The Italian Job - Part 1

Two women were sorting through a pile of clothes. They’d been bought as a job lot from a local firm of ‘House Clearers’.

“I’ll go and get the lunch today.” Said the very petite raven haired one to the taller brunette.

“You carry on sorting out this little lot,” she added.

“Gee thanks Saffy. We all know how you hate this job,” replied the brunette.

I’m the brunette. I’m Fran and the other woman is Saffron or Saffy for short. We both work in a shop selling Antique and Classic Clothes.

When Saffy had disappeared, I returned to sorting the rather large pile of clothes. Most of it was dross and destined for the ‘Less than £10’ rail or donated to the Salvation Army. There were a few choice pieces though. They’d spotted them at the viewing. The items of interest were two Vivienne Westwood originals from her 1978 Spring Collection. Those alone would more than cover the £200 plus Auctioneers Premium & VAT they’d paid for the job lot a few days earlier.

I’d just finished cataloging the last of the more saleable items when Saffy returned with our lunch.

“What delights did Sal come up with today?” I asked.

“Smoked Salmon & Cream Cheese Salad,” came the reply.

“That sounds a bit better than yesterday’s pasta. He put far too much garlic in the pesto. Did you tell him?”

Saffron grinned back. She could eat a whole clove of garlic without blinking. That was probably due to her Indian heritage.

“Yes I did. I wasn’t the only one.” She replied sadly.

“So?”

“He’s promised not to do it again.”

Sal ran the Deli down the street. His wife was a good customer of ours. Most of the shopkeepers in the street knew each other. His Deli was a regular meeting point. The general concensus was that makes the best espresso in Bath.

Saffy flopped the ‘Open’ sign to ‘Closed’ and locked the shop door. Then we sat down to eat lunch.

I’d hardly started to chew my first mouthful when Saffy said,

“On my way back from Marco’s I stopped and had a look in the window of that new Employment Agency at the top of the street.”

I almost choked on my salad.

“What?” I spluttered.

“Are you thinking of quitting?”

Saffy smiled at me with those big brown eyes of hers.

“No Silly. It’s for you.”

“Me? Why?”

Saffy sat back in her chair and finished her mouthful.

“Do you remember what you said when you first agreed to set me up in this place?”

I sighed.

“I’m sure you are about to remind me.”

She smiled back.

“When we agreed to buy this place, you said, two years. I’ll stay and help you out for two years. Well, my tranny friend, those two years are up.”

“And you are trying to get rid of me already? If I remember correctly the two years aren’t up for a couple of months?”

“Well… I just thought it wouldn’t help to start looking now.”

I sat back as far as my corset would let me.

“But Saffy, I kind of like it here. We get on well and the shop is making a profit now. So why the sudden rush to get me out the door?”

Saffy sat silently chewing her food for almost a minute.

“It’s you, you and your perennial dithering about going full time. It frustrates the hell out of me. As you said, this place is making money and I feel settled here. Yes, it is all thanks to you and your generosity but I am worried about you. You come here every morning and then proceed to spend more than half an hour transforming Francis into Fran. Fran is the real you. You know that. I know that. Yet you still refuse to take the plunge and be yourself.”

Saffy glared at me.

“Fran I want you to be Fran full time or… Or I’ll end up doing or saying something I’ll regret and l don’t want that to happen.”

I felt as if I’d been kicked in the balls. Yet, I knew what she was saying was true.

I reached over and took her hand in mine. I smiled at her.

“So what fantastic new job have you found for me?”

Saffy grinned back at me. The moment of tension between us was in the past and forgotten. That was the beautiful thing about our friendship.

Saffy, or officially, Saffron first came into my life when I was eight years old. Her family moved in next door to mine. We were almost the same age so we began playing together. This might seem strange but Saffy was not like other girls of her age. She was interested in all sorts of things that well, girls by all rights shouldn’t be. Fishing, playing in the woods and all sorts of ‘boy’ activities were right up her street.

Then at times, she’d be a normal girl. Naturally, she roped me into doing ‘girly’ things with her. She soon realised that I loved dressing up and doing girly things a lot more than being a boy.

We became very good friends and as a result, I lost count of the times I stepped in and saved Saffy from bullying. This often meant that I took a beating myself but by the time we were fourteen or fifteen people realised that our relationship was that of a very deep friendship and not of lovers.

What we portrayed in public was not the reality. We lost our virginity together on my sixteenth birthday.

We went to the same University. I studied languages. Saffy did Business Studies but all that did was make her realise that big business was not for her. Whilst I got a decent job in Brussels after graduation she drifted from job to job. We lost contact with each other for more than four years.

Then one day I was heading down the escalator into the Tube at Bond St having just arrived from Paris when fate intervened and there was Saffy going up the same escalator.

