph doesn’t mean it’s going to do the same for you. I mean for one thing Joseph wasn’t turned into a girl was he? If you think that there really is a message in this for you, you need to go to the source about it. You know talk to God maybe, or if that makes you too uncomfortable talk to Pastor James about it. I’m sure he’d be happy to take you through it.”

It was probably good advice, but it wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I mean after what I’d been through I would have to be in extreme denial to say I didn’t believe in God or the devil or miracles, but I’d spent pretty much all of my life up until now without thinking along those lines, and it’s hard to break a habit like that. There were bits of me that still automatically discounted the possibility of anything out of the ordinary affecting my everyday life, even when I looked in the mirror and saw Liz looking back instead of Ken.

I muttered my thanks and walked out the room. Early as it was, I was tired and this wasn’t something I could resolve quickly. I changed and settled into bed expecting to toss and turn with it through the night, but I was asleep before Sharon joined me.

The next morning I woke to the sound of Sharon’s alarm, and made us both breakfast while she was getting ready to go. My one appointment for the day with Ann Phillips was a twenty minute bus ride away meaning I had an extra hour before I needed to leave the house. Mind you with my head as muzzy as it was there was a chance I might even miss that.

Conversation was stilted over breakfast, largely because Sharon had to do most of the work with me taking the silent role. It seemed that my ninety minutes on the catwalk had taken more out of me than I realised. Sharon dug out the sheets of paper with the questions we had come up with the previous night so that I actually had something to go from when I met with this prospective agent, then she left me to my own devices having made arrangements to meet at Jan’s diner as we had originally planned the previous day.

I bumbled about the empty apartment for a few minutes more before using the shower to inject some humanity back into myself. I chose smart but comfortable, settling on a trouser suit with dark brown slacks and a long brown and cream flowery top. The softness of the material was far more comfortable than anything I had worn as a man – that is to say anything I had worn outside my room – and, with my comfortable boots, I was pleasantly warm compared to the skirts and dresses I’d been wearing lately.

The bus ride was uneventful, depositing me a mere fifty yards from Ann’s office, which meant I arrived with ten minutes to spare. I rang the bell and was buzzed into a neat little waiting room with comfy seats and a coffee table piled high with current fashion magazines. A small, plump thirty-somethingish woman bustled into the room and came over to me with her hand outstretched.

“Hi. Liz isn’t it? Make yourself comfortable and I’ll be with you in a few minutes. Would you like a drink? Tea or coffee?”

Her greeting was so genuine and her smile so welcoming, I couldn’t help but match it as I took the proffered hand.

“Yes, Liz. I think I could do with a coffee if you don’t mind.”

“Of course not, take a load off and I’ll be with you as soon as I’ve dealt with this.”

She ducked back into an adjoining office and I heard enough of a snippet of the resumed phone call to gather that the person on the other end of the line was having a bad day before the door closed.

I passed the time flipping through some of the fashion magazines. I’d been interested in women’s magazines before, but rarely dared to pick one up. Now the contents were that much more relevant and there was no longer any shame should I be discovered. Needless to say I dived in with a passion. Like a starving man at a banquet, I sampled a bit of everything and found it impossible to decide what deserved my attention first. I was saved from my dilemma by an opening door.

“Sorry about that, some things just can’t be put off.”

“It’s alright, I think I’m a little early anyway.”

“Not any more dear. Come on through to my office, the kettle’s boiled.”

I followed her into a small room with a big desk and two chairs. She poured water into two mugs and stirred them vigorously, then handed one to me. It may well have been the worst cup of coffee in living memory, but then on the plus side it did have much needed caffeine in it. I accepted it gratefully and somehow managed to drink it without making a face.

We talked for about an hour, or rather she did. I was rather taken with her effervescent charm and found myself liking her very much, very quickly. She gave my contract a swift and professional once over, her eyebrows shooting up at the proposed salary on the front page, then knitting together as she ploughed through all the legalese. After five minutes she summarised it with the exact same bullet points Sharon had used, then told me I would be an idiot to pass up an opportunity like this. She launched into the saga of how she and Karen had met, drifting off down side track after side track, sharing anecdotes that painted Karen in a very good light. She then spent some time going over what she could offer me as an agent, which was surprisingly much considering that I already had a good offer of work.

After an hour she seemed to be running out of steam just as I was running out of coffee.

“Good grief, have you actually finished that? I can’t remember the last time a visitor drank more than half of what I gave them. Sorry I should have warned you, I am lousy at making drinks.”

After we’d shared a chuckle at that and I had declined the offer of a second cup, I took advantage of her temporary silence to ask some of the questions Sharon and I had come up with. The answers seemed good and I made up my mind at that point to both sign the contract and let Ann represent me. I said as much and in so doing prompted another enthusiastic monologue, the main theme being that I wouldn’t regret it. She rummaged in her filing cabinet, all the time listing various options relating to her services. I answered as best I could, taking her advice when I was unsure. Eventually we came to the matter of her fee.

“Now ordinarily I’d charge a percentage of your income, which ends up working in the interests of most girls who are just starting out. In your case though, you’ll be better off if I charge you a fixed rate.”

“What if I get made redundant?”

“Reading between the number, I’d say that there is almost no chance of that happening. Karen wouldn’t offer you a salary like that if she didn’t see something special. In fact I suspect that by the end of the year she’ll be more worried about losing you than the other way round. In the unlikely event of your unemployment then I work to get you another job. In the equally unlikely event that I don’t succeed, then you get to cancel your contract with me if you wish and I don’t charge you for my lack of success. If I do get you a job and it pays significantly less than you’ve been offered here, I’ll let you switch to the percentage deal. That sound fair to you?”

“It sounds a bit too fair. I’m wondering why you would do something like that. I mean you do run this as a business, don’t you?”

“I do, but it’s my business. No-one tells me what to do and I decided long ago that if I can’t make money and keep my customers happy at the same time, then I don’t want to do it. As it is I do well enough and all my clients are happy with my service. If it means I can’t afford a secretary or a fancy coffee maker, then so be it.

“Liz, I enjoy my job, I enjoy seeing young girls like you reach their full potential, and more than anything, I enjoy being able to stick two fingers up at all the parasites in this business by treating some of their prospective clients like human beings and showing everyone that it’s possible to be in this business without being a total bitch. Karen has a similar attitude, although she seems to be a bit better than me at making money from it. Are we good?”

I decided we were and signed my new name on a couple of documents.

“Great, let’s call Karen and tell her the good news.”

She picked up the phone and hit one of the speed dials. It was a relief to have her attention diverted away from me for a while and I didn’t really register what Ann was saying to my new employer. She put the phone back down and turned to me.

“Right, now that that’s sorted, Karen has asked if you’d be willing to start straight away. It seems this is the second day in a row she’s been let down by someone; fortunately for me, not one of my clients. Still how do you feel about it? If you’re up for it I’ll call for a taxi. Karen has agreed to pay for it at the other end.”

And so I ended up being driven across the river in a London black cab with the signed contract on my lap. Karen was as good as her word, waiting outside when we pulled up and paying the driver before dragging me into the building and the improvised studio. Within no time I was back to parading back and forth in an amazing collection of clothes, following Andrew’s continuous chatter and having the time of my life.

We finished about five o’clock after three gruelling hour-and-a-half sessions. I was trying to figure out how I could get in touch with Sharon to tell her I would be late for our planned grocery shop when Karen came up to me.

“I really am grateful for your filling in this afternoon, and from the look on Andrew’s face it’s probably better for us that you were here instead of Lulu. How did you feel it went today?”

“Oh, just like yesterday; tiring but great fun. Look I’m sorry to be a pain but I’m supposed to meet Sharon at the shops near her flat in half an hour, is there anywhere I can make a phone call to let her know I’ll be late?”

“Well you could use my phone, or better still I’m heading back that way now. Why don’t I give you a lift then you won’t be late? I still need a few employment details from you which you can fill out on the way.”

It sounded like a plan so we left a crew of workers packing up all the clothes and expensive gear for the weekend and headed out to her car. Once we were seated, she fished out a bunch of forms and a pen which she passed over.

“Oh yes. Usually salary is paid monthly at the end of the month, but I figure since you’re just starting out you might be happy to have the last couple of days paid early. Give you some spending money for the weekend”

She handed over a plain brown envelope which I opened. There seemed to be a good number of twenties in there; at least ten of them.

“Thanks. That’s really very kind.”

“You’re welcome. Now where am I taking you?”

I told her and we pulled out onto the empty road while I started to tick, cross and scribble my way through the form. For a while we travelled in a silence invaded only by the quiet hum of the engine and the scratch of my pen. Despite the number of pages, it didn’t take me long to fill them in, at least in part because I still didn’t have all the answers.

“I don’t have a bank account.”

“Not to worry, sort it out tomorrow and bring me the details on Monday. We still have another week ’til the end of the month so I won’t need them till then.”

I twisted round and put the pen and papers on the seat behind me.

The silence deepened, or maybe it was just me and the mood I was sinking into. I mean things were really working out for me, I was a person again, with a name, an identity, even a job. But something niggled, like a stone in my shoe; not exactly painful, but uncomfortable and constantly distracting. I thought about my dream, the kids at church, the desperate, ruined lives of the people back on the street where we had been working. If Sharon hadn’t offered me a lift that evening, had I not had the support and care of my friends, I would have ended up like that, or worse if death could be considered worse. I couldn’t sit by and do nothing.

“Karen?”

“Mmm?”

“Why do you use that place for the photo-shoots? I mean it’s hardly glamorous is it?”

“You’d be surprised. Fashion has a bit of a hard edge at the moment, likes a bit of urban grit. Did you see those photos in the papers the other day where the models were made up to look like they had graffiti spray-painted on them?”

“Yes but we haven’t been doing that. We have backdrops to put a gentler background to the photographs. You wouldn’t know we were in a rundown office.”

She gave me an appraising look.

“I should know by now not to judge a book by its cover. I shouldn’t assume a level of intelligence just because you have a pretty face.

“We use that building because it’s cheap and easy to book at short notice and for short periods. If I wanted a professional studio already decked out it’d cost me about four times as much, and I’d either be leasing it for longer than I wanted or paying a premium for a short term lease.”

“Would you mind if I asked you how much it cost to rent?”

She glanced across at me.

“Why what do you have in mind?”

“Oh, just the beginnings of an idea, I don’t even know if it’s possible.”

“Sometimes it helps to talk things through with someone.”

I pointed over to one side where a group of young people were sitting on the pavement. One thing about living in London, if you want to find an example of homeless people, you don’t usually have to go too far.

“I was wondering if there might be a way of arranging things so that they could use one of the empty buildings. I mean there’s an office building next door to the one we were using that’s seven stories of empty space with windows so covered in grime I doubt anyone’s used it in three or four years. Can you imagine how many people you could shelter in there?”

She sighed.

“It’s not as easy as that. For a start there are regulations governing what a building can be used for, then there’s the owners of the building; I doubt they’re going to be agreeable to letting a couple of hundred young vandals move into it, whatever you offer to pay them.”

“Yes but they’re only obstacles, not impossibilities. Surely if you show the right people that you’re solving a problem that affects everyone then a way can be found to get over or around the difficulties? And they’re not vandals, they’re human beings who are angry and frustrated, possibly even desperate because they’re stuck in a situation they can’t remedy and no-one is offering them the help they need to get out.

“I mean businesses get a tax break for charitable contributions don’t they? Why can’t they contribute the use of an otherwise useless building instead of capital? As for changing the status of the building, surely the homeless are a major government problem, surely there must be someone somewhere who has the authority to change the bureaucracy and the guts to do so for the benefit it will bring.”

“Who will man your shelter? I mean something that big will need quite a few staff to make sure it runs smoothly.”

“I was thinking the people we help could do that. I mean a major part of the challenge of getting off the streets is to get a paying job. Having three to six months helping to run a homeless shelter is going to look good on anyone’s CV.”

“You’ve really given this some thought haven’t you?”

“Not really. This is just the tip of the iceberg, and I know there are a million things I haven’t thought of yet, but you have to start somewhere and I’m not going to let a few little problems get in the way, this is too important.”

We were approaching Jen’s Diner. I checked my watch, three minutes to spare. Karen pulled over to the side of the road and sat silently staring out at the road, the cogs turning so fast you could almost hear them hum. She seemed to make up her mind.

“You know I think this isn’t as farfetched as I first thought. You have the energy and the time, at least you will once we’ve finished photographing you next week. In a few months you will also have a growing public profile which will put you in contact with the sort of people who might be able to help if only you can persuade them to do so. What’s more, for you to have a cause like this will help to promote Elle-gance to the point where it may be worth their while supporting your efforts.

“Let me give this some thought. You carry on with your ideas and plans for now and in a few weeks we’ll see what can be done about inviting you to the right parties. There’s even a good chance that that I can find you a few philanthropic businessmen who might be prepared to contribute to work once it gets started. What do you say?”

The stone in my shoe seemed to shrink, sill there but not so insistent, and I managed a smile.

“Okay then, I’ll see you bright and early on Monday morning, remember eight o’clock for a start at quarter past.”

I waved her away and was on the verge of going into the diner when a bus pulled up from the City. Sharon was amongst the passengers who stepped off and I waved her over.

“Coffee before we start? My treat this time.”

“Ooh, sounds like you have some news.”

Did I ever. The coffee stretched to a second then a third cup as I told her of my acceptance of the job, the unexpected afternoon’s work and the discussion of my idea on the way here. The last part seemed to strike a spark in Sharon and she begged me for details. We then spent the next hour wandering around various shops, alternately discussing ideas on how we could push my project forward and talking about how to pick out the best fruit, veg and meat.

The discussion continued over the preparation and consumption of our evening meal, surprisingly all the more enjoyable for my having had an active part in the cooking, then we cleaned up and started getting ready to go out. Being Friday, we had a standing arrangement to meet up with Phil for a meal and a movie, so we both made an effort to look presentable.

We arrived at the prearranged meeting place to find Phil sitting with another guy. He had his back to us, but I thought I recognised Phil’s friend from work, Pete Danson. I turned to Sharon.

“This had better not have been your idea.”

“Why? With a scorching hot bod like yours it wouldn’t be right for you to play third wheel anymore.”

“You could at least let me choose.”

“Look it’s only one evening and you don’t have to do much more than talk to him. I’m not expecting it to work out, but you should have some company instead of sitting there watching me and Phil all the time.”

I plastered a smile on my face and tried to act enthusiastic as introductions were made. Pete got off to a shaky start by addressing my cleavage, then totally losing the power of intelligent speech as the caveman in him took control for a while. I endured it for a few minutes then excused myself to go to the loo, giving Phil an exasperated look as I walked away.

Sharon came trotting along in my wake, all apologies and concern until I burst out laughing, at which point she joined in with me.

“I’m going to have to get used to this aren’t I? I mean poor guy, I remember how I felt the few times Phil introduced me to one of your more attractive friends. I guess this is payback after a fashion.”

We stayed in the toilets for a few minutes, touching up makeup that didn’t really need any attention and chatting about this and that. By the time we made it back to the table there was evidence that Phil had made good use of the time because Pete stood as we approached.

“I owe you an apology Liz, it’s just that you are so stunningly beautiful. Can I at least offer you a drink?”

It was a little too smooth, but it was an olive branch. I took it.

“A glass of white wine would be nice thank-you. A small one please, the Pinot Grigiot.”

He headed off to place the order and I leaned across the table to hiss at Phil.

“Tell me he’s not one of the dickheads who slipped something into your drink a couple of weeks ago.”

Phil ducked his head sheepishly.

“Phil, what the hell were you thinking?”

“Look I’m sorry, Sharon suggested it would be a good idea if I could arrange some company for you, and I have no idea what your taste in men might be. I do know that other girls find him quite good looking, so I figured he was as good a place as any to start.”

“I wouldn’t care if he had greasy hair and eczema as long as he had a personality.”

There wasn’t time to say anything else as Pete was on his way back. He put his hand on my back and placed a large glass of wine in front of me. I forced a smile and took a sip.

Things degenerated rapidly form there. Pete seemed to have recovered what he might call his mojo and managed to keep the conversation ticking along. An inordinate amount of it seemed to be about himself, and he became excessively tactile, touching me on the leg and the arm whenever he wanted to make a point. It made me feel uncomfortable to the extent that I started squirming away from his hands. Phil and Sharon could see the effect it was having on me and were looking just as uncomfortable. In the end I had enough. I took hold of the hand he had just placed on my bare thigh and lifted it off.

“Listen Pete, this isn’t working for me. Maybe I’m unusual, but my idea of an enjoyable Friday evening doesn’t stretch so far as to include listening to someone I’ve just met tell me his life story while taking every opportunity to grope me. I’m sorry, you’re probably a nice guy and most girls probably love you on sight, just not this one I’m afraid. Thanks for the drink.”

I stood up to leave with him ready to protest.

“You’ve only drunk half of it.”

“Actually if you remember, I asked for a small one, which is about how much I’ve drunk. The rest must be yours.”

I turned to Phil and Sharon.

“Sorry to ruin the evening guys, I’ll see you later.”

I picked up my coat and headed for the door. More or less as expected, Phil and Sharon divided forces with Sharon chasing after me leaving Phil with the more awkward job of dealing with his friend.

“I’m sorry Liz, I really thought this would be a good idea.”

“It might have been with almost anyone else. Look Sharon, I’m still a bit confused about my feelings for men right now. I think in time with the right guy it has a good chance of working, but encounters like just now are not going to help.”

We walked on in silence for a while. I was heading towards the bus stop and Sharon noticed.

“Look why don’t we find another bar and I’ll text Phil, see if he can get rid of Pete and meet us there? We can at least go and see that film you wanted to see.”

“I’m not really feeling that much like it at the moment Sharon, I’m sorry.”

“Maybe in half an hour with another glass of wine inside you?”

I couldn’t help but smile.

“Okay, we’ll have that drink, but not the movie. I have something else in mind. It’ll involve a bit of walking, how are your shoes?”

Sharon glanced down.

“They should be alright for a few miles. What do you have in mind?”

“You’ll see. Text Phil, we’ll need to have him along.”

-oOo-

Chapter 9

Phil appeared ten minutes late, mercifully alone. I saw him first and waved him over feeling both relieved and oddly guilty.

“How’s Pete?”

Sharon had bought him a pint along with our drinks when we’d first arrived. He slid onto the seat next to her and downed about a third of it before answering.

“Not the happiest of bunnies I feel. He asked me why it is that the most beautiful girls always turn out to be man hating lesbians, then told me to watch out in case you turned Sharon against me.”

“He did what?”

Sharon was indignant and I had to put out a hand to keep her from jumping up.

“It’s okay, it’s kind of a thing with some blokes; he had to find fault with me or otherwise admit there was something wrong with him. The sad thing is he’ll continue to be a prick until he faces up to the truth.”

“That still doesn’t give him the right…”

“I know but knowing he can’t really help being an arsehole takes the sting out of it somewhat.”

Since the main jibe had been directed at me and I wasn’t showing signs of being upset, Sharon backed down reluctantly, grumbling under her breath. Phil took another heroic swig of his beer, belched quietly into his hand and changed the subject.

“Okay so what’s this all about? Sharon said you needed me for something.”

“It’s something I have to show you more than tell you. Finish your drink and we’ll get started.”

A couple of minutes later we were back out on the streets and heading away from the other Friday night revellers. It took me a few minutes to find my bearings, but after that I picked a direction and started walking. Whatever Sharon had said, her shoes were not designed for distance and neither were mine. I suspected we were both going to regret this little tour in the morning, but this was something I needed to do.

We walked on into the dark, Phil, our great protector, hanging back more and more and looking increasingly nervous.

“Girls, are you sure this is such a good idea? I mean there’s only one of me and I’m no fighter. What if we bump into a group of druggies who take it into their heads that we should finance their next fix? I doubt I’ll be able to protect myself let alone you two. It hardly seems sensible to deliberately put ourselves in harm’s way.”

The point was well made and I regretted thinking poorly of him, but I felt a calm inside and I knew somehow that we’d be alright.

“It’ll be fine.”

“How can you be sure?”

“I can’t, but I feel it. Listen, you’re right, I have no right to drag you into this. You two go back if you want to, but I’m going on. There’s something… I don’t know, I just have to.”

I stepped into a dark alleyway and heard footsteps beside me.

“You don’t think I’m letting you go in there on your own again do you?”

This was followed by a few muttered expletives and a heavier footfall.

“Alright, if we’re going to do this, let’s do it.”

I didn’t say anything but inside I smiled. I should probably have felt more guilty than I did, but it was still reassuring to have them along with me.

The sickly sweet smell of partly decomposed refuse assaulted our nostrils as we picked our way carefully through the filth from one street into the next. Here and there it was added to by the stench of stale urine and other things too unsavoury to mention. They were deserted, apart from the suggestion of movement in some of the darker shadows which suggested rats; much to my unexpected alarm.

We walked on taking turns seemingly at random, but somehow I knew where we were heading. Eventually we came out on a street next to an old brick railway bridge. The arches had been closed off with brick walls, each set with a wooden door, a good number of which had rotted and been broken in. I walked up to one of the open doors, Sharon and Phil close behind me, and peered in to the gloom.

As our eyes adjusted to the deeper darkness within, we made out what, at first sight, appeared to be a mound of cardboard and paper rubbish, then it moved and first one then several pairs of eyes looked up at us. They were young eyes, clear and wide with apprehension, set in faces camouflaged to near invisibility with accumulated grime.

“It’s alright, we don’t mean any harm.”

I don’t think it would have mattered what I said at that point, they backed up against the far wall like cornered animals. I squatted down on my heels and held my hands out in what I hoped was a friendly gesture.

“I only want to talk.”

They stared back, still too afraid to respond. This wasn’t going well. I decided that if all I was doing was scaring them, perhaps I should back off. I stood and withdrew from the doorway.

“I’m sorry to have disturbed you.”

“Oy! What do you think you’re doing?”

I looked up to see a largish man walking towards us, arms filled with blankets and followed by three others of similar size carrying similar burdens. They were dressed warmly and sensibly in jeans and donkey jackets making me highly self-conscious of my own clothes.

“We don’t mean any harm. We’re just… Well it’s kind of my idea, we’re looking to see something of, well what these people have to live with. Try to get some idea on how we can help.”

“Well you’ll excuse me if I find that hard to believe. I mean look at you, you look like you’ve just come from an effing party. I mean what is this, some new sort of late night entertainment? Come and see the homeless in their natural environment and feel better about your miserable sodding lives?”

A few timid faces had appeared at the door we had just vacated and the four newcomers turned and set about handing out the supplies they had brought. I found myself flushing at the rebuke, I mean he was right, what was I thinking, coming here like this with no idea and no answers. Sharon noticed my reaction and came bristling to my defence.

“Listen there’s no reason to be unpleasant about it. I mean okay, we’re not dressed for it, but this was kind of a spur of the moment thing. We really do want to help.”

He looked us up and down, a dubious expression on his face. I wasn’t paying much attention, instead I was looking at the face of a young boy standing by the door holding his new blanket. He was giving me an odd look.

“Hi, my names Liz. What’s yours?”

“Anthony.”

“Do you mind if I ask how old you are Anthony?”

“I’m eighteen.”

He looked a couple of years younger, but then that could have been the effects of living on the streets. I offered him an attempt at an encouraging and friendly smile.

“That’s the same age as me. Look, I don’t mean to pry, but I’m interested in knowing more about you and your friends. If I ask too many questions or if I ask something that seems to nosey, just say and I’ll stop. If it’s okay though perhaps you wouldn’t mind telling me how long you’ve been living here and how you came to be here.”

“I have a question for you.”

“Sure go ahead.”

“What’s someone like you doing here? Why are you interested in me and people like me?”

“Fair question. It wasn’t that long ago that I was a bit like you are now. I was lucky though. I found some friends who helped me get off the streets before anything unpleasant happened to me. I don’t want it to end with just me though. We were having a drink earlier and it didn’t seem right sitting there all dressed up and enjoying ourselves when there’s people like you out here. I wanted to come and find out a bit more, see if maybe there’s something we can do to help. What do you think?”

“I think you as too many questions.”

He turned back into the ruined storehouse leaving me wondering what I’d said wrong this time. I noticed the big man looking at me, his expression softened.

“Tony’s been here a couple of months. Ran away with his younger brother from an abusive home. The brother was picked up by one of the government initiatives and rehoused; they prioritise kids under the age of eighteen. Tony was too old to qualify though, so he’s still stuck here. Are you serious about what you said? About being on the streets? About helping?”

“Oh yes, completely serious. I have a few ideas but not enough information yet.”

“What do you mean?”

“Well I was lucky, I was only out on the streets for a day and a night before I made friends who helped me. That does mean that I don’t have much idea on what the situation is, so although I have some ideas on what might help and how I might go about making them happen, I need to know what the situation really is and what would be of most help before I go off half-cocked and make everything worse.”

He nodded his head and, seemingly making up his mind, held out a beefy hand. I took it and had the life squeezed out of mine.

“I’m Bob. You say your name is Liz?”

I nodded trying hard not to wince as I reclaimed my hand and waited for my blood to find its way back into the crushed veins.

“If you’re serious about learning more, why don’t you swing by our base of operation tomorrow, say about elevenish, and I’ll tell you everything you need to know?”

He gave me his address and I dug a pen and paper out of my bag to scribble it down. He then turned to Phil.

“Now can I suggest you escort these lovely ladies back to civilisation. Not everyone around here is all that friendly and I’d hate for something nasty to happen to you.”

“That’s just what I was trying to tell them. Erm, perhaps you could tell us the quickest way out from here.”

He pointed and we followed his directions, finding our way first back to better lit streets, and from there to a tube station and bus stop that would take us to our respective homes. We hadn’t achieved a great deal, but at least we’d made contact of sorts, and Bob seemed like someone worth talking to.

Phil waited at the bus stop with us until a double decker with our number on it lumbered out of the dark, then he kissed Sharon goodnight with promises to meet up the following morning. I was right about the shoes as well. As soon as we were seated on the bus, they came off and we spent most of the journey home massaging some life back into each other’s stockinged feet.

Saturday started slow over coffee and a late breakfast. Both Sharon and I were quiet and reflective, not talking much, each of us lost in our own separate worlds. My feet were still complaining after the abuse I had inflicted on them the previous night. It gave me an opening.

“Next time I’ll plan my excursions enough in advance to suggest more appropriate footwear. I hope your dogs aren’t barking like mine.”

“Shh, not so loud. Toby’s sensitive to words like that.”

As if in answer, the king himself poked his head into the kitchen and came over for some attention.

“Hello you, I haven’t seen you for a few days.”

Never mind that, scratch me behind the ears. Go on, you know you want to. Is there anything to eat around here?

It was so easy to imagine the words, almost as though you could hear them spoken. Sharon got up to fill a couple of bowls.

“They do that sometimes; disappear for a day or two, then come back when they’ve outworn their welcome elsewhere or finished whatever business they had. Cindy and Bella will be around somewhere too, they always travel as a unit. Kind of odd for such solitary animals.”

“You’ve lived here quite a while haven’t you?”

“Four years, just over. Why?”

“I was wondering how you might feel about moving.”

Sharon put the bowls of cat food and water down and came back to the table. The other two cats appeared at the promise of food and set about demolishing the small mound of jellied meat.

“What brought this on?”

“I don’t know, it’s just that now I’m being paid I can pull my own weight a bit, you know pay some of the bills, food, rent, that sort of thing. It’s only fair. Then I thought that between us we could easily afford somewhere larger than this. I mean don’t get me wrong, I like this place and it’s kind of cosy the way things are, but I’m sure you’d appreciate a bit more space with maybe somewhere to be on your own from time to time. And if we could get a place with two bathrooms…”

She sat down, trying to wrap her thoughts around the new idea. I’d already been thinking about it for a while though and had managed to erect a whole list of hurdles.

“I mean I don’t know how you’d feel about it, you have a lot more invested in this place so it’s probably unfair of me to suggest it, plus I know cats tend not to like to move around too much. Then there’s Phil. I don’t know how long you guys are going to take to get back to thinking about marriage, but sooner or later I figure you two are going to be looking to move into your own place. It’s just that I really like living with you and… Shit, I’m making a mess of this.”

“No you’re not sweetie, I’m just a bit surprised I haven’t thought of it.”

“Well it has been a busy couple of weeks.”

“You could say that. No what I mean is that I was talking to Mr Bryant the other day when he came for the rent and he was asking if I knew anyone who’d be interested in the flat opposite. It seems my neighbour’s moving out at the end of the week.”

“Really?”

“Yeah. It would solve so many problems. You’d have your own place but we could still spend as much time as we wanted together. I’d get my closet space back and you’d have room to extend your wardrobe. We’d both have the privacy we want and that extra bathroom which sounds like a wonderful idea. Then if Phil and I do get hitched, and that’s still a way from decided, you’d still be here if one of the cats wandered back into the neighbourhood.

“What do you think, shall I give him a call, see if we can look around later?”

“Wow, okay. What are the chances?”

“It seems like someone upstairs is still looking after you.”

“Yeah, maybe. You’ll understand if I reserve judgement on that kind of thinking.”

That kicked things off into a sort of impromptu planning session on how we’d organise the two flats and keep communications between us open with two doors between her living space and mine. We had half a dozen working solutions for various things more or less decided when one of us spotted the time and we both jumped into get ready mode.

I decided on jeans and sweatshirt with my comfortable boots as I expected things to be a bit rough and ready down at Bob’s place. They still looked brand new and I fully expected Bob and his friends to laugh at me for being so posh even when I was dressed down. Oh well, couldn’t be helped. I shrugged my shoulders and followed Sharon down to the bus stop.

“Are you sure you don’t mind being on your own today?”

“No, I have loads to do. I have to open a bank account then I have that meeting with Bob later this morning. I’m sure he’ll be able to find some way to keep me busy.”

“Yeah, but that’s hardly a way to spend your Saturday is it?”

“I don’t know, it’ll be different.”

“I suppose.”

She lapsed into a silence that suggested a question she wasn’t sure she ought to ask. I waited her out and eventually she caved.

“You know there’s one thing I can’t figure out about last night.”

“Mmm?”

“How did you know where to go? I mean I know you spent a day and a night on the streets, but from what you said, you never went anywhere near that neighbourhood during your wanderings, so I don’t understand…”

“You remember that dream last Sunday?”

“Not likely to forget that in a hurry.”

“No, me neither. It was very vivid.”

“What you mean…”

“…that I went there in my dream, yes, and I used the route we took last night.”

“So the place you were at the end of the dream…”

“I’m not ready to go there yet. Dream or not the memories are too overwhelming.”

We parted company at the other end of the bus ride, Sharon to meet with Phil at some undisclosed location and me to go about my own business. First and foremost was setting up a bank account. I’d been happy enough with the bank I’d used as Ken so decided to continue my business with them. It took half an hour of giving details and I left with a few sheets of paper and the promise that my card and chequebook would arrive through the post within the next week.

After that I went shopping for phones. I spent a while talking to a salesman in a phone shop and had to pass on the phone I wanted, current funds being limited to the advance Karen had given me the previous day. In the end I hunted out a second hand shop and picked up an old but serviceable no-frills model that had been unlocked, then bought a pay-as-you-go sim card from a mini-supermarket. Of course I then had to phone through to Sharon with my new number.

“No it’s just temporary until I get my first full pay-cheque and can afford a proper phone. No you should see this thing, I think it’s previous ‘one careful owner’ was Noah. No I’m fine, I’ll see you later. Bye.”

I checked my watch; half past ten, loads of time to get to the address Bob had given me before eleven. The first fifteen minutes I took my time, looking in shops and not much liking the clothes on display; it’s amazing what two half days parading about in quality fashions can do to spoil you for the better things in life. After a while the shops gave way to more functional, less attractive buildings and with no further distractions, I picked up the pace, arriving at my destination with five minutes to spare.

Bob’s Building Supplies was a big sprawling yard stacked high with bricks, sacks of sand, cement, wood, you name it. Just inside the gate was a loading area with a half-dozen vans and flatbed trucks standing in front of some low buildings. Unsurprisingly it wasn’t in the des res part of town, but to own so much real-estate this close to the square mile was still pretty impressive. The gates were open and there were signs of one or two people moving about. I took that as enough of an invitation to walk in as far as the nearest building and knock on the door.

“Come in.”

I recognised the voice, raised as it was like the first time I’d heard it. I pulled the door open and stepped into a small, cluttered office.

“Hi, remember me?”

Bob looked up at me in some surprise and took a few seconds to find his lost bearings.

“Hi. Er yes, I mean yes I do remember you. I just wasn’t really expecting you.”

“You did say eleven o’clock?”

“Eleven, yes. It’s just that I didn’t expect you to take me up on the invitation. I’ve met quite a few people from your side of town; they make nice and seem interested, but as soon as you suggest they come find out what it’s all about… Well let’s say you’re the first who’s actually done something about it. I notice your friends didn’t come with you.”

“Yeah, they had other things arranged, besides it was kind of me who dragged them along last night. I’m not disturbing you am I?”

“Only from doing my VAT returns, and I’m prepared to forgive you for that. Drink?”

The coffee smelt fresh and welcoming. Apparently the smile and the dreamy look in my eye answered for me as he poured out two mugs and handed one to me.

“Okay, so what do you want to know?”

“Oh, pretty much everything. As I said last night, I was only on the streets for a day and a night; long enough to see that there’s a problem, not long enough to learn what’s needed to fix it. I also said I had a few ideas, but I don’t want to explore any of them too far until I have a better idea as to whether or not they’re going to be worth anything.”

He leaned back in his chair and put his feet up on the desk.

“Actually, if you don’t mind, I’m kind of interested in your story. You say you were on the street one night only. What happened? How did things change for you?”

I shrugged.

“You remember the woman I was with last night? Her name’s Sharon. We met just after she’d had a domestic with her fiancé and she didn’t want to be alone, so she invited me to stay for a few days. We became friends and she extended the invitation indefinitely. She also introduce me to some of her friends, one of whom sorted out some irregularities with my paperwork, and the other offered me a job.”

“Wow, talk about falling on your feet. I suspect there’s more to the story than your telling, but that’s okay. It does a good job of describing what most of those people out there are missing. They don’t have a permanent postal address which means they can’t open a bank account, can’t register for benefits, can’t even apply for a job. That means they have no means of supporting themselves, paying for food, clothing, rent, which means they can’t get a permanent address and so the vicious circle goes round.”

“And that’s all they need? Somewhere to stay and a bit of help looking for a job?”

“For a lot of them pretty much, yeah. Statistics show that individuals who stay on the streets for more than two years tend to want to stay there. They get used to the life and find they can do without the hassles of bureaucracy and responsibility, and since they can get by out on the streets, a lot of them choose to stay there. Then there are those with drug dependencies and similar problems; they’re the tough ones”

“So how come the government can’t fix it, or at least part of it? I mean surely it isn’t that difficult or expensive to set up hostels?”

“The problem isn’t quite as simple as that. There is a constant flow of new street people every year; quite often asylum seekers who don’t understand the system and fall through the cracks when they step a bit out of line. That and the government’s main approach to dealing with the problem has been to throw resources at groups like ours who are already trying to do something about it. Most of those resources go into keeping the three thousand odd people out there alive with only a very small number of places able to offer halfway house facilities and then only to relatively few people.

“Sometimes it seems as if the government are in denial as well. About ten years ago they said they would deal with the problem of homelessness in London once and for all by the year 2012. They would lose too much face if they were to turn around now and say that the problem is getting worse rather than being solved once and for all, so instead they do spot counts to estimate the homeless population and these show the numbers decreasing from about two thousand eight years ago to just over five hundred now. The problem is those figures are inaccurate. If they were to ask people like us who are out there working with the homeless on a daily basis, we’d tell them that in the last eight years the number of homeless has risen from over two and a half thousand to over three thousand. They don’t want to hear stuff like that though, so they stick with their stats and that means the resources they were offering us are drying up.”

We chatted on for a while, him sharing the experiences of people he’d met on the soup runs; what they were dealing with and what they thought could help, and me talking about my ideas – which he called ‘highly ambitious’ – and listening to his suggestions on them. Time seemed to disappear and before we knew it, an hour had passed. He was the one who noticed first and jumped to his feet.

“So, how d’you feel about getting your hands dirty?”

“What do you need me to do?”

“Can you cook?”

“I’m learning. I can do chef’s assistant.”

“Good enough. We do two soup runs to different parts of the city on a Saturday. The first one is in about an hour and a half, and we need about twenty gallons of soup. Can I add you to a kitchen crew? You’ll be mostly chopping vegetables, nothing fancy.”

“Lead the way.”

And so that’s what I did. We headed into a largish kitchen that had been purpose built on site and I spent one hour peeling and chopping potatoes, onions, carrots and similar to add to one of the large vats, then we filled Thermos flasks which we loaded into a couple of vans along with tin mugs and bread rolls. Bob invited me to join him in one of the cabs while three other volunteers climbed in behind.

“So you do this every weekend?”

“We do this every day and twice on Saturdays. There are a quite a few of us involved thought, so most of us probably average one run per fortnight. It’s worth it though, you’ll see.”

And see I did. The amount of food we brought with us fed about fifty people, but we didn’t just hand stuff out. Bob took the time to introduce me by name to pretty much everyone who came up to the van, and we spent a good couple of hours chatting to them before gathering in the dirty mugs and heading back to the yard. I was silent on the way back until Bob smiled over at me.

“Takes you like that the first few times.”

“Huh?”

“Doing a run like this. The first time you really understand that they are human beings and not just numbers on a page. Burrows deep in here.”

He thumped himself in the chest and I knew very well what he was talking about.

I helped him wash up the mugs and flasks when we got back to the yard, giving his crew a much appreciated early escape. Through most of it I chewed over my thoughts and feelings, until eventually one floated to the surface.

“You’re pretty fortunate having a place like this.”

I indicated the kitchen and the yard around it.

“Yeah I am. My grandfather founded the business; he was a Robert too. Between him and my father, they grew it into the sprawling empire you see around you. I certainly couldn’t afford this land if I wanted to buy it at today’s prices, and I’ve had some very tempting offers for it over the years. The thing is I grew up here and I like it, that and it’s way too useful as a base of operations for the soup run, so I guess I’ll keep the whole thing ticking over then pass it on to my kids when they’re old enough, assuming they want it. If not they can sell it. By then it’ll be their problem, their responsibility.”

We finished up then I went to fetch my coat while he locked the buildings.

“My brother’s coming in to take the evening run so I’m heading off home now. Thank-you for your help and for your company today; it was very much appreciated by all. I was wondering if by way of thanks, perhaps I might offer you a lift somewhere.”

The afternoon’s activities had taken more out of me than I had realised and, comfortable boots or not, I wasn’t looking forward to my walk back to the city. I accepted gratefully and asked if he could drop me somewhere near my bus route and he over-ruled me, insisting that I tell him where I lived, then set about driving I don’t know how many miles out of his way to drop me at my front door. I climbed down from the cab and turned to say goodbye.

“Thanks for everything, you’ve given me a lot to think about, not to mention the eye opening experience this afternoon.”

“Well if you fancy doing it again any time, you know where to find us. You’ll be more than welcome.”

I shut the van door and waved him off, then turned and walked gratefully back home to a hot bath and a glass of wine. There was a twinge of guilt as I thought about the many people I’d met this afternoon for whom such luxuries were quite a way out of reach, but all that did was strengthen my resolve to do something about it.

It was getting on for six by the time I emerged, wrinkled but relaxed, from the bath. I texted Sharon to ask what she and Phil had planned and she responded to let me know they intended to stay in the city for food and entertainment. I made myself a light salad for tea and curled up in front of some awful brain-rot on the TV. It can’t have been massively interesting because the next thing I knew was the sound of the door closing as Sharon came breezing in, filled to the withers with the wonderful time she and Phil had enjoyed.

We chatted for a while, and I managed to keep my eyes open long enough to register that their relationship was well on its way to being back on track. Sharon noticed me drooping and shooed me off to bed, telling me I could share my day’s experience with her in the morning. I did make it to the bed, but left Sharon the job of hanging up my dressing gown and pulling the duvet over me.

for_evil9I dressed down for church, I mean as much as I could, given that pretty much all the clothes I owned were brand new. I wore a fairly ordinary green skirt and top, partly because Sharon told me some of the older women at church had a thing about girls in trousers (and why rock the boat?), but mostly because I wanted to. I had great legs and I liked showing them off. A pair of spearmint coloured tights and a pair of green tennis shoes finished the casual look. Karen might have a fit, but I was hoping that maybe I’d look a little less intimidating to the street kids, assuming of course that they came back this weekend.

The service was similar to the previous week’s effort, except that I tried joining in with a few of the songs this time. Pastor James spoke on relationships, which had Phil and Sharon snuggling closer to each other and me rolling my eyes, until he moved onto talking about our relationship with God. Yet again I realised that I had some unusual experiences in my life that most people didn’t. I couldn’t ignore that God wanted something to do with me, but I had no idea how to go about responding. Something to raise with the pastor if I had a chance after the service.

The last notes of the last song retreated into stillness and we were all invited to stay for coffee or tea and to enjoy the rest of the day. In the same way as the previous week it seemed that the entire congregation leapt to its feet and, by some bizarre modified version of Brownian motion, managed to move in a totally chaotic way across the room in all directions at once to form small groups of people desperate to chat about this, that and the other. Chairs disappeared into stacks, courtesy of half a dozen young men whose job it was this week, and I was left standing in my own island of stillness as everyone else moved around looking for their place in the crowd. Even Sharon and Phil had followed some deeply ingrained instinct that I as yet did not possess.

I looked around for the group of street kids and found them at the back, queuing up for drinks and biscuits. I weaved my way across to them and managed to emerge from the throng close to the young man who had assumed the role of leader the previous week.

“Hey.”

He turned round and looked down at me. His face wasn’t exactly welcoming, but neither was it rejecting.

“Hey.”

“Look, we got off on the wrong foot last week and I owe you an apology. I didn’t mean any offence by what I said, but I wasn’t exactly diplomatic with my choice of words either, so I can see why you were upset. Any chance we can give it another go?”

He shrugged, but his eyes were definitely giving me an all too casual once over. I chewed on a smile and waited. Eventually he realised what he was doing and gave me a half smile back.

“My name’s Liz”

I held out my hand. Best to establish friendship rather than suggesting anything more. He took it and shook it.

“Aaron.”

“Can I be candid with you?”

Again he shrugged, but I had more of his attention. Strike while the iron is hot.

“A couple of weeks ago I was homeless, only I ended up being a lot luckier than you guys. I made a friend and she helped me get my life back together. I wasn’t out in the cold long enough to really understand what you guys go through, but just long enough to realise that it isn’t something anyone should have to experience. I want to do something to help, and I don’t mean just offer you money or a meal or stuff like that. I want to find a real way to help. I have some ideas, but they’re at an early stage at the moment and probably won’t start to see light of day for some weeks at least. When they do though, I’m going to need some help and I figure the best people to provide that help are going to be you guys. That way you’re really helping yourselves.

“It’s a bit of a stab in the dark, no guarantees that it’s going to work, but if you don’t try you definitely don’t get. What do you say? Give the mad, rude girl a chance, or keep on as you are?”

“You know that may sound nice and encouraging when you hear yourself say it, but if you get our hopes up then the whole thing falls flat on its face, where does that leave us?”

“Pretty much where you are but with a bit of disappointment to deal with. Look have you ever been in love?”

“I get the feeling I might be soon.”

I’d forgotten how awkward younger guys could be at chatting up girls. He was smiling oddly and I allowed myself a small smile, not enough to encourage him, but maybe just enough to let him know I hadn’t taken offence.

“Okay, forget that. Would it be worth giving it a go if there was a pretty girl around showing a bit of skin?”

“For that it may be worth it.”

“Okay Aaron, shall we shake on it then? You and your friends give my crack-pot ideas a go when I ask you to help and I’ll make sure there’s some eye-candy there for when you turn up.”

We shook and I withdrew, not wanting to risk undoing what I had achieved. Aaron jerked his chin at me and called after me.

“Hey, what was that thing about falling in love?”

“I figured sometimes the girl says no. That’s gotta hurt, but it doesn’t stop you from asking the next girl does it? You have to try stuff now and again, ‘cos even if it doesn’t work out, you know that maybe one day when you try something new, it will.”

I turned away from him, but glanced back over my shoulder. He was still watching me with his cute half smile. Hmm what was that feeling?

I didn’t have a chance to explore it as I bumped into the brick wall that is Pastor James.

“Oh, hey little lady, are you alright?”

“Oh sorry pastor, I wasn’t watching where I was going. Did I spill anything?”

“No I think we’re good. It’s great to see you here again. You know I don’t think I caught your name last week.”

That’s because I didn’t really have one last week, but I wasn’t going to tell him that.

“I’m Liz.”

You wanted to talk to him about his preach; go on, this is an ideal time. But I couldn’t. Somewhere between the thought and the action there was a break in communications. And I lapsed into one of those silences that threatened to have us both shuffling our feet. The pastor had some experience in dealing with awkward situations though. He offered me away out and I took it.

“So we didn’t frighten you off last week then? Usually when visitors come two weeks in a row it’s because they found something they like.”

“Well I already have some friends here; Sharon and Phil, Karen Blackheath, Clive Anderton-Buckley. That and the whole atmosphere is rather friendly. The singing’s a bit odd to start with, not much like church ought to be, but it’s nice.”

He laughed his easy-going laugh.

“You know I never really had much of an idea on what church ought to be. It’s just a bunch of people who love God getting together to spend some time with each other and their creator is all. It doesn’t need hymns and rituals.”

“That’s kind of refreshing.”

“I’ve always thought so. Did I notice you talking to our fringe visitors again?”

“Yes I’ve been thinking about a lot of things, including what you said to me last week. I don’t know if my ideas will amount to much, but I thought it might be worth a try.”

“I’m glad to hear you say that and I’d love to hear more of your ideas. I wonder would you like to come over for lunch next Sunday. It’ll just be my wife Marion and me, and if you prefer we can invite one or two others, Sharon and Phil for instance?”

“That’s really kind, thank-you. I’m not sure if Sharon and Phil might have something on next weekend, but can I accept for all of us and maybe let you know if there’s a change in plan?”

“That’ll be fine. Sharon should have my number, otherwise you can get me through the church office. The number for that is on the notice sheet.

“You know you don’t have to wait till next Sunday if you have something you want to talk to me about. Just pick up the phone and I’ll make time for you.”

With that he gave me a nod and walked off towards a group of women who had been trying to attract his attention. I couldn’t help wondering if he was psychic or something. That was the second conversation we’d had where he seemed to look inside my head.

Karen walked up to me then, making a display of mock horror at what I was wearing and I offered her a twirl as I had the previous week, then we were laughing and I was explaining the reason for my less than glamorous appearance. Whatever was left of my conversation with Pastor James evaporated in the face of the new one with my boss.

Karen introduced me to a number of her friends and we found a wide range of nothing much to talk about until the magical motion of the crowd brought us round to Phil and Sharon just as they were looking to leave. Karen grabbed my arm before I withdrew from her crowd and turned me to one side for a quiet word.

“I was thinking. It’s not too much out of my way to drop by and pick you up in the morning. How would you fancy a lift tomorrow?”

“Only if you allow me to pay half the petrol.”

“Okay, you’re on. I’ll see you at quarter to eight.”

“I’ll be ready, bye.”

And with that I re-joined my two best friends and we headed off to see what we could do about lunch.

Sunday afternoon was the usual mix of good food and good company. There had been a note under the door from Mr Bryant suggesting we might like to view the flat next door on Monday evening at about six thirty. Of course Phil spotted it and wanted to know what it was about, which gave us our major topic of conversation for the afternoon. After we had enjoyed a light tea together, both Sharon and I begged the need for our beauty sleep and Phil, gallant soul that he is, told us that neither of us had anything to worry about on that score. Still, he headed off home leaving the two of us to our baths and hair washing, mixed in with liberal amounts of girl-talk.

Girl-talk. Just thinking the phrase spread a warm, fuzzy glow throughout my body like an explosion of love bugs. I hugged myself as thought trying to keep the feeling in.

“Penny for them?”

“Oh I was just thinking how much I love being a girl. I wouldn’t give this up for anything.”

“Yeah, sure you say that now, but wait a few years ’til you’re old and fat and tell me the same thing.”

I mused on that for a moment.

“No it’s not just that. I mean yeah, the looking good is a big part of it; the clothes, the way guys look at me now; but there’s so much more. Having friends like you to share everything with, not having to try so hard every day just to fit. Even with all the less pleasant things I’ve experienced in the past two weeks, even with what you just said, this is me, this allows me to be all me.”

“No regrets? Not even one?”

“Well two maybe. The first is my family; they must be worried sick about me and I can’t tell them about this, not yet. I will though. One day I’ll find a way of getting in contact with them and breaking all this gently enough that they’ll see it’s very much for the best.”

“And the other?”

“Well I never got to be a little girl. I keep wondering about all the things I missed out on being Ken.”

I thought I caught the vaguest hint of a mischievous glint in Sharon’s eye as she turned away, but it was soon forgotten. We did the hot chocolate and early bed thing. I had been worried that my excitement and nervousness over the coming week’s work would keep me awake, but the soft velvet feeling of being who and where I belonged stayed with me and settled me into Morpheus’ arms.

In the end there wasn’t much to be worried about. We woke early as usual and were ready in good time for Karen when her short beep on the horn brought us scurrying out of the flat. We waved each other good-bye as I climbed into the front of the car and Sharon headed on to the bus stop, all of us being just too aware of how bad the traffic was close to Sharon’s place of work and not even suggesting that she should ride with us. Karen gave me a cheerful smile as I buckled up.

“You look lovely today Liz.”

I’d chosen a short, loose fitting cotton dress, mainly because it would be easy to slip on and off during the day and, because it was a fairly neutral colour, had spruced it up with a light pink scarf and sash belt. After Karen’s mock horror expression the previous day I had decided that some sort of effort was in order. Still no makeup though. The first piece of advice I’d received in this business still held.

“Thank-you, so do you.”

“Yes, but I’ll bet you didn’t have to work so hard to achieve it.”

“Still worth it. You look like a million dollars.”

I exaggerated the American accent on the last two words And was rewarded with a quiet chuckle.

“So, are you ready for your first full day?”

I told her how nervous I felt and she spent the rest of the journey suggesting survival tips. Some quite simple ones like keep hydrated; something I’d worked out already; and some more involved like mixing my moods between the different clothes I was given to wear, trying to slow things down where appropriate, not just to vary the range of my expressions in the photographs, but also to give me a rest from the energy I’d brought into my previous times in front of the camera.

The day was fun. I mean I won’t bore you with details, because essentially it was just more of the same. Andrew’s patois had enough jokes in it to keep us laughing when he wanted that look and I took encouragement from his constant stream of positive comments and managed to give everything I did the appropriate amount of energy throughout the day.

I was quietly pleased to see that I’d been assigned the same assistant as the previous two occasions. In the brief snatches of conversation we managed to fit into the morning, I discovered her name was also Liz, she was married with two children – yes there were photographs – and she had been doing this for twenty years, pretty much from straight out of school. We spent a little more time chatting over coffee and lunch, and by the end of the day were firm friends. Getting into other people’s lives was so easy and I kept wondering why I’d found it so hard as Ken. Perhaps because I hadn’t felt as comfortable in myself as I did now, I knew that made an amazing difference to my self-confidence.

The day’s shooting came to an end and I helped pack things away. Karen reappeared, having spent the entire day in her office and on the phone and asked Andrew how it had gone. By way of answer he took her over to the computer in the corner and picked out a couple of dozen shots from the pages of thumbnails. Most were of me, not that I was counting, and by the time I hauled my weary behind into Karen’s car and she headed us both homeward, she was already commenting on how good an investment I was turning out to be.

Mr Bryant knocked on the door fifteen minutes after Karen dropped me off. Sharon had already been home when I arrived and we were both halfway through a glass of wine and well into sharing the details of our respective days when the interruption came. The short tour showed the next-door flat as being a little larger than Sharon’s, but in a lot worse condition. The previous tenant had managed to break or damage most of the furniture as well as to badly mark the walls and carpet, but even so there was a lot of space and the place had ‘potential’ to use real-estate parlance. I suggested to Mr Bryant that perhaps he might want to let the place to me unfurnished and we agreed on a rent that was quite a bit lower than Sharon’s. I offered to redecorate for half the first month’s rent and he agreed as long as he got to approve the colours. We signed some papers and he said he would arrange for the broken furniture to be removed over the weekend. I asked if I could bring some colour swatches around for him to look at on Saturday and he agreed, replying to a part of my anatomy that suggested he probably wouldn’t spend much time looking at the colours. I would probably be able to get away with painting the place hot pink and puce if I chose, still that did mean I had a good chance of getting the colours I wanted.

The rest of the week was more of the same. Long days followed by Sharon’s brilliant cooking, my exhausted taste buds hardly able to do justice to her creations, and my lessons in cooking suspended until such time as I wasn’t worn to a frazzle. If I still had a spark of energy after we’d eaten, we’d talk or veg out in front of the box, otherwise there would usually be a soothing bath and an early night.

Friday ended up being a short day much to everyone’s surprise and delight. The hard work during the week had more than caught up the two days when Karen had been let down by her second model, and as we were all eagerly anticipating the three-thirty break, Andrew unexpectedly called out.

“Okay girls, that’s a wrap.”

There was stunned silence for a moment then a ragged cheer. At Elizabeth’s insistence – everyone called her Elizabeth to distinguish her from me – I pulled on my dressing gown and followed her out from behind the screen. Andrew was already popping the cork on a bottle of champagne and after filling a dozen or so glasses for everyone in the crew, passed them round and raised his first toast in my direction.

“To little Liz, who’s exuberance and energy has taken us from a day behind to today’s early finish.”

“Hey I didn’t do anything more than you guys.”

Charlotte, the other model, rolled her eyes at that.

“Are you kidding! Everyone slows down as the day goes on. Except you of course. You hit every queue, and I could hardly let you show me up, especially on our first shoot.”

I was aghast.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t realise I was doing anything out of the ordinary.”

Charlotte came over and gave me a hug.

“I’m not complaining kiddo. We made the deadline which means there’s no forfeit to pay, and personally I could do with the money.”

I gave Elizabeth an accusing glare but she just shrugged and grinned back at me.

“We had to see what you had in you on your first time out didn’t we?”

Everyone was laughing and raising their glasses to me, obviously no-one was too upset. The noise must have disturbed Karen because she appeared in the doorway. She caught sight of the champagne glasses and the look of surprise and hopeful delight on her face was worth the week’s hard work.

“Are you guys trying to tell me that we’re finished?”

Andrew shrugged, nonchalant to the end.

“Not only finished, but I think you will be more than pleased with the results.”

We spent the rest of the afternoon laughing and ooing and ahing as Andrew and Karen worked their way through the thousands of images and made their selections, putting them up on a large screen for all of us to see. By five o’clock they had all been selected and written to a couple of DVDs as well as a USB drive. These were placed in a padded envelope and handed to a motorbike courier who headed off to the publishers. Tomorrow, regardless of it being Saturday, they would be turned into a catalogue in digital form which would then be sent over to the printers, who would run the presses through Saturday night and most of Sunday, ending up with several thousand printed catalogues being loaded up onto lorries and heading out for distribution ready for use on Monday morning.

If everything had been pushed back a day, the publishers and printers would probably not have been available straight away to do their part, delaying distribution by possibly as much as a week. As it was the three-thirty finish had inserted a welcome two hour buffer into the tight schedule. Karen joined us in a second glass of champagne after the courier headed off then made her way back to her office, returning a short while later with a handful of payslips, which she then proceeded to hand out. There were generous bonuses added to the already, in my mind, generous salaries. When I opened mine I froze solid as I looked at the number. I looked up at Karen’s face to see if maybe she’d made a mistake and almost cried at the grateful smile she was giving me. I looked back at the amount of money soon to go into my bank account. It seemed I would be able to furnish my new flat completely without having to wait for next month.

Then came the presentation of the racks. All the girls who had worked on the shoot in whatever capacity chose something off the racks. In many cases they’d have to wait for an outfit in their size to be sent through to them, but for Charlotte and me there was no such problem. When it was my turn, Andrew stepped forward and asked if I’d mind him suggesting some things. I’d learnt to value and appreciate his taste and invited him to go ahead. He instantly pulled out the first two dresses I’d worn, what he’d called the Autumn Cloud and the Emerald Radiance, then he picked out four more. There was only one I wasn’t so keen on, and asked if perhaps I could exchange that for one I’d seen in a photograph of Charlotte. Her size and colouring was close to Sharon’s and I’d been quite blown away by it, even more so as I imagined Sharon wearing it.

And that was that. We left the packers to put everything away for the last time and I piled my spoils, still in their plastic protectors, into the back of Karen’s car.

We were both too exhausted and too lost in our own private thoughts, now that the week was over, to talk much, and satisfied ourselves by filling the car with contented sighs all the way home. We arrived and I realised I had a question.

“So what happens now?”

“Now you take a week’s well-earned rest then you and Charlotte will be invited to the unveiling of the new line. It’ll be next Friday. I’ll call you beforehand, arrange to send you a dress suitable to the occasion and for a limo to pick you up. After that there’ll be a number of press releases and media events. I’ll send you an itinerary as soon as it’s been finalised and Andrew will probably have some ideas on what you should wear to each one. Again, we’ll provide the clothes. Beyond that, I guess we’ll see.”

I climbed out and retrieved the new additions to my wardrobe from the back of the car. I was just about to wave Karen off when she wound down the window and leaned over

“Oh, you’ll be expected to have an escort for next Friday. If you can’t find one, let me know by Wednesday and I’ll arrange something.”

She drove away completely oblivious to the churning mess of emotions she had just stirred up in me.

 -oOo-

Chapter 10

I climbed the stairs to Sharon’s flat and let myself in. She was in the kitchen clattering about as usual, but stuck her head through the doorway when she heard me arrive.

“How was your last day?”

She’d spotted the clothes folded over my arm and I could see the sudden interest in her eyes. Still play along for a bit, might be fun. I let out a tired sigh.

“Oh it was okay. We finished ahead of time so we made the deadline easily. Had a bit of a rest and a celebration. It was cool.”

She licked her lips and I could see she was itching to ask about the clothes. I couldn’t hold it in any longer and let the grin take over, Karen’s parting words forgotten for a while.

“Apparently there’s a tradition at these things. All the girls get to choose something they like from the racks and the models get a half-dozen. Andrew – he’s the photographer – chose most of mine, but there was one I really liked. I’ve been wondering what you would think.”

I lay the dresses carefully over the back of the sofa and pulled out the bottom one, removed the plastic cover and held it up against her. It was a pure white dress with a plunging v neckline and what looked like overlapping ribs of shimmering satin. It came to about mid-thigh and showed a lot of skin. For Sharon’s winter complexion it was perfect. Just holding it up against her and even with the shocked o of her mouth I knew it was made for her.

“Wow, you have to put it on. No I mean it, I chose it for you.”

I thrust it at her and all but physically pushed her into the bedroom. I figured it would take her a moment to get over the surprise and I made use of the extra time to slip into the bathroom and change into my own favourite of the whole collection. A week’s worth of fast changing had me back in the living room and waiting with a patient look on my face by the time she reappeared.

I had no words. The dress fit her more perfectly than I could have hoped. Whilst it had looked good just held up in front of her, now she was wearing it, even with no other adornments, she filled the room. From the radiant look on her face to her bare stockinged feet she had transformed into a drop dead gorgeous, drool inducing, utterly desirable… and that’s where I ran out of words.

“I could almost wish I was Ken again.”

“Don’t you dare. I could never say thank-you to Ken the way I want to say thank-you to you.”

She ran and flung er arms around me, hugging me so tight it hurt. I could feel a damp patch forming on my shoulder and held her back.

for_evil10It took a moment, but she noticed the difference in me. Whether it was the texture of the dress, or if she caught sight of the colours I don’t know, but very abruptly she pulled me back to arm’s length and looked me over, her mouth turning circular for the second time in as many minutes. I broke out of her hold and twirled, a swirling pirouette of greens, yellows and browns.

“Do you like it? It was the first dress they gave me to wear, and I fell in love with it then.”

“Girlfriend, you had better not be too tired to go out tonight, because all of a sudden I feel like partying.”

“No extra guys this time?”

“I think we learned our lesson last week. But honestly girl, tonight you get to choose. You won’t be going home alone unless you want to.”

That brought back Karen’s parting comments and the dilemma they induced. It must have shown on my face because Sharon was suddenly all caring.

“What is it Liz? Sorry, am I being a klutz again, bringing up something you’re still not sure about?

“It’s not that. Well maybe it is a little, but it’s more what Karen said when she dropped me off.”

“And that is?”

“That next Friday I have to attend the launch of this line of clothes, and I have to bring a plus one; you know arm candy.”

“Shit you mean that these dresses aren’t even officially out there yet? Did anyone say anything about not wearing them until next weekend?”

She’d missed the point, but hit another quite valid one. I pulled out my mobile and punched in Karen’s number.

“Hi Karen, it’s Liz. Sharon here’s just raised a point that I hadn’t thought of. You know those dresses that we got to take away with us this afternoon? Nobody said anything to me, but is there likely to be any comeback if we, say, take them out for a spin a week before the line is released? Yeah. Uhuh. Mhmm. Yeah. Yes I get it. Okay. Bye.”

Sharon was twitching fit to explode and I let her hang a few seconds more just for missing my point. I really was going to have to practice hiding my grin though because it broke through again despite my efforts.

“She says she’s kind of counting on us going out like this and dropping the Elle-gance name a bit. It turns out to be good publicity for the launch if the right people notice.”

“Yes!”

She grabbed me and swung me around while I looked back, bemused.

“You have no idea how hard it would have been to have something like this in my closet and not be able to wear it in public for a whole week. I’m going to change back out of it for now. I’d hate to spill something on it by accident. You should do the same. Meet you in the kitchen.”

And she was gone like a rabbit down a hole. I headed to the bathroom and changed back, hanging my Autumn Cloud back on its hanger. I took my time and Sharon was clattering about again when I stepped into the kitchen. She gave me an apologetic look and a more subdued hug.

“It only just struck me, what you said, and I steamrollered right over it. I’m sorry, but I was just so excited. I hope you’re enough of a girl to know what I mean.”

I did and I hugged her back.

“What am I going to do Sharon? I don’t want to go to this thing with some rent-a-hunk hanging off my arm, but I don’t know who else I could go with. And no, not Pete before you even think about joking.”

“I wasn’t going to sweetie. The thing is you have until Wednesday to think about it and you do know some nice guys; and I’ll eat that dress if any of them aren’t at least half-way in love with you right now.”

“Who did you have in mind?”

“Well there’s Bob from yesterday and that manager at the Meet Market.”

“Now you are making fun of me. Can you imagine Bob in a suit, let alone a dinner jacket, and Richard I think you’ll find is more in lust than in love. He may be a nice guy, but I’d rather not go that route.”

“Shame. I was thinking we could use those golden tickets of yours tonight. Mind you Phil might not be so keen. Still it’s not time to worry yet. You never know, you might meet the man of your dreams tonight and be swept off your feet.”

We separated and I set about laying the table while Sharon brewed her magic on the hob.

“Are you going to call Phil and suggest he makes an effort tonight? It’d be a shame to turn up in that dress to find him in jeans and a sweatshirt.”

“Good idea. Can you watch these for a minute.”

I took over stirring something I couldn’t identify that smelled out of this world and only half heard Sharon’s conversation. I vaguely heard her suggest he call someone to call in a favour, but she was keeping her voice down so I didn’t get all of it. I started to worry about her plotting again when she didn’t come back immediately after putting the phone down, then it rang and she picked it up before it was halfway through the first tone.

“He said yes? That’s great! Can you pick us up in an hour? Brilliant! See you then. Love you.”

The phone went down. She hadn’t been able to keep her voice down for the last call, but it didn’t seem to matter because she breezed in looking very pleased with herself and ready to share. She took the pan out of my hands and set it to one side, turning off the hob as she did so.

“Right that’s settled then. These’ll do nicely in an omelette for tomorrow’s breakfast. For tonight we’re eating out. Phil has an old school friend, Mike, who’s started up a little restaurant a few miles out. It’s doing really well, got good reviews and everything. In fact it’s usually packed and it’s only because Mike owes Phil big time that he’s agreed to squeeze us in.”

“This isn’t another matchmaking attempt is it?”

She tried to look innocent and outraged, and only vaguely carried it off.

“I’ve never met Mike so I don’t know. Besides, you did say you might be interested in a guy who could cook. We’ll just have to see how well hung he is when we get there.”

The mischievous grin had given her away ahead of the punch line, and I had managed to arm myself with a tea-towel, which she ducked.

“Hey we only have an hour to get ready, and if you still want me to help you with your makeup, you’re going to have to set aside thoughts of revenge.”

We called a truce and raced for the shower. I won, but took pity on her by making it my fastest ever then reappearing in the living room wrapped in a towel and carrying my clothes.

You get used to dressing in front of feline eyes, and I’ve only creeped myself out once by wondering if maybe King Toby might be the reincarnation of some peeping tom. I had cured myself of the feeling by walking up to him topless and staring him straight in the eyes. When he turned and padded softly out the room I knew there could be no such lecherous instincts within him; at least not where human females were concerned.

I put on underwear and a new pair of tights. The packets said ‘dark tan’ and the overall colour, once I’d pulled them on, was warm and a good complement to the colours in the dress. I brushed out my hair and put on a light layer of foundation before Sharon made it out of the shower. She nodded her approval at my progress and suggested a few next steps while she got herself ready.

“Sharon?”

“Mmm?”

“You know those bronze pumps of yours?”

“Mhmm.”

Her conversational ability was hampered by the hair clips in her mouth as she went through what looked like a complicated but well-practised manoeuvre to put her hair up.

“I was wondering what you might think. Do they go with this dress? Would you mind me borrowing them for tonight?”

I had to wait a while until the last hair clip went in leaving her free to dig about in one of her wardrobes. She offered them up to the dress, along with a matching bag.

“Yeah they’ll work. All yours. How’re we getting along here?”

She had to correct a little of what I had done – not much which was encouraging – then she helped me into my dress I did the same for her.

We were standing side by side admiring the final result when the distinctive horn on Phil’s beemer sounded.

We grabbed coats and bags, filling the latter with keys and wallets and stuff, then headed for the door.

“You know, this evening had better be mainly indoors. I don’t think either of us would stand much of a chance exposed to the elements tonight.”

Phil apologised for not coming up, but it was easy to forgive as the street was lined on both sides with cars. Music was already blaring from an open window in one of the neighbouring houses, which further explained the lack of parking space. Sharon, as always, slipped in beside Phil and gave him a peck on the cheek. I took my usual place in the back and we sped off to destination unknown.

Mike’s place was out in a leafy suburb, situated on top of a hill looking down into a tree-lined park. It wasn’t that small either. I counted thirty cars in the car-park, with space for as many more. Sharon looked back over her shoulder to share a knowing look and I scrunched up my nose at her.

“It either means he’s filthy rich or he’ll be paying this place off until the sun goes out.”

“What was that?”

Oops, forgot Phil was listening.

“Nothing. Just part of an earlier conversation.”

The Maître D stopped us at the door then, as soon as Phil gave his name, sent a waiter into the kitchen and called another character to come and take our coats. At which point something close to magic happened. An entire restaurant full of people fell silent as every eye, both male and female, turned towards us. The Maître D developed something of a speech impediment and the only person who seemed unaffected was Phil; most likely because he was standing in front of us and hadn’t seen anything unusual yet. He did notice the odd behaviour around us though.

“What is it, what’s happening?”

He turned around and his jaw joined all the others on the floor. Sharon leaned over to his ear and whispered.

“This would be a good time to act really cool sweetheart. I mean after all we are with you.”

Just then a shortish man in a chef’s whites – or rather nearly whites as the smock was covered in the distant echoes of hard to get out stains – stepped through the kitchen doors and broke the spell.

“Phil! How long has it been buddy?”

“Ten, twelve years I reckon. Too long anyway. Wow look at this place, you really are doing well for yourself.”

It was one of those starts-off-as-a-handshake-turns-into-a-hug kind of moves and it ended up with the newcomer – I presumed Mike – looking past his friend at us. He let out a low appreciative whistle.

“Wow, I could say the same for you too Monster Munch.”

He turned his attention more fully on us.

“What I can’t figure is what you two incredibly lovely ladies are doing hanging around with old Mr Flabulous here.”

“Mr Flabulous?”

“Alright, so I was a bit chubby when I was younger. I grew out of it. More than you did short-arse.”

“Ouch. Watch where you swing that razor sharp wit of yours Phil; I’m running low on little blue plasters.”

Sharon’ brow creased briefly.

“Why blue plasters?”

“They’re required for anyone working in the food industry. They have a little metal strip which shows up under X-ray. Makes them easier to find if one drops off into the food by accident.”

I don’t know where I learned that; I think maybe a first-aider at work course from some years back. Mike seemed impressed.

“Brains as well. Help me Phil, I think I’m falling in love.”

He was no Adonis it has to be said. Maybe four or five inches shorter than Phil, but that still left him an inch taller than my new height. He was unusually slim for a chef, or maybe I’ve just been taken in too far by the stereotype, with a kind if unremarkable face. It didn’t really matter, I was warming to his sense of humour and feeling odd stirrings inside. Phil still didn’t get the hint and it earned him an elbow in the ribs from his girlfriend.

“Ow, oh sorry. Mike can I introduce you to my girlfriend Sharon and her friend, recently come to London, Liz.”

He took Sharon’s hand briefly then turned all his attention on me. I’ve never been kissed on the hand before – something of a redundant statement perhaps – and I wasn’t ready for the thrill that coursed through me as he did so.

“Liz, or do you prefer Elizabeth? I am utterly enchanted to meet you. Allow me to escort you to your table.”

He held out a crooked elbow which I took gently in my own small hand. How was this very ordinary looking guy so entrancing. If he was feeling even a fraction of what was going through me right now, I couldn’t understand how he could continue to move and talk so easily.

“So, you’re new to London. How do you find our fair city?”

I managed to shake off enough of the trance to find my own voice.

“Thank-you for the perfect feed to that old joke about following the M1 ’til it runs out, but I won’t take you up on it if you don’t mind. London’s a bit of a mixed bag; some really great people, others not so much.”

“Well it’s my hope to fit into the former category, but please tell me if I’m in danger of finding my way onto your blacklist. I don’t think I could live with myself if that were the case.

“That really is an exquisite dress; both you and Sharon in fact. Quite often I can tell whose, but this time I’m at a total loss.”

He held a chair for me and I settled demurely into it. Phil did the same for Sharon and then took his own place between us. Yet again Mike had given me a perfect feed, and now it was time to earn a few extra brownie points with Karen. I raised my voice just a touch above normal conversation.

“They’re both from the new Elle-gance line that’s going to be unveiled next Friday. I’ve been modelling them all week for the new catalogue. Sorry, did that sound too much like a sound bite?”

Mike chuckled. It was a pleasant sound and I found myself smiling then blushing.

“You’ll get no complaints from me. Sound bite or not it’s only going to be good for business if it gets out that a famous…”

“Soon to be famous.”

“…soon to be famous fashion model is eating in my restaurant.”

He was shamelessly expansive in the way he spoke, hamming it up to the point that my own minor indiscretion was covered over. I found myself liking him more and more with each passing second.

“You will have to excuse me but the kitchen does not run itself and I have already been away too long. Please will you let me order for you? It’s something of a speciality of mine, to divine your perfect meal. For legal reasons I do have to ask if there are any foods to which you are allergic or for which your bodies have an intolerance.”

Sharon and I both agreed to his experiment, neither of us having anything to put on his no go list. Phil was not quite so keen, but he gave in under Sharon’s and my combined glares.

“Okay then, but listen up Mike, if I end up with a plate piled high with Wagon Wheels and Monster Munch I will not see the funny side of things.”

Mike lifted his hands in a gesture of butter-wouldn’t-melt-in-his-mouth innocence.

“Phil my very good friend, this is my business and I take my business very seriously indeed. Besides I owe you big time. Jesting aside, you are all my honoured guests and you shall receive my very best. Oh and my food is much better than my poetry.”

With that he disappeared back into his inner sanctum leaving us very much the centre of attention for a great many surreptitious glances. Sharon ignored the looks we were getting and bent her head over to catch my eye.

“Really?”

I bit my lip and looked over at the door to the kitchen, which was of course all the communication she needed. Phil missed it entirely, but then I think Ken might well have as well. Sharon and I had tuned in to each other amazingly well. It didn’t help that the wine waiter arrived with a bottle of bubbles which he offered for Phil’s inspection just as Sharon was trying to grab my attention.

The evening was a gastronomic epic. Phil was all ready to complain when the first course turned up with considerably less on our plates than on his, but both Sharon and I appreciated the gesture and eventually managed to persuade our great protector that smaller portions were actually a kindness.

And so it turned out to be. Plates and dishes were replaced over and again as a progression of exquisite and complementary flavours marched their merry way across eager taste buds. I found myself closing my eyes and shivering rapturously at each new delicacy. Now and again, it seemed, I opened my eyes just soon enough to see the kitchen door ease closed.

The night wore on with the occasional interruption from a group or couple as they stood to leave, asking either Sharon or me where we bought our dresses. I did my advertising bit for the people who were paying me so generously, and usually whoever had come asking would leave quickly, grateful for the information. In the end we were the only customers left in the restaurant.

A second champagne bottle stood upside down in the ice bucket and we all leaned back from our final course – a sort of tropical fruit sorbet – with aching sides and a desperate hope that this life changing experience was finally at an end. Phil was struggling worse than Sharon and me as his helpings had all been significantly larger than ours, and it had somehow been impossible to leave even the smallest morsel or to refuse the next course. He had switched to water after the first two small flutes of champagne and was considerably less inebriated than either Sharon or myself.

Mike appeared at the kitchen door carrying a tray and we all groaned in protest.

“No, no, it’s all good. Just a small cup of coffee to round everything off. The fruit in the sorbet will have sensitised the right taste buds so this will be, hand on heart, the best cup of coffee you’ve ever tasted.”

It was. Oh yes it was! It was almost an orgasm in a cup, and that was just the aroma. I had to say something. I placed a hand on Mike’s cheek and turned him so he was facing directly into my eyes.

“I have never enjoyed a meal more, sorry Sharon, but that was amazing. I have just one question though.”

I paused for effect. My earlier nerves had faded into the growing alcoholic haze, and perhaps I should have taken that as a warning. I picked my moment.

“How big is your c…”

“Liz!”

Sharon managed to stop me from completing the question, but the meaning was still quite clear. Mike went beetroot with embarrassment as Sharon and Phil joined me in laughing. Then I caught a glimpse of Mike’s eyes and the laughter died in my throat. I glanced across at Sharon who was thankfully still with it enough to notice. She nudged Phil in the ribs.

“Come on love, let’s go walk off some of these calories.”

They left quietly, and I rather self-consciously reached across the table for Mike’s hands. He flinched away leaving me with nothing to hold. I felt wretched. After the herculean effort Mike had put into this evening I had repaid him with a stupid joke. I looked at him, at the rigid set of his jaw, the downcast eyes. It was an expression I was all too familiar with, having worn it often enough as Ken. The fact that I knew the feelings that went along with it only made me feel worse and I scoured my muggy brain for words to rescue the situation.

“I’ve never wished more fervently that I could take back something I’ve said. It was a stupid joke, and not even a good one. Mike, I never meant…”

“Look, just stop alright? What’s done is done and I… I think I’d like you to leave now.”

It was like being stabbed with an icicle; cold tendrils spreading sickly regret through me. For a moment I felt I might be paralysed, but when I tried to move my body responded. I stood and waited, hoping, but he remained still and wouldn’t look at me.

Slowly, weighed down by all my unspoken words, I made my way over to the entrance and retrieved my coat. Turning back towards him I searched for one last thing to say, but my tongue was a lead weight and my mind a blank slate. I pushed on the door and headed out into the cold night.

“Liz, what happened?”

I was trying to dial the number of a taxi company into my phone, but my vision kept blurring. I wiped away the tears with the heel of my hand, careless of what it was doing to my makeup and tried again. A hand touched me on the arm and a shied away out its grip.

“He asked me to leave, and I can’t really blame him.”

She made to draw me into a hug, Phil moving in as well with a sympathetic look on his face. I held up my arms to fend them off.

“No, I have this coming for being such an arse. You should go in and be his friends, God knows he deserves it more than I do right now. I’ll see you later.”

I turned away and somehow managed to get the number into the phone. held it up to my ear, dimly aware of receding footsteps behind me as the ringing tone gave way to a bored voice.

“Hi I’m at Mike’s place, the restaurant. In Highgate, yes. I need a ride to Stamford Hill. Well I’m standing outside now so as soon as you can please. Thanks.”

I stamped my feet for ten minutes before the taxi arrived, by which time the cold had well and truly settled into my bones. I pulled open the door and settled gratefully into the warmth, giving the address as we pulled out into the quite road.

We rode in silence for a while, the cabbie giving me the occasional glance in his rear view mirror. I caught sight of my half reflection in the window, all panda eyes and tear lines marked out in liquid mascara. I was a mess and there wasn’t much I could or even cared to do about it. I hunted in my bag for a tissue and set about clearing up the worst of the smears.

“Rough night love?”

I couldn’t bear it, couldn’t bear his sympathy, couldn’t bear to talk about it. I shook my head.

“I’m sorry, I really don’t want to go into it.”

“Suit yourself love. It’s just that I hate to see a pretty girl cry.”

“Even if she’s been an absolute bitch and hurt someone who’s really gentle and kind and didn’t deserve it?”

“I suppose I could live with it then, but only if she did so on purpose.”

I couldn’t help it. I burst into tears, trying all the while to choke them back. It wasn’t fair, the guy was only trying to help and I’m sure my performance only made it harder for him to concentrate on the road. Eventually I regained control of myself.

“I’m sorry.”

“Listen love, you do what you have to. I only wish I could be of some help.”

I thanked him then pulled out a compact, using the mirror to wipe away as much of the mess on my face as I could. Before long we were driving down familiar streets. I checked the meter as we pulled up outside Sharon’s flat and I handed over the fare with a healthy tip.

“You don’t need to that love.”

“I know, but you were kind so I want to.”

I stepped out of the cab and headed for the flat. The party down the road was still in full swing with a dance beat thumping out into the night through open windows. I could still hear it dimly, even inside the flat, not that it bothered me at all. I dropped my bag and coat, stepped out of my shoes and threw myself onto the bed, giving way to the tear-storm that had been brewing since I left the restaurant.

I don’t know how long I spent like that, but when the flood eventually subsided, I lifted my head away from the dampness of my pillow and noticed the streaks of makeup all over it.

With an unladylike utterance, I pulled the pillowcase off and took it to the bathroom to soak in the sink with a generous helping of Vanish before sitting down in front of the dressing table with a tub of cold cream and a large packet of cotton balls. Half an hour and half a bin full of cotton wool later I was sufficiently degunked, cleansed and moisturised to consider myself no longer a hazard to soft furnishings.

I changed into my night things and gathered up the debris my entrance had strewn about the place. With everything hanging neatly or in its rightful place I checked on the pillowcase, now well enough rescued to go in the washing machine, and dug out a fresh one. The pillow was still damp, so I folded my second one over and lay on that, hugging the life out of the other and settling under the duvet with my legs tucked up in front of me.

I was still awake when I heard a key in the front door. Quiet footsteps and a sudden beam of light as the bedroom door opened a crack.

“Sweetie? Are you awake?”

I lay as still as I could, still in no mood for company or sympathy of any sort. The door closed and I was left in the dark, a muffled, half heard conversation coming through the walls.

“…I can’t believe that he could be such a prat…”

Phil.

“…he’s not, and I don’t thing Liz would appreciate your taking her side in this…”

Sharon – when she’s right she’s right.

“…so what do we do?”

Phil again.

“…you give Mike a call in the morning, see if you can hang out with him. I’ll stay with Liz.”

After Phil left, Sharon bumped about in the bathroom and bedroom with a little less subtlety than usual, testing my resolve. I held fast, keeping still until she climbed in the bed beside me and snuggled up, spooning her body around mine and reaching an arm over to give me a gentle squeeze.

“People will talk.”

“Let them. I want my friend to know I care.”

“I don’t deserve you.”

“No, you deserve better, but until someone better comes along your stuck with me.”

I shuffled around and hugged her back, managing to do a fair job of soaking her nightdress before all the emotion drained out of me and all there was left to do was sleep.

I think we would both have appreciated a lie-in the following morning, but Mr Bryant, or whoever he may have hired to clean the flat, seemed to have hit on the idea that since the furniture was beyond repair, the simplest way to remove it was to break it up into smaller pieces and chuck it through a window.

Eight-o’clock on a Saturday morning and it sounded like someone was trying to knock the house down; overall impression suitably enhanced by the magnifying effect of two sizeable hangovers. Sharon gave in first, answering nature’s call before setting the coffee machine gallupiting. She came back to bed with two large glasses of water, one of which she handed across to my dishevelled form. I took it and drank as much as I could before my own bladder started complaining.

By the time I made it to the kitchen there was coffee and paracetamol. A minute later, with the pounding agony receding somewhat, Sharon slid an omelette under my nose and sat down to dig into hers. I picked up a fork and shuffled the food around on my plate but I really didn’t want to eat anything.

“I don’t know. Last night you find out what good food really tastes like and suddenly mine isn’t good enough for you?”

“I was trying not to think about last night. I mean what was I thinking? I feel like I shot a puppy.”

“He wasn’t the happiest of bunnies, if you don’t mind me mixing your metaphor. I don’t get what the big deal was though, I mean it was just a joke.”

“Except that he wasn’t part of our conversation a few days ago, so to him it was crude, immature and thoughtless, and after all that effort he went to just to impress me, only to find out that I’m this insensitive gutter tramp.”

“But you’re not sweetie. If you were you’d most likely still be on the streets because I don’t have that high a tolerance for insensitive gutter tramps. It was the wine talking and you know it as well as I do.”

“Then sign me up for the tea total club. If it makes my say stupid things like that I don’t want to touch another drop.”

I wanted to stand up, to make a scene, but my head was throbbing too much. Just then there was an almighty crash from next door and both Sharon and I grabbed our heads as the pain exploded into new life.

“Come on, we can’t stay here.”

Sharon grabbed me by the arm and pulled me to my feet, shoving me in the direction of the bathroom where she more or less stripped me and shoved me into the shower. I turned the controls to extra freezing and shocked myself awake, then back to a more soothing temperature for a few short minutes before surrendering the facilities to my long-suffering room-mate. I dressed casual and would have left it at that had Sharon allowed it. She stood me in front of mirror to show me my puffy, bloodshot eyes. I couldn’t give a monkey’s, but she insisted I go back into the kitchen and hold a pack of frozen peas on them while she finished getting dressed.

I finished the remains of my coffee and went rummaging in the freezer. The peas, wrapped in a clean tea towel of course, eased the throbbing in my temples even further and by the time Sharon declared me human enough for the outside world I was no longer wincing at the hammer blows from across the hall.

“Where are we going?”

Sharon was walking ahead and pushing the pace beyond my comfort zone.

“We’re going to spend some of your money of course. You need to decorate and furnish your new flat, so we’re going to pick you out a few things, choose some paint, pick out a few carpet remnants. It’ll be fun.”

How did she get to be so chipper and cheerful so soon after waking up full of morning-afterness? True she had eaten her breakfast and my turbulent stomach was a large part of my problem, but even so.

The bus arrived just as we reached the bus-stop and I let her drag me on.

The morning was hard slog for Sharon. I couldn’t or wouldn’t show interest in anything, shrugging shoulders and looking blank at everything she suggested. In the end she threw her arms up and dragged me to a nearby café. Armed with a tray full of coffee and sugary diet wreckers, she sat me at a corner table and did the whole this-is-for-your-own-good thing.

“Look, okay, yesterday was a bit of disaster, but it’s done. Can you fix it? No. So what’s the point of torturing yourself over it? Personally, between last night and this morning, I think you’ve paid penance enough. You need to leave it alone and get on with something different and, unless you want to be sleeping on a cardboard box in a building site on Monday night, I suggest you get interested in decorating and furnishing your flat. Now get some sugar inside you and come out fighting. You can starve yourself tomorrow if you need to.”

I’m not the biggest fan of pep-talks, every one that anyone ever gave me when I was younger did nothing to help since there was no way I could either share or shuck the burden I was carrying then, and all it did was make me feel all the more alone. But this was different somehow. Artificial fix as it was, the sugar did give me a kick, and I realised I could put aside the bucket-load of misery that made up my feelings for Mike because it would be waiting for me later to brood over when I was done with the business of the day.

For the next few hours, we wandered from showroom to showroom, picked up books of paint swatches as well as small cut-offs from the carpets remnants I liked. I picked out a bed, a three piece suite, a TV with DVD player and a hundred other things both big and small. Most of the furniture was on interest free credit for the first few months so all I did was sign the contract and arrange delivery for late Monday afternoon.

By the time we made it back to the flat the noise across the way had subsided. I knocked on the door and a moment later a very grubby looking Mr Bryant stuck his head out into the corridor.

“Hi, I was wondering if I could show you the colours and carpets I’ve been looking at.”

He invited us in and indicated a couple of low crates that were the nearest thing to furnishings that remained. The walls showed some new scars from today’s activities, but the floorboards looked in reasonable condition, if not good enough to varnish and leave bare.

It took us ten minutes. He even agreed to collecting the carpet, quite cheerfully too as with offcuts it would be a lot cheaper than he had been expecting. He said he liked the colours I’d chosen, and that he would be around during the day on Monday if I needed anything shifting.

Phil turned up a little while later to take me down to the local DIY place, where I picked up enough paint, rollers, brushes, white spirit and other materials to keep me busy for the week. I even bought a set of overalls since none of my clothes were scruffy enough to risk spilling paint on them. We barely managed to fit everything into the boot.

“How’s Mike?”

I think I took him by surprise. We’d just climbed into the car and were putting on seatbelts when I sprang the question.

“Okay I think. He was a bit upset by the other night, but life goes on.”

I don’t know what I’d been expecting but that wasn’t it.

“Did he show any signs of still being interested in me? I mean did he ask about me or anything like that?”

“Are you telling me that you fancy him?”

“Well duh, isn’t it obvious?”

“But you’re a guy.”

“Whatever I was Phil, I’m a girl now. You don’t seem to notice anything unusual most of the time, and you didn’t seem to mind trying to set me up with Pete.”

“But Mike’s a friend.”

“And what’s that got to do with it? It’s not as if I have any surprises under the bonnet. Or are you saying that you’re still freaked out by what happened to me and still consider me to be enough of a man that you don’t like the idea of me dating your friends?”

“I, I er… I… don’t know. Okay, yes I am still freaked out, how can you expect me not to be. I knew you as a guy for four years before all this shit happened, which means yes I find it weird that you fancy Mike. It’s as though you’re…”

“Gay?”

He nodded.

“I almost wish I’d let Mary kiss you now. At least then you’d be able to see things from my perspective. I can’t believe how mixed up your thinking is in this. I mean if I made out with another girl would that make me straight?”

“Yes, no, I don’t know. In a way yes because it would be the guy inside making out with a girl.”

“And yet you’re okay with me sharing a bed with your girlfriend?”

“Shit, why did you have to bring that up?”

“Because I need to make the situation clear. When I was Ken I was happy enough to be a guy, even though most of the things you and your friends got up to didn’t interest me. I tried dating girls, and I would have been happy to do so if I hadn’t been such an almighty klutz at chatting them up. Since I’ve been transformed into a girl, and that includes the physiology, the hormones and all the other crap, I’ve found that I like being a girl so much more. I don’t think of myself as male in any way now. I don’t get all aroused when I see Sharon in her underwear. I don’t feel in any way tempted to take advantage of her when we’re in bed together and yes I do find myself fancying other guys now, your friend Mike currently being right at the top of my list.”

Phil coughed and spluttered his way through my last sentence, which in retrospect wasn’t very bright of me as he was also trying to drive us safely home at the time. I sailed on taking what I hoped was a slightly safer tack

“Even if I didn’t fancy him, I really regret what I said. He’s a really nice guy and he treated us like royalty last night. I wish I could think of some way to make things up to him. I hate that he thinks of me the way I’m sure he does, but I can’t blame him for it.”

We pulled up and Phil jumped out to unload, grateful for the chance to escape. Why is it that guys are always supposed to be so brave and yet run away from conversations that make them nervous like this one? How come I can’t answer that for myself?

I drifted back into a melancholy fug and was rapidly becoming the pooper to end all parties. I picked at my food again, feeling doubly guilty because I knew how seriously Sharon took her cooking. In the end I told them to go watch a film or something, that I wasn’t likely to be good company tonight. They didn’t take much convincing.

A long bath and half a mug of hot chocolate later, I was sitting on the sofa, absent-mindedly scratching Toby behind the ears when the phone rang. I thought about screening it for a moment, but decided not to.

“Hello?”

“Hi, it’s er Mike.”

 -oOo-

Chapter 11

A cold rush of excitement ran through me and my legs all but buckled under me. I settled onto the arm of the sofa. Wow, just the sound of his voice. How could it affect me so much? I told myself to be sensible, he probably didn’t want to talk to me.

“Er hi. If you’re looking for Phil or Sharon, they’ve gone out.”

“Yeah I know. Phil called me and told me to stop being such a prat.”

“How were you being a prat?”

“You tried to apologise. I wouldn’t let you.”

“But you had every right to be upset. What I said was totally out of order, especially after the way you treated us.”

“Well let’s just forget it shall we? I was wondering if you’d like to go out.”

“What now?”

I looked at my watch. Ten-thirty was kind of late.

“No, no. I’ll be in the restaurant until gone midnight. I’m just taking a five minute break to call you. No I was wondering what you had planned for tomorrow.”

I slid onto the sofa properly and tucked my legs up under me. I loved the way I could do that and still feel comfortable.

“Well I’m off to church in the morning, then, Oh shit.”

“What? What is it?”

“The pastor and his wife invited me to lunch tomorrow along with Sharon and Phil. I told him I’d get back to him once I knew what their plans were and I just realised I never asked them. I don’t suppose you fancy coming along instead?”

“Not really my idea of a first date.”

A warm feeling spread slowly from between my breasts; he wanted to ask me out on a date. His voice faltered as he carried on.

“I’m not doing very well here am I?”

“I don’t know, I’ve no complaints so far.”

I could hear the smile in my voice. I hoped he could too.

“No, I mean I’ll be back in the kitchen tomorrow evening and every evening after that. I’m guessing you’ll be back at work on Monday morning.”

“Actually I have a week off. I’m going to be decorating my flat.”

“I thought you were staying with Sharon?”

“I was, I am. It’s just that the flat opposite came free and Sharon’s place is a little small, and now that I’m working… Well it gives us both a bit more space and privacy.”

“Can I help? Decorate I mean. I swing a mean paintbrush.”

“Do you have your own overalls?”

“I’m sure I can work something out.”

“That’s really kind of you. Yes please. Can I cook you lunch?”

“Well I was thinking of bringing a take-out from the restaurant for both of us, but whatever you prefer.”

“Oh, that’s mean. How am I ever going to get a chance to make things up to you if you tempt me like that?”

“I’m guessing the duck paté and the paella?”

“Yes please, but I warn you, one of these days I will cook something for you.”

“I’ll look forward to it. Food always tastes so much better when someone else cooks it.”

“Really? I’ve been thinking the exact opposite since Sharon’s started giving me lessons.”

“You haven’t had to cook for over a hundred people a night, every night for the last three months.”

“No I guess not.”

I was snuggling into myself and willing a hug down the phone to him. Just sitting here was so wonderful.

“Well I have to get back to work, no telling what these monkeys have been doing while I’ve been away.”

“I’ll bet they’re getting on just fine without you. You just can’t stand not being in control.”

I managed to put just the right level of teasing into my voice and he rewarded me with a laugh. He had a nice laugh, deep-throated and rich.

“Guilty as charged. What time on Monday then?”

“I should be up and doing stuff from about eight-thirty onwards, so any time you can make after that.”

“Well I have to do some grocery shopping for the restaurant first, how about tenish?”

“I’ll have the kettle on. Oh, Mike?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank-you so much for calling tonight, I can’t tell you how much you’ve turned my day around.”

“Well, I’m sorry it took me so long.”

“Well you did it, and now that’s all that matters.”

“Goodnight Liz.”

“’Night Mike.”

I waited for the dial tone before putting the phone down. Toby butted at my elbow and I couldn’t help but lift him into a hug. He wasn’t impressed and scrambled out of my arms.

I remembered to phone Pastor James and apologise for my oversight. He laughed it off saying they could always invite a couple of the street kids if Phil and Sharon had other plans. I didn’t want to risk calling or texting Sharon in case she was in the cinema and still had her phone on, but I had to talk to someone, I was so full of what had just happened with Mike.

I thought of Karen and decided that she probably wouldn’t appreciate a call from a bubbly, air-headed teenager at this time of night. I racked my brains for someone else to call. Elizabeth, my dresser, would be in the same boat as Karen and that more or less summed up my list of friends.

With that sad thought, my mind turned to my family. Mum and Dad would be in bed by now, but maybe… I dived deep into my memory for a number that I usually relied on my mobile phone to remember, then punched it into the phone, remembering at the last moment to enter star one four one to hide the caller ID. It rang three times before a young female voice answered.

“Hello?”

“Lisa?”

“Who is this?”

I hadn’t thought this far ahead. Still not so hard to come up with something.

“Oh sorry, you won’t know me. My name’s Liz, I’m sort of a friend of Ken’s.”

Sort of the truth. Close enough anyway.

“Oh my gosh, Glen come quickly. Sorry, that’s my husband. Tell me how is Ken, we’ve been so worried.”

“He’s okay, better than okay actually, but he’s had to adjust to some changes in his life. He misses you guys and his parents, but, well I guess you’ve been told some things.”

“Yes, there wasn’t a lot of details. I don’t know if you can tell us anything more.”

“I’m sorry, but for now the fewer details you know the better. Listen he’s given me a list of questions to ask and I have a recorder here next to the phone, so he’ll hear the answers straight from you. Do you mind?”

“No of course not.”

It was Glen’s voice sounding a little distant, as though they were sharing the phone. Just the sound of his familiar tones was enough to bring tears welling up in my eyes. I had to cover for the sudden catch in my voice.

“Just a minute I have the questions here in my bag.”

“Are you alright?”

Trust Lisa to be all concerned. I forced myself to take a deep, calming breath.

“I’m fine, just dropped a few things here.”

The conversation drifted into the personal and familial. How were they and the kids? – Fine although Gemma had chipped a tooth being too adventurous on a swing a week or so back. How were my parents? – Worried about Ken, but otherwise doing well. What news on my Dad’s knees? – Appointment for surgery arranged for March. How about Glen’s promised promotion? – What do you think? You know, that sort of thing. There was more, but I wouldn’t want to bore you with it. Suffice to say that emotionally I was hanging on by a thread by the time I’d run out of questions.

“What about Ken though? You can’t expect us to say to his parents we had this conversation and then nothing. There has to be some news.”

What could I tell them?

“Well, like I say, I’m going to have to keep the details sparse for everyone’s sakes, but he’s happy with the way things are, except that he can’t contact you guys directly. He’s had a change of appearance; honestly you would not recognise him now. He’s also had to change his job. What he’s doing now is so different from what he was doing, but he’s really enjoying it. He’s made a few really good, close friends and he promises that someday soon he’ll find a way to come and visit.”

Well apart from the pronoun I hadn’t done anything to damage my karma there.

“Tell him not to do anything silly; we’d much rather he was safe. Thank-you, Liz. Thank-you so much for phoning tonight. You can’t imagine how much it means to us to have this news.”

Oh I think I can imagine.

“I’m glad I can help. If it’s okay I’ll call again, though I’m not sure when I’ll be able to.”

“We’d appreciate it. We’re in most evenings. Please tell my brother I love him.”

“He wanted me to say the same thing. It’s been really good talking to you. I’ll call again soon.”

“See that you do.”

We said our goodbyes and hung up just as the dam broke. I collapsed on the floor where I was and surrendered as wave upon wave of unexpressed emotion washed over me. The flood waters were still in full flow when the door opened and Phil and Sharon came in.

“Liz, sweetie, what is it? God if I’d known you were in this kind of state we’d never have gone out.”

“Right I’m going to kill the bastard.”

Phil was walking out the door, an expression like thunder colouring his features. I tried to get to my feet.

“Phil stop, you don’t understand.”

“I understand enough to know that I told him to call you and I come back to find you like this.”

“But he did call, and he’s coming round on Monday to help me decorate and move in, and everything’s wonderful.”

Enough to stop Phil in his tracks.

“Then what in the world was that about? We always used to joke about how we could never understand women; I never thought I’d be saying the same thing about you.”

He was calming down slowly. Sharon was still hovering, ever the mother hen. I turned to her. I mean she would understand, even if Phil wouldn’t.

“After Mike called I just had to talk to somebody. I didn’t want to phone you guys in case I disturbed something and, apart from Karen and Elizabeth from work, who I didn’t think would appreciate the interruption, I realised that I didn’t have anyone else to call.

“So I phoned my brother. No it’s alright, I pretended to be a friend of Kevin’s making contact. We talked for ages, and it was just too good hearing Glen’s and Lisa’s voices again. I guess I really have been missing them and worrying about them, and it all just came pouring out afterwards, just as you guys walked in.”

“Well I’m going to put the coffee on. Phil you can stay as long as you stop ogling Liz’s boobs.”

He looked away guiltily and reddened, stammering an apology to me as Sharon headed for her beloved galopiter galopiter machine.

“I’m sorry Liz, kind of reflex. You know how it is?”

“I’m in the perfect position to know aren’t I?”

I pulled my dressing gown around me obscuring the scenery and smiled my best disarming smile.

“Besides it was kind of gallant the way you went charging to my defence like that. Almost as if you’re over the whole issue of who and what I am now.

“Just promise me one thing though. Mike’s a great guy and he hasn’t done anything to earn that kind of reaction from you, so whatever happens between us, stay his friend, eh?”

He nodded.

“I’m going to miss Ken.”

“Yeah me to a bit. But I’d miss Liz more.”

“Me too.”

We were laughing at some old shared memory when Sharon came back in with the coffees. I remembered to mention Pastor James’s invite and fortunately they didn’t have other plans. Nice as Aaron was, things might become a little awkward if he got the wrong idea over the two of us being invited to the same lunch at the same time. I didn’t want to go down that route, especially given my burgeoning feelings for Mike.

It was getting late so with coffees drunk, I took quick advantage of an empty toilet while Sharon said her long slow goodnight to Phil. I wasn’t going to get my early night though. As soon as Sharon joined me in the bed, she was quizzing me about what had happened with Mike, and wasn’t satisfied with anything less than total disclosure, including vocal inflections and in depth psychoanalysis. I didn’t mind, reliving the conversation with my friend was almost as exquisite as the original phone call and by the time I was settling down to sleep, I was immersed in the warmth of my feelings for Mike and looking forward to a night of wonderful dreams.

I have to admit I wished most of Sunday away. I didn’t pay any attention to the sermon and drifted through the coffee time in a daze. Karen sought me out as she had the previous few Sundays.

“I know that dreamy look. Do I take it you’ll be providing your own plus one on Friday evening?”

It took me a few moments to register what she was talking about. She rolled her eyes and laughed.

“God, I remember feeling like that. Wonderful as it was I don’t think I could stand to go through it again. What’s his name?”

At last something I could answer, being as it was right at the front of my mind. My dreamy look became, if possible, even more dreamy.

“Mike, his name’s Mike. He owns a restaurant in Highgate. I’m not sure if he’ll be able to come on Friday; he’s usually working in the evenings.”

“Shame, I’d like to meet the man who captured your heart. I doubt it was easily won.”

“I’ll ask and see if he can come. Let you know by Wednesday.”

We chatted about other things, mainly related to vague plans she had for me following the launch. Mostly they seemed to involve high profile parties and public events. I began to see opportunities for networking and putting together a group of potential allies in my crusade for the homeless. With most of the events being in the evening, I would still have a lot of time during the day to relax with a certain highly eligible restaurateur as well as to pursue other interests.

I did manage to talk to Aaron and his friends briefly but they were a little standoffish. I’m not sure if it was because I had dressed for lunch with the pastor in a smart cream top and beige skirt and jacket, or if there was something else entirely. Maybe he had seen that dreamy look in my eyes and figured that he wasn’t going to get lucky, who knows?

Lunch with the pastor and his wife was delightful. They were practised hosts and not only fed us well but entertained us into the bargain. I managed to avoid a few awkward questions about my past and, once they sensed I didn’t want to talk about it, they steered the conversation down a safer route.

After lunch I managed to persuade Marion to let me help with the washing up, while at the same time finagled Sharon and Phil into staying with the pastor. Phil didn’t take much convincing as he and Pastor James had discovered a mutual interest in, yep you guessed it, football. Sharon was less keen, but seemed to sense that I wanted to spend some time alone, talking with our hostess. It turns out that I didn’t fool a great many people with my clumsy attempts at manipulation because no sooner were we in the kitchen behind closed doors than Marion turned to me.

“Now dear, what was it you wanted to talk to me about?”

“Am I that obvious?”

“I wouldn’t say so no. It’s a gift, kind of goes with the job. You learn to look for certain signs.”

I shrugged. All this did was confirm that I had chosen the right person to confide in.

“Do you mind if we work while we talk. I think it’ll be easier with a little distraction.”

She smiled at me and held up a pair of rubber gloves and a tea towel.

“Wash or dry?”

So this was the conversation I’d failed to persuade myself to have with pastor James the previous week; the one about having a relationship with God. I’m not going to tell it to you in all it’s fine detail because it’s a bit of a private thing, besides which I doubt you’d appreciate me preaching at you in the middle of a story. In essence, I wanted to know what was involved, and even went to the extent of telling her something of my recent experiences – well mainly the one with the man in the park. She talked a bit about the Prodigal Son, which was kind of cliché but the way she used it was pretty cool. All about how the first move had to come from the son, after which the father did the rest. I’ll tell you about it if you’re interested, but the long and short of it is that, once we’d finished the dishes, we went and found a quiet room and Marion introduced me to her God.

When we re-joined the others, Pastor James and Phil were enjoying a football match on the idiot box, and Sharon was looking slightly bored, but scooched up next to Phil and leaning on his shoulder. Marion went over to her husband, kissed him on the top of his head and shared a knowing smile, which he then turned in my direction. In an attempt to evade the general announcement that I knew was coming, I went over to the window. Fortunately it was a bright sunny day and, even though most of the flowers were sleeping their way through winter, the garden, with its rockery and variegated evergreen shrubs, was stunning.

“Oh, that’s beautiful. Would you mind?”

Marion smiled. Obviously this was a brownie points winner.

“Come on, I’ll show you around?”

I turned to Sharon.

“Coming?”

Oh, the relief in those eyes. We spent a delightful half hour wandering around Marion’s pride and joy, listening to her point out all the varying features and explain what we could expect to see at different times through the year. Despite a lifelong aversion to anything green and growing, I couldn’t help but be interested, given the passion with which she spoke.

We were invited to stay for tea, but the football match was over and I think Sharon wanted to reclaim her man before she lost him to some other form of male bonding. We made out excuses, offered our thanks and retreated to Phil’s car and home.

Sharon kept glancing at me all through the journey. If truth be told, I felt an amazing sense of peace and it must have showed. No I don’t attribute it to anything supernatural, but somehow some things that had always seemed slightly off about the world seemed to have clicked into place today and I was immersed in the serenity of feeling – what was it the old man in the park had said? Oh yes, ‘God’s in his heaven and all’s right with the world.’

I did eventually tell my two best friends about what had had happened that afternoon, to be rewarded with an excited squeee from Sharon and a more subdued but genuine approval from Phil. I wanted to go for a walk, to embrace and explore this new calm I was feeling, but the winter sun set too early and Phil dissuaded me from exploring the neighbourhood in the dark. Mr Bryant had posted the keys to my new apartment through Sharon’s letterbox while we were out so I settled on wandering around the empty rooms and planning tomorrow’s activities while Sharon and Phil curled up for a while on their own.

Eventually the need for company reasserted itself and I re-joined them just as Sharon and Phil were disentangling themselves in a prelude to Sharon’s latest Opus Maximus in the kitchen. Conversation was subdued over tea. I suppose I was caught up in my thoughts and the others didn’t want to break into my reverie. After we’d eaten, I retreated to the bath, ostensibly to give my two friends more time together, but really looking to escape by myself and while away the last of the day. I headed to bed early and drifted slowly away amidst swirling thoughts and feelings.

Monday. It was Monday. Mike was coming today. I woke ahead of the alarm, filled with fluttering anticipation; a whole storm of butterflies performing Olympic gymnastics throughout my whole body. God what a feeling, was life ever so wonderful?

I dressed quickly into my overalls and set about making breakfast. A bleary eyed Sharon came to investigate the clattering and to tell me that it was only five o’clock. I did my best to look contrite, but nothing could dampen my mood and Sharon headed for the bathroom with a martyred air.

“I give up. If this is the way you’re going to be from now on I can only be thankful that you’re getting your own place.”

I tried to make amends with a spectacular breakfast and, between the toasted bagels topped with cream cheese and chives, the cereal with twist cut strawberries and bananas and the coffees with foamed cream, I think I earned my pardon. Sharon certainly left the flat with more of a spring in her step than might be expected of someone woken an hour ahead of schedule. She left me with some sound advice.

“Don’t throw yourself at him sweetie. He may be as crazy about you as you obviously are about him, but you’ll both enjoy it more if you take it slow.”

I made an effort to tie my mass of hair up and out of the way, choosing to cover it with an old but clean tea-towel, then waltzed my way across the hall to my new home-to-be. My dad had always been one to promote self-reliance in his children and both Glen and I had learnt early on about decorating, having been given the job of repainting our own rooms every couple of years from the age of twelve. He’d been meticulous in his work and exacting in his expectations of us, so by the time we each blazed our separate trails out into the world, we knew how to make a room look good.

I set to with a will and a passion, filling holes, sanding down rough surfaces, priming repairs, washing the walls. It was hard work and, at this stage, not particular rewarding as there was little visible evidence of the improvement.

I was almost ready to start slapping paint about, having just shut off the electricity to the flat and loosened all the electrical fittings, when ten o’clock arrived and with it a buzz on the doorbell. I wiped some of the dust from my face and headed downstairs, half expecting to take delivery of one of my new pieces of furniture. I opened the door to find Mike waiting, a polystyrene box under one arm and his cheeky half-smile on his face.

“Well, I do like the new look. Is this part of the collection you’ve been modelling as well.”

“Why don’t you come in and find out? I’m sure I can find something similar for you.”

I climbed back up the stairs with Mike in tow and opened Sharon’s flat.

“Sharon suggested we use her place as a base of operations until mine’s liveable in. I’m presuming the box contains lunch, in which case it needs to go in the kitchen and the door closed before any cats sneak in. Then you can come over and join me in my place.”

A few minutes later we were standing in my large, bare living room. Mike looked around, the twinkle in his eye warning me to arm myself.

“Aw, you waited for me before starting… Ow, hey is that how you treat all you guests.”

It had only been a light foam sanding block, but my aim had been good, bouncing it off the bridge of his nose.

“It’s the way I treat cheeky so-and-so’s. You said you were good with a paintbrush, let’s see you back that up and show me what you can do with a properly prepped surface.”

“Yes m’lady, sorry m’lady.”

The bowing and tugging of the forelock were a nice touch and had me laughing, with him joining in shortly after. That set the scene for the rest of the morning with him proving to be as good a painter as he’d boasted the day before. In no time the living room was done with the main wall a rich burgundy and the other three in the same colour but thinned to a pleasant pink. We had just finished the second coat and were tightening down the sockets and switches when the front door opened and Mr Bryant came in. He didn’t say anything but it was obvious from his face that he was impressed. I gave him a cheery smile of the sort Sharon assured me would turn legs to jelly.

“Hello Mr Bryant, What do you think?”

“Wh… wha… It’s very good, very good indeed. I have your carpets in the van downstairs if you’ll tell me where you’d like them.”

“Well on the floor eventually, but for now could they stand in Liz’s flat? I’d like to paint the ceiling before we put them down if that’s alright. Probably be ready for them to go down tomorrow morning.”

“Well that’s up to you how you sort it. We’ll pop them in the flat opposite then and you can take it from there.”

“Sorry weren’t you going to get the carpets fitted?”

“I said I’d buy them and deliver them. The rest is up to you.”

I was about to protest but Mike put a hand on my shoulder.

“It’s alright, I have a friend who does carpets. He’ll do a decent job of fitting them too, which is what you want after all the effort you’re putting into the rest of this place.”

I didn’t argue. In retrospect my landlord was right, and it was me who had assumed the rest. Still it seemed a bit cheap of him, especially with the savings I was making for him. Mike was already on his phone arranging things, so I led Mr Bryant through to Sharon’s flat and showed him where to put his delivery. I was peeved enough to let him do all the heaving and lifting himself, but Mike followed him downstairs and, once I’d seen the size of the rolls, I went to lend a hand as well. Not that that entailed much more than holding doors; there were times when I really missed even the mediocre strength I’d had as Ken.

For the rest of the morning Mike painted ceilings – a backbreaking job that I was glad to delegate – and I repaired and prepared more walls. At my request Mike talked about his restaurant and how he’d started it up, and he filled the time with stories that had me laughing so hard at times I couldn’t see straight. When the alarm on my phone sounded, I called a break for lunch and we washed up before heading across to Sharon’s and a welcome meal.

“You’re going to regret offering to help at this rate.”

I glanced over to Mike as I spoke, worried that perhaps I was speaking the truth.

“Nonsense, I’m glad to help. It’s not often I get to spend so much time with such a beautiful woman, and in any case, they say that a change is as good as a rest, and this is certainly a change from what I would normally be doing right now.”

“Oh, and what would that be?”

“Probably sitting behind my desk, ploughing through receipts, wishing I had a life.”

I laughed and squeezed his arm, leaning into him briefly.

“Well I for one am glad of your company, and not just for all your efforts and obvious decorating skills.”

I gave him what I hoped was an earnest look. He held it for a moment then turned away into the kitchen.

“No, I imagine you’re just as glad of the food. Would you mind working that infernal contraption while I set about heating up the paella and preparing the paté.?”

The infernal contraption in question was obviously the coffee monster. I set about my task feeling a little rebuffed. Perhaps I needed to try another approach.

“Mike? About Friday night.”

“Forget it. We both made mistakes; water under the bridge.”

“I’d like to explain mine. My mistake I mean.”

I had my head down focusing on doing the necessary to prime the beast for its task of preparing caffeinated heaven, but mainly keeping my eyes averted. I didn’t dare look at him.”

“I said there’s no need…”

“Except that I feel there is. Please?”

He turned my way, arms folded. There was something of frustration and anger in the way he stood, but there was also a brittle quality to it. He let out a short sigh, almost a gasp.

“Alright.”

I’d been running this through my head over and over, what I’d say, how I’d say it. Now the time was here, none of my planning seemed appropriate so I just went for it, improvised.

“Just over a week ago Liz and I were chatting over one of her exceptional meals and I wanted to know what I was going to do if she ever agreed to marry Phil. She suggested that I might find myself a man who could cook at which point, and I have to say that I was a bit drunk at the time, which is going to sound pretty awful because you’re going to start thinking I get drunk all the time when in actual fact I’ve only been drunk twice in the last I don’t know how long. Anyway I asked her would this man be rich, handsome and hung like a horse which set her laughing and the other night I figured since you already filled three of the criteria I thought I might ask about the other, and it might get a laugh. And in the end I don’t care about any of it, just that you make me laugh and I feel so alive when you’re around…”

I stuttered to a halt, aware that I’d been gabbling and cringing inwardly at the mess I’d made of the explanation. I’d been overfeeding the machine and ground coffee had overflowed all over the counter. I was suddenly terrified of the way Mike would react. I couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe. An eternity passed and I could feel the tears building, pressing against the insides of my closed eyes. Why is it that women leak so easily?

Soft hands on my shoulders, pulling gently but firmly. I have no will to resist. Grey eyes, he has grey eyes. Odd that they should be so warm and inviting. There were tears there. Maybe it isn’t just women who leak. His expression, unreadable, crumbling, giving way to… His hand on my cheek, turning it, guiding it, lifting it. His lips on mine. Soft lips. Warm lips. Welcome lips.

And then my arms are around his neck, his around my waist. I have never felt like this, the shuddering relief, the soaring hope, the singing joy. My soul is a skylark shouting out its rapture to the world. This moment can never end; there will never be another like it. It is too much and I feel myself shattering into a million shards of stardust, melting into a golden pool, reforming, returning.

He pulls away and I see my own hope and doubt mirrored in his own eyes. I reach forward to kiss him a second time and for a second time he responds as eagerly, and the world collapses into blissful confusion again for another eternal moment.

We come up for air again. We have to. This time the questions need words. Mike first.

“I can’t believe. Do you really think that I’m…”

“Everything I want, yes. I’ve never felt this way about anyone before. I was so afraid I had pushed you away with that stupid joke.”

I lean forward on his chest. On his shoulder really, he isn’t so much taller than me. The tears are welling up again. Reassure me Mike, tell me I didn’t blow this. This wonderful, this perfect thing. Tell me you forgive me, tell me we can be together. His head leans on mine.

“I didn’t know what to think. What you said seemed to be so much out of character with what I’d seen all evening. I thought I knew who you were, not just beautiful, but bright, witty, thoughtful, compassionate. All those illusions shattered in a moment.

“There’s a stupid saying, small man, big dick. I thought you were making fun of me. Drunk or no, it hurt either way. I didn’t really think, just acted. I don’t suppose Phil and Sharon said anything, but I regretted it the moment I asked you to leave, but by then it was too late. I couldn’t take back the words no matter how much I wanted.”

We held to each other as though the world were ending, as though the slightest relaxing of that hold would tear each of us from the other. The words ‘I love you’ formed in my head. I knew they were true, but this was too soon. I put them aside for some time in the future when I could be more certain that they would be welcomed.

“So what do you think of me now?”

“I think you’re everything I hoped you might be. I think perhaps you need to be rationed to two glasses of wine per evening, and I think you’re either blind or stupid for wanting to be with me.”

The laughter was a welcome release, for both of us as he joined in, and at last we were able to let go of each other, no longer so fearful that this might be our last time.

“So, lunch?”

“I think so.”

“Would you mind if my coffee were a little less strong?”

I looked at the mess on the counter and burst out laughing again. The spilt coffee went into a zip-lock bag for personal use later and I made a better job on my second attempt. Mike looked my way again.

“Aren’t you worried that I’m a bit old for you?”

“Not really. I mean you’re allowed half your age plus seven, isn’t that the rule? That means the youngest you should go is twenty-one years old and I’m mature for my age; at least when I don’t have a whole bottle of champagne sloshing around inside of me. Besides in six years we’ll be okay anyway, and I’d rather not wait that long if you don’t mind.”

He smiled and shook his head. The paella was sizzling in one of Sharon’s woks, receiving an occasional expert shake from the master-chef as he divided his attention between it and the paté, melba toast and rocket salad with vinaigrette dressing. In the time it took me to make two measly cups of coffee, our lunch was ready, the main course simmering gently on the stove while we dug into the entrée .

Everything was delicious of course, almost as good as Friday night and hardly diminished at all for being transported in a Styrofoam box then reheated. We ate our fill and sat back with our drinks.

“You know, if we count Friday as our first date, sort of, and today as the second, I can pretend I’m not such a slut.”

He was in mid sip as I spoke and choked. Some of it came back out his nose.

When he’d finished spluttering, he looked across at me.

“What are you talking about?”

“I think I remember someone telling me once that properly brought up girls don’t kiss on a first date. I’m a little concerned that we haven’t actually been on one yet and I already have intimate knowledge of your tonsils.”

“You are the oddest mix, you know that?”

“What do you mean?”

“It’s like someone took a little girl and muddled her up with a grown woman. Most of the time you act so mature I find it hard to believe you’re only eighteen, then in just a mouthful of words you regress ten years.”

“I am a conundrum. One day I’ll tell you about it, but not today.”

I drained my coffee and stood up.

“Because today we have three more rooms to paint, and since I can only have you ’til…?”

“Five-thirty.”

“Five-thirty, I shall have to work you like a dog so that I don’t have too much to finish on my own this evening.”

“Hey watch it. I’m not much for indentured servitude and if you work me too hard today, I may not come back tomorrow.”

I held out my hands and he allowed me to pull him to his feet. He had to do most of the work at that since I was just too small and weak to make much of a difference.

“Ah, but you’re not doing it because I crack my whip. You’re doing it because you can’t bear to think of me working my pretty little fingers to the bone in the small hours of the night, while you put your feet up in your kitchen and yell at your minions.”

“Oho, put my feet up is it? I’ll have you know that I shall be working just as hard as you if not harder this evening, and all for the pleasure of some people I’ve never met.”

“And the wads of cash they’re going to pay you for that pleasure.”

He chased me out of the kitchen and across the hallway, both of us laughing and giggling all the way until eventually I turned and fell into his arms. It wasn’t like the first time; it could never be. It was still wonderful though.

The afternoon flew by on a cloud of laughter and kisses. We probably didn’t get as much work done as I had first hoped, but we had a lot more fun. On several occasions we were interrupted by the arrival of my flat-pack furniture. It all went into Sharon’s lounge, filling it up to an increasing amount. I was glad I’d let Sharon persuade me not to have the bed or suite delivered until the Wednesday. At the time I’d thought she was just trying to diddle me into staying with her a couple more days, but now I saw there was no way it would have fitted while we were still working on the decorating.

Five-thirty came round too quickly. I broke off work fifteen minutes before so I could give Mike a proper goodbye-and-thanks-for-all-the-help without making him late.

“Same time tomorrow?”

“I was wondering if maybe you’d like some company while you’re doing your grocery shopping.”

I walked fingers up his shirt and studied his buttons studiously, not wishing to influence his decision by looking at him.

“Oh you are a temptress, but not tomorrow. I think your bones are going to be aching when you wake up and I wouldn’t want to inflict a couple of hours’ worth of argy-bargy in the local market onto someone as delicate as yourself. Maybe Wednesday after we’ve had a gentler day tomorrow. I’ll treat you to breakfast at this little bistro I know.”

“Ooh be still my beating heart. Such romance, such elegance, such élan.”

“Be quiet you or I shall feed you on dry crusts and water for the rest of the week.”

What an opening; like a barn door.

“Speaking of the rest of this week, I don’t suppose there is any chance of your taking Friday evening off?”

“Not a chance. Friday is the busiest day of the week. No-one gets Friday off, especially not the boss. Why do you ask?”

“Oh it’s just that I have this work thing, you know launch of the new Elle-gance line. I’m supposed to bring a plus one, and if it’s not going to be you it will have to be some rent-a-hunk.”

“Should I be jealous?”

“Not if you take Friday off.”

I leaned forward to breath that last in his ear, playing with him. He was giving me uncomfortable vibes. I was pushing this too far. I eased back and looked deep into his eyes.

“And not if you can’t either. There’s no-one I’d rather have on my arm than you, but not if it means you giving up your life. The monkey in the suit will only be eye-candy for the cameras and I’ll probably be kept too busy to spend much time with you in any case. Tell me you’ll give me some of your Saturday though.”

“From the dawn chorus to the gathering gloom of evening I shall be yours, and if you and our friends will deign to eat as my guests, as much of the evening as I can spare as well. There will be less champagne this time though.”

“Do you have a thing about fat women?”

“What d’you mean?”

“I mean if I end up eating in your restaurant every week I shall soon be positively Raphaelite, and unemployable in my chosen profession.”

“Then I shall feed you on celery sticks while Phil and Sharon feast to their heart’s content. And I think maybe you mean Rubenesque.”

“Not celery, yuk, but okay as long as we can limit the calorie intake this time I’ll ask them, and are you sure? Anyway It’s time you went, not that I want you to go.”

We kissed long and languorously, then I turned to walk back inside. I couldn’t help it. Just as I reached the door I turned to look and he was standing there, as though waiting for just that moment. He gave me one of his heart melting smiles and climbed into his car.

“Wow, nice headgear.”

I turned find Sharon standing in the doorway wearing a cotton blouse tied at the midriff and a pair scruffy jeans I’m sure I had consigned to the bin all those weeks ago. I reached up to my, until then, forgotten tea towel and felt evidence of paint splatters all over it.

“I’ll buy you another one.”

“Oh don’t worry, that was going into the ragbag next time round anyway.”

She offered me one of the two glasses of wine she had brought with her and I accepted gratefully.

“This place looks amazing. You don’t fancy doing mine afterwards do you?”

“If you like.”

“I was joking. You can hardly see the walls in my place for all the clutter anyway.”

“Okay, well I wasn’t. Any time you change your mind just say.”

Her mind had already moved on though.

“So tell me…”

She arched her eyebrows and settled down on the ratty old carpet in the middle of my newly painted bedroom. I couldn’t hide the smile and sat beside her, everything she really needed to know already present in my body language and the expression on my face. We didn’t get any work done in the next half hour as we oohed and aahed and squealed and I-knowed through the day’s events.

“He’s invited the three of us over to the restaurant again on Saturday evening. He promises less wine and fewer calories.”

“Mmm, how can a promise like that still sound so good?”

Time for more work. Sharon picked up the glasses and headed for the kitchen, I turned back to stencilling some autumn leaves onto my newly painted, rich green bedroom walls.

Phil turned up a short while later, whistling in appreciation and wondering out loud just how much there was left to do. I was glad to give him a list and he threw his arms up in surrender by the time I’d reached item twenty or thereabouts. I asked him if he would mind taking up the carpets in the lounge and bedroom and offered to give him a hand. It was heavy work and for all the effort I put into it, I really didn’t do much to help. Eventually we had the second one rolled up and in the middle of the room. He sat down on it and I joined him, exhausted.

“Doesn’t it bother you? Not being so strong now I mean.”

“Yes a bit. There have been times out on the streets when I felt helpless and scared, and others when I’ve been frustrated, but you know there’s give and take here and if the only way I can have what I’ve been given is to give up what’s been taken, then I’d do it again in a heartbeat.”

He smiled, but a pensive smile. He was trying to understand and failing badly. In the end he shook his head.

“Well I’m glad for you that you are so much happier, and I do see that, I really do. I just wish I could understand.”

“And I wish I could explain it. Phil, all I know is that I feel right now. Even if I were cold and starving out on the streets I’d still feel right. Like who I am on the inside now matches who I am on the outside.”

“But couldn’t you have been someone else on the inside?”

“To an extent yes. Put it this way, if Sharon were to say that a condition of your staying together was that you should give up football. No more watching it, no more playing it, no more talking about it.”

“You know I’d do it for her.”

“I know you would, it probably wouldn’t even be difficult, but imagine yourself weeks, months, even years from now. You catch sight of a game being played on television in a shop window, you walk past a football ground and hear the cheers going on inside, you hear some mates talking about last week’s game down the pub. Are you telling me you wouldn’t be tempted, that you wouldn’t miss it?”

He nodded his head.

“Now imagine that feeling magnified a thousand times. Imagine a girl walking into the bar in a pretty dress. All you guys are leaning across to get a better look at her legs or her boobs, me I’m wishing I could be her, wishing I could look so good. I can’t do it, I can’t even talk to anyone about it. I just have to pretend that I’m doing the same as you guys. It isn’t something I asked for any more than you asked for your love of football.”

“Shit.”

The door opened and Sharon stuck her head in.

“If I’d known you guys were sitting around doing nothing I’d have called you over to help. C’mon, tea’s ready.”

The next morning I ached just as Mike had predicted, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of knowing that. I managed to get myself out of bed, into my work clothes and over in my flat with a cup of coffee and a slice of toast in hand by eight-thirty, and it’s just as well that I did because Mike’s carpet laying friend turned up half an hour later.

He was a big bloke who quite amazingly managed to lift even the largest of the old carpets onto his shoulder and walk it out of the flat. I hadn’t thought to buy underlay and at least one of the carpets needed it. He just shrugged his shoulders and brought enough in to do both rooms, explaining that the bedroom carpet would last longer with it. There wasn’t much I could do to help other than feed him cups of coffee – three sugars, ugh – and watch in wonder as he made the whole job look easy. I went to find my newly delivered chequebook as he was clearing up his tools.

“How much do I owe you?”

he drained the last of his coffee and offered me the mug.

“You’ll ‘ave to take that up wiv Mike, as far as I’m concerned it’s all sorted.”

“But, I mean the underlay and everything.”

“Like I said luv.”

He was adamant.

“Well thank-you, I really don’t know what to say.”

“Just glad I could help.”

He smiled and ambled out, by chance meeting Mike at the front door. Their short conversation drifted up to my dazed mind as I stared in wonder at my perfect, if empty, living room.

“Hello Geoff, you alright?”

“Doing good mate, all done and dusted. You got a real keeper there, you ‘ang onto ‘er.”

“Don’t worry, I fully intend to.”

He found me still looking in at my gorgeous flat and stopped, uncertain of himself.

“You heard that didn’t you?”

I made some sweeping motion of my hand to brush it off, like an annoying fly.

“Mike, why didn’t he take payment? I mean he put down underlay and everything. How can he run a business when he gives things away like that?”

He shrugged and fiddled with his fingernails.

“He sort of thinks he owes me. Every so often I call him and ask to do something like this. It makes him happy.”

“You’re not telling me everything.”

“No I’m not, I wouldn’t want to embarrass him.”

He wouldn’t say more and we got to work. As he’d suggested the previous day, it was lighter work. We only had the bathroom and kitchen to do, and they were largely tiled. We’d prepped both rooms the previous day and now just had to work carefully with old sheets on the floor to keep the new bathroom carpet clean.

There were few damaged tiles in both rooms with none from the original batch available to replace them. With Mr Bryant’s approval, I had bought contrasting tiles of the same size for each room and now came the fiddly job of replacing some without damaging the others. In the end it wasn’t that hard. Clear out the grouting around the one you wanted to get rid of, hit it with a hammer to break it up into small shards and pick out the debris. Tidy up the wall behind, glue in the new tile using matchsticks as spacers and move on to the next one.

I marked out the tiles I wanted removed, most cracked but some still good so I had an even random dotting of new tiles, and we took a room each. It was fiddly but not so grubby or exhausting as the previous day’s work, and we’d finished by lunchtime.

Keeping to his promise to help me keep my figure, Mike served us soup and granary rolls for lunch. We talked around a number of topics, which of my flat-packs we would build first that afternoon, what we planned to do on Saturday, where we would meet tomorrow for his grocery run. All little nothings, but all the more special for sharing them with each other.

And this is where everything settled into a routine of sorts. Afternoons spent decorating and furnishing my flat, mornings spent shopping for the restaurant, and believe me, I learnt a lot about buying food that week. Such mundane things to do, but transformed magically by the presence of this very ordinary looking man who made my heart race every time I was with him. If ever I had a doubt that there was any of the old Ken left inside me, it disappeared that week as I abandoned myself to my feelings for Mike.

I waited ’til Wednesday evening before calling Karen to tell her she’d need to provide the escort for Friday. I’d hoped that Mike might change his mind, but had accepted it when he didn’t. By the time Friday came, the flat was finished and so much more to my taste than the comfortably cluttered way Sharon preferred to live. I’d even started buying books from stalls around the market while Mike haggled for his cabbages and had half-filled one of my bookcases with titles I’d always wanted to own.

We enjoyed our first meal together in my new kitchen-diner on Friday, surrounded by all the sparkly new gadgets and gizmos. There was a coffee maker, big brother to the one in Sharon’s flat, a gift from Sharon and Phil, and a rack of pots and pans hanging from the ceiling, part of the house warming present Mike had given me, the knives and associated cooking implements that filled one of the new cabinet drawers making up the rest. All of it as yet unused as Mike had once more provided the meal, this time a curried prawn salad.

for_evil11After we’d eaten I reluctantly said goodbye and pushed him out the flat. I needed to look my best this evening and after the week’s messy work had fallen out of the habit of making myself look beautiful. The dress for the evening had been delivered that morning; a great big meringue of a thing except for the colour. The very full skirts were black and lightly sequinned, falling all the way to the floor. I’d need three inch heels to stop myself from dragging the hem and tripping over at every turn. The bodice was low backed and strapless, requiring what looked like half a bra and some sticky tape to keep things in their place, and there was a tiara of all things.

I should have been looking forward to this evening, but without the promise of Mike’s presence on my arm, all the joy and anticipation seemed to have been sucked from the event.

I did the usual thing with the long bath filled with scented oils and bubbles, washed my hair and spent the usual chunk of forever drying it and brushing it into some sort of order. I was so out of practice with the makeup that it took me three attempts before it started to look good and a couple more before I was satisfied.

The bra felt odd and uncomfortable until I got used to it. The black stockings seemed unnecessary, but I supposed there was always the possibility that I might show a little leg at some stage so I put them on anyway. The dress felt strange, and I remembered the same feeling when I’d been modelling it. For all its fullness, the skirt was light and airy, meaning that it didn’t pull on the bodice, so at least my constant fear of being exposed to the world was lessened.

With the tiara in place and my angel wings necklace around my neck, I dabbed some perfume on my wrists and neck before stepping into my shoes – stilts more like – and standing before the full length mirror door on my closet. I was ready to make an impression and that at least made me feel good. I imagined Mike standing next to me in a smart dinner jacket and smiled. Whoever I was going with tonight, I would imagine he was Mike and everything would be alright.

I had twenty minutes before the car was due to pick me up so practised walking in all my paraphernalia. My legs kept getting tangled in the many layers of the skirt until I remembered Elizabeth’s advice to take small steps. That helped with the shoes as well and in no time I had mastered the elegance I’d somehow managed during the photo-shoot.

Sitting proved to be more awkward with the skirt insisting on spreading everywhere. I would need a lot of space either side of me if I ever had to sit and resigned myself to a long evening on my feet, or rather toes as three inches was high for someone with such small feet as mine.

The doorbell rang and I grabbed my faux-fur stole and a small black sequinned handbag and made my way carefully downstairs to where Karen was waiting. We air kissed, conscious of each other’s makeup, and made our way to the waiting limos blocking a fair length of street.

“You look fabulous tonight Liz, just the sort of thing we were hoping for. Remember just be yourself and enjoy the limelight when you get there, you deserve it. Let me know how you get on with Tarquin.”

Tarquin! Who calls their child Tarquin these days? My imagination filled with images of some spoilt, chinless, Eaton educated narcissist, and with some trepidation, I thanked the driver who was holding my door, scooped up my immense skirts and slid inside.

Trying my hardest to mask my mixed feelings I turned to my companion smiled in greeting.

 -oOo-

Chapter 12

Shit, he was gorgeous. I felt my breath catch as I took in his deep blue eyes and short, curly blond hair. He had a relaxed and easy manner and a trim figure. His languid smile broadened as he noticed my reaction.

“I get that a lot.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You know, when you saw me for the first time and it took your breath away? I imagine it happens to you all the time too.”

“Not that I’d noticed.”

“You should look for it. I imagine it happens more often than you would think. Doesn’t mean anything of course, just a trick of nature. I’m Tarquin by the way.”

He held out his hand and I found myself warming to him. Okay, so he knew he looked good, at least he didn’t take it seriously.

“Elizabeth, but my friends call me Liz.”

“Is that an invitation?”

The question made me smile. I wasn’t sure if it was insecurity or politeness, but in either case it went in his favour.

“I should think so. How did you get landed with a name like Tarquin?”

“I know it’s dreadful isn’t it? Everyone keeps asking if I’m gay. I suppose mother thought it was upper class or something. Made school a bit of a drag; meant I had to work out some so people wouldn’t take the piss all the time. Worked though, I hardly ever had to hit anyone.”

The voice was plummy with a decidedly high society accent, but natural, not affected. The way he spoke was laid back to the point of not caring what people thought. I guess it went with the territory though. Either he was so privileged that he didn’t give a rat’s arse or he was so sick of people sucking up to him because he was good looking and talked posh that he was beyond caring. I suspected, and hoped for, the latter.

“So how’d you get into this line of business then?”

He laughed.

“You have to use your assets Liz. I was a disappointment to my parents academically. All that bloody money wasted on private education and I scarcely scraped two ‘A’ levels. Father was too terrified of what I might do if he put me in the army and there was sod all else about for a thicko like me. Then mother had the idea of using my looks, asked around her friends, who asked theirs. Eventually I was introduced to someone who ran a male escort service and I was considered suitably qualified, so here I am.

“Make pots of money at it too, though the fossils insist I invest most of it. In about ten years I’ll already be too old for this crap, and if I haven’t found another way of making a living by then I’ll need the cash to keep me going. Frankly I’m hoping to meet some sweet young girl with pots of money of her own and marry into a life of luxury and ease. How about you?”

“I suppose I’m in a similar position to you. I’ve only just started modelling, but I suspect I’ll be looking for something different in ten years. I’m not thinking about it for now though, I have enough things happening in my life to keep me busy and interested.”

“Ah. Bloody shame you’re not rich, otherwise I’d be turning on the old charm. Sorry I appear to be swearing rather a lot, hope it doesn’t bother you.”

“As long as you clear it out of your system before we arrive. I’m not sure Karen would be that pleased otherwise.”

“Oh don’t worry, I’ll be good when we get there. I just want to make sure that I’m not upsetting you.”

We settled into silence and I tried to bring my clothing under control. The inside of the limo was immense, but somehow my skirts were trying their hardest to fill all available space. My clothing and I reached an impasse which became something of an acceptable compromise. Tarquin was looking out at the traffic with a bored expression on his face. I decided to try and tap him for information.

“So, have you been to anything like this before? This is my first one and I could do with a bit of a clue as to what to do.”

He shrugged.

“Just smile and wave my dear. Lean on my arm and smile and wave. There’ll be a stack load of reporters when we first get out of the car, so be prepared with that smile and try not to blink too much. Inside I’ve never really noticed. Usually whoever I’m with gets carted off in some direction and I’m left to go look for a glass of wine and some hors d’oeuvres. Generally we leave together doing as good an impression as we can of not being pissed out of our brains and then it’s off home to bed. Sorry I can’t be more help.”

The silence reasserted itself and I decided it was probably for the best. Apart from our professions putting us in similar positions, we really didn’t have that much in common. Eventually we arrived at the gallery where the launch was being held and the limousine pulled up outside. Tarquin touched my arm lightly.

“Wait until the driver opens the door for you, climb out as gracefully as you can – believe me there will be a lot of cameras – then step to the right and wait for me. I’ll follow you out and offer you my arm, then we go in smiling and waving.”

It didn’t sound too hard and turned out to be good advice as I was half blinded by the cameras flashing. Having his arm to hold onto helped keep me steady and meant that I could walk even though I could hardly see. Once safely inside, Karen came over and rescued me and Tarquin gave me a cheerful wave before drifting off in search of refreshments. I turned to Karen.

“That’s all he does?”

“That and escort you out when you leave. I suppose I could ask him to stay with you if you want, but I thought you’d prefer to meet some people.”

“No it’s not that, it’s just… well let’s say I’m glad Mike didn’t come tonight.”

“Oh it’s different when you bring a guest, he gets to stay with you through most of the evening. The problem with doing it with rent-a-gent is that what looks good for the cameras doesn’t survive closer scrutiny. Any relationship between yourself and the man you’re with comes over as false and that puts the rest of the evening in a bad light.

“Your main job tonight is to talk to the women about the different clothes you wore in the photo-shoot. Sell everything as best you can without overdoing it if you know what I mean. If you take some time from that job to talk about your other interests then as far as I’m concerned it will only help portray you as an honest and intelligent young girl, so all the more to be trusted in your advice about the Elle-gance line.”

And so began a long and very frustrating evening, As I was introduced to a group of people, I would start by talking about the clothes to the women, answering questions about how certain dresses felt and moved, then, based largely on complexion and build – and apparent social standing; I mean you wouldn’t suggest a shell suit to the queen would you? – I would suggest one or two other outfits I thought might look good. Everyone had copies of the new catalogue, so it was easy to flip through the pages and point out the clothes in question. Then when we’d done talking business, they’d invariably ask about my interests and I’d say a bit about cooking and decorating and a lot about the homeless, usually directing my attention to the men at that point.

When it reached the point where I would suggest ways in which they could become involved, things would begin to fall apart. Members of Parliament who were even vaguely involved in the problem would shy away from my questions and suggestions and tell me to write them a letter whereas businessmen weren’t interested in talking about their charitable giving or whether they had any disused and soon to become derelict buildings.

I guess I was too much of an unknown quantity, I mean attractive eighteen year old girls like me aren’t generally known for talking about real world issues, except perhaps to pledge for world peace in beauty pageants. After a while I took a different tack and started asking what I could do or say that would convince them I was serious enough for them to invest some time or money into my ideas, at which point they started talking about business plans and real time strategies that took into account time scales, staffing, financing and the like. As Ken, I had studied this as part of my degree so I was able to talk sensibly enough off the cuff to raise a few eyebrows and earn me enough promises that they would read and consider anything I presented to them in the future.

I managed to keep a congenial face all through the evening, something that became significantly harder as my frustration level grew and my feet began to ache. Eventually things began to wind down and once the party had reduced to a few stragglers, all deep in their own conversations and no longer interested in talking about clothing, Karen came and found Charlotte and me to tell us we could go. I collected Tarquin from where he was chatting amiably with what I imagined had to be some friends of his parents, and we walked out together still smiling for the few die-hard cameramen who, Tarquin warned me, were looking for less than flattering shots to plaster over the tabloids.
Once in the car I slid angry feet out of uncomfortable shoes and submitted to their barking at me for a few minutes over the way I had abused them then, once they had settled down I closed my eyes for a moment.

I woke up to a gentle nudging to find myself leaning against a well-muscled arm. I backed off in alarm and embarrassment, which doubled when I noticed that I had been dribbling a little in my sleep.

“Oh shit I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to do that. Oh look at your jacket.”

I hunted in my purse for tissues and started sponging away at the damp spot on his arm. Tarquin laughed and took the tissue from my hands.

“It’s nothing and I really didn’t mind. Look you were exhausted and it seemed best to let you sleep. I wouldn’t have woken you now, except we’ve arrived at your flat.

“I’ve enjoyed this evening more than usually, I mean I know we were only together for the limo ride to and from, but it was nice to be treated as a person rather than a commodity. If you ever want to do something like this again, I’ll be glad to oblige, even to follow you around and shake hands if you want.”

“Thank-you. Er, you should know I’m in a relationship.”

“Of course you bloody well are. Someone as beautiful as you, you’d be spoilt for choice. Strictly business Liz, with maybe a little bit of friendship. No benefits expected though.”

“Well when you put it like that, I’ll give it some serious thought.”

I reached over and kissed him on the cheek, then had to retrieve my tissue to clean the lipstick off his face.

“Goodnight Tarquin.”

I retrieved my shoes and stepped out of the car, thanking the stoically waiting driver on the way. There was a light under Sharon’s door so I took a chance and knocked lightly. A moment later the dressing gown clad form of my friend and neighbour cracked open the door and peered out, smiling openly once she saw it was me.

“I need to get out of this very elegant torture device, but if you want to pop over for a chat I think I have a few more minutes before I turn into a pumpkin.”

By the time I had changed out of the dress – being sure to hang it up neatly of course – and taken a quick revitalising shower, Sharon was waiting with two mugs of steaming hot chocolate. She listened patiently as I spoke of the brick wall I had spent all evening banging my head against. Okay, lousy grammar, but I’m tired alright. You try walking around on tiptoes with your boobs strapped up wearing a dress that’s constantly trying to tangle your legs for five hours and tell me you’d do any better. And okay, I’m a bit ratty, but then I’m tired and frustrated.

Sharon did the best thing a friend could do. She listened then she gave me a hug and sent me off to bed.

I awoke with my arms wrapped around a pillow to the sound of an insistent buzzing coming from the living room. Nursing a muggy head, I stumbled through to the intercom and mumbled something unintelligible into the mouthpiece. Mike’s cheery, if somewhat distorted, voice responded.

“Hey Liz, do you know how long ago the dawn chorus was?”

I pressed the door release until I heard the sound of footsteps on the stairs then headed for the kitchen and set the caffeine-omatic about its business. It took me a few moments to register that there was still a locked door between Mike and me and shuffled back into the living room to let him in.

He gave me an approving look which had to be one of the best acting jobs of all time given that my hair was a Medusa’s tangle, my face a study in gormlessness and my nightclothes a rather short and rumpled tee-shirt nightie with something cute and nondescript on the front. Oh, short. Legs. I guess there was something to look at. He reached in to kiss me but I pushed him away.

“No, I haven’t brushed my teeth yet.”

They actually felt a little furry and I headed for the bathroom where other business awaited my pleasure too.

“Coffee’s brewing. Help yourself when it’s done.”

I showered and etceteraed in record time for a zombie, then made the world’s slowest dash for the bedroom, wrapped only in a towel. This was going to be a jeans and jumper day and stuff the fashion business. My toes were still aching from those shoes and I relished the thought of trainers or at the very least flats for the day. Besides which I wouldn’t need much of a heel to find myself looking down on Mike, and I didn’t want to do that to him.

I tried untangling my hair, but it would take too long and I needed my morning fix. I carried my hairbrush through to the kitchen and handed it to Mike in exchange for the coffee he offered me, then sat with my back to him and breathed in the fumes of life. For a bloke he caught on pretty quick and I could have purred at the double pleasure of that first cup and having someone brush through my hair.

“Do I dare ask how it went last night?”

He found a knot and teased at it gently until it gave way. About the same time my revitalised brain kicked in and I uttered my first comprehensible statement of the morning.

“From Karen’s point of view it went brilliantly. Charlotte and I wowed the crowd to the extent that she was running out of space in her order book. For me personally it was less wonderful. Five hours standing in three inch heels was no picnic and, although I managed to talk to a lot of the right people about the whole homeless issue, none of them would take me seriously enough to hear me out.”

“So what are you going to do about it?”

“Come up with a business plan. Show them the financial sense of it all. Start writing to my MP and every MP on the committee dealing with the homeless issue right now. Keep doing that ’til somebody listens.”

“Good for you. Hopefully you don’t plan to start today though?”

I favoured him with the brightest smile in the box.

“No today is all about us.”

“Great, maybe I can have my good morning kiss now.”

He’d earned it. Extra-special, super-sized with a side order of mmmmn.

“So how was my replacement?”

Residual cerebral mugginess prevented me from understanding immediately. He stuck out the crook of his arm in pantomime and light dawned.

“He was really sweet in vaguely nice-but-dim sort of way. Tarquin if you’d believe it. Definite hunk, but not really my type.”

I drained the second half of my mug and felt life and civilisation return to normal.

“So what are we going to do today?”

“D’you have any wellies or shoes you don’t mind getting muddy?”

“I think I can find some. This isn’t going to involve walking miles is it?”

“Not really, at least not for you. Not unless you want to that is.”

“I’m intrigued.”

“Good, nothing like a bit of anticipation to whet the appetite. You’ll need a warm coat as well. Weather’s smiling on us, but there is a bit of a chill in the air.”

We climbed into Mike’s Range Rover – it still felt odd climbing up into a car – and headed north towards Epping. Mike wouldn’t be drawn on where we were going and I had no clue until, without warning, we turned off onto a very narrow unmade track.

“Did that just say…?”

The sickly sweet smell of fresh manure assaulted our nostrils before we turned the last corner to be confronted with churned up mud and a half dozen ramshackle buildings. Mike switched off the engine and a gentle nickering could be heard from the nearest barn. I couldn’t contain my grin and Mike returned it with his own twisted smile.

“My cousin runs the place. Come on I’ll introduce you.”

And we were off, picking our way through the slurry towards the nearest and, by a short margin, least dilapidated structure. Mike knocked and pushed his way in. A heavily built woman in her early thirties looked up and beamed at him.

“Mike, it’s been way too long. What brings you out here?”

“Katie, I’d like you to meet Liz, the most wonderful girl in the world. Liz my cousin Katie, the other most wonderful girl in the world.”

Smiles and handshakes later, Katie turned to Mike and said in something of a stage whisper.

“What are you thinking Mike? She’s far too young and pretty for you.” Then to me. “What do you see in this decrepit old fossil?”

“Oh I’m only into him for the money. When he retires in a year or so, I’ll strap him to the bed and ride him ’til his heart gives out.”

Katie’s gay hoots of laughter told me I’d gauged her about right. Mike’s red face would just have to serve him right for introducing me to family without warning. Laughter subsided and Katie wiped genuine tears from her eyes.

“And I suppose that’s what you’re here for is it? Riding lessons.”

The prospect was exciting and I looked over at Mike with eager schoolgirl eyes. He shrugged.

“I wasn’t sure if you’d ever done this before, but I thought it might be fun.”

Once Katie had kitted us out with the necessary safety gear, she led us to a staging area where we were introduced to the two most laid back horses you’re even likely to meet. Mine was a chestnut brown gelding, fifteen hands high so I was told, with a messy white splash between his (its?) eyes. He turned docile eyes my way and I felt my apprehension ease a little. Katie started her little spiel.

“It’s important to feel confident when approaching a horse. There’s not much you can do about their size, I mean most of the exhilaration of horse riding is the feeling of half a ton of muscle beneath you, so instead we start you off with our gentlest creatures so you can reach that point of trusting them.”

I was helped up into my saddle, Mike swinging into his like a pro, and for the next hour or so we learnt the commands necessary to direct the horses. Mike tried to hide his expression, but it was obvious he had done this before and was bored out of his mind. For me the novelty was enough to keep me excited and before long Katie declared us both ready for the next bit.

The two quieter horses were led away and another two with a livelier step and an alert expression replaced them. Mine was a beautiful palomino mare named Wind Dancer who tossed her head at me as I approached. Katie came up to me and whispered in my ear.

“Try to channel that apprehension into excitement. The more you take control here, the quicker you’ll have her doing what you want instead of the other way around.”

I was excited and as I focused on that feeling I felt the early stages of fear melt into the more positive feeling. I approached my new mount with growing confidence. She nickered and pulled her head up, but I took the bridle and held her still, stroking her nose and calming her with quiet words. Some of my practice on the quieter horses had involved mounting and dismounting, so when I felt she was ready, I swung up into the saddle. She tried to sidestep on me, but I was ready for her and made it up safely, tugging the reins to keep her still.

The lessons continued, through trotting and cantering until Katie felt that we were ready to head out into the fields. Actually it was more me than we, Mike had so obviously done this before and was a consummate horseman. We trotted out into the open and Wind Dancer decided that she’d had enough of plodding about. I could feel her muscles bunching under me and just managed to tighten my own grip as she launched into a full gallop. For a moment I was going to try and haul her in, but then the exhilaration took me and I bent low to her back and let her have her head.

What a rush, hair whipping about behind me, wind streaking past. She was heading for a fence and I didn’t feel ready for any air time just yet so I firmly dug in a knee and pulled her head to one side. She responded and I felt the double thrill that came with my sense of control over her. Mike eased alongside, his worried expression melting into a mirror of my own as I smiled back my delight.

After what seemed like an age I felt Wind Dancer ease her pace a little and I pulled her back into a canter then a gentle trot. Mike pulled up alongside me.

“You’re a natural.”

“I hope so. I can see myself doing a lot of this.”

“I’m glad. I’ve been doing this since I was about twelve when Katie got her first horse. This is the first time I’ve found anyone to share it with though.”

The regular motion between my legs began to have a secondary effect on me and Mike turned his head away from me as a strangely distracted cross-eyed look settled on my features.

“Oh my, I am definitely doing this again.”

Mike’s laugh came back to me from a respectful distance.

“If that’s going to happen to you on a regular basis, you’re going to have to learn to hide it better.”

No-one else was watching and Mike seemed okay with it, so I gave in to the sensations that flooded through me. Part of me imagined I was with Mike instead of the rather sturdy lady between my legs and before long I was biting my lip, trying not to moan out loud. Eventually I had to stop and dismount, my legs all but collapsing as I made it back onto Terra Firma.

Mike came to join me and we let the horses graze for a while as we lay back on the damp grass and looked out over the busy city in the distance.

“I thought you were trying to make me jealous again back there.”

I laughed and kissed him.

“I may have been with her, but all the time I was thinking of you my sweet.”

Nothing needed to be said. It was enough to be lying there in the crook of his arm, leaning my head on his chest and feeling his gentle hand stroking my hair. I tried to imagine myself as Ken in Mike’s place right now and knew I wouldn’t have been happier.

All too soon Mike checked his watch and nudged me.

“Come on, we’d better be getting back or Katie will be sending out search parties.”

The horses hadn’t gone far and seemed to have regained their wind a little. Wind Dancer was a lot more accommodating as I climbed up into her saddle, then Mike called out his challenge to race me back and startled his own mount into a gallop. I dug my own feet in and my new friend responded with eagerness. We caught up with Mike, who I suspect wasn’t trying that hard, and eased in alongside. We raced back down the path together, only easing the pace as the stable came into view.

Katie was waiting as we dismounted, obviously enjoying a certain amount of vicarious pleasure from the expression on my own face. She took a firm hold on my arm and dragged me away.

“Let me show you where the loo is.”

I was grateful to her as I needed a little bit of a clean-up. She had some sanitary pads available which helped a little, but I was going to need a change of clothes soon.

“If you don’t want the distraction, wear a pad when you ride. At least that way you can control how much you enjoy yourself.”

We re-joined Mike in the office and I went over to hang on his arm.

“I’m sorry love but I’m going to have to go home for a change of clothes.”

He shrugged.

“Katie thanks so much for this morning, it has been a truly memorable experience.”

“You’re welcome any time Liz. Just give me a day or so warning so I can put a horse aside for you.”

“How about this afternoon?”

I looked up at Mike and he laughed, shaking his head.

“No I think this is something else we’re going to have to ration you on. There is such a thing as too much of a good thing.

“Thanks cuz. I suspect we’ll be paying you a visit next week sometime.”

We headed back to the car with me still dangling from Mike’s arm, suffused in a warm afterglow. As we climbed up into the Range Rover again I saw it in a slightly different light.

“Well at least now I know why you have such an enormous car. I was worried that you were compensating for something.”

“What makes you think I’m not?”

I spent the drive back gazing over at him, drinking in all that was good about him. Sometime soon I would have to do something for him to show those feelings. I was so engrossed that I didn’t notice the roundabout way he drove us home. It was approaching one o’clock when we pulled up near to the flat. For some reason there were a lot more cars than usual and we had to park a little way down the road. Still not even the neighbours having another party was going to spoil my mood.

“So what are we going to do this afternoon? Do you have any more surprises in store for me?”

I slid the key into my door and pushed it open.

“Surprise!”

The joint yell caught me totally off guard and I turned an entirely gob-smacked face towards the laughter of just about everyone I knew.

Sharon, wearing a short blue dress that was all frills and flounces, grabbed my arm and dragged me towards the bedroom.

“Yours is in the bathroom Mike.”

It sounded like Phil but looked more like one of the Bash Street Kids. Totally bemused I allowed myself to be led to my room and the purple dress lying on the bed.

“Sharon, what is this?”

“Sort of an impromptu flat warming. We went for the afternoon so that Mike could join in. He’s been running interference for us, keeping you distracted while we got the place ready. Don’t worry none of the decorations are stuck on; we wouldn’t want to ruin the fantastic job you did on this place.”

“But I mean… this.”

I waved at her dress and the dress on the bed.

“Well you remember telling me that one of your regrets was missing out on growing up as a girl? I decided to do something about that. Your friend Elizabeth’s twelve year old daughter has been very helpful in deciding all the things we’re going to do this afternoon, and what party food to get.

“Come on, get dressed. You’re missing all the fun.”

for_evil12It was the sweetest dress ever. A deep rich purple with puffed sleeves and a short puffball skirt. It came with sparkly thigh high stockings with little purple bows at the top and a pair of matching purple Mary Janes. It looked ridiculous, but in the most amazing little girl way. I looked over at Sharon in an equally daft little girl party dress and arm in arm, laughing at the idiocy of it all, we re-joined the others.

Karen was there, also in bows and lace, but perhaps a little less cutesy, and so was Elizabeth with a young girl standing very close and holding onto her skirts. I went straight over and crouched down to speak to her.

“You must be Cassie, you’re mum has told me so much about you. My friend tells me you helped with all this is that right?”

She looked uncertainly up at her mum, then encouraged by her smile, gave me a nod.

“Can you show me all the things you did?”

And like that we were best of friends and she was chatting to me about all the games and presents and party food we were going to enjoy.

“I don’t know about this, isn’t there anything else I can wear?”

It was Mike just coming out of the bathroom and looking a lot like Phil in his shorts and blazer. He looked kind of cute, but embarrassed. I put my finger on my lips and winked at Cassie before sauntering over to him.

“We could always swap if you like.”

He turned and his eyes came out on stalks.

“Oh no, I don’t think that would be fair on the world. Okay it’s worth making a fool of myself for this.”

In addition to those already mentioned were some of Sharon’s friends, notably those who’d been kind to Ken when our dates had gone sour. I allowed Sharon to introduce me to them and soon enough we were all chatting and laughing with Cassie slowly gaining confidence enough to join in.

The afternoon was a riot of party games from pass the parcel to musical bumps to twister. The drinks were all fizzy and mostly glow in the dark unnatural colours and flavours, the food the usual party fair of sausages on stick and similar. Jelly and ice-cream featured as did a cake in the shape of a house and even presents. I ended up with a beautiful porcelain doll from Mike, a negligée which left nothing to the imagination from Sharon, a full professional makeup kit from Karen, a silver photo frame from Phil with a picture of Mike and me sitting, holding hands in our party clothes. I remembered seeing the flash go off, but hadn’t seen him sneak out to print it off. Sharon’s friends gave me various little knick-knacks, each of which was given its own place on a shelf somewhere, and Elizabeth and Cassie gave me a My Little Pony with a rainbow coloured mane.

Silly to be so thrilled over such a thing but I was, and spent the next half hour talking to Cassie about horses and the amazing time I’d had in that morning.

“I wonder if your Mum would let me take you riding one day soon?”

“Really? Can I Mum?”

“I don’t know, I wouldn’t want to impose.”

“Call it a thank-you for all your work with the party, besides it would be my pleasure. Any excuse for going to the stables again.”

We sort of pencilled in the following Saturday morning and I hoped Mike wouldn’t mind sharing me for the day.

All too soon my favourite man was changing to go to work.

“Will you wear that for me tonight?”

“Only if you serve us in your shorts and blazer. Don’t worry, I’ll find something just as spectacular.”

“I’ll see you about eight-thirty then.”

“Eight-thirty. I’ll be counting the seconds.”

“Ten thousand eight hundred, ten thousand seven hundred and ninety-nine.”

“Silly. You have to go before I start counting.”

I gave him another sixty-seconds worth of attention then pushed him out the door.

The party wound down rapidly after that, the rubbish all gathered into a couple of bin bags, the banners untied and put away, the helium balloons rescued from the ceiling and used for the obligatory silly voice nonsense, then it was time for everyone to go and Sharon/Cassie pulled out their final triumph and made me stand at the door thanking everyone for coming and handing out party bags. It was a perfect afternoon to follow the perfect morning.

Phil, Sharon and I were sitting around over coffee, chatting our way lazily into the evening. Phil had changed out of his Tom Brown gear but Sharon and I, much to his evident delight, were still wearing our party dresses.

“Sharon, this was brilliant. I thought you had gone crazy when we first arrived, but I can’t remember when I’ve enjoyed myself more.”

“Well credit where credit’s due, Phil had a hand in persuading me that it would be fun, and it wouldn’t have been anywhere near as authentic without Cassie’s input.”

“I assume the dresses were hired. It’s a shame because I rather like this one.”

“Actually yours isn’t. Call it another thing to remind you of the day and you ‘childhood’.”

She did the air-quotes thing with her fingers at the end. I gave her a much deserved hug.

“You are so good to me.”

A glance at my watch told me what I didn’t want to know and I let out a tired sigh.

“Better start getting ready for tonight. Do you want to borrow anything?”

“Ooh goody, I was hoping you’d say something like that.”

We dashed off into my bedroom to do clothes, leaving Phil shaking his head. As far as he was concerned all he needed was his jacket and he was ready.

I decided to wear my Emerald Radiance, a dress I loved despite the pretentious name, and Sharon settled on a gorgeous black dress I hadn’t had chance to wear yet. I didn’t begrudge her the choice for a second; I was only glad to be able to give her something back for all her hard work.

Despite all the usual fussing about, we made it to Mike’s with five minutes spare. As before he came out of his kitchen to greet us – cleaner whites this time I noticed – and led us to the same central table as the previous week.

Again, at Mike’s instigation, we did the where-did-you-get-those-lovely-dresses routine. Again we had a slightly more than polite amount of interest from the people sitting nearby. The evening was a close copy of the Friday before last, with less food and drink and more of Mike’s company, all of which was an improvement. We ate at a leisurely pace and, even with the occasional interruptions from other patrons to ask about the dresses, we were still done by ten.

Mike insisted we stay and plied us with more coffee and liqueurs as incentive. We settled into a companionable silence, each of us mulling through our own thoughts. For myself I was reflecting on yet another perfect day. I couldn’t imagine one thing that could have made it better, except on reflection there was a quietly nagging wrongness running right the way through. Sharon noticed my expression and, when Phil headed off to ease some of the internal strain, she came round the table to me.

“What’s up sweetie?”

“I’m going to have to tell him Sharon. We can’t have a relationship based on a lie.”

She went very still, her pallid expression losing even more of its colour.

“Liz, no, he won’t understand. It doesn’t matter what you were, you’re all girl now, mentally, emotionally, physically, so what does it matter what you were? What does it matter that he doesn’t know?”

“Because it happened. Because someday, somehow, somewhere Sod’s Law will make sure that he’ll find out and if he has to find out from someone, I’d rather it was from me.”

“But how is he going to find out?”

“I don’t know, maybe you or Phil will have a few too many one day and say something. I know you won’t mean to, but you can’t guarantee that it won’t happen can you? And what about when I tell my family? Because that will happen one day and I don’t have any faith in my Mum not making some comment. Who knows, it might even be me who let’s something slip.”

“What’s up?”

Shit, things must be bad if Phil’s noticed.

“Liz just said she’s going to tell Mike.”

And possibly worse if it can make the blood drain from his face like that.

“Why would you do that?”

So I had to explain my point of view all over again. Honestly, isn’t it obvious, or is it me that’s missing something?

“What happened? I thought everyone was having a great time.”

And now Mike. I looked around the restaurant. There were maybe half a dozen tables still occupied, and they were all on dessert or coffee. If he couldn’t take a bit of time off now, then when could he?

“Mike can we talk?”

His turn for the pasty face.

“Oh God.”

“No it’s nothing like that. I’ve had a brilliant day, a brilliant week in fact, and I want it to keep on forever. This isn’t me trying to dump you or anything like that.”

“Then what?”

“Can we go for a walk?”

He made a quick scan of the restaurant and came to the same conclusion as me.

“I’ll tell the guys and meet you at the door.”

Sharon and Phil looked at each other then back at me.

“Liz, please don’t do this. You have such a great thing going on, why can’t you let it be?”

“For once Liz, listen. Sharon’s right, nothing good can come from this.”

“I’m sorry guys. This has been such a great day, and it’s almost all because of you two and Mike, but it hurts to have this secret from him. I have to trust that what we’ve built this week matters enough to him.

“Would you mind staying here in case it goes pear shaped? And Phil remember, no matter what happens be his friend.”

He nodded reluctantly and I headed for the door where Mike was waiting with my coat.

He led the way down a path into the park area. It was dark, the moon not yet risen, but the sky was brilliant with stars. I tried a few opening lines inside my head, settled on one. Probably not the best, but better than the others.

“Mike, if I had a secret, you know something that would be a real unpleasant shock to you, would you rather hear it from me, or have me keep quiet in the hope that no-one else said anything to clue you in?”

He laughed nervously.

“If you’re trying to tell me you used to be a man then I’m not buying it.”

Shit, talk about going straight to the point. My face froze into a mask and there must have been enough light for him to notice.

“No! You have to be kidding!”

I grabbed his arms and turned him towards me. At first he refused to meet my gaze.

“Mike, Mike. Listen Mike, you’re making all the wrong assumptions again, and who can blame you? Listen, I’m all girl; double X chromosomes and everything. I get all crabby several days out of every month, I enjoy shopping for clothes and shoes, I say things that make a weird kind of sense without obeying the laws of logic; in short I am one hundred per cent woman.

“Which makes the next bit so much harder to believe, and even harder to say. Mike I don’t want there to be any secrets or lies between us; I can’t live like that. The whole reason the mood went south back there was because I was thinking about this wonderful day that I’ve had, that you helped to make possible, and I had this nagging sense of wrongness going through it. I’m hoping I can tell you this and we can work through it, because I never felt about anyone the way I felt about you when we first met, and in just one week those feelings have grown a million times bigger. I hate that I have to put this on you, but I can’t see an alternative. I’d rather be honest with you now and risk losing you than try to keep it hidden and come home one day in a month, a year, a decade and find you with a look on your face like the one you have now.”

We found a park bench in the dark and sat. Mike looked everywhere but at me, his mind fighting for something to grasp hold of. I couldn’t bear the silence, couldn’t keep quiet.

“Sharon and Phil think I’m an idiot for doing this. They love seeing us so happy together and they think I’m sabotaging the whole thing by telling you this. Mike, if you tell me not to say anything I’ll bury it and we’ll go on as though nothing had been said.”

“It’s a bit late for that now.”

He took my hands in his and sat staring at them for a while then let out a long desperate sigh.

“Okay, tell me.”

“Before I do I want you to know how much I care for you. I don’t want to hurt you, but this is a part of who I am, at least of who I was. I can’t help it any more or less than you can control your height. Also, even though what I was may have had some small influence on who I am, most of who I am is right here, right now, not a memory from the past.”

“I’m not sure I understand.”

“No, probably not yet, but I think you will.”

I gave him the lot, full broadside, and watched as it wrought its devastation. Maybe I was wrong to share this, I mean we don’t tell children about the horrors of the world so they don’t have nightmares. Maybe there was a time and a place for this conversation and I had botched both, but I’d started now and there was no way to unsay what had been said and no sense in stopping halfway through. The story caught up with the present moment and I let me words drift into silence.

The silence endured.

My eyes had dropped to his hands holding mine early on in the conversation and now I didn’t dare raise them. Every second that passed cut a new slice out of my heart. It was in shreds before he found his voice.

“I’m not sure if it would have been worse if you’d just broken up with me.”

I could hear the pain in his voice, the sense of betrayal and the knife cut deeper.

“Are Sharon and Phil in on this as well?”

“I told you Sharon and Phil didn’t want me to say anything.”

“Why not? Because they knew how wrong this is and don’t want me to know about it?”

The anger in his voice was like a slap in the face. I tried to keep my voice quiet and measured in return. No reason to turn this into a yelling match by raising my own voice.

“No. I think it’s because they’ve come to acknowledge that there’s always been a girl inside me and that the transformation that turned me into this allowed me to stop pretending who I was.”

“Oh come on, do you really expect me to believe all that crap? Magical transformations, demons and angels, it just isn’t real. I don’t know what you’re playing at Liz, but you are either seriously disturbed or you have a sick sense of humour.”

“We did this once before, just over a week ago if you remember. You looked past my outburst and managed to see the real me once. I’m hoping you’ll be able to do it again.”

“Except that this time you’re not drunk. All that you just said you chose to say without any excuses or reasons as to why.”

“Mike I told you my reasons…”

“You told me your reasons for telling me a secret that you thought would hurt me, not for making up some fantastic mumbo jumbo crap about how you were once a guy then magically transformed.”

“Ask Phil and Sharon…”

“How will that help? What can they possibly tell me that will convince me that this whole load of bullshit is the truth? Do you have any hard evidence? No I didn’t think so.

“Liz I’m not a strong guy, I have a sensitive ego. I dared to hope you might like me once and very nearly screwed things up when you proved not to be quite perfect. That was my mistake and I thought I was lucky to have a second chance. Now I’m not so sure.

“This week has been like a taste of heaven to me, right up until ten minutes ago. If you’re going to chew me up and spit me out then please stop chewing and spit. I don’t think I can stand another round with you.”

Oh God no. He let go of my suddenly numb fingers and walked back up the hill. A chill spread through me rooting me to the spot, fixing a horrified mask on my face. No God, no, please no.

The tears wouldn’t come, they were frozen somewhere inside.

-oOo-