Stephanie, part 5

"Come on, stop fading away," dad chastises me as I rest my head on the back of the sofa. "We haven't seen you in weeks, don't want to watch you sleep all through your visit!"

"Sorry," I mumble, blinking to try to keep my eyes open.

"Honestly, Steve," mum says, handing me a much-appreciated cup of tea. "Why don't you just take a week off and come back here, put your feet up, play on your Xbox and recharge your batteries? You don't know how many people I see everyday who works themselves to the point of exhaustion, some as young as you."

"You've worked at that shop for five months now," dad says. "You surely earned some time off by now?"

"Umm," I say, desperately wracking my tired brain for an excuse. "Kayla and I usually go away somewhere on my days off..."

"Ah, this so-called girlfriend of yours of whom we've seen no evidence whatsoever?" Dad asks.

"She's-" I say, before my father cuts me off.

"She's really shy, yes, I know," dad sighs. "Shy enough to not be able to meet her boyfriend's parents but not too shy that she can't get a boyfriend in the first place!"

"It's complicated," I say, inwardly laughing at just how true my words are- and how they're the first truthful thing I've said to my parents in a very long time.

"Well," dad sighs, "either way, you just take care of yourself, son. And don't leave it three weeks before your next visit!" Dad gives me a quick pat on my back as he grabs his high-visibility jacket and steps out the front door.

"And next time you visit," mum says, "try not to make it on a night when we're both heading out to work!" I giggle as mum fills me in on hers and dad's lives, as well as what's happening with my brothers, before she heads out herself, leaving me alone in the house. I take a deep breath and try to relax my brain, but it's to no avail as within seconds, tears come spilling out of my eyes.

"Shit!" I yell. "Shit! Shit! Shit!" I stare around the living room in which I spent a vast amount of my childhood, and I try to take in every last detail of the room as though it were the last time I'd ever set foot in it- because for all I know, it may well be.

Ever since of first single was released, the band's increased in popularity with every passing day. We're regularly booked on radio shows, we appear on TV and in magazines, and all five of us are regularly stopped on the street and pestered for autographs and selfies. All of this has considerably swollen my bank balance... And made it virtually impossible for me to 'be Steve'. The only reason I can get home today is because I was able to change into Steve's clothes at 'home' (Lauren was booked in for an interview, giving me the house to myself), and I can change back into Stephanie's clothes at my 'real home'. My old ploy of using the disabled toilet at a McDonald's is completely out of the question now- I haven't been able to go into a shop in weeks without people seemingly pointing and staring at me.

Somehow, and I don't know how, my parents haven't yet twigged about my rising celebrity. As shift workers, they're not big television watchers, and as they're in their fifties, aren't girl-pop enthusiasts either. On my official Facebook page, I'll occasionally get a comment from someone who claims to have known me from school, but the names usually don't ring a bell.

As the clock ticks over to 8:30pm and the sky starts to darken outside, I moan as though in pain, cuddling my denim-covered knees close to my chest as I gently rock back and forth on the sofa, not wanting to go back to the life I've spent most of the day hiding from. As I strip off my clothes, I can't help but muse that this is exactly how I used to feel every time I'd dress up as Stephanie- I'd relish every sensation the delicate feminine clothing gave me as I stepped into it. As I side the thong between my buttocks, I'd giggle. As I felt the straps of my bra pull on my chest, I'd get breathless with excitement, and as I felt my light skirt swish around my legs, I'd smile right up until the point where I'd have to take it all off and pack it away. Now, as I step into those exact items of clothing, I don't have a smile on my face, but rather a frown. I no longer get any sense of excitement from the clothes I wear day in, day out- almost as though I've 'overdosed' on cross-dressing and am now numb to it.

I've thought several times about quitting the band, or telling my bosses that I no longer wish to transition, but there's no way I'd be able to do that without facing huge recriminations. Especially from my 'mentor' Jamie- how do I tell someone who's had SRS- the ultimate step in gender transitioning- that I've changed my mind about being a woman without her taking it as a personal insult?

Even though it's almost 9 o'clock and I'll inevitably be in bed within the next two hours, I still apply a full face of make-up before scooping all my 'Stephanie stuff' into my backpack and leaving the bedroom in which I haven't slept in months. As I head out onto the landing, I catch a glimpse of 'Stephanie' in the mirror, and the more I stare at 'her', in this setting, the more wrong it feels. The problem is, whenever I stare at 'Steve' in the mirror, he doesn't feel right either...

"Let's see how long this time," I sigh as I lock the front door behind me and start a stopwatch app on my smartphone. Even though the streets of London are deserted at this time of night, there are plenty of people at the nearest tube station, and it doesn't take long for people to start staring. The one advantage of my fame is that whenever people stare, I don't assume it's because people have 'made' me- it's common knowledge who, and more importantly, what I am. There's no danger of being called out for being transgendered when everyone knows that's what you are, after all.

"Ex-excuse me?" A young woman, only a few years younger than me, asks. "I'm sorry, I don't mean to intrude, but- are- are you Steph Abbott?" I glance down at my smartphone before answering- five minutes and forty-one seconds, a new record.

"Hi, yep, 'fraid that's me!"

"Oh my god!" The young woman squeaks excitedly to her two friends. "Can- can I get a selfie with you, please?"

"Of course!" I say with a smile, posing for a picture with the excited girls. Two selfies and an autograph later, I arrive back at my apartment and collapse on the sofa, mentally and physically exhausted from the day.

"Oh, stop wilting," Lauren giggles, making me groan in frustration. "Got a long week ahead of us..."

"That will at least be entirely in the studio," I sigh.

"Oh come on," Lauren laughs. "Are you seriously telling me you DON'T like being one of the hottest celebrities in the UK?"

"Not 24/7, I don't," I moan. "Kinda miss being anonymous..."

"Meh, fame won't last, it never does," Lauren laughs. "Enjoy it while you can!"

"Bit of a pessimistic attitude?" I ask.

"Meh, I'll be disappointed when it's all over," Lauren says. "But I'll always have the memories to treasure. And a nice, fat bank balance!"

"Now that bit IS nice," I giggle. "And the fans aren't TOO bad... Dunno if they're afraid of being labelled as transphobic or if they genuinely don't care, but I haven't really had any idiots confront me face-to-face... Guess it helps that the press are on our side. For now, anyway..."

"Now who's being the pessimist?" Lauren laughs. "Get some rest, you'll need it!"

"'Night, Lauren," I say to the flame-haired girl as she heads into her bedroom. I head to my own bed shortly afterwards, waking from a dreamless sleep at 7:30am before showering, applying my make-up and dressing in a pair of baby pink tights, a black leotard and a loose, floaty sundress. If you'd told me six months ago that I'd be a proper ballet student at a proper ballet school, I'd have laughed my head off and dismissed it as pure fantasy... Now I actually have to make an effort to enjoy dressing as a ballerina and dancing in a room full of other similarly-dressed girls. No, not girls, women... It still baffles me why women in their mid-twenties would still enjoy a hobby most closely associated with six year old girls.

As I arrive at the ballet studio for my lesson, my 'question' is partially answered when I see the women arrive with their boyfriends, before abandoning the men at one side of the room and gathering together in the opposite corner. The 'lesson' is clearly more about being in the company of other women than it is about actually learning ballet, and even though there's a big part of me that wants to go and sit with the boys, the more accepted I am as a woman by the other women, the happier I am... Even if as a ballerina, I'm still extremely unskilled.

This fact gets hammered home even harder when Becca- having abandoned her boyfriend Riley at the side of the studio- ties her pointe shoes to her feet and dances a complicated routine. If I tried to dance like Becca, I'd probably break my ankles, if not my neck... And it's clear from the smug smile that Becca shoots at Lauren, Kayla and myself that she knows exactly how much better she is than us.