I will never forget that Wednesday. Not only were we reunited, but I had just become rich beyond my wildest dreams.

For Saffy, it was just in time. She’d just broken up with her husband of less than six months when she found him in bed with his best man. Hubby Anil decided that he wanted to wed his lover. She was in a dark place. No home, no family and as of an hour before I met her, no job.

It was fate all right.

To cut a long story short some nine months later Saffy became the proud owner of an Antique and Second-hand dress shop in our home-town, Bath. I became the honorary shop assistant. Some 90% of our stock was made up of female clothes so naturally I took the opportunity to indulge myself if dressing
the part. Naturally, Saffy did the same.

It was all funded by the money I’d made selling a picture I’d found in a trunk full on 1930’s clothes that I’d bought for £300 from a dealer in Liverpool. Buried in amongst the clothes was a picture. It was a portrait of a woman sitting naked on a chaise long. I liked it so I just hung it on my wall.

Almost a year later I was dusting it when it fell off the wall and the frame broke. As I pondered how I’d get it all back together, I noticed a signature on the picture. It had been hidden by the frame. The signature said ‘Amedeo Modigliani’.

When I’d recovered my composure, I took it to an art dealer in town. He took one look at it and shook his head before sending me to an Auctioneer’s in London. The upshot was that three months later, my life changed as the picture was sold at Auction for a mere £39.7 Million.

After a few months of somewhat extrovert dressing, we became part of the tourist scene in Bath. A side effect of this was the increased trade we received.

Naturally, Saffy had a lot of influence over how I looked. She soon persuaded me to grow my hair and to start wearing a corset. This one thing gave me a much more girly figure. This was well suited to the long floaty, Victorian dresses I often wore. Saffy, on the other-hand being very flat chested and adamant that she would only get her breasts done when I got mine, dressed in 1920’s style drop-waist style dresses.

These were more suited to her physical shape.

Saffy had tried countless times to get me to transition to Fran on a full time basis but I refused every attempt she made. It became something of a standing joke between us but, deep down I knew she was right. I was just scared to take the plunge.

Now, and before I had realised it, the two years I promised her I’d stay with her were almost up and I had a decision to make.

My deep thoughts were rudely interrupted by Saffy.

“Ground control to Miss Fran. Come in please?”

I almost jumped out of my skin.

“Sorry. I was miles away.”

“On a different planet more like,” joked Saffy.

“Ok. Ok.” I protested.

“Well?”

“Well what?” I replied.

Saffy gave a big sigh.

“Don’t you want to know about the job?”

“Not really. Who would advertise a job for a part time tranny? No one that’s who.”

Saffy laughed and put her phone down on the table.

“See for yourself”

Slowly I reached over and picked up the phone. A picture showing on the display.

Wanted.

Governess & part time Assistant/Secretary.

Must be willing to travel. The summer months will be spent in Italy.
Must be fluent in English, Italian and passable Russian. Good communication skills a must.
Salary. Dependent upon experience
This is a live in position and considerable travel will be involved.

“Do you really expect me to apply for this?” I said slightly exasperated.

“Yes. Yes I do. Why not? You are ideally suited for the role. You are fluent in Italian, French, German and passable in Russian. You are good with people especially children.”

"But … but the advert specifically mentions a Governess. Ergo the client wants a woman.”

Saffy smiled.
“And what do I see sitting before me but a pretty woman?”

“Bollocks and you know it,” I replied.

“Yes you have the balls to pull it off.”

I nearly laughed, but I got the point.

We didn’t discuss the advert or anything much more for the rest of the day. We really didn’t have much of an opportunity because we were far too busy. We’d had a sudden influx of American tourists all eager to buy some ‘Genuine Antique Clothing’. We kept a selection of larger sized slightly odd-ball clothes just for this very purpose. It was nearly 6pm when the last of them had left all seemingly happy with their choices.

“I’m just about done in,” said Saffy as she flipped the sign to closed and locked the door.

“Fancy a drink?” she added.

“Yeah. Why not?” I replied heading into the back room to get changed.

“Where are you going?”

I turned round.

“To get changed”

“No. We are going now,” Saffy said in a turn of voice that said everything.

Slowly I said, “You don’t give up do you?”

She smiled back at me.

“I think I’ll pass on the drink. I’m just about all in.”

This sudden change of tack clearly disappointed her.

“Why?..”

Then she gave up after seeing the look on my face.

“Ok, see you tomorrow,” Saffy said with a marked sigh in her voice.

Less than ten seconds later she’d gone leaving me alone to get changed and to lockup the shop before going home.

That was sooner said than done. No matter how I tried I couldn’t undo the lacing on my corset.

“Saffy! If I could get my hands on you,” I said very loudly.

In the end I gave up. I could have cut the laces but that was going to be a last resort.

