Flip – 1 – Awakening

The doctor looked at the couple over steepled fingers, his expression grave without being grim. Telling people bad news was not a part of the job he enjoyed, but it was an essential part nonetheless, so he had honed his skills. The couple exchanged glances and reached out to take each other’s hands. They were as ready as they’d ever be.

“Mr and Mrs Merrick,” the doctor said, keeping his voice flat and low pitched, “I’m afraid your son has Klinefelter Syndrome. You may have heard it referred to as XXY Syndrome.”

The couple looked nervously at each other before returning blank looks to the doctor.

“It means he has an additional chromosome. In general, humans have forty-six chromosomes, and your son has forty-seven.”

“Are you telling me my son’s not human?” Mr Merrick’s tone was confused, but veering towards angry.

“Not at all Mr Merrick,” the doctor said hastily. “He’s as human as you and me. It’s just that in his case, something didn’t work quite as it should have when he was conceived. Either your sperm or the ovum it fertilised experienced an error in cell division that we call nondisjunction, and an additional X chromosome was transferred into the embryonic nucleus.”

“So now you’re telling us it’s our fault?” Mr Merrick’s mood was worsening.

The doctor suppressed a sigh. Anger and denial were common responses to bad news. They required patient handling.

“Mr Merrick, I’m saying nothing of the sort. This kind of problem can happen to anyone. In fact, Klinefelter is one of the most, if not the most, common genetic condition, occurring once in every six to seven hundred male births. It doesn’t happen because there’s something wrong with the parents, but because of an unfortunate random event taking place during conception.”

“What does it mean for Phillip, doctor?” Mrs Merrick asked, placing a gentle, restraining hand on her husband’s arm.

The doctor smiled gratefully at Mrs Merrick. It always amazed him how it was the women, usually so emotional and irrational in a crisis, who were so often the calmest and most reasonable in times such as this.

“It’s hard to say at this time; the condition affects different individuals to a different extent. The symptoms which prompted you to bring him to me are fairly pronounced though, so I suspect he will be one of the less fortunate ones, I’m sorry.”

“Yes, but in what way less fortunate?”

“Well, you’ve already noticed signs of late development. As he grows older, he may exhibit a degree of dyslexia or dyspraxia as well as shyness and social awkwardness. When he reaches puberty, his body may develop in a less masculine way…”

“What do you mean by that?” Mr Merrick was on the aggressive again.

“He has an additional X chromosome Mr Merrick. A normal male will have one X and one Y, whilst a normal female will have two X’s. The additional chromosome interferes with male development, and sometimes results in slightly more female traits. Broader hips, narrower shoulders, lower physical strength, less facial hair, and there is the possibility of gynecomastia.”

“What’s that?” Mrs Merrick asked, her voice showing the first sign of tremor.

“It means breast development, Mrs Merrick.”

“You’re trying to tell me my son is going to turn into a girl?” Mr Merrick’s anger continued to build.

“No Mr Merrick, your son is what he is, and what he always will be. He is a young man with complications. Perhaps the most severe is that his genitals may not fully develop. His penis and testes will almost certainly be smaller than usual, and he may never be able to have children.”

Mr Merrick slumped back in his chair. It was a cruel tactic, but sometimes being confronted with the bare facts could knock the fight out of someone, and both parents would need to reach acceptance if they were to help their son deal with his condition.

“You can fix it though, right? Now that you know what it is, you can cure him?”

And so to the bargaining phase. It was a good sign.

“I’m sorry Mr and Mrs Merrick. Your son’s condition is genetic – not inherited, or inheritable, but genetic nevertheless. The abnormality exists in every one, or very nearly every one, of the thirty-seven trillion cells in his body. Medical science just isn’t advanced enough to cure something like this.”

“So what can we do?” the more reasonable Mrs Merrick asked.

“We can offer occupational therapy to help with any dyspraxic tendencies he may have, I can and will write him a statement to ensure he has adequate support in school. When he starts to go through puberty, we can give him testosterone replacement therapy to help his body develop more like a normal man. Breast reduction therapy as and when – and if – it becomes necessary, and counselling since gender identity issues are common in people with Klinefelter. Unfortunately, that’s about all we can do at present.”

The couple sat in stunned silence.

“It’s a shock, I know,” the doctor continued. “You will need time to process it, but there’s no reason why your son shouldn’t live a relatively normal and happy life.”

“Relatively? What kind of relatively with all that going on?” Mr Merrick was in danger of slipping back into anger.

“The sort of relatively that means he will have two arms and two legs, Mr Merrick. The sort of relatively that means he will be able to go to school and learn alongside other children without seeming particularly different. He will be able to get a job and live a full life. He will have trials to face, I’m not denying that, but we all do, and he at least will know what most of them are ahead of time. He will also, unless I miss my guess, have two supportive parents to help him face his demons and make informed decisions as to what will be best for him.”

The doctor stood. “I am sorry,” he said. “I know this is a lot to take in, and I think the best thing you can do right now is take some time to do so. Think about what is best for your son. I have details of a number of support groups,” he picked up a small pile of pamphlets and offered them across the desk, “people who have had to deal with the same things you are facing now. I suggest you contact them and find out more about what your future holds. I, of course, will be here for when you wish to discuss matters further.”

Mrs Merrick stood, followed by her husband. Silently, she took the pamphlets and offered the doctor a wan smile. Mr Merrick’s face was too stunned to show much emotion. The two of them allowed the doctor to lead them out of the office and into the waiting room where young Phillip was happily playing with a small pile of Lego. What he had built wasn’t recognisable as anything in particular, but he gave his parents a cheerful smile and offered it up for inspection even so.

“That’s very nice dear,” Mrs Merrick said distractedly, “but we have to go. Why don’t you put it down so some other children can play with it?”

Phillip did as he was told and followed his parents out of the surgery. -oOo-

“Mr and Mrs Merrick?”

The voice held traces of a German accent, the face was partially obscured behind milk bottle glasses.

“I’m sorry,” Mrs Merrick responded, her husband still deep in shock and unable to respond. “We’ve just been given some, er, difficult news. We really need to be alone right now.”