With a whole third of the usual class away on holiday this week, Krystie (our dance instructor/chief choreographer) is able to devote more time than usual to Lauren, Kayla and myself, but by the end of the lesson, I'm still desperate to strip off my hot, sweaty dancewear and pull my loose dress back on.

"Great class today!" Becca giggles as she coolly strides into the changing room and peels off her leotard. "It's so much better when the so-called 'Teen Angels' aren't here..." Why? I think to myself. Is it because they're all younger and prettier than you?

"I'm just glad the studio's air-conditioned," Kayla says, fanning herself with her ballet manual before changing out of her own dancewear.

"You know," Becca says with a smile just as smug as the one she wore when she danced, "if you three want a little bit of extra tuition, I could always show you a thing or two when you have a spare moment..."

"Oh?" Lauren asks, a hint of anger seeping into her voice. "Are you a teacher now?"

"I HAVE been dancing since I was four," Becca says. "That's actually longer than Krystie's been dancing, you know..."

"And yet she's the teacher and you're not," Lauren retorts.

"We'll think about it," I say, desperately trying to defuse the tension between the two women.

"Besides," Adeola laughs. "Aren't you going to be too busy being 'super-cool auntie Becca'?"

"To a boy!" Becca giggles. "He's never going to want me to teach HIM ballet... And that's 'super-cool godmother' as well as 'super cool auntie'!"

"Oh yes," Kayla says, obviously trying her best to sound interested in Becca's sister's new arrival. "Um, congratulations?"

"It wasn't me who gave birth!" Becca laughs.

"Didn't stop you from taking the week off to coo over the kid, did it?" Lauren asks, making me wince as Becca shoots yet another foul stare in the direction of the flame-haired girl.

"Couldn't really do any work when our producer's the kid's uncle, can we?" Becca says smugly. "I'm sure you'll understand when you become an auntie."

"I AM an auntie," Lauren retorts.

"Girls!" I say, snapping Becca and Lauren out of their worsening moods. "Come on, we've got an album to make."

"The voice of reason as always, Steph," Lauren says, shooting Becca a smug smile as she leads us out of the dance studio and into our waiting taxi. I make sure to sit between Becca and Lauren on the back seat of the taxi, but I can almost feel the hatred spilling between the two women.

When Lauren, Kayla and I were hired for the band, it was made clear to us that the band was being built around Becca and Adeola. They were the big stars, we were the 'sidekicks'. When we began promoting the band to the public, the message must have got mixed up somewhere, as the big star that everyone focusses on isn't Becca or Adeola. It isn't even me, and it isn't even Kayla, despite her amazing singing skill. The girl all the media focusses on is Lauren- and the Scottish girl is loving every second of it, especially when she knows that Becca is hating every second of it.

One thing I've learned from watching shows like The X Factor or Britain's Got Talent is that people love a 'journey', a sob story that they can try to relate to to make celebrities seem more 'real'. Becca was born to a wealthy family, had everything she ever wanted from a very early age. Adeola was born in Nigeria, but moved to England when she was 2 and was raised by her wealthy uncle, also wanting for nothing whilst growing up. Kayla and I were both raised in stable middle-class households. Of course, my tale of estrangement from my parents was latched onto by the media, though at my counsellor's recommendation, I've tried not to give out too many personal details for fear that my lie is exposed. That just leaves Lauren- and her 'journey' is almost stereotypically 'rags to riches', even though she was never all that 'rags' to begin with. Her parents were farmers, and earned more than enough to put food on the table for four children day in, day out, but the media have got it into their heads that Lauren spent all her childhood in a dusty barn, wearing tatty clothing and playing with livestock.

Every time our picture has been in the paper, or a magazine, Lauren's been placed front and centre. She's the unofficial face of our band, the Cheryl Cole to our Girls Aloud- and Becca has happily stepped into the role of 'the Nadine Coyle'. Arguments like the one in the dance studio are commonplace- and it's usually down to me to break them up. Kayla is usually too timid to step into the middle of a row- and has made it clear privately that she dislikes Becca just as much as Lauren does- and Adeola won't say a word against her best friend, leaving me to be the peacemaker.

Still, the one positive about the constant arguments is that it usually keeps management's attention off of me- and why my body hasn't seen any change despite having supposedly been on hormone replacement therapy for six months.

"Okay," Stuart says as the five of us take our places at the microphones in the recording studio. "Hope you all enjoyed your week off, but we've got a lot of work to do if we're going to get this album out by October. More specifically: you've got a lot of work to do!" I giggle along with the other four girls as Stuart starts the music track for the song we're singing today, one of his original compositions. Stuart, of course, will always take Becca's side in any argument between her and Lauren- he'd be a pretty lousy older brother if he didn't- but all of us have noticed how, over the past few weeks, a lot more of his original songs have been written with Lauren in mind as the lead singer... Not least Lauren herself.

"That. Was. Tough," Lauren giggles as she grabs her handbag at the end of a long, tiring session in the baking-hot recording studio. "Wouldn't they get us a fan we can switch on between takes?"

"I think it'd interfere with the equipment, or something," I mumble, inwardly groaning as Becca makes her way over to us.

"So glad to be back in the studio," Becca giggles. "I'm guessing it doesn't get this warm up in the Arctic Circle, then?"

"No, it has done in the past," Lauren says, all signs of fatigue suddenly gone from her face. "It's great when it gets really warm, you get to see all the dolphins and whales..."

"You've got dolphins up in Scotland?" Adeola- who's obviously been eavesdropping- asks. "That's so cool! I've always wanted to see a dolphin in real life..."

"You always said you wanted to see a koala in real life..." Becca says accusingly to her best friend.

"What?" Adeola replies. "I'm allowed to like more than one animal, aren't I? You saw how happy I was that time you let me ride your horse..."

"I love horses, best of all the animals..." Becca sings, before wrapping arm around Adeola's shoulders and leading the dark-skinned girl away from myself and Lauren- and any further talk of dolphins.

"She is just SO fucking jealous..." Lauren sniggers as we head home.

"Is that true about the dolphins?" I ask the flame-haired girl as we walk through our front door.

"Aye," Lauren says. "Dolphins, whales, seals, even the odd shark or two. Only ever seen them a couple of times myself, though... My family's more into 'inland' animals."

"So cool," I sigh. "And- and was it true about you, you know, being an auntie?"

"I'm not going to make up stuff that can be checked just to get one over on butt-bounce!" Lauren giggles. "Reality can do that for me by itself... Aye, my oldest brother's got two girls, one's 2, the other's 9 months."

"Either one named after their favourite auntie?" I ask, making Lauren chuckle bashfully.

"Second one's middle name is Patricia, same as mine..." Lauren sighs. "They're both so cute... That's easily what I miss most about Scotland, family. How about you?"

"Hmm?" I ask, shocked at suddenly being 'put on the spot'. "What about me?"

"You've got two older brothers," Lauren says. "Got any nieces or nephews?"

"Oh, um, no, my brothers are only 29 and 26, too young for kids," I say.

"My brother- the father of my nieces- is only thirty," Lauren says, "You'll be 'cool Auntie Steffie' soon enough!"

"...Assuming my brothers even let me SEE the kid," I sigh, making Lauren grimace out loud.

"Ah, crap, sorry, sorry!" Lauren says, giving me a brief hug. "I keep forgetting... Just 'cause I left my family by choice, not everyone else has that choice. When did you break contact with your family, six months ago, wasn't it?"

"About that time, yeah," I sigh. "For all I know one of my brothers may have impregnated their girlfriends by now..." I briefly look up at Lauren to see if she's seen through my lie, but by this point in my life even I'm having difficulty telling when I'm lying...