I then did something I’d never done before in the two years the shop had been open. I went home ‘en-femme’. Until then being Fran rather than Francis was reserved for the shop and around the city. I’d kept the two parts of my life strictly separate. I just liked it that way.

I got myself dressed again and a few minutes later I was heading home.

Home for me was a small one-bedroom flat in the north of the city. I knew that I could afford something a whole lot better, but I’ve always been very careful with money. Perhaps it was down to my father going bankrupt not once but twice before I was even in my teens. Money was always tight at home. Mum earned enough to feed us all and not much else. At Uni, I found the cheapest and undoubtedly the grottiest dampest and most flea infected flat possible for the two of us to share.

My excuse was that it left more money for doing what students did best, getting legless at every opportunity possible.

Even that came to an end when one night, Saffy threw up in her handbag. For the rest of our time at University we were virtually tea-total Money was really short. Saffy was rightly pissed as the purse in question was a genuine Louis Vuitton bag.

When we decided to open the shop, I decided to live within walking distance. Needless to say property in the centre of Bath is expensive. My home cost me the best part of a quarter of a million quid even for a cash sale. Still, its location means that I don’t need a car to get to work.

It didn’t take me long to reach the building where I lived. This was the first time I’d been home dressed as Fran. I could only hope that Mrs Robinson didn’t come out of her ground floor flat to say hello. If you want to know what she is like then just think of that other Mrs Robinson in the film, ‘The Graduate’. She considers me her Dustin Hoffman.

Hmmm. Actually it would be nice for her to come out and see Fran. That would certainly give her something to think about.

I opened the huge front door and walked upstairs. My heels were making resonating sounds on the wooden stair treads. Sadly, the door to Mrs Robinsons flat remained shut.

As soon as I was safely in my second floor flat I breathed a sigh of relief. Well as much as my corset would allow. Still I felt safe at last.

I spent the evening sitting and trying to think. The events of the day had really caught me by surprise. I hadn’t given any thought to finding another job or anything really. When Saffy had come told me about the job and reminded me about our agreement really hit me hard.

My problem was twofold. The first was the question I’d been avoiding for quite a long time. Do I become Fran on a permanent basis or do I continue being Fran from 9to5?

The second was the job. If I even would somehow consider applying for it then the first question would be moot. I’d have to go fulltime. I’d also have to get some breast implants and probably have to take hormones for the rest of my life if I went the whole way. That was my biggest fear. Once I’d taken that step then there was really no going back. It was this fear that had stopped me in the past.
So far all the things I done to make being Fran easier such as facial and body hair removal were unnoticeable when I was Francis. Boobs were another thing entirely.

Frankly, I was scared shitless about taking this next step.

For years I’d dreamed of being Fran 24/7. Now I had the chance, I wasn’t sure if I would go through with it.

I sat looking out of my window at the setting sun trying to make some sense of my life. I was not being very successful.

It was totally dark before I roused myself from the chair overlooking ‘Royal Circus’. The city was quieting down for the night.

I took off my dress, removed my makeup and went to bed.

My mind was still a mess when I lay down on my bed. My corset was letting me know that it was still tightly wrapped around my torso. I’d never tried sleeping in one before. To be frank, I was not looking forward to it.

By the time the first rays of dawn appeared in the eastern sky, I knew my fears were well founded. The damn thing had dug into my hips all night. No matter how I turned or lay in bed, I still felt like a trussed up chicken.

I must have dozed off a little after that because the next thing I knew was my alarm going off at 05:30. I always cursed the short nights of late spring and summer. I much preferred it to be dark outside then I didn’t feel so bad lazing in bed.

After getting washed, dressed and made up I just had time for a little breakfast before I left home for work just after eight o’clock. At least there was no danger of meeting Mrs Robinson in the hallway as she never got out of bed until well after 09:00. I did meet Mr Cohen from Flat 2.

“Good morning Mr Cohen. It is going to be a another nice spring day.”

He stood halfway out of his front door.

His mouth was wide open, “Francis?”

I smiled back.

“It’s Fran from now on, Mr Cohen”

He blushed. He looked down at his feet and backed inside his flat once again.

I swept past him on the landing as his door started to close.

“Have a good day Mr Cohen.”

Then I was out in the street walking to work with a smile on my face, the sun was shining, the birds were singing and I was happy.

I opened up the shop and set to work on my nails. The part time Fran of the past two years hardly ever wore nail polish. If I were going to be properly full time then a nice bit of colour on my nails would go a long way to stopping me chickening out on a whim.

I rummaged around in my stash of makeup for a suitable colour. Right at the bottom I found an old bottle of a deep red polish. I cautiously opened it hoping that it hadn’t dried out. I was in luck. There was enough to do for today.

Twenty minutes later the second coat of polish was almost dry. I carefully put on my coat and left the shop.