“This news is in relation to the health of your son, yes?” The man with the milk bottle glasses said. It was enough to bring Mr Merrick out of his dazed state. He turned and stared alongside his wife.

“My name is Doctor Wiesner,” the man continued, “and I believe we can be of mutual assistance to one another.”

“How do you know about our son?”

Dr Wiesner shrugged. “There are ways. Please, I will buy for you some tea, and we can talk.”

“How do you know about our son?” Mr Merrick repeated, clenching his fists.

Dr Wiesner raised his hands. “The company I work for has arrangements with many doctors around the world. We let them know the sort of person we are looking for, and they send us details of any of their patients who may match our criteria. We choose the most likely patients and approach them, as I am doing now with you.”

“That’s illegal.” Mr Merrick’s anger was resurfacing.

“In strictest terms, perhaps it is, yes, but we operate in total confidence, and it seems the most, er, kind to do things this way.”

“What do you mean?”

“We do not have many places for patients in our research. If we were to ask the doctors to refer patients to our organisation, then we would turn away perhaps many hundreds in order to find one or two. This way seems better to us. We can select the most suitable candidates from the information we are given and make our own approach. If our manner of operating is offensive to you, please, I would ask for you to accept my apology. Either way, it is possible that we may be able to help your son, and his involvement in our research may aid us. This arrangement I would like to discuss is of mutual benefit.”

“What arrangement? I thought there was no treatment.”

“Please, it will take some time to explain. It would be more pleasant to do so in comfort. There is a restaurant here.”

“Our doctor told us there was no treatment,” Mr Merrick insisted.

“The medical world has no treatment, this is true, but there are many institutes and organisations around the world conducting research, and you would be most surprised what some of them have achieved.”

“You think you can cure our son?” Mrs Merrick asked.

“I believe it is possible, yes. Please let me explain over a cup of tea or coffee.”

The couple allowed themselves and their young son to be led into the restaurant. -oOo-

“Merrick!” The voice sounded exasperated, as though it had been calling for some time, which, in fact, it had been doing.

“Yes sir,” I called out. “Sorry sir.”

“Well don’t just stand there, you pathetic excuse for an I-don’t-know-what, you’re first team, get out there and warm up.”

I didn’t need telling twice, which was probably as well since Grimesy wasn’t known for his patience, and I’d already gone a way towards exhausting it. I joined the rest of the team on the pitch, running its length back and forth.

“What kept you Merrick? Off with the fairies again?” Peter Bailey was the team captain, so the rest of the team laughed dutifully at his pseudo-joke.

“Something like that,” I admitted. It was hardly worth denying it as I had something of a reputation for phasing out, be it in class or out here on the rugby pitch.

“Scrumhalf,” Bailey said to me, “and keep your mind in the game this time.”

“Sure,” I said.

“And you’re a couple of laps behind the rest of us, so you can keep going when we stop in a minute.”

That didn’t bother me. I may have been undistinguished in the classroom, but I was pretty fit. Not the biggest guy on the field by a long chalk, otherwise I’d end up as a prop forward, but I had some muscle tone, and I was quick, with good stamina.

I didn’t much care for playing sports – they all seemed a little pointless to me – but it was the one thing I seemed to be good at, so I kept getting picked for the better teams, and because it helped me make and keep friends, I stuck with it.

It wasn’t just that though. Most of my school experience was a disaster. I’d try to pay attention in class, but my mind would always wander. It was like the biggest part of my brain was constantly searching for something, leaving very little to focus on school work. Sports was different. For the most part I didn’t need to think, so I could let my mind free and let my body react without interfering. Grimesy told me once that it’s probably why I’m so naturally good at sports – I don’t try to take control. That and I have kept in pretty good trim.

I don’t know why I’m so spaced out most of the time, but I’ve been this way since as long ago as I can remember. My first memories are a jumble of confusing snapshots, mostly of something that seems to come from a bad science fiction horror movie, with big machines and serious men in a bright, brilliantly white place filled with corridors and laboratories, machines and chemicals. It was a scary time, and all I’m left with is a sense of having lost a part of myself.

There was a time I thought it might actually have been a film I saw when I was younger, and I’ve searched for it, but nothing from ten or twelve years ago comes even close. I’ve seen some that have scared the excrement out of me, but all the while they’ve been nothing more than stories with made up, usually bad and unbelievable, plot lines. My crazy memories have an odd sense of reality, and it’s where my mind spends most of its time, reliving those experiences, but only ever giving me glimpses.

“Hey Merrick!” Baily called.

I looked over to where the rest of the team were standing around, watching me.

“You can stop now. You’re making us look bad.”

I hadn’t noticed them stop running, couldn’t tell how many extra laps I’d done.

“Sorry Pete, I lost track for a while there.”

“Yeah, well none of it right? You need to get your head in the game. We win as a team or we lose as a team, and I don’t want to lose.”

Have you ever noticed how sportsmen tend to speak in clichés?

At the end of the day it’s a game of two halves. You win some, you lose some. Sometimes you’re over the moon, sometimes you’re as sick as a parrot.

A bunch of preassembled phrases bolted together in semi-random order in the hope that they at least sound like they make sense. Minimum brain activity required, and to all appearances, minimum brain activity present much of the time.

I wasn’t stupid, I knew that. I was just… distracted. All I needed to do was to keep at least some of my focus on the game for the forty minutes we’d be running about.

School rugby you understand. Only enough time for half a game if you factor in the getting changed and the obligatory shower afterwards.

Shouldn’t be too hard.

It wasn’t. Well, I say that. I did drift away once or twice, but only for short periods and while we were waiting for someone to fetch the ball. I can’t say I played as well as I could, but we did win, and a lot of our break away moves started with me reading the field and passing to the right person. I even managed to score one of the tries myself when no-one was open and I just hung onto the ball and ran with it.

Certainly I did well enough to earn a fair few well-meant congratulatory slaps on the way back into the changing room.

“Merrick!”