“29 and 26, you say?” Lauren chuckles. “I’d be surprised if they hadn’t…”

“Well, 29 and 27, really,” I mumble as I root through our fridge, looking for something to make for dinner. “It’s Danny’s birthday tomorrow…”

“Oh, what?” Lauren asks with near-shock. “No way! You should call him, ONLY him, try to mend bridges…”

“Uhh…” I splutter, internally kicking myself for letting slip about my brother’s birthday. “He- he was kinda even more angry than my parents about me…”

“Oh, that sucks,” Lauren spits. “You’d have thought he’d love having a sister…”

“Yeah, well, c’est la vie,” I shrug. “What d’you want for dinner?”

“Honestly, anything in the fridge that’s still edible is fine,” Lauren sighs as she collapses on the sofa and switches on the TV, ending the conversation, much to my relief. The topic of family stays firmly off the table for the rest of the night as we while away our time watching TV and responding to correspondence on our Facebook and Twitter pages, before turning in for an early night. When I wake up the following morning, it’s almost a relief to not have to pull on the stretchy, sweaty dancewear I wore yesterday, instead opting for a short-sleeved, knee-length dress and no tights or stockings, instead allowing the dress to swish around my bare legs, which acts as a reminder of one of the many reasons why I wanted to live life as a woman in the first place. Wearing a loose dress, or a loose skirt, just feels so… Liberating, especially in the summer months. When I walk into the recording studio and am greeted by my band mates, all of whom are wearing similar dresses to my own, it actually helps me to forget that I was ever a boy… Or that there are regular occasions during which I wish I was still a boy.

After a long day of singing, I breathe a sigh of relief when Stuart dismisses the band at the end of the day, but before I can head home to relax, I’m called back to the studio by a familiar voice.

“Steph!” The familiar face of Jamie-Lee Burke says from Stuart’s control booth. “You got a second?”

“Um, sure,” I say into my microphone.

“Ooh, enjoying your bollocking,” Adeola teases as she leaves with Becca, holding the door to allow Jamie into the booth.

“What’s up?” I ask my mentor, who smiles as she sits down on the stool next to me.

“I just wanted to, you know, catch up…” Jamie says. “See how you’re doing…” I pause as Jamie stares at the slender figure of her boyfriend, who’s still sat in the control room. “Girl talk. Scat!” I giggle as Stuart- the only genetically female left in the studio- shrugs and leaves, clearly not interested in our ‘girl talk’. I shiver a little as Jamie blows a kiss after her boyfriend, remembering the feelings I myself had for the man, feelings that have thankfully subsided over the last few months.

“I’m- I’m doing fine, thanks,” I say. “Is there anything, you know, in particular you need to know about?”

“Well…” Jamie grimaces. “Actually yes, there kinda is… How long have you been on hormones now?”

“Umm, five months,” I lie. “No, wait, six- it is July now, isn’t it?”

“It’s almost August!” Jamie giggles. “Good job you’re not working in admin with those timekeeping ‘skills’… But six months on hormones… I’m surprised your body hasn’t really, you know, changed a great deal…” I involuntarily gulp as Jamie stares accusingly at me, and I clasp my hands together to stop them shaking with nerves.

“Well, some people respond to the hormones at a different rate,” I reply. “Breasts don’t grow overnight…”

“Oh, no, I understand completely,” Jamie says, her accusing stare replaced by one of concern. “I know better than anyone… Had implants put in after only being on oestrogen for nine months, THAT was a regrettable decision, even though I’d barely be an A-cup without them. The point is, Steph… If you- if you want, you know, ‘help’ to be the person you want to be…”

“Are you talking cosmetic surgery?” I ask.

“Umm, sort-of,” Jamie says. “Obviously, I would recommend you DON’T get implants until you’ve been on the oestrogen for at least twelve months. Don’t repeat my mistake! But there are other very minor procedures you can have done, like your laser treatment- are they still going okay, by the way?”

“Umm, yeah,” I giggle. “Only have to shave, like, once a week, and what little facial hair I have left is REALLY thin, weak…”

“Good,” Jamie smiles. “But talk it through with Dr Phillips tomorrow. I’m not saying you HAVE to have cosmetic surgery, of course- you’re more than passable as a girl, and the agency wouldn’t want to put pressure on you to achieve a specific ‘look’- but you need to do what’s right for you, to help you feel more comfortable in your own skin. Take it from someone who’s been exactly where you are right now!” I chuckle as Jamie beams a supportive smile at me, but every time Jamie and I talk like this- about my ‘transition’- I get more and more nervous. Jamie is such a friendly, trusting person that lying to her face like this really tears me up inside.

“Heh,” I laugh nervously. “I’ll- I’ll talk to her tomorrow.”

“Have you got plans for the rest of the day?” Jamie asks, making me inwardly grimace.

“Um, no, not really,” I say. “Just home…”

“Okay,” Jamie says, her smile widening. “It’s just that Nikki’s away all week, Charlotte’s busy with her new baby and Stuart’s going on a ‘boys night’ tonight… Could really use some female company!”

“Umm, and is there something wrong with the other Angels?” I ask, making Jamie giggle.

“Yes, they’re not you!” Jamie laughs. “Kinda feel like I’m neglecting my ‘mentoring’ duties.”

“Honestly, I’m not complaining,” I say, making Jamie giggle even harder.

“I’ll not take that personally!” Jamie says. “Come on, just one drink…” I sigh, before forcing a grin on my face.

“Okay,” I say. “ONE drink.”

“Cool!” Jamie says. “Grab your handbag!” I do as I’m told, checking my phone before leaving and finding a voicemail from my dad that I listen to as I follow Jamie out of the agency.

“Hi Steve,” dad’s voice says. “We’re heading out tonight for a few drinks for Danny’s birthday. We’re at the Crown a few streets away from his flat, come along if you get the chance.” My heart breaks a little more with every word dad says- last year Danny was away for his birthday, so I wasn’t able to celebrate it with him, and the previous years (well, since his eighteenth birthday, anyway) I was too young to go to the pub to celebrate with him. It gets worse when Jamie leads us past the very pub where my family is celebrating en route to the posh wine bar where we have a drink and a conversation before heading to our respective homes for dinner. Sure, I enjoy spending time with Jamie, and the bar is very clean and sophisticated- especially when compared to the noise, old-fashioned pub- but I’d rather be there than anywhere else… Especially when I arrive home to find Lauren browsing through photos of her nieces on her iPad.

“Hey, Steph!” Lauren giggles. “What did Jamie want?”

“Oh, just to chat about things,” I say. “Are they your nieces?”

“Aye,” Lauren sighs happily. “My brother put a few new photos on Facebook earlier today, I’ve just been staring at cute they both are… Speaking of brothers, have you-“

“It… Really would be awkward,” I say, interrupting the Scottish girl.

“Well… Gah, okay,” Lauren sighs. “I guess you know best, don’t want to tell you how to live your life, heh. I’ve done the washing, by the way. Got our leotards and tights dry for tomorrow.”

“Cheers,” I say, fiddling with my phone as I consider what Lauren said. It really wouldn’t be a hassle to call Danny just briefly… Even though I can’t use ‘Steve’s voice, not even in the privacy of my own bedroom, without rousing suspicion from Lauren. As I prepare dinner for the two of us, I quickly compose a text message to Danny, feeling guilty the instant I send it. I lived with the guy for most of my life, we grew up together… And yet I haven’t seen him in almost six months and now, on his birthday, I’m sending him a text message? I feel like the worst brother ever… But would I be a better sister than I am a brother?