I walked to the end of the street and peered in the window of the agency that had the job advert. I wanted to see for myself.

I stood for a long minute staring at the advert. While I was there, one of the employees of the agency arrived for work.

She smiled at me as she opened the office door and went inside.

I stood outside for a few seconds longer and was just about to walk back to the shop when the women who’d gone inside stuck her head around the door and said,

“Can I help you with something? Do you want to come inside?”

This startled me a bit.

“Yes…. Yes you can help me.”

She held the door open for me and waited for me to enter.

“Please take a seat. It’s not often we get personal visitors these days. With the internet and all that most of our business is done by email and over the phone.”

I sat down not really sure about what I was going to say.

She went behind her desk and sat down.

“Now, how can I help you?”

“The advert for the ‘Governess’,”

She smiled back at me.

“Ah. That one. I really should have taken it down last week.”

I felt really deflated. I must have shown it too.

The woman smiled back at me.

“No, it is not because the position has been filled. We haven’t been able to find anyone suitable. My boss has told the client and suggested that they use another agency. It is a real shame as we found the previous incumbent very easily.”

“Forgive me. I haven’t introduced myself. I’m Mary Armstrong. And you are?”

“Fran. Short for … well Francis”

“Well Fran, you’ve seen the advert. How good a match are you?”

“You are certainly direct,” I replied.

She smiled back.

“I’ve been doing this job for nigh on twenty years. I prefer the more direct approach. There are so many time wasters these days.”

I felt affronted.

“You don’t think I’m a time waster?”

“No. You are here in person.”

She paused for a second or two.

“So? How good a fit are you?”

“I have a degree in languages. I speak Italian, German and French fluently with a passable Russia and a smattering of Chinese. I can type at twenty-five words a minute. Shorthand is black magic as far as I’m concerned. As for children, well I was one once.”

My last comment elicited a half smile from Mary.

“What is your present position?”

I swallowed hard before answering.

“I’m the assistant manager of a shop. It is called ‘The Brass Rail”. You might know it as it sells Vintage and Classic Clothes.”

Mary beamed a huge smile back at me.

“Ah. Yes I do know it. That explains your… Shall we say somewhat less than conventional appearance.”

That was true. I was still wearing the Victorian Summer Frock from yesterday.

“Yes it probably does explain it.”

Mary sat and looked me straight in the eye.

“Forgive me for asking this but is Francis your real name?”

“Yes. Yes it is. I prefer to be called Fran, but why do you ask?”

I knew why. She’d read me.

Mary shook her head.

“I’m sorry, but you resemble a young man I’ve seen going into that shop in the mornings.”

My heart stopped. There was nothing for it but to own up.

“Yes. I know. That’s me. I’m, or rather was the young man you have seen going into the shop.”

I’d been read a few times in the past and resented it. This time it was different. For the first time I didn’t feel so bad about owning up to whom I really was. If I was going to get another job then hiding my background when challenged was not going to help in any way whatsoever.

“Thank you for being honest with me, Fran,” said Mary without even a hint of displeasure. Then she added,

“As long as you are honest with the client if asked.”

“Does this mean I have a chance with the job?”

Mary laughed.
“I will forward your details to the client. Do you have a CV with you? The client may well ask for references. I take it you can get at least one?”

“Thank you. I’ll get a CV to you by the end of the day. I’ll email it if that’s ok?”

“Yes that’s fine.”

Mary handed me a card with the email address on it.

Then she gave me that look again.

“Do you have a passport in your… new life?”

“I’m afraid not. I will be getting one as soon as possible.”

“Good. If I were you I’d not delay sending off the application. The client is known for making swift decisions.”

“Who is the client?”

“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that at this time. If the client wants to see you for an interview I may have some more details I can give you.”

I looked puzzled.

“I’m sorry, Fran, but that is all I know. Head Office knows all the details, but sometimes they keep the details of who the client is until a short list has been drawn up.”

“You said that the advert should have been taken down. Exactly how long was it on show?”

“Let me see?” replied Mary.

She ruffled through some index cards.

“Ah. Here it is. A month. It was on display for a month.”

“So, the ‘short list’ is likely to be very short then?”

She just smiled back at me and gave me a little nod of her head.

I took my leave and walked back down the hill to the shop. My mind was all a mess. Who was this mysterious client and why was it proving so hard to get the position filled or was the salary so small and other conditions so onerous? I couldn’t put my finger on it.

The shop sign was saying ‘Open’ when I arrived.

I entered and called out.

“Saffy? I’m here.”

She came into the front of the shop from the backroom clutching her pint mug of tea in her hand.

She took one look at me and the expression on my face and said,

“My God, Fran, you’ve gone and done it!”

The smile I returned said everything she needed to know.

[To be continued]



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