It was Grimsey calling me over. I broke away from my team mates and jogged across. You didn’t walk in Mr Grimes’s class.

“Sir?”

“I’ve seen you play better, Merrick.”

“Yes sir.”

“I want you on top form on Saturday against Crestwell.”

“Yes sir, I’ll try.”

“No, you will do better. There is no try.”

Grimesy was always mangling film quotes, and Star Wars was more his era than mine. You learned not to comment on it if you didn’t want a lecture and an extra twenty press-ups.

“Yes sir.”

“Okay then. Now go and get showered before you stink the place out.”

“Yes sir.”

So it was into the showers and on to maths, which I hated with an incandescent passion. How to go from one extreme to the other. Still at least it was the last lesson of the day.

Algebra! What happened to all the numbers? How the hell could you do maths with letters. I tried to listen but it just came across as a mindless blah, blah, blah. I tried to do the problems, but the letters and numbers started swimming on the page, and none of it made sense. My mind sought to escape and I drifted away into disturbing dreams that made even less sense.

“Merrick!!!” Miss Fallon could generate decibels when she wanted to, and I’m guessing I was the last straw at the end of a long day. I started and stared back at her, her face white with rage. “Would you like to come to the front and show the class how to do this?”

“Er, I wouldn’t know how Miss.”

“No that doesn’t surprise me. You know why? Because you weren’t listening!”

I bit my lip. It wasn’t worth arguing with Miss Fallon when she was in rant mode.

“Headmaster’s office, now. Take your things. I don’t want you back in my class until your attitude improves.”

I opened my mouth to protest, but then reminded myself it wasn’t worth it. It took just a few seconds to scoop my books and other belongings into my bag, then pausing long enough to give Miss Fallon a moderately poisonous glare, I stormed out of the classroom.

Next stop the headmaster’s office where his PA raised her eyebrows at my approach.

“Mr Leighton is busy, Phillip. Take a seat and I’ll let him know you’re here.”

Never great news when the head’s PA knows you by name.

I sat and mused on the unfairness of it all. I mean it wasn’t as if I did it on purpose. One minute I’d be trying to make head or tails out of a page full of incomprehensible drivel, the next I’d be reliving last night’s dream.

It was always the same dream, with minor variations. I’d wake up in the middle of the night in my room, in my bed, in my pyjamas, but somehow I’d be in the body of a six or seven-year-old girl. I’d get out of bed and my pyjama trousers would fall down, not that that mattered since the jacket was long enough to reach to my knees. I’d usually need to go to the toilet, which used to feel weird, but now the dream was so common, I was used to it.

I’d wander into the kitchen where everything was so much bigger than it should have been. I couldn’t reach the cupboards, or even the work surface for that matter so I’d usually take a glass or a mug out of the dishwasher and a bottle of milk from the fridge door, and I’d pour myself a drink.

I’d sit in the lounge for a while until I became bored, and then I’d go back to bed. Sometimes I’d have a sense that someone was watching me from the top of the stairs, but when I’d look there’d be no-one. Usually when I woke in the morning, my pyjama trousers would be on the floor by the bed, but then you do weird things in dreams, don’t you?

“Phillip!!”

Only two exclamation marks, but then the headmaster’s PA was a tolerant person. I looked up to find her friendly face inclining towards the head’s door. Time to face the music.

Mr Leighton let out a long, exasperated sigh as I walked through the door.

“Well you nearly made it through the day, Merrick. Who was it this time?”

“Miss Fallon, sir.”

“The usual?”

“Yes sir. She said she didn’t want me back in her class till my attitude improved.”

“Well, it’s nearly the end of the day, so no point in calling your parents. Take a seat outside and stay there till the bell goes. I’ll have words with Miss Fallon later and see if I can change her mind. Why do you do it Phillip?”

“It’s not on purpose, sir. It’s just when I’m faced with something I can’t do, I don’t know, I just space out.”

Mr Leighton shook his head. “The real tragedy here is that I believe you, Phillip. Okay go and sit outside, I’ll see what I can salvage from this.”

“Yes sir.” I knew better than to say thank you or sorry. Mr Leighton was a good sort, but he didn’t much like being thanked for letting someone off lightly, and as for sorry, I’d heard him say to any number of students that if they were sorry, they’d damn well stop doing what got them in trouble. In my case that wasn’t an option because I didn’t even know I was doing something wrong until someone yelled at me.

I walked out the office and sat down. Better than maths? Maybe, but I don’t know, I’d still rather have been in class than in trouble. In class I could at least try to do the work and hope that I wouldn’t drift off again, but out here there was nothing to give me even a chance of keeping my mind anchored. I mean I’d tried talking to my parents about the dreams, once long ago. My dad had gone ballistic, telling me they were weird and unnatural, the signs of a sick and depraved mind. He said I was to stop having them.

How in Hades do you stop yourself from having recurring dreams?

Short answer is you don’t. You just stop talking about them. Mum was good at stuff like that. Most of the time she looked like she wanted to say something, but she always managed to stop herself.

The dreams didn’t happen every night, but they did come frequently enough, and even when they didn’t come, I had some sense of something having happened in the night.

I needed someone to talk to about it, but who? The ‘rents had made their position clear, and I hadn’t faith enough in any of my friends to share something as damning as that. Friendship between boys is more like a sort of uneasy truce. Even with the best of your mates, you share something potentially embarrassing, and it’s all over the school by the end of the day, and they never let you forget it. Girls are a bit of a mixed bag, but most of the girls I knew had BFFs, or whatever the modern equivalent is, and they shared each other’s deepest secrets, supposedly. It worked the opposite way to male bonding. It was like they were looking for ways to make the friendship closer, more complete, and a show of faith, a sharing of embarrassing or must forget moments achieved that. There were times when faith was misplaced, or a friendship fell apart big time, and the shrapnel would take the form of secrets revealed flying every which way.

I could handle risks like that, but I was a guy, and a sporty one at that. Girls didn’t see us the way they saw their friends. I mean being a decent all-round sportsman, representing our school in different events and bringing back an occasional trophy, meant I could probably have picked from more than half the girls in my year, but all most of them wanted was to be able to say they’d been out with Phil Merrick, sporting superstar. No real hope of a deep and meaningful relationship with people that shallow, and probably a very real danger of having my secrets revealed to the world if I was ever daft enough to share them. Sport stars aren’t supposed to dream of being little girls.

Oh, I did date a few of the nicer girls. It was kind of expected and would have led to accusations of homosexuality if I hadn’t. Not that I have anything against homosexuals, you understand. Just wasn’t one. The thing is I didn’t much appreciate being someone’s trophy boyfriend either, so none of my relationships lasted long.

That was another weird thing though. It was usually in the middle of dreaming I was a little girl that I’d figure things out, like how shallow the girls in my life were being. It was kind of like whenever I dreamt of being a girl, I actually ended up thinking like one in the dream.

“Phillip.” The head’s PA was crouched in front of me, her hand resting on my shoulder. “The bell went ten minutes ago.”

“Oh flip! The bus!! Thanks Miss.” I grabbed my bag and legged it.

Running in the corridors was not approved of, but there was no-one around to show said lack of approval. The teachers were all outside herding the masses through the doors and making sure order was maintained, and the masses were all being herded and looking for opportunities for disorder – at least some of them were. I made it outside and across the road just as the last kid was climbing on the bus I wanted. The driver was one of the decent ones though, and he was used to my vagaries. He waited the few extra seconds it took for me to get to the bus.

“Nearly too late.” He stated the obvious with a gently reproving smile.

“Yeah,” I breathed showing my pass. “Thanks for waiting.”

He waved me on and I climbed to the upper level where my friends would be waiting.

“Hey, Merrick,” Bailey called from the front of the bus. “Nearly didn’t make it there.”

What was it with people and stating the obvious?

“Heard you got kicked out of Fallon’s class. What’s that about?”

A couple of the other lads in our immediate vicinity were in my maths set, so no surprise that the news had already made it into the public domain.

“You know how it is. Maths is boring and Fallon only makes it worse.”

“You still okay for Saturday?”

“Mr Leighton didn’t say anything to suggest otherwise.”

“Don’t mess this up Merrick. We need a decent scrumhalf out there.”

“Hey, I didn’t do anything.”

“Yeah, that’s what Fallon was so upset about.” Jack Slater said, and he and a number of his friends collapsed in a mess of immature snickering.

I sat behind the group. Close enough to be a part of it still but withdrawn enough that I wasn’t likely to stay the focus of attention. After a few moments they all went back to whatever they’d been talking about before I arrived.

“Hi Phil,” a soft voice breathed from behind me. I turned to find Stacey Owen leaning a little too close for comfort.

“’Sup?” I asked without much enthusiasm. Memories of the little girl from my dreams noting the overly made up face, the rolled up skirt, the rather overwhelming perfume. The word slut hovered at the edge of consideration. I wanted to be more generous, but Stacey made it hard.

“You playing on Saturday?”

“Should be, yeah.”

“I’ll be there too, cheering for you.”

“Sure, thanks.”

She stood and gave me a lingering look before sauntering back to her friends. The infantile among our number burst into laughter again and a few unkind comments were bandied about, just loud enough to be heard at the back of the bus.

“Hey guys, leave off with the insults.”

“Don’t tell me you fancy her?”

“All I’m saying is there’s no reason to be mean.”

“I don’t believe this, Merrick’s got a crush on Stacey Owen.” It was Jack Slater again, and he really didn’t know how to keep his voice down.

The bus was pulling in to a stop. It was still half a mile from my place, but I didn’t fancy being subject to Jack’s puerile sense of humour for another ten minutes. I got up and headed for the stairs.

“Hey where you going, Merrick?” Jack wouldn’t let up.

“Somewhere I don’t have to listen to you.”

I headed down the steps and off the bus. I didn’t mind the walk. What I hadn’t counted on was Stacey following me.

“I didn’t know this was your stop,” I said.

“It isn’t.” She was all shyness and smiles. “I heard what you said back there.”

“Don’t read too much into it Stacey. I just don’t like it when they start tearing into people like that.”

“Are you saying you don’t like me?” She was suddenly on the edge of tears, and with that much war paint, the resulting landslide would be horrendous.

I sighed. What could I say? “You try too hard Stacey. I mean you are pretty, so what I don’t get is why you go so overboard with the makeup and the short skirts and everything. You heard what the others were saying about you.”

“Do you think the same?”

“I don’t want to, but you don’t make it easy. Look Stacey, I don’t mean to be unkind, but when you get home take a look in the mirror and try and be honest with yourself about what you see. Then be honest with yourself about whether that’s who you want to be.”

“I thought you liked it when girls kind of, you know…”

“Throw themselves at me? Not really, no.” I turned and started walking towards my house.

“Can I walk with you?”

I paused and looked back.

“My house is that way too. Would you mind if I walked with you, or are you really that disgusted with me?”

Guilt trip much?

“We can walk together, but friends, okay?”

“Yeah, I guess.” She came alongside me, hugging her bag to her front. She wasn’t smiling.

“I’m sorry Stacey, I wish I could have been kinder.”

“No, it’s okay, and you’re right, I do act like a slut.”

“Do you mind if I ask why?”

“I thought it’s what guys like you looked for in a girl.”

“Not me.”

“But you’ve been out with Jenny Marshall, Laura Plummer, Katie…”

“I know who I’ve been out with, and yes I guess a lot of them were a bit unsubtle, but none of them lasted more than a couple of dates, if you remember. All they wanted was to be seen with me.”

“You are pretty much the cutest guy in school you know?”

“I’m not. I look two years younger than I actually am.”

“It’s called boyish charm, and most girls really fall for it. I mean think Leonardo DiCaprio, Justin Bieber…”

“Please don’t compare me to him.”

“You have the same kind of thing going for you, though. You have no idea what effect you have on girls.”

“Well they don’t have the same effect on me.”

“So why do you go out with them?”

“What would people say about me if I turned down every good-looking girl in school?”

“Oh. Oh! You’re not are you?”

“Of course not! But neither am I as shallow as most of my friends, or yours for that matter. I don’t really know what I’m looking for, but arm candy is not it.”

We walked on in silence for a while until…

“Well, this is me. Well up that way. Thank you, Phillip. I think you’re the first person who’s been both honest and kind to me in a long while.”

“You’re welcome. You still coming on Saturday?”

“Would you like me to?”

What could I say that wouldn’t lead her on or knock her flat?

“Yes, I guess I would, but as a friend, yeah?”

She bit her lip. “You know I think I might like that.”

For some reason I managed to stay focused the rest of the way home. -oOo-

The next day started with a summons to Mr Leighton’s office. Miss Fallon had relented somewhat and was prepared to let me back into her class if I went to detentions with her during breaks and lunchtimes for the rest of the week.

It meant I wouldn’t see much of my friends for a few days, but it wasn’t as if I had much choice.

I arrived in good time for my first appointment with her and was greeted with a glowering look and an indication that I should sit at a desk where a pile of papers were waiting for me.

I stared blankly at the top sheet for a few minutes, then looked up to where Miss Fallon sat marking her way furiously through someone’s exercise book.

“I’m sorry Miss. I know you’re busy, but I really don’t get this.”

She snorted her disapproval at me before stepping out from behind her desk. It took most of the break period, but by the end of it, mainly because I’d been able to ask questions as we went along without fear of being ridiculed, I began to get it.

The bell rang, and Miss Fallon gathered up the papers from my desk.

“Do you take school dinners?” she asked.

“No Miss, I have a packed lunch.”

“Fine you can come here at the beginning of lunch and eat while you’re working.”

“Yes Miss, and thank you Miss.”

She looked up at me sharply, looking for any amount of facetiousness on my part, but I’d meant what I said.

Lunchtime went better with me completing several of her sheets without bothering her. Afternoon break she had to show me something new, but I was beginning to get my mind around the concept of it, so it didn’t take so long.

The next day went much the same way. I still struggled in most of my classes, but I only phased out in the worst of them. In the maths detentions, I felt I was making progress, and it felt good for a change. I did have a maths lesson, though Miss Fallon wasn’t prepared to allow me in, and sent me off to exclusion with the pile of papers I’d been working through. I completed a fair few of them, but then started something new which I needed help to understand. I made an effort, which won me some points with Miss Fallon at my next detention, but I’d misunderstood what was being asked, so she had to spend time explaining things before I could get on.

By the end of Friday, I was about caught up to the level of the rest of my class. Miss Fallon told me to turn up for the lesson as usual on Monday and we’d see how things went.

It was the end of a long week in which I’d only really seen my friends on the bus, and they hadn’t been too keen to talk to me since I’d stormed out on them over Stacey. As it turned out I hadn’t seen anything of Stacey either, but that probably wasn’t such a bad thing, given that I didn’t particularly want to repeat the awkwardness of our last meeting.

“See you tomorrow,” Bailey called to me as I got up to go. “We’re leaving the school at ten-thirty, so don’t be late.”

I waved my acknowledgement and headed down the stairs and off the bus. -oOo-

I dreamt of her again that night. Of being her I mean. I woke up in my oversized bed in my oversized room, tangled in my oversized pyjamas. And I was lying on my hair. I’d been aware of her hair all along – almost waist length, dark, lustrous – but this was the first time I’d noticed a detail like what it felt to lay on it.

The moon was up and shining silvery light in through the window. I sat up and looked at my little girl self in the mirror in my wardrobe.

“Who are you?” I asked. The face in the mirror mouthed the question, and the high-pitched tones of a young girl gave it voice, but for all that it still felt like me asking. Whoever she was, none of her was present there in the dream.

I struggled out of bed and, as usual, my trousers fell around my ankles. I walked up to the mirror and examined myself. There was something about the eyes and the face that reminded me a bit of Mum, but otherwise there was nothing to suggest I’d seen her anywhere but in my dreams. I looked deep into her eyes looking for… something. I don’t know what it is that people look for when they do that, but all I saw was me looking back, only me inside this little girl. It made no sense.

My bedside clock read three seventeen. The night had a long way to go, so I went to answer the call of nature and then to the kitchen to pour myself a drink. By the time I made it back to my room with a half glass of milk, all of ten minutes had passed.

I sat on the floor opposite the mirror, careful to keep myself covered. This dream felt different, so much more real, and I had no desire to find out how real. The carpet felt rougher beneath my bare legs than anything I’d experienced before. So, what now?

I reached for my school bag and pulled out the sheets of algebra Miss Fallon had given me. Scanning through the questions and answers, it all made as much sense as it had earlier that day. I pulled out my history homework and read a sentence or two, out loud but quietly.

“Highly relevant today, World War II has much to teach us, not only about the profession of arms, but also about military preparedness, global strategy, and combined operations in the coalition war against fascism.”

It made no more nor less sense than when we’d read it in class. So, dream or whatever this was, I still had my sixteen-year-old mind inside the head of this six or seven-year-old girl.

Reading by moonlight was a little hard on the eyes, but something inside warned me against turning on the light. What if Mum or Dad should hear me? What if they noticed the light under the door and came to find out what I was up to? What would they find when they opened the door? I’d been intrigued by the dreams, but this felt different and I wasn’t ready to discover exactly how much.

I guess nervous rather than fearful described my feelings. I mean it had bothered me that I dreamt of being a girl, and I knew how seriously my life would be over if my friends ever found out that I did, but now with things feeling so much more real, I wasn’t sure what I wanted. That I had dreams meant I was just a bit weird. That there might be anything more to it made me feel so strange deep inside I couldn’t face it.

Not yet anyway.

A floorboard creaked outside my room and I held my breath.

“Phillip?” Mum’s voice sounded quietly through the door. “Are you alright?”

If I answered, would she hear my voice or a little girl’s? Was I even awake to answer? Was she even asking, or was she just a part of a very realistic dream? Again, I didn’t want to know the answers to any of those questions. I grabbed my pyjama trousers off the floor and climbed into bed, covering myself completely with my bedclothes.

The door opened. I don’t know how I knew, I mean there were no lights on out in the corridor, and I was deep under my duvet in any case, so I couldn’t have noticed a change in the lighting. My door opens silently, or nearly so, so I doubt I heard anything, but something changed, and I felt Mum’s presence in the room. I kept as still as I could until I heard the door shut very gently a few seconds later.

I lay still and waited for my heart to stop racing, then forced myself to continue lying still. I don’t know if it was nervous exhaustion following the adrenaline rush, but a short while later, I was asleep. -oOo-

When I awoke, I was myself again. Not wearing pyjama bottoms, but with them in the bed beside me. I looked around my room to find my maths and history homework stacked neatly beside my bag. There should have been a half-filled glass of milk somewhere on the floor, but that was gone.

My clock read eight-thirty. Two hours to get ready and get down to the school; loads of time.

I pulled my pyjama trousers on and put my dressing gown over the top, then headed downstairs. Mum was sitting at the kitchen diner with a mug in her hands. She didn’t look as though she’d slept much. In the sink was a half-filled glass of milk.

“Morning Mum,” I said, trying to keep relaxed and nonchalant.

She gave me a look I couldn’t interpret, then forced a smile. “Good morning sweetheart. Did you sleep alright?”

“I guess. I did wake up about three. Nervous about the game I suppose.”

“So, nothing unusual then?”

“What do you mean?” I headed for the fridge and grabbed the orange juice.

She teetered on the brink of saying something, then pulled herself back. She waved a dismissive hand. “Oh, nothing I suppose. I woke up in the middle of the night myself with an odd feeling. It was most likely nothing.”

The lady doth protest too much, methinks.

So okay, I kind of like Shakespeare. I don’t phase out when we’re studying his stuff.

“I need to be at school by ten-thirty for the rugby match.” I poured myself a glass of OJ and collected bowl, cereal, spoon and milk.

“That’s fine. Your dad’s going into the office to do some work at nine-thirty. You’ll be a bit early, but would you mind riding with him?”

“No, that’s no problem. I’ll text a few of the guys, see if we can meet up early for a knock around.” I dropped the makings of my breakfast on the diner and headed off to my room to fetch my phone. In the few short seconds it took me to find it and return to the kitchen, Mum’s vacant expression had returned.

“Hey, Mum, are you alright?”

“What?” She shook her head as if to clear it.

“I thought I was the one who spaced out in this family. What’s up?”

“Oh, er… it’s nothing dear. Don’t worry.”

“You sure?”

“Yes dear.” She forced a smile. “Nothing to concern yourself about.”

Well if she wasn’t going to talk about it… I sent of a quick text to my friends and settled down to a breakfast of sugar augmented carbohydrate. Every now and again my phone would buzz to interrupt my shovelling.

It made me look sideways at Mum again. Usually she’s pretty strict about us having phones at mealtimes, even breakfast, but today she continued to sit and stare into space with her half-filled mug of cold coffee in her hands.

Breakfast consumed, I transferred my used bowl and utensils into the dishwasher and replaced the cereal and milk. I can’t say it’s something I usually do, since usually I’m too spaced out, but I seemed to be on top of myself. Sadly, the same couldn’t be said for Mum as she offered no thanks or encouragement for my efforts.

Yeah, I know she shouldn’t have to, but she was always one to say something positive when I made some change for the better.

I didn’t have time to do much about it though. I needed to get showered and dressed and make sure I had all my rugby stuff before Dad wanted to leave.

When I made it back downstairs again, fully washed, dressed and carrying my sports bag, Dad had ambled into the kitchen, and he and Mum were having a whispered conversation, which evaporated as soon as I stepped into the room. Neither of them looked particularly happy, though at a guess that had more to do with them not agreeing with one another than it did with anything I’d said or done.

Dad was ready to leave, so we headed for the door.

“Phillip,” Mum said stopping both Dad and me in our tracks. I turned to see what she wanted, but not before I caught a glimpse of the warning look Dad steered in her direction.

“What?” I tend to get a bit bolshie when I feel conspiracy vibes.

“Be careful,” she said.

“Always am, Mum.” With that I followed Dad out the door. -oOo-

“Hey Dad, is Mum alright?” I asked once we were underway.

“What do you mean, son?”

“She seemed a little distracted.”

“That’s a bit rich coming from you.” He laughed, but it sounded forced.

“I know it’s kind of my thing, but that’s why I’m asking. I don’t ever remember seeing Mum like that.”

“I wouldn’t worry about it, son. She’s fine. You need to get your head into today’s game.”

Sports clichés from Dad now. If that wasn’t a deflection, then I don’t know what would be.

“The game’s not for three hours Dad. What can I be thinking of now that could possibly help? I mean, someone chucks me the ball, I look around for someone to pass to, if I don’t see anyone, I either try and run with it myself, or I punt it, or I drop and protect it. That’s hardly going to need hours of mental preparation.”

“Think about your team mates,” Dad replied. “Where do they usually run? How fast are they? Where on the field would you expect to find them?”

It was annoying when he was right, more so because he so often was. Dad could usually back his arguments up, and this suggestion was valid.

“What so you know about this team you’re playing?” he continued.

“Crestwell? Pretty much nothing.?

“Didn’t you play them last year?”

“Yeah, but they were mainly year elevens, so most of their side has changed, same as ours.”

“Do they have the same coach?”

“I suppose so.”

“So, chances are he’ll train his team the same this year as last.”

Again he had a point. I thought about the defensive tactics they’d used last year, and a few ideas began to form.

Dad gave me a grin and a nod, and the rest of the journey passed in silence. -oOo-

Several of my friends were already at the school when I arrived. We were all early, but when you’re running to a tight schedule, early is definitely better than the alternative.

Bailey wasn’t there yet, and he liked any new ideas to be passed through him, but I didn’t think there would be any harm in chatting through some of the things I’d been thinking about in the car with the guys. I joined them kicking a ball around.

“Hey guys, you remember when we were playing this lot last year?”

I went on to outline the tactics I’d remembered from the previous year, and what each of us could do to put us in better positions.

“Okay,” Jack said when I paused to draw breath, “who are you and what have you done with our mate?”

I was saved having to think of a comeback by Bailey’s arrival. The others seemed pretty stoked by my ideas and were all over sharing them with him. He gave me an odd look as he listened to them, and the occasional correction from me, and at the end he nodded his head.

“All sounds good to me,” he said. “We’ll give it a try to start with, but if it doesn’t work out, we fall back on the original plan, okay?”

The original plan was the same tactics as we’d used the previous year, and they hadn’t worked that well, but then I wasn’t the captain.

We went back to kicking the ball around, and Bailey had us running some gentle exercises. Every now and again his gaze turned my way, pensive and displeased.

He sat next to me in the minibus, me against the window, him in the aisle seat, and he made sure we were the last to get off.

“What are you up to, Merrick?”

“What do you mean?” I swallowed. Bailey was a big guy, and his voice held a hint of menace.

“This sudden interest in tactics. You want to be team captain our something?”

“No, I…”

“Good. Because you don’t want to cross me.”

“I don’t mean…”

“Next time you come up with ideas like that, you bring them to me first, capiche?”

I nodded dumbly.

“Good. Glad we had this chat.” He stood and exited the bus, leaving me too stunned to move.

“Come on Merrick” Grimsey yelled, breaking my stupor. “Don’t start with the day-dreaming already.”

I guess I had the reputation, but it still felt unfair; I hadn’t felt less spaced out in a long time, at least not until Bailey had threatened me. -oOo-

The others were already pretty much in their kit by the time I reached the changing rooms. Bailey turned a self-satisfied smirk my way as he laced his boots. I guess as long as Grimsey thought I was a space cadet, there was no chance of him offering me team captain – not that I wanted it anyway.

“Out on the field in two minutes, Merrick,” Mr Grimes said to me. “The rest of you, get out there and start warming up.”

A stampede of studded boots followed, and I was alone. I stripped off my clothes and pulled my kit on as quickly as I could, which was probably why I didn’t hear him coming.

“Hello, Phillip. It is good to see you again after all this time.”

I spun around from tying my boots to find an old, balding man with grey temples and thick glasses smiling at me. His accent sounded slightly German.

“You’re not supposed to be down here, it’s restricted. If you don’t leave, I’ll call out.”

“And this will be good, yes? For a member of the rugby team to scream like a girl?”

That wouldn’t be good, no. “What do you want?”

“Your mother called me. She wanted me to talk to you.”

“You know my mum?”

“And your father also. And, as I have mentioned already, you as well.”

“Well, I don’t have time now. I have to get out on the pitch.” I made for the door, but he stepped in front of me.

“This is important, Phillip. You must be aggressive out there.”

“Well, yeah. It’s a rugby match. Of course I’m going to be aggressive.”

“No. You must not be submissive at all. Be in charge of yourself. Do not let anyone dominate you. This is very important.”

“I don’t know who you think you are mister, but you’d better get out of my way right now.”

“Yes, this is good. Like this. It is important. But if you feel something unusual, you must run and hide. Remember this.” He stepped to one side. “It is very important.”

I ran past him and out onto the playing fields.

“What kept you, Merrick? Trying to make yourself look beautiful?” Grimsey yelled. “Get out there.”

Like most PE teachers, he liked to compare us to girls when we weren’t pulling our weight. It was supposed to spur is on, because who likes being called a girl, right? Only his words left me with a hint of a weird soft feeling inside. I fought it, looking for the aggression and competitiveness I’d need for the game.

We warmed up for fifteen minutes, Crestwell’s team doing the same at the other end of the pitch. There was a pretty good crowd for a school weekend fixture, but then this was something of a grudge match as there was a fair amount of rivalry between our two schools.

“We trying those new tactics, or what?” I asked.

Bailey gave me a dangerous look. “We’ll try them once, but if they don’t work, we go back to what we know does.”

“What do we know works?” I wanted to ask, but I kept my peace.

We won the toss and started off with possession. The new positions and directions I’d suggested left them wrong footed, but then Jack ran the wrong way and was pulled down after just a few yards.

“Okay,” Bailey said. “We’ve tried your way and it didn’t work. Now we go back to our usual plan.”

“It was working though,” I protested.

“You going to argue with your captain, Merrick?”

It wasn’t a great thing to do in the middle of a game, so I backed off, and there was that soft, squidgy feeling again.

“I messed that up,” Jack said. “It was working, and Bailey’s being a prat.”

“So how about trying this,” I said, and outlined a play that would put Jack out of position for Bailey’s tactics. It left us with a hole in our defence, but if things went well, that wouldn’t matter.

It still wasn’t a great idea to challenge the captain on the pitch, but the growing belligerence inside me was pushing that weird softness away, and after that old man’s warning, it felt like the right thing to do.

The whistle blew, the ball came to me and Jack ran across behind me. I passed him the ball and started running myself. They fell for it. Both teams, in fact, and because my lot were chasing after me to defend my run, the other side responded by coming after me as well, leaving Jack out in the open with a clear field ahead of him.

The crowd yelled, but it was too late. I ended up with several of their bigger guys pulling me down and landing on me, and Jack had a clear run into the goal area, grounding the ball pretty much between their posts.

“And just what was that?” Bailey yelled at me after I’d extracted myself from the pile of bodies that had landed on me.

“I think it’s called a try,” I replied calmly. “It’s how things would have worked the first time if they’d gone as planned.”

“You left us wide open!”

“You have to take a risk every now and again.”

“Not your call!”

“No, it was yours.” I could feel my own anger building. “But if you’re not prepared to make it.”

The others joined us, having been busy congratulating Jack.

“Pete, it was a good call,” Jack said.

“Sure, you’re going to say that,” Bailey replied. “You got all the glory, but we had a hole in our defences as wide as a bus…”

“Which we wouldn’t have had if everyone had been doing the things I’d suggested earlier.”

“Listen, Merrick, there’s only room for one captain on this team.”

“Then be the flipping captain,” I spat back at him. “Not a flipping prima donna. Do what’s best for the team, even if it’s not your idea.” I stormed away with definitely no squidgy feeling inside.

The conversion was straight forward, the ball going down pretty much centre field, and we lined up to defend.

Bailey and I glowered at each other. I had a few ideas on defence as well and suggested them, but Bailey chose belligerence over good sense and set us up with a standard defencive line. I had a quiet word with a couple of our guys, telling them what to look for, and possibly because of that, we managed to hold off their advance.

Bailey looked all smug about it, taking it as justification of his ideas, and I just ground my teeth.

If I challenged him again, I’d risked division in the team, and we couldn’t afford that, so I let him get on with it.

He wasn’t a bad captain, but his tactics lacked imagination. None of his offensive strategies had a chance, which meant we spent most of the rest of that half on the defensive. It was tiring and demoralising, and in the last five minutes of the half, Crestwell managed to break through and equalise.

When the whistle blew, we trudged off the pitch with our heads hanging in a mixture of exhaustion and dejection. -oOo-

“What are you lot playing at?” Grimsey followed is into the changing room in a rage. “You’re acting like a bunch of girls. That first move was ballsy, really impressive, but then you just wimped out. What I’d happening to you?”

“Merrick…” Jack began.

“Shut it!” Bailey yelled.

“Merrick what?” Mr Grimes wanted to know. He turned towards me.

“I had a few ideas, sir. I guess I wanted to try them out. I shouldn’t have in game like this, I’m sorry sir.”

“That first move your idea?”

I didn’t want to answer, but there were enough of the guys on my side that they did so for me.

“So try them,” he said, turning on Bailey. “It has to be better than what you’ve been doing now for the past half hour. A good captain listens to his team Peter.” His voice had become measured, conciliatory. I guess a good coach knows when not to ball out his players. “Let’s hear some of them then, Phillip.”

That had me backed into a corner. Without any alternative, I repeated what I’d shared with the others in the playground.

Grimsey had a few comments of his own, things I’d missed or hadn’t thought of, and by the time the second half was due to start, we had a new plan, and it was mostly mine.

With everyone up and on their way out to the pitch again, Bailey looked across at me and drew a finger across his neck. The gesture was unnecessary because I could see the hate in his eyes. Like I said, he’s a big guy. I felt myself shrink inside at the threat, where I found that soft feeling again.

The second half went more our way. We had them on the defensive for most of it, but they adapted quickly, and we couldn’t break through their line. It looked like we were heading for a draw, right up to the last minute, when I found myself with the ball in the middle of their half, facing a stampede and with no-one clear to pass to.

Normally the best thing to do under those circumstances was to punt the ball forward into the other team and block them as they brought it back our way, but there wasn’t enough time left for that to lead to a try for either of team. The posts were a long way off, but I had to try. I drop kicked the ball a fraction of a second before I disappeared under a wave of muscle and attitude.

I tucked in and waited for the maelstrom to subside. When it did, I could hear cheering, and I was pulled out from under the pile of bodies and lifted onto a couple of the guys’ shoulders. Somehow the kick had flown straight and far enough to pass been the posts.

“That was a stupid risk,” Bailey said when the celebrating had died down.

“What else was I going to do?” I asked.

“You could have gone down and protected the ball.”

“Which would have achieved what?”

“It would have protected the draw.”

“It’s better to win though, isn’t it?”

“What if you’d fumbled?”

“I didn’t, and what’s the point of playing if you’re not going to try?”

“Watch your back, Merrick. You may be everyone’s hero right now, but one day soon, I’ll make you sorry for what you pulled today.”

You’d have thought he’d be happy. A win with him as captain did more to benefit him than a loss, no matter whose play brought it about. Unless of course he’d planned to throw the game.

That was an unworthy thought. I shook it away.

We played on to the end of the match, and we were pretty amped up by the drop goal, so they had no chance of breaking our defences. The whistle blew and we ran off to cheers from the whole crowd. The Crestwell captain shook hands with Bailey, then came over and did the same to me.

“Blinder of a field goal, mate. No shame in losing to a play like that.”

I grinned back at him and there was that soft feeling again, stronger this time. I swallowed and tried to suppress it.

“Hi Phil.”

I recognised the voice, but the person who spoke was a stranger. I did a double take.

“Stacey?”

She was wearing a very pretty and respectable summer dress. White with blue and pink flowers on it. Her face was unpainted and showed off a pretty spray of freckles. She looked stunning.

“I took your advice,” she said. “I didn’t much like the girl I saw in the mirror, so I kept trying things til I did.”

“You look lovely,” I said, and she blushed. The way she moved, hunching her shoulders and squirming in the spot, put me in mind of that soft feeling I’d been experiencing, and brought it to the fore. Somehow though, this time it seemed to bloom and grow inside me. I had no control over it.

“What’s the matter?” Stacey asked.

Run and hide the man had said. How did he know?

“I gotta go,” I said and ran. Where to though? The changing room was going to be full of my team mates, so no hiding there. I made a dash for the school complex. I didn’t know the layout at all, but I had to hide before this feeling overwhelmed me, somehow I knew I had to.

I was a fast runner, which meant I made it into cover in next to no time. I found a bike shed and dashed behind it. Moments later, the softness washed through me filling me with an unexpected wave of pleasure. I closed my eyes and wrapped my arms around myself, letting out a gasp as the feeling took me over completely. I have no idea how long it lasted, but when I finally opened my eyes, the world was very different.

Twice as big for one thing. My shorts and socks had fallen around my ankles, my feet felt tiny inside my boots and my rugby shirt was hanging around my knees. Long, dark hair framed my field of vision. I looked at my hands, tiny against the sleeves of my shirt, and slender and delicate. I didn’t need anyone to tell me what had happened, except it was impossible, wasn’t it?

I was my little girl dream self, but how, in the middle of the day with me wide awake? This sort of thing just didn’t happen. I felt tears welling up inside me. What was I going to do?

Chapter 2