As I lay in bed later in the night, I stare around at my bedroom and sigh. Over the last four months I’ve spent time and money turning it into a haven of pure femininity- the walls are pink, the shelves are full of dainty ornaments, the wardrobes are full of clothes and there are racks of shoes all over the floor. It’s a far cry from ‘Steve’s room with its grey walls, mismatched furniture and shelves full of DVDs, and yet, there are days when I would give anything to sleep in that bed rather than this one... Even though when growing up, I would have given anything to have had the bedroom that I have right now.

Every time I feel conflicted like this, I make two separate lists in my mind. At the top of the first list is the heading ‘positives of being male’, and at the top of the other is the heading ‘positives of being female’. It’s a futile exercise, as every time I fill in the lists, they’re filled in exactly the same- in the ‘female’ column I have my wealth, my fame, my new-found friends, a job I genuinely love… And in the ‘male’ column I have my home, my family, the freedom to do what I want and be who I want… Even though when I was a boy, all I wanted to do with this ‘freedom’ was be a girl. And yet, if I choose ‘girl’ permanently, I run the risk of losing my family… A family I’ve all but lost anyway, as proved today.

The more I study the ‘lists’, the more a frightening truth comes to the fore- if I choose ‘boy’ over ‘girl’, I run the risk of losing a lot, lot more than if I choose ‘girl’ over ‘boy’. But if I choose ‘boy’, there’s always the chance I’ll get my family back…

After my regular Wednesday morning ballet lesson- which Becca and Adeola thankfully decide to skip, avoiding any confrontations with Lauren- I gleefully peel off my sweaty pink tights and stuff them in my handbag, before bidding farewell to Kayla and Lauren as they head back to our apartment, whilst I head further into the centre of London for my weekly appointment with my counsellor.

“Hi Steph!” The middle-aged woman says as I enter the posh, clean office.

“Hi Beverly,” I reply. “It’s been a long week since I last saw you. Then again, it’s never NOT been a long week…”

“Tell me what’s on your mind,” Dr Phillips instructs.

“My family,” I sigh. “AGAIN.”

“Did you get to see your parents at the weekend, like you’d hoped?” Beverly asks.

“I did, actually,” I say. “Only for a short while…”

“And I’m assuming you went to see them as Steve, and didn’t tell them about Stephanie?” Beverly probes further.

“Yeah,” I say quietly.

“You know you’ll never make progress while you continue to keep your two lives separate,” Beverly advises with a professional tone to her voice.

“I know,” I sigh. “But what exactly is it I’m trying to make progress toward?”

“I’d like to know what you mean by that question,” Beverly says. “By which I mean, what do you feel you’re progressing toward?”

“…I don’t know,” I moan. “When I’m with my parents, I feel safe, happy, like I don’t have to hide any more… But when I’m dressed like this, as Stephanie… This may sound silly, but I feel more ‘alive’ than when I’m at home.”

“You’d be surprised how many transsexuals say the exact same thing,” Beverly says.

“So… Is that it?” I ask. “Am I definitely transsexual, should I start taking oestrogen?”

“I never said that,” Beverly replies. “And I’m definitely NOT prescribing oestrogen at this point in time. Hormone therapy is only appropriate when a patient displays an inability to live life as their birth gender, which you clearly isn’t the case in your circumstances.”

“I know,” I sigh. “But you have to admit, I am slightly transgendered, right?”

“I never said you weren’t,” Beverly replies. “I’ve said from the start you have a degree of gender dysphoria, and your preference for living and working as a woman is all the evidence anyone would need for that. My main concern is the effect your ‘double life’ is having on your mental health.”

“I know, I know, I should tell my parents AND my employers the truth,” I say. “You finish off every one of our sessions with that advice… Jamie gave me the third degree yesterday about how hormones supposedly aren’t having any effect…”

“Jamie gave you the third degree?” Beverly laughs. “Seems hard to believe… But if she asked you, it’d only be because she cares about you, you know her. But that’s still not a good enough reason to start hormone therapy, that desire, that genuine need has to come from within, not from external pressure.”

“One thing I often do,” I say, “is weigh up the positives of life as a male and life as a female, using that technique you taught me a few months ago.”

“Is there ever a clear ‘winner’?” Beverly asks.

“No,” I say. “Both sides have ‘arguments’ I can’t dismiss… But the female side is getting stronger each time I compile the list. It’s just… I can’t give up my family, I just can’t…”

“It’s perfectly understandable,” Beverly says. “But your family may well feel the same way about you, be unable to give up on you regardless of your choices. And you are an adult, it is your choice to make. One thing I will say about your ‘for and again arguments’ is that every time you’ve come to one of these sessions, you’ve spoken in a feminine voice.”

“It- it just feels more natural now, I guess,” I sigh. “I guess I AM more female than male… I just don’t know if I’ll always want to be that way.”

“Fortunately for you, you live in a day and age where you have that choice,” Beverly says. “But the longer you keep this from the people who matter to you, the harder it will be to maintain your dual life. You know that I’m more than willing to be there with you when you come out to your parents.”

“Being a bit optimistic with ‘when’!” I say, making Beverly chuckle.

“Nonetheless, it’s something you NEED to do as a matter of urgency,” Beverly says. “I’m not completely opposed to prescribing you oestrogen in the future, but not until you have your life in some sort of order- both with your family AND your work.” I nod, and Beverly and I spend the rest of the hour discussing other aspects of my life, before I leave the office feeling no more certain about my life than I was when I entered the office. After a journey home that included yet more requests for autographs and selfies- with it being the school holidays, the band’s target audience is out in force- I enter my flat and collapse heavily on the sofa.

“Lauren?” I ask. “You here?” When the only reply I get is silence, I breathe a sigh of relief and allow my posture to relax. My back slumps and my legs slowly part. If anyone were in front of me, they’d have a perfect view up my short skirt of the gusset of my leotard… So it’s fortunate that no one is in front of me. After a short while, I head into my bedroom and strip off my skirt and my leotard, standing completely naked in front of my mirror save for my make-up. After taking a deep breath, I sit down in front of my mirror and slowly remove my make-up, eradicating any traces of ‘Stephanie’ until only ‘Steve’ remains. And yet, as I stare at my face in the mirror, it feels more like I’ve put on a mask than removed one.

I reach into the bottom drawer of my wardrobe and pull out a pair of boxer shorts, a pair of baggy jeans and one of my favourite t-shirts, pulling all the garments on before collapsing loudly on my bed. I laugh a little at the absurdity of my situation- once again, I am a man, pretending to be a woman, effectively crossdressing- in secret, no less- as a man. The way I feel right now is no different than when I used to dress up in women’s clothing when I was sixteen- a mixture of nerves at being caught out, excitement at the ‘new’ sensations… But the thought of going back to live full-time as a man is just as terrifying as the thought of living full-time as a woman used to be- but with none of the excitement that life as a woman held when I was younger.

After half an hour of ‘Steve time’, I hear my front door open, and I hastily scramble to strip off my ‘boy clothes’, returning them to the drawer they came from before pulling on a clean bra and thong, followed by a tight pink t-shirt and the same denim skirt I was wearing earlier.

“Steph?” Lauren asks. “You home?”

“Yeah,” I reply as I quickly apply a light- but noticeable- amount of eyeliner and lip liner. “Where were you?”

“At the agency,” Lauren says. “May have picked up a hitchhiker too.”

“Hi Steph!” Kayla shouts as I finish my make-up.

“Hey,” I say, opening my bedroom door and displaying my feminine self to the two girls, who offer no reaction to my look, instead crashing heavily on the sofa. Indeed, it’s Kayla’s look that’s out of the ordinary- her light pink legs hinting that she hasn’t changed since our dance lesson this morning.

“How are you not roasting hot?” I ask, making Lauren giggle as Kayla brushes a piece of lint off of her tights.

“What?” Kayla complains. “Ballet clothing is really comfortable, I just didn’t want to change, that’s all…”

“Believe me, we’ve already gone over this,” Lauren laughs. “We would’ve called you, had you meet us at the office, but you were in your meeting…”

“Called me about what?” I ask, making the two teenaged girls giggle excitedly.

“We’re doing our first publicity tour!” Kayla giggles.

“Well, more a ‘trip’ than a tour,” Lauren laughs. “My old high school up in Dingwall called Joshua, asked if we could go up. Joshua thought it’d be a good opportunity to get a few photos of me on the farm, with my parents, so he agreed. We’re flying up tomorrow!”

“Tomorrow!?” I ask. “Bit short notice, isn’t it? And aren’t the schools on holiday?”

“They do a summer school for performing arts,” Lauren says. “That’s what we’re going to be joining in. So pack a bag- our flight leaves first thing tomorrow morning!”

“Okay!” I say with a smile, heading back into my bedroom and dragging a small pink suitcase out of my wardrobe, which I immediately fill with clothes and cosmetics. I pause briefly as I pack, staring at the bottom drawer of my wardrobe where my ‘Steve’ clothes live. Everything I’ve put into the case so far has been ‘Stephanie’s, and it never crossed my mind even for a second to pack anything of ‘Steve’s. I briefly open the drawer, staring at the scruffy jeans and t-shirts inside, before closing it with a smile and packing more dresses into my suitcase. On this trip, I’m going to be Stephanie, and ONLY Stephanie. This trip will be an opportunity to escape from my problems- even if it is just for a few days- and, like my job itself, it’s an opportunity I intend to make the most of.

The following morning, my eyes slowly open as the alarm on my phone chimes noisily through my bedroom. I glance at my phone, which confirms that the time is 5:30am. Even though I’d set the alarm for this time last night and even though I’d got to bed plenty early, I still need to take extra time as I get up to shake the early-morning fog out of my head- and ensure that my voice is at its usual feminine pitch.

A short while later, with a face full of make-up, a short, chic dress covering my body and strappy high-heeled sandals on my feet, I step into the main concourse at Gatwick airport. Next to me are my four bandmates, each one look equally fashionable, and behind us is a small crew of agents and musical technicians- our ‘crew’. Before long, the five of us have checked in and boarded the small jet plane that will bear us north.

“Oh my god,” Becca moans as we fasten our seatbelts. “Would it have killed them to pay for a first-class flight?”

“Only flights to Inverness are on the budget airlines,” Lauren says. “Unless you fancy ten hours in a train?”

“Good job I bought a magazine,” Adeola says, producing a thick teen magazine that- predictably- has Out of Heaven on its cover.

“We must have each read that six times already!” Kayla laughs, producing her own new fashion magazine.

“I’ll swap you,” Adeola says, making the five of laugh, much to the irritation of the other passengers.

Just under two hours- and three reads of Kayla’s magazine- later, our plane touches down at the comparatively tiny airport just outside the comparatively tiny city of Inverness, and after having luggage (and ourselves) loaded into a waiting minibus, we’re soon on our way even further north to Lauren’s hometown of Dingwall, with the hometown girl getting more and more agitated with every mile we cover.

“God, this is taking too long…” Lauren moans as the minibus idles at the entrance to her parents’ farm.

“They have to set up the cameras so they can get the big reunion on camera,” Adeola explains, speaking as though she were talking to a petulant child rather than someone less than a year younger than her. “My uncle paid a lot of money for this trip, he wants to get some useable footage out of it.”

“I know, I know,” Lauren sighs. “I could always pretend that it’s the first time in ages that I’ve seen them and go and see them now…”

“Relax,” I say. “It’ll only be a few seconds…” And you don’t know how lucky you are that you have parents who’ll accept you for who you are… I think to myself. A short while later, one of the film crew slides open the minibus door and smiles at Lauren, who immediately understands what the smile means. The flame-haired girl is fidgeting so much it actually takes her a few goes to unbuckle her seatbelt, but once she’s out of the bus, I actually see a tear run down her cheek as she stares at the entrance to the farmhouse. Immediately, she takes off running- making the four of us left in the bus comment on how it was a good job she’d exchanged her heels for a sensible pair of trainers- and all but launches herself at a middle-aged man at the farmhouse door who I immediately recognise as her father.

“Come on,” Becca giggles. “Let’s not let her hog ALL the publicity, as always…” The four of us unbuckle our seatbelts and stroll toward the reunion, stumbling a little as we regret wearing our sandals on the gravel driveway.

“God, just look at you!” Lauren’s dad laughs as he releases his daughter from his hug. “Here I was thinking London would turn you into some sort of unrecognisable diva…” I bite my lip as I hear Becca and Adeola share a quiet chuckle behind me.

“Dad, mum,” Lauren says. “I’m sure you recognise these four girls already! This is Steph-“ I smile as I wave nervously at the older couple. “-Kayla, Adeola and Becca.”

“Hi, it’s so nice to meet you, Mr. Burnett,” Becca says, shaking the older man as he looks on in confusion and Lauren, Kayla and myself all grimace.

“It’s ‘Mr. McTavish’,” Lauren’s dad says, his tone of voice making it clear that he didn’t take any offence from her ‘faux pas’. A quick look at Lauren’s face, however, reveals that she most certainly DID take offence.

“Sorry, sorry,” Becca grimaces in a not entirely convincing manner. “We have another friend called Lauren, you see, sometimes I get a bit mixed up in my mind…”

“That’s perfectly alright,” Mr. McTavish says. “Now get yourselves in, the five you aren’t exactly dressed appropriately for a farm!”

“We’re off to Lauren’s old school in a bit,” Becca explains. “To help out with their summer school.”

“Aww, I remember that summer school,” Lauren’s mother laughs as Lauren herself gets visibly more and more embarrassed. “Still got a few photos of her in her wee costumes, singing in the school choir…”

“That we DON’T need to see right now,” Lauren says, her voice betraying a state of near-panic.

“That we most definitely DO need to see right now!” Adeola laughs as Lauren buries her face in a sofa cushion. For the next fifteen minutes, the five of us- well, four of us plus the mortified Lauren- flick through the McTavish family’s old photo albums, paying particular attention to the photos of the tiny girl in her traditional highland dress and various other costumes. As we look at the photos, I can’t help but wonder how my bandmates would react if they got a look at my family’s old photo albums…

We only stay at Lauren’s farm for a short while- just long enough for a cup of tea- before being herded back into the minibus and driven back into Dingwall to Lauren’s old school, where the five of us- particular Lauren herself- are given a hero’s welcome by about thirty school-age children and their teachers. After about twenty minutes posing for photographs and signing autographs, we head inside the school’s small main hall and get up on stage, singing an A Cappella version of ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’, much to the delight of the assembled crowd, which includes camera crews from both Joshua and the local BBC news programme.

“Well, I guess you could technically call this our first concert!” Lauren says, making all the children in the hall laugh. “Before we hear you all sing, I think we’ve got time for a few questions, haven’t we?” I and the rest of the band nod our agreement, and almost instantly, every hand in the audience shoots into the air.

“Umm… You, in the red t-shirt,” Lauren says, pointing at a blonde-haired girl who barely looks 12 years old.

“Who’s your favourite band?” The small girl asks in a Scottish accent even thicker than Lauren’s. I breathe a quiet sigh of relief- the ‘obvious’ first question seems to have been skipped for now.

“My favourite band?” Lauren repeats. “That’s a good question… I’ve always liked Girls Aloud, but I LOVE One Direction!” I nod in agreement with the rest of my band- even though I’ve never bought any of One Direction’s music- apparently satisfying the girl’s curiosity.

“Umm… You at the back,” Lauren says, pointing at an older girl in a denim dress.

“What’s it like being in a girl band with someone who isn’t really a girl?” The girl asks, making me internally cringe as a hush falls over the hall and my bandmates slowly turn to face me.

“Shannon, that is not an appropriate question,“ one of the teachers says quietly to the girl, who already looks mortified at having asked the question.

“It’s okay,” I say into my microphone. “I don’t mind…”

“Stephanie’s as much a part of the band as any of us,” Lauren says. “Just like Jamie-Lee is in the Angels.”

“Just because she used to be a boy doesn’t matter,” Adeola interjects. “Because that’s what she USED to be. NOW, she’s a girl, just like any of us.” I smile and blush slightly as my two friends speak.

“Are you going to have a full sex change?” A voice- that is also quickly told off- shouts from the audience.

“Umm, eventually, I guess,” I say, hoping my friends- not to mention the assembled TV cameras- can’t see through my obvious lie.

“Doesn’t anyone have any questions about MUSIC?” Lauren asks, sparing me any further blushes. “Umm… You, in the Little Mix t-shirt.”

“Aye, it’s a question about music,” the young girl says, before grimacing. “But it’s actually for Steph… How do you make your voice, you know, so… Authentic? I mean, so girl-like?”

“Practice!” I say with a light, feminine chuckle. “Same way everyone gets good at singing, doesn’t matter what gender you are or want to be.”

“Speaking of practice,” Lauren says. “I think it’s about time you showed us your stuff!” I smile as I follow my band off the stage, making way for the excited-looking children.

“Sorry,” Lauren whispers to me as we take our seats in the now-vacant audience.

“S’okay,” I whisper back. “Really, I should apologise to you- they’re YOUR fans, not mine…”

“They’re OUR fans!” Lauren whispers back, making us both giggle. “Besides, I saw the way you looked at me after our This Morning interview… We’ll just call it even now!”

“Honestly, I didn’t-“ I whisper, before being cut off by the school’s band starting to sing- to which we obviously give a standing ovation. After a few more songs, we pose for a few more photographs and chat a bit more with the kids, offering tips and advice on how to improve their singing, before being escorted back to the minibus by the children and their teachers.

“I’m sorry about those questions,” one of the teachers says to me as we head out into the car park. “They were told that they needed to respect your, umm, ‘choice’, that they shouldn’t make any fuss or say anything nasty…”

“I honestly, truly don’t mind,” I say. “They weren’t being nasty, they were being curious… It’s understandable, in a way.”

“I fear that if you’d been here when the rest of the school was, you wouldn’t say that,” the teacher sighs, before helping myself and the band back into the minibus. After a quick dinner, we head to our respective accommodation for the night. Lauren obviously heads back to her family home, but she and her family extended an invitation to the rest of the band to stay with them for the duration of the visit, and much to my surprise, I’m the only one to take them up with their offer.

“See you tomorrow!” Lauren says as we leave Kayla, Becca and Adeola at their posh Inverness hotel before heading back north to Lauren’s family’s farm.

“Looking forward to sleeping in your old bed?” I ask the Scottish girl, who giggles almost uncontrollably.

“You have NO idea,” Lauren laughs. Yeah, Lauren, I think to myself. Yeah, I do have an idea how it feels…

“Mum! We’re back!” Lauren shouts as we walk through her front door.

“Hi girls!” Mrs. McTavish says with a big, friendly smile. “I saw you on the 6:30 news, you little superstars!”

“It’s hardly the first time we’ve been on TV,” Lauren laughs.

“No,” Mrs. McTavish concedes. “But it’s the first time I’ve been able to make a big fuss of you afterwards! I mean, I get why you have to live in London- as terrified as that thought makes me- but I do wish you’d come home a bit more often…”

“We’re still only just getting the band off the ground,” Lauren explains. “I promise I’ll get back more often once I’m a millionaire!”

“Assuming you haven’t married a footballer and moved into one of those huge Chelsea mansions,” Mrs. McTavish says, making Lauren laugh.

“Unless he plays for Ross County there’s no way I’m marrying him!” The flame-haired girl giggles.

“What have you girls got planned for tomorrow?” Mrs. McTavish asks. “I know your flight isn’t until the evening…”

“I think Adeola said she was going out to look for dolphins,” I say. “Might see if she wants some company.”

“I…” Lauren says, before sighing. “I don’t come home often enough. I’ll be here all day.”

“Good!” Mrs. McTavish says with a smile. “Now come and help me set the table, you may have missed dinner but there’s no way you’re not eating with your family at least once this trip!” I giggle as I follow Lauren into the farmhouse’s small dining room and lay out the table for supper, which consists of a delicious vegetable soup and home-made cakes. After an evening spent looking at old photos of Lauren and watching a few old home movies, I haul the sleeping bag provided by Lauren’s brother up the stairs to her room, where we both start getting ready for bed.

“Your family’s really nice,” I say as I strip down to my underwear and pull a loose nightshirt over my hairless body.

“Aye,” Lauren sighs. “I really do miss them at times… I’m sorry about what I said earlier.”

“Sorry?” I ask. “About what?”

“About saying that you had no idea how it feels to be away from family,” Lauren sighs. “I actually feel really guilty being here with you, kinda like I’m rubbing my good relationship with my family in your face…”

“Honestly, you have nothing to apologise about,” I say. “Besides, it’s my fault, anyway…”

“No it is NOT your fault!” Lauren almost shouts. “It’s 100% THEIR fault, if they can’t accept you for the awesome girl you are!”

“Yeah,” I sigh. “But, you know, I haven’t really given them a chance… Haven’t contacted them since January…”

“If they wanted to contact you they’d reach out through the agency,” Lauren says. “Believe me, you don’t owe them anything.”

“I-“ I say, before pausing. I… what? I’ve been lying to you this whole time, Lauren? I don’t deserve any of your sympathy?

“…This is technically my first sleepover,” I say, forcing a smile onto my face. “Can we change the subject, please?”

“Sure, sure,” Lauren laughs. “So… Pick a subject!”

“Your school was also really cool,” I say. “I mean, yes, the questions were awkward, but it could’ve been worse.”

“It WOULD’VE been worse if we’d been in term time,” Lauren sighs. “I heard what Mr. Wallace said to you on the way out and he’s right, there are some real meatheads at that school, least there were when I left…”

“All boys, I take it?” I ask. “Noticed how all of the class we saw today were girls…”

“Aye,” Lauren laughs. “Girls rule!”

“No argument here!” I laugh. Lauren and I chat into the night about various trivial matters- the band, our celebrity lifestyle our friends… But every time the topic turns to Lauren’s family, I feel a pang of regret in my stomach. Even though she was apologetic about it (especially as she didn’t need to be), Lauren was right- every time her father smiled at her or her mother fussed over her, it made me feel jealous, and then I’d feel rotten for feeling jealous, just leading to a downward spiral of depression. If it wasn’t for Dr Phillips’s advice enabling me to identify this ‘downward spiral’, I’d probably be crying myself to sleep tonight.

When I wake up, my muscles and joints stiff from a night in a sleeping bag, I force a smile onto my face, though as I see Lauren head down to her kitchen to eat breakfast with her family, the same pangs from last night come rushing back. Mrs. McTavish serving me breakfast and treating me as though I were her own daughter just serves to make the feelings even worse- if a total stranger can accept me into her home and treat me like family, then surely my own family would be able to do this? The real question is, though, whether or not I’d want them to…

“Smile!” The photographer says as Lauren crouches down next to one of the sheep I saw roaming around the fields behind her family’s farm. With it being summer, the sheep has been shorn of its thick, fluffy coat and is looking very different than I imagined it to- as is Lauren, who’s shed yesterday’s chic, fashionable dress in favour of an old, battered pair of jeans, a long-sleeved (but very flattering) tartan shirt and a pair of very sturdy brown walking boots. It’s only after several photographs have been taken that I realise that this is the ‘real’ Lauren- or at least, the real Lauren before she joined the band. After the ‘photoshoot’, Lauren heads back into the farmhouse to change into one of her designer dresses and apply her usual make-up, and it suddenly dawns on me that Lauren is ‘wearing a mask’ just as much as I am, though as we bid farewell to her parents and head to the airport, her ‘mask’ begins to slip.

“Goddd,” Lauren moans, resting her head on my shoulder as the taxi pulls away from her childhood home.

“Missing them already?” I ask.

“In a way I guess only you can really appreciate,” Lauren sighs. “Didn’t even get to see my nieces on this trip…”

“Think of the money,” I laugh, trying futilely to cheer up the Scottish girl.

“I know, I know,” Lauren sighs. “Does it make me a bad person, choosing money over family?” If it does, it makes me the worst person in the world…

“As long as you love your family and they love you, that’s the important thing,” I say. “And besides, I saw just how proud of you they were…”

“Aye, I guess,” Lauren says. “I know how lucky I am, really, I do… Have you shaved today?”

“Umm, I did last night,” I say, rubbing my mostly-smooth face. “Why, can you see any stubble?”

“…Probably just the light,” Lauren shrugs. “Those laser treatments are worth every penny, then!”

“Yeah,” I laugh. I open my mouth to speak, planning on talking more about Lauren’s family- to get some advice, any advice on how to cope with mine- but I instead remain silent, realising that there was probably a good reason Lauren changed the subject. As we arrive at Inverness airport (and fend off a small gaggle of paparazzi), Lauren has a smile on her face, but I can tell from the poor girl’s eyes that she’s already so, so homesick.

“So,” I say to Adeola, who has a huge grin on her face. “Did you get to see any dolphins?”

“Just one,” Adeola giggles. “But it was so, so cool…”

“I’ve been catching up on Facebook all morning,” Becca says, clearly fidgety at not being the centre of attention. “Have you seen the video of Dannii Samson getting thrown in that swimming pool? Classic! That girl is SO a massive ego on a pair of mile-long legs…” I chuckle quietly as I see Kayla roll her eyes at Becca’s hypocritical description of our tall friend, before we’re all interrupted by the announcement that our small plane is ready to board.

“You okay?” I ask Lauren as we take our seats on board the jet.

“I’ll be fine,” Lauren says with a sad smile. “I mean, they’re not going anywhere… It’s just me who is.” As the plan roars down the runway, I take the opportunity to muse on what Lauren said. My family’s not going anywhere either- but over the last six months, it’s me who’s been distancing myself from them. I’ve been so obsessed with trying to figure out what I want to be in the long-term, what I want to be for the rest of my life, that I never stopped to consider what I want to be in the short-term, the here and now.

For the past five months, every day of my life, I’ve woken up and see ‘Stephanie’ in the mirror. I’ve even legally changed my name by deed poll to Stephanie Caroline Abbott (though my parents obviously don’t know about this). Even if I don’t remain ‘Stephanie’ forever, the fact remains that right now, that’s who I am. Lauren’s showed me over the past few days just how much her family’s support has meant to her, and I only now realise just how much I’ve lost by distancing myself from my family. Even if they reject me for being ‘Stephanie’, I literally have nothing left to lose.

After the plane touches down, I immediately switch on my mobile phone and dial the number for the therapist I saw earlier in the week.

“Hello?” Dr Phillips asks.

“Oh, hi Beverly, it’s Steph,” I say. “Do- do you have a minute?”

“Sure,” Beverly replies. “I’m actually just about to head home- my daughter’s just got back from holiday and I haven’t seen her all week, but I can spare a few seconds.”

“I want to come out to my parents,” I say firmly, making Beverly pause.

“Okay,” Beverly says, clearly taken aback by my determination. “Obviously, I support this decision and I’ll stand by you and support you whilst you come out, but… Are you absolutely sure that this is what you want?”

“I am,” I say. “I’ve been in Scotland the last two days, meeting Lauren’s parents… Made me realise just how much I’ve given up by locking them out of my- out of ‘Stephanie’s life.”

“So have you made a decision on which gender you wish to live as long-term?” Beverly asks.

“Long term, no,” I say. “Short-term, for the foreseeable future: it’s ‘Stephanie or bust’.”

“Okay,” Dr Phillips says. “I’ll arrange a meeting. It’ll be easier to come out to both parents at the same time, do you know when they’ll both be free?”

“Umm, Sunday’s the only day I know they’re both not working,” I reply.

“Okay,” Beverly says. “Well, I don’t usually work weekends, but in this case I’m happy to make an exception.”

“I’m perfectly happy to pay for this session from my own pocket,” I say.

“Okay,” Beverly says. “Also, I’d recommend talking to Jamie-Lee. She’s been exactly where you are now, she could be an invaluable source of support.”

“Yeah…” I grimace. “She- she kinda still thinks I was kicked out by my parents…”

“Well, now would be a good opportunity to tell the truth to her as well,” Beverly advises. “I’ve got to go now, but I’ll contact your parents for you and set up an appointment. I’ll explain that you’ve been seeing me in a professional capacity for the past few months and you wish to meet them with me present. I won’t tell them about your transition- well, you know what I mean- over the phone, that’s best done face-to-face, before you yourself speak.”

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll see you on Sunday.” After hanging up the phone, I hop in a taxi with Lauren and head back to our apartment, which right now feels less like home than it ever has.

“Quote-unquote home sweet quote-unquote home,” Lauren laughs as she drops her cases in the hallway and collapses on the sofa. “It’s usually girls’ night out tonight, but… I really can’t be bothered right now, you know what I mean?”

“Me either,” I sigh, collapsing on the sofa opposite the Scottish girl. “Lauren… I need to tell you something.”

“What?” Lauren asks. “Are- are you quitting the band?”

“No,” I say, taking a deep breath. “It- it’s about my parents.” If the doctor’s recommending I get the support of my ‘mentor’, the support of my best friend would also surely be invaluable.

“What about them?” Lauren asks.

“They… They didn’t kick me out,” I sigh. “I left, walked out rather than face up to them… As who I ‘really’ am. I’ve only ever contacted them by phone since, they don’t even know that ‘Stephanie’ exists…” I lean back on the sofa, happy to have unburdened myself to my friend- even if I am still unable to tell her the complete truth.

“That would explain why I sometimes hear a man’s voice coming from your room,” Lauren says. “And this ‘aunt’ you occasionally go and see?”

“…Doesn’t exist,” I confess. “I- I, um, I go near where my parents live, trying to look at them, see them, think about, um, working up the courage to talk to them face-to-face…”

“Why are you telling me this now?” Lauren asks.

“Because I’m coming out to them on Sunday,” I say. “I’m finally going to stop living a lie.” This particular lie, anyway… “I’d really appreciate it if you could, you know, back me up, give me moral support…”

“Of course,” Lauren says, though her facial expression betrays the fact that I have, in some way, angered her. “I’m not happy that you’ve been lying to me for the past five months, though. Not to mention the agency…”

“You can’t begin to imagine the shame I’ve lived with since I joined the band,” I say. “All of it self-inflicted.”

“Just- god, I don’t know,” Lauren moans. “This is kinda a lot to hit me with after a long trip, Steph. Can we talk about this more in the morning?”

“Of course,” I whisper. “Do- do you want some dinner?”

“Just- just something light,” Lauren says. “Think I’ll get an early night…” After dinner, the two of us watch television in silence, before both turning in for an early night just after 10pm. Unsurprisingly, I don’t get much sleep, instead tossing and turning all night with anxiety, not just at telling my parents or telling Jamie, but at whether or not Lauren will forgive me for my deception…

I’m eventually woken on Saturday morning by the sound of the apartment’s large flat-screen TV. After shaving, showering, applying my make-up and dressing in a loose red dress, I head into the living room to find Lauren watching TV alongside our youngest bandmate.

“Hey Steph,” Kayla says. “Lauren… Lauren kinda told me about what you guys talked about last night.”

“Oh, okay,” I say, hiding my irritation at Lauren going behind my back in telling Kayla about our ‘talk’.

“Yeah,” Kayla says. “I mean, I can kinda understand your reasons, it’s just… It’s really caused a lot of hassle for everyone, you know?” You’ll probably find it even more of a hassle when you learn that I told my parents that you were my girlfriend…

“Be fair, it’s been much more of a hassle for me,” I say, making Kayla nod in agreement. “Almost wish I’d never bothered joining the group in the first place…”

“Oh no, don’t say that!” Kayla sighs.

“Aye,” Lauren agrees. “Out of Heaven really wouldn’t be the same without you, without ANY of us. Even butt-bounce!”

“…Thanks,” I say with a giggle. “The last few months have been hard, but you guys have made life so, so much easier for me.”

“Besides,” Kayla says. “If things go great with your parents, they might ask you to move back in with them, then I can move in here! Getting sick of commuting an hour and a half each way every day…”

“Let’s- let’s just see how tomorrow goes first, okay?” I laugh as I join my friends on the sofa. We spend the whole day at the apartment (apart from a quick trip out for lunch), practising for our recording the following week and watching some of the footage recorded in Scotland, before heading out in the evening to the regular ‘girls’ night in’ at Charlotte Hutchinson’s house- and my next nerve-wracking confession.

“Are you feeling any better?” I ask Lauren as we arrive at the vast mansion. “I know you were down yesterday…”

“I’ll be fine,” Lauren says. “Already spoken to Joshua, he’s agreed to give us all some time off over Christmas and New Year to spend with our families, and it’s not like I can’t afford the occasional flight up there!”

“Good,” I say. “Though I don’t want to be thinking about Christmas just yet… Need to get tomorrow out of the way first.”

“Speaking of,” Lauren says, pointing at the woman with long, sandy blonde hair to whom I need to talk. “Good luck.”

“Thanks,” I whisper, before grabbing a drink and heading over to the blonde woman.

“Hey Steph!” Jamie-Lee says. “How was bonny Scotland?”

“Green!” I laugh. “Never seen so much grass in my life, or as many sheep… Jamie, can we- can we talk in private, please?”

“Sure,” Jamie says, leading me into the house’s spacious kitchen. “What’s up, Steph?”

“…My parents,” I say. “I- I’ve-“

“Take your time,” Jamie says, guiding me into one of the kitchen’s sturdy chairs. “Have hey contacted you?”

“Sort of,” I whisper. “Jamie… I’m not estranged from them, I never have been.”

“I- what?” Jamie asks, a sliver of anger flowing through her voice. “I thought- you- you said they kicked you out?”

“No,” I whisper, shaking my head. “I- I walked out. Before I started, um, transitioning…”

“Why- why did you lie to us?” Jamie asks. “Why did you lie to the agency?”

“I don’t know,” I blub. “I thought if- if I had more of a ‘sob story’…”

“You know it’s public knowledge now that your parents threw you out, right?” Jamie asks. “Do they even know about your career, about Out of Heaven?”

“No,” I whisper, making Jamie sigh with frustration. “They think I’m still living as a boy, working in a shop…”

“Joshua will need to know this,” Jamie says with a dark voice. “And he does NOT like being lied to.”

“I’m sorry,” I whisper, barely holding back tears. “I- I’m meeting my parents tomorrow, coming out to them properly, with Dr Phillips’s assistance… Will you help me, please?”

“Of course I will,” Jamie says, her voice only slightly softening. “You’re still my friend, Steph… But it might take a while before I can trust you again.”

“But- but you will be able to trust me?” I ask, my stomach churning from Jamie’s scorn.

“Maybe,” Jamie whispers, before smiling a genuine smile at me. “As long as there were no other lies on your application form!” I force a chuckle out of my mouth, before leaning forward onto the table, burying my head in my arms. I don’t know what I expected when I talked to Jamie- obviously she doesn’t like being lied to, no one does, but she DID sleep with another man behind her boyfriend’s back last year… She’d have to be a pretty big hypocrite to hold this over me for the rest of my life.

I make a point of enjoying the rest of the party, including joining in when Dannii (the girl Becca was talking about at Inverness airport) willingly allowed herself to get thrown into Charlotte’s swimming pool. However, as hard as I try, I can’t get the look of disappointment on Jamie’s face out of my mind- nor can I shake my feeling of impending dread at my encounter with my parents. I don’t sleep at all during the night, I’m that anxious about the meeting, and when I eventually get out of bed, my hands are freezing cold, my throat is sore and I have the worst headache I have ever had in my life.

“Steph?” Lauren asks, knocking on my door. “It’s almost show time, come on, you need to get up…”

“I’m feeling really crappy,” I weakly croak through the door. “Think I’m coming down with the flu…”

“No you’re not!” Lauren shouts, entering my room with a determined look on her face. “I’ve only known you a few months but I know that if you back out of this now, you’ll never end up doing the right thing by your parents!”

“I really, really am sick…” I moan, standing up and trying to stop my head from spinning.

“I understand this must be a hell of thing for you to go through,” Lauren says. “Actually, no, scratch that, I DON’T understand. I can’t ever understand what this must be like for you, but on Friday you asked for my help, and whether you like it or not, that’s what you’re going to get!”

“O-okay,” I moan as Lauren all but strips me and shoves me under the shower, where the warm water helps to wash away some of my ill feeling. When I emerge, I apply a very light layer of make-up- just some eyeliner, mascara and lip-gloss- before pulling on a plain black skirt and a tight, long-sleeved top. Underneath, I’m wearing my usual ‘foundation wear’ of a padded bra, tight thong and girdle- though thanks to my (agency-mandated) exercise and diet regime, I barely even need that anymore. As I step into the living room, I start to feel positive about today- whatever happens, at least I won’t be living as big a lie as I was before.

“Feeling better?” Kayla asks with a look of pure sympathy in her eyes. “Lauren told me you were all flu-y…”

“Better,” I whisper hoarsely. “I’m ready.” Lauren and Kayla- who are both dressed and made-up more femininely than me- both nod, grab their handbags and lead me down the stairs to the street outside, where our taxi is waiting to take us to Dr Phillips’s office. When we arrive, the three of are greeted with hugs from Jamie- though my hug feels a lot less ‘sincere’ than her usual hugs- and led into a room adjacent to her office, which I hear my parents enter mere minutes later.

“Oh god oh god,” I wail quietly. “This is it…”

“Keep calm!” Jamie says, grabbing my hand supportively. “Whatever happens, you’re still a proud, successful woman, and no one- no one- can take that away from you. You’ve still got your career. You’ve still got your friends. You’ve still got us. Right, girls?”

“Yeah!” Kayla and Lauren say.

“Can you come in, please?” Dr Phillips shouts. With my legs quivering like jelly, I slowly stand up, and- supported by Jamie’s hand on my back- open the door into the doctor’s office, coming face to face with my parents for the first ever time as Stephanie.

“Hi mum,” I whisper hoarsely. “Hi dad. I- I’m Stephanie…” My legs shake harder and I almost collapse to the floor as, with a stoic expression on his face, dad slowly rises from his seat and walks toward me…

TO BE CONTINUED